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  • The Catholic Church and the Nationalist Community in Northern Ireland since 1960
  • Oliver P. Rafferty, SJ (bio)

No one can doubt the importance of religion as an ingredient in the history of conflict in Ireland. One explanation for this fact is that religion is a "surrogate for ethno-political identity."1 Furthermore, the politics of a divided society, within the Northern Ireland context, serves to keep religion alive. In their respective ways, Catholicism and Protestantism (in their various manifestations) have become symbols of ethnic conflict, and that conflict, even in the absence of direct sectarian violence, ensures that the symbols will continue to have meaning even when people no longer practice the faith they ostensibly profess. From the Catholic perspective, identity is inextricably bound up with the relationship between the institutional church and the nationalist community.2

Although at a theoretical level we can deny the identification of Catholicism with nationalism,3 for many Catholics in Northern Ireland, until at least fairly recently, it was perhaps true to say that their religion was also their political identity. The reasons for this were many and complex. One factor, however, was the tendency of institutional Catholicism to dominate the lives of its adherents in every [End Page 99] aspect. Given the peculiar circumstances of the Northern Ireland state and its official and implicit hostility to Catholicism, the community could rarely differentiate its life in separate religious and political terms,4 despite at times sustained criticism in the community of the institutional church. Hence the spectacle of priestly involvement in political activity, even to the role individual priests played in selecting parliamentary candidates, long after such activity was deemed suitable in any other modern democracy.5 With the advent of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, however, and more especially with the emergence of Provisional IRA violence in the 1970s, both the hierarchical church and the nationalist community began to reassess the nature of the relationship between institution and people, as lay Catholics became more assertive about their leadership roles,6 and the church became more hesitant about its historical identification with a by now violent and murderous nationalist ideology.

In general terms the Catholic hierarchy is inclined to dismiss the notion that the institutional church poses any political threat to those who are not of its fold.7 The church maintains that it is not a political institution nor does it have specific political objectives in how it relates to Northern Ireland society as a whole. Indeed, by 1926 the robust nationalist and leader of Irish Catholicism Cardinal Patrick O'Donnell, archbishop of Armagh, could declare that the "area of the six counties is now fixed as the area of Northern Ireland . . . and we must work for the general good of the community."8 This would seem to indicate an acceptance by the hierarchy of the reality of the political facts of life in Northern Ireland, and it could be argued that this is how the church did in fact interact with the northern state. There was simply no alternative, and, for the most [End Page 100] part, the bishops taught Catholics to be obedient to the civil powers no matter how fearsome those powers in practice were from the perspective of the Catholic community.

Viewed from the perspective of the majority community in the North, however, right from the era of the slogan "Home Rule is Rome Rule," the church has come to occupy the position of the great bogeyman in Protestant-Unionist imagination. Although Catholics do not take seriously the notion that their church is regarded as the enemy of civil and religious liberty,9 nevertheless this has been historically a deeply held conviction by many Irish Protestants. Protestants' fears in this regard were well summarized by the Presbyterian minister and former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church,Dr. Robert Dickinson, at the Opsahl hearings in 1993. Dickson remarked that Protestants see every aspect of the political, cultural, educational, medical, and industrial life of the Republic of Ireland as dominated and often controlled by the power and influence of the Catholic Church.10

Regardless of whether or not this caricature bears much relationship with the reality...


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