Should religion be part of Northern Ireland’s ‘pathway to peace’? I’m none the wiser

TV review: Mary McAleese fails to answer the central question her documentary poses

Mary McAleese and Arlene Foster in With God on Our Side

Mary McAleese and Arlene Foster in With God on Our Side

 

With God On Our Side, Mary McAleese’s documentary about the role of religion in the Troubles and its place in modern Northern Ireland, doesn’t quite hit the mark.

The former President states in a voice-over at the start of the film (RTÉ One, Monday) that sectarianism has scarred many lives in the North. But she wonders, too, if religion can act as a “restraint on violence” and whether it “even offered a pathway to peace”.

Yet the documentary she has made doesn’t seem particularly concerned with matters of faith. There is some discussion of belief as it intersected with the Troubles – and whether established churches could have done more to speak out against the social ills that instigated the conflict in the first place.

But With God On Our Side too often loses sight of the issues it is supposed to be discussing and instead settles into a woolly recap of 40 years of conflict. “The Protestant population was originally transplanted here from Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries on to land taken from the native Catholics,” says McAleese. “At times since then, both communities have come under violent siege.” None of this will come as news to viewers.

It’s a shame the premise is so at odds with what has ended up on screen, as the former President is a thoughtful and emphatic interviewer with a talent for cajoling fascinating quotes from her subjects. She meets Pat Hume, the widow of SDLP leader John, in a conversation recorded just a few weeks before Pat’s death.

There is some perfunctory discussion of religion – yet the encounter centres largely on the great risk John Hume took when entering into dialogue with the Provisional IRA in the 1980s. “Patriotism should be about building for your country – not about destroying,” says his widow.

McAleese also talks with former DUP leader Arlene Foster. Foster speaks emotively about the violence she witnessed as a child, when Republican thugs attacked her father on their farm near the Border. “Knowing that your neighbours have been involved. Some – not all – knew what was going on,” says Foster. “And were able to turn a blind eye. [That] was very difficult to deal with.”

McAleese had a parallel experience as loyalist terrorists had driven her family out of their home in Belfast. “It was never going to satisfy loyalists that we were frightened. They wanted us gone,” she says. One night loyalists opened fire on the house with machine guns. Luckily, McAleese and her family were out at Mass.

If With God On Our Side went slightly overboard in re-stating the basic facts of the Troubles, in other areas it might have benefited from filling in the gaps. When violence broke out in the 1960s, how did the churches react? Were terrorists condemned from the pulpit? Did priests or ministers collaborate with them? Were Provos excommunicated? What, if any, tensions existed between hierarchy on either side of the Border?

We could also have done with knowing more about McAleese’s faith. She was raised Catholic – but is she still a believer today?And in what way was her faith affected by church scandals? It is true that this information is readily available online. It should not, however, be left to the audience to colour in the blanks.

There was a consensus among those interviewed that the conflict in the North had little to do with doctrinal differences. “It’s not over religion – it’s over identity. Irish and British,” says McAleese’s taxi driver.

To someone in the UK,the Continent or the United States such a statement may be an eye-opener. But in Ireland this amounts to stating the obvious and leads the viewer to wonder about the point of the film.

And though McAleese is undoubtedly a very able journalist and presenter,the suspicion around With God On Our Side is that it is answering a question that didn’t really need asking in the first place.