The conflicts in Northern Ireland are one of the few, if not the only remaining area of conflict in all of Western Europe. Is has been going on for many years now, and though it has lessened some in the recent years, it is undoubtedly still visible in the region. The conflict has its roots surprisingly far back in history, but why it is still so visible in Northern Ireland and why it started in the first place, are regardless questions that need explaining. As the conflict is both political and religious, and because it has and have had important consequences for the shaping of both the cultural and political dividing of Northern Ireland, it is a complex conflict, and there are many opinions on who’s the guilty part in the conflict. It is, however, unlikely that any of the parts are more guilty than the other in this conflict; a long history of violence and wars with many unfortunate solutions to it has simply pushed the conflict on to what it is today.
The historical background of the conflict
The conflicts now evident in Northern Ireland might be said to have begun a long time ago. Even from the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1167, Ireland has been a centre of conflicts. During the Reformation and Henry VIII`s break with Rome in divorcing his wife, the religious conflict between the traditional Catholics and the more liberal protestants aspired. As Henry imposed Protestantism by force, many of the Irish grew untrustful of the English, and even then, many resisted.
Some time after the Reformation, a significant number of English settlers began to colonise Ireland, and as their numbers increased, the Gaelic culture, which many Irish now think is of importance as it marks their independence from the English, was seriously challenged for the first time. As the English grew in numbers and were becoming dominant on the isle, Hugh O`Neill, the last of the great Irish chieftains, was forced to surrender at Mellifont in 1603. The defeat of Ireland’s, then known as Ulster after the Nine Years War led to the Flight of the Earls in 1607, in which the last leaders of Ireland fled the country, leaving it leaderless, practically handing it over to the English settlers.
Catholics rose to their first rebellion against the British in 1641, but was quickly defeated in 1649. From that time on, Ireland would be a bad place for Catholics to be for many years. Several laws were imposed to secure the political, economic and social ascendancy of the new Protestant settlers, and so, there was a clear rift, both cultural and political between the Protestants and the Catholics. This period was followed by a time of relative peace, from about 1690-1790, but following the 1790s, several catholic rebellions arose, attempting to liberate Ireland from England, but all of which failed. However, the Catholics managed certain political gains, and they managed to put Home Rule, or practical independence, on the parliamentary agenda, so that they could rule themselves.
In the 1900s, the foundation of today’s conflict was truly laid. The Protestants, mainly living in Northern Ireland, had experienced great success because of the industrial revolution and associated their economic success with their Protestant, or rather, English faith and culture. As of this, they supported union with Britain, as they still do, and at the time, many Protestant militias formed, intending to resist Home Rule by force. The Catholics eventually also formed militias of their own, fighting for Home Rule.
From this short summary of the historical events, in which the Protestants are constantly in conflict with the Catholics, it becomes quite clear how the conflicts first aspired, and how they led up to the present. However, how the island of Ireland became divided, and how the conflict is now centred on Northern Ireland is a question still unanswered.
The dividing of Ireland
In the early 1900s, the geographical division of Catholics and Protestants were obvious in Ireland. While the population of Southern Ireland was mainly consisting of Catholics, the north-eastern part was clearly consisting of Protestants. While the Catholic majority demanded Home Rule, the Protestant party still wanted to maintain the union with the UK. As the Unionist national party described it, the Protestants feared that Home Rule would result in "Rome Rule", fearing Catholism to become too dominant. As early as 1886, they began to lobby for the preservation of the union that was now in danger, but they achieved little until far later.
In 1920, after several both political and military conflicts between organizations such as a unionist Protestant militia group, the UVP, and the Irish Republican Army, the IRA; the British parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act which attempted to set up a home rule government in both north and south. This meant practically the same as Home Rule for Northern Ireland, but, as a compromise between the Protestants and the Catholics, Northern Ireland was given dominion status in 1921, making it both somewhat independent but still under the UK. The rest of Ireland, which had received Home Rule already in 1912, now became practically independent, and so, Ireland was now clearly divided into two regions.
The main centre of conflicts from now on was, and is still, Northern Ireland. Here, it is a Protestant majority, but still with a considerable amount of Catholics living there. In the years following 1921, the Unionists in Northern Ireland were openly discriminating the Catholics in the area, and this certainly helps to explain why Northern Ireland nearly collapsed in violence half a century later. Having only one real political party, the Protestant Unionist party, it is obvious that Catholics had far from the same rights as the Protestants did.
The newer conflicts in Northern Ireland leading up to the present:
The creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967 marked the beginning of new conflicts. It was formed as a response to four decades of Unionist discrimination against the Catholics. They wanted to end the political discrimination and to have the same rights as the Protestants.
The civil rights movement was created while Terence O`Neill was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He was in many ways revolutionary, especially because he emphasized reconciliation between the Protestants and the Catholics. It is quite likely that it was because of O`Neill`s liberal rule that the civil rights movement was even allowed, and that it could engage itself in political activity.
Shortly after the founding of the civil rights movement, many Catholics found themselves politically mobilised for the first time since 1921. Fighting for civil rights and equal political participation in Northern Ireland, the NICRA staged a march to Londonberry. During this march, several Catholics was severely beaten by the police, and the state of things reminded many of the tactics used by the police against the blacks in the USA.
This, however, only triggered more marches and protests from the Catholics, something that would push the conflicts further on, as the Protestants viewed the marches with great concern, fearing that Catholics wanted to dissolve the union completely.
By the late 1969, the crisis in Northern Ireland had grown worse. The Unionist, who had ruled Northern-Ireland as a one-party state for almost half a century, had no experience in negotiating with the Catholic minority. As the Catholic demands were not satisfied, the catholic marches grew increasingly violent, now being more similar to violent rebellions than marches. The so called Battle of the Bogside in Londonberry on 13 August 1969 was one of the major, violent marches, and marked the true struggle for equality for the Catholics. This evolved from a march to a battle when Protestant mobs started assaulting several Catholics. This situation grew only more violent and dangerous, and after two days of fighting, the police realised that they had no way of stopping the riots. British soldiers were deployed as the North Irish Prime Minister asked the British Prime Minister for help. The British army was engaged in stopping several other riots in the following years, as the situation grew increasingly more tense.
In the early 70s, the situation was getting out of hand. As the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association set up many demonstrations to lobby for civil rights, many Protestant parties grew increasingly violent. The tensions between the Catholics and the Protestants deepened in August 1970, when Catholics were being burned out of their homes and shot on the streets of Belfast.
As the North Irish government grew almost desperate, several measures were put to action to stop groups violent groups such as the IRA. Soldiers were again deployed, and internment, imprisonment or fines without trials were put to action.
This, however, only lead to more violence, as the already violent nationalist and unionist organizations grew even more violent. More were killed in the battles between the army and the organizations and many of those arrested by the government were subject to inhuman treatment. In addition, several of the prisoners were interrogated by the army, and the interrogators used techniques used methods previously used in the former British colonies, severely weakening the prisoners before interrogating them. This got international attention, and was shortly after declared as illegal by the European Commission for Human Rights.
All in all, the situation grew only worse. The army’s intervention only led to more violence, and it was obvious that the government had to change tactics.
The Bloody Sunday marks the height of the conflict between the Protestants, the Catholics and the army and the chaotic situation they were all in. On 30 January, NICRA held an illegal march, protesting against internment and on the ban to march. As many as 10.000 people participated in the march, which was supposed to go on peacefully. However, 13 civilians were killed by soldiers for no apparent reason, and many of the Catholics were arrested.
Even now, many argue whether or not the soldiers had a reason to kill the civilians or not, but regardless, the Bloody Sunday led to further conflict, in which the army was severely incriminated.
As a result of the Bloody Sunday, the Unionist parliament at Stormont, which had governed Northern Ireland since 1921, was dissolved in 1972. The British Prime Minister Edward Heath decided to strip the parliament of its power to rule directly from Westminister. This led to violent reactions in Northern Ireland, with the British Embassy being burned down, several IRA bombs going off and the Northern Ireland government minister being assassinated.
Regardless, the North Irish parliament at Stormont were dissolved, and a Secretary of State were appointed. Catholics welcomed the fall of Stormont but the IRA saw direct rule as further evidence of British intent to remain in Northern Ireland and they stepped up their terrorist campaign.
The new Northern Ireland
As a result of the many conflicts, Northern Ireland was governed from Westminister from 1974 to 2000. This undoubtedly created a more stabile state, but many, such as the IRA, often used bombs and violence in protest of this. Despite several negotiations between the government, the Protestants and the Catholics, the IRA intensified its military campaign, only with occasional cease-fire between them and several Unionist/Protestant organizations.
From now on, the IRA was in many negotiations with the Secretary of State and several Unionist/Protestant organizations. However, IRA`s final demand was that Britain should withdraw from Ireland before 1 January 1975, and the current Secretary of State, Whitelaw, could not agree to these terms. This led to more violence, both between the IRA and the army and between the IRA and Protestant civilians. On a day known as Bloody Friday, Friday 21 July, 21 IRA bombs exploded one after the other in Belfast, leading to terror and several civilian casualties.
Northern Ireland today
The conflict in Northern Ireland today is as said earlier undoubtedly lessened. The IRA is not as dominant as it was before due to governmental measures to prevent their terrorist activities, and some Protestants and Catholics are now trying to live together. It is, however, far from a conflict-free state, and the civilians of Northern Ireland are still suffering from the conflict. Protestants and Catholics still live in separate neighbourhoods go to separate schools and live separate lives, and many of the militia organizations are still active. However, compared to only 20-30 years ago, relative peace now resides in the state, despite incredibly long conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics. Whether this is because people are getting more tolerant, because the government is getting more efficient in preventing terrorist activities or because the Protestants and the Catholics are simply more separated than before still remain unanswered. Many hope that Catholics and Protestants may one day live side by side, and in time, perhaps they will, but considering they have almost a millennium of conflict behind them, such a process would be a slow one indeed.