Religion in Northern Ireland and the Elections: Commentary in ‘Dagen’, Sweden

I was interviewed by the Swedish newspaper ‘Dagen’ (which translates as ‘Day’) on religion and current issues in Northern Ireland, including the recent elections and the Brexit vote. The story was published with the headline, ‘Spänningarna ökar i Nordirland – återigen’, or: ‘Tensions are increasing in Northern Ireland – Again.’

The full story is of course available in Swedish, or can be basically understood using an online translation service. I have adapted the text to the following using such a service.

‘Tensions are increasing in Northern Ireland – Again’, by Jonatan Sverker

It is almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. The agreement paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland after 30 years of armed conflict, and 3500 dead.

Few want to return to the days of shootouts and killings that belonged to everyday life. But it seems tensions between unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain, and nationalists, who want Northern Ireland to become part of Ireland, will increase.

In the elections held recently the nationalist Sinn Fein party gained significant ground on the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Gladys Ganiel, a religion and conflict researcher at Queen’s University in Belfast, said: ‘The parties played on sectarian feelings and issues ended up in the background.’

‘It was a campaign that was divisive. The DUP’s main argument was that you should vote for them to keep a nationalist party  like Sinn Féin from becoming the largest in Northern Ireland.’

Brexit has also had a great impact on the political debate. The referendum in the UK showed that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the EU. However, it differs between Protestants and Catholics. It is especially the latter group who want to remain as they are concerned that the Community EU country Ireland could be damaged by an exit.

‘Sinn Féin has argued that it is best to be a part of Ireland so that we can remain in the EU. The threat is that the border with Ireland would be more difficult to cross in the event of Brexit. There are things that worry people,’ says Gladys Ganiel.

Scenting morning air

Sinn Féin smells morning air after the electoral success. Gerry Adams, the legendary leader of Sinn Fein, said recently that the election gave hope for reaching the goal to unite Northern Ireland with Ireland. While polls show that a majority want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, any attempt to move in that direction threatens to arouse fierce opposition from unionists.

Gladys Ganiel believes, however, that although the current situation is tense, it is not as tense as other recent events. ‘There have been situations that have been more tense, as the flag protest in 2012 when unionists tried to storm the City Hall in Belfast,’ she says.

Building bridges

There are also those who try to build bridges between Catholics and Protestants. Gladys Ganiel is herself involved in the Christian “4 Corners Festival”, started by a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian pastor.

‘The goal is to try to bring people together across borders. The festival was held in the weeks before the elections and some of the events tried to encourage politicians not to use such divisive language,’ she says.

The drive gained attention in the media, and the festival reconciliation church service was also broadcast by the BBC in Northern Ireland.

Weakened church

Religion is still a major issue in Northern Ireland, but much is changing. Gladys Ganiel has written a book about how the religious landscape developed on the whole island of Ireland. The Catholic Church was long a powerful factor in both Ireland and Northern Ireland but weakened rapidly, partly because of high-profile pedophile scandals. Some Protestant denominations are also becoming more liberal.

‘The fact that the Catholic Church is weaker might actually make it easier to achieve peace. Among Protestants, there has historically been a fear that a united Ireland would actually be controlled by the powerful Catholic Church. Now Protestants would not fear the Catholic Church in a united Ireland – although that does not mean they would support a united Ireland,’ she says.


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