Bloody Irish: Religion, Freedom and Democracy


A Search for the Truth:  When Government Loses Control

County Down Memorial Plaque

Religion is taking a central place in the US presidential election as evangelicals continue to cast aspersions on Obama’s Christianity, preferring to see him as a Muslim in disguise, while others see Romney caught in the “cult” called Mormonism.  A society over indulging in religious pre-occupation is edging toward big trouble.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson taught us the national value of eschewing overt religious dogma.  In a democracy, it’s tolerance that matters.

Ireland, the North and the South of it, continues to provide a potent lesson of what can happen to a democracy when religion becomes a surrogate or stand-in for the secular guarantees of a civil society.  Beginning most recently in the 1960’s, a war raged in Northern Ireland that killed thousands.  If the same percentage were killed in a similar war here, the number would be about 320,000 Americans dead, nearly half the casualties of  the American Civil War.

The governmental control of the six counties of the North, whether by the Republic of Ireland or by the UK, became the reason for a vicious terrorist war where white Christians, (Catholics- Ireland and Protestants- UK) murdered and maimed each other for decades.

Both Dublin and London “ramped up” to meet the tit-for-tat murders and bombings by creating intelligence networks and moles to infiltrate the terror groups.  The North and the South had their own police forces and the military and intelligence services were also engaged in planting spies and gathering information.  It turns out that in this vortex of violence, law enforcement, on both sides, played a role in abetting the mayhem instead of preventing it.

Armagh Murder Scene

Two sets of killings, one in 1989 in Armagh and one in 1994 in Loughinisland, are the subjects of inquiries focusing on the “collusion” of the police and army.  The forces, in Ireland and the UK, are under fire for helping both the IRA and the Ulster Defense Forces (UDF) to commit murder. The Smithwick tribunal is examining whether or not the Irish Garda was involved in the killings of two high ranking Northern Ireland Police Officers ambushed after a meeting.  The Stevens/Cory reports examine a mountain of evidence suggesting that police authorities turned a blind eye to information about planned UDF killings of Catholics.

Only a very enthusiastic optimist would conclude that either inquiry is likely to ever learn the full truth about how the other government used its resources to ultimately collude in the deaths of citizens by their terrorist neighbors.  The Northern Ireland Troubles and their persistent legacy form such a potent warning because it was white Christians killing white Christians using their god as both shield and sceptre.

Washington and Jefferson, however we decorously plume their religious feathers today, saw piety as informing their inner selves and not as fodder for public preening.  Jefferson famously quoted Dr. Benjamin Rush, another founding father, as Rush observed that Washington (who he referred to as “the Old Fox”) had once again avoided talking about god in public.

Northern Ireland (and our Founding Fathers) prove that democracy and overt religiosity are a deadly mix.


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