Expanding the Social Imagination: Lessons from Northern Ireland

JUNE/JULY 2012: REVIEW

by Gail Gunst Heffner

Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Faith-based Organisations
Ronald A. Wells
Liffey Press, 2010. $29.95. 258 pages.

Since its founding in 1921, the small country of Northern Ireland has been the site of intense human suffering because of religious and political differences. In the three decades between 1969 and 1998, more than 3,700 Northern Irish people died during “the Troubles.” Many scholarly works have been written about the role of religion in causing the Troubles; less has been written about the role religion has played in helping to heal the Troubles. Ronald Wells has been visiting and studying Northern Ireland for forty years and has written a number of books and articles about the religious conflict there between Loyalist Protestants and Nationalist Catholics. In this newest book, Wells argues that since both Protestant and Catholic churches were involved in creating and maintaining the Troubles, Christian communities–both Protestant and Catholic–“need to be present in the unmaking and dismantling” of the conflict and in the creation of a lasting peace.

Wells explores how faith-based organizations and other voluntary associations are at work to promote reconciliation and hope within Northern Irish society in order to establish a fully functioning democracy. This book has salience for readers interested in the role Christians can play to foster reconciliation in wartorn, politically contested regions of the world, but also to those more generally interested in forgiveness and its importance at an interpersonal and social level.

Wells begins with the idea that forgiveness must be tied to history and memory if reconciliation is to be possible. He draws on insights from philosophers, theologians, historians, and psychologists to address the fundamental question: How do we appropriately honor the past and keep faith with past victims, yet ignite our collective imagination to construct a new vision of reconciliation? Wells draws on the work of philosopher Hannah Arendt, who ties forgiveness—the act of giving and receiving forgiveness for past wrongs—to promise, in which two or more parties must promise to each other that there will be no repetition in the future of the wrongs and hurts experienced in the past. To achieve any hope of reconciliation, forgiveness must be coupled with promises for change in the future and mutual accountability. This book does not advocate for a simple or cheap forgiveness but articulates the complexity of these issues within the context of this unique place. Who forgives whom? Do the various entities in the conflict really want to be healed and are they willing to change? These questions are relevant to the Northern Ireland context but also far beyond. They are fundamental to any contested situation, whether interpersonal, social, or political.

One of the strengths of this book is its careful examination of many faithbased organizations and other institutions of civil society that are working to find ways to build a democratic society in which all people move forward together. Particular attention is given to so-called “cross community” work that is being accomplished on the ground in Northern Ireland, and the reader is introduced to an array of ecumenical endeavors that have been doing important work in the years preceding and since the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998. Wells outlines the work of Presbyterians, Catholics, Anglicans, and evangelicals in individual chapters, offering depth and perspective on their accomplishments while honestly acknowledging the challenges these groups have faced as they try to address the question of what to do now that a kind of peace has come.

Another strength of this book is its attention to the critical role sectarianism has played and continues to play in Northern Ireland. Wells draws on the work of Maria Powers and others who have identified sectarianism as more than just a personal attitude of the human heart. “[Sectarianism] has a systemic reality and it exists in communal forms (voluntary associations) and in institutional forms and structures (governmental, political and economic) … when the religious loyalties of one group are invoked to the disadvantage of another.” These scholars point out that sectarianism becomes destructive when a group’s legitimate needs for identity and belonging are twisted into a demonizing of others. Hope and Reconciliation offers a number of rich examples of how organizations, both faith-based and civic, have worked to move their society beyond sectarianism to foster democracy in action. Wells rightly acknowledges that a lasting peace process needs to reach grassroots people at the local level, not just at the level of politicians and institutions. The book could have been strengthened if more attention had been paid to how sectarianism is internalized in unconscious and subtle ways that often serve to maintain the status quo. This has parallels to race relations in the United States in the post–Civil Rights era, where racism is less obvious, more covert, and functions more in the systems of privilege and less in individual instances. Nevertheless, this book makes a valuable contribution by acknowledging that a society can experience an absence of violence but not an end to sectarianism, which then leaves the peace process in a precarious situation.

Northern Ireland is a unique place with its own culture and history, yet the lessons people there are learning have applicability in places throughout the world. In 2006 I was an instructor with a group of students on a three-week January term in Northern Ireland to study the historical conflict between Catholics and Protestants. One of the highlights of the class was the hospitality extended to us by a Catholic priest, Father Gerry Reynolds, and a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Ken Newell. These two men shared with us the remarkable story of their friendship, their courage in the face of great odds, and their leadership among their respective communities to foster a greater understanding of how Christians can be reconciled with God and with one another in the midst of human brokenness. Our group experienced, in other words, what Ron Wells offers the reader in this book: a vision of what is possible when people have a “desire for mutual forgiveness and a willingness to address vital matters of truth seeking.”

Gail Gunst Heffner is the director of academic community engagement in the provost’s office at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.