Review of ‘Ex-combatants, Religion and peace in Northern Ireland’

A new book that has just been published that will be of interest to students and academics of the Northern Ireland conflict, as well as peace work practitioners, is ‘Ex-combatants, Religion and Peace in Northern Ireland‘ by John Brewer, David Mitchell, and Gerard Leavey.

The book breaks new ground by exploring the controversial issue of the religious outlooks of ex-combatants, both Republican and Loyalist, in the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The authors highlight that religion has often been viewed as a contributing factor in the violence of the conflict, but little has been written about the personal religious beliefs of the combatants themselves.  This book aims to address that gap.  It is interesting that this type of approach has not been attempted before, perhaps illustrating the top-down narrative that is often applied to the conflict by academics and commentators.  Instead, this book attempts, quite correctly, to allow those who were involved in the conflict to speak for themselves, and the authors draw on material from their own interviews carried out specifically for the research.

The book also carries extra significance for another reason.  The authors point out that the interviews conducted for the book were carried out just before the Boston College row broke – a dispute that may have wide repercussions for those involved in research on the conflict, and which resulted in many ex-combatant groups withdrawing from participation in such research projects – and the authors believe that that given the fall-out from this case, this may be the last study involving ex-combatants for some time.

Aside from these reasons, the book is a fascinating read.

Themes the book explores include: Religion and the Northern Ireland Conflict; The Personal Faith of Ex-Combatants; Religion and Motivations for Violence; Religion and Prison; Ex-Combatants and the Churches; Perspectives on the Past: Religion in the Personal and the Political; and finally, Religion and Transitional Justice in Northern Ireland.  The book concludes by proposing a framework for understanding the contribution of religion in transitional justice.

One important point the book makes is that there existed a broad range of religious beliefs found among combatant groups:

Generalisations and stereotypes that were prevalent during ‘the Troubles’ are clearly false – such as the IRA being a Catholic army on the one hand or a god-less and Marxist front on the other, or Loyalists being irreligious thugs or evangelical madmen. Combatant groups contained the array of religious commitment and unbelief found in the wider society. (p.44)

The book explores some of the dark unexplored corners of the conflict, addressing questions that have been rarely asked, or not asked at all.   One of these questions is of the relationship, or lack of, that existed between combatants and the church.  It highlights the failure of the institutional church – aside from a few individuals – to engage in any meaningful way with combatant groups.  The authors write in the introduction:

And we come to the same gloomy conclusions about the contradictory role of religion (in this case, in ex-combatants’ choice to desist from armed struggle) and the same highly critical judgement of the failure of the institutional churches (in this case, to assist ex-combatants in this transition). This is no better demonstrated than by two of our respondents, one a Republican ex-combatant who was told by a priest to ‘fuck off’ when he went to confession as a result of emotional anxiety; the other a Loyalist ex- combatant who said the mainstream Protestant ministers treated him as scum, like something disgusting found on the rich leather sole of their rather expensive Italian shoes.‘ (p. ix)

If the book has a limitation it is that it limits itself to non-state combatants in the conflict.  The views of those in state forces remain unknown, perhaps scope for future work.

This book is the first of its kind.  There will no doubt be further studies and publications on the subject in the future but this important and much needed text will prove to be the reference point concerning religion and ex-combatants in Northern Ireland for students and academics for many years to come.

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