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A Presbyterian church in Belfast. via

How churches are missing their opportunity to help build peace in Northern Ireland

It is deeply ironic that as Northern Ireland marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to worst of the sectarian violence known as the Troubles, it is more fragile than it has ever been.

Chance played a role in delivering a set of circumstances that made the agreement possible. And a set of chance factors have intervened to start unravelling it. These factors include Brexit, a weak government majority in Westminster that empowers and emboldens the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the breakdown of power-sharing at Stormont, and the death of Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness in March 2017.

More predictably destabilising though has been the failure to progress healing and reconciliation in society despite the political gains made since 1998. Civil society has not taken ownership of the peace process by continuously or systematically tackling sectarianism or promoting reconciliation. The churches are the largest civil society grouping in Northern Ireland and this failure is partly theirs.

For more on the 20th anniversary of peace in Northern Ireland, listen to The Anthill podcast on the Good Friday Agreement.

Institutions and mavericks

It has long been understood that during the conflict the churches failed to show prophetic leadership. Both Catholic and Protestant church leaders were highly constrained in what they felt able to do, while a number of mavericks and independents on the ground had a strong prophetic presence and did a great deal to bring about peace.

Talks broker: Irish Catholic priest Alec Reid. Ballesteros/EPA

The work of some of these mavericks was sensitive and so highly secret during the peace process. Now we know for example, that Alec Reid, a Redemptorist in Belfast’s Clonard Monastery, helped facilitate talks behind the scenes between the leader of the Social and Democratic Labour Party, John Hume, and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in the 1980s. These talks opened the door for Sinn Féin and, ultimately, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), to engage with the British and Irish governments at a time when “talking with terrorists” was anathema. Adams famously told Reid that only representatives of the Catholic Church could have facilitated these developments within nationalism.

Other mavericks understood their work as a public ministry to change hearts and minds. One of the most effective examples was the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI). The organisation was formed in the mid-1980s as an explicit alternative to the way the then-DUP leader Ian Paisley mixed religion and politics. Paisley, a Protestant minister, used evangelicalism to bolster Ulster Protestant identity over and against Catholic nationalists. Instead, ECONI challenged the “sins” of its own community, which created opportunities for relationships with Catholics. It produced educational resources that reached deep within Protestantism, asking hard questions that the institutional churches often ignored.

In defence of the institutional churches, they were not trained experts in conflict resolution. Pastoral care and parish management were their skills, not conflict resolution. However, as society emerged out of conflict, the churches should have come into their own.

Absent from public debates

As people learn to live together in tolerance, the skills needed are precisely those possessed by churchmen and women in abundance. Northern Irish society needs debates in the public square about the meaning of forgiveness, mercy, justice, healing, reconciliation, compassion, grace and empathy. These are qualities and skills which the churches can rightly claim as their own.

Sadly, however, the churches remain as absent from public debates as they were during the conflict. Having earned no legitimacy for their active leadership in the peace process, the churches have not been able to lead the debate in the post-conflict period. Meanwhile, anti-clericalism has expanded as a result of church involvement in institutional child and sex abuse. Religious practice in Northern Ireland is declining as fewer people attend church regularly and they become more liberal in the beliefs they hold.

In the decade after the Good Friday Agreement, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church both attempted to implement anti-sectarian peacebuilding programmes throughout their congregations. But the resources were used primarily by people who were already enthusiastic about reconciliation. When the funding from external sources ran out after a few years, the programmes were quietly dropped.

The Irish Churches Peace Project, a partnership between the four largest churches and smaller denominations affiliated with the Irish Council of Churches in 2013-15, suffered a similar fate. Again, rather than convincing more ministers and churchgoers that Christians have much to offer a society transitioning from conflict, these programmes appealed to people already engaged in peacebuilding. Instead of making peacebuilding mainstream, then, these programmes have tended to marginalise the mavericks who thought the churches had something wider to say about forgiveness, mercy and empathy.

Outside the institutional churches, a few mavericks carry on. The ecumenical Corrymeela community, Northern Ireland’s oldest reconciliation organisation, has expanded its educational programming and is tackling contemporary issues such as Brexit and LGBTQ rights, as well as anti-sectarianism. For the last six years, the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast has encouraged people to attend events in all parts of a segregated city with the aim of inspiring them to cross boundaries in their everyday lives.

It is these groups and the individuals who drive them who are striving not only to frame public discourses about reconciliation – but also to convince the institutional churches to join them in this work. This may prove to be the more difficult task.

In the years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is a less religious society. As institutional churches are turning inward to preserve and protect the piety of their remaining believers, this limits their engagement with the tenor and spirit of the agreement – to their detriment.

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