Amongst the nick nacks of my late father I treasure most are the old lapel badges he wore from adolescence right through to his final days. The most important of these to me is his RAS badge. Possibly beneath it to him, prestige-wise, were his membership badges for the Holy Name and Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit societies. These too were devices of an almost military nature, relics that call to mind an era in Australian history when Christians of all denominations thought of themselves as troops in a great soldiery. The conventional historian’s reading of those times is that a mean-spirited sectarianism – much of it shadowing events in Ireland – was detrimental to social harmony and, more tragically still, apostolic fraternity. An alternative view is that for all their mutual antipathies the sects here kept their faith (if not their tribalism) understated – almost in agreed-upon deference to secularism as everyone’s Primate.
Neither thesis is untrue but nor is either the whole truth. Yes, Micks chipped away at Masons and Masons chipped away at Micks. The Anglicans were wary of the Calvinists, the Methodists were suspicious of the Orthodox, the Lutherans – for all I know – looked askance at the Baptists. But it was still one big corny family. I know my father respected men from all walks of religious life. He served with them in war and did business with them in peacetime. Hard though it is for anybody under, say, 40, to believe but there was a time in Australia when mockery of groups and sincere respect for persons was not mutually exclusive. Today we decree the former but fake the latter. Their way was better. Multiculturalism existed and thrived well before the post-war waves of immigration. People brawled but they built one of history’s greatest societies.
I was thinking of all this after reading a fascinating two-part analysis of Ireland in the era of Brexit by Dubliner John William O’Sullivan. He argues a realignment of fidelities along theological rather than perfunctory sectarian lines is currently underway and could reignite the Troubles. While a shooting war born of anti-woke fury might seem unlikely if explained in those limited terms, the new alliances being forged in one of the West’s last institutionally Christian societies are more fluid and nuanced than outsiders from more nihilistic polities (like ours) understand. At core, the volatility in Northern Ireland is not about Leave vs. Remain. It is still about loyalties born of old affiliations and their ‘betrayal’ by disciples of an arrogant neo-paganism.
The British Conservatives and the ten Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs that help keep them in power are all pro-Leave but are boxing viciously over the Irish Backstop and the damage it would supposedly do to both Northern commerce and the Unionist cause. Meanwhile, pro-Stay Sinn Féin and the SDLP have decided to put their differences aside to unseat the DUP Leavers. This isn’t your father’s Sinn Féin, mind you. It has become a pro-abortion, pro-gay ‘marriage’ bourgeois party and is no longer considered the natural choice for Northern Catholics. Protestant Unionists, for their part, are suddenly poor cousins to a disdainful Westminster in general and Johnsonian Brexiteers in particular. Re-energised nationalists smell blood in the water. These diabolically complex interplays make for a powder keg ensemble.
In early October of this year, Lisa O’Hare, the Catholic captain of the Tyrone Gaelic games team, announced that she would back the DUP over Sinn Féin because the former opposed abortion. “As an Irish Catholic who places God at the centre of my home and my heart we don’t have anyone who represents our views,” she told the BBC …
Not only is Boris Johnson’s northern Irish customs barrier seen as a headache for business, it is also seen as an open invitation for republicans to dust off their guns for unification. This month, says O’Sullivan, an embedded cross-border task force set up to monitor tensions and chatter reported that both nationalist and Ulster paramilitaries are primed to react to Brexit with violence. Paramilitary punishments and mortar attacks by the New I.R.A. have risen sharply over the past four years. In January, the group detonated a bomb outside a Derry courthouse. In October, an assembly of old-hand Unionists met in Belfast to plan their resistance to Johnson’s Brexit deal – the largest such gathering since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Britain no longer sees Northern Ireland as Neil Young saw Alabama: they don’t have the rest of the Union to help them along. The North is wounded economically and regarded as antediluvian socially. It won’t be surprising if even tepid southern nationalists begin to see Brexit chaos as a chance to kill Northern Ireland by subsuming it. What a satisfying denouement to the secularist march that would be; a black eye for Brits and another for Ulster clodhoppers. Does it matter that these casus belli spring forth not from old denominational beefs but – partly, at least – from new ones about the continued existence of public Christian culture itself? It matters a great deal if they help spark a new war. O’Sullivan argues:
In a world where the cultural battle lines are drawn not between the sects but between Christians and secularists, it seems inevitable that Irish Catholics and Ulster Protestants will soon see that they have more in common with each other than with their non-religious countrymen … the new Troubles, if they come about, will be viewed through the lens of the culture war. Indeed, this could well be the first “hot” culture war that we have seen in the modern Western world, and could become an international media spectacle.
The West is already in a state of phony culture war whose enmities are free of bullets but no longer on ice and comparable to Ireland’s in kind if not as kindling. In Australia too. Anti-Catholic penal laws (in all but name), anti-Christian sporting bans, prohibitions on advocating biblical morality, the rigged prosecution of Cardinal Pell and the atheist left’s bombastic triumphalism are beginning to stoke embers hot and numerous enough to have helped cook Bill Shorten’s goose, according to the Emerson-Weatherill report.
See John William O’Sullivan: The New Irish Ecumenism and New Troubles For Ireland?
For believers under siege – as O’Sullivan’s Irish in-betweeners seem to be – are there any lessons to be learned from Australia’s past? As inspiration, yes: Christians of all churches once lived their understanding of the Gospel with pride and expected governments and officials to pay deference to their beliefs. As cautionary tale, definitely: from about the 1960s, Christians too readily assimilated dozy Australian casualness and subjectivism into their own faith – justifying it as outreach, cultural rapprochement or even humility. So membership matters. That’s what Dad’s badges were about. But so does caution. For there is no scenario where the army of Israel Folaus and Margaret Courts wins this war as either angry isolates or gullible fraternisers. We have to start with cells – or parishes if you’re lucky enough to still belong to one – and build anew. In the mean-time, how many backward steps Christians are expected to take before reacting against the barbarians is an open, interesting question. In Northern Ireland, at least, the answer is likely to be very few.