No, this post doesn’t have anything to do with hardships that we’re enduring in Germany. Rather, I want to take a minute to reflect on some of the violent unrest that Northern Ireland has endured over the past several decades. Since we recently visited Belfast, in Northern Ireland, I was fascinated by the history, yet I realized that I really didn’t know much about “The Troubles” as they’re referred to in the area. I was aware that there were some problems in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants and I’m familiar with U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, but that was about the extent of it. In this post I’ll attempt to give you an overview of the conflict from an outsider’s view based on what I saw in Belfast and what I read in a book entitled Pocket History of The Troubles by Brian Feeney who is the head of the history department at St. Mary’s University College in Belfast. I’ll also conclude with personal thoughts and remarks.
First off, Northern Ireland was established by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. I couldn’t tell you much before that, but at that point the six northeastern counties of Northern Ireland were considered part of the United Kingdom and the rest of the island was the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland had a working class that mainly consisted of Catholics and an upper class mainly consisting of Protestants. In general the Protestants, most of which were Unionists or Loyalists indicating their desire to be part of the U.K., held a tight grip over the jobs and political positions in the North over the Catholics; many of which were Nationalists, indicating their desire to be a single nation combined with the Republic of Ireland which was also mainly Catholic.
Over the course of the first 40 years of Northern Ireland’s existence the classes stayed about the same, with the Protestants running the country while the Catholics took the blue-collar jobs and held few positions in political offices (partly because the Unionists wouldn’t allow them to and partly because the Nationalists refused some of these positions because they failed to recognize the Unionist regime). It seemed to be a classic case of the ruling class doing everything in its power to maintain rule by bending rules (i.e. gerrymandering) and making laws to give themselves special privileges over the working class. To me it seems strikingly similar to tactics that Whites used in the U.S. to maintain control over Blacks and other minorities. The interesting thing in this case is that the dividing characteristic is Catholic/Protestant, which I’ve come to find out is much more a social difference than a religious one (clearly they weren’t arguing over paths to salvation or other theological differences). So, after 40 years of oppression people tend to get tired of getting the short end and when an opportunity arises they will do whatever it takes to take advantage of it. Such an event happened in 1963 with the election of Terence O’ Neill as prime minister of Northern Ireland.
O’ Neill didn’t really do that much politically, but was the first prime minister to reach out to the 35% Catholic minority in an effort to level the playing field. Like I said, he didn’t really do much himself, but what he unintentionally accomplished was bringing the plight of the Catholics to the surface and identifying the social disparities as a problem. This served as a spark to the generation of Catholics living in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, a time when major changes were happening all over the world, that now was the time that they needed to let their voice be heard and fight for their rights. Simultaneously, the Unionist Protestants were getting unsettled about the possibility of losing some of their advantages.
To keep this post relatively short, I will try to summarize the 40 years from 1963 up to present. In the 1960s Catholics began to organize protests and marches which were met with violent resistance from the majority Protestant police force (Royal Ulster Constabulary – RUC) as well as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which was a loyalist paramilitary group. The Catholics literally had the shit kicked out of them on most occasions and found that they couldn’t trust their own police force. Police abused their rights to random search-and-seizure and arresting individuals without cause. It was a very corrupt system and a handful of Catholics were killed in the 1960s at the hands of these attacks. Eventually some of the Catholics reformed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to protect the Catholic neighborhoods and they even founded their own political parties in order to be the voice for them; namely, Sinn Fein (pronounced “Shin Fain” - notorious for being the political wing of the IRA) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which was the largest nationalist party during the Troubles.
Throughout the next 30 years a frustrating cycle of events played out like a broken record with bombings from the IRA targeted both in N. Ireland and England, matched by bombings and retaliation against Catholic targets in N. Ireland and Ireland, hopeful political progress dashed by violence and mistrust from both sides, ceasefires that never lasted, violent attacks against individuals based on religious status, etc. Both sides showed incredible stubbornness, the Nationalists refusing to recognize the Unionist government and not settling for anything less than a share in running N. Ireland or a unification with the Republic of Ireland, and the Unionists not wanting to give up control to the traitorous Republicans. There were also divisions amongst Protestants and Catholics as well, where one group of Republicans may decide that they’re ready to work with another Protestant group, but the IRA wouldn’t agree and would terrorize the country with more bombings that would weaken and jeopardize any talks of a peace agreement.
While the violence in Northern Ireland has been mostly quieted for the past 12 years, it still took until 2007 that a power-shared “executive” was agreed upon between a representative from the Democratic Unionist Party (Ian Paisley) and a representative from Sinn Fein (Gerry Adams) in the presence of the leaders of Ireland (Bertie Ahern) and England (Tony Blair).
Reflection: While reading through this tragic part of world history I couldn’t help but think of similar events in history, such as the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. When a certain people group is discriminated against and receives the short end of the stick for decades at the hand of a people group that has power and works hard to hold on to that power over them, it’s a situation likening to heating a closed container with liquid inside. When the opportunity arises, eventually a generation will decide that they’ve had enough and they will fight tooth-and-nail for their rights to equality. Now obviously in contrast, the African Americans reached that point but responded in a nobler way with peaceful marches and demonstrations to earn those rights. I think that the Republicans were inspired by the same peaceful movement, but not everyone was on the same page unfortunately. Namely the IRA insisted on taking the violent approach with the goal of “sickening the British” of the situation with horrific bombings both in N. Ireland and in England in very public areas. I can only imagine the frustration of trying to make progress in that situation with some members from both sides willing to work with each other and others on both sides that utterly refused to seek a middle ground.
Visiting recently for the first time, a couple of things stuck out to me. First, I was amazed at the murals that still decorate the sides of buildings in Belfast neighborhoods, both Protestant and Catholic. The Catholic murals tended to commemorate their own heroes, such as Bobby Sands and the other martyrs of the Hunger Strike, where ten republicans starved themselves to death in prison. In contrast I found that many of the murals in Unionist neighborhoods depicted scary men with ski-masks (“balaclava”) and machine guns, informing you that you are entering “Loyalist” territory. I was a little surprised that some of these murals are allowed to stay up on the walls. I mean, I’m all for preserving history, but I would find it difficult to move on from past events with those constant reminders in my face on a daily basis. Not that people should forget about the terrible events that took place in Belfast, but it would seem a bit of a hindrance from an outsiders’ perspective to a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.
It’s definitely sad to see a dispute carried over such a long period of time. I felt enlightened with our visit to both Ireland and Northern Ireland and I’m glad to finally know a lot more about a conflict that I remember hearing about as a kid in school, but never really understood. By the way, this conflict is about as “over” as racism is over anywhere in America – you can feel a bit of tension under the surface that’s hard to explain without being there.