Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland: Boundaries of Belonging and Belief

Mitchell, Claire
Ashgate, Aldershot
0754641546 (pb)

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Cover of book In the vast body of academic literature that has been produced on the Northern Ireland conflict, something of a cosy consensus has emerged: religion is an 'ethnic marker.' It provides a name for the opposing communities but has little social or political significance in and of itself. Claire Mitchell's book is a timely challenge to that dominant orthodoxy. Her carefully researched account presents a succinct and nuanced analysis of how religion matters in Northern Ireland. Written in a clear and accessible style, it should appeal to academics as well as undergraduate and graduate students concerned with the Northern Ireland conflict and general issues in the sociology of religion.

The core of Mitchell's argument is that religion derives social and political significance from five overlapping and reinforcing dimensions. She devotes a chapter to each of the dimensions. The first and second have been emphasised in previous research: the relationship between the churches and socio-political power, including their relationships with nationalist and unionist politicians; and the role of religion as the dominant ethnic marker, maintained through segregated education, marriage, housing patterns and social networks. Mitchell argues that these dimensions are important for people at various points in time, but she makes her most original contribution when she turns to the next three dimensions of religion. These dimensions explain how religion gives not just a label, but real meaning, to the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant.

The next dimension Mitchell identifies is religion's role in the construction of communities. She focuses on how religious rituals bring people together physically, psychologically, and socially. Arguing that this dimension is more important for Catholics, she explains how the Catholic Church organises social life and helps Catholics to imagine themselves as part of a community one that does not include Protestants. This is an important insight, for there has been something of an academic and popular consensus that if religion matters in Northern Ireland, it matters for a few evangelical Protestants but not for Catholics. It also contributes to more general understandings of the social role of religion, with the potential to be applied to other societies that are deeply divided along religious lines.

The fourth dimension focuses on how religious 'ideologies' contribute to the construction of boundaries between Catholics and Protestants. Religious ideologies are sets of doctrinally-informed concepts that influence the way people think and act. They are significant even for people who do not practice their religion. This dimension is more important for Protestants, providing concepts that allow them to define themselves in opposition to Catholics: liberty, the 'honest Ulsterman,' and anti-Catholicism. This is in line with a large body of earlier research which stressed the importance of religious ideas for Protestants. The fifth dimension, the relationship between theology and politics, is closely related to the fourth. However, for Mitchell theology is distinct from ideology in that it is defined by doctrines; and it is important only for people who actively practice their religion. She argues that this dimension is confined largely to evangelical Protestants, citing familiar evangelical concepts such as anti-Catholicism, the chosen people, and the 'end times.' This analysis of evangelicalism builds on and updates much of the early work of Steve Bruce, although the relationship between evangelicalism and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) does not form a major component of this work, as it does in Bruce. When these five dimensions of religion are considered in tandem, a more complex picture of religion in Northern Ireland emerges. Understanding this opens up avenues for religion to contribute to dismantling the oppositional ideas, practices, and identities that have perpetuated the conflict. However, Mitchell does not pursue this in great detail. There is a modest section on 'Protestant theology and reconciliation,' in which she highlights the contributions of religious peace-building organisations and parish partnerships. A more rounded account would have included analysis of the most comprehensive book-length attempt to explain how religion might contribute to conflict transformation, Moving Beyond Sectarianism by Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg (2001).

Despite this quibble, Mitchell's book provides a valuable and comprehensive perspective on a complex and often misunderstood topic. It should be read as a vital supplement to many of the basic sociology and politics texts on the Northern Ireland conflict, which often dismiss the role of religion. Several features of the text make it especially appealing to undergraduates studying the sociology of religion or conflict, including 'key points' at the beginning of each chapter, a glossary of terms, and a helpful appendix on research methods. At the same time, the analytical rigour of Mitchell's argument should appeal to scholars in these areas. Her book could well become the definitive source on contemporary Northern Irish religion.


LIECHTY, Joseph & Cecelia Clegg (2001) Moving Beyond Sectarianism Dublin: Columba Press.

Gladys Ganiel
Trinity College Dublin