Saturday, November 6, 2010

Case study: the Northern Ireland conflict

“If there is a true religious conflict anywhere in the world, surely this is it.” This perception of the Northern Ireland conflict as religiously motivated is widely shared in both the academic world and the popular opinion. If religion is unquestionably a major factor of the hostilities, some scholars have relativised its role in favour of political and nationalist factors. The conflict indeed opposes on the one hand the republicans and nationalists, mainly Catholic, and, on the other hand, the loyalists and unionists, mainly Protestant. It almost turned into a civil war during some particularly violent episodes such as the 1972 Bloody Sunday or the 1981 hunger strike, which witnessed high popular mobilisation. If the terminology of the two enemy parties seems to attest the religious character of the conflict – they are usually referred to as “Catholics” versus “Protestants” – the role played by the religious factor in the hostilities is actually not so clear.

The aim of this paper is thus to, first, sum up the historical and socio-political causes of the conflict and to show that, if the initial difference between the two communities is religious, the real motivations for conflict come under nationalist and political demands fuelled by religion. Then, this paper will examine the peace process undertaken from the end of the 1990s and the way the Irish population deals with this collective trauma these days. The first and main part will refer to RenĂ© Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire” and “scapegoat” as well as to the concept of redemptive violence, while the second part will focus on the idea of redemptive justice and national reconciliation.


The Northern Ireland conflict officially dates from 1921, when Northern Ireland was created as an independent state. But the tensions date back far earlier, from the seventeenth century, when James I – Catholic King of England and Ireland form 1603 to 1625 – ratified his predecessor’s policy of consolidating English Protestant rule in Ireland. Elizabeth I’s idea was indeed to “plant” in Ulster the faithfuls to the English crown, while supplanting Catholics, perceived as disloyal. The following centuries witnessed what is known as the “wars of religion” in Ireland when the English army led by Oliver Cromwell suppressed the rebellion of the Catholics against the Protestant settlers. Under the Northern Unionist pressures for partition, Britain agreed in the early twentieth century to recognize two parts, the Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, renamed the “Republic of Ireland” after 1949. Indeed, if the unity of the country was seen as an ideal for the Irish nationalists, it was synonymous of “Roman” domination from the Protestant view. In relation to the violent opposition to British rule from the part of the Irish nationalists, represented by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Protestant felt unsecure and reacted by introducing permanent emergency legislation, electoral abuses and discriminatory measures against the Catholic minority for the allocation of jobs and houses. The cycle of violence of the Northern Ireland conflict stems from this mutual stigmatisation of the two communities.

This brief account of the history of the region can make us think of the case of the United States, where the arrival o the Pilgrims Fathers also led to violence against the Native Americans. But the difference is that, if in the American case the superiority of the British settlers was clear, the Protestant ethnic group arriving in Ulster found itself in competition with a similar group – the Catholics – over land, wealth and power. It is besides worthwhile to notice that each community gave its own denomination to the location today known as Northern Ireland: Unionists called it “Ulster” whereas the same territory was referred to as the Occupied ‘Six Counties’ of Ireland by Catholics.
This situation can be analysed in the light of RenĂ© Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire”, according to which the direct competition between two similar groups lead them to differentiate themselves from each other in order to “win” the competition. One of the ways to achieve this goal was to lay emphasis on the difference of religious allegiance between Catholics and Protestants, using religion as a boundary-marker and as a unifying element within each community.
As religious identity appears to be the distinction criteria between the two opposing parties, religious loyalty is tantamount to community support. This can explain the importance religion took on in a country were church attendance is higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom and where 90% of the population claims to be Christian. This reveals that tensions between two communities bring about introverted assertion of one’s identity, and, as religion is a significant element of identity, the conflict strengthens the religious identity of the population within each community.

Henceforth, religion would appear as an instrument to serve political purposes and as a tool of a competitive community eager assert dominance and influence over another. This pleads against the perception of the Northern Ireland conflict that it is a strictly religious one, and that religion is not the cause of the struggle, but rather a magnifying political element – and, after the discriminative laws, economical – of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants. Besides, most of the republican terrorists did not claim they were acting in the name of God, and, in many countries such as Germany or the US, Catholics and Protestants are perfectly able to coexist peacefully. The singularity of the Northern Ireland case comes from the progressive identification between the ‘Catholic identity’ and the ‘Irish identity’. Indeed, the Irish Catholics, united by their religion, were feeling oppressed as a nation because of the discriminatory laws enforced by the British government in housing, education and work, condemning them to economic hardship. This, along with the feeling of being Protestants’ scapegoats, motivated Irish national aspirations. In this context, the Northern Ireland case perfectly matches the definition of religious nationalism, described as “a community of religious people or the political movement of a group of people heavily influenced by religious beliefs who aspire to be politically self-determining”. Besides, the leaders of the Catholic Church in Ireland saw themselves as the leaders of the Irish Nation.

Thus, religion appears as an indirect cause of the rise of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland. It also endows the conflict with a sacred value, as some religious beliefs of one faith contradict some fundamental institutions of the other. Thus, Protestants regard the Pope as the Anti-Christ and this kind of belief obviously provide “fertile soil for anti-Catholicism”.
But there is also a religious side to the conflict, which revolving around the religious significance of certain locations: Ulster is regarded by the Catholics as one of the four sacred counties of Ireland where Saint Patrick christened the Irish into their faith, whereas, it is to the Protestants what Israel is to the Jews. Indeed, British settlers held the conviction that they were the chosen people in the eyes of God and that Northern Ireland was their land of promise.
Religion is also a magnifying element of the conflict in a sense that the philosophy of each religion leads to different conceptions of society and different approaches of economic issues: because Protestants are more individualistic, they are less likely to yield to the correction of social injustices, whereas Catholics strongly support the redistribution of wealth.
The Calvinist doctrine also lays emphasis on the importance for the faithfuls to secure their religious freedom , which can explains the violent actions perpetuated by the Protestant when they were feeling this freedom was at stake. A parallel can here be made with the American invasion of all Iraqi’s, who were being threatened by the oppression and tyranny of Islam. Perpetuating violence to secure freedom or to restore order is the cardinal characteristic of the concept of “redemptive violence” defined by Walter Wink.

This theory of redemptive violence struck a chord in the Northern Ireland conflict with the event commonly known as the “Bloody Sunday”. To protest against the inequalities and state repression they suffered, the Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority formed in 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, an organisation in charge of organizing protests and civil disobedience in the pursuit of liberal reforms and equality between citizens. Faced with the growing social disorder and the inability of Northern Ireland governments to handle the situation, the British state sent troops in 1969 to restore law and order. But on 30 January 1972, the British Army shot dead thirteen unarmed Irish nationalist civilians and wounded fifteen other on the occasion of a demonstration held in the city of Derry. This city itself was an illustration of the ethnical and religious segregation between the two communities: the city had become a Protestant mainstay over the centuries and Catholics were forced to live apart, in the ghetto of Bogside. This episode, known as the “Bloody Sunday”, has deeply marked the Catholic population who saw in this intervention as an unacceptable abuse of state by the British state.
The collective trauma it provoked had been amplified by the conclusions of the Widgery Report, investigated by the British Government in the aftermath of the events to provide an “official memory” of Bloody Sunday. This report exonerates the British soldiers, arguing they act as pure self-defence, in response to the violence initiated by the IRA. This “blatant denial of justice” to the Irish victims led to a definitive identical rupture from the Derry Catholics, to an increase in the recruitment to IRA and to a general escalation of violence. Above all, it brought about campaigns for a public recognition of the truth, sine qua non condition for forgiveness and reconciliation. While Catholic movements were denouncing the violence and injustice of the British military occupation in Northern Ireland, most of the Unionists were rejecting the idea that the British paramilitaries’ reaction was disproportionate.
Faced with the divisive consequences provoked by this official account of the events, Tony Blair’s government asked Lord Saville to reopen the Inquiry in 1998, challenging the unreasonable outcome of Lord Widgery’s verdict. This initiative was a significant step in the peace process and in the establishment of the truth to “close this painful chapter once for all”.

The main divisions in the case that aroused indignation from the British concerned the Good Friday Agreements which asked for the early release of IRA prisoners, convicted of terrorist crimes. These debates on the justness of the Good Friday Agreements reveal the ever existing tensions after a civil conflict between the political need for peace and the moral demand for justice. The legitimacy of the state is at stake in this dilemma, as the population will not support a regime which has distorted the truth to avoid its responsibilities and which fails in its prerogatives of protecting victims of injury.
A theological approach would tend to insist on the need for justice, a key notion of the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments. The Calvinist sanctification of a “retributivist” punishment – the imposition of an equality of suffering – explains the lack of support to the Good Friday Agreement from the Unionists. This would suggest that some religion beliefs hamper the peace process, by giving priority to justice over political arrangements to resolve the conflict. But, on the other hand, one can argue that the ideas of compassion, mercy and reconciliation are recurrent in the New Testament, as illustrated by the example of Jesus Christ’s forgiveness to his executioners, and that the idea of reconstruction is more important than the punishment of perpetrators. It also lays emphasis on the limits of human justice in favour of God’s justice in the beyond.

Unquestionably, a balance is to be found between forgetting the past and being overwhelmed by the burden of a violent and repressive history. As Lawrence Cahoone point out: “beings without memory would have no need for retribution, but no identity either”. Wrongs cannot be righted but can be acknowledged, and all the reconciliation process is a matter of “knowing, forgiving and forgetting”. While being aware that they are not responsible for what happened, the young generation is to keep in mind the past events to find moral guidance in their every day deeds in order to avoid the repetition of such atrocities.

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