The Northern Ireland Conflict - How the State to Nation Imbalance Caused a Centuries' Conflict

Essay 2011 11 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security



1. Introduction

2. History of the Northern Ireland Conflict

3. The State to Nation Balance Approach

4. State to Nation Imbalance on the Irish Island

5. The Impact of the EU on the Conflict

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another.” (Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1727)

Since Ireland’s occupation by England, it has been a conflict between two identity groups: Catholics and Protestants. Protestants are usually loyal to Great Britain and want Northern Ireland to remain part of it. They are therefore called loyalists or unionists. Catholics on the other hand are usually loyal to the Republic of Ireland and strive for a reunification of both Irish states. They are therefore called nationalists or republicans. Hence, those two identity groups don’t see themselves as one nation but rather as two, forced to live in the same state. As Marc Mulholland points out in the preface of his book about the history of the conflict,

“Northern Ireland’s tragedy is that its people have not been able to agree upon a common identity. Rather than stand by each other, they compete. Being so alike – in language, appearance, and broad culture – they cling tenaciously to that which marks them out.” (Mulholland 2002: v)

In my opinion, this is a very good description of the whole history of the Northern Ireland conflict. Throughout history, it has always been Protestants against Catholics and vice versa, with some more and some less violent phases. Although the clashes appeared between those two religious groups, it is important to notice that this conflict is no longer about religion, but about politics. It is about the future of the Northern Irish state, whether it will remain part of the United Kingdom (UK) or whether it will become part of the Republic of Ireland. The majority of Protestants support the first option whereas the majority of Catholics support the latter. But that is only a coincidence, they are competing nations and not competing religions, since neither side denies the other’s religion’s right to exist: “Religious categories have remained important, but currently their function is not so much to underline religion itself, but rather loyalty to a specific group” (Kuusisto-Arponen 2001: 121).

In this paper, I use the State to Nation Balance approach to explain the Northern Irish conflict. I argue that this conflict perfectly illustrates how State to Nation Imbalance and especially contradicting identities and interests can cause a conflict, especially if the state is too weak to control the different forces within its territory.

2. History of the Northern Ireland Conflict

The problems in Ireland started in the 16th century, when England conquered the island. The predominant religion at that time was Catholicism, the Irish people practising what is called Gaelic pastoralism, a nomadic lifestyle. England then began to settle English and Scottish ‘undertakers’ in Ireland, especially in the Ulster region in the North. Those settlers had to guard against native resistance and to build a society based on English law, Protestantism and settled agriculture. One century later, conflicts between Protestant and Catholic farmers started when the Catholic King James II was defeated by the Protestant William the Orange, and Protestants in Ulster started denying the Catholic population political and social rights. In the following decades, paramilitary forces were created on both sides and this time was characterised by riots and severe clashes between Protestants and Catholics.

In 1919, a new parliament was created for the Irish Republic, which gained independence from the UK in 1922. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 declared six of the nine counties of the Ulster region to be separated from the Republic. The state of Northern Ireland hence was created and given its own parliament under the control of the UK (cf. Mulholland 2002: 3-28). According to Scott A. Bollens, the creation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland led to a “double minority syndrome”: Protestants are a minority on the whole island that is threatened by a possible reunification, while the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is threatened by Protestant and external British rule (Ibid. 2000: 190).

After the partition of Ireland, the so called Anglo-Irish war started in which the Catholic population of Northern Ireland suffered extremely under loyalist paramilitary violence:

“Catholics were battered into submission. More people died in Belfast during three months of violence in 1922 than in the whole two years following the formation of the state. A substantial majority of the 232 victims were Catholic, and 11,000 were made jobless and 23,000 homeless. Over 4,300 Catholic-owned shops and businesses were burned, looted, or wrecked.” (Ibid. 2002: 31)

After their ‘defeat’, Catholics were extremely discriminated by Protestants; they argued that the Catholics’ loyalty to Northern Ireland could never be real and only temporary (Ibid.: 46).

The so called ‘Troubles’ started in 1969 when the civil rights movement emerged, demanding equal rights for Catholics and Protestants, and the bombings by republican paramilitary forces began. The time of the ‘Troubles’, which continued until the ceasefire in 1994, was characterised by extreme violence against civilians committed by paramilitary forces on both sides, but also by extreme state violence. In total, 3,000 people were killed by loyalist and republican paramilitary forces during the ‘Troubles’, 350 deaths were caused by agents of the state (Aoláin, 2000: 13). In 1994, the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries declared a ceasefire and on April 10 in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed, which established a power sharing government with a veto option for both communities, several sub-committees to oversee executive functions, and a North-South Ministerial Council for consultation and cooperation. In the following referendum, 71.1 per cent voted in favour of it in Northern Ireland, as well as 95 per cent in the Republic of Ireland (cf. Mulholland 2002: 177f).

3. The State to Nation Balance Approach

The State to Nation Balance approach refers to the degree of congruence between the division of a region into territorial states and national and political identification of the people of the region, as well as to the prevalence of strong or weak states. The two dimensions of this approach are the prevalence of weak or strong states and the extent of congruence between territorial borders and national identities (cf. Miller 2006: 660, 665). Congruence can either exist because of the homogeneity of a nation or because of the prevalence of civic nationalism. Manifestations of internal congruence can be frontier states (if the state is weak) or staus quo states (if the state is strong) (Ibid. 2007: 58, table 2.2). If ethnic nationalism prevails, incompatibility between geopolitical and national borders can cause two types of incongruence: too few states (nations without states) or too many states (states without nations) (Ibid. 2006: 666f). Manifestations of incongruence can be revisionist states and pan-national movements (if the state is strong) or incoherent or failed states (if the state is weak) (Ibid. 2007: 58, table 2.2).

4. State to Nation Imbalance on the Irish Island

In the Irish case, one has to distinguish between different phases of the conflict in order to classify its character. During the early phase of the conflict, from the 16th to the 19th century, the Irish state was part of the English Kingdom and later Great Britain and therefore had no right for self-determination. The British state’s interest in the conflict was minimal, if not inexistent, although it caused the conflict with its settlement policy. During this time it was probably a rather cultural conflict, coinciding with religious believes, a clash between the English way of life including settled down agriculture and Protestantism and the Irish/Gaelic way of life including pastoralism and Catholicism. Only in the early 20th century it started to become a primarily political conflict, a conflict about borders, the possibility of partition, and territorial integrity versus national affiliation, combined with social and cultural aspects (Kuusisto-Arponen 2001: 121). When the two Irish states were created in 1919 and 1920, they both were weak states because they both remained part of Great Britain. After the Republic of Ireland had gained independence in 1922, it tried to reach agreements with the UK to keep at least some sort of control or claim over Northern Ireland, like it did in 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in which the UK recognised the Republic’s right to be consulted in issues concerning Northern Ireland (Mulholland 2002: 145). Ireland never gave up on its claim on Northern Ireland to be a part of the Republic which made it an irredentist state because it always hoped to annex the six counties of Northern Ireland. Once the state became stronger, it could be considered to be a revisionist state because it still hopes for reunification: The pursuit of unification, which was formalized in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, is codified in Article 2 and Article 3 of the Irish Constitution (Leach/Williams 1999: 875; Verfassungen Irlands 2009).



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University of Haifa – International School
northern ireland conflict state nation imbalance caused centuries



Title: The Northern Ireland Conflict - How the State to Nation Imbalance Caused a Centuries' Conflict