A Reconciled Future: Ireland and Political Theology

By: Linda Hogan

September 23, 2020

Responding to: Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

A Reconciled Future: Ireland and Political Theology

Ireland loomed large among Gerard Mannion’s capacious interests. From the time we met in the early 1990s when we were both young academics in Leeds—he at Trinity and All Saints, me at the University of Leeds—we debated the politics of British-Irish relations, the rights and wrongs in their intertwined histories, and the role that religion played in the identity politics of Northern Ireland. These were bleak years. The violence continued. Fragile ceasefires were negotiated, then collapsed. The economic and psychological toll of the Troubles was clear for all to see. Yet there was an emerging hope that a politics of accommodation could be forged through the leadership of individuals and communities who were committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. We celebrated when the 1998 Belfast Agreement was signed, tentative about its durability but hopeful about its prospects.

The decades since the 1998 Belfast Agreement saw new challenges emerge for the communities in Northern Ireland, and the recent departure of the UK from the European Union has undermined confidence that the relationship between Britain and Ireland can be reconceived based on mutual respect and equality. Yet it is precisely in such times of difficulty that a new, inclusive vision of these interdependent relationships needs to be articulated. 

Yet it is precisely in such times of difficulty that a new, inclusive vision of these interdependent relationships needs to be articulated.

In Northern Ireland, civic actors have continued to build relationships across sectarian divides, to acknowledge the complexities of historic grievances and to create new spaces in which pluralist communities can encounter each other. Although their position and influence has diminished considerably, the churches too have continued to play an important role in this work of reconciliation and in the articulation of a vision of the common good that can contribute to the building of a reconciled future. 

“The common good’” and “a reconciled future”—these are phrases whose simplicity and familiarity tend to obscure complex issues and contested perspectives. For the churches this is also familiar yet contested territory, and, as Gerard’s work has argued specifically in relation to the Catholic Church, their capacity to be a credible voice on these issues will depend not only on the values and principles they advocate, but also on the manner in which they engage in public discourse on these issues. 

So how does one speak about the common good today, and whose voices need to be heard in this context? Like in many advanced economies, both Northern Ireland and the Republic continue to have pockets of shocking deprivation and exclusion in the midst of plenty. Samuel Moyn’s point about market fundamentalism triumphing in post-war liberal democracies rings as true in Ireland, north and south, as it does in other comparable contexts. Moreover, in Northern Ireland economic deprivation can often reinforce and amplify political grievances, thereby compromising the possibilities of a reconciled future. Thus, the commitment to equal dignity, which is so fundamental to the common good and to a reconciled future, requires a determination to address the inequalities and exclusions of globalization in their local manifestations. 

So how does one speak about the common good today, and whose voices need to be heard in this context?

While attention continues to be focused on political and denominational divides, this economic and social exclusion is a serious impediment to the creation of the reconciled future to which governments and communities have committed. Additionally, there is a risk of new forms of inequality and exclusion emerging, based on ethnicity, migrant status, or race. Nor are these challenges unique to Ireland or, indeed, to Northern Ireland. Rather, across the world ethno-tribalism and nationalism is returning, often enflamed by political leaders who benefit from the disaffection and division these exclusions (whether real or imagined) create. 

Indeed, these were issues that the late John Hume highlighted in his Nobel Lecture in 1998 in Stockholm. In his lecture he spoke about an Ireland “of partnership where we wage war on want and poverty, where we reach out to the marginalised and dispossessed, where we build together a future that can be as great as our dreams allow.” While the reconciliation towards which the Belfast Agreement pointed remains imperfectly realized, nonetheless civil society organizations, including the churches, continue to work towards these goals. Equality, mutual respect, justice, and solidarity: these are among the values on which a reconciled future depends and were fundamental to the political theology that Gerard so passionately pursued.

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