Now that the peace process, however fragile and tenuous, has stayed the course, despite some serious obstacles and setbacks, and talks between the British government and Sinn Fein are taking place, it is a time to reflect on the nature of the divisions that have scarred our lives and psyches.
One of the most under-researched and least understood aspects of the conflict is the role religious differences play - or do not play. 1 While it is a common practice to label the two communities as "Catholics" and "Protestants," and to keep the tally-roll of the dead according to religious affiliation, it is also commonly acknowledged that these labels are a short-hand way of putting many threads ofidentity under a convenient umbrella. Not all Catholics are Nationalists, and not all Protestants are Unionists, and no one has seriously suggested that differences in theological beliefs are the root cause of our problems.
But this is not to say that religion should be dismissed. It is well established that one of the many fears Northern Ireland Protestants harbor is the fear of being culturally and religiously absorbed in an all-Ireland state in which they would account for 20% of the population. A state they would vehemently insist on calling a theocratic state.
But beyond that, I will argue in this paper, that religion plays a critical but little understood role in the conflict, one, which, if not acknowledged and addressed, could seriously handicap the prospects for a negotiated settlement.
I will use the Churches' reactions to the hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981 to explore what the religious dimensions of the problem are, how they manifest themselves, and how they contribute to widening and deepening the divisions among us. 2 The reason why I will use the hunger strikes as the point of departure to explore the nature of the Churches' role in the conflict is that for the first time since the conflict erupted in the late 1960s, the Churches emerged during the hunger strikes as surrogate spokesparties for their respective constituencies.
The Irish Catholic Church refused to call the hunger strikes suicide. The Protestant churches were unanimously of the opposite opinion: The hunger-strikers, they maintained, were committing suicide, they had earned the censure of their church, and they should be denied burial in sacred ground. Th~ Irish Catholic Church was unmoved, resting its case on its obligation to its community and its duties as pastor.
But this argument was merely the surface manifestation of a more deeply-rooted difference, as much ideological as theological, over the nature of right and wrong and the meaning of ambiguity, that is, in the eyes ofProtestants at the heart of Catholic teaching and the root of their distrust of Catholics in general, and oflrish Catholics in particular.
O'Malley, Padraig, "Religion and Conflict: The Case of Northern Ireland" (1995). John M. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies Publications. 29.
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