Covenant, Conflict, Community: Part One

giant’s causeway: antrim coast: northern ireland

This is the first in my series “Covenant, Conflict, Community” on Northern Ireland, her history, and her relationship with religion. Throughout the series, I’ll be exploring ideas of church/state separation, religiously-motivated violence, the connection between sectarianism and religion, and more. Before I can cover any of that, however, I need to lay some ground work. 

“I lived in Northern Ireland for about five years,” I’ll say to someone in conversation. 

“Oh, I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland!” the American will exclaim back. “Did you like Dublin?”

“Well, I lived in Belfast, which is in Northern Ireland, which is a separate country, but I enjoyed my many visits to Dublin, yes.”

The American will look confused, perplexed even, and then usually respond with, “A different country?” (1)

Perhaps you are like that apocryphal American and when you saw the title to this post, you assumed I meant that I was talking about the country of Ireland. Perhaps you’ve never given much thought to the wee island to the north west of England, except on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps you have deep connections to the island and you know everything I’m about to say. In my decade of researching and writing about Northern Ireland, I have encountered people on all ends of all spectrums. As TTC is about conversations, I want to start this conversation by making sure everyone knows some basics. Clearly, I am going to crassly blow over some major events to make my points today. This post is not about nuance, but I guarantee you that later ones will be. 

The map you see above has been the legal and governmental reality since 1921, when the Government of Ireland Act officially created partition. Prior to that, the entire island was under British rule. 1542 is when King Henry VIII declared Ireland as a kingdom under his command, which not everyone was super happy about. There were scattered rebellions, and some all out wars. Different groups on the island give more weight to one rebellion over the other, but essentially at least a part of the island was in some level of unrest or armed turmoil until 1998 (and arguably, still is now). (2)

1921 allowed the creation of the Irish Free State, which would eventually become the Republic of Ireland. If you know someone who has been to Ireland, they’ve most likely been to the republic. The Ring of Kerry, the Blarney Stone, the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride; these are all in Ireland. Both the Irish Free State and the Republic of Ireland tied themselves legally and culturally to the Catholic Church. (3) This tie, or collusion, between church and state in that culture is massively significant and will be explored in later posts. 

Northern Ireland, made up of 6 counties of the ancient province of Ulster, became a part of the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with that act in 1921. Due to gerrymandering of the border, the political/cultural/religious divide was split nearly evenly between Catholic (politically Nationalist or Republican) and Protestant (politically Unionist or Loyalist) citizens. Skirmishes and rebellions began nearly immediately by Irish Republicans who wanted to reclaim Northern Ireland for Ireland. These fights were largely against the British Government and were all squashed, but only added to the feeling of oppression in that community. (4)

This feeling of oppression was exacerbated by the fact that the government of Northern Ireland was exclusively comprised of religiously and culturally Protestant men who believed strongly in the act of union (Unionists). Their identity as humans was tied to their identity as British people, which was tied to their identity as Protestants. Their theological foundations tied them as covenant people, just like the Israelites, and that tie is still strong today. 

So you have a group of people with all the political and most of the economic power, who believe that God placed them in that position to be faithful and protect the land and keep it away from the enemy. That enemy is half of the population of their country, whom they were in charge of. 

You can see how things got a little complicated. 

What Northern Ireland is most famous for is “The Troubles”, a period of sustained armed conflict that lasted about 30 years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. It was a messy, evolving, frustrating period, and was both ended by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and not ended at all. (5) People have spent thousands and thousands of pages trying to explain the conflict and thousands of students have cycled through the universities here to learn about it. I’m not going to deep dive into it in any of my posts, but I will be recommending other authors and voices for those who want to. 

A lot of hay has been made over how the Troubles were a religious war, which not only misses the point, but doesn’t allow for an examination of all the things they were really about. There were theologically motivated calls for violence (especially on the part of Rev. Ian Paisley), but the religious spaces were often used for peace talks and reconciliation. However, religion still mattered quite a lot in the Troubles, but I’m not so sure faith did. That’s one of the things that will come up in the next set of posts. 

Today, Northern Ireland remains the part of U.K. with the highest levels of religious participation. About 85% of the population claims to be Christian, with about 45% of those attending religious services regularly, according to the latest data available (NILT, 2008). The country is secularizing for sure, but not at the rate as the rest of the U.K. or even the rest of Europe. When you factor in that schools are religiously based (6) and therefore all students are taught at least some level of Christian orthodoxy and history, the country is seeped in a syncretistic version of Christianity. There’s more culture than theology in it for most people these days, but the two words used most often to describe people are still “Catholic” and “Protestant”.

 Which is why one of the anecdotes I tell when teaching on Northern Ireland is as follows: 

A group of children are playing outside when the new girl in school approaches them. “So who are you?” The girl responds her name is Reza and she just moved to Belfast. “So are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” Reza is confused, says she’s neither, that she’s Jewish. “Right, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

Even in a multi-cultural society where you can attend Diwali festivals and sit in a pub next to immigrants from Morocco, these divisions still matter. It can determine where you live, who you marry, what politics you support. It’s both logical and maddening, overt and covert, and something that simply is. 

I’ve loved this country for about ten years, since I first stepped foot on her shores as a voluntary youth worker. I have learned a lot about practical theology and lived religion in this space and I hope to pass it onto you. Over the next several months, I’ll be exploring themes touched on in this post: does Jesus tell us who to vote for? Is it okay for a pastor to endorse the deaths of people who believe differently? What does empathy look like in a community taught never to listen to others? How can hope be an engine? How does dominion and covenant play into this?And why can we not heed Dumbledore and remember that it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live? For the lessons of this place are lessons for us all, if we would only quiet our souls and listen. 


(1) Right now, my friend Orfhlaith is lovingly give me some shade, as for her political and religious beliefs, she does not acknowledge the separation of her island and will usually respond to me saying such things with a “not really! not forever! we’ll be united again!” with a cheeky grin. Orfhlaith believes in and works for the eventual re-unification of the island into one legal country. 

(2) The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is one of the most famous of these skirmishes. It represents the last time that the island was ruled by a united Catholic leader (not one the King’s government acknowledged, of course) and the success of the Protestant conqueror (William of Orange) still holds incredible symbolic power for much of the Ulster Protestant community. 

(3) If you’ve seen Philomena or The Magdalene Sisters, they’re good examples of the ugly side of that relationship. 

(4) As I will write about constantly in this series, “Catholic” and “Protestant” are shorthand in Northern Ireland for a lot of identities. The glossing-over of nuance has led to the myth that there are only two communities of people in Northern Ireland, and that each is a monolith of beliefs and opinions. Could not be farther from the truth, as I’ll explain more in later posts. 

(5) I refer to it now as a “frozen conflict” – while armed violence is largely a thing of the past, the microagressions of life in a divided society are present constantly. Additionally, I never went more than two days without having a conversation about “the past”. 

(6) Schools are either Catholic, Protestant, or Integrated. At last stats, only about 7% of children attend integrated schools, which still usually include some version of required religious education. There are more integrated primary (elementary) schools than secondary (high school) ones, and they are growing. Liam Neeson, who is from Northern Ireland, has endorsed a campaign to increase these numbers