In the Post-9/11 world (and I admit to some discomfort with that over-used trope) the question of what is religion and what is politics looms large in public and media discourses.  Is a political movement or social change organization “religious” because it says it is, or because the majority of members are, or because it claims to stand for the rights of religions or the religious rights of individuals?  We can think of examples in each of these categories.

And, good journalism would be that which would help keep those things straight.  So, it was with some interest that I saw a story fed within the current news cycle by the Associated Press on the long-awaited deal on the Norther Ireland judiciary.

Remember Northern Ireland?  Yes, there was factional fighting there for over four decades (and most of us forget that the tensions along that fissure have existed for centuries).  When we talk about religiously motivated terrorism, we need to remember that a great deal of that took place during “the troubles,” as this struggle came to be called.

Today’s AP story covered the announcement of the conclusion of important negotiations in power-sharing between former enemies.  Now, as we should know, on the one side are Irish nationalists who are mostly Catholics and their cause was rooted in part in claims concerning anti-Catholic discrimination.  The Unionists on the other side are largely Protestant, identifying religiously, as in other ways, with the United Kingdom.  The AP correspondent chose to identify the leaders of the two sides in a curious way.  Martin McGuinnis, the leader of the Nationalist political party, Sinn Fein, he described as “Irish Catholic leader, Martin McGuinnis, while Peter Robinson, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, is “British Protestant Leader.”

The nuances are everything here.  Martin McGuinnis is not a Catholic leader.  He is a former leader of the Irish Republican Army, the Nationalist group that is, as I said, majority Catholic and for whom Catholic identity is central, but he is not an ecclesiastical leader, as this appellation implies.  Robinson is Protestant.  In fact, the is a prominent Evangelical figure, well known in both the US and the UK, who has recently been embroiled in a sex-and-money scandal that would make Jimmy Swaggart blush.  You can look it up.  But, I doubt Robinson would wish to describe himself, in this context, as “British.”  Yes, he’s a unionist, and yes, his party favors Ulster remaining in the UK, but to say that he is British, in the argot of Irish politics, almost implies he’s not really, well, Irish at all.

As I said, it is complex, and readers deserve more careful identification, and deserve it from the AP.  These labels take a specific stance on the complex question of whether and how these movements were, or were not, “religious” or “about religion.”

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