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Northern Ireland Conflict

Religion vs. politicsThe conflict in Northern Ireland is likely one of the most closely watched and hotly debated disputes of our time. Spanning now for over a century, what remains at the root of the conflict is unclear. Many theories have developed over time, yet no one theory seems to adequately describe the complex struggle. The conflict has been divided down many lines; ethnically between the British and the Irish, geographically, between the North and the South of Ireland, and religiously between Protestants and Catholics. Theories that have emerged have pointed to causes such as land claims and a nationalist ideology, ethnicity and culture, and perhaps most frequently, religion when attempting to define the conflict. In fact, what is more likely is that elements of all of these issues lie at the root of what is commonly referred to as "The Troubles". OriginsThe history of this contemporary conflict is detailed, but impossible to ignore. As the 19th century drew to a close, Britain became aware of a rapidly growing sense of Irish Nationalism.

In 1870, the Irish Protestants placed the notion of Home Rule on the front burner in an attempt to separate Ireland from the rapid secularism that was occurring in Britain. Feeling tremendous pressure to grant Ireland Home Rule, Britain began to talk about making efforts to "pacify" Ireland, implying that it would indeed grant their wish. Talks of Home Rule were then delayed. The Irish saw the delay as a further political tactic of a British parliament who had no intention of granting them autonomy. The British struggled with the question of who would run this complex society that was so heavily rooted in imperialistic tradition. This delay further divided Irish nationalists. New radical forms of nationalism emerged, such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Fein, whose leaders were willing to use violent means if necessary to secure Irish independence. A further divide between Protestants and Catholics also developed at this time, particularly in the northern province of Ulster. Unionists groups, who were Protestant by religion and British by tradition, were opposed to Home Rule because they believed that Ireland should maintain her ties to Britain. In an effort to resist the Home Rule movement, they began to organize. They created a provisional Government of Ulster, complete with a constitution and raised an army to defend it. They gathered over a half a million signatures, some of the Unionists even signing in their own blood.

The debate over Home Rule was put on hold when World War I broke out. The Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 served as a reminder to the British that the question of Ireland's independence would need to be answered when the war was over. Over 220 people were killed and over 600 more injured when Irish Republican Brotherhood rebels took hold of Dublin. In the face of what could have been a political victory for the British, they made the error of executing the surviving Irish rebels.Partition and the birth of Northern IrelandThe dilemma of Home Rule as the British saw it was how to given the Irish Catholics what they wanted while still providing for the Irish Protestants of Ulster. Their answer was the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which created two separate parliaments, one in the North and one in the South. These parliaments were charged with their own domestic affairs, but all foreign affairs and income tax collection remained in the hands of the British. Further resistance eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which outlined the creation of the Irish Free State, now known as the Republic of Ireland. It was made up of the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connaught, as well as three of the nine counties of Ulster - Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan. Northern Ireland, now a legal entity made of up the six remaining counties of Ulster - Fermanagh, Armagh, Tyrone, Londonderry, Antrim and Down - remained under British rule.

The division created an almost entirely Catholic population in the South of Ireland and a Protestant majority in the North. The partitioning of Ireland was viewed by the South as a temporarily solution to the `Protestant' problem in the North. They maintained that not an inch of Irish land would be given up to the British. Population divisions had always existed in the two major cities of what was now Northern Ireland. Belfast, the largest city and centre of economic activity had a largely Protestant population, where as Derry, a key centre for the shipping industry had a largely Catholic population. With the rise of industrialization, there was a rapid migration of people to Belfast, predominantly in search of work and housing. The majority of the people migrating were Catholic, which began to present a problem for the Protestant community. Not only were they competing for housing and employment, but also the percentage of Catholics in Belfast was not only rising, but also they were beginning to organize. As they learned how to use political institutions to wield influence, the Protestants became more resentful of their presence. To the Catholics, their eventual control over Belfast was inevitable. What was born was a conflict between the working class members of society, while the middle and upper classes struggled to maintain peaceful control. The peace was not to last. Theories about the conflictThe decades to follow would be wrought with violence. Battles would be waged between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Ulster Defence Association and British paramilitaries.

Thousands of innocent people would be killed in bomb blasts, riots and sectarian killings. Even law abiding citizens lend support to these groups, because the battle for the "Cause" on either side is paramount. Theorists have struggled over a solution to "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland for a number of years. Yet in seeking this solution, few have truly gotten inside the conflict. Northern Ireland's battle has produced not only an enormous human cost but also a unique population that has been raised in violence. Understanding that population is key to any sort of peace agreement. That understanding lies in examining what motivates both sides of the conflict. The battle over land is one of the most common sources of conflict in history. It is not surprising then that it plays a role in this conflict. The Famine of 1845-1849 was a significant set back in Anglo-Irish relations. It was seen by some as an attempt to pacify the Irish through starvation. The relief offered to Catholics during the famine also furthered the divide between Protestants and Catholics, as it was often offered on the condition that they attend a Protestant church.

It was becoming clear to Irish Catholics that the root of their hardship lay with the British.Another one of the theories that have been presented is that the conflict is rooted in ethnic or cultural difference. The obvious critique to this idea is that the Protestant and the Catholic groups have one major thing in common - they are all Irish. Yet, these two groups would tend to differ in that belief. The label Protestant has come to signify the Irish of the North that identify themselves with British tradition. Despite the fact that they were likely born in Ireland, they tend to associate themselves with being British. They are also referred to as Unionists, Loyalists or Orangemen. On the flip side of that are the Catholics. The population that falls under this label is considered ethnically Irish. They fight for a united Ireland, free from British rule. They attempt to maintain the Irish language of Gaelic, and although there are few places left that use it pre-dominantly, it is still taught in Roman Catholic schools. These people are often referred to as Nationalists or Republicans.

The Irish argument then is that there is a distinctly `Irish' culture that is being stifled by a `British' majority in Northern Ireland. The two keys elements of the `Irish' culture that make co-existence near impossible are that it is rooted in a nationalist ideology. Catholic’s belief is that harmony can only exist when all of Ireland is united and the assimilation of the non-Irish is complete. The major problem with this plan is two-fold. Firstly, Protestants have a culture, which they believe in and defend and do not wish to sacrifice. Secondly, Northern Ireland has existed as an independent state for over 80 years, and has likely developed a kind of culture that is unique and that may not blend well with the culture of the Republic of Ireland. Religion seems to be the element that ties many of the theories on the conflict together. Yet religion remains an integral part of ones culture. In the battle over land, religion maintains its tie through the battle between Protestant landlords and Catholic tenants. It is important then to look seriously at the role that religion plays in the conflict in Northern Ireland.
There are two sides to the religion debate. While both Protestantism and Catholicism are forms of Christianity, the beliefs surrounding how society should be structured can lead to political conflict. Catholicism is a very closely-knit religion. One of the key elements of the belief is in the emphasis placed on prayer and sacraments. The individual who administers these sacraments becomes of the utmost importance, which results in the creation of the priesthood. This suggests a social order where the leaders have significant control over the systems of a society. Protestantism in contrast is based much more loosely. It is composed of several forms of Christianity, including Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and the Church of Ireland. The appeal is much more direct - one where the minister prepares parishioners to meet God directly. Protestants fear that if Ireland is united, Catholicism will consume their faith. Religion is often downplayed as a cause of the conflict in Northern Ireland because Western pluralistic societies do not place as much emphasis on the importance of religion in daily life.

The question then becomes how does one find a solution to a conflict that is so multifaceted? Belfast child psychologist Morris Frazer indicates that what Northern Ireland is now faced with is "a generation of children who have lived with fear, have been taught to hate and who now aspire to kill." (Morrissey and Smyth 2002). Here in lies the starting point to resolution - education. It has become clear that in order to implement a peace agreement between Protestants and Catholics, and to make positive progress towards a bi-national state, a bottom-up approach must be used. There are a few key things that must be taken into consideration by all sides. The first is that violence is not now, nor will it ever be, a successful bargaining tool. Further to that is the idea that a peace agreement cannot end at the absence of direct violence. Progress must be made towards a model of positive peace. In order to achieve this, negotiations must consider the positions of the minority - Catholics in Northern Ireland and Protestants in Ireland as a whole. No one groups' rights can be infringed upon.

This would lead almost naturally to the idea of a bi-national state. Civil Rights´ MovementBombings, shootings and countless other acts. Will the violence ever end? Will peace and stability ever come? These were the questions that for most of Northern Irelands history best described prospects for a solution. For generations unionist and nationalist communities had been separated as well as isolated from each other, turning to demonstrations of community strength to meeting with each other in negotiation and cooperation. For the most part, the earliest attempts at peace attempted to make only mechanical political solutions. These only reinforced the already opposing relationships. Relative calm followed the Ireland Act of 1949, which created the Republic of Ireland in the south. But that changed after Northern Ireland's Catholics organized a large demonstration protesting discrimination in voting rights, housing and unemployment in 1968. Hunger StrikesBoth the Irish Republican and British sides experienced breakthroughs in the 1980s that would help to prepare the ground for the peace process. A prison hunger strike in 1981, during which ten republicans died, gave a huge and unexpected boost to republican politics when hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to the British parliament. The propaganda campaign around the hunger strikes started the Sinn Fein involvement in electoral politics and community action.

It was this event that started a transformation. This was the beginning of Sinn Fein's ascendancy over the IRA. This was the beginning of a shift in emphasis from a military strategy to a primarily political one, and a lowering margin of victory on which the Republican outlook was focused, from the absolute principle of the right of the Irish people as a whole to self-determination towards ensuring that the immediate interests of their core base of support were sufficiently represented in and by British state institutions. In taking their seats in the Irish Parliament and later in local councils in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein was explicitly recognizing institutions set up under partition and thus implicitly recognizing the partition of the country itself. Peace ProcessAnglo-Irish AgreementWhen Republicans did engage in a peace process contacts like nationalist John Hume were to be important. With the additional support from sections of Irish-America this cooperation with 'constitutional' nationalism became the pan-nationalist alliance. This connection acted as the go through which Republicans were able to ease their movement from a confrontational approach to a placatory one. The role of intermediaries was to become very important in the peace process.

During the late 1980s contacts were made and a network of connections developed. But at this stage the contacts were largely secret and unfruitful, a reflection of both the pariah status of Republicans and the distance between their stance and that of other political actors. In the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 the main parties began to participate in efforts to create a democratic peace. The search for peace had always been overwhelmed by the violence that reinforced separation. The British government's negotiation and signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the government of the Republic of Ireland in 1985 marked some developments that were to be important for the peace process. The Agreement brought the British government closer with the government of the Republic of Ireland. This was also significant for moving away from viewing Northern Ireland as a purely domestic matter for the British government. The introduction and maintenance of the Agreement was achieved against the express wishes of Ulster unionists. This was an indication of the declining power of the Unionists in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Power-sharing Assembly of 1974, Unionists failed in their attempts to wreck the Agreement. Such a failure also indicated that the British government was prepared to face down Unionist opposition.The current peace process began in April 1993 when John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, met to discuss the future of Northern Ireland. An idea of determination for the people of Ireland was a major priority.

And they hoped these discussions would lead to a historical agreement between the British and Irish governments. A key element of this discussion was that Britain should be willing to allow the people of Ireland to decide their own political future. This meant that they had to accept the possibility of a united Ireland. Furthermore, they were to call on Britain to declare it had no selfish, political, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland. SF in past years had shown some signs that they wished to peacefully and democratically reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Through their coming together, Hume and Adams signalled a change in the Nationalists approach to the Northern Irish situation which would, eventually, entail Republicans being willing to abandon violence. In this approach, Nationalist leaders hoped to appeal to a much larger percentage of the nationalist community and to the Irish people of the Republic. Violence had reduced support for the Nationalist cause in the Republic of Ireland. The task of SF would be to convince the IRA that they could achieve their political aims without the use of paramilitary force. Joint Declaration For PeaceThe discussions between Hume and Adams would be the driving factor to talks between the British and Irish governments. In June 1993 both governments came together to discuss the future of each governments relationship to Northern Ireland.

For six months, both governments would try to reach a compromise. The main debate focused on the question of self-determination. In the end the British government could not accept self-determination for the people of Ireland as a whole. On 15 December 1993 the Joint Declaration on Peace was released. To Republicans, the declaration was not seen as a solution to the conflict between the two communities. The document claimed to create a structure in which a peaceful political settlement could come about. Both British and Irish governments knew that no democratic process could be influenced by violence. It was also known that if the talks were to produce any lasting settlement the process would have to be as inclusive as possible. It was considered essential that Loyalist and Republican paramilitary groups should be encouraged to enter into cease-fires. While politicians had struck a compromise, paramilitary groups had not. Republicans spent some time seeking clarification on the Joint Agreement. Only when they felt the agreement would allow them to pursue their objectives politically would they consider a cease-fire. Loyalist violence was a response to Republican violence, but it was also a sign of their insecurity regarding their relationship with the British government. Although unionists were in the majority in Northern Ireland and the document would only allow a united Ireland to be achieved by majority consent from the Northern Ireland population, unionists no longer felt they help the power.
The SF put a lot of effort into the process that eventually was to bring about an IRA cease-fire. SF was convinced that the IRA's objectives could be achieved well through democratic means. The SF argument clearly influenced the leaders of the IRA. On 31 August 1994 the IRA announced their cease-fire. Though it was a victory for peace, it was not an all-inclusive Republican cease-fire. There were other less known groups such as the Irish National Liberation Army and Republican Sinn Fein that did not consider themselves bound by the IRA's cease-fire. A long and violent six weeks had past before the CLMC announced a cease-fire of their own. In 1995 both governments introduced a new Framework for Agreement. Peace in Northern Ireland helped the British and Irish governments find a new confidence in their dialogue. Not only was the document a continuation of issues discussed in The Joint Declaration for Peace, it also introduced new ideas for future governmental structures. Not everybody in the nationalist community rejected the framework. Some believed the agreement would be beneficial for the common good, the proposed structures had the potential to benefit both communities economically. However, the unionists did not see it in the same way.

The Cease - Fires: Republicans and LoyalistsThe decommissioning of paramilitary arms became an important issue as Northern Ireland moved towards multi-party talks. It became apparent that some of the participants would only accept those parties, who were linked to paramilitary organizations, into a talk's process if weapons were first handed over. Opposing parties saw this not only as unrealistic but also as an unfair precondition on the entry to talks. The British decided a separate committee should be formed on the question of decommissions. This didn't go over well with Sinn Fein or the IRA. On February 9th, the IRA ended their cease-fire. The process was to go on. Talks opened June 1996. As expected, SF was not allowed to enter the talks because the IRA had not resumed its cease-fire before the talks began. It would stay without Sinn Fein and be overshadowed by IRA violence most of the time. As September 1997 grew closer, and SF recognized the British government's desire to include them in the talks or else proceed without them, the Republican movement reassessed its political situation. John Hume argued that a resumption of the cease-fire was once again within reach of the government. On July 18th Hume and Adams released a joint statement that said lasting commitment would only be achieved if it is based on principles of democracy and equality and has the allegiance of both traditions.

Two days later, the IRA resumed its cease-fire. Both governments reacted with reserved hope and waited to see if the cease-fire was genuine. If it were clear the IRA had abandoned all paramilitary activity for six weeks, then SF would be allowed to enter the talks in September. The cease-fire held, SF was admitted into the talks. After a sincere effort by both governments to make the multi-party talks all inclusive, the talks still lacked representation from all parties. Violence had a direct impact on multi-party talks as the early months of 1998 brought the suspension of two parties from the process. The UDP is considered as the political wing of the paramilitary group the UDA / UFF which had been linked to many killings. It was made clear that they would be allowed back into the talks after a period of time. In late February 1998, SF was also suspended from the talks. Both governments believed those two killings, that of a Loyalist paramilitary and a Catholic drug dealer, was the work of the IRA. A little less than a month after the UDP walked out of the talks, they rejoined them on 23 February 1998. Despite Unionist claims that the IRA was linked to recent bombings, SF also was allowed back in the talks on 23 March 1998.

In an effort to overcome the political gridlock, the independent chairman of the multi-party talks set a deadline for agreement as the 9 April 1998.The Good Friday AgreementThe deadline did give the process a new sense of urgency and had been a good idea. During the last week of March and the first week of April serious problems still lay in the path of a political. Not surprisingly, Unionists and Nationalists were divided over how power would be shared in the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly, and the extent to which the Irish government would have influence over Northern Ireland under the proposed North-South structures. In retrospect, the tensions that were apparent between the various groupings were an indication of the historical compromise that was being asked of all sides. The midnight deadline, of 9 April 1998, was not achieved but parties and governments stayed at the Stormont castle until an agreement was reached. The imminent arrival of the Easter weekend, and the prospect of a collapse of the talks, gave the process and participants a last push.

The news of the Agreement was reported in the late afternoon on Good Friday. Amazingly all the parties involved in the talks attended the final session in which George Mitchell announced that an agreement had been reached and that the multi-party talks were at end. Those involved in the process were careful not to claim it as a victory for any particular party, but rather as the best agreement that could be achieved in the circumstances. FutureIs this a complicated process? It most definitely is, but it is not impossible. Some people feared that these events would derail the peace process. Others were determined not to let that happen. After the 1998 Omagh bombing incident, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, What the last few days actually have shown is that the Agreement and the peace process have survived and have emerged strengthened from the process. It is unclear yet whether this sentiment is true, or is merely wishful thinking. In the past, there have been agreements reached that subsequently fell apart. Will this one be different?

Maintaining this agreement will require tremendous willpower on both sides. People who have traditionally resolved disputes through the use of guns and bombs will have to learn the art of compromise. In the British general election in June 2001, increased support for both Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, at the expense of more moderate parties, appeared to confirm the theory that Northern Ireland remains a highly polarized society. As one observer put it, it seems to be moving towards peace but is not yet at peace with itself.It seems clear that the majority of people are ready to undertake this challenge in return for a peaceful existence. Will their leaders be able to follow their wishes? Only time will tell.

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