Northern Ireland: Is it a religious conflict?
Excerpts from a talk given by Peter Brooke:
[On the isolation of Ireland before the 12th century] I have long felt that the place to go for some feel for Celtic Christianity—monastic, with an intense emphasis on asceticism and on local traditions evolved in isolation from the great metropolitan centres (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople)—would be Ethiopia. . . .
The Norman invasions which began informally in 1169 may be seen as a political/legal complement to the ecclesiastical reform [of 12th century Ireland]. Ireland was granted by the Pope to the Norman King of England, Henry II. It happens that the Pope in question, Hadrian IV, was himself an Englishman—Nicholas Brakespeare, the only Englishman ever to hold the office. But he was also an important figure in the overall Roman European project and it seems to me that his motives are better understood as an attempt to incorporate Ireland into the European system than simply as an expression of Anglo-Norman imperialism.
In the event, however, the Norman invasion did not ‘take’. . . . By the sixteenth century, the period of the Tudors and of the English Reformation, ‘civilisation’ was reduced to a small area round Dublin, the ‘Pale’, while most of the country was in the hands of a multitude of more or less independent chieftains mostly Gaelic and without legal title to their land but some of them, with recognised titles and of Anglo-Norman descent but otherwise barely distinguishable from the Gaels. . . .
The Norman invasion of Ireland was part of the process by which Europe had been constructed as a new political order with the papacy as its moral centre. The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland was part of the English Reformation by which England separated itself from this European order and set itself up as it anti-type. In the context, this meant England was repudiating the then generally admitted system of international law. It had become a ‘rogue state’; and the invasion of the Spanish armada can perhaps be compared to the United Nations assault on Iraq in 1991, except of course that it failed. . . .
The Protestant aggression produced among the Roman Catholics in Ireland a rapid process of what might be called ‘modernisation’. Which took two contradictory forms. In Ireland itself there was the formation of a unified nation attached to the Stuart dynasty. . . . The other tendency, more typical of the rapidly growing Irish diaspora in mainland Europe, argued for Ireland’s separation from England and for unconditional loyalty to the papacy. . . . The Jacobite tendency was dominant in Ireland until the end of the eighteenth century and the Catholic Nationalism that took hold in the nineteenth century and triumphed in the twentieth resembles the seventeenth century separatist movement. Nonetheless, there is very little personal or intellectual continuity between them. . . .
In Northern Ireland at the present time the term ‘Protestant’ covers a large variety of different religious groupings but for the purposes of this simplified account they can be reduced, historically, to two: Anglican [the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ scattered throughout Ireland] and Presbyterian. I shall mainly be talking about the Presbyterians, who belonged to the Reformed tradition [the Church claiming independence from civil authority]. . . .
The Presbyterians in Ireland were concentrated in the North East corner, in Ulster. It was an area that had been devastated by war, plague and famine induced by deliberate English policy. The Gaelic aristocracy had been expelled, the native population for the most part destroyed. The Presbyterians were a new population largely transplanted from Scotland. . . .
The Ulster Presbyterians stood in a position of radical opposition to nearly all the mainstream English tendencies including Puritanism, once English Puritanism adopted the principle of Independency [no church authority above the individual congregation]. Defining a ‘connexional church’ as a church structure possessing a collective authority able to impose itself on the individual congregation, the Ulster Presbyterians may claim the remarkable distinction of being the first dissenting connexional church in the British Isles. . . . By establishing their own church discipline in defiance of the episcopal Church of Ireland, the Ulster Presbyterians were effectively setting themselves up as a nation within the nation. . . . It was in its own way a political society in itself, fulfilling many of the functions that we . . . would normally associate with government.
[Discussing the ‘United Irishmen’ movement] The Presbyterians had supported Catholics for reasons that—at least when seen from a nineteenth century Irish Catholic point of view—were essentially anti-Catholic. They believed that the Catholics were in the process of detaching themselves from the Pope and from the pretensions of their Church to be at the centre of a great international order. In fact what happened was the opposite. The nineteenth century sees the Roman Catholics emerging as a nation whose national ideology was, very distinctly, ‘papist’. . . .
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Irish Catholics had been largely a demoralised mass with a lovely but non-functional national [Gaelic] culture and no apparent possibility for political advance. Even under the United Irishmen the role envisaged for them was to act as footsoldiers for an essentially Protestant leadership. By the end of the nineteenth century they were sending missionaries to China; they had broken the back of the Protestant church establishment; the Catholic Church had gained control over an education system that had originally been devised to subvert it; the Church was in many respects more powerful than the government itself; and in the early twentieth century, the last in a series of land acts (Wyndham’s, passed by the Tory government in 1903) had finally wrested the land away from the Cromwellian and Williamite ascendancy. . . .
The demand for a repeal of the Act of Union, for an independent or at least autonomous Ireland was a demand for a state to be constructed on the basis of Catholic social principles. Catholicism—not Gaelic tradition—was the main defining principle of the nation that marked it out as being other than British. The establishment of a Catholic state was seen as a great revolutionary adventure. There was widespread confidence, well into the twentieth century, that Catholicism was the way of the future—that, for example, the forces of Communism, Fascism and liberal democracy would exhaust each other in the 1939 war leaving the Church to pick up the pieces. Ireland was the only European Catholic country that did not develop an anti-clerical movement. ‘Republicanism’ in Ireland had a content that was quite different from Republicanism on the continent. And this predominance of the Catholic idea was abundantly expressed with virtually no opposition in the state that finally came into existence in 1920 [check]. . . .
The Irish Catholics’ emergence as a self sufficient political community based on the Church more or less parallels a decline in the social self sufficiency of the Presbyterians. In the nineteenth century, they became part of a wider—British—society. . . .
Northern Ireland was established as a result of the refusal of the Ulster Protestants to be incorporated as a minority into a Roman Catholic state. It was not established as a result of any positive desire for a Protestant—much less a Presbyterian—state. Nor did the Ulster Protestant refusal to be governed by Irish Roman Catholics necessarily mean that Catholics in Ulster had to be governed by Ulster Protestants. This was a consequence of the imposition of a devolved government on Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the Unionist leadership, who essentially wanted Northern Ireland to continue under the direct rule of Westminster. . . .
[Grievances of Ulster Catholics before 1972]. . .
The position of the Catholics has been transformed beyond recognition since Stormont was abolished in 1972. In particular, almost immediately Catholics began to join the civil service in Northern Ireland in large numbers. Previously, whether because of discrimination by the Protestants or because of a Catholic boycott, there were very few Catholic civil servants. Catholics felt much more comfortable serving under British ministers than under Ulster Unionist ministers. It is this increasing participation of Catholics in the administration of the entity that has changed everything, eventually resulting in the IRA's turning to politics as the sense of grievance which fuelled the military campaign withered away. The spectacular initiatives—Anglo-Irish and Good Friday Agreements—were, I would argue, irrelevant to the process and indeed probably harmful.
On the negative side, the Ulster Protestants, deprived of the only political role that had been allotted to them under the old system—that of keeping the Catholics in order—and unable to generate a new politics more in keeping with their new, not particularly undesirable, condition (they are still in the UK and the union is strengthened not weakened by the demise of the Catholic sense of grievance), have undergone a collapse into alcohol- and drug-befuddled gangsterism on a horrifying scale. . . .
[Decline of Catholic Ireland after Vatican II:] Secularism on the continent developed in the form of militant anti-clerical (Socialist or Republican) movements; in Britain it developed through the conflict between different religious movements which were in themselves anything but secularist. In Ireland it emerged through initiatives undertaken by the Church itself at the height of its power. It is now sweeping all before it. To my perhaps jaundiced eye (I am after all an Ulster Protestant by origin) it appears rather facile and derivative. It has not developed through political struggle but rather on the basis of the morally self satisfied consumerism of the post-Thatcher era. Nonetheless, through it, Catholic Ireland could be said to be at last entering into the front rank of the forces of progress and civilisation.