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Northern Ireland Conflict-Religion Vs Politics

Essay by review  •  November 21, 2010  •  Research Paper  •  5,204 Words (21 Pages)  •  2,162 Views

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The 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". The history of this contemporary conflict is detailed, but impossible to ignore. While different factions of the dispute would argue that the problem began centuries ago, I will examine briefly the history of the "troubles" from the end of the 19th century forward. For much of its history, Ireland has lived under British rule. 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. Very quickly the movement was picked up by Irish Catholics who saw Home Rule as a truly nationalist ideal, and by 1874 they had dominated the movement. This pushed the Protestants back towards Unionism and was one of the many strikes against the idea of a united Ireland.

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, and who at best had a shaky industrial and political structure. 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. Further to that, in 1912 they created what was called the `Solemn League and Covenant' which bound their followers to use any means necessary to resist Home Rule. 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. The British, outnumbering the rebels 20 to 1, eventually took back the city six days later. In the face of what could have been a political victory for the British, they made the error of executing the surviving Irish rebels, martyring them and instilling anger and determination in the minds of many Irish Nationalists.

The 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 and guerilla warfare 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 substantial 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. In 1937, the creation of the Irish Constitution in the South laid claim to the six counties that remained under British rule and acknowledged that they were being held temporarily and illegally.

Population divisions had always existed in the two major cities of what was now Northern Ireland. Belfast, the largest city and center of economic activity had a largely Protestant population, where as Derry, a key center for the shipping industry had a largely Catholic population. Both cities also boasted a concentrated minority group, yet conflict was not always inherent, as the minority did not pose a threat to the majority's way of life. 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 the percentage of Catholics in Belfast was not only rising, but 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. As Bernard Hughes, the only Roman Catholic representative on the Belfast City Council in 1857 stated, "This town (Belfast) is governed by Protestants, but the bone and sinew of the town is Roman Catholic."(Brewer & Higgins 1998). What was born was a conflict between the working class members of society, while the middle and upper classes struggled to maintain peaceful

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