Grassroots faith leaders navigate a Northern Ireland in flux

Twenty-five years ago, the Good Friday Agreement halted much of the violence of Northern Ireland’s Troubles

Peter Smith
Tuesday 04 April 2023 07:24 BST

Teenagers from Catholic and Protestant youth groups lit candles on a Belfast street in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust, then listened solemnly to a warning about the dangers of Northern Ireland’s own infamous religious bigotries.

“We all know what prejudice is,” said Stephen Hughes, leader in charge of St. Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre, his voice robustly carrying over the twilight rush-hour traffic. “We were encouraged to hate each other because they’re Protestant or they’re Catholic.”

The teens were too young, he noted, to remember “the Troubles” — three decades of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,600 lives in the late 20th century and left countless more wounded and bereaved.

The violence largely ended 25 years ago this month with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which laid out a political process for resolving Northern Ireland’s future.

But that political process has been turbulent, skirmishes have periodically resurfaced, and Catholic and Protestants remain segregated in many ways.

There’s still plenty of work for those in the business of reconciliation and community-building.

The Holocaust memorial event on a January evening was one of a series of small yet earnest activities by two youth groups — the Catholic St. Peter’s Immaculata and the Townsend Street Social Outreach Centre, located in an adjacent Protestant neighborhood. Their aim is to build communication and friendship across the walls and habits separating their communities.

The event was commemorating a genocide far greater than the Northern Ireland conflict, but the memorial offered a powerful and relevant warning, Hughes said.

“Our own hatred, the laughs and jokes we make about each other, can quickly escalate,” he said.

He urged the teens to be peacebuilders. “Thankfully, you don’t know that violence,” he said. “The thing is, you’s are the future.”

And then the youths climbed back into their minibus for a stop at McDonald’s, where they mingled over Big Macs and fries before heading home to their separate neighborhoods.

Religion, long a part of the problem, can be part of the solution, said Ruth Petticrew, longtime director of the Townsend Street organization. “Let’s show people that love works, but it has to be genuine love, not preaching at them."

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is arriving as Northern Ireland’s population undergoes dramatic change.

Northern Ireland was created a century ago as a six-county entity with a two-to-one Protestant majority — fiercely loyal to the United Kingdom even as the rest of predominately Catholic Ireland won independence from it.

But now, Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland — a long-developing but still-dramatic reversal that became official with census results announced last year.

Catholics now comprise 42% and Protestants 37% of Northern Ireland’s population of 1.9 million, according to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

But in another demographic jolt, the number of people who don’t identify with any religion jumped to 17%, up from 10% a decade earlier.

Faith leaders in Northern Ireland say church attendance has shrunk even among those who still identify as Christian.

The Good Friday Agreement authorizes a referendum on Irish unification if polls ever indicate it would likely pass.

But nearly twice as many people in Northern Ireland — 50% vs. 27% — would vote to stay in Britain rather than to join Ireland if a referendum were held now, according to a 2022 survey published in the Irish Times.

What’s more, only 55% of Catholics in Northern Ireland would vote to join Ireland. Most others would either stay in the U.K. or were uncertain.

Secular and other voters are even more mixed — with nearly a third uncertain.

“There’s more and more and more people like myself who also don’t actually identify with the idea or don’t take a position on being part of the U.K. or part of the Republic of Ireland,” said Boyd Sleator, coordinator of the group Northern Ireland Humanists. “We should just think about governing ourselves.”

Even if religion is in retreat, faith-based groups are still working toward reconciliation on a grassroots level.

Few efforts are more striking than what’s taking place at the Building Bridges Community Boxing Club.

It operates in what was once the fellowship hall of a Presbyterian church that has since closed. The building was acquired by 174 Trust, a faith-based community group, and turned into a boxing gym.

It’s located astride one of the “peace walls” that divide neighborhoods in an effort to keep sectarian violence at bay. The gym’s front door opens onto a predominately Protestant neighborhood, its back door onto a mostly Catholic neighborhood.

That enables the gym to stay open in the evening, accessible to youths from both neighborhoods — even after the gates to the peace wall are closed each night.

Unlike some sports, which are divided along sectarian lines, boxing brings out fans from all communities, said the Rev. Bill Shaw, CEO of the 174 Trust, which works closely with the boxing club. When one young boxer, a Protestant, began to have success in the ring, his newfound Catholic friends from the gym turned out to cheer him on.

“When people don’t know each other and have no contact with the other, you can live with that prejudice and allow it to poison yourself,” Shaw said.

But it’s a different story, he said, “when they actually meet each other.”

Much of Shaw's work is at The Duncairn, a community center located in another former Presbyterian church located a few blocks from the boxing gym in a historically embattled neighborhood. Within its stained-glass windows and Gothic arches, The Duncairn today hosts concerts, exhibitions, an Irish-language preschool, a café and support groups.

On a winter morning, Catholic and Protestant clergy gathered for prayer around a table at the Duncairn.

One by one, they earnestly prayed for an end to prejudice and hatred, followed by contemplative silences and quiet expressions of “amen.”

The goal for such centers, Shaw said, is reconciliation rather than proselytizing.

“Faith is what motivates us,” said Shaw. “It’s not what we’re selling.”

Another faith-based initiative was evident on a winter evening, when scores of people from multiple churches and neighborhoods gathered in a Methodist sanctuary to pray together, listen to a Catholic speaker and worship with Psalms set to traditional Irish tunes accompanied by fiddle and tin whistle.

It was part of the larger 4 Corners Festival, an annual series of events seeking to bridge the religiously fractured city.

“The legacy of conflict has left us with fear,” said the Rev. Martin Magill, a Catholic priest and a festival organizer. “Being able to provide safe spaces is very important.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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