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Defeating Sectarianism: Continuity and Change in Northern Ireland

Tue, September 28, 6:00 to 7:30am PDT (6:00 to 7:30am PDT), TBA


Defeating sectarianism – one of the chief enemies of pluralism in the history of British-Irish relations – was considered by religious peacemakers during the Troubles (1968-1998) in Northern Ireland as the primary task of the churches. “Sectarianism is a disease in any society; that it exists within our own diminishes us as Christian people” (Working Party on Sectarianism 1993: 5). The ecumenical endeavor to fight sectarianism, however, encountered two fundamental handicaps: on the one hand, for republicans and their nationalist supporters, religious faith had no or little guiding role in the political realm. As Fr. Alec Reid, a leading Catholic peacemaker of the era put it: the violence-supporting Catholics were “faithful in every other way” (Reid 2017: 135). On the other hand, the loyalist campaign to keep Ulster within the United Kingdom at all costs was conceived also as a religious battle between Christ-following Protestants and Catholics who followed the Anti-Christ (Brewer and Higgins 1998: 2). In such a convolution, ecumenism is part of the heresy and thus has little persuasive power.

Echoing previous analyses of the conflict in Northern Ireland, this paper proceeds from the standpoint that sectarianism was a product of many factors including colonial structures and nationalistic strivings, in which religious bigotry certainly played a role but might not be as central as some casual observers would have it. Where the paper seeks to go further than conventional thinking is its analysis of the little-researched link between sectarianism and secularism. For the widely-held assumption is that, to the extent that religion is partly responsible for sectarianism, secularism is its antidote. This paper challenges this assumption based on three interrelated arguments: first, the assumption’s understanding of secularism is simplistic and one-dimensional. Based on Berger’s and Taylor’s works on secularism, the paper asserts that the distinction between public and private secularism is key to examining its connection with sectarianism. Second, the Irish nationalist turn to violent means – despite explicit church teachings against it – was an example of successful secularism in its private variant, with its characteristic removal of God from the political realm (1 Samuel 8: 7). Third, the loyalists’ violent hold on state power was an example of failed secularism in its public variant, which theologically justifies the separation of the kingly office from the prophetic (1 Samuel 8: 22), or political institutions from religious ones. The relationship between sectarianism and secularism in Northern Ireland was thus much more intimate and intricate then hitherto presupposed.

Going beyond the Troubles, the paper looks at the problem of lingering sectarianism under the Good Friday Agreement. It argues that the lack of progress in political reconciliation is partly attributable to increasing secularization in the private sphere, which weakens the efficacy of religious reconciliation efforts (Brewer 2011: 23-24).