Why was there never an Irish Reformation?

Ireland in upheaval - In the north of Ireland religion is still dividing

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Catholics against Protestants: The Northern Ireland conflict is a dispute between two denominations. But actually it's not about religion in the strict sense.

the essentials in brief

  • In Northern Ireland the denomination inevitably also stands for a political creed.
  • Protestants represent loyalty to the British state.
  • Catholics emphasize Irish otherness - but not all are in favor of Irish reunification.
  • Religion is more a label of group membership. Religion in the narrower sense hardly plays a role in the conflict.

Reading time: 6 minutes

If the inhabitants of the island of Ireland had a different skin color than the English, it would not have occurred to anyone to choose the denomination as a distinguishing feature between rulers and ruled. That this happened is due to a decision that was made a good 400 years ago.

It was then that James I, King of England, began extensive colonization of Northern Ireland by English and Scottish subjects. He also wanted to force Protestantism on the Catholic population. Catholics across the island were systematically discriminated against.

20 years of Good Friday Agreement

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In 1998 the parties of Northern Ireland signed a peace agreement under pressure from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and US President Bill Clinton. The so-called Good Friday Agreement ended the bloody Northern Ireland conflict.

Denomination as a feature of tribal affiliation

So the denomination has become a label to distinguish the opponents of an ancient dispute. With the exception of strongly evangelical hotheads, hardly anyone in Northern Ireland attributes the division between Catholics and Protestants to the different understanding of the Lord's Supper or to the veneration of the Blessed Virgin.

In the early 1920s, the island of Ireland was finally divided into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which remained with Great Britain. The size of Northern Ireland was demonstrably determined so that the northeast corner of the island would have a Protestant two-thirds majority. Meanwhile, the majority ratios are roughly equal - with large regional deviations.

Images: Orange March

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The Orange Order, founded in 1795, takes its name from William of Orange, who ascended the English throne as William III in 1689 and sealed the Protestant succession to the throne once and for all with his battle victory on the River Boyne in 1690. The summer parades and parades of the order repeatedly lead to conflicts.

Inconvenient subjects become loyalists

Since the Reformation did not take place in Ireland, the Protestants are almost exclusively the descendants of those Scottish and northern English fortified farmers who were planned to be settled there by the English crown at the beginning of the 17th century.

Their origins also explain why they are predominantly Presbyterian and not Anglican. So you are paying homage to a somewhat more radical creed that relies heavily on the teachings of John Calvin.

The Presbyterians were originally uncomfortable subjects of the Crown ("Dissenters"), but now the link between the Protestant denomination and the British Crown is almost universal. The denomination inevitably also stands for a political creed: loyalty to the British state - the Union. That is why they are also called unionists or loyalists.

Catholics were oppressed

With the Catholics, the process was mirror-inverted: the systematic suppression of the faith gradually gave way to more subtle methods of discrimination, especially after the partition of Ireland. The civil rights movement, which was at the origin of the Northern Ireland conflict, opposed precisely these apartheid-like conditions.

But across the island, the Catholic creed became interchangeable with the desire for Irish statehood, with the conviction that they were different from the British - or rather, the English. This is why Irish Catholics often refer to themselves as nationalists or, if they tolerate violent methods, as Republicans.

After the partition, this meant that the young Free State, which was to gradually transform into the present-day republic, became more and more Catholic and narrow-minded, while in Northern Ireland - in the words of an early Prime Minister - "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people" emerged.

The old dichotomy remains

The Northern Irish peace process has led to a dramatic d├ętente between London and Dublin since 1998. This long overdue normalization of bilateral relations was symbolically sealed during a visit by the Queen to Ireland in 2011. But Northern Ireland only followed these signals to a limited extent.

The old dichotomy - more like a tribal than a religious template - persists. Politics continues to be understood as a zero-sum game in which one side automatically loses what the other wins.

No religious conflict in the strict sense

The Northern Irish themselves use the labels "Catholic" and "Protestant" if they do not resort to more derogatory variants. Of course it is not a religious conflict in the narrower sense, but if one understands religion or denomination as a bundle of values, hopes and thought patterns, then the denomination cannot be removed from the explanatory models - even if enlightened observers from outside would like to occasionally.

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