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.
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Northern Ireland Conflict
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