Conflicts between different branches of the same Christian religion, namely Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, have shaped and defined Ireland’s communities, politics, and culture for centuries. Religion in Ireland was forged with national identity, contributing to a segregation of power and unstable community relations. Churches have served as places of worship, a proxy for conflict, and sources of peacemaking and reconciliation.
Churches provide comfort, support and empathetic allyship for their members. In Northern Ireland, churches and politics are closely allied in both communities, confirming mutually beneficial relationships. With clerical endorsements, unionist and nationalist politics have gained extra legitimacy, and the churches have increased their influence through their representation of community concerns.
Churches are often included in processes of political consultation and negotiation. Sometimes they act as intermediaries between states, politicians and paramilitaries. Their influence is not usually one of critical policy input, but they are important, as they are perceived as respectable representatives of their community whose doctrines have the potential to influence the political process.
The Catholic Church has been much more than just an interest group to be consulted in nationalist politics. The Church has always been at the heart of the nationalist political mainstream, but has no parallel with the investment of Protestant clerical politicians. Its role in the community was often conflated as the cause of Northern Irish conflict, rather than as an influential moral authority that granted a place of belonging. “The only organisation that can do anything is the Church,” Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams once told Redemptorist priest John Reid, “the Church is the only organisation that has the status, the credibility, the lines of communication.”
The involvement of Roman Catholicism in nationalist party politics in Northern Ireland is minimal; the party system is not theocratic but even if the Church itself does not use its position to promote any party, there still exists a symbiotic relationship between the Catholic Church and politics, for individual clergymen are regarded as highly influential in the community, and religion is often a strong moral authority which may guide the churchgoers towards a party which closest aligns with their views. When the Troubles broke out, the church was still the most important body in Catholic areas. Through the following decades, the bishops issued regular condemnations of both IRA activities and of Sinn Féin, but even the Vatican had little to no influence over paramilitary activities and violence. In 1979, Pope John Paul II addressed a crowd of 250,000 people in Drogheda, a town in the Republic of Ireland just thirty miles from the border with Northern Ireland. “I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence,” he said, “I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace.”
The Catholic Church hierarchy was largely consistent in their condemnation of republicanism, but the church and clergy itself was consistently criticised for its constrained action against violence within the community. The issue of excommunication—excluding someone from the sacraments and service of the church—became a thorn in the side of Catholic influence as bishops faced media regular questions asking why IRA members had not been excommunicated. According to Maggie Scull, “Excommunicating IRA members could isolate sections of the Catholic community who felt the IRA provided protection from perceived corrupt police and British Army forces.” Conversely, the British media and Foreign Office viewed the Catholic Church’s failure to excommunicate the republican paramilitaries as going “some way towards explaining and excusing the violence.”
Sinn Féin’s relationship with the Catholic Church has been volatile; but despite frequent mutual antagonism, there have been attempts at cooperation. A long-standing tension exists between republicanism and the Catholic Church. Since its establishment in 1970, granting Northern Irish Catholics greater choice between Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and unionist parties, the moderate constitutional nationalism of the SDLP received the votes of two out of three Catholics, and Sinn Féin one out of three until the party began to decline in its vote share in 2001. The SDLP has made efforts to widen the scope of their appeal, to act as a secular party, and have rejected any formal relationship with the Catholic Church.
Individual Catholic clergymen have served as mediators and adjudicators in conversations between groups. Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds, for example, made space in the Clonard Monastery for the private meeting of John Hume of the SDLP and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. Fr Reid later acted as their contact person with the Irish Government in Dublin from 1987 up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. He first became famous worldwide with an image of him administering the last rites to the killed corporal David Howes in the ‘corporal killings’ event in 1988.
The Catholic Church is not the all powerful and omnipotent organisation it is believed to be, evidenced by its inability to stop terrorism or stem support for radical republicanism. It has struggled to exert control over nationalist politics, demonstrated during the hunger strikes, when even the intervention of the Pope did not prevent ten men dying.
In opposition to the homogeneity of the Catholic Church, the Protestant market is highly fragmented. There are a number of denominations in Protestantism that exist in Northern Ireland, including Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Brethren denominations. Each of which houses a variety of religious as well as political outlooks, from the highly politicised to the pietistic and apolitical ones. The main Protestant church in Northern Ireland is the Presbyterian Church, to which 19% of the population belongs and which has connections with the Church of Scotland, due to the Scottish planters and ministers who settled in Ulster. Until the 19th century, this church faced discriminatory laws (as did Catholics). Also prominent in Ulster are the Church of Ireland (Anglican, similar to the Church of England, and until 1869 the state church of Ireland) with its members comprising 13.7% of the Northern Irish population.
The involvement of Protestant churches in political life grants them a degree of social influence, and vice versa.
Amongst Protestant churches there is a history of the overlap of religion and political personnel, which fostered political opinion formation, community activism and participation in unionist party politics. Generally the Protestant clergy have been orientated to UUP and the more hardline DUP, a party founded by Rev. Ian Paisley in 1971, who also established the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951. Notably, Rev. Paisley also became the First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007. Historically, the dominant trend has been for the Protestant churches to follow and endorse the unionist political mainstream, especially since the 19th century when Protestants merged to resist the increase of Catholic influence in Dublin’s Parliament. On the other hand, the main leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 were mainly Protestant (radical Presbyterians).
More representative in Ulster’s history is the Protestant cleric who has woven together theological arguments against Catholicism with the defence of Protestant political and economical interest, like the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1912 as a protest against the Third Home Rule Bill. A variety of clerical-politicians are active in politics, including membership to the Orange Order, which is committed to a classic brand of Reformed Protestantism concerned with promoting scriptural truth, and its preceptories, such as the Apprentice Boys and the Royal Black Institution.
Ian Paisley was the archetypal clerical-politician in Northern Ireland, and the man upon which Protestantism and politics intersected. His message was a mixture of evangelical religious orthodoxy, political conservatism and a strong defence of the Union. His militancy and incendiary anti-Catholic rhetoric characterised sectarian divisions in the community for decades, before the reverend recognised the appetite for peace in the people of Northern Ireland. “The man famous for saying no,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair said of Rev. Paisley’s uncompromising unionism until the eventual opportunity for peace arrived, “will go down in history for saying yes.”
Protestant churches have also been involved in political mediation and representation of their community. Protestant clergymen worked with the Provisional IRA and the British government to facilitate the Feakle talks that helped lead to ceasefire.
Throughout the Troubles, it was individual clergymen and grassroots organisers rather than the church as an institution who arguably did the most effective work for peace during the peace process, through engagement and listening at the community level. Networks of activists formed relationships, and nursed processes of personal transformations, by creating safe spaces of discussion, self-recovery and support within and across communities. From the talks at Clonard Monastery to the Feake talks, it was individual and grassroots action which stimulated change at the broader level and transcended sectarian histories, politics and divisions to achieve peace.
In 2016, Protestant and Catholic church leaders met in Belfast with a newly-established Panel on Disbanding Paramilitary Groups aiming to end paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland. A joint statement was released thereafter, saying:
“Nearly 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, paramilitary violence and criminality remains an oppressive reality that pervades everyday life in many of our communities, particularly those in some of the most disadvantaged parts of Northern Ireland … We pray for openness, co-operation and engagement on all sides… There genuinely needs to be a fresh start—bringing a sense of hope to those who have suffered through paramilitary activity in their communities and also pointing to a better way for those who have been involved in paramilitary organisations.”
Currently, the Protestant and Catholic churches play a supporting role to the communities, rather than a leading role. However, the churches continue to be very important in Northern Ireland because of their central role in the organisation and representation of their communities. For example, schooling has historically been segregated in Northern Ireland, as most schools were set up by churches; see our research article on Education. The foundation of mixed, integrated schools have been called a “roadmap to end division.” However, public data in 2019 showed that 93% of children in Northern Ireland still attend segregated schools. Such separation is detrimental to reconciliation across communities, demonstrated in recent polls where 51% of people in Northern Ireland reported having few or no friends from the ‘other side’ of the sectarian divide, this figure stood at 58% for 18-34 year-olds.
Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly secularised, but the church as a source of community organisation and solidarity still remains. From 1998 to 2017, those in Northern Ireland who said they had no religion rose from 9% to 19%. Mass attendance is declining amongst Catholics and Protestants, but most rapidly for Catholics. In 1998, 81% of Catholics said they attended mass regularly but this fell to 52% in 2017. Attendance at church amongst Protestants fell from 52% in 1998, to 43% in 2017. Despite this decline in religious services, churches comforted and provided pastoral services through troubled times and as a result they became more embedded in community structures. In turn, churches continue to capitalise their central social position to maintain their influence in other areas of life, not least in politics.
Birrell, W. D. et al. “The Political Role and Influence of the Clergy in Northern Ireland”.
Mitchell, Claire. “Catholicism in Northern Ireland and the Politics of Conflict”.
O’Connor, Fionnuala. In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Research by Ignacio Álvarez PRIETO and Maeve McTAGGART.
Originally published 16/2/2015