If there is one thing guaranteed to annoy me in reading an article or listening to a debate on politics in the north – well, beyond the normal level of annoyed that usually brings – it’s when people bring religion into it.

I decided to write this post after reading a fascinating article on transport investment in the north by Steve Bradley on Slugger O’Toole from last June. In it, he highlights not only the neglect, in terms of investment in transport infrastructure, west of the Bann, but he graphically illustrates that existing transport infrastructure is heavily skewed towards unionist areas.

However, he also reinforced his point by providing maps of transport infrastructure against religious demographics, and prefaced the image above with:

“…compare our transport infrastructure with June’s Westminster election results, in which the electorate coalesced behind one party on each side of the religious divide.” (source)

In our subsequent exchange on Twitter, he replied to my politely phrased (well, I thought so!) objection that the divide isn’t actually religious by saying:

Now, I absolutely get that religion is used to identify which side people are on. The divide is commonly referred to as ‘sectarian’, which means ‘based on religion’. It’s especially common to see the sides referred to as Protestant and Catholic in the British media, like this BBC Three show promotion:

Twitter also highlights just how many people think like this.

I could give you a personal example as well – while I was at school, I once got beat up by three kids while walking home alone from school, because I was wearing the uniform of a Catholic school.

Another time, I kissed a girl who had recently moved over from mainland Europe, and hadn’t been brought up with any religion. Apparently that was enough for a bunch of kids to rag on me for kissing someone who wasn’t Catholic.

But here’s the thing. When people in the north use Catholic and Protestant as labels, they’re not really referring to religion.

The divide in the north is not about religion. It’s about national identity. The (rapidly shrinking) Unionist/Loyalist majority identifies as British, and wants to be part of the United Kingdom. The Nationalist/Republican (growing) minority identifies as Irish, and wants a united Ireland, independent of British rule.

For historical reasons, the Unionist community are mostly Protestant, and the Nationalist community are mostly Catholic. That’s because the Protestant Reformation didn’t really take in Ireland, and so the native population was almost entirely Catholic. The Protestant population were shipped over during the 16th and 17th century Plantations, most notably the Ulster Plantation, in an attempt by Britain to cement their control of Ireland through colonisation. There hasn’t been significant mixing of the population since that time.

It’s a little too simplistic to say that religion is irrelevant. After partition, the leaders of the north described it as

“All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.”
Sir James Craig, Unionist Party, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 24 April 1934. Reported in: Parliamentary Debates, Northern Ireland House of Commons, Vol. XVI, Cols. 1091-95. (source)

Indeed, it was a Protestant state, with the territory specifically designed to include as many of the counties of Ulster as possible while retaining a significant Protestant majority overall, even though that majority was largely based in Antrim and Down.

Catholics were discriminated against systematically by the State, and were denied equal rights in housing, voting, and employment.

“When I made that declaration last ‘twelfth’ I did so after careful consideration. What I said was justified. I recommended people not to employ Roman Catholics, who were 99 per cent disloyal.”
Sir Basil Brooke, Unionist Party, then Minister of Agriculture, 19 March 1934
later to become Lord Brookeborough and Northern Ireland Prime Minister. [Reported in: Belfast News Letter, 20 March 1934]

“The hon. Member for South Fermanagh (Mr. Healy) has raised the question of what is the Government’s policy [in relation to the employment of Catholics]. My right hon. Friend (Sir Basil Brooke) spoke [on 12 July 1933 and 19 March 1934] as a Member of His Majesty’s Government. He spoke entirely on his own when he made the speech to which the hon. Member refers, but there is not one of my colleagues who does not entirely agree with him, and I would not ask him to withdraw one word he said.”
Sir James Craig, Unionist Party, then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, 20 March 1934. Reported in: Parliamentary Debates, Northern Ireland House of Commons, Vol. XVI, Cols. 617-618. (source)

In more recent times, the former DUP leader Ian Paisley founded his own church, the Free Presbyterian Church, and regularly railed against the evils of Catholicism – even calling the Pope the Antichrist on the floor of the European Parliament.

“I denounce you, Anti-Christ! I refuse you as Christ’s enemy and Antichrist with all your false doctrine” (source)

And of course the Orange Order, whose July 12th marches every year are a mainstay of Unionist culture, are a Protestant organisation. Catholics, and even Protestants who are married to Catholics, are banned from membership.

It’s not just the Unionist side, either – it’s only really in my lifetime that the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland has waned (I’ll probably do a post at some point on getting rid of the rest of that influence). There’s also the matter of the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, which prior to the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution in the 1970s, included the following articles:

Article 44.1.2:
The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.

Article 44.1.3:
The State also recognises the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Religious Society of Friends in Ireland, as well as the Jewish Congregations and the other religious denominations existing in Ireland at the date of the coming into operation of this Constitution.

However, it seems that this was actually seen as sectarian more in retrospect, than at the time:

In contemporary terms, it marked a defeat for conservative Catholics, and Pope Pius XI explicitly withheld his approval from it:

  • Catholicism was not made the state church.
  • Catholicism was given an undefined “special position” on the basis of being the church of the majority. This was not consistent with the stance of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, which claimed the right to legal and political influence on the basis of the claimed objective truth of its teachings rather than the size of its following.
  • Other religions were named and recognised on a lower level. The use of the Church of Ireland‘s official name antagonised conservative Catholics, who saw Catholicism as being the proper and rightful “church of Ireland”.
  • The Jewish community in Ireland was also given recognition. The explicit granting of a right to exist to the Jewish faith in Ireland marked a significant difference to the legal approach to Jewish rights in other European states, though contemporary Irish society was not free of anti-semitism.

Though perceived in retrospect as a sectarian article, Article 44 was praised in 1937 by leaders of Irish Protestant churches (notably the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin) and by Jewish groups. Conservative Catholics condemned it as “liberal”.

Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland on Wikipedia (source)

Sadly, religion was too often used as an identifier during the Troubles. Due to the anniversary, and to a well-publicised Twitter video by Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff (which was at the very least stupid and insensitive, if not callous and cruel), one such event has been in the news recently. The Kingsmill massacre saw ten passengers on a bus murdered by members of the IRA simply for being Protestant – with one Catholic passenger told to walk away, and one survivor.

But again, some of these examples are just using ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ as community identifier labels. Ian Paisley may have had issues with the Catholic faith, but it’s doubtful the murder victims at Kingsmills were killed because they didn’t believe in transubstantiation or the virgin birth.

Think of it this way. The violence of the Troubles lasted from the late 60s to the late 90s. Over 3,600 people were killed, with hundreds of buildings bombed. How many of the people killed were Protestant ministers, or Catholic priests? How many of the buildings bombed were churches?

Further, the divisions are as strong today as they ever were, while religions have lost most of their influence and authority. The collapse of the Stormont Parliament and Executive last year was catalysed by the disaster of the Renewable Heat Incentive programme – the ‘cash for ashscandal. Talks over re-establishment have been held up by disagreement over nationalist demands for an Irish Language Act, and marriage equality – not exactly a central tenet of the Catholic faith!

The past conflict and the present divisions are about one thing, and one thing only – national identity and allegiance. Religion was only ever a proxy label for this. Unfortunately, it’s one that became widespread – and I don’t believe that was accidental. I genuinely believe that the media reporting of the conflict in religious terms, particularly that of the British media, was a politically guided deliberate attempt to hide the fact that it was a conflict over borders and nations, to reduce public interest, and undermine the legitimacy of nationalist politics. Whether or not I’m right about that, it certainly worked – understanding of the conflict in Great Britain is virtually non-existent.

Continuing to state the divisions in religious terms is not just wrong – it’s offensive. As someone who has no religion, I am insulted to be described as a Catholic. I strongly oppose many aspects of Catholic dogma, and think religion is a negative influence on society (post to come on that!). It’s insulting to be lumped in with them. I’m sure it’s also offensive to Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists – yes, they do exist – and nationalists and unionists of other faiths or none. It continues to undermine the legitimacy of both nationalist and unionist political positions, which are both valid, and have nothing to do with religion.  It continues to undermine understanding of the divisions for those outside the north. And worst of all, if people continue to try to address the divisions by treating the north as a single entity with an internal squabble – as the religious distinction implies – then progress will never be made, because that’s not what the problem is at all.


Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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