The historical roots of civil unrest in Northern Ireland: a contemporary analysis

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1972

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Abstract

The current disorders in Northern Ireland began in 1968 with demonstrations demanding civil rights for Catholics, but the cause of the conflict lie embedded in the history of the province. Some of the issues which divided the people of the area before the 1920 partition formally created Northern Ireland included a vast difference in religion and, even more crucial, a different view of the past which emphasized different events and placed different interpretations on the meaning of these events. Since 1920 this basic difference in the approach to life has been deepened by economic and political tensions. All through the history of Northern Ireland discrimination against Catholics has been a fact of life. Jobs are filled, both in the government and in the private sector of the economy, on a sectarian basis. Since the top positions in both industry and government are held by Protestants, they hire their co-religionists to fill open positions as often as possible. Catholic workers bitterly realize that they will be considered for only the most menial positions and that no help in job-hunting will be offered by the Protestant economic hierarchy. Housing in Ulster is both an economic and a political issue. Because most housing is public and is filled by government bureaus dominated by Protestants, Catholics live in teeming ghettos, their large families crowded into those houses remaining after Protestant families have been assigned. The motivation for this discrimination is political. Because only householders are allowed to vote, housing is closely related to electoral patterns. It is necessary for the ruling Protestant Unionists closely to restrict the number of Catholic Nationalists who have houses and thus can vote. Closely related to these stresses ae other political issues, which further divide Ulster's communities. In 1923, when voting districts were established, areas with concentrated Catholic populations were gerrymandered to create large, under-represented districts thus giving governmental control to Protestants even where they were actually in the minority. This situation has effectively barred the development of a creative opposition party in Ulster politics with the result that stresses have not been openly discussed and solved but left to cause more friction. The entire political system rests on the deep-seated fear of Unionists that somehow Nationalists might get enough electoral strength to defeat the constitutional link with Britain. Added to these problems, and pushing them almost beyond solution, is the emotionalism of religious differences. Both sides cling to their past traditions and make no effort to understand the position of the other. Both Protestant and Catholic extremists in Ulster represent the worst in their respective traditions: narrow-minded, ultra-conservative theological bigotry. Both are unable to realize that strong beliefs and Christian tolerance can exist together. The spark which ignited these long-present frictions into the open conflict of the past three years was the demand of minorities for recognition which occurred all over the world in the 1960's. Sparked by campus activists at Queen's University, Belfast, a demand grew for Catholics in Ulster to have a real voice in the life of the province. Extremist groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Protestant Action turned the civil rights demonstrations into armed conflict. It is difficult to see anything beyond open warfare in the future of Northern Ireland. Whether it remains part of Britain, as suggested by some, or whether it eventually joins the Republic, as advocated by others, Ulster's deep-rooted problems will remain. Already a new generation of bigots is maturing in the children of the province. Massive new investments will be required to develop the economy and lower the disastrous unemployment levels. Although political reforms have been passed by the local parliament, their implementation has been delayed by the current violence, and they still represent only a beginning in the development of truly representative government. For anything to be effective in ending the violence, both Protestants and Catholics will have to be more flexible and more inclined to compromise and cooperate for the common good.

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Keywords

Northern Ireland--discord, Northern Ireland, religion differences, Extremist groups, civil rights demonstrations, armed conflict

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