Peacemaking among protestants and catholics in northern ireland

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Peacemaking among protestants and catholics in northern ireland
I was born into a very poor Unionist family and was the last of three children. Growing up on a housing estate in Protestant West Belfast I wasn’t aware of the struggle my parents faced to provide the basics for the children. My Dad worked so hard for very little financial reward; his main interest outside of work was the Protestant Orange Order. My Mother also worked day and night in a hotel but for little reward. We were staunchly Unionist. From a very early age I became a member of the Junior Section of the Orange Order, gradually progressing to the senior post of Worshipful Master. I know that both my parents would later say what so many people in life say with hindsight: “if only we could turn the clock back, how different things would have been.”
Both my parents were lapsed Christians, although they made sure the children went to church every week. I found this experience an ordeal and hated Sundays with passion. Church was boring and meaningless to me in my young life and the Christian message I heard in Church only reinforced the anti-Catholic message I was receiving from the Unionist society around me. I left school in 1969 at the age of 15 with no academic qualifications. That summer the violence came to the streets of Northern Ireland and at this young age I felt the sectarian feelings rise in me. Within a few years the violence escalated. I became involved with the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is one of the main Loyalist paramilitary organizations. In July 1975 I was arrested by the security forces and sentenced the following year to life imprisonment.
As I settled into the routine of imprisonment, very slowly I started to question my beliefs and values. For the first time in my life I actually read the Bible. As I read about the life of Jesus I came to a conclusion that grows stronger with each passing day – that Jesus preached a message of non-violence and that those who follow Him are called to be peacemakers in this world. It is easy to preach the message of peacemaking, harder to practice it, yet God wants us to live it in our everyday lives. I learnt this in prison and have tried to follow it since.
Upon release from prison I met my future wife, who is a Roman Catholic from the Irish Republic. From the moment we met we knew that God had brought us together to work in reconciliation and peacemaking. This has not occurred overnight. We first had to learn in our marriage to respect each other’s culture, religion and political viewpoints. This journey has been slow and painful as both of us shed off the baggage that we carried with us from our upbringing in “the troubles”. But the lesson of reconciliation we learned in our marriage is relevant, as we later came to realize, for Northern Ireland.
Today, after 11 years of marriage and three beautiful children, we can see God opening the doors to us and using us in the work of peace and reconciliation in the community generally. Both of us have trained as facilitators and, coupled with qualifications in community relations, we have recently started our own business called “Pax Works”. Through this name we hope to show that peace does work. As facilitators we have been blessed in having the opportunity to work with all sections of the community in Northern Ireland in trying to bring mutual understanding. It is a joy to watch those who in some cases live only a few streets away from each other come together and talk to each other for the first in a long time or the first time ever.
We know that people’s mindsets will not be changed in one day yet it is our calling as peacemakers to be prepared for a long journey. After 30 years of violence, pain and suffering in Northern Ireland there is much healing to be done and if my wife and I can in some small way contribute to this process then I firmly believe we have answered God’s call to be peacemakers and reconcilers. Our prayer is that others may grasp the vision in their own countries and local communities as it is at the grassroots that the seeds of peace grow.

Jim McKinley


Northern Ireland’s conflict is deeply enigmatic. There are at least four paradoxes. It is supposedly a religious war fought over doctrinal principles between people for whom religion is their primary identity, yet religion disguises the conflict’s inherently political character. The conflict is over the legitimacy of the state and access to its political, economic and cultural resources, but religious affiliation defines the boundaries of the groups that are in competition. The conflict receives massive world attention, yet the violence is very low key. The fact that it is played out in the First World gives Northern Ireland’s conflict a media and international focus that conflicts with much higher levels of violence do not attract. Finally, despite its low-key nature, Northern Ireland has perhaps the most comprehensive peacemaking industry of all world conflicts. This leads naturally to the greatest conundrum: why the conflict persists amidst all the peacemaking.

It is a truism that the dynamics of peacemaking are affected by the dynamics of the conflict it seeks to resolve. In Northern Ireland the conflict is such that all can assume the status of victim – Catholics victims of four centuries of social exclusion, Protestants of thirty years of terrorism – and both claim the other as perpetrator. This tends to complicate peacemaking, for the victims’ demands for justice can be divisive unless they are extended to all that have suffered. Given that the character of the conflict shapes peacemaking, it is necessary to begin with a history of Northern Ireland’s conflict. Such a historical overview shows that peacemaking needs to be broadly understood as comprising more that an end to violence, for issues of equality, justice and political and civil rights also resonate down the ages.
The History of the Conflict

The contemporary conflict in Northern Ireland has its genesis in the form of social structure created in Ireland by Plantation in the sixteenth century (for general histories see Bardon 1992; Brewer 1998; Foster 1988; Rafferty 1994, Ruane and Todd 1996). Plantation describes the voluntary migration – plantation – of English and Scottish Protestants to Ireland. British control of Ireland required Protestant control and hence Protestant dominance. Plantation transformed Irish society as no war of conquest had and it initiated different patterns of development in the North East Coast of Ireland – the ancient province of Ulster. Right from the beginning Ulster was different. Planters saw themselves as embattled because Ulster had Catholic rebels who preyed on the Protestant settlers. The planters in Ulster came from Scotland more than England, bringing with them Presbyterianism and its tendency to separatism, and at the beginning Presbyterians experienced their own exclusion by Anglicans. The Scots outnumbered the English in Ulster by a ratio of five to one in 1640 (Akenson 1992, 108), and their cultural legacy is manifest today in many facets of popular culture and place name (Gailey 1975). This separatism extended to having their own systems of social control based around the presbytery, to the point that Hempton and Hill (1992, 16) describe Ulster Presbyterians as a self-contained and regulating community and virtually independent of the wider structures of the English state. As many others have argued, Ulster Presbyterians saw their task as keeping themselves true to the reformed tradition, searching out apostates within their community rather than evangelising amongst Anglicans or Catholics (Hempton and Hill 1992, 18; Miller 1978; Wallis and Bruce 1986, 272-3). At the same time, as Holmes shows (1985, 45, 57), Irish Presbyterians were also prevented from establishing new congregations (Blaney 1996, 20-40, discusses some early attempts at out-reach by Presbyterians). The notion that they were, in terms of Calvinist theology, God’s covenanted “elect” only reinforced the tendency to separatism, and has continued to do so ever since.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Ireland essentially remained a Plantation society, in that the social structure created at the time of Plantation became set in stone. Its lines of differentiation remained structured around Protestant-Catholic divisions that came to represent all other lines of cleavage. However, Ireland was increasingly unable to live with its past because the old conflicts and fissures caused tremendous strain in its social structure. Protestant and Catholic people developed as solidaristic communities in the nineteenth century, which transcended internal fault lines as they confronted the other as a separate community in a zero-sum conflict in which it seemed that their interests were incompatible. The economy of the Protestant-dominated East Coast developed apace from the rest of the island because of linen and shipbuilding around Belfast’s port. Economic developments in the nineteenth century therefore reinforced the division of the island of Ireland into two identities, mutually sculpted in opposition to each other. It became increasingly difficult to contain both in the one territory. This was not an easy realization, and three Home Rule Bills in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, steadfastly opposed by Ulster Protestants, separated the island politically. Social structural strains eventually developed to the point that the colonial society planted in the sixteenth century was overturned in 1921, at least in twenty-six of its counties, with the partition of the island into two jurisdictions – a Catholic dominated Irish Republic and a Protestant dominated Northern Ireland.

Partition was a journey to nationhood for Northern Irish Catholics that they vigorously contested. Two conflicts persisted after partition. Ulster’s territory was contested, since partition split their homeland in half as Catholics saw it, and Catholics in the North felt second class citizens compared to Protestants in terms of the privileges, rights and life-chance opportunities they experienced. Catholic opposition to both partition and social exclusion brought no easy peace for Protestants, as inequality was challenged militarily and politically. Partition may have kept Protestants from a united Ireland dominated by Catholics, but the old inequalities were transported with them into the new territory, at least initially, and with them the ancient conflicts. Catholics were offered citizenship in the new state but on terms that made their Catholicism and Irishness problematic, and their position in the social structure made them second-class citizens. Accordingly, they mostly withheld legitimacy from the state. Between 1922-72, the conflict spilled over into incidents of violence by Irish Republicans demanding a united Ireland and anti-Catholic riots from those loyal to Britain. A sustained period of civil unrest occurred after 1968, when Catholic demands for civil rights were initially rejected and met with force from both the police and Protestant organizations. This period of violence, known colloquially as “the troubles”, has polarised Protestant-Catholic relations and reinforced the zero-sum framework within which group interests are constructed by both communities in Northern Ireland. The violence since 1968 has made traditional hatreds worse and while a peace process is underway, with a cease-fire since 1994, mistrust and suspicion bedevil it.

Peacemakers in Northern Ireland therefore confront a situation in which ancient religious differences have ensured the survival of separate communities. Through such methods as same-religion marriages, residential segregation, distinct cultural organizations and segregated schools, the social structure of the two communities ensures the effortless perpetuation of distinct and separate social groups. They live in separate areas, they hold to separate symbols and they contest rather than share territory. Belfast is a divided city whose geography and physical space vividly portray the conflict. Those working for peace and for reconciliation thus have two obstacles to overcome: the legacy of the past that has created social division, and the impact of a social structure that reproduces separateness. It is the study of these peacemakers to which we now turn. First, however, it is necessary to describe the research design.
The objective of our research was to outline the dynamics of grassroots Christian peacemaking in Northern Ireland. Any piece of research ought to involve triangulation, by which is meant the use of multiple methods and even of multiple researchers. We used triangulation in both senses. The research team undertaking the investigation consisted of three people who were very experienced in social research and had worked together on earlier research projects. Two research assistants, Ken Bishop and Gareth Higgins, worked under the direction of the principal investigator, John Brewer. Each member of the team brought not only a wealth of experience in social research but active involvement in Christian peace work. Access to peacemakers in the research process was facilitated by these personal contacts.

With respect to the triangulation of methods, we used a comprehensive research design utilizing a range of quantitative and qualitative methods, such as questionnaires, documentary analysis, in-depth interviews and case studies. This ensured that we collected a variety of different data sets, off-setting the weaknesses of one method with the strengths of another. The data are more rounded as a result. The methods used and data sets collected comprise:

  • A comprehensive list of church-based and secular organizations involved in peace-making and cross-community activities and a database of their aims and objectives.

  • Documentary analysis of the literature produced by peace-making and cross-community bodies to explore their mission statements and the principles that underlie their activities.

  • Interviews with selected leaders and members of these organizations to expand by means of qualitative research on the motivations for their activities, to explore the role which Christian faith has played in them, their “theology of peace”, the rationale that supports their witness, the opportunities and constraints they experience, and so on. Over 40 qualitative interviews were completed. Two sets of guiding questions were developed – a set particularly for Christian interviewees and another set for secular respondents. Each set of questions was developed to investigate activities and motivation for involvement in peacemaking.

  • Quantitative research was undertaken on images of the divine amongst small samples of Protestants and Catholics, some of whom are involved in peace making, some not. We developed matched samples of four cells, comprising 15 Protestants involved in peacemaking, 15 Catholics involved in peacemaking, four Protestants not involved in peacemaking and two Catholics not involved in peacemaking. It proved particularly difficult to obtain Catholic respondents who were not involved in peacemaking, and even the snowball technique did not resolve this problem. This involved use of a standardized questionnaire but the opportunity was taken to also interview the 36 respondents in more depth.

  • A questionnaire was distributed to a sample of 50 Christian peacemakers to establish whether or not there are gender differences in motivations and types of peacemaking (21 were returned).

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