Table of contents
Good Friday Agreement
Analysis of the conflict
The role of religion
Community in Northern Ireland
Dimensions of difference
Karl Marx puts the situation in Northern Ireland into a nutshell when he writes: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” The history of the conflict can be traced back many years and it persists until today for definite peace is still not achieved. A ceasefire is not a settlement and the conflict is not over. Two communities are still sharply divided. Resolving the conflict keeps the main task of the British and the Irish government.
The conflict is a frequent and controversial topic of discussion, not least because it is often compared to other conflicts with religious dimensions like in Guatemala, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, South Africa and the Middle East. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, it is not easy to give the reason for the conflict because it encompasses several dimensions. One of them is certainly religion, for it is impossible to talk about the conflict without mentioning it. In order to understand it fully, it is necessary to investigate Irish history in the context of the relationship to Britain and to deal with cultural studies on communal diversity.
In my paper I would like to investigate on the question whether the Northern Ireland Conflict really has to do with the `denominational conflict` or whether this is just part of the issue. I would like to argue that the causes for the conflict cannot be reduced to the religious component only. Moreover, it is important to have a look on power and politics in Northern Ireland to be able to discuss the conflict and its consequences.
My purpose here is to give a brief historical account of Ireland and Britain, then proceed synchronically by reference to present interests, ideologies and identities. Here, I will only briefly outline the issues and problems people were faced with. The main part of my investigation will cover the analysis of the conflict with the main focus being on religion. Therefore, I will start with the examination of the importance of religion in the Northern Ireland conflict. After introducing the concept of community which is essential for the interpretation, further dimensions including ethnicity, settler and native, nationalism and unionism will be analyzed. Finally, my inquiry will close with pointing out the connection and contribution of the different aspects to the conflict.
Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland usually live in their own districts which are often separated by high walls. These are called “peace walls“, but there is no peace at all. Thousands of people died in the last decades in Northern Ireland because Catholics and Protestants fight each other until death. Yet it is not so much about religion. It is about politics and power. It is a question of whether Northern Ireland belongs to Ireland or to Great Britain.
Ireland is located in the northwest of Europe. It is an island in the Atlantic with its southern part forming the Republic of Ireland and its northern part belonging to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The Catholic republicans fight since decades to get Northern Ireland back to Ireland. The partition can be explained by taking a brief look at the history. This history started already about one thousand years ago. At the time, however, Gaelic Celts who were converted to Christianity by Saint Patrick in the 5th century settled Ireland and divided it into many small kingdoms. During a dispute in 1169, one of the monarchs called Henry II of England for help, who then marched into Ireland with an army and handed it over to the English Crown. In the 16th century the English monarch Henry VIII became Lord of Ireland. He intended to unite the island forcefully under the Crown. (cf. Mulholland 2)
Soon after that plantation began, whereby Irish aristocracy’s land was taken away and given to English and Scottish peasants. (cf. Berg 1) In 1641 Irish landowners already made a minority and in 1703 their properties decreased from 60 to only 14 per cent. In addition to the colonization of Ireland, Henry VIII wanted to bring the Anglican Church to Ireland.
We have to look back until the end of the 16th century in order to find the causes for the conflict in Ireland. On the one hand, there is the British colonization, in which the Irish were expropriated in favor of English and Scottish settlers, and the problem of religion for most of the settlers were Protestants. British Protestant landlords dominated Irish Catholic farm hands. This situation is considered to be the starting point of the Northern Ireland conflict.
When Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland, many massacres of Catholics and destruction of agriculture took place. In 1690 king William of Orange won the Battle of the Boyne against the Catholic James II that is still celebrated by Ulster Protestants. (cf. Berg 2) After the victory the Irish parliament passed penal laws which introduced many prohibitions for Catholics. At the end of the 18th century the economic situation of the Irish deteriorated even more due to the famines. Many people emigrated and the Irish population declined by approximately 25 per cent. Following the French example, revolutionary groups emerged and the United Irishmen promoted the ideal of an independent nation beyond denominational and ethnic splits. The Orange Order, however, opposed any participation of Catholics in Irish politics. (cf. Berg 3) Irish displeasure reached its climax with rebellions against the British in 1798, the bloodiest year in Irish history. After that, Irish parliament voted itself out of existence in 1800 and Ireland was integrated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Hence, in 1801 Ireland lost its sovereignty completely.
The entire 19th century is characterized by Irish riots. Two movements deserve special consideration, fighting for Ireland’s independence from Great Britain to become a republic. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) of the Fenia that later came to be known as The Irish Republican Army (IRA) tried to overthrow the British rule in Ireland with armed force. (cf. Darby 8) The home rule movement, on the other hand, strived for independence from Great Britain by political and peaceful means. British Prime Minister Gladstone supported the movement and tried to bring home rule bills through parliament but failed. (cf. Berg 5) The Protestants in Ulster were victorious. Heavy riots in Belfast resulted in a civil war between Irish underground fighters and the British army and it continued until the 20th century.
The Irish liberation movement occupied central buildings in Dublin but British troops suppressed the Easter Rising, whereby 15 leaders were executed and another 75 pardoned. The Irish rebels became popular with their goals. The Irish national party Sinn Fein succeeded in the elections in 1918 and their leaders declared Ireland an independent republic and established a provisional government in Dublin. At the same time, the IRA started a guerrilla war. They stole weapons, attacked British governmental institutions, the police and killed personalities. Sinn Fein supported the IRA. The British-Irish war of independence lasted from 1919 to 1921.
Negotiations between the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Sinn Fein led to the separation of Northern Ireland from Ireland. They established an Irish free state that became an independent republic in 1949. Northern Ireland, however, remained part of the United Kingdom. (cf. Berg 7) Protestants had power over government and police.
The civil rights movement tried to provoke the police and to make the world aware of the miserable situation in Northern Ireland. Catholics were economically and socially deprived. Civil rights activists demanded equal right for all citizens. The demonstration turned into a bloody street battle. Catholics became even angrier and violence of the IRA against British institutions increased. Protestants set up the Ulster Defence Association. The conflict developed into a bloody civil war. (cf. Darby 23)
Consequently, the British government stationed 5000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and Protestant politicians insisted on the terrorists to be interned in terms of greater security. Many Catholics were arrested and taken to prison without any court proceedings.
In 1972 British paratroops shot 14 unarmed civilians during a banned demonstration against the internment in Londonderry. Later, IRA prisoners were treated as ordinary criminals. They protested in form of a hunger strike and ten prisoners died. The paramilitary troops of the Catholics and the Protestants went on with terror attacks in Northern Ireland. (cf. Darby 24)
Militant Protestants organized a general strike as a rebellion against the British government. It intended to reform the unfair circumstances in Northern Ireland. A new Northern Irish parliament involving all social classes and parties should be elected. Protestants and Catholics should rule together. However, Protestants would not like to share power with Catholics. They prevented the project. The newly established Northern Irish parliament was dissolved and the British parliament in London assumed the reins of government again.
Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement symbolized the first step towards freedom. Its main purposes were Northern Irish self-government with a parliament including Protestants as well as Catholics. Hence, a majority of both communities would be able to change Northern Ireland’s affiliation to the United Kingdom. After the IRA announced complete ceasefire in 1994, British and Irish parliament tried to achieve a peace settlement. The British Prime Minister John Major did not want the Irish Republican Party Sinn Fein to participate in the negotiations. He required the IRA to be totally disarmed. Or this reason, the IRA ended the ceasefire and committed several bomb attacks again. Tony Blair was the first British Prime Minister who involved the Sinn Fein and its leader Gerry Adams into peace talks.
In May 1998 a referendum on the Good Friday Agreement took place. More than 70 per cent of Northern Irish population voted for it. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established and Protestant David Trimble became the first Northern Irish Prime Minister with a Catholic social democrat his deputy.
Disarming and the release of prisoners present a controversial issue between the parties over and over. It shows that the peace agreement is not fully implemented. Northern Ireland is still part oft he United Kingdom, unless the majority of both communities would take a different decision.
Meanwhile there is an equal representation of Catholics and Protestants. Among the Catholics, the social democratic party and the Sinn Fein with its leader Gerry Adams still fight for the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. On the other hand, Protestant Unionist Parties make an effort to maintain the union with Great Britain. It is difficult to come to an agreement because hatred between Catholics and Protestants is deep-seated.