Why Ireland Is Divided?
The history of Northern Ireland, a state created in 1921, has not been a peaceful one, and the study of the country has been as turbulent – it could be said that there is a ‘meta-conflict’; a conflict about the conflict.The causes of these troubles are varied, and it is far too simplistic to reduce it to just a religious one – although the Protestant faith is now synonymous with unionism, and Catholicism with nationalism, there are in fact many reasons for the divisions within the society.
The conflict has become one of national identity, class and political and economic equality, as well as, some have argued, culture.These are all endogenous, i.
e. internal, explanations for the fractious nature of Northern Irish life in recent decades, but others have placed the blame on external – exogenous – sources, claiming the behaviour of Great Britain or Ireland (or both) are responsible for the current situation.
The roots of these divisions are buried under centuries of conflict, betrayal and mistrust, and, whilst religion played an important part, it was part of a wider economic and political battle. It is important to take these into account, but one of the problems facing Northern Ireland is the sheer amount of unresolved history that underlies every movement and decision.
This essay will therefore take the recent ‘Troubles’ as its main focus; that is, the causes and effects of the collapse of the Stormont assembly on 24th March 1972 and the imposition of Direct Rule by Westminster, ending in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst this tentative agreement has by no means brought a complete halt to the violence and divisions in Northern Ireland, there was considerable hope, that has not yet proved to have been completely unfounded, that it would signify the beginning of the end.
Northern Ireland had the second highest church attendance in Western Europe after the Republic of Ireland, with 95% of Catholics and 45% of Protestants attending church on a weekly basis in 1969 and there can be no denying the fact that the divisions within Northern Irish society have been given religious labels – on a superficial level at least it is a battle between Catholics and Protestants. If this is so, then it is not unreasonable question to ask just which of the two is principally at fault.
Patrick Buckland is just one who feels that it is the Protestant community who see the conflict in religious terms, claiming “For Catholics the problem was largely political; for Protestants largely religious”. They feared the resources and the power of the Roman Catholic church, with 69% of Belfast Protestants in 1994 believing the Church had a ‘significant, ‘powerful’ or ‘too powerful’ influence in the government of the Republic of Ireland.
This fear of the Catholic hegemony, that would swamp and overrun their own way of life and form of worship, helps explain their hostility towards the minority in the North. As an ethnic group, they are defined by their religion, which inevitably shapes their communities, their politics and their outlook. It could even be claimed that they fall back on their faith because they have no national identity of their own. Four features of unionist politics during the period 1972-1998 were clearly influenced by religion.
The refusal to reach any significant accommodation with the Catholic minority, the steadfast rejection of any contemplation of an united Ireland, the desire to maintain the Union to preserve the Protestant way of life and the support for the evangelical Democratic Unionist Party were all bound up with Protestantism – the last point echoed in Steve Bruce’s claim that “the Northern Ireland conflict is a religious conflict [because]… that is the only conclusion that makes sense of Ian Paisley’s career”.
Finally, the anthropologist Don Akenson claims that the conflict stemmed from the Ulster Protestants’ belief that they are God’s ‘chosen people’, and this explains their sense of superiority, their ability to discriminate against their Catholic population without qualms and their determination to retain the autonomy of the Six Counties, their ‘promised land’. However, it is also possible, as many Unionists have done, to blame the divisions on the Catholic religion.
Many extreme loyalists claimed that nationalism is nothing by the tool of the Vatican in an attempt to ‘turn back the tide’ of Protestantism. Whilst this view is perhaps a little extreme, they pointed to the ‘religious genocide’ that took place in the South between 1941 and 1971, when the Protestant proportion of the population fell from 10% to 4. 1%, the legal enforcement of Catholic morality that caused the Protestant emigration to the North and the Papal law ensuring that the offspring of ‘mixed’ relationships were raised as Catholics.
Unionists also argued that it was the Catholic hierarchy that consolidated the divide by teaching a Catholic, southern Irish national identity within their schools, that it was their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Union and its security forces that led to the downfall of the first Stormont Assembly. They were also incensed by the Church’s refusal to excommunicate members of the IRA, as they did during the Civil War between 1922-3, and their willingness to bury IRA dead and hunger strikers in consecrated ground.
This, coupled with the discovery of IRA weapons on church land, led to the belief, in Unionist circles at least, that the Church played an active role in the conflict. It was this strident and violent Catholic nationalism that linked Protestantism to unionism – after all, there were a small number of Catholic unionists, which is not to be expected if Protestantism and unionism had been one and the same from the very beginning. Despite all this, it must be remembered that the conflict was not a theological one, and that religion alone cannot explain the divisions within society.
Although Northern Ireland still does have one of the highest church attendance figures outside the Republic, in line with the increasingly secularisation of the rest of the UK and Europe, numbers fell (just 29% of Protestants and 67% of Catholics went to church weekly in 1998) as the conflict developed, intensified and continued.The period 1972 and 1998, saw Northern Ireland become an increasingly secularised state – between 1981 and 1987 the divorce rate increased at the same rate as Great Britain’s and the number of births outside marriage doubled – yet the divisions continue.
If the conflict was the result of purely religious reasons, it would be expected that there would have been a correlation between areas most afflicted by the Troubles and the degree of religious intensity of the inhabitants, but this simply was not the case – the most devout communities were to be found in the countryside, but the vast majority of the violence was carried out in the cities, which recorded much lower church attendance figures – in 1992 it was estimated in one Belfast Catholic parish just 38% of the population attended mass on a weekly basis.
The same should have been true for the paramilitaries, that those most committed to the cause would also have been the most devout, but there is considerable evidence that many only turned to religion after incarceration; most famously, many of the hunger strikers led by Bobby Sands in 1981 had converted to Catholicism once in jail.
There has also been a careful avoidance by the main political parties in the province to avoid religious labels – the DUP was formerly the Protestant Unionist Party, but swiftly changed its name to the Democratic Unionist Party in 1971 – preferring terms such as ‘social democratic’, ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ and so on, and they pursue political and economic – not religious – policies. It should also be pointed out that even if they did have religious labels, it would not have necessarily meant that the conflict was a religious one – numerous European political parties, the German CDU being just one example, proudly possess a religious name.
Between 1969 and 1994, only one Protestant cleric was killed, and he, the Reverend Robert Bradford, was a hardline, outspoken UUP MP, and both sides, to a greater extent, respected the sanctity of churches and churchmen. An important point in this issues is that there is, in fact, nothing intrinsically religious about Catholics taking up arms in the late 1960s/early 1970s against a perceived aggressor or oppressor. This was not a ‘holy war’, not a crusade, but a fight against the inequalities and discrimination they faced.
Nor was the Protestant discrimination of Catholics inherently religious – Catholics were treated unjustly because they were seen as disloyal to the state, not because of their rosaries and belief in transubstantiation. The question of whether the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ were prompted by the religious tensions is best summed up by John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary when they said “There is no need to invent ingenious religious agendas to account for militant republican paramilitarism” and the same is true for the loyalists.
There are a number of other, more fundamental and realistic issues that explain the divisions within the province. There were clear class divisions within Northern Irish society throughout the twentieth century that could be said to have had an effect on the development of the Troubles. Stated crudely, there a disproportionate of the middle classes were Protestant, whilst Catholics were much more likely to make up the working classes. In 1971, 69% of Catholics were manual workers, in comparison to 59% of Protestant, and throughout the period the number of unskilled Catholic workers rose, whilst Protestant figures fell.
Thus the Northern Irish conflict could be seen in terms of a Marxist struggle – one where the mainly Protestant elites were attempting to maintain the status quo against the demands of the Catholic working class. However, this would be to oversimplify the problem, and overlooks the not insubstantial Catholic middle class and ignores the significant influence the Protestant working class were able to exert on the Unionist leadership. If it had been an issue of class, then it would not be unreasonable to expect that political parties would have organised along class lines, but this was not necessarily the case.
Whilst the UUP was heavily dependent on the support of the Protestant working class, this was not at the expense of middle class votes. The differences between the DUP and the UUP were not class-based, but simply political, although it could be said the SDLP attracted more middle-class nationalist support than Sinn Fi??in before 1998. It might also have been expected that the small Catholic middle class would have been more unionist in character, if it had merely been a class struggle.
Therefore to perceive the divisions in society as being along class lines is misleading, but there is a case for looking at the economic inequalities between the two communities, and the effect that they had on the formation and character of the conflict. In 1989, the Northern Ireland Office Minister Richard Needham said “If work can be found for 10,000 unemployed boys in West Belfast … that in itself will do more to impact on the political and security areas than anything else. In all societies, political stability is linked to economic prosperity, and the fact that, for most of the period 1972 to 1998 the Northern Irish economy consistently underperformed economically in comparison to the mainland. At times in the 1970s, unemployment reached levels as high as 12%, whilst Great Britain had enjoyed full employment. Key staple industries, such as textiles, ship- and airplane building suffered from fierce overseas competition and by the 1970s were in near-terminal decline.
Political extremism, and, by extension, paramilitarism was always more prevalent amongst the disadvantaged on both sides of the religious divide rather than the more affluent; a considerable proportion of the violence emanates from deprived Catholic and Protestant ghettos. Therefore there is some truth in Needham’s statement – if Northern Ireland’s economy had been stronger, then perhaps the more violent nature of the conflict could have been contained.
A very important economic issue was that of discrimination. In 1971, 17. 3% of Catholic men were unemployed, in contrast to just 6. 6% of Protestants. Twenty years later, the figures were 21. 3% and 9. 6% respectively. For those Catholics in work, they could expect to be paid considerably less than their Protestant counterparts. Direct and indirect discrimination against Catholics were inherent in the economic inequalities they faced.
Thus the roots of the conflict can be seen in Catholic demands for an improvement in their economic situation, but attempts, especially under the leadership of Terence O’Neill, to address these discrepancies had an important consequence: the Protestants became increasingly more determined to protect their economic privileges. They began to complain of what Birrell called ‘reverse relative deprivation’, that is, during the 1970s Protestants began to feel relatively deprived as the gap between them and Catholics began to close, which led to an increased resistance to anti-discrimination policies, which in turn fuelled Catholic discontent.
By the 1990s, the violence of loyalist paramilitaries were being attributed to the perception that Catholics were now doing better than Protestants, thanks to ‘reverse discrimination’ in their favour – this point of view was especially prevalent in the Shankhill area of Belfast, as uncovered by the 1993 Opsahl Commission. Another economic motive that could help explain the divisions within Northern Ireland was the clear financial disadvantages of abandoning the Union.
In the words of McGarry and O’Leary, “Protestants are said to be more loyal to the half-crown than to the Crown”. One of the reasons Unionists were so opposed the idea of a united Ireland was because it would lead not only to the end of their economic advantages, but to a general decline in the average standard of living, seeing as the Republic simply could not guarantee degree of expenditure on the province as Britain – by the early 1990s, the subsidy given to Northern Ireland from London actually exceeded the Republic’s income tax revenue.
This does not explain the continued nationalist support for and end to the union, even when aware of the inevitable economic disadvantages, but it is an important factor in understanding Protestant intransigence. However, economic factors alone simply cannot explain the divisions that led to the outbreak of the ‘Troubles’, or their continuation for so long. As Trotsky pointed out, if mere deprivation was the cause of revolutions, the masses would always be in a state of rebellion.
If economic reasons were the cause of violence between the two communities, it would be expected that periods of depression would be accompanied by an intensification of conflict, which simply was not the case: after the 1958 slump there was no outbreak of violence, and the ‘Troubles’ actually started during a period of relative growth, falling unemployment and increasing prosperity, which would point to a political, rather than economic, trigger.
Whilst political extremism is more likely to be found in underprivileged areas, repression (especially in the case of nationalist groups) was still as major reason for joining paramilitary forces, rather than objective deprivation. As already mentioned, there was no economic incentive for the Six Counties to unite with the South, especially before the Republic’s emergence as a ‘Celtic Tiger’, but the British subvention of the province also does not fully explain Protestant unionism, for it increased considerably during the years of Direct Rule, and in 1972 it was nowhere near the i??3. billion it was in 1998.
Unionism was driven by the belief in the right to self-determination and the resolve to preserve the Protestant way of life, not an economic self-interest, and equally, “Nationalism has a social psychological basis rather than a purely or largely materialist foundation” (McGarry and O’Leary). For shared material experiences to shape a community in any significant way, they must firstly, according to McGarry and O’Leary, have a deep sense of national identity formed through shared historical or geographical experiences and facilitated by common culture, language or religion.
Whilst economics clearly played a crucial role in consolidating existing divides, it does not explain the existence of the divisions in the first place. The violent divisions in Northern Ireland society can all be traced to the problem of national identity. Culturally, there was no real divide between the two communities, except over fairly superficial matters such as sport and newspapers.
Religious, economic, class and cultural issues, whilst important in understanding the complexity of the Ulster question, are not, in themselves, enough to explain the underlying causes. In terms of religion, whereas the Catholics were a single denomination, the various Protestant denominations were united only by the fact that their non-Catholicism, which was not strong enough to produce a strong enough degree of cohesiveness. Religious labels, however, were used as a demarcation between the two communities.
Unionists were not united by their religion, their class or their economic self-interest, but by their identification with the rest of the United Kingdom, by the fact that they considered themselves to be British – even when the government did not necessarily agree. Equally, nationalists were united in the belief that they are Irish, and spiritually and ethnically a part of the southern Republic. People were members of a ‘religious community’, considered to be a ‘cradle’ Catholic or Protestant regardless of their actual religious or non-religious conviction; their religious label was an ethnic label.
Whilst churches maintained and reinforced the social boundaries, through religiously driven activities, and the high rates of endogamy (in 1968, 96% of the population had parents of the same religion, whilst between 1943 and 1982 just 6% of all marriages were mixed), the persistence of segregated schooling (just 2% of primary and secondary school pupils in 1994 attended an integrated school) and residential separation, the divisions were originally caused by something else: “religion reinforced nationalism, not the other way round”.
Thus political and economic discrimination of the Catholics by the Protestant majority can be explained in terms of Protestant fears that their national identity would be lost in a united Ireland. Their determination to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and their extreme reluctance to grant significant civil rights to the Catholic minority was as a result of their fear of losing their way of life, as well as just an unwillingness to relinquish their privileged status.
As McGarry and O’Leary succinctly put it: “National and ethnic attachments tend to be much more binding and explosive in historically established and stable communities than alternative solidarities, like gender or class” and this is especially true of Northern Ireland. There are many aspects of the divisions in Northern Ireland society that this essay has not addressed. More could be said about cultural differences, and the long-term political discrimination, such as gerry-mandering, faced by Catholics that led to the Troubles between 1972 and 1998.
External factors, such as British and Irish policy, and other long-term historical factors, such as the nature of British colonialism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as the impact of plantation on the political dynamic of the province. It is impossible to blame the Troubles on class conflicts, for Protestants and Catholics simply do not divide neatly into a unionist middle class and nationalist working class.
Economic factors did have a significant impact on the development of grievances and intransigence, but also only provide an incomplete picture. Superficially, the conflict can be seen in religious terms – after all it is often described as Catholics against Protestant, as well as nationalist versus unionist. However, in recent decades, as Northern Ireland follows the general European trend for secularisation, and church attendance figures continue to fall, the religious labels are a sign of ethnicity, rather than belief.
The entrenched nature of the divisions between the two communities, in the face of improving economic and political conditions and increasing secularisation during the period 1972 and 1998 means that there must have been a further, deeper cause for the conflict, and the question of nationality – British or Irish – is more convincing than the other, admittedly important, possibilities.