Holy War

In Northern Ireland many well-informed people will tell you that it is an illusion to believe that the struggle is a religious one. Unionists, who are almost all Protestants, will assure you that their opponents, who are almost all Catholics, are the objects of distrust not because of their faith, but because of their political allegiance, which has generally gone, not to the British Crown and to what Unionists like to call the Constitution of Northern Ireland, but to the idea of an Irish nation. Surprisingly, some high Catholic ecclesiastics are in general agreement with this view: the real trouble, they think, is not between Protestant and Catholic as such, but between Unionist and Nationalist; it just so happens that the Catholics tend or have tended to be Nationalists; they are oppressed not for their faith but for their politics.

These are the positions of Conservatives, both Protestant and Catholic. But on the Left there prevails an equal conviction of the essential irrelevance of the sectarian factor. The issue is “only apparently” a religious one: it is basically a distorted form of class war. Landlords and industrialists have deliberately promoted religious strife in their own economic interest. Sections of the working class have become dupes of this propaganda. Protestant workers have been encouraged to look to their economic exploiters as their political and religious leaders. And, in a smaller way, Catholic workers have been encouraged to look to other exploiters—the weak but not quite insignificant Catholic bourgeoisie—as their protectors against an oppression that they mistakenly see as principally sectarian in character.

In fact—the argument runs—the bourgeoisie and land-owning classes are the sole beneficiaries of the religious antagonism, and the working classes are the dupes of the contrasting emblems behind which they march in July and August. The whole religious issue, I was informed by a student activist in Queen’s University, Belfast, last November, “is just a red herring.”

Certainly what is going on is not a simple case of religious war: there has probably never been a simple case of religious war. Ulster Protestants do not dislike Catholics simply because of their submission to the Pope and their devotion to the Virgin Mary. They also dislike them for political reasons. But the politics and the theology are inseparably intertwined. The Nationalists, after all, believe in an Irish nation which should be expressed in an all-Ireland state, which would have a Catholic majority. And the Nationalists are almost all Catholics. Protestants/ Unionists believe that the effect of the fulfillment of Catholic/Nationalist aspirations would place them under Catholic domination. This view was crisply expressed in the nineteenth-century Unionist slogan: Home Rule means Rome Rule. It was a slogan of immense power because it asserted in memorable words what to most Ulster Protestants seemed an unanswerable reason for opposing the nationalist demand.

Thus the dichotomy which some respectable conservative thinkers, both Protestant and Catholic, seek to establish between the “political” and “religious” issues is artificial, and cannot account for the treatment of…

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