Party Politics and Religion in Northern Ireland
- Neil MatthewsNeil MatthewsSchool of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies, University of Bristol
Contrary to popular belief, Northern Irish politics is not an entirely religious affair. The widespread and longstanding use of the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” to denote political allegiance undoubtedly contributes to such an impression. The relationship between religion and politics in Northern Ireland is, however, more complex than these convenient labels suggest. Indeed the question of whether and to what extent religion possesses any political significance in the region has generated considerable academic debate.
Organizationally, there is a clear separation of church and party in Northern Ireland. The main political parties have eschewed formal ties with churches, and faith leaders have largely confined themselves to involvement in “small p” politics. The one exception to this general rule has been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Its close ties with the Free Presbyterian Church has long rendered it a unique case in the British and Irish context. The historical relationship between the main unionist parties and the Orange Order, a quasi-religious organization, further blurs the lines between religion and party politics in Northern Ireland.
Since the signing of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement in 1998, alternative or non-ethnonational political issues have become increasingly salient in Northern Ireland. More specifically, touchstone moral issues have taken center stage on several occasions. Abortion rights and marriage equality, for example, remain high on the contemporary political agenda, with clear party differences observable on each issue. The staunch moral conservatism of the DUP, derived from its commitment to a fundamentalist Protestant doctrine, again sets it apart. The continued exceptionalism of Northern Ireland on these issues, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom and, increasingly, Ireland, serves to reinforce the importance of understanding the role religion plays in shaping party policy programs and party competition in the region.