The roots of sectarianism in northern ireland

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Gareth I. Higgins and John D. Brewer

Queen’s University of Belfast

The project funded by the Central Community Relations Unit under the title, ‘The Roots of Sectarianism’, on which we both worked, was a small and modestly funded affair, lasting six months, to examine some of the tap roots to sectarianism in Northern Ireland, specifically to explore the role theology played in social division. Given the small scale of the project, we restricted ourselves to one dimension, the belief that there is a Scriptural basis to anti-Catholicism. This focus was chosen because it forms part of the self-defining identity of certain Protestants and inhibits reconciliation between the two communities by suggesting that divisions are immutable as a result of being upheld by theology. As sociologists we wanted to explore the social dynamics to this claim and to show how Biblical hermeneutics amongst certain Protestants formed part of a sociological project to develop, sustain and rationalise social inequality. In this view, Scripture was appropriated to justify social divisions at a particular historical context in Protestant-Catholic relations and can be located sociologically by the socio-economic and political processes that led to theology being used in this way (the results are discussed in Brewer, 1998; Brewer and Higgins, 1999). This research was later augmented by a study of one form of anti-Catholicism, the papal antichrist myth (Higgins, 2000). We believed that an analysis of the roots of anti-Catholicism could inform public debate about the nature and causes of some features of the Northern Irish conflict, as well as assist in overcoming common sense myths that inhibit reconciliation.

Our ambition in this chapter is to summarise the results and incorporate the role played by the papal antichrist myth. We close by speculating on the future of these beliefs and the impact that broader social changes are having on Northern Irish Protestants. While anti-Catholicism and belief in the papal antichrist myth are part of the separatist tendencies found in fundamentalist Protestants, globalisation and other social processes threaten this separatism. First it is necessary to define what we mean by sectarianism.
What is sectarianism?

It is a common complaint that sectarianism is an under theorised concept, although there have been attempts to define its features (see Brewer, 1992; McVeigh, 1995). It can be considered as ‘the determination of actions, attitudes and practices by practices about religious difference, which results in them invoked as the boundary marker to represent social stratification and conflict’ (Brewer, 1992: 359). It thus refers to a whole cluster of ideas, beliefs, myths and demonology about religious difference which are used to make religion a social marker, to assign different attributes to various religious groups and to make derogatory remarks about others. It is more that a set of prejudiced attitudes but refers to behaviours, policies and types of treatment that are informed by religious difference. It occurs at three levels (Brewer, 1992: 360): the levels of ideas, individual action, and the social structure. At the level of ideas it is expressed in negative stereotypes and pejorative beliefs and language about members of another religion. At the level of individual action it shows itself in direct discrimination and various types of intimidation and harassment against members of another religion because of their group membership. At the social structural level it expresses itself in patterns of indirect and institutional discrimination and disadvantage.

It is obvious that anti-Catholicism is a form of sectarianism and, as we have argued in previous work, it also occurs at the same three levels. Thus we defined anti-Catholicism as the determination of actions, attitudes and practices by negative beliefs about individual Catholics, the Catholic Church as an institution, or Catholic doctrine. These negative beliefs become invoked as an ethnic boundary marker, which can be used in some settings to represent social stratification and conflict. In terms of its three levels, anti-Catholicism is expressed at the level of ideas in negative stereotypes and pejorative beliefs, notions and language about Catholics and the Catholic Church. At the level of individual action, it shows itself in various forms of direct discrimination, intimidation and harassment against Catholics or the Catholic Church because of their Catholicism. At the level of the social structure, anti-Catholicism expresses itself in patterns of indirect and institutional discrimination and social disadvantage experienced by Catholics because they are Catholics. There is nothing inevitable about the progression through these levels, for anti-Catholicism can remain as a set of ideas without them affecting behaviour or having implications at the social structural level. In its worst manifestations however, it occurs at all three levels, although the number of these case is becoming fewer and fewer. Great Britain was once a good example;1 Northern Ireland still is.
What about anti-Protestantism?

While the research did not address the issue of anti-Protestantism our conceptualisation of sectarianism can accommodate it as a sociological process. It can exist at the same three levels and result in systematic and structured inequality, as historical examples illustrate, from the treatment of Huguenots in France to the Spanish Inquisition. Allegations of anti-Protestantism are a feature of Unionist political discourse in Northern Ireland but it is clear from our conceptualisation that there are differences with anti-Catholicism. At the level of ideas anti-Protestantism exists in the same way in that there are negative stereotypes, beliefs and language used against Protestants. At the level of action it exists as acts of harassment, intimidation and hostility toward Protestants. Ireland’s history is as replete with these examples as with the contrary process. However, the major difference is with respect to the level of the social structure. Protestants in Northern Ireland have never experienced social disadvantage as a group in terms of access to social structural resources. In material terms the Protestant working class were mostly in the same position as their Catholic neighbours, but in terms of cultural and political resources they had a sense of belonging to the state that poor Catholics lacked. It is often alleged that if not in the North, the South evidenced anti-Protestantism at the social structural level. But the evidence is quite contrary, for Protestants in general are a privileged economic minority in the Irish Republic, despite their sense of cultural distance from the state.

The problem for Protestants in Northern Ireland is not theologically derived but political in that they experience anti-Britishness – an objection by association with the state rather than direct opposition to their religion. However, this is a distinction difficult to absorb when Ulster Protestant identity is so wrapped up with the cultural and political link to Britain. IRA violence against so-called ‘legitimate’ targets of the state has been experienced by ordinary Protestants as ethnic cleansing and an attempt to remove Protestant witness from the island. So interconnected is Protestant identity with Britishness, that anti-Britishness easily blends into anti-Protestantism as Protestants perceive it. That Republicanism believes it can make this fine distinction is irrelevant to Protestants.

Theology, sectarianism and anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland

The aims of the CCRU-funded research were to explore the deterministic belief system that underpins some aspects of Northern Ireland’s conflict, namely anti-Catholicism and its assumed Scriptural basis, and to locate the emergence of this belief system in the context of wider Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland. We were not interested as researchers in the question of whether the Catholic faith really is non Scriptural, but rather to understand the sociological dynamics that lead to claims that it is and the use to which these claims are put outside theology. Lying behind this approach was the assumption that sociological dynamics at times cause theology to be appropriated to justify social divisions. We intended thereby to critically confront some of the beliefs that self-define the identity of a key section of the Protestant community and hoped to reinforce the wider process of reconciliation by challenging the claim that some divisions are immutable because they are determined by God. Our findings can be briefly summarised as follows (for greater detail see Brewer, 1998; Brewer and Higgins, 1999).

Anti-Catholicism is awkward to pronounce, but easy to perpetuate and obvious to see in Northern Ireland. This phenomenon has unique manifestations in Northern Ireland,2 and although its proponents believe themselves to be doing God’s will, engaged in simple obedience to the transcendent, there are clearly identifiable social characteristics to the way in which they express anti-Catholicism. Anti-Catholic discourse thus combines theological, mythical and social factors to produce a cultural template that has sociological resonance wherever social cleavage depends on Protestant/Catholic difference. While anti-Catholicism is constituted as a debate about Scripture and Christian faith, in Northern Ireland it is much more than that. The conviction held by some Protestants that anti-Catholicism is a fundamental tenet of their faith fits seamlessly with, and even helps to reinforce and maintain the lines of social cleavage in the North, which themselves are a cornerstone of the conflict. Anti-Catholicism thus needs to be approached sociologically, for anti-Catholicism was given a Scriptural underpinning in the history of Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland in order to reinforce divisions between the religious communities and to offer a deterministic belief system to justify them. It has been mobilised in this way at particular historical junctures in Protestant-Catholic relations in Ireland and as a result of specific socio-economic and political processes. Anti-Catholicism in some settings is therefore mobilised as a resource for critical socio-economic and political reasons, using processes that are recognisably sociological rather than theological. But it operates for this purpose in a restricted social setting. In Northern Ireland’s case, this setting is distinguished by two kinds of social relationships – an endogenous one between Protestant and Catholic, and an exogenous one between Ireland and Britain generally. The colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland ensured that the social structure of Irish society was dominated by the endogenous relationship between Catholics (natives) and Protestants (settlers), which persisted in Northern Ireland after partition. This explains its continued resonance. Anti-Catholicism survives in Northern Ireland when it has declined elsewhere, notably in Britain and the Irish Republic, nearest neighbours to Northern Ireland in the British Isles, because it helps to define group boundaries and plays a major sociological role in producing and rationalising political and economic inequality. Yet this is only part of the sociological explanation for its saliency. There is a sociological dynamic which explains why it is ‘received’ so readily amongst its primary constituency.

Historically, theological differences in Ireland obtained their saliency because they corresponded to all the major patterns of structural differentiation in plantation society, such as ethnic and cultural status, social class, ownership of property and land, economic wealth, employment, education, and political power (see Ruane and Todd, 1996). Anti-Catholicism has remained important down the centuries because the patterns of differentiation in Northern Irish society have stayed essentially the same. Alternative lines of division are relatively weak in Northern Ireland (see Bruce, 1994: 28), with ethnicity, marked by religious difference, remaining as the only salient social cleavage, at least until very recently. Modern industrial society in the North has not produced secularisation on a grand scale, and religious difference remains critical to many Protestants. As Bruce argued in relation to Free Presbyterians, ‘being possessed of a strongly religious worldview, many Ulster Protestants explain a great deal of what happens to them in religious terms. They see the conflict in Ireland as a religious conflict. Their culture and their circumstances are mutually reinforcing’ (1986: 244-5). However, the continued saliency of religion is only partly to be explained by the slow progress of secularisation, with the commensurate high levels of religiosity in Northern Ireland. It also continues because religion stands in place for ethnic identity and thus represents the patterns of differentiation in an ethnically structured society. In the former respect anti-Catholicism continues as a throwback to Reformation debates about theology in a society still wedded to doctrinal conflicts because of its high religiosity. In the latter, anti-Catholicism helps to define the boundaries of the groups involved in competition over power, wealth and status, it is mobilised to regulate and control that competition, and is used in social closure to defend the monopoly of the Protestant ethnic group.

Anti-Catholicism has been employed as a resource for ethnic mobilisation amongst Protestants in specific historical circumstances and events. While some of these have been theological (such as when Catholicism seemed to progress as a faith through church expansion), anti-Catholicism has also been mobilised in political events – especially when there is a need for political unity - throughout Irish history, such as when the political interests of Protestants had to be defended during Catholic emancipation, Home Rule, the 1974 Loyalist Workers’ Strike, and Drumcree and the issue of contentious parades by Protestant loyal orders. Durkheim’s theory of religion, formulated at the beginning of the twentieth century from an analysis of pre-Christian religions, stresses the socially integrative functions of religious belief and this fits Ulster Protestant politics well. In times of political threat and instability, conservative evangelicalism acted as the sacred canopy, lending itself readily to anti-Catholicism because of the deep antipathy within conservative evangelicalism to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Historians recognise this sociological truth (see for example Hempton, 1996:111-2; Hyndman, 1996; Loughlin, 1985).

Economic circumstances have also provoked the mobilisation of Protestants by means of anti-Catholicism, especially when social closure was necessary to protect access to scarce resources, as occurred, for example, during Catholic threats to Protestant domination of the linen industry in the eighteenth century (which witnessed the formation of the Orange Order) and shipbuilding in the nineteenth. This also occurred when high levels of Protestant unemployment, notably during the 1930s, threatened their position as a labour aristocracy, and when non-sectarian forms of class mobilisation seemed to be successful in advancing the position of the Catholic working class, such as during the Catholic Civil Rights marches in the late 1960s.

Mobilisation on the basis of anti-Catholicism during these events made reference to various features about Catholicism and Catholics, which illustrate the different dimensions of anti-Catholicism as a sociological process. As we shall demonstrate shortly, there is a theological dimension, going back to the Reformation, with references to Catholic doctrine, but there is also a cultural dimension, involving everyday discourse, imagery and values within Protestant popular culture. This anti-Catholic language can be called a ‘discursive formation’ and it permeates deep within Northern Irish popular culture. Other dimensions to anti-Catholicism exist as well. There is a political dimension that involves defence of the Union, which Catholicism supposedly threatens, and an attack on Republicanism, which Catholicism is supposed to advance, even, in some cases, to the point of supporting the use of violence against Catholics. There is an economic dimension also, with the need for Protestant ascendancy and privilege to be protected, which involves references to Catholicism as allegedly endangering Ulster’s wealth and prosperity because of its encouragement of sloth and laziness, and to Catholics as threatening jobs, housing and ‘social capital’.

It is not surprising that in a society where religious labels are used to define group boundaries, anti-Catholicism becomes readily available and easily recognisable culturally as a resource for the purpose of social stratification and social closure because it fits seamlessly with society and its patterns of cleavage and conflicts. Anti-Catholicism fits neatly with Northern Irish society for the following reasons. It has long historical roots in ethno-national traditions in Ireland, going back to the original conflict between planters and Gaels and forming part of their ethnic myths; it has a legacy of efficacy and effectiveness in the past, providing many lessons of its effectiveness as a resource across time; it is very consistent with the rendering of the Northern Irish society into the simple zero-sum game between two competing groups, which is the way the groups like to see the conflict; it fits the self-identities of the groups involved in this zero-sum conflict as religious groups, since religious labels are appropriated common-sensically to define the competition for power and privilege and group boundaries; moreover, the deployment of anti-Catholicism as a resource in structuring group relations fits with the high levels of religiosity in Northern Ireland and the value people place on religious belief in their sense of personal and national identity; and, finally, anti-Catholicism comes with its own immutable and in-built legitimation (the perceived Scriptural injunction to oppose doctrinal error), which has a special cultural sanction in Northern Ireland because of the society’s high religiosity. This congruity becomes a constraint for those people and groups that seek to move beyond sectarian politics. As David Ervine, a leading member of the Progressive Unionist Party, commented in an interview:

Sectarianism is a flower that’s cultivated, nurtured, and owes its origins to

historical circumstances and socio-political causes. I dislike use of the term

because it suggests the conflict is about religion, when it’s about politics. I

prefer the term ‘tribalism’: religion is used to keep people in tribes. Tribalism

is like piss down the leg, it initially gives a warm glow but it quickly goes cold. Some people use fear of the Pope and papal conspiracies in order to keep the problem as a two-party zero-sum conflict. Certain Unionists create tribalism, through creating fear, in order to keep people in their entrenched positions.

In short, anti-Catholicism is part of the ideological apparatus that constructs two mutually exclusive groups with opposed sets of interests and identities, and it forms part of the symbolic myths, rituals and language which reproduce and represent polarised and sectarian experiences and behaviour.

Four modes of anti-Catholicism

Our analysis of contemporary articulations of anti-Catholicism demonstrated that it has distinct modes or types in the way it operates. The first is what we called ‘passive anti-Catholicism’, the kind that remains unsystematic at the level of ideas and not reflected in behaviour. It is the kind that some Protestants have transmitted to them as part of their socialisation, but which remains as a cultural context, rarely articulated or enacted. ‘Active anti-Catholicism’ is something different and represents a fully formulated structure of ideas, language and behaviour. Three types of active anti-Catholicism can be identified, called the covenantal, secular and Pharisaic modes. We plotted these on two axes or continuums - theological content (high to low) and political content (high to low), as represented in Figure 1. This illustrates the paradox of anti-Catholicism, in that it may be based on Scriptural interpretation (covenantal and
Figure 1 about here
Pharisaic modes), which may (covenantal mode) or may not (Pharisaic mode) find political articulation, and also make little reference to theology and be highly political (secular mode), emphasising an approach to politics which is very similar to one of the more theological modes (the covenantal). The modes are therefore best understood as ideal types, in that they do not exist in pure form in people’s language and behaviour: there is overlap in the concerns of each mode, and this cross-over is expressed in people’s own versions of anti-Catholicism. Each of the ideal types has a common structure, with its own set of foundational ideas, using a characteristic form of rhetoric, emphasising different things in the articulation of anti-Catholicism, appeals to a different primary constituency, and has different implications for relationships with Catholics, as summarised in Figure 2.
Figure 2 about here
The covenantal mode is perhaps that type which is most recognised as anti-Catholicism, and admitted by its proponents to be.3 Its ideological premises are linked to Old Testament notions of covenant, wherein God promises untold blessings, including land, to a chosen people so long as they remain faithful to Him. These Scriptural ideas have been employed in Protestant discourse since the sixteenth century when some reformers re-interpreted the notion of covenant as a political contract between government and citizens, supposedly upheld by God (Miller, 1978). In this mode, Ulster (and its union with Britain) may be seen as a promised land to Protestants, or at least one highly blessed by God. Covenantal anti-Catholicism in this mode thus emphasises the divine mission of ‘the Protestant people’ to oppose Roman Catholicism, which is a threat to Ulster and to Protestantism). This is a threat manifested in many alleged conspiracies orchestrated by the ‘forces of Catholicism’, including civil unrest in the North of Ireland. In this mode, Irish Republicanism is sometimes seen simply as Catholicism at war. Catholicism seeks to destroy Ulster’s God-ordained political, constitutional and social arrangements and impose a United Ireland, which would simply be an extension of Rome Rule. Politics and theology are thus cross-pollinated, with Scripture being used to support Union with Britain. Advocates of this mode may see themselves as a ‘holy remnant’, part of the faithful few left in an unrighteous, sinful and secular world.4 This is a constituency found in conservative and fundamentalist Protestants, who identify themselves in contrast to those whom they see as using the ‘Protestant’ label inaccurately, either because they are ‘liberals’, or because they employ it solely as a political identity. Clearly, since Catholicism is un-Christian and seeks to annihilate Protestantism, no meaningful relationship with the Catholic Church can ever be considered, and any relationship with ordinary Catholics is viewed as an evangelistic opportunity, if not discouraged out of hand.5

The secular mode, meanwhile, may not appear to be a type of anti-Catholicism at all, since its ideological premises are thoroughly political, based on a defence of the Union and an attack on Republicanism. Gone is the covenantal association between land, God and Ulster. However, this mode alleges an umbilical link between Catholicism and Republicanism, and its political, economic and social objections to a United Ireland have been replete with negative stereotypes of Catholics and the alleged disproportionate influence of the Church in all aspects of the Irish Republic’s politics and culture. Theology however is virtually absent. Catholicism threatens civil and political liberties rather than Protestantism per se, and is criticised for its political manifestations rather than its heresy, although there is an implicit ecclesiology behind the claim that Catholicism threatens liberties and freedoms. In the secular mode, anti-Catholicism is articulated using conventionally political rhetoric, centring on typical Unionist and Loyalist arguments in defence of the Union. Its constituency is ‘political Protestants’, secular Unionists and that majority of militant Loyalists whose paramilitary activities were not underscored by a theological conviction. In as much as the objection is to what it sees as Catholicism’s political manifestations, which are contingent, rather than its theological ones, which are immutable, certain relationships with Catholics are permissible if they are politically expedient.

These are the main two types and their use in drawing ethnic and moral boundaries to exclude Catholics politically, economically and socially should be evident. The third type does not function in social closure but it nonetheless helps to mark boundaries. The Pharisaic mode is so called because it has ideological premises reminiscent of a popular impression of the Biblical Pharisees. Its advocates are convinced that they know Biblical truth and right doctrine, although this is through adherence to mainstream Reformed, not covenantal, theology, particularly as Reformed theology interprets the doctrine of justification by faith. Catholic doctrine is rejected because it is believed to argue for salvation through works and by means of Church tradition rather than grace alone. However, the rhetoric is conciliatory and open, rather than denunciatory and impolite. The emphasis of the Pharisaic mode is theological, entirely devoid of political rhetoric, and Catholicism is even acknowledged to be ‘Christian but in error’. Evangelism of Catholics is stressed, which is partly why relationship and dialogue are encouraged with Catholics. This mode appeals extensively to non-fundamentalist evangelicals and what Boal, Campbell and Livingstone (1991) call the more conservative liberal Protestants.

The papal antichrist myth

An important part of some forms of anti-Catholicism is the belief that the papacy is the antichrist. This section briefly examines the sociological features of this myth, summarised from a much more extensive study (Higgins, 2000). Myths can feature in many kinds of sociological discourse – as myths of territory, redemption, injustice, divine appointment, bravery, regeneration, the axis of change, origin and ethnicity. Myths are a method of ordering experience, of defining social and moral boundaries, or concealing unpalatable truths; they are, indeed, a form of communication, and tell of the past, present and future. They are often explicitly related to the sacred, they can be ritually expressed, and they are closely related with the development and maintenance of culture.

The papal antichrist myth envisages a role for the Catholic papacy in the end-times and a final battle between God and Satan. In Northern Ireland these end-times ideas function in the context of anti-Catholicism at the level of ideas and individual behaviour. This belief is found among certain kinds of fundamentalist Protestants only, who consider a defence of the faith to be paramount. That their faith is conflated with ethnicity and national identity reinforces the myth’s saliency as a socio-political phenomenon in Northern Ireland. Of course, separatism and ‘chosen nation’ sentiment have significant purchase in Northern Ireland, and the papal antichrist myth is pervasive amongst certain kinds of Protestants. It is clear that anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth are significant parts of the cultural ‘air’ breathed by fundamentalist Protestants in Northern Ireland. The key social resonances of this myth are in terms of furthering the cultural interests of believers, which in practice relates to Protestant socio-political hegemony, reaffirming individual and group identity, and encouragement to the conversion of Catholics. The believers’ world-view includes reference to a number of conspiracy theories, which link perceived socio-political crises to theology and constructing Ulster Protestant identity as a target of massive threat. Contemporary conspiracy theories include tacit or explicit reference to the peace process – there is an elective affinity between belief in the papal antichrist myth and anti-Agreement sentiment. The network of relationships that reinforce belief in the myth include traditional foci of religious legitimation (the family, congregation, denomination, and so on). What might be termed ‘religious xenophobia’ within the fundamentalist ‘closed set’ acts as a form of social control – to discourage believers from changing their beliefs or leaving the sect; and the narrowing base of social acceptability for fundamentalism arising from its unpopularity reinforces the separatist fear of threats from without.

The myth has many uses, from the construction of social and moral boundaries to its role in the denial of a Protestant role in responsibility for the conflict or for sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Simply put, in Northern Ireland the myth connects with the overarching line of social cleavage and has influence at the level of the social structure. In contrast with America for example, the only other Western society with significant levels of belief in the papal antichrist myth particularly within the Southern ‘Bible Belt’, the existence of pluralist lines of social cleavage means that the myth has saliency for a relatively insignificant number of people. If pluralist lines of social cleavage were to develop in Northern Ireland, the religious marketplace, already well established elsewhere, will be open for vigorous business, with anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth as merely one of many paradigmatic choices and identity markers. Meanwhile, there is evidence of former believers who have changed their minds and become involved in pro-active peace, reconciliation, and ecumenical initiatives. Global social phenomena have set the context for such change in the form of globalisation, civil and human rights discourse, the development of a panoply of alternative identity markers, ecumenism and the Northern Irish peace process. All have begun to ‘squeeze out’ the space for public acceptability of anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth. At a local level, there has been some mainline Protestant alienation from conservative evangelicals and a breakdown of barriers between Protestants and Catholics in reaction to the conflict. There has also been a broadening of Protestant experience in terms of education, travel and occupation, as well as the development of anti-sectarian initiatives and modernising economic changes. It appears that as the space for papal antichrist myth and other anti-Catholic belief is eroded, opportunities for other identity markers and change among some believers will increase.

Despite its universalistic tenets across the world, the local distinctiveness of Protestantism is greater where secularisation is less developed; this is partly why it has retained its distinctiveness in Northern Ireland, although this is currently being challenged, as secularisation processes and post-modern norms assert themselves. The role of power and tradition within Protestantism is illuminated by analysis of anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth. The individualistic emphasis on doctrine and the lack of hierarchical authority and tradition within Protestantism means that believers can re-write their own traditions and doctrines, and do so often in situations of religious conflict. The pre-occupation with ideology over pragmatism within conservative Protestantism lends itself to schism, as Bruce suggested:

[Such] movements have no source of authority superior to the ideology from which legitimacy is derived. Hence any factional leader can claim to have the correct interpretation of the ideology. In the absence of any superior power to arbitrate…disputes, schism becomes common…Propensity to schism increases with the availability of means of legitimation (1990: 40, 43).
This is reflected by the case of the papal antichrist myth. As a method of conflict management, some Protestants in Northern Ireland re-assess their beliefs and become involved in ecumenism with Catholics and in the development of ‘civic unionism’, while others interpret the conflict as resulting from this very ecumenism and so-called ‘liberalism’ within Protestantism, reinforcing their anti-Catholicism. The location of authority in the individual conscience, as contrasted to hierarchical authority vested in the Catholic Church, means that both anti-Catholics and ecumenists can assert that they are being true to Protestantism. The tendency toward schism within Protestantism often manifests itself in separatism; the separatist mindset naturally defines an outside enemy and ‘closes ranks’ to protect itself from this enemy. This tendency is ideally suited to Northern Ireland, where it is reinforced because the ethnic identity of some Protestants depends on defining enemies ‘outside the camp’: Republicans and Nationalists (and ecumenists) are the temporal and political enemy, and the papacy the ubiquitous spiritual enemy. Theology and politics combine with cultural assertions to produce the specific local expressions of the anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth.

Protestants in Northern Ireland who assert generalised anti-Catholicism or believe that the pope is the antichrist do not, on the whole, do so for cynical reasons. They assert that their anti-Catholicism is rooted in a sincere and correct interpretation of Scripture, Protestant culture and tradition. The nature of Protestant religion permits this variation and allows both believers in the myth and those who reject it the comfort that they are being true to Protestantism in doing so. Tony Blair once made a statement to the effect that anti-Agreement Unionists had no place in the future of Northern Ireland unless they changed their minds about what was important to them. He referred to these people as ‘men of the past’, and appeared to consider their concerns to be cynical and irrational. However, while an identity that depends on myths may indeed be irrational, they are held sincerely by committed adherents. Any attempt at transforming the conflict in Northern Ireland must take account of the seriousness with which some people hold their anti-Catholicism and it is necessary to locate such beliefs in sociological processes rather than in terms of relativistic notions of irrationality. The process of globalisation proffers a better location for understanding these beliefs.

Supporters of the globalisation thesis suggest that identities are now developed by exposure to mass media rather than inculcation in local traditions; in other words, as Brewer satirises them: ‘People are no longer what their position in the [local] social structure makes them; they are what they shop’ (Brewer, 1999). As Featherstone says, ‘in effect, we are all in each other’s backyard’ (1995: 86). Local traditions come under pressure as the de-routinisation of social life increases, leading to what Giddens calls ‘ontological insecurity’. For the ‘ultra-globalisationist’, globalisation will eventually lead to the erosion of all local traditions, as what Brewer calls ‘the onward march of the cultural glob’ tramples everything distinctive in its wake. However, critics of this view (for instance, Hall, 1991; Robertson, 1992; Featherstone, 1995) contend that globalisation and the fragmentation of cultures are part of the same process; to put it simply, the more globalisation proceeds, the more it will be challenged by the re-assertion of tradition in the face of perceived threat. As Hall says:

The return to the local is often a response to globalisation…Face to face with a culture, an economy and a set of histories which seem to be written or inscribed elsewhere, and which are so immense, transmitted from one continent to another with such extraordinary speed, the subjects of the local…can only come into representation by…recovering their own hidden histories. They have to tell the story from the bottom up, instead of from the top down (1991:33, 34-35, emphasis ours).

From this perspective, contemporary forms of Protestant fundamentalism may be actually a part of globalisation, as people assert their traditions ever more strongly in order to maintain at least a vestige of their identity, either as a form of resistance to the globalisation ‘steamroller’, or as part of the re-emergence of local conflicts. Northern Ireland could almost be an ‘ideal type’ crucible for such processes (called ‘glocalisation’ by Sklair, 1999), as traditional identities are reasserted as a challenge to global and post-modern pressure.


Anti-Catholicism and the papal antichrist myth cannot be dismissed as sociologically uninteresting (as claimed by Jenkins, 1997: 112). While doctrinal and theological disputes are in themselves not sociologically fecund, sociology has an in-put into explaining why, in some restricted social settings, four-century old theological conflicts remain pertinent. As stressed here, ancient theological disputes can resonate because of high levels of religiosity, but the absence of secularisation is only part of a sociological account. In some settings, ancient religious differences are functional equivalents of other lines of differentiation. In this kind of social milieu, anti-Catholicism does important interactional work. It is one of the major resources which define group boundaries, and it helps to create and rationalise social closure, because it constitutes a significant part of the ‘cultural stuff’, as Jenkins himself puts it (1997), which comprises ethnicity in Northern Ireland. Although this argument is restricted to the Northern Irish case, it is possible to speculate about anti-Catholicism having wider applicability to other ethnic conflicts that have a religious dimension.

The future survival of the papal antichrist myth and anti-Catholicism generally in Northern Ireland depends on the capacity of separatists to be separate. Sections of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland who hold strongly to these beliefs will seek to maintain their identity as separatist fundamentalists but this is likely to be periodically redefined according to circumstances as they confront the wider social world they are forced to inhabit. This redefinition will occur in two ways, what Hall (1991: 36) calls ‘an expansive [or] a defensive way’. The abandonment of a ban on inter-racial dating by the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina is an example of the former, while the use of Scripture by dissident Loyalists to justify burning Catholic churches is an example of the latter. The mediation Northern Irish Protestants make between local circumstances and identity concerns with wider global processes will shape whether the future is a pluralist or separatist one.

It must be reiterated that anti-Catholicism is not the sum of what Protestantism ‘means’ in Northern Ireland nor does our analysis deny the existence of anti-Protestantism. Those people whose identity is predicated even partly on anti-Catholicism do so because they believe it to be true, and they comprise an important group whose influence on the peace process is disproportionately high. They cannot be ignored by those whose zeal for ‘peace’ may blind them to the stark fact that Northern Ireland’s sectarian division is understood theologically by some people and is for them immutable. To put it another way, threatening those people whose identity is itself partly based on a sense of threat will not help the conflict transformation process in Northern Ireland, but merely serve to reinforce their separatism and embed further the roots of conflict.


John D Brewer is Professor of Sociology and Head of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at Queen’s University and Director of the Centre for the Social Study of Religion at Queen’s University in Armagh. He is the author or co-author of twelve books and is currently engaged in international research into grass-roots Christian peacemaking. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1998 and has held visiting appointments in Yale and Oxford.
Gareth I Higgins was awarded his doctorate in 2000 from Queen’s University. He has done research in the United States and in Northern Ireland and is now a Belfast-based research consultant and writer specialising in religion and conflict. He is the chair of a post-sectarian peace-building initiative amongst young people, and is writing a book on antichrist beliefs.

Arnstein, W.L. (1982), Protestants Versus Catholics in Mid-Victorian England (Columbia, Columbia University Press)

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Figure 5.1

Plotting the modes of anti-Catholicism along two axes

low  theological content  high

secular mode covenantal mode

political content

passive mode Pharisaic mode

Figure 2
The three modes of anti-Catholicism

covenantal mode secular mode Pharisaic mode

  

based on covenantal ideas about God, land and a chosen people

based on defence of the Union and attack on Republicanism

based on biblical truth and Catholic doctrinal error

prophetic language based on the Old Testament denunciation prophecies

political language based around Unionism and Loyalism

irenic language based on New Testament

Roman Catholics as threat to Ulster and Protestantism; RC Church as Biblical evil and enemy; Catholicism and millennial conspiracies and threats; Roman Catholicism is unChristian; theology and politics interwoven

negative role of RC Church in the Irish Republic and political violence in Ulster; Catholicism as a threat to political and civil liberty and economic success; absence of theology

critical of Catholic doctrine and practice; Roman Catholicism is Christian but in error; evangelism of Catholics to bring them to truth; absence of politics

appeals to the ‘holy remnant’, such as ‘Bible Protestants’ and other fundamentalists

appeals to ‘political Protestants’, secular Unionists and militant Loyalists

wide appeal to evangelicals

and other Protestants

no relationship with Catholics

politically expedient relationships

dialogue with Catholics in order to evangelise them


 Britain generally was also once a good case, although anti-Catholicism has now lost its saliency. We know a great deal about anti-Catholicism in Great Britain, covering twentieth-century Scotland (Bruce, 1985a, 1985b; Hickman, 1995), and England for the seventeenth (Hill, 1971; Millar, 1973), eighteenth (Colley, 1992; Haydon, 1993), nineteenth (Arnstein, 1982; Norman, 1968; Paz, 1992; Wolffe, 1991), and twentieth centuries (Hickman, 1995).

2 There are small pockets of similar social cleavage in parts of the United States, but due to the pluralistic nature of that society, anti-Catholicism finds no succour at the level of the social structure.

3 Paisleyism is the best example of the covenantal mode, and Bruce’s analysis of Paisleyism (1986, 1994) is the most comprehensive.

4 Hence the paradox, the ‘holy remnant’ want to keep Union with Britain, despite its secularism but only because the reverse is worse as they see it, unification with a Catholic Ireland.

5 Paisley makes a distinction between the system of Catholicism and individual believers, claiming that he reserves his hatred for the system (Bruce, 1986: 232). While there are examples of tireless work for those Catholics in his constituency, the distinction breaks down in his rhetoric and is hardly maintained by others, such as in paramilitary violence against Catholics and the boycott of Catholic businesses.

Word count 7045

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