4thought on Ulster

This item was prepared as a response to the week in which Channel 4’s ‘4thought’ strand dealt with the issues of the Ulster ‘flag protest’.  I’ll be saying more about Ulster in future posts, but for now here’s a basic idea to think about….


I first looked into the problems of Ulster in the late 1960s when I was at Uni and the current troubles kicked off.  As an evangelical Christian I obviously had a lot in common with Ulster’s Protestants, but was appalled by what was going on there.

My analysis then was that oddly the religious aspect of the violence was not in the many things that Catholic and Protestant disagree about, but in one of the few things they broadly agree about.  Thing is, you could have real ding-dong arguments about issues like mass v communion, prayers to saints or not, papal infallibility v biblical infallibility – and yet the argument would remain just that, a verbal debate; these issues would not provide cause for riots, guns and bombs.  But the idea they agree about is the notion of having a ‘Christian country’, albeit with detail differences in each faith.  And by the nature of states, this means that they have to accept real physical fighting – war or police action – to establish or defend that Christian state, and social discrimination in the state in favour of one religion and against others; practical discriminations in areas like jobs, council housing, even fair voting arrangements; and those things lead to fighting  This also creates a dynamic of fear; the Catholics obviously want to change a fearful situation of being victims of discrimination, but Protestants fear losing their dominant position and becoming themselves underdogs.

The other thing I realised was perhaps the ultimate irony; despite the agreement of both Irish ‘sides’, the idea of a Christian country’ is actually not a Christian idea.  It is not taught in the New Testament and arose only three hundred years later when first Constantine formally tolerated Christianity but also supported it and tried to exploit the faith politically, and then about 70 years later another emperor decided that he wasn’t willing to have his subjects disagreeing with him about religion and made Christianity effectively compulsory.

In the New Testament, Jesus disclaims the idea of Christian states by saying ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and by teaching the need of a spiritual rebirth which of course cannot be achieved by human legislation.  Paul and Peter both portray the international multi-ethnic church itself as the real Christian nation, citizens of heaven who live humbly on earth as ‘resident aliens’ even in their native land, whose warfare is ‘not with physical weapons’ and who are not meant to be ‘managers of other people’s affairs’.  (this is only a sketch – there’s lots more similar teaching)

On the one hand, so long as Catholic and Protestant retain this idea of a Christian state, ongoing conflict is pretty much guaranteed; on the other hand, if both would recheck their beliefs against the Bible and discover this original alternative teaching which rejects the Christian state of either kind, then there would be a hope of taking the religious element out of the conflict.  That wouldn’t totally resolve all the issues, but as far as I can see many of the other original issues are now out of date, and compromise would be a lot easier if people were not thinking that they were doing the will of God and upholding a religion rather than just secular issues.

Sadly neither Eire nor the mainland UK can help in following that course because both are themselves nominally religious states, Eire Catholic and England with an ‘established’ Protestant church of which the Queen is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  ‘Unionism’ and ‘Loyalism’ are basically about Ulster’s Protestants wanting to remain part of ‘Protestant’ England, which is why the Union Flag is such an emotive symbol and the decision to stop flying it has caused such protest.