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Faith and Identity – A Catholic Perspective on Northern Ireland

Faith and Identity – A Catholic Perspective on Northern Ireland

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Published by Nevin
"As one commentator explains: After partition Northern Nationalists kept a respectful distance from the State and became ‘a
society within a society’. The Catholic Church was the key institution in integrating the community and clerical leadership was important. There was an intertwining of Catholicism, Irish culture and political nationalism."
"As one commentator explains: After partition Northern Nationalists kept a respectful distance from the State and became ‘a
society within a society’. The Catholic Church was the key institution in integrating the community and clerical leadership was important. There was an intertwining of Catholicism, Irish culture and political nationalism."

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Published by: Nevin on Dec 10, 2011
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“Faith and Identity – A Catholic Perspective on Northern Ireland”The Key to Peace is the Will to EmbraceINTRODUCTIONThank you for your very warm welcome. Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here inthis beautifully restored Church of St. Ethelburga and to give the first in this new series of lectureson Faith and Identity, organised by the St. Ethelburga Centre for Reconciliation. The fact that thisCentre is so closely associated with the tragic consequences of the conflict in Northern Irelandgives a certain poignancy, perhaps even a certain symbolism to this evening’s event. For many people the conflict in Northern Ireland is primarily about the relationship between faith andidentity. But as I hope to demonstrate in the course of my talk, the complexity of the relationship between these two recurring themes in modern conflict, does not permit such an easy analysis. Noone in Northern Ireland is fighting over theological matters. And just as the religious commitmentof people such as Bishop Chartre, Cardinal Basil Hume, Rev. Sowerbutts and Viscount Massereeneturned the tragedy of this place into a powerful sign of reconciliation and hope, so I hope toconvince you that, on balance, religious faith and the Churches have contributed positively to theresolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland.As one Unionist politician has pointed out recently:…without the Churches, for all their faults… the period of the Troubles, would have been muchworse. Although the ‘two communities’ are now highly segregated in terms of where they live,work or go to school, on the whole there is probably still more civility between them than therewould have been without the presence of the Churches. The Churches have been one of the factorsthat have prevented Northern Ireland from following the path of Kosovo or Bosnia. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the interaction between faith and identity doesremain a key social, cultural and political factor in Northern Ireland. Protestants are more likely to be interested in British culture and music and sport. Catholics are more likely to be interested inIrish culture, Celtic music and Gaelic games. To a great extent, Catholics and Protestants live inseparate areas, are educated apart, play and watch different sports and develop different culturalidentities.So what is the origin of this close connection between religious, political and cultural identity in Northern Ireland?HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDWell, as is the case with so many of the conflicts in our modern world, to understand the present wemust first unpack the past. In the 16th century, English Tudor monarchs began a conquest of Ireland. When King Henry VIII embraced the Protestant religion in the 1530s he decreed thatIreland should do likewise. In 1541 he declared himself King of Ireland. Initially, Protestantismmade little headway in Catholic Ireland and it was not until the reign of his daughter, QueenElizabeth I, that the Anglican Church of Ireland slowly began to take root.Many historians maintain that the most significant event that happened in Northern Ireland duringthe 16th century was the Plantation of Ulster. This involved the systematic introduction of English
and Scottish settlers, designed to establish English rule and suppress the Irish. Land was taken fromthe native Catholic population and redistributed to settlers, often as a reward for services renderedto the Crown.During the Plantation of Ulster some 30,000 Scottish people, mainly of Presbyterian faith, and asubstantial number of English colonists, arrived in Ulster and were given land previously owned byCatholics. The result of the Plantation left thousands of Irish Catholics dispossessed and, as aresult, very resentful. This in turn, led in 1641, to an armed rebellion by Catholics. In the uprising,and in the ten year civil war that followed, many Protestants were massacred. These events profoundly shaped Protestant popular opinions of Catholics as being untrustworthy and hostile. Theresult was that the Protestant community in Ireland began to develop a siege mentality and toequate Protestantism with being English and Catholicism with being Irish.Furthermore, the 17th century English civil war between Charles I and the English Parliament alsohad far reaching consequences in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell, leader of the victorious parliamentaryforces, maintained the English presence in Ireland and consolidated his success in Britain byquashing ensuing Irish rebellions. Following Cromwell’s military success, the 1653 Act of Settlement involved further large-scale confiscation of Irish lands and their transfer from Catholicto Protestant ownership. This served to fuel a further legacy of hatred and bitterness by Catholicstowards the English and indeed towards Protestantism. Now allow me fast-forward to 1685 when the accession of the Catholic Stuart King, James II, tothe British throne sparked a new wave of discord in Ireland.The Protestant aristocracy in Britain vehemently opposed their Catholic King who sought toexpand his power at their expense. On being deposed, James fled to Ireland, where, with theexception of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, he found many willing and sympatheticsupporters. During this time, the British throne had been offered to a Protestant Dutch Prince,William of Orange, as part of a pan-European coalition supported by the Pope, against thedominant French King, Louis XIV. William of Orange and his supporters followed the deposedJames II to Ireland and defeated him at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. This victory effectivelycrushed the hopes of the Catholic political nation. 20,000 of the gentry went into exile on theContinent in what is known as the Flight of the Earls. In Europe the victory was celebrated as animportant one for those who were opposed to the French Alliance. William’s defeat of James at theBattle of the Boyne continues to be celebrated annually by the Orange Order on the 12th of July.The association of Orange Marches with this victory and the subsequent domination of Catholicsstill play a significant part in the reaction of Catholics to the issue of Orange Parades. For IrishProtestants who had supported William, this war had been a great success. It was followed bysevere penal laws, which decreed that only Protestants could sit in Parliament, hold office under theCrown or take part in local government. And this too left its own bitter legacy. It was seen as afurther injustice in a course of gradual domination, firstly political – with the removal of the IrishParliament; secondly economic – with the Plantation of the land and thirdly religious – with theanti-Catholic Penal laws.British Rule of all of Ireland continued until 1920. Then, after the 1916 Rising and the Civil War that followed, Ireland was partitioned. Two parliaments were set up, one in Dublin for the 26Counties and one in Belfast for the six counties of Ulster which now make up the entity we knowas Northern Ireland. For Protestants the validity of the Northern Ireland State as an integral part of the UK, resided in a morally justified and legally binding agreement between two sovereignnations. For Northern Catholics, however, Northern Ireland was a gerrymandered and unworkableentity, to which they had not given their consent and which had been conceded by Britain in directresponse to the threat of violence from the Protestant community.
AFTER PARTITIONConsequently, after the partition of the island of Ireland in 1921, the ecclesiastical and politicalexperience of Catholics in the north of the island was to become radically different from that of their southern counter-parts. While the fledging State in the South focused on the task of becomingan independent nation, discrimination in housing, voting, employment and exclusion from thelevers of power and security, resulting particularly in a lack of representation in the civil service,the judiciary and policing, meant that the new Northern Ireland State was quickly becoming a ‘coldhouse for Catholics’, a phenomenon famously captured by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland,James Craig, when he declared that, ‘All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and aProtestant State’.In the midst of such discrimination and a deep sense of alienation from the Northern State, thestructures of education, health, parish and community provided by the Catholic Church, made it avery natural alternative source of political and cultural identity for Northern Nationalists. As onecommentator explains:After partition Northern Nationalists kept a respectful distance from the State and became ‘asociety within a society’. The Catholic Church was the key institution in integrating the communityand clerical leadership was important. There was an intertwining of Catholicism, Irish culture and political nationalism.This sense of collective self-sufficiency and alienation from the Protestant, Unionist entity called Northern Ireland, was further compounded by the Catholic experience of the Orange Order,actively promoted at that time by many Protestant clergy and politicians. Defined and motivated byits sacred oath to ‘strenuously oppose the fatal errors of Rome’ and to uphold ‘a Protestant State for a Protestant People’, the Orange Order had become a hugely powerful and unifying force withinthe otherwise disparate elements of Protestantism and Unionism. As one historian explains:The Orange Order was a powerful political force, nominating 25 per cent of delegates to the Ulster Unionist Council… Unionist politicians joined the Order as a matter of course, marched in its parades and affirmed its beliefs in their speeches. Loyalists exercised constant vigilance to detectand deter possible Catholic threat and to guard against any softening of unionist or anti-Catholic principles…. Protestantism was all-pervasive in the public culture: in the street preachers, themissions, the Protestant Sundays, the public prominence of the Orange Order. Unionistgovernments systematically identified the State with this culture and the Protestant Churchesreciprocated. There was an interrelation of Unionism and Orangeism.At the heart of this alignment between Orangeism and Unionism was an often unspokenecclesiology of separation – an ecclesiology of election and exclusion, rooted in the historicmemory of both the Plantation of Ulster and the Battle of the Boyne (which I have already referredto). Ostensibly a religious institution based on the fundamental principles of the Reformation, aswell as the instrument of public celebration of Protestant possession of the ‘chosen land’ of Ulster,the Orange Order became known to Catholics as a powerful vehicle of social, economic and political exclusion and a key unifying force for the anti-Catholic religious superiority of theotherwise fragmented Protestant and Unionist tradition.It should be no surprise then that up to the 1970’s, both communities in Northern Ireland livedlargely autonomous, independent and politically divided lives. Critically, from the point of view of our theme, what characterised, motivated and sustained this experience of mutual exclusion andself-sufficiency in religious terms, was the existence of two static, self-contained and mutuallyexcluding identities in which the proximity between political and cultural identity, and the visible

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