Brexit hardens Northern Ireland divisions while a secular majority forms

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By Tim Maby

In the 100 years since Ireland was partitioned, Brexit has made worse the religious and political divide and emphasised the steady progress towards a community that has a secular majority.

This was the feeling among a panel of experts convened by the Religion Media Centre in the first part of its review of the state of religion in the three devolved nations.

In Ireland, north and south, politics and religion have traditionally been intertwined. But now it is a complex society, with a series of minority communities all “bustling” with change. It is not a settled place.

Dr Gladys Ganiel, research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, said the Troubles “artificially inflated religiosity, so going to church was a way to identify your community”. Also “being exposed to so much trauma encouraged people to identify with religion”.

However, she said that the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, was considered by some to have been a real spur to the growth of secularisation.

Surveys showed that the number of Catholics going to mass had dropped by nearly half in 50 years, with the number of Protestants attending church falling almost as quickly. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of the Northern Ireland population now says it has no religion. In political terms, there is a larger number of people who say that they do not support the nationalists or the unionists, than those who follow either group.

Tim Cairns, a former pastor and adviser to the Democratic Unionist Party, said he had been brought up to support partition and fight against a united Ireland. Now he felt that the divisions were less about religion than about which constitution you preferred: Ireland or the UK.

He revealed that when visiting Canada and asked when he was from, he found people so confused that he was both Irish and British that he gave up and said he was Irish because it was easier.

Dr Eamon Phoenix, an historian also from Queen’s University, described how the Northern Irish state had been shaped by James Craig and Edward Carson of the Ulster Unionists with the aim of a Unionist majority in perpetuity.

In fact, demographic change was now fast eroding that dominance. Alongside increased secularisation, a third movement was evolving in the centre without previous political connections, especially among young people. The Alliance Party was winning votes without identifying with either nationalists or unionists.

Fr Martin Magill, a parish priest on the Falls Road in Belfast, said that on the opposite side to Mr Cairns, he had been brought up to be strongly anti-partition. Now he felt that the people could not “airbrush out our history. But then we find ways to be able to actually hear and learn from it, and then find common ground.”

Mr Cairns responded that Brexit had renewed the sectarian divide in the working class. He saw more sectarian nationalist opinions on social media from young people who had not even been born when the Troubles were on. 

Among the young unionist community, the feeling of division had grown much stronger because they felt something had been lost. They felt it had been given away by the British government, at the behest of the Irish government.

William Crawley, a prominent broadcaster in Northern Ireland, who chaired the panel, asked why it was that church leaders were no longer prominent in religio-political discussions. Since partition, the Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic and Anglicans have remained all-Ireland churches.

Dr Phoenix agreed that you no longer had the meetings between prime ministers and church leaders, as you had during the Troubles. 

Mr Cairns said the Protestant voices had been overwhelmed by evangelicals and fundamentalists, so that the moderate unionist voices needed to be heard again more freely.

Fr Martin agreed that Catholic leaders rarely did more than issue press releases these days. One reason was that they did not all agree on social and political issues.

Dr Ganiel reported that there had in fact been more high-level ecumenical meetings between church leaderships than ever in the past decade through the Irish Council of Churches, but that it was not publicised.  

A statement from church leaders on St Patrick’s Day this year, from the Church of Ireland, the Catholic Church, the Presbyterians and the Methodists, resulted in a sort of apology for having done things wrongly in the past 100 years.  

They had said that their failure to lead in peace and reconciliation was “idolatry” to the state and nation — but nobody really noticed.

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