UK Vol.59 (Religion and the patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland)

Here is a (draft, 2008?) paper, Religion and the patterns of conflict in Northern Ireland (PDF) | Prof Jennifer Todd @ucdpolitics @YaleMacMillan. Excerpts, underlines, italicization, et al. are on our own.

Religious distinctions are key to social and symbolic boundaries in many societies, and most certainly so in Northern Ireland. The historical patterning of religious opposition, most particularly perhaps in the conservative character of the forms of Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland, is clear. Recent works have traced the many ways religion has fed into conflict in the present, and the groups for whom it is important for conflict. Building on this research, I will point to some general tendencies or mechanisms which have kept religion mattering for conflict, and to show the particular character this has given to conflict. This is intended to contribute to the analysis of the way multiplex symbolic boundaries can strengthen singular social boundaries and political oppositions and to help clarify the role religion can play in a multiply constituted conflict.

The Northern Ireland conflict 

The conflict in what is now Northern Ireland lies in a direct line of descent from the English reconquest and colonisation (plantation) of Ulster in the early 17th century. This colonisation was never separable from religious differences.  Counter reformation, via Irish priests trained on the continent, came to Ireland before the English reformation had taken hold, so that by the early 17th century, when the bulk of plantation took place, religious conflict was already underway. …

The result was a multiply-constituted conflict, where power relations… were partially organised by formal and informal religious organisation and networks, and where symbolic boundaries were multiplex, with religion, moral-political norms and civilisational values, historical narratives of plantation, and ethno-national identities overlapping if never quite coinciding. This configuration generated interests among Protestants, Catholics and the British state which reproduced the broad contours of the social and symbolic distinctions through the radical social, institutional and constitutional changes of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and led to endemic conflict between the groups so constituted. In this paper, I focus on the period I know best, late 19th century to present, and within this on the contemporary phase of conflict and settlement, 1969-present.   Conflict between Protestants and Catholics was persistent from the late 19th to the end of twentieth century. It varied in intensity and in institutional and organisational form. There were periods of more or less extreme violence (actual or threatened) from 1912-22, and 1969-94, with intermittent violent episodes throughout. As actors attempted to secure their interests, they entrenched symbolic and social boundaries, while they also came to define their interests in terms of these distinctions. It was a tightly structured conflict, with mutually reproducing feedback between symbolic distinction, social organisation and power relations, giving the conflict an intractable quality. Within this pattern I will argue that religion played a role in making conflict more meaningful, more intense, more totalising. The 1998 settlement, which signalled an end to violence and a more pervasive relaxing of conflict and beginning of a new political order, could have left symbolic and social boundaries intact. It didn’t. Instead it saw a remaking of the symbolic packages, with different roles for religion. …

I want briefly to justify my focus in this paper on religion and conflict rather than religion and violence.  Religion is not an important factor in explaining why some individuals opted for violent means while others didn’t, nor in explaining when they so opted, nor in explaining what they did when they so opted: neither the actors nor the targets of violence were overtly or primarily religious. Joining the IRA after 1969 was a strategic choice in a situation perceived as deeply unjust in which there was neither exit nor voice. Law abiding Catholic citizens shared the same experiences and many of the same aims as republicans and understood their motivations. Rev. James McEvoy, Professor of Scholastic Philosophy in Queens University Belfast, pointed out that both the Catholic church and republican paramilitaries believed that Catholics in Northern Ireland faced a stark alternative – to accept a measure of injustice and live with that, or to revolt – they simply made different choices. The IRA itself was informed by a political rather than primarily religious ideology, and its stated aims were constitutional rather than religious or cultural. Loyalists, for their part, judged that effective repression of the republican threat to the union required informal paramilitary as well as state security response.  Unionists and Protestants shared the aim but rejected the paramilitary means: indeed many joined and almost all supported the state security forces in this task. … The most interesting question is not why, in this situation, a minority of people resorted to violence, but why the mass of the population was so polarised in its politics and perspectives, and how religion contributed to this.

Disentangling the role of religion in conflict

If, in the contemporary period, religion plays one part in conflict, it does not play the determining part. The same religious oppositions coexist with quite different patterns of social relations and political organisation in, for example, the Irish state or in some areas of France. Religious opposition is at most one strand of causal patterning, where institutionalised power differentials, inequalities, ethnic differences and nationalist aims also play a part. …

There is a strong tendency in the contemporary literature not even to attempt such a task. Contemporary comparative political science takes a broad concept of ethnicity, which bundles together ethnicity narrowly conceived as people-hood, as a descent defined group with a distinctive origin myth, and religion, race, caste, region and sometimes even class. In the presently dominant interpretation of the Northern Ireland conflict, it fits neatly into this conceptualisation, with religion understood as an ‘ethnic marker’. This, in my view, is a mistake, cutting short analysis before adequate explanations are reached.

First, to take a broad and inclusive notion of ethnicity is to focus on boundaries rather than on the meaning of those boundaries (religious, or racial, or narrowly ethnic). This dissociation of boundary from content is, I would argue, a wrong turn in the social sciences. Symbolic boundaries and symbolic content are intrinsically interrelated. Barth who insisted that ethnic groups had no homogenous or unique set of cultural practices or beliefs and refused to reduce ethnicity to ‘cultural stuff’, also described the ‘basic value orientations: standards of morality and excellence’ which defined boundaries.  In Northern Ireland, whether (and which) actors define themselves in terms of theological beliefs and religious practices, or in terms of ethnic descent groups, in terms of nationality or of key moral-political values affects not only the persistence of difference and the prospect of eventual integration (via immediate conversion, or long-term intermarriage, or gradual convergence) but also the precise place of boundaries, those marginals who are included and those excluded.

Second, once one acknowledges the relevance of content to boundaries, one would expect conflicts informed by religious distinctions to have a distinctive symbolic logic different from other forms of conflict. This of course leaves open how such conflicts are patterned, how symbolic distinctions do or don’t translate into patterns of behavior, a question that becomes the trickier as we look at real conflicts which have ethnic/religious/national/class/political/civilisational components in different degrees.

Third, the dominant view tends to slip between a broad, inclusive (and therefore empty) concept of ethnicity – where it makes good sense to ask if ethnicity matters for conflict – and a narrow concept of ethnicity as descent, lineage, quasi-kin consciousness which, it is believed, trumps all other categories. This slippage is justified in terms of a socio- psychological or socio-biological explanation of why broadly-conceived-ethnicity has these narrowly-conceived-ethnic-characteristics. This sort of explanation not only elides those cases where it doesn’t have such characteristics but also, in my view, fails adequately to describe or explain those cases where it does.

However, to start to pull apart the role of religion in a multiply constituted conflict like that in Northern Ireland, is exceeding difficult. On all objective indicators, divisions in Northern Ireland are deep: there are comparatively strong correlations between religion of origin, party-political support, constitutional preference, national identification and a set of political views about security, law and equality of treatment.  When one makes finer tuned distinctions within the broad categories of Protestant/Catholic, unionist/nationalist, British/Irish there are no evident correlations of type of religion with type of politics. …

Qualitative and interactional studies show a radical variety of ways of combining positions on religious, political, ethnic, national and moral dimensions, and of giving meaning to these categories. Multiply constituted conflicts invite symbolic tradeoffs where blurring on one boundary (eg a Protestant with an Irish identity) is compensated for by insistence on another (eg that same Protestant’s strong unionism). In everyday discussions there are consistent shifts in emphasis and slippage between categories of nationality, religion, and ethnicity. Clustering exists but it also changes over time: Catholic unionists are interesting in this regard, but the better researched are Protestant evangelicals who cluster into two, relatively balanced, groups of, on the one hand, liberals and radicals, and, on the other, conservatives, and the political positions of each have changed very significantly in the last decade.

In light of these well-known facts, some have argued that religion does not matter for conflict, that it is essentially an ethno-national conflict. However very similar arguments – relying on slippage, symbolic trade-offs, everyday cultural variation, and the lack of correlation between varieties of Britishness, Irishness and Northern Irishness, ethnic-self-definitions and political views – can be used to argue that ethnicity (understood in a substantive cultural sense) does not matter for conflict, that national political division is imposed on a cultural plurality and that scholarship inappropriately echoes this imposition of binary categories on a plural cultural reality. …

… Once one opens this path, the prospect of showing how religion contributes to conflict is clear. First, however, it is useful to show why a direct analysis of the material and political incentives to bloc formation is insufficient to explain the continuation of conflict.

That the political system in the period of unionist rule (1921-72) gave incentives for bloc formation, benefitting the Protestant population in terms of division of the spoils and access to influence, is not in any doubt.  It also gave Catholics incentives to associate together in defence, and the church was their only well-resourced organisation. Significant though lesser benefits for bloc formation continued through the period of British direct rule, diminishing more rapidly post 1985.  Today the benefits are slight: a bias in the Assembly voting system (key votes can be passed with a bare majority of self-designated nationalists and self-designated unionists and an overall majority) which may give a slight incentive to voters to vote for the unionist and nationalist blocs. In addition, the desire of the British and Irish governments to keep the major parties in agreement gives those parties considerable bargaining power and capacity to distribute resources to their supporters. Can bloc formation and behaviour be explained solely by the actual or anticipated material benefit?  One test is what happens when the benefits decrease. The result, in the 2000s when benefits and expectations of benefit have definitively decreased, is that the political cleavage is even clearer and more defined than before, even while political conflict is less intense.

If, however, we need to look at the socio-cultural patterning of conflict, we need to look at cultural trajectories, not simply empirically observable (synchronic) cultural plurality. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, the categories of division are only one set of categories used in daily life, and oppositional interpretations of them are only one set of available repertoires. Other things equal, one would expect experimentation with new ideas, a blurring of symbolic boundaries, gradually over time the development of a range of different religious, political, national, historical perspectives and a range of different ways of combining them, a move away from oppositional perspectives. Instead, despite consistent experimentation and boundary blurring which is obvious from a micro-interactional perspective, oppositional perspectives have persistently been reaffirmed whenever collective decisions are necessary. For example, in a whole series of small and large decisions over the last forty years, ordinary people began by blurring boundaries, experimenting with new ideas, moving towards compromise, then wavered, then opted for opposition and division. No obvious material interests were involved, nor was this a following of leaders: the Northern Irish are notorious for rejecting their one-time leaders. … In what follows, I sketch some very general mechanisms which explain this type of reaction, and emphasise the role of religion. To test the value of these schema in explaining these particular decisions would require a longer empirical analysis.

Multiplex symbolic boundaries and the tendency to opposition 

Given the plurality of dimensions or categorisations by which distinctions are made – Protestant/Catholic, unionist/nationalist, British/Irish, even settler/native – the plurality of repertoires within the religious, national-political, ethno-national and historico-colonial fields, and the constant experimentation with new views which goes on in Northern Ireland as elsewhere, what leads towards an emphasis on opposition? I suggest that there is a practical-cognitive mechanism which provides a weak tendency towards opposition. …

This is neither a structuralist argument nor a Weberian one. It is not structuralist in that the binary oppositions are empirical, historical – rooted in the fact that the same or closely linked groups of people in each generation were making and remaking political, religious and historical narratives; the experience of them in practical life varies between groups, as does the internalisation of them; the tendency to internalise is weak rather than strong, and can be counteracted in predictable ways…

The forms of religion which evolved in Northern Ireland have been on the extreme ends of the reformation division: Calvinism or low church, evangelically oriented Anglicanism; Roman Catholicism with little anti-clericalism and no routine challenge to hierarchical authority. Protestants tended to see themselves as rational, progressive, modern, as opposed to Catholic superstition and backwardness. Within this, brands of Protestantism emphasised old testament chosen-people themes, and the covenantal tradition. The parallels with the dominant brand of unionism are striking: unionism sees nationalism as superstitious, traditionalist, backward, and itself as global, progressive, modern, rational. … Akenson shows how the religious sense of chosen people was historically intertwined with the sense of being a settler, and how this tends to make recessive those aspects of the religion that could criticise inequality and injustice. …

Catholics, on the other hand, saw themselves in the one true church with the one truth. In parallel, the nationalist tradition has a singular, concentred self-understanding with a coincidence of ethnic background, religious faith and national belonging. Particular brands of nationalism emphasise a messianic vision of history, with golden age, fall and redemption through suffering. The concepts of justice and equality used to criticise the Northern state were often informed by Catholic social thinking, and sometimes by a more generalised and simple ‘basic’ Christianity: the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) policy statement in 1964 concludes: ‘Our aim is, we think, both basic and Christian but, nevertheless, has not been realised here for hundreds of years, namely equality for all’. It is highly significant that the same concepts (for Protestants, rationality, modernity, loyalty) are used to distinguish different classes and sub-groups within the community as are used to distinguish the communities, thus reinforcing overall communal opposition.

Why this seeming gravitational pull to opposition, even while there are so many nonoppositional strands in the (contemporary) Christian religions? Steve Bruce explains it in terms of the need for a clear sense of belonging which is given (for Protestants) in evangelical Protestantism and the sense of being a chosen people. But the sense of belonging (and the felt need for such a sense) varies very dramatically. The extremes within Northern Ireland have shown little sense of solidarity or belonging beyond their immediate group: republicans, in particular, have little solidarity with or affection for their fellow nationals. I have suggested a simpler cognitive explanation: logical coherence is found in the oppositional interpretations of religion, politics, ethnicity, history, not in the inclusive interpretations: there is a clear coherent oppositional ‘package’, whereas breaking with opposition on any one dimension does not imply a particular way to break with it on others. …

Of course these are socialised rather than intellectualised understandings, a practical sense of coherence, not a coherently articulated ideology. The embodied practical concepts of rationality and modernity allow a merging of religious and other distinctions. The young modern liberal Protestant girl filmed by Desmond Bell in the late 1980s goes into a Catholic church and is visibly shocked and displeased by ‘all the statues’. Meanwhile Catholics are shocked by the ‘polish’ of Protestants in their religious practices as if formality and showy-ness is all, and this spills over into judgement of Protestant dress and make-up. Such embodied religious differences, can exist without being generalised to politics or wider social attitudes. In Northern Ireland, however, they are so generalised. Harris describes how there is a Protestant and Catholic position on just about everything, including international relations. … Work places were largely informally segregated until the last decade. There was strong opposition to exogamy, and where it (fairly frequently) took place, mixed marriage couples moved firmly into one community and all but severed linkages with the other. This had the following consequences:

(a) social capital was within each religious group. With this went reliance and trust: who one was likely to believe in a situation of contestation was firmly determined by religion.

(b) communication patterns were within each group. This was of particular importance as violence began and as information flows became specific to each side. It is well attested that rumours play a major role as triggers and precursors to violence, in particular to riots. The prevalence of single-religion organisations and meeting places in Northern Ireland facilitates two sets of rumour-networks. …

(c) The social basis for mobilisation was given by these working, socialisation and communication patterns and this affected the form of mobilisation. For unionists, the interlocking networks of unionism and the Orange Order allowed province-wide mobilisation which marginalized modernisers within the Protestant community. For nationalists, it meant that mobilisation took place by leafleting areas with GAA halls, parish halls and de facto excluding Protestants… the centrality of religion to social division allows that division to ‘penetrate everyday life’, and permits the clergy to play an important role in socio-political organisation. Taken by itself, religious organisation of social division does not necessarily affect the political goals of the mobilised population. It is, however, likely to highlight the religious dimensions of political opposition: the funerals for the hunger strikers were mass religious rituals with immediate political connotations: terrible suffering and grief, hope of resurrection. Once interrelated with the cognitively-based tendency to generalise religiously-informed oppositions, however, it has greater effects. It gives immediate social confirmation to this fusion of religious-political-social values and embeds it in group-belonging. It separates ‘people like us’ from those who breach the most basic norms of rationality and morality…

Institutional confirmation  

Religious division has also been formally and institutionally sedimented. There is an extensive literature showing how Protestantism, Protestant values and Protestant habitus came to permeate the British state and nation.  The devolved state in Northern Ireland was more explicitly Protestant in a Calvinist vein, with enforced sabbatarianism, and immediate and easy access and influence of the Protestant clergy on decisionmaking. Employment in the public sector (as in private firms) favoured Protestants, and the reasons for this merit attention: Barritt and Carter report Protestant views that Catholics were ‘not to be trusted‘, they were ‘shifty, idle and unreliable, fit only to be employed on unskilled work‘… Protestants might not ‘work well under Catholic supervision’. In the public sector, Catholics were not considered good candidates for promotion because in tough cases they would obey their church rather than their superior… Later again it was said that Catholics, and particularly republicans, could not be employed in industries of strategic importance because they would leak secrets. …continued underrepresentation of Catholics in the civil service and in public bodies well into the 1980s, …

As state institutions slowly changed, they gave differential incentives to different subgroups of unionists and nationalists to differentiate politics from culture, ethnicity and religion, or to re-connect it. …

Later ‘structural unionists’ who differentiated unionist politics from religious belief and ethnic belonging and argued for fuller integration into a changing British state, were wrong-footed by the increasingly bi-communal and bi-national policies and institutions set in place from 1985. In the 2000s, the unionist public – recognising that a bi-communal politics was now irreversible – left the UUP, plumping decisively for the communalist, religiously influenced DUP, to fight their corner within new institutions which they now also plumped for.

Different worlds. 

This intersection of symbolism, social practice and institutions created two separate worlds, with different – opposed – values and assumptions, which intersected only occasionally and at risk of violence. Conflict became more intense in the 1960s as the state increasingly penetrated the Catholic social world, and as Catholics increasingly asserted their position in the public (Protestant) world. …

In Catholic theology, God is present in the Communion, and the clergy play a mediating role between individual and God: in Protestant theology, the individual has a direct relationship with God who is not closer to the believer in church than outside. Church-going thus has quite different religio-social meanings in each community. For Protestants, it is a display of respect to God and to the religious community; it is a formal occasion of display, shown in clothing, stance, seriousness of demeanour, control of children in the family group. In some families, if the car is not washed or the clothes not properly ironed, church attendance has to wait. For Catholics on the other hand, the important thing is to attend, whatever the appearance. Moreover there is a radical asymmetry in church organisation and practice. In each small town or city neighbourhood, there are multiple Protestant churches each with a single long Sunday morning service. The congregation arrives at each church at a defined time, whole families together. Catholics, in contrast, have one large local church which holds multiple morning services, so there are always people coming and going, usually walking, and different family members may attend different services, finding seats whereever available. Some arrive late and leave early.

These differences cohere well with the different class and authority profiles of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Protestants often display their position in the community in and through church attendance; the best clothes, the dignified and upright stance appropriate to people of authority and substance. Church is also an occasion to show one’s own respect for authority – the authority of the state, of the security forces, of the monarchy, symbols of which may be displayed in the form of flags or plaques.  Mass-going plays a role in community bonding for Catholics. It does not, however, have the same status resonances as it does for Protestants, not least because social position has not been a source of pride for most Catholics, and the churches never display symbols of the state. Behavior in church varies accordingly. In Protestant churches, children are kept with their families, under strict control; in Catholic churches, children are omnipresent, babies crying, toddlers climbing.

Church-going thus expresses and reproduces much more than simply religious difference. It is of crucial importance in forming perceptions of difference-as-opposition, since it is where Catholics and Protestants were – and are – seen in large numbers, as communities rather than as individuals. In the past, part of what Catholics disliked about unionist rule was being governed by the sort of people they saw going to church on Sunday, dark, polished, formal, humourless, and being made fit into a society in their image. Part of what Protestants feared was being governed by the sort of people they saw walking to church, as if randomly, at all hours, without clear order or formality, in all sorts of clothes, in great numbers, or later pouring out of church, or later again going to the Gaelic football match (not much distinguished from church-going in terms of clothing or style but even more threatening because of the numbers, predominantly male attendance and lack of formal authority).

Secularisation is important less because it makes religious values unimportant to individuals – Mitchell argues that they outlast the ending of religious practice by more than a generation – than because it removes religious practice from the public eye and it becomes easier to privatise and segment its values.

Predictions:  

If – as sketched above – the generalisation of oppositional religious concepts and values through the political and social sphere is a product of symbolic and social mechanisms, certain predictions follow.

1. Argument and evidence alone will be insufficient to break the cognitive frame. The very meanings of terms like ‘rationality’, ‘progress’, ‘modernity’ are communally-loaded. [An example of this is the capacity of even the most intellectually able and sophisticated of unionists and nationalists to describe their respective states in utterly opposing ways. Until very recently, unionists perceived the Irish state, in David Trimble’s words, to be ‘sectarian, mono-ethnic and mono-cultural’, economically weak and globally inconsequential compared to the British state. For nationalists like Garret FitzGerald, on the other hand, the British state is seen as traditionalist, conservative and class-bound, incapable of fully participating in the European and global economy; the Irish state is a small, independent open economy and polity with strong guarantees of human rights, providing the sort of institutional context and social capital that allows full use to be made of its resources.]

2. Secularisation alone will not break the pattern, since the oppositional concepts are already embodied in politics, notions of identity, views of history, thus creating a continued openness to religion. …

3. Since the ‘practical-cognitive-coherence’ mechanism depends in turn on other social mechanisms, it may routinely be set aside where these mechanisms don’t exist, for example where individuals’ social practices in one field involve a quite different set of concepts and values than in others. …

4. Change is more likely to be provoked by a breach of institutional and social networks than directly by a challenge to the symbolic equivalences. …

5. Where change is radical, there is likely to be a tendency to look for new coherences, and to embed these in new social networks. …

Change.  

Since 1998, quite radical institutional and social changes have given widespread incentives to change/breach the cognitive equivalences noted above. The ways this is being done casts light on the specific role of religion in the past and present.

1. The political system and power relations have been radically changed with the following as the key events: 1985 (Anglo-Irish Agreement), 1989 (Fair Employment Act) 1998 (Good Friday Agreement), 1999-2003 (reform of policing). Since 1998 this has begun to percolate down to everyday experience, for example in republican participation at all levels of decision making and in a visible nationalist presence in every aspect of the public sphere.

2. Social networks have been diffused. This has occurred in three ways. First, by increased funding for cross-community venues and integrated schooling, although such cross-networking remains relatively small-scale (only 4% of students attended integrated schools in 2002). Secondly… fair employment legislation has stimulated more widespread change in work relations. Third… general cultural trends and consumerism (from foreign holidays to non-place shopping malls to home cinema) have led to greater individualisation, a lesser reliance on social capital, although separate religio-leisure networks remain.

3. The older social worlds are challenged and increasingly problematised. For Protestants, the new political order disconfirms their previous expectations and rules out their habitual ways of acting: they can no longer march where they want, their world (and their control of it) has changed. For Catholics, once isolated ‘Catholic’ and ‘republican’ worlds are increasingly integrated into the public world: for them, their beliefs (in the need for public equality) are confirmed but their practices are changed.

These changes give individuals incentives to rethink and reframe their worlds, to cast adrift older assumptions and conceptual equivalences, to pull apart the cultural matrix or to change it altogether. …

1. One-time Protestant fundamentalist extremists have changed much more quickly than was expected, as is seen by the DUP’s cohabitation with Sinn Féin in the new executive. Recent research shows phases of this change: first a clear sense of political defeat, a prioritisation of religious values over political and a ‘purifying’ of religion of its failed political resonance; second a changing of political assumptions – which no longer matter so much to them; third, a finding of new religious opportunities as well as economic ones in the new cross-border structures or in moral activism (‘saving Ulster from sodomy’) within the newly egalitarian Northern Ireland.

2. One-time Protestant extremists who have no explicit religious belief find it harder to orient themselves to the new situation. They fear being swallowed up by Catholic, nationalist, republican expansion The new opportunities in Northern Ireland, however, require engagement with erst-while opponents (republicans) with clear public projects by whom they feel easily outmanoevred.  Some reassert the old values in increasingly desperate protest.

3. Some attempt to adapt, moderate, come to a strategic compromise. But this too raises moral issues which are not easy to resolve: if they can compromise now, what of the principles that they fought for in the past? Were they not important? …

Republican electoral success and international favour has been gained by a public silencing of the questions. It remains as yet unclear if the older oppositional mind-sets are being worn away by the practice of peace and compromise…

4. a helter-skelter of change, with initial movement leading to new levels of cognitive dissonance and further change. This group typically refound aspects of their familial and religious traditions which allowed them to legitimate these changes, and to reinvent a continuity with their personal and wider historical past. Many were in mixed marriages. Even in non-conflictual societies, mixed marriage respondents often narrate a refinding of more open aspects of their religious tradition, using ecumenical networks as support. …

when religiously informed conflict ends, the individuals who most quickly come to terms with both conflict and settlement are those who re-find aspects of the religious tradition by which to reinterpret it.

Conclusions:  

I have argued that religion has played a key symbolic role in the Northern Ireland conflict, where opposition is generalised between the religious, political, ethnic, normative, historical spheres. This is not primarily driven by the actions of clerics, or the events in particular churches, or even by changing religious orthodoxies. The generalisation was made likely by the historical development of the traditions, and the highlighting of the same or very similar conceptual oppositions within each. The process of generalisation is in turn underpinned by social networks and communication patterns which prevent the ‘normal’ change and challenge of key sets of beliefs. In the past it was sedimented by state and institutional norms, although as these norms and related practices have changed, so too have the incentives for changing the oppositional understandings and identities in Northern Ireland. The religious values and concepts involved are sometimes explicit, sometimes already secularised, religion-ising values in the political tradition. They are – perhaps paradoxically – the more changeable when they are reconnected to religious tradition than when they are embedded in secularised ethno-political particularity.

Religion, I have suggested, makes conflict much more than a conflict about constitutional claims or political policies. It makes it into a conflict that touches on, resonates with and is informed by whole ways of life, with their constitutive assumptions and values. It makes it an existential conflict. … not all religious conflicts are ethnic, in the sense of being between historically defined and distinctive ‘peoples’. Nor are all ethnic conflicts are about ways of life. Some are about getting ‘our men’ into power, or grabbing resources for ‘us’, with the ‘we’ defined instrumentally, whichever way gets most ‘pork’. Nor are all national conflicts about ways of life: many are about territory and resources. To use Sharma’s categories, ethnic and national conflicts may be about which group rules, rather than about the rules themselves. When they are informed by religion, if this case can be generalised, they become about the content of those rules. The recent history of Northern Ireland also makes clear that while religiously informed conflicts may be fought to protect or to gain recognition for ways of life and identities, the fighting of them, and the process of institutional change involved in settlement, itself changes those ways of life and identities.