Response to Dr Jenny Taylor’s Catherwood Lecture, ‘When Words Fail …’

catherwood2015I was a respondent to Dr Jenny Taylor’s Catherwood Lecture, ‘When Words Fail: Religious Literacy and Post-Multicultural Possibilities’ on Thursday evening. The Catherwood Lecture is an annual event organised by Contemporary Christianity. You can read my short summary of Taylor’s main points here, and my own remarks below.

(I shortened remarks on the evening, so I have included several additional paragraphs here.)

A Response to Dr Jenny Taylor, ‘When Words Fail …’

I’d like to start by first thanking Contemporary Christianity for inviting me to respond to Jenny Taylor’s lecture, and Jenny for providing such stimulating material to engage with. I think there is much we in Northern Ireland, and on the island of Ireland, can learn from the ‘post-multicultural possibilities’ of the United Kingdom. To that end, I will focus my remarks around themes that are particularly relevant to our own island context, including our own handling of diversity and the possibilities for a ‘new covenant’ on this island.

Jenny spoke about how ‘secularism has been rumbled’ and ‘multiculturalism has failed.’ On the island of Ireland, I am not quite sure that we can make those claims.

Despite the concerns and fears of many in our churches, secularism and secularization have not taken root in Northern Ireland to the same extent as in the wider UK. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland retain some of the highest rates of church-going in Europe. Faith-based activists and commentators were never pushed from the public sphere. We have a number of journalists here who are ‘religiously literate,’ to use Jenny’s definition – they understand or are seeking to understand ‘what makes people tick.’

Yes, the Christian churches on this island can no longer automatically assume that they can and should influence government policy or social behaviour to the same extent as a generation ago. But many Christians – and I am one of them – think that this is a good thing because it frees the churches from the dangers of being co-opted by political power. Free of this entanglement, religious actors can critique abuses of political power and stand with the poor and marginalized.

As far as multiculturalism, in Northern Ireland it is more likely the case that multiculturalism has not been tried, rather than that it has failed. Northern Ireland has been, and remains, caught in a ‘two communities’ or ‘two cultures’ paradigm that ignores people and groups who don’t fit in. Our entire political system is structured so that the ‘two communities’ are the only ones that matter. And they remain largely segregated and mired in ‘identity politics.’ Northern Ireland has developed something of a reputation as ‘the race hate capital of Europe’.[1] A 2007 analysis of the Human Beliefs and Values Survey found that Northern Ireland ‘has the highest proportion of bigoted people in the western world … [and] the bigots are on average more bigoted than those in other countries.’[2] The study reported that 44 percent of people in Northern Ireland ‘did not want someone from at least one of the following five groups living next door to them: homosexuals; immigrants or foreign workers; Muslims; Jews; or someone from another race’.[3] Such prejudices seemed confirmed in 2014, when Rev James McConnell, pastor of the prominent Whitewell Tabernacle, preached a sermon describing Islam as ‘satanic’ and a ‘doctrine spawned in hell.’ Remarkably, he was backed by Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson of the DUP, whose comments about Muslims became notorious: ‘I wouldn’t trust them in terms of those who have been involved in terrorist activities. I wouldn’t trust them if they are devoted to Sharia Law. I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance. Would I trust them to go down to the shops for me, yes I would …’[4]

In the Republic, especially with increased immigration since the Celtic Tiger years, there has been an official policy of ‘inter-culturalism’ rather than ‘multi-culturalism.’ The Government’s guidelines on inter-culturalism make it sound like ‘mom and apple pie’:

Interculturalism is essentially about interaction, understanding and respect. It is about ensuring that cultural diversity is acknowledged and catered for. It is about inclusion for minority ethnic groups by design and planning, not as a default or add-on. It further acknowledges that people should have the freedom to keep alive, enhance and share their cultural heritage.[5]

The subtle difference between UK multi-culturalism and Republic of Ireland inter-culturalism is that inter-culturalism is supposed to be less about ‘identity politics’ and more about mutual recognition, support and understanding.

Yet in practice, as Jenny has identified in the UK, in the Republic there have been ‘ghettoes’ created ‘by default,’ as the Government has adopted a hands-off approach to inter-culturalism. Or perhaps it has merely lost interest in interculturalism since the economic downturn. In February of this year it was reported that Census figures have raised concerns of immigrant/Irish-born segregation in primary schools, with 23% of schools in the Republic catering for four out of five immigrant children.[6]

Sociological studies, such as that by Mark Maguire and Fiona Murphy on ‘the everyday lives of African migrants’ in the Republic, reveal that the burden of interculturalism falls on a few heroic individuals at the local level, who rarely receive wider institutional or systemic support.[7] Abel Ugba’s study of African Pentecostal immigrants and Vladimir Kmec’s study of young European migrants support Murphy and Maguire’s findings, while pointing out that the Republic’s traditional institutional churches (even those that have produced fine policy documents on diversity) have not been particularly adept at ‘welcoming the stranger’ on the ground.[8]

So while in theory the Republic’s inter-culturalism should go beyond mere tolerance, as Jenny urges in the UK context, the jury is still out on the extent that it does. And in Northern Ireland, as the current election campaign demonstrates, the identity politics of Catholic-Nationalist-Republican and Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist have not gone away.

Finally, I was intrigued by Jenny’s recommendation to ‘design a voluntary covenant with the nation.’ As almost all of us in this room will be aware, there are sensitivities around the word ‘covenant’ on this island that do not exist in the wider UK. The Ulster Covenant of 1912 was a pact among Protestant Unionists to resist home rule by any means which may be found necessary. And who can forget that slogan driven by religious fear – ‘home rule is Rome rule?’ For some on this island, covenants can evoke memories of division, sectarianism, violence, and the threat of violence.

So it’s questionable whether ‘talking up our sense of covenant with the country,’ as Jenny advocates, would be a straightforward or a worthwhile project on this island. During the 2012 centenary year of the Ulster Covenant, there were some attempts to think in terms of new covenants. One of those was the 2012 Catherwood Lecture by Johnston McMaster of the Irish School of Ecumenics, on ‘Signing Up to the Covenant: An Alternative Vision for the Future.’ McMaster identified six ‘core covenant values’: steadfast love, justice, righteousness, inclusivity, non-violence and peace; and offered this definition of a new covenant:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, in Covenant, remembering is looking forward and imagining and implementing something different.  It is what we are doing in every act of liturgy and worship, the Jews in Passover and Christians in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  Memory and hope are held together, inseparable.  The liturgical short-hand for this is, ‘do this in memory or remembrance of me’, and ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’.  Looking back and looking forward, memory and hope, and this ought to be at the heart of every act of worship.  We remember and vision at the same time.  We rehearse the memory of exodus, exile and the Jesus story, and in doing so we re-describe, reconfigure the world, differently.  It is not, therefore, enough to simply remember or re-enact what we think happened in 1912 or 1916.  We do remember, but in a way that embraces hope and looks forward, visioning a common good for all that is different.  Memory and hope mean we are active history makers, making new and different history.  And that is Covenant.

Jenny points out that Philip Lewis says that ‘[Some Muslims] are retrieving moments in European history where Muslim, Christian and Jew co-existed …’ On this island, can we retrieve moments when Catholics and Protestants co-existed, or even cooperated, and use those to build together for the future?

Jenny warns us that a ‘loss of Christian action’ in the UK has contributed to the ‘problems of multiculturalism.’ Similarly, if we cease Christian action on this island in the areas of anti-sectarianism and promoting reconciliation, we cannot expect to overcome the various forms of division and identity politics that keep us mired in the past.

At the same time, those of us who are motivated by our faith to make the world a better place need to keep up with the significant shifts in Irish and British secular culture that will shape our activism in the public sphere. We cannot expect to be heard by policy makers and secular activists if we are not willing to make our case using both religious and secular reasoning, and if we do not recognise and critique our own shortcomings. For Christians on this island, that may mean public repentance for the ‘sins of our fathers,’ and leading by example when it comes to loving our neighbours – including people of all faiths and none.


[1] Knox, Colin (2011) ‘Tackling racism in Northern Ireland: “The race hate capital of Europe,”’ Journal of Social Policy, 40(02): pp. 387 – 412.

[2] ‘Northern Ireland heads western bigotry index,’, posted 7 February 2007; accessed 29 January 2015.

[3] Porter, Fran (2008: 107) ‘Faith in a Plural Society: The Values, Attitudes and Practices of Churches in Protecting Minority Participation,’ Belfast: Centre for Contemporary Christianity; Borooah, Vani K. and John Mangan (2007) ‘Love thy neighbour: How much bigotry is there in western countries?’ Kyklos, 60(3): pp. 295-317.

[4] ‘Peter Robinson: I wouldn’t trust Muslims devoted to Sharia law …’,, posted 29 May 2014; accessed 29 January 2015.

[5] Guidelines on Interculturalism, January 2009,$File/Intercultural%20Guidelines.pdf

[6] Irish Times, 24 Feb 2015,

[7] Maguire, Mark and Fiona Murphy (2012) Integration in Ireland: The Everyday Lives of African Migrants, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[8] Ugba, Abel (2009) Shades of Belonging: African Pentecostals in Twenty-First Century Ireland, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press Inc; Kmec, Vladimir (2015) ‘Religion and Migration: Exploring the Religious Identities of Young Migrants in Ireland and Young People of Migration Background in Germany,’ Ph.D. dissertation, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin.




Leave a Reply