The Blog

Religion and Conflict: Global Lessons from Northern Ireland

Learning from the past is a means of shaping the future. A recent paramilitary killing and bombs again in Belfast make learning from the "troubles" more than an academic exercise.

"Sectarianism is the use of denominational boundaries in a political project to enforce social exclusion by one religious group against others." - John Brewer

Learning from the past is a means of shaping the future. A recent paramilitary killing and bombs again in Belfast make learning from the "troubles" more than an academic exercise.

The violent conflict in Northern Ireland formally ended by the Good Friday Agreement was between two nationalisms. But it was experienced as a sectarian religious conflict between two groups whose boundaries were defined by culture, religious discourse and geography. So the claim that it wasn't "really about religion" is partly true yet misses the point: the point being to understand the role religion played in both creating and solving the conflict, and to learn from it.

We have grown more accustomed to the idea that religion can play the role of marker between belligerents, and, more substantively, as a causal factor in violent ethnic enmity. But the tired argument about religious versus socio-economic and political causes, the hopeless search for root causes, ignoring the reality that no conflicts have mono-causal explanations, goes on. Who wants complexity when a nice simple binary opposition is on offer?

Case studies of conflict are by definition about the specificity and complexity of particular situations. It is rare that they are used to draw out general themes, sociological insights and lessons that may be applicable elsewhere. Northern Ireland, with its fault lines lying within Christianity, rather than between religions, does not at first glance seem a promising case study for a world facing a growing number of inter-religious conflicts. Nonetheless, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, co-authored in 2011 by John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney, manages to tease out some useful insights and themes of wider application.

The writers' main focus is not on analysis of the religious components of the conflict - the impact of Ian Paisley's persistent description of the Roman Catholic Church as the anti-Christ for example is taken for granted - but as an impediment to peacemaking rather than a legitimation for violence. The great contribution of the book is to analyse where and why religiously motivated peacemaking was successful and where it failed.

The theoretical starting point is to situate faith communities in an inter-relationship with civil society and the state; and, to distinguish between active and passive peacemaking. The preference of religious leaders for passive peacemaking, the "safe" denunciation of violence on all sides, does not take them out of their comfort zones.

The authors elaborate a very useful set of categories from the social to the political for active peacemaking. They point to what they call "ecumenical activity" breaking down barriers and stereotypes, developing friendly contacts across religious boundaries, as the type of action most commonly afforded recognition. Mediation, local conflict resolution and prevention and its accompaniment, challenging and redefining the nature of the conflict, offering "anti-sectarian" counter-narratives, is more demanding. Perhaps the most challenging is the deliberate entry into secular spaces, peace initiatives that draw in non-religious actors and institutions in cross-community coalitions for peace.

At the political end of the social-political spectrum is the provision of safe private spaces for secret political dialogue, the famous "back channels", but also participation in formal public negotiation and the "selling" to their constituencies of the resulting peace accords. After the conflict, managing social adjustments, problems of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the politics of balancing the simple demands of justice and victim support come to the fore.

The authors' main critique of the faith communities in Northern Ireland's peace process is their failure to move beyond making, what they recognise as, an outstanding contribution to conflict transformation, to an equal commitment to social transformation. To spell out what they really mean: the proposal of a political project that deals with unemployment, inequality, equity and justice. This, it seems to me, in an age when politics is unashamedly the management of small incremental change, is a tall order. Do religions have the prophetic political repertoire to make such grand proposals? And how might they acquire it?

The main theoretical categorisation that does seem open to effective practical translation is the suggestion of four "spheres" in civil society where faith communities and their leaders can fruitfully operate and plan: intellectual, institutional, political (not Party political) and market. The use of the word "market" is a little idiosyncratic: they do not mean supply and demand or buying and selling, but the distribution of scarce goods as in humanitarian practice and development aid/inner city poverty programmes, and so on.

The intellectual sphere feeds directly into changing the conflict narrative. In conflicts between faiths, scholarly knowledge of sacred texts is important as so often text without context is used as pretext. Texts put into context can also provide "redemptive scripts" that emphasise the contingent circumstances that first evoked violence and thus open up paths legitimating a move to peace and negotiation. But as the Rev. John Dunlop is quoted as saying about dialogue "you move from isolation into empathy but never total identification. That is not just an intellectual journey that is an emotional journey at the same time".

The institutional sphere is far less amenable to journeying; any coming together with other institutions can be seen by institutional leaders as involving a loss of power. Conflict hardens identities and pushes people into collective mentalities. The peacemakers almost invariably have to act individually, watching their backs, making sure they are not going to be left high and dry by their communities and religious leaders. The flat structures of Muslim and Pentecostal communities add a further layer of uncertainty and vulnerability as there are no leaders with an acknowledged hierarchical authority that does not have to be earned. Who are you speaking for becomes a difficult question. Weak leaders are the least able to take risks as they are most worried about the loyalty of their constituencies.

While it is easy to say that holistic approaches to conflict prevention, dealing with young men's dramatically unequal life chances as well as violent religious discourses, is vital, it is much less easy to see how faith communities can achieve this. Development, aid and economic progress are not controlled by religious leaders. They are in the hands of government and business or semi-autonomous faith-based development agencies which are likely to think of "interfaith dialogue" as occupying an entirely different mental and departmental silo. Though the different faiths do have justice and a vision of society as an integral part of their teaching.

Finally there is the pervasive sense that religious leadership is about worship and prayer so that everything else appears as a burdensome add-on, or a dangerous trespass into politics. A quotation from the former Roman Catholic Sister, Dr. Cecilia Clegg, given in Brewer, Higgins and Teeney's thought provoking book, provides a response of global relevance:

"I believe in the power of prayer. But it wasn't prayer we needed. It was real communication and real relationships and a real willingness to take chances together".