Religion’s role in Northern Ireland politics

Posted By: January 06, 2015

Chris Page.BBC News NI. October 16, 2014

Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell once famously said: “We don’t do God.”

But in Northern Ireland, it can feel like God is a political player.

A number of our politicians, including ministers, have faith and talk about it.

That makes Northern Ireland different to many other countries in the Western world.

Professor John Brewer from Queen’s University in Belfast has researched links between politics and religion.

“In most places, politicians keep their personal beliefs private – and they don’t impact on their public role as a politician,” he told BBC Northern Ireland programme The View.

“In Northern Ireland, the division between the public and the private has collapsed.”

Recently, that has led to some controversy.

LGBT rights and abortion are two issues in particular where the relationship between politicians’ beliefs and their decisions have come under scrutiny.

But a politician’s faith can reach into many policy areas.

I have been speaking to three MLAs who profess to be believers about how they would deal with a clash between their Christian beliefs and public opinion.

DUP assembly member Sammy Douglas says: “I would talk to people – fellow members of my party, my family, people within the community – and I would pray about some of these issues as well.”

He says he would make decisions after speaking to people in whom he had “a lot of confidence and trust”.

Alliance Party leader David Ford suggests his beliefs would play a part, but he would not take a position based on that alone.

“I have to be conscious that I have responsibility to wider society – not all people have the views I have,” he says.

The SDLP’s Alban Maginness says Christianity has been “the inspiration” for his politics.

“It has created a hunger for social justice,” he says.

But he adds: “You have to make a balanced judgement – you have to take into consideration your own party’s point of view. If there’s a collective view, you are generally supportive of that view.”

This week at Stormont, religion has been perhaps more visibly central than usual.

A choir from First Baptist Concord Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, sang for MLAs and staff in the Great Hall on Wednesday lunchtime.

In their home country, the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution – as is freedom of religion.

Faith is often seen as playing a major role in US politics.

The Worship Pastor accompanying the singers, Jeff Lawrence, says it is almost inconceivable that a US president could be a non-believer.

“When you take an oath of office, you place your hand on the Bible,” he explains.

“On all of our coins, it says, ‘In God We Trust,’ so it’s the foundation of our country.

“It would be very difficult for the people of the US to elect somebody who could not say they believed in God.”

In America, the ‘Christian Right’ is an influential – and high-profile – political phenomenon.

Left or right?
But does Christianity lead politicians to be right-wing, or would it encourage them to lean to the left?

Alban Maginness argues it’s the latter.

“I believe that social justice is quintessentially Christianity in the world – you move to the left in order to achieve that,” he claims.

Interestingly, Sammy Douglas also suggests Christian politicians should be oriented to the left.

“Jesus was left of centre, from what I see,” Mr Douglas says.

“He would have big problems with some of the statements coming from the Tory party about disadvantaged people, and young people in particular.”

But David Ford thinks being a Christian does not point you in one political direction or another.

“I’m not sure that if Christ was on this earth today he would be tied to any political party,” he says.

The relationship between Christianity and politics has always been complicated – and controversial.

In many parts of the developed world, religion has become less politically influential with the spread of secularisation.

While the levels of churchgoing are still higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK, church attendance is declining.

The most recent Life and Times survey suggested that fewer than 30% of people are now attending services once a week or more.

But University of Ulster sociologist Dr Máire Braniff says that this does not necessarily mean Northern Ireland is becoming secularised.

“Secularisation is not a word that sits easily – perhaps a better term is ‘unchurched’,” she says.

“That means people in Northern Ireland continue to have their religious beliefs, but do not always have to practise them in the ritualistic way of attending church services on a regular basis.”

So the link between politics and the pulpit may be becoming weaker.

But with the latest census showing 83% of people in Northern Ireland continue to identify with a religion, it seems faith will continue to be a force.