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Since its legal inception in 1921 Northern Ireland has been plagued with violence and dispute. This blog does not provide the forum or indeed space to fully explore the myriad causes for the violence. Suffice it to say that it is a conglomeration of perceived imperial action by the UK through both military and political means, a monochromatic entrenchment of the past, cultural clashes and a severe identity crisis. Conspicuous by its absence from the list appears to be the question of ‘religion’.

Certainly when the Good Friday Agreement was created, and subsequently voted in within two referenda in both the North and South of Ireland, religion was not a factor in what was to be the proposed peace process. In fact religion is mentioned once, in the third section of the lengthy agreement under the headline of ‘human rights’. The salient part of the sentence confirms ‘the right to freedom and expression of religion’, frankly so vague as to be virtually useless given the situation it was linked with and intended to move beyond.

Inferences from this statement would seem to indicate two things, the first being that religion has no part to play within the peace process or indeed any lasting peace within the province, and second, that religion is a homogenous construct and practise within Northern Ireland. Both are significantly problematic and both will, ultimately, ensure that peace remains nothing but a cracked glass waiting for the final knock to shatter it (see also, Susan Mckay, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, (Blackstaff, 2006)).

Removing religion from a peace process that has in part, certainly within the media, been explained (away) as a violent, religiously-motivated conflict, seems naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. Paramilitaries on both sides of the divide frame their actions and indeed perspective through their religious understandings. Republican paramilitaries who died were given the last rites where possible and a Catholic funeral (with military overtones). Loyalists paramilitaries often utilised mottos such as ‘For God and Ulster’.

John Brewer, David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey have just released a book (Ex-combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland, London: Palgrave, 2013) that documents the role religion played in the lives of paramilitaries from both sides of the divide.  It focuses on religion as a motivating factor in choosing to pick up a weapon or join a paramilitary organisation, religious experiences of imprisoned paramilitaries, and the relationship between paramilitary members and the churches.

Various religious ideologies are wrapped up in the conflict: loyalist wall murals quote Old Testament scripture, whilst Republican murals espouse New Testament ideas such as that of laying down one’s life for another in connection with the hunger strikers. The interviews by Brewer et al reveal the range of religious ideologies and personal faith that existed for paramilitary members (chapter 4 in particular). Ignoring the role of religion and the religious dimension in the conflict prevents a full understanding of what actually happened and why. By extension it prevents the development of a useful model to understand the ongoing concern of extremism within certain interpretations of Islamism.

So why is religion, and its varying interpretations, not discussed more substantially in the Good Friday Agreement, nor addressed seriously – or even included – within the ongoing peace process? Brewer posits that the answer may lie in the source of the structure of the agreement itself, that is within the field and purpose of transitional justice, which is often not amenable to religion playing a role (pp 160) as it interferes with the American cold-war triumphalism in which it was created (pp vii). I don’t disagree, but it does not provide enough of an answer.

Let’s push the idea further; perhaps its exclusion is also based on the possibility that inclusion of religion within both the reality of the conflict and the peace process would necessitate an acknowledgement that religion is significantly more important to identity construction and defence than is perhaps comfortable. Religion is intangible, difficult to understand and virtually impossible to define. Other factors that cause or contribute to conflict are significantly easier to categorise and even develop pathways to either re-route or correct or legislate for or against.

A uniform concept of ‘religion’ is in itself problematic and erroneously assumes a common understanding and agreement as to what constitutes religion. Fitzgerald has argued that the term ‘religion’ is a Western construct with a particular agenda that includes exclusionary aspects regarding what is and is not ‘religion’. It has the potential to exclude those who hold strong opinions on both ethical matters and issues of faith yet would not self-identify as ‘religious’. In other words the term ‘religion’ is both constructed and constrictive, and in a situation such as that in Northern Ireland it is arguable that the problematic nature of the term is a contributing factor to the conflict.

The tantalising question arises: if we allow for a less constrictive understanding of religion within a situation such as Northern Ireland, what possibilities for reconciliation emerge? To answer that, even partially, requires a clear framework on which to set about addressing the question of religion. Refusing any boundaries or encouraging a general relativism is just as damaging and problematic as assuming too narrow an understanding.

A framework which enables a broad critique of religion and a variety of religious understandings and approaches is a necessity. Understandings of religion in Northern Ireland are so intrinsically linked to the character of the people and the very landscape itself (not just the murals but also how cities such as Belfast are physically carved up through permanent peace lines) it is possible to overlook the place of religion outside of institutions so vocal and prominent during the conflict. A study of grassroots organic approaches to peace is called for, but it cannot be limited to one framework or approach, it must be made from a variety of different approaches and ideas. In Northern Ireland we have a saying, ‘grasp the nettle’, which means do what needs to be done – a very apt approach that studies into the peace process need to take on board with regards to the place of religion.