Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland: Some Initial Reflections

hands across the divideIn yesterday’s post, I promised further blogging about the contents of a paper I delivered at the ‘Religious Conflict and Difference’ conference at Stranmillis College in Belfast last week, titled: Religion in Northern Ireland: How Can the Churches Contribute to Post-Violence Reconciliation and Reconstruction?

Today, I draw from that paper (a work-in-progress) to:

  • Note the difficulties of using the term ‘reconciliation’ in public discourses in Northern Ireland.
  • Outline why I think a return to ‘reconciliation’ could be fruitful for public debate.
  • Argue that the churches are better placed to contribute to reconciliation through grassroots practices rather than through directly attempting to influence policy makers – at least for now.

(I also include the full bibliography for the paper at the end of this post.)

Over the next few days, I’ll get more specific about the grassroots tactics which I think the churches could most usefully employ.

Religion in Northern Ireland: How Can the Churches Contribute to Post-Violence Reconciliation and Reconstruction?[1]

The central question I am asking in this paper is: ‘How can the churches contribute to post-violence reconciliation and reconstruction in Northern Ireland?’ This question is asked in a context where the churches could be judged to be hopelessly implicated in a violent, sectarian system, or simply irrelevant. Indeed, these perspectives on the churches come through in John Bell’s work for the wider research project on which this conference is based (Bell 2012).

But some have argued that religiously-informed reconciliation could or should be part of Northern Ireland’s post violence transition (Liechty and Clegg 2001, Mitchel 2003, Ganiel 2008, Ganiel and Jones 2012). Their arguments are based on the assumption that while the conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be considered a strictly religious one, it has had religious dimensions (Bell 2012, Ganiel and Dixon 2008, Mitchell 2005).

Much of the research on the role of religion in peacemaking in Northern Ireland has emphasised reconciliation.

But as Power observes:

‘The terms ‘reconcile’ and ‘reconciliation’ are incredibly problematic within the Northern Irish context and a definitive definition has yet to emerge’ (Power 2011: 70).

Similarly, Brewer, Higgins and Teeney (2011: 185) argue that reconciliatory discourses have been divisive in Northern Ireland because reconciliation means different things to people, and because reconciliation’s ecumenical advocates have focused on personal relationships at the expense of socio-structural forms of reconciliation.

At the same time, this research has emphasised that it was key Christian individuals and organisations, not the ‘institutional’ or denominational churches, which made the most significant contributions to peace (Ganiel and Jones 2012, Brewer Higgins and Teeney 2011, Wells 2010).

I agree with this assessment and see it as, in large part, a sociological phenomenon: Northern Irish Christians’ ability to act in the social and political world has been constrained by social structures. For example, I have argued previously that religious special interest groups were the most significant actors in the peace process partly down to the fact that they were groups that operated outside of the constraints of the bureaucratised institutional churches (Ganiel 2011, 2008). They had more freedom and flexibility to develop radical ideas; they could move more quickly to respond to immediate needs. These structural features have almost nothing to do with the moral worth of the people working within these organisations or within institutional churches – even the most well-intentioned ‘saint’ within an institutional church structure may be hampered by bureaucracy. Elsewhere, I have developed this argument more fully (Ganiel 2008: 24-29), claiming that while ‘religious special interest groups’ enjoyed many structural advantages over institutional churches, they were most effective when working in ‘networks’ with like-minded groups, congregations, and individuals.[2]

Despite others’ misgivings about reconciliation, in this paper I argue that a return to reconciliation could provide a focus for Christian activists to contribute to Northern Ireland’s transition, especially in the current debate about how to deal with the past.

Drawing on the work of three prominent organisations – Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) – I identify two main themes in their approaches to reconciliation:

  • Reconciliation is relationship-centred
  • Reconciliation includes addressing socio-structural aspects of sectarianism.

ECONI, in particular, adds a valuable emphasis on critical self-reflection, repentance, and forgiveness. In recent years, discourses of reconciliation have slipped somewhat from Northern Ireland’s public agenda, and the emphasis on relationship-building has been lost (Ganiel 2012).

Other aspects of their conceptions of reconciliation, such as its socio-structural aspects, have been even more neglected. Tarusarira and I (forthcoming) also have identified this tendency in Zimbabwe, where Christian activists have emphasised relationships at the expense of structures. Accordingly, we ‘advocate incorporating the term reconstruction as a companion to reconciliation, seeing this as an effective way to encourage the intentional reform of social structures.’ That is why the title of this paper includes both terms: reconciliation and reconstruction.

But transforming relationships and structures are difficult tasks, particularly in a context where Christian activists have limited political power and diminished influence.

It is difficult to imagine that traditional political activism or lobbying on the part of the churches could, for example, alter the consociational structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly – even if the churches were inclined to see this as a worthy task. In their relatively socially and politically powerless positions, Christian activists could adopt some of the tactics of new social movements. By that I mean grassroots-focused tactics that attempt to transcend the structures of Northern Ireland’s sectarian system, deliberately working outside that system in an attempt to subvert it.

These tactics could include educational programmes, adopting the principles of ‘neo-monastic’ living, and liturgical reforms. I will explain what I mean by these tactics on this blog, soon.

These seemingly small actions can demonstrate to others that there are ways to transcend the sectarian system. If Northern Irish Christians consistently employed these tactics, they might begin to regain some street credibility or moral authority.

This would make them better placed to contribute to a wider, secular, civil society-based movement that could challenge politicians and policy makers to make the political decisions that could dismantle and reconstruct Northern Ireland’s sectarian system.


A Shared Future (2005), Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland, available at:

Bell, John (2012) ‘For God, Ulster or Ireland?: Perceptions of Religion, Identity and Security in Contemporary Northern Ireland,’ Belfast: Institute for Conflict Research

Bielo, James (2011) Emerging Evangelicals: Faith, Modernity and the Desire for Authenticity, New York: New York University Press

Brewer, John, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney (2011) Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cray, Graham, Ian Mobsby and Aaron Kennedy (2010) New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church, Norwich: Canterbury Press

Davey, Ray (1995) ‘Agape’ in John Morrow, Journey of Hope: Sources of the Corrymeela Vision, Belfast: Corrymeela Press

Davey, Ray (1993) A Channel of Peace: The Story of the Corrymeela Community, London: Marshall Pickering

Davey, Ray (1986) An Unfinished Journey, Belfast: Corrymeela Press

Davey, Ray (1980) Take Away This Hate: The Story of a Search for Community, Belfast: Corrymeela Press

For God and His Glory Alone (1988) Belfast: Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, available at:, accessed February 21, 2012

Ganiel, Gladys and Joram Tarusarira (forthcoming) ‘Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Zimbabwe,’ in Martin Leiner and Susan Flamig, eds., Africa Between Conflict and Reconciliation, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht

Ganiel, Gladys and Peter Jones (2012) ‘Religion, Politics and Law,’ in Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto, eds., Religion and Change in Modern Britain, London: Routledge, pp. 299-321

Ganiel, Gladys and Paul Dixon (2008) ‘Religion in Northern Ireland: Rethinking Fundamentalism and the Possibilities for Conflict Transformation, Journal of Peace Research, 45(3): pp. 421-438

Ganiel, Gladys (2012) ‘Reconciling the Past? Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland’s Post Violence Transition,’ paper presented at the annual meeting of the Political Studies Association, Belfast, 3-5 April 2012

Ganiel, Gladys (2011) ‘The Marginalisation of Churches in Society: Reflections from the Island of Ireland,’ in Ivana Noble, Ulrike Link-Wieczorek and Peter De Mey, eds., Reimagining Religious Belonging, Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt

Ganiel, Gladys (2009a) 21st Century Faith: Results of the Survey of Clergy, Pastors, Ministers and Faith Leaders, available at:

Ganiel, Gladys (2009b) 21st Century Faith: Results of the Survey of Laypeople in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, available at:

Ganiel, Gladys (2008) Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, New York: Palgrave

Garrigan, Siobhan (2010) The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism, London: Equinox

Hauerwas, Stanley and Will Willimon (1989) Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon

Hurley, Michael (1998) Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? Dublin: Veritas

Hurley, Michael, ed. (1994) Reconciliation in Religion and in Society, Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies

Kearon, Kenneth (2008) ‘Five Fascinating Years (1999-2004),’ in Michael Hurley, ed., The Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin: Columba

Liechty, Joseph and Cecelia Clegg (2001) Moving Beyond Sectarianism, Dublin: Columba

Marti, Gerardo and Gladys Ganiel (2013) The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity, New York: Oxford University Press

McMaster, Johnston and Cathy Higgins (2012) Doing Community Theology: Reflection on Education for Reconciliation, Belfast: Irish School of Ecumenics, available at:, accessed 28 August 2012

McMaster, Johnston and Cathy Higgins (2002) Communities of Reconciliation: Living Faith in the Public Place, Newtownards: Colourpoint Books

McMaster, Johnston (2012) Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology – an Alternative Vision, Dublin: Columba

Mitchel, Patrick (2003) Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster, 1921-1998, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mitchell, Claire (2005) Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland, Aldershot: Ashgate

Morrow, John (1995) Journey of Hope: Sources of the Corrymeela Vision, Belfast: Corrymeela Press

Morrow, John (2003) On the Road of Reconciliation, Dublin: Columba

Pierce, Andrew (2008) ‘Re-Imagining Irish Ecumenism: Enlarging the Sense of the Possible,’ Doctrine and Life, 57(7): pp. 2-16

Power, Maria (2011) ‘Preparing Evangelical Protestants for Peace: The Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) and Peace Building 1987-2005,’ Journal of Contemporary Religion, 26(1): pp. 57-72

Power, Maria (2007) From Ecumenism to Community Relations, Dublin: Irish Academic Press

Rafferty, Oliver (1993) Reconciliation: Essays in Honour of Michael Hurley, Dublin: Columba

Stevens, David (2008) The Place Called Reconciliation: Texts to Explore, Belfast: the Corrymeela Press

Stevens, David (2004) The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation, Dublin: Columba

Thomson, Alwyn (2002) Fields of Vision: Faith and Identity in Protestant Ireland, Belfast: ECONI

Thomson, Alwyn (1998) The Politics of Holiness, Belfast: ECONI

Thomson, Alwyn (1997) The Fire and the Hammer, Belfast: ECONI

Wells, Ronald (2010) Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Faith-Based Organisations, Dublin: The Liffey Press

Wells, Ronald (1999) People Behind the Peace: Community and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

Yoder, John Howard (1996) The Politics of Jesus, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

[1] Research for this paper has been supported by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Irish School of Ecumenics’ ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ project (2009-2011). The paper has benefitted from comments by participants at the Political Studies Association conference in Belfast, 3-5 April 2012, and David Tombs.

[2] The effectiveness of religious networks is also obvious in Wells (2010). While Wells devotes individual chapters to groups such as Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), it is clear that key individuals associated with these organisations had strong links with each other. The effectiveness of religious networks is more explicit in Brewer, Higgins and Teeney (2011), although they do not use this term. They argue that the relationship between Corrymeela, ISE and ECONI is key to understanding religious peacemaking in Northern Ireland, crediting Corrymeela and ISE with developing visions of peace, and arguing that ECONI served as a bridge to bring those visions to a wider evangelical audience.

One thought on “Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland: Some Initial Reflections”

  1. Gladys I very much welcome your commitment to be specific and to look at how reconciliation can be achieved at grass roots level. I trust you will comment on the difficulty which many clergy face which is around the commitment to their local parish which can be all consuming versus the Biblical imperative to reconciliation.

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