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The History Of The Northern Ireland Crisis

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

The birth of Northern Ireland in 1920 was a bloody one, which was accompanied by widespread communal violence (Hennessey 1997: 11). The increased conflict from 1969 until the beginning of the twenty-first century, was by far the worst seen in Western Europe since the Second World War (Tonge 2006: 1). The aftermath of the First World War resulted in a number of uneasy ethnic and religious compromises during the creation of Northern Ireland (McGrattan 2012: 3). On the surface, the Northern Ireland conflict is religious, as the opposing communities have used the terms Catholic and Protestant to describe themselves (Ganiel and Dixon 2008: 422). However, the historical roots of the Northern Ireland crisis run much deeper. This essay will briefly look at the rich historical significance to the Northern Ireland Crisis before evaluating the religious and subsequent political aspects on which many scholars claim to be the main causes of the “Troubles.”

The terms, Catholic and Nationalist, and Protestant and Unionist, are interchangeable. However, for this essay, when discussing the politics of Northern Ireland, the terms Nationalist and Unionist shall be used. For religious based commentary, the religious labels of Catholic and Protestant will be used.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is most easily understood as being between two main groups (Dixon 2001: 2). First, the Unionists, who identify themselves as belonging to the Protestant faith, and comprise approximately sixty percent of Northern Ireland’s population see themselves as British and vote for the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party (Dixon 2001: 2, Mitchell 2006: 31). They also wish for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom (Dixon 2001: 2). The second group comprises of the remaining forty percent of the population and are known as Nationalists (Dixon 2001: 2). The Nationalists are overwhelmingly Catholic and view themselves as being Irish, and wish to be part of a united Ireland (Dixon 2001: 2). The political allegiance of the Nationalists lie with the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein, which is the political wing of the IRA (Mitchell 2006: 32).

Many have argued that the outbreak of the “Troubles” was a result of political changes in Northern Ireland, which led to the Catholic population in the region challenging the state in order to achieve equal political and social rights (Purdie, 1990). Change in the socioeconomic structure of Catholics in Northern Ireland is the traditional explanation for this changing boundary (O’Leary & McGarry, 1995). In most accounts, the inability of the Northern Ireland government to reform itself led to increased frustration among the Catholic population, which later spilled over into violence (Farrington 2008: 514).

The older and deeper roots of the conflict in what was to become Northern Ireland lie in the seventeenth-century plantation of the northern province of Ulster (Hennessey 1997: 1). Ulster is a nine county ancient province, in which six of the counties form what is now known as Northern Ireland (Tonge 2006: 222). Land in Ulster, previously held by the Catholic Irish natives, was now colonised by Protestants from England and Scotland (Hennessey 1997: 1). As both national and religious differences between the Protestants and Catholics remained prominent for centuries, new political philosophies formed among Ulster’s inhabitants (Hennessey 1997: 1).

In the historical debate between Nationalists and Unionists there is some dispute over which group has first claim to Northern Ireland (Dixon 2001: 2). While the Nationalists can point to their Celtic ‘forefathers’, the Unionists have claimed that their ancestors, the Cruthin, were in what is now claimed as being Northern Ireland long before the Celts (Dixon 2001: 2). Nationalists usually date the woes of Ireland to the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169 and England’s domination of Ireland ever since (Dixon 2001: 2). In the sixteenth century, England became Protestant while Ireland remained Catholic and somewhat rebellious (Dixon 2001: 2). In 1603, the conquest of Ireland was completed and in 1609, the plantation of Ulster began (Dixon 2001: 3). The Catholic Irish were evicted and Protestant settlers were established in present day Northern Ireland.

The eviction of the Irish led to a period of bloody conflicts. In 1641, the Catholic Irish population rose up against the Protestants, resulting in the deaths of many (Dixon 2001: 3). In the period between 1649 and 1652, Cromwell bloodily triumphed over the Irish (Dixon 2001: 3). 1690 saw King William of Orange defeat the Catholic King of England and Scotland at the Battle of the Boyne, thus ensuring Protestant dominance in the region (Dixon 2001: 3). At the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries, ‘penal laws’ were passed which further established Protestant domination in Ireland (Dixon 2001: 3).

From the 1930s onwards, the Irish Nationalist population instead looked to the Irish Free State to improve their situation (McGrattan 2010: 3). Equally, Ulster Unionists, who favoured retaining the constitutional link with Britain, saw little point in offering concessions to a minority that offered allegiance to a ‘foreign’ and ‘hostile’ government (McGrattan 2012: 3). This state of affairs was compounded by the fact that Unionists were also a minority on the island of Ireland and, therefore, feared that any small-scale political or institutional change could increase the chances of a radical reconfiguration of the status quo (McGrattan 2012: 3). The outbreak of the Second World War widened these divisions, as the government remained neutral while Stormont participated in the Allied campaign (McGrattan 2010: 3-4).

A constitutional movement for Irish Home Rule developed at the end of the nineteenth century which succeeded in winning considerable land reforms for the Irish, but the outbreak of the First World War saw a failure to achieve implementation of the Home Rule for Ireland (Dixon 2001: 3). The Unionists throughout Ireland, mainly Protestant descendants from the plantation, led resistance to home rule for they feared Catholic domination in an all-Ireland assembly (Dixon 2001: 3). Nationalists, on the other hand, saw the communal violence in Northern Ireland as evidence of a program directed against the Catholic population (Hennessey 1997: 12). This view shaped Northern and Southern nationalist interpretations of Ulster unionism, which was interpreted as seeking a permanent Protestant ascendency over the Catholic community (Hennessey 1997: 12). This resistance led to a new divide between the Nationalists and Unionists (Hennessey 1997: 1).

In retrospect, the outbreak of the period of violence known as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland seemed highly predictable. Various events, in the mid to late 1960s, are viewed as being important staging posts on the road to the crisis of 1968 and 1969 (Farrington 2008: 513). These include; the Divis Street riots, the 1966 commemoration of the 1916 Rising, the O’Neill-Lemass meetings, and the civil rights march of 5 October 1968 (Farrington 2008:513). However, according to Farrington (2008: 513), it is only in hindsight that we can see these events as staging posts on the road to crisis. The attacks by the police on a civil rights march in Derry in October 1968 and again by loyalists just outside Derry in January 1969 are also highlighted as possible triggers (Bew 2007: 105). The subsequent deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 is also depicted as a point of no return (Bloomfield 2007: 68). Again, the general Catholic alienation from the state structures and the opportunistic decision by the Provisional IRA (PIRA) to attack the British army are also described as turning points in the history of the Troubles (O’Dochartaigh 2005).

There had been civil unrest from 1969 when the “Troubles” started, and by 1981, the unrest had resulted in the deaths of many people, with countless more sustaining injuries (Paterson 2011: 187). Sadly, the death toll was to continue to rise up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement between political parties on 10 April 1998 in Belfast (Paterson 2011: 187). In the midst of the violence it became commonplace to claim, and dismiss, the “Troubles” as a rerun of Irish antagonisms; Catholics against Protestants, Nationalists against Unionists, Irish against British (McGrattan 2010: 1).

While the labels of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ are used to describe the principle contending communities, the conflict is not to any great extent about religion (Dixon 2001: 2). In fact, the conflict in Northern Ireland has not been, nor will it ever be, a holy war (Mitchell 2006: 1). Simply, Northern Ireland can be seen as a place where the British and Irish nations overlap and their co-nationals, being British Unionists and Irish Nationalists, aspire to be part of two separate states (Dixon 2001: 2). Although, “religious belief is not the only casual factor in this situation,” John Hickey (1984: 89) concluded that the importance of religion and the doctrinal differences in causing and sustaining the conflict increased in the 1970s. This was found to be particularly true in regards to the Protestants in Northern Ireland, as the role played in economic inequality decreased under the industrial and economic programmes of modernisation (Hickey 1984: 105).

Religion remains one of the central dimensions of social difference in a conflict which is constituted by many factors (Mitchell 2006: 1). The political significance of religion in Northern Ireland derives from three overlapping sources (Mitchell 2006: 1). First, religion is integrally bound up with power relationships in Northern Ireland as churches continue to cooperate with politicians to represent the Unionist and Nationalist political mainstream (Mitchell 2006: 1). Second, religion is the governing boundary marker and the basis of widespread social segregation. Finally, theology and doctrine help constitute the meanings of group identity and politics for some Protestants (Mitchell 2006: 1). As these dimensions of religion overlap and reinforce one another, so too do they overlap and reinforce other dimensions of social difference such as ethnicity and inequality (Mitchell 2006: 1).

Since the seventeenth century, religion has overlapped with ethno-national, economic and cultural difference, which in turn has provided institutional support, language, and values to Catholic and Protestant groups (Mitchell 2005: 4). Furthermore, the role of the respective churches in structuring social life has led to physical and ideological segregation between the communities. Whilst the respective churches had often spoken out against the continuing violence, locating themselves in the political mainstream of their respective communities became one of their main interests (Mitchell 2005: 4). This is said to be the main reason as to why religion is so deeply rooted in political culture and structure in Northern Ireland (Mitchell 2006: 1).

For many, religion plays a essential role in the identification process of a person (Mitchell 2005: 5). The main identification process of religious affiliation is that one’s place in the social and political structure of the nation is often determined by it, and where this is the case, religious identifications becomes deeply embedded in society (Mitchell 2005: 5). This is true in the case of Northern Ireland, where Protestant and Catholic identifications impinge on almost every sphere of public life (Mitchell 2005: 5). This leads to the conclusion that even today, Protestant and Catholic identifications in Northern Ireland still matter to the life chances and place in society (Mitchell 2005: 5).

Northern Ireland endured one of the most violent conflicts in history, which spanned for over three decades (Gawn 2009: 516). Those years of conflict placed focus the fundamental issues that had underlain the “Troubles” since the beginning (Gawn 2009: 516). Some of the fundamental issues include; “the British presence in Ireland, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the tensions between unionism and nationalism, the search for equality between all sections of the community, and, above all, the use of terrorist violence to achieve political ends” (Gawn 2009: 516). The campaign of the Provisional IRA to end the partition of Ireland was at the heart of the armed conflict (Tonge 2006:2). As was their wish for the removal of British rule from Northern Ireland (Tonge 2006: 2). Resentment of the British Army and the police force in Northern Ireland fuelled the support for the IRA, as they were seen as partisan entities being used to oppress nationalists (Tonge 2006: 2).

In 1998, after decades of violence, hope for a long-term solution to the “Troubles” was garnered (Gawn 2009: 516). In 1998, all the major parties to the conflict, constitutional parties as well as the various militant groups (represented by their political wings), signed the Good Friday, which was widely seen as a historical conclusion of the conflict (Neumann 2005: 79). The signing of the Good Friday Agreement left behind a legacy of over thirty years of bloody conflict that had resulted in the deaths of over 3000 people and heralded a new era in Northern Ireland’s history (Gawn 2009: 516). Although the Good Friday Agreement was hailed as an outline for political compromise, peace, and stability in the region, the Omagh bombing of August 15 the same year, soon reminded people that it would take much to eradicate the Province’s sectarian and violent legacy (Dingley 2002: 385).

The 1998 signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, and more recently, the May 2007 Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist Party power-sharing detente suggest that Northern Ireland’s troubles has offered an end to the “Troubles,” shifting the crisis to a less violent and more political sphere (McGrattan 2012: 1). Despite this strong sense of ‘closure’, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the overall level of conflict-related violence in Northern Ireland has not significantly decreased in the period since 1998. While there have been relatively low numbers of killings, both 1998 and 2001 saw higher levels of people injured than any other year since 1980 (Neumann 2005: 79). Likewise, bombings and shootings have remained an almost daily occurrence. In 2001, for example, there were on average two such incidents a day, which almost equals the number of bombings and shootings in 1993, when there were no permanent paramilitary ceasefires in place (Neumann 2005: 79). Furthermore, ‘punishment attacks’, that is, beatings or shootings carried out by militant groups in control of certain areas, have now reached the highest level in the history of the ‘Troubles’. Although the statistics show that Protestant militants have outdone their counterparts on the Catholic side for some years, the largest paramilitary group on the Catholic side, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), continues to be involved in all of the activities cited above (Neumann 2005:79).

In 2001 and 2002, inner east Belfast experienced considerable community unrest centred around the Madrid Street prescient (Jordan 2011: 158). During the winter months, community representatives sought to establish a basis upon which they could build relationships (Jordan 2011: 158). However, tensions remained high, and relationships fragile, with the result of all attempts to prevent ongoing community unrest faltering (Jordan 2011: 158). The impacts of these two years continue to leave its mark on relationships in the area (Jordan 2011: 159). Regular outbreaks of unrest, although nowadays more sporadic and less intense, ensure that living conditions for residents in Belfast remain strained (Jordan 2011: 159).

Eighteen years after the ceasefires, the population of Northern Ireland remain deeply divided about the past, the present, and the future (Lennon 2011: 21). The transfer of policing powers from the Westminster Parliament to the Stormont Assembly in Belfast has the DUP and Sinn Fein remain locked in dispute (Lennon 2011: 21). It is possible that the dispute will lead to a collapse of the government. Both Unionists and Nationalists still hope for different outcomes for the future (Lennon 2011: 21).

As stated above, in Northern Ireland, religious affiliation, ethnic identity, national identity, and territorial allegiance are intertwined in a complex way (Hayes and McAllister 1999: 37). These interlocking aspects provide the ethno-nationalistic basis of the conflict and offers explanation to the reinforcing and recurring nature of the “Troubles” (Hayes and McAllister 1999: 37). For pessimists, the fragility of peace in Northern Ireland indicates that there is little prospect of settling the conflict (Tonge 1998: 186). It struggled amid the political deadlock, before leading to violence (Tonge 1998: 186). According to many, success through resolution of the conflict was impossible. Nonetheless, the peace process of the 1990s has highlighted the huge groundswell of public support for peace (Tonge 1998: 186). The ceasefires have produced a reduction, albeit small, in tension in Northern Ireland (Tonge 1998: 186). It has been a long journey since the darkest days of the “Troubles,” but progress is being made .


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