Religion, Culture or a Bit of Both? The Case of Northern Irish Protestants 17 October 2015

John Roberts explores the often blurred lines between religion and culture through the lens of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

NI1In  conflicts between ethnic and cultural groups religion can often be a prominent marker of difference between individuals, and both insiders and outsiders may view it without completely separating it from its cultural connections. Ethnic and cultural differences fuel the conflict, with religion being an indicator of an individual’s background; but with the role and influence of religion (in the forms of slogans, iconography, institutions), an attack on a religion can be seen as an attack on the ethnic group, and vice versa.

If the group takes on the religious symbolism as a component of their cultural and ethnic identity, it adds fuel to the idea that it is the role of religion that is the major issue. In Northern Ireland, the conflict has been called “religious” because it has been between two groups in a struggle for power and dominance in the region, Protestants and Roman Catholics. This is a dichotomy reinforced by segregated housing, education, politics and of course the use of religious symbolism. While both communities and their politics have been labelled in a certain way, and historically members of these communities have belonged to, and continue to associate with the Roman Catholic Church and various branches of Protestantism, the interplay between religion and culture in Northern Ireland has undoubtedly evolved differently.

Northern Irish (Ulster) Unionism (the ideology that supports remaining part of the United Kingdom) and culture are still very much dominated and represented by Protestantism (this in itself has led to queries over whether Ulster Unionism can be open to people of other faiths, given its historical bias against Roman Catholics), whereas Irish Republicanism and Nationalism (the ideology of joining the Republic of Ireland) has arguably shed most of its Roman Catholic image and embraced a new secular and multicultural one. Ulster Unionists continue to employ the motifs of Protestantism to determine their group and cultural identity, whereas Roman Catholicism is seemingly no longer a major tool in the Republican cause, although individuals may identify with and call on Roman Catholicism as part of their cultural identity. It is interesting to note that while Roman Catholicism may not play a major internal role among Republicans, it is nonetheless attributed to them by those on the Unionist/Loyalist side, further reinforcing the apparent significance of religion.

Catholicism and Protestantism
Historically, Ulster Unionist identity has always been framed around the idea of “Protestant peoplehood”, with James Craig, the first Northern Irish Prime Minister in 1934 saying that the government was “a Protestant Parliament and Protestant state” in comparison to the Catholic state of the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland was born out of a fear for and rejection of an Irish state and the “Home Rule” that Ulster Protestants felt to be “simply an engine for their destruction that must be resisted at any price”, and indeed, “Home Rule Means Rome Rule” was a popular slogan from the 19th century. Many Unionists of this time genuinely believed there was a religious dimension to their struggle which became embedded in the cultural, social and political realms transmitted onto future generations. Since the partition of the island in 1921 religious icons, slogans and occasionally theological justifications have been used by Ulster Unionists in their politics, communities and paramilitaries. Northern Ireland was for Protestants, and the south was for Catholics, a situation that Ulster Unionists saw favourable to protect themselves. Religion in Ulster Unionism is a political and cultural statement that defines and justifies group and geographical boundaries, but there is little spiritual investment by some adherents which allows both religious and non-religious individuals to participate.

The question of Protestantism in politics and cultural identity is at the moment particularly important given the increase in multiculturalism in Northern Ireland, and also because current and future generations of Unionists and Loyalists who identify as atheists, agnostic, or non-practising are more likely to be invested in the culture as opposed to the religion. This has led to a cultural, or ethnic, Protestant identity which simply marks one as not Catholic; to be Catholic is to be seen as Irish and anti-Union. Being “Protestant” is so important that the label continues, with the religion to justify and support this identity, and subsequently, the need for Northern Ireland. The Irish language remains a politically loaded topic in Northern Ireland with many Unionists arguing it has no place in the Protestant community as it’s “Irish” and “Catholic” (however in recent years we have seen an increase in Protestants learning the language). The same has been said of Irish dancing, and sports such as hurling or Gaelic football all of which is seen as that of the “other”, which are rejected. On the eve of the 12th July all across Northern Ireland in Loyalist communities, bonfires are lit which are dressed with symbols of Catholicism, Irish culture, the Republic of Ireland (bonfires are typically topped with the Irish tricolour); there is nothing inherently religious about “Bonfire Night”, but it remains an important part of “Protestant” culture and identity.  

The annual 12th of July processions, commemorating William of Orange’s defeat of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 are a major, if not the major component of Ulster Protestant identity, carrying more cultural and historical significance to group identity than any spiritual significance or renewal. At the centre is the Orange Order. Founded in 1795 and taking its name from William of Orange, it identifies itself as a Reformed Protestant Christian organisation (“The Orange Institution is set for the defence of Protestantism”) and its ceremonies and iconography “are still pervaded by evangelical Protestant language and symbolism.” Since the establishment of Northern Ireland, the Orange Order has been at the centre of what it means to be an Ulster Protestant, and therefore Northern Irish, despite the fact that many do not necessarily adhere themselves to the theology of the Order.

Playing a dual role, it is a Christian organisation but equally a manifestation of culture and heritage among Ulster Protestants which is displayed by the often controversial parades which lead up to 12th July. The Order says that these parades are “an appropriate medium to witness for their faith and to celebrate their cultural heritage” however they have met fierce criticism for their historical anti-Catholicism and role in sectarian activity, including playing their instruments extra loud as they go past Roman Catholic places of worship. It is an exclusive order, allowing membership only to Reformed Protestants (although if you are a convert, you can appeal to be accepted if you have been active in a Protestant church for a length of time), and members can be expelled if they attend Roman Catholic services.

On its role in Ulster Protestant identity, it can be said that the Order provides a medium through which “secular” Protestants can access their cultural past, and reaffirm their cultural identity. N. J. Demerath talks about ‘cultural religion’ in which individuals can have “an identification with a religious heritage” that has little to do with a spiritual investment but “continuity with generations past and contrast with rival groups and identities”, and we can apply this to significance of the Orange Order for Ulster Protestants. The annual parades offer Ulster Unionists a ritual renewal of identity, by allowing them to enforce the distinctions between them and the Catholics who, in the view of hard-line Unionists, would subject them to a Catholic Ireland. The nature of the Orange Order is then defined by the people as the carrier of culture, history and religion without which Unionism makes little sense, given that there is no longer a pressing “Papist” threat. This function of the Orange Order is to reinforce the insecurity about national consciousness and the concept of Ulster Protestant peoplehood by including both religious and historical images and commemorations, from the Battle of the Somme and the “Glorious Revolution” which are both important events in Northern Irish history, characterises how it is an ethno-religious event.

Paisley’s Protestantism and Politics
NI2One of the most important examples of religion, particularly Protestantism, in Northern Irish politics is the legendary and controversial figure of Rev. Ian Paisley (1926-2014), a fundamentalist evangelical preacher and Unionist politician and the founder the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. He is a figure who embodied how religious convictions have influenced his politics, his identity as an Ulsterman and his view on Protestant peoplehood. Paisley’s mixture of religion and politics has been compared to that of religious Zionism with “affection for the territorial unit of Ulster, the Protestant people, and the Bible”, and he himself has admitted that he is a Unionist because of his being a Protestant. To Paisley, Ulster is for Protestants on the condition that they remain loyal to God’s laws, and throughout his career he consistently seemed “to imply that the Ulster Protestant people … have something of a special relationship with God.” For Paisley, the land was not a “mere metaphor” and this has been transferred onto a large part of the Ulster Protestant population. His political party, the DUP, has consistently been the most successful and most of its politicians continue to refer to Protestantism as influences on their politics. Many have asked the question of how, given the increasing lack of actual religiosity in the province among Protestants, Paisley’s politics continued to be so popular among even the non-religious population, and the answer is, we could argue, because Paisley’s Unionism spoke of a people defined by a religious and cultural heritage which people have accepted.

The Picture Today

Northern Ireland continues to be seen as a Protestant state for a Protestant people, and although the language of Paisley and the Orange Order may not be the same beliefs of your everyday Unionist, this is how they understand what it means to be Protestant. In this way, religion acts “as a form of ideology where understandings of self, other and place are structured into a system of ideas or concepts, from which identities are formed and social action conceived.” Paisley consistently opposed any cordial relationship with the Roman Catholic Church and was resistant to the ecumenical movement calling the Pope the “anti-Christ”, however his position on relationships with the Republican and Nationalist parties, and the Republic of Ireland changed in later years. The politics of Paisley and other Unionists with their evangelical Protestant nature are “ultimately the only viable [identity] for defending the continued social and cultural autonomy and dominance of Ulster Loyalists” who use religion to create a difference between them and Catholics, and ultimately any other group which has resulted not only in historical sectarian clashes, but also an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks on migrant communities in Northern Ireland.

Whereas the Republican and Nationalist parties, previously having Roman Catholic interests, still retain their desire for a unified Ireland, their investment in religious symbolism has become less prominent making it more inclusive, including even those identified as Protestants. The reason for this is that in increasing years the Roman Catholic Church has had less influence over what is defined as Irish, with the Republic becoming more multicultural and consequently a more open and inclusive definition of what it means to be “Irish”. Today in Northern Ireland there are many who are not religious, but believe that there should be a union with the United Kingdom and they look to Protestantism to define and justify their cultural and historical difference and group identity.

The interesting point for me, is not whether the conflict in Northern Ireland was in fact religious, but rather the ways in which the Ulster Unionist community have continued to use Protestantism to define their cultural identity, and by extension their political cause. While the communities may still be at heads through labels such as “Roman Catholic” and “Protestant”, and see each other in such terms, it is majorly the Unionist side that continues to draw on Protestantism to define culture and history. Due to an insecure national consciousness, it is religion, exhibited by the Orange Order, the 12th July and the commitment of non-religious people to political parties heavily influenced by evangelical Protestant theologies that acts in its place. Thus it seems that “Nationalism and Catholicism” are separable, whereas for Unionism this is not true, or at least not true to the extent of Republicans and Nationalists.

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About John Roberts

John Roberts is a graduate of Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Leeds, and he is now currently a Moses Maimonides Fellow at Paideia - The European Institute for Jewish Studies, Sweden. He is interested in religious diversity in Ireland and Israel; Irish Jewish history, gender in Jewish thought and Jewish multiculturalism.

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