Social Structure and Religious Division: Comparing the Form of Religious Distinction in the Two Irish States

Jennifer Todd

How far and how are religious distinctions affected by their sociopolitical context? We know that 'religionized politics' is coloured by the specific social and political interests that give rise to conflict, and that the same nominal religious distinctions take very different forms in peaceful societies.1 But the ways in which macro-level social structure and political division impacts on the micro-level experience of religious distinction are less well explored.

This article addresses these wider questions through an intra-Irish comparison. It looks at how nominally identical religious divisions with the same historical roots are experienced on each side of the Irish border. It asks how the different social demographic and political structures North and South affect the way Protestant/Catholic symbolic distinctions are understood, negotiated and sometimes challenged. After 90 years of partition, do the distinctions now have radically different resonances? Or are the same oppositions - religious and social - at work in both Irish jurisdictions, albeit managed differently in each?

As Table 2.1 indicates, the demographic, social and political structure of the Irish state and Northern Ireland differ radically. Partition left a majority Catholic state in the south, and a deeply divided society in Northern Ireland. Politics in the Irish state was formally inclusive while informally dominated by a Catholic majority and a Catholic ethos; however, the Protestant minority for long retained a socially and economically favourable position, with strong state interests in maintaining good community relations.2 In Northern Ireland, in

Table 2.1 The contrasting sociopolitical structure, North and South 2001-2

Northern Ireland

Irish state

Demography Protestant: Catholic



Political institutions

Consociational, shared

Majority ethos and dominance

Power resources (informal)

Radical changes towards equality

Stability, minority comfort, schools etc.


Within memory of most adults

Close to a century ago

Associational life

Contested within populations, still separate but increasing overlap in a new 'mixed' realm

Strong minority associations. Recent opening up so that both minority and high-status majority associations are increasingly mixed

contrast, the much larger Catholic minority was excluded economically and culturally as well as politically.3 In both states, strong religiously informed organizations - from education through to sporting, charity, and women and children's groups - maintained significant social segregation up to the very recent period.4 Both societies share a legacy of violence which continued into the early 1920s. Since then, the Irish state has been peaceful and politically stable, while Northern Ireland experienced a violent conflict between 1969 and 1994 that claimed over 3000 lives, and serious political tensions remain. Socially, Southern society evolved but gradually, while Northern Ireland has been radically restructured economically and institutionally in the past two decades.

Do these structural differences affect religious distinction? Has a distinctive political and religious culture now emerged in each jurisdiction? Despite some arguments to this effect, there has been relatively little research on these questions. I address them through comparative analysis of how religious distinction was discussed in 220 open-ended interviews on 'identity' conducted on each side of the Irish border between 2003 and 2006 by four interviewers, including the author.5 Over 75 of the interviews were in Northern Ireland. Individuals were accessed by snowball sampling, with an eye to even representation on class, gender, generational and religious divisions, and with an overrepresentation of religious minorities in the Irish state. We interviewed ordinary people, rather than political or religious activists.6 All interviews were taped and transcribed, with identifying details removed. In what follows I proceed inductively - who does and who does not volunteer which distinctions and why, tracing the different categories used and the meanings given to them, showing how complex and contested divisions are constructed. I assess the patterns of distinctionmaking in terms of familial background ('Catholic', 'Protestant' and 'mixed/neither'), and state of long-term residence (North or South).7 Quotations are chosen to illustrate typical modes of response.

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