Northern Irish Leader Discusses Religion, Politics In Speech

Nomaan Merchant

By Nomaan MerchantThe Daily Northwestern

Two weeks after a landmark peace agreement, the leader of a Northern Irish group that has worked toward reconciliation for three decades spoke at Evanston Public Library on Monday night to discuss the relationship between religion and politics in the area.

“Churches are part of the problem and struggle to be part of the solution,” said David Stevens, who leads Northern Ireland’s Corrymeela Community.

Stevens spoke for 30 minutes at the library, 1703 Orrington Ave., about the dual role of religion in both escalating and easing tensions in Northern Ireland.

For 30 years, Catholics and Protestants have fought for control of the British province. Thousands of people have died over the last half-century in fighting, but on March 26, leaders of both rival parties came to an agreement that will establish a provisional government in May, according to BBC reports.

Throughout the conflict, the Corrymeela group “worked with people of different backgrounds” to overcome religious differences, said Stevens, the group’s leader since January 2004.

“We’re concerned about creating a safe space where people feel they can tell their story,” he said.

In Northern Ireland, churches have helped enforce positive values within their congregations, Stevens said.

“Without churches, the situation would have been a lot worse,” he said.

However, the differences in these positive values is apparent in Protestant and Catholic churches.

“Protestant churches talk about law and order,” Stevens said. “Catholic churches usually preach about justice.”

Meanwhile, subtle variations in symbols and rhetoric used by pastors reinforce subconscious ideas of “who’s on the inside (and) who’s on the outside,” according to Stevens.

The result is an intertwining of religious and political affiliations, he said, where “national and religious aspirations sometimes fuse together.”

This puts extra strain on religious institutions to reconcile two completely different things, Stevens said.

“In a conflict, the tension between the story of Jesus and the world (churches) are part of collapses,” Stevens said.

The Irish leader took questions from the audience of about 12 people and offered his take on the country’s new power-sharing agreement.

“They discovered that they could not win with violence,” Stevens said. “There had to be change in Northern Ireland and that change was fiercely resisted.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]