The conflict in Northern Ireland was primarily a struggle between those who call for Irish unification and those who wish to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom. The origins of this conflict can be traced back to the English occupation of Ireland in the 17th century. In the process of colonization, a large community of Scottish Protestants was introduced in Northern Ireland. They eventually became a majority in this region, while the Catholics converged in the south of Ireland (Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus 5).
Years of rebellion by the native Irish against the tyranny of the English culminated in the Treaty of 1921. This settlement integrated the six predominantly Protestant counties of the North into the UK and consolidated the 26 mainly Catholic counties of the South into what is currently known as the Republic of Ireland. The Treaty of 1921, however, was unable to end the periodic violence in Northern Ireland (Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus 5). The Northern Ireland conflict started in 1969 – roughly 48 years after the agreement took place (Ruane and Todd 1).
Religion, therefore, was merely an element in the conflict in Northern Ireland. Some factions in the region’s Protestant population were against unification with the Irish republic due to fears of religious repression – the Catholic Church wielded significant clout over Irish laws governing matters such as divorce and birth control. Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, on the other hand, favored Irish unification because of economic inequality – they experienced higher rates of unemployment, lack of education and homelessness than their Protestant compatriots. Social identities, more than religion, has fueled the animosity between the two religious groups in Northern Ireland (Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus 5).
The UK invaded Ulster (present-day Northern Ireland) in the 17th century, effectively placing the entire Ireland under its control. Protestant colonists from the UK began arriving in Ireland shortly afterwards, majority of whom settled in Northern Ireland. Because Ireland during this period was a British colony, its Protestant community was accorded preferential political and economic rights over its native Catholic population. Land, for instance, was siphoned to the Protestants to the point that Catholics owned only about 14% of Ireland’s arable land by the beginning of the 18th century. Catholic landowners were further dispossessed through the “Penal Laws,” which allowed the first-born sons of Catholics to inherit land if only they converted to Protestantism (Collier and Sambanis 162).
Armed resistance against British rule inevitably followed. At the end of the 18th century, the United Irishmen of Protestant Wolfe Tone led a joint Catholic-Protestant rebellion against the UK. Although this uprising ended in 1798, it was not in vain. The English Parliament’s branch in Dublin was dissolved shortly afterwards, turning Ireland into an integral part of the UK (Collier and Sambanis 163).
But the cooperation between Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant populations proved to be short-lived. A movement by Daniel O’Connell, which lasted from the 1820s to the 1830s, brought about expanded civil rights for Irish Catholics. His calls for Catholic ascendancy, however, severely alienated Ireland’s Protestant community. This sentiment was exacerbated when, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Belfast, working-class Protestants and Catholics competed heavily for jobs. The economic and religious friction between the two religious groups eventually culminated in major sectarian riots that occurred in 1835, 1843, 1857, 1864 and 1872 (Collier and Sambanis 163).
The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 was responsible for the emergence of Northern Ireland’s political entity. This law divided the island of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Free State of Ireland. It likewise granted Northern Ireland a separate Parliament from the Free State, as well as continued participation at Westminster. In December 1922, the Parliament of Northern Ireland invoked its rights under the Treaty of 1921 in order to break away from the Free State and become a permanent region of the UK (Collier and Sambanis 163).
But the economic stratification that had arisen during the colonial era merely ended up perpetuating itself in Northern Ireland. About 90% of the available civil service jobs in the region were allotted to Protestants. Employment opportunities in Northern Ireland’s private sector also leaned sharply towards Protestants. As a result, Catholic unemployment in Northern Ireland from 1921 to 1969 was estimated to be at least twice as high as Protestant unemployment (Collier and Sambanis 163).
Apart from economic stratification, Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority also suffered from political repression. In 1922, the Stormont Parliament passed the Special Powers Act, which allowed warrantless arrests and searches, internment without trial and bans on meetings and publications. Northern Ireland’s armed force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was given free reign to deal with subversives. To add more teeth to the region’s Protestant political establishment, the auxiliary Ulster Special Constabulary (“B Specials”) was also used to suppress all forms of political dissent (Collier and Sambanis 164).
It was not until the late 1960s, however, that widespread sectarian violence finally broke out in Northern Ireland. The region’s progressive organizations during this period were inspired by the political gains of the civil rights movement in the United States. In 1967, Catholics who wished to hasten the pace of political reform in Northern Ireland formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). NICRA eventually became the foremost civil rights organization in Northern Ireland. Aside from coordinating the activities of the region’s other civil rights groups, it also called for a “one-man-one-vote” election system – a more equitable political system with fairer electoral districting and in which the rate-payer voting qualification is no longer applied (Collier and Sambanis 165).
Another key advocacy of NICRA, along with other civil rights organizations in Northern Ireland, was putting an end to the “more general cultural inequality perceived by the Irish-Catholic community” (Collier and Sambanis 165). These groups believed that affiliations with nationalist movements and ideology were based on perceptions of cultural and political subordination. A 1968 survey conducted in Northern Ireland revealed that about 74% of Catholics agreed that religious discrimination occurred in some parts of the region and an estimated 55% approved of the idea of Catholics railing fervently against religious discrimination. Given these findings, it should no longer come as a surprise if the Catholics in Northern Ireland called for Irish unification – allowing the region to continue being a part of the UK meant subjecting themselves to poverty and prejudice (Collier and Sambanis 165).
Despite the aforementioned calls for peaceful reform in Northern Ireland, bloodshed was inevitable. The “Battle of the Bogside” is widely acknowledged as the starting point of the 24-year conflict in the region. The members of a Loyalist association known as the Apprentice Boys, the police and the residents of the predominantly Catholic Bogside neighborhood were locked in a violent confrontation that lasted from August 12 to August 14, 1969. Although the arrival of military troops from London managed to reestablish a semblance of order, Catholic and Protestant extremists were already starting to quietly arm themselves in preparation for the more organized violence that was to follow (Collier and Sambanis 167).
Indeed, the turmoil associated with the “Battle of the Bogside” led to the rise of religious extremism in Northern Ireland. By the end of 1969, the radical factions of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were already disenchanted with its gradualist approach to encouraging political change. This disillusionment manifested itself in the refusal of the guerilla movement’s political wing, Sinn Fein, to recognize or participate in the parliaments of Stormont, Westminster or even Dublin. In January 1970, the most radical members of the IRA finally decided to form the Provisional IRA (Collier and Sambanis 167).
The IRA was originally formed in 1919 in order to fight British colonial rule in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). After Ireland obtained sovereignty from the UK, the IRA focused on reunifying Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. The failure of the low-intensity Border Campaign of 1956-1962, however, prompted the organization to abandon militarism in favor of a reformist stance. The creation of the Provisional IRA, therefore, was synonymous to the revival of militarism as a means of attaining the goal of Irish unification (Collier and Sambanis 167).
It would be truly fair to say that the Provisional IRA was the embodiment of all the initial objectives and ideology of the IRA. This was primarily because it viewed ethnoreligious self-determination as the only solution to the Catholic-Protestant strife in Northern Ireland. For the members of the Provisional IRA, civil rights for Catholics could only be attained if the region was reunited with the Republic of Ireland. Another justification that the Provisional IRA used for their violent campaign for secession was that Northern Ireland’s Protestant political establishment was a “product” of a foreign diaspora – in effect, a “foreigner” that must be “expelled” from Northern Ireland (Collier and Sambanis 167).
The Provisional IRA rapidly gained a huge following, particularly among the Northern Irish youth – the former invoked the latter’s sense of idealism and thirst for adventure by capitalizing on the romanticized image of militant republicanism. By the mid-1970s, the membership of the Provisional IRA had reached about 1,000. Right from its first offensives, the organization made it clear that it would not hesitate to use violence in attaining its goals. On June 26, 1970, a riot that occurred in an Orange parade in north Belfast triggered a gunfight between a disorganized group of militant Protestants and IRA members defending the Catholic St. Matthew’s Church (Collier and Sambanis 168).
The Northern Irish army, in response, imposed the Falls Curfew on July 3, 1970. About 3,000 Northern Irish troops conducted house searches for IRA members and sympathizers. Both the Official and the Provisional IRA fought back, resulting in the deaths of 5 people. The UK, meanwhile, increased the number of soldiers that it sent to Northern Ireland – the number of British troops in the region had already swelled to about 30,000 by 1972 (Greenberg, Barton and McGuinness 188).
But British involvement in the Northern Ireland conflict merely resulted in escalating violence. In an effort to crush the IRA, British and Northern Irish authorities instituted in the summer of 1971 a policy of internment under which Catholics suspected of involvement with the IRA were arrested and detained without trial. By the spring of 1972, about 900 individuals, many of them innocent, were held for allegedly having ties with the IRA. Worse, the authorities subjected majority of them to harsh and demeaning interrogation techniques. It eventually became difficult for the UK to maintain Northern Ireland’s government – it abolished the Northern Ireland Parliament and imposed direct control over the region in 1972 (Greenberg, Barton and McGuinness 188).
Direct rule by the UK was originally intended to be a temporary measure. But neither the Catholics nor the Protestants in Northern Ireland had the power to overturn British intervention in their homeland. Northern Ireland, as a result, was plunged into a state of political deadlock. The region was under the direct rule of Westminster until the summer of 1998, the sole exception being a three-month period in 1974 (Greenberg, Barton and McGuinness 188).
While the costs of the conflict in Northern Ireland were relatively small compared to those of the ethnic conflicts in areas such as Rwanda, Lebanon, Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Kosovo, they cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Throughout its 25-year duration, the conflict in Northern Ireland resulted in about 3,400 people dead and at least 20,000 injured. Almost half of Northern Ireland’s population – over 80% in some areas – knew someone who was either killed or injured in the conflict (Ruane and Todd 1). The UK was not spared from the harrowing effects of this struggle – it had to endure the economic, psychological and political toll associated with the deaths of its soldiers (Deutsch, Coleman and Marcus 6).
But perhaps the worst effect of the conflict in Northern Ireland is the destruction of communities just because of religious differences. People who have been neighbors and friends all their lives suddenly found themselves killing one another for the simple reason that they do not share the same faith. In the long run, the destruction of communities results to the destruction of Northern Ireland as a whole. Instead of working together towards improving the region’s economy, the people are killing each other in the name of religion and misplaced nationalism.
Collier, Paul, and Nicholas Sambanis. Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis.
New York: World Bank Publications, 2005.
Deutsch, Morton, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric Colton Marcus. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2006.
Greenberg, Melanie C., John H. Barton, and Margaret E. McGuinness. Words over War: Mediation and Arbitration to Prevent Deadly Conflict. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.
Ruane, Joseph, and Jennifer Todd. The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict, and Emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.