Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Religion less of a marriage obstacle

Perhaps the most telling statistic on how Northern Ireland's two main communities, Protestants and Catholic, have evolved as parallel but separate societies is the number of mixed marriages.

Only around one in 10 relationships here cross the sectarian divide - and that is an increase on figures in recent decades. That may seem an absurdly low figure to someone from other regions of the UK where religion - or indeed race - is not seen as any barrier to partnerships and marriages.

But Northern Ireland has always been a place of two communities. The vast majority of Catholics and Protestants went to different schools, lived in segregated communities and had different cultures and even past-times.

What interaction did take place, particularly in rural areas, was friendly but at arm's length, hardly fertile ground at the best of times for forging lasting relationships. And the Troubles meant that there were few neutral meeting places where Catholics and Protestants could gather socially.

There were other factors mitigating against mixed marriages - the Catholic Church's insistence that any children of a mixed marriage would have to be brought up in that faith, the always-thorny problem of whether land or property could end up changing hands across the divide and the pressure from families and clergy. Little wonder that most people decided to take the easy option and look for a partner from within their own community.

A book just launched tells of the great difficulties many couples faced in mixed marriages in past years, but fortunately times are now changing. The influence of churches is reducing, young people are interacting more now than for many decades and love, not religion, is the determining factor in whether relationships progress. That is a sign of a maturing society, albeit one that is changing very slowly. The quest for a shared future - and the infrastructure to make it more accessible - is still as urgent a challenge as ever.

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