How did we get here?

Clem McCartney

A personal view

Most conflicts are hard for those outside to understand. The parties to the conflict shift and change, and at first glance they often seem indistinguishable from each other. The issues often seem trivial and not worth fighting over. Even the terms they use shift and change, and they become a source of conflict. ‘Why can’t they just grow up and learn to live together?’ we feel like saying. In this respect, the conflict in Northern Ireland is no different from other conflicts.

Even the parties to the conflict can have difficulty in analysing and explaining it at times. They construct a narrative of the conflict and its history that represents their preferred understanding of the conflict and that provides them with support for their current actions and proposed solution. Such narratives do not generally deny the facts, but the meanings they give to the facts can differ markedly from each other. Fritz Glasl[1], an Austrian conflict specialist, explains in his nine-stage model of conflict escalation that at an early stage the parties go from arguing over the issues to arguing about what the issues are. In this way, they compete to assert their own narrative, as this will lead to the outcome they desire if it is accepted. At the same time, it keeps the other party or parties off balance logically and emotionally.

In Northern Ireland, John Whyte[2], a former professor of politics from Belfast, identified the main analyses in the academic literature at that time. The narratives that have been adopted by the various political actors have been based on class, identity or colonial/post-colonial theories – and, of course, sometimes elements of all three.

Parties continue to change their narrative depending on the audience and the perceived benefits they will get for their cause from a particular interpretation. If the parties to the conflict simplify things in this way, it is not surprising that it is difficult for outsiders to understand. They too may latch on to a defining concept that does not accurately capture the key features of the situation.

Peter Wallensteen[3], a Swedish professor of peace and conflict research, adapted a model from Johann Galtung to identify three elements in a conflict and their counterparts in peacebuilding: conflict formation (or, its converse, peace formation), which introduces the concept of parties and their relation to each other; incompatibilities (or compatibilities) of the issues that are in contention; and behaviours, destructive or constructive, of the parties. One can think of these as the three legs of a stool. If one is missing, the stool or the conflict collapses. However, the concept of conflict is more dynamic: if one leg is removed and the other two elements remain, a new leg will grow to keep the conflict alive. If the current issues are resolved but the conflictual relationship between the parties remains and the behaviours are still hostile, then new issues will emerge.

Applying these perspectives to the Irish situation, latterly the Northern Ireland conflict, we can more easily understand the shifting patterns and how they contributed to ‘the Troubles’ from 1969.

Perhaps it is easiest to understand in terms of the way in which each interested party looked after its own interests as it saw them. The following is a personal assessment of the parties, their interests and their actions to further and protect those interests. As such, it does not replicate any specific narrative of the conflict.

The historical background to the conflict

The main parties to the conflict are the original Gaelic or Celtic people of Ireland, the British state and the settlers from England and Scotland. These groups can be further subdivided, depending on their origin, their particular variety of Christianity, and their economic and political position. The advancement of those interests was often at the expense of the interests of other groups, although there may not have been a conscious intent to do so. Actions were often taken out of fear or for convenience, with little or no thought by the parties as to how such actions would impact on others. However, the perception, and often the reality, was that the interests of each group were competing in a zero-sum relationship – creating resentment and hostility.

Up to the Plantation of Ulster

The current conflict can trace its roots back to the conquest of Ireland by Anglo-Norman barons in 1169. They had settled in England following the Norman Conquest of 1066, in which they won the crown. The king was interested in extending his kingdom, and in 1155 the Pope issued a Papal Bull, Laudabiliter, which gave the king authority to occupy Ireland, although the Bull was not immediately acted upon. The barons were interested in acquiring land and wealth with as little interference as possible in their fiefdoms by the crown. When the exiled Irish chieftain Dermot MacMurrough sought their help to support his struggle with his fellow chieftains, they willingly agreed. They were immediately successful, but the king, concerned that they might establish their own separate power, quickly went to Ireland and soon the lordship of Ireland was vested in the English monarch.

Subsequently, many Anglo-Normans acquired land and settled in Ireland at the expense of local chieftains. For the majority of the people, their head landlord was simply replaced by another, with little impact on their situation. While England was becoming a centralised state under a strong king, Ireland was still a disparate assortment of fiefdoms and tribal alliances, with little sense of a national identity. The Anglo-Normans, far from the English court, merged with the local Irish population, adopted Irish customs, spoke the Irish language and paid no heed to the English crown. They were said to have become more Irish than the Irish.

Soon the English crown could exercise its authority over only a small area around Dublin, known as the Pale – hence the expression ‘beyond the Pale’. This situation was unsatisfactory for the king, who was gaining very little revenue from Ireland and the Pale was always under threat from neighbouring clans. The crown made a number of attempts to colonise parts of the country by confiscating lands and planting people on those lands – resulting in the plantations of Leinster in Kings County (now Offaly) and Queens County (now Laois) in 1556, followed by Munster from 1586 and Ulster from 1606.

From the Plantation to the 1798 Rebellion

The plantations in Leinster and Munster were based on the award of land to undertakers from the landed class, who were expected to bring tenant farmers from England. However, they were unsuccessful, perhaps because of lack of commitment. In the end, a new stratum of landed gentry was created, but the rest of the population was unchanged. As a result, the plantation of Ulster was established on a different basis. The awards of land were made to the merchant classes through the Guilds of the City of London as a business proposition. They had a stronger interest in establishing an economically successful plantation and therefore were committed to changing the economy of the region and bringing in tenants who would implement their plans.

In addition, the new planters were Protestants, following the Reformation in England, and as such had another marker of difference from the indigenous Catholic population. They were far less likely to integrate with the indigenous population as the Anglo-Norman barons had done. Moreover, while in Munster and Leinster the new landed gentry and professional classes were English Protestants who became known over time as Anglo-Irish, in Ulster not only was the ruling class Protestant, but many of the farmers and artisans were also Protestants.

An additional element was the presence of Scots settlers. The northeast of Ireland was within sight of Scotland, and there had been interchange between the peoples of both areas for many centuries. Increasing numbers of Scots now arrived and settled in the northeast of Ireland. They were also Protestants, but the Reformation in Scotland had taken a different form, the dissenting tradition. These settlers also had different customs and social systems (more egalitarian). The earlier settlers spoke Scots Gaelic, while the plantation era settlers were from the lowlands of Scotland speaking a dialect known as ‘Lallans’. Therefore, they were culturally distinct from both the English settlers and the original Irish inhabitants.

The traditional Celtic clan-based structures could not survive against the introduced systems, but the Irish remained as a distinct community. Some tried to integrate into the new system and move with the times, and the castles of clan chiefs and the fortified farms of undertakers existed side by side. However, few of the traditional chiefs survived the changes, often losing out to English landlords who were already wealthier and had closer ties to those now in authority. Many of the Irish peasant farmers were pushed out to poor bog and moorland, where it was difficult to make a living. The landlords viewed their success as based on their Protestant ethic of hard work and thrift rather than the political privilege they enjoyed. In contrast, the Irish in Ulster became much more aware of the injustice of the situation, and resentment grew. A number of rebellions took place during the 17th century, which have become part of the opposing narratives of oppressive English on the one side and treacherous Irish on the other.

Both the English rulers and the established (officially recognised) Anglican Church had an interest in emphasising the religion differences. The Church was concerned about what it saw as the errors of the Catholic Church, and was motivated by the desire not to tarnish its reputation and lose its authority. It was also suspicious of the dissenting tradition of the Scots settlers who rejected the authority of the Anglican Church. The state saw the established Church and Protestantism as a way to maintain the loyalty of the settlers. The authorities also feared the possibility of further Irish rebellions and wanted to limit the challenge from the Catholic Irish population. They introduced laws designed to privilege Anglicans over other religious groups. In the 17th century, it was forbidden to practise the Catholic religion and mass was held in secret at a mass rock hidden in the forest or hills. Even when this ban was lifted at the beginning of the 18th century, priests had to be registered with the authorities and a new set of economic and political restrictions, known as the Penal Laws, were introduced. Catholics and ‘Dissenters’ were barred from many public offices, from taking part in elections and from education. They were also limited in their ownership of land, and faced many other economic and commercial restrictions. The laws were not always applied rigorously, but they severely limited opportunities and caused great resentment.

The Penal Laws also forged a common position among Catholics and Dissenters, and at the end of the 18th century a new radical, non-conformist tradition emerged among those of Scottish descent. They were concerned about their own interests being restricted under English rule, but they also had higher ideals allied to their compatriots who, in the face of the restrictions, had emigrated to North America and were actively involved in the War of Independence there. In fact, the original draft of the American Declaration of Independence was drawn up by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the First Continental Congress, and printed by John Dunlap, both of Scottish origin. The first European newspaper to publish the full text of the American Declaration of Independence was the Belfast News Letter in its edition of 23–-27 August 1776, less than three weeks after it was signed. The newspaper had been founded by the same radicals who were also influenced by the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity of the French Revolution.

The Protestant Ulster-Scots were at the heart of the 1798 Rebellion in the north of Ireland, while their Catholic brothers were active in Wexford and other parts of the south of Ireland. The rebellion was defeated, and by then the penal law restrictions were being lifted and the Ulster-Scots turned to commercial activities and away from rebellion.

The Impact of industrialisation

The Industrial Revolution was now gaining momentum, and the north of Ireland for various reasons was better placed to take advantage of the opportunities. There was large-scale migration from the rural areas to the towns, where Catholics and Protestants lived in neighbouring areas. They tended to settle near family and friends from their own place of origin and near their churches, resulting in the patchwork of Protestant and Catholic areas that remains today.

In the latter part of the 18th century militant Protestant and Catholic gangs had emerged in the rural areas and clashes between them were common. After one of these in 1796, a new Protestant group was formed to protect and further Protestant interests. Known as the Orange Order, over the next 200 years it would become a powerful force for mobilising the Protestant community and a resented symbol of Protestant domination for Catholics. The rural tensions moved with the migrants into the towns, and skirmishes and riots developed periodically.

While Protestants had been relieved of the Penal Laws, Catholics still did not have the vote. This became a major issue during the first part of the 19th century because it was believed that, without the vote and greater influence in society, the Catholic population could not have its grievances resolved. The leader of the Catholic Emancipation Movement, Daniel O’Connell, realised that the Catholic Church offered a good way to mobilise people, as almost all church members went to mass every week and this provided a good opportunity to communicate with them. Protestants might well not have been involved in Catholic emancipation anyway, but this approach of mobilising people through the churches meant that they were not aware of what was happening and even less likely to be involved. The distance between the communities widened.

Catholic Emancipation was achieved by 1829. However, 15 years later, the community was hit by the Great Famine caused by potato blight from 1845, which gradually eased from 1848. As a result of the Famine, about one million people died and one million emigrated, mainly to the US, the diaspora forming another party to the conflict. While the blight was a natural disaster, structural factors meant that it impacted heavily on the Irish peasant population. Moreover, the state and many of the landed gentry did little to help the starving, building new resentment both in Ireland and in the diaspora.

Brief reference has already been made to the Ulster-Scots, who emigrated in the 18th century, estimated at a quarter of a million. That flow has continued not only to the US but also to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. These emigrants have tended to become completely integrated into the local population and have shown little interest in the ongoing conflict in Ireland. From the 1840s the emigrants were mostly Catholics, who were poor and excluded and tended to stick together. They also felt that they had been forced to leave their native land and carried that resentment down through the generations. Eventually, many of them became prosperous, some very much so, and have become a powerful political lobby in the US. Because of their family experience, they tended to be strongly nationalist, and some very militant, supporting national liberation movements from the Fenians in the 19th century to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the more recent ‘Troubles’. There are now estimated to be 40 million people of Irish descent in the US, probably equally divided between those from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds.

20th century onwards

Towards the end of the 19th century, the issue of national identity began to come to the fore. Various movements, which became collectively known as the Gaelic Revival, promoted different aspects of Irish culture – sport, literature, music and dance, the visual arts, history, folklore and mythology, language and so on. It is noteworthy that many of those active in these movements were Protestants who had the education and time to devote to writing and research. The Gaelic Revival aimed to restore pride in being Irish and, while not necessarily political, it connected to the sense of Irish nationalism, which was influenced by the growing nationalism throughout Europe. This changed the nature of relations between Ireland and the British government, and the demand was now for Irish autonomy and self-government, or Home Rule as it was called.

A new Irish Nationalist League, later the Irish Parliamentary Party, emerged with strong support from the Catholic hierarchy. The party soon won most of the parliamentary seats in Ireland, apart from the northeast. The northeastern part of Ireland was now settled and prosperous. Therefore, the erstwhile radical dissenters and the existing establishment, which was mainly from the Anglican community, now shared a common concern about what was happening in the rest of Ireland, as it threatened to undermine the stability on which their prosperity depended. They also feared that Home Rule would lead to domination by Catholic Ireland, and their economic interests conversely favoured close links with Britain and the British Empire. As a result, they formed the Irish Unionist Party. The northern economy was based on manufacturing and trade, needing the open markets of the British Empire. The rest of Ireland was basically a subsistence farming economy and feared cheap food imports from the Empire. Thus, the interests of the Protestants and Catholics diverged even further, expressed in the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘unionism’. At this stage, there was no talk of secession or partition of the island, but for ‘home rulers’ it would be a self-governing entity within the United Kingdom, while for ‘unionists’ it would be fully integrated within the Union. The Liberal Party in the British parliament, supported by the Irish Parliamentary Party, attempted on three occasions to pass a Home Rule Act for Ireland; however, it was repeatedly defeated by the Conservative Party supported by the unionists. Eventually, events were interrupted by the First World War, and nationalists and unionists alike enrolled in the British Army. Along with all the other nations fighting in Flanders, both groups suffered severe losses.

Although there was still little interest in independence among the Irish population as a whole, a small group of determined advocates of an independent republic initiated a rising at Easter 1916. It seems that the leaders had no expectation of success, but they hoped that their sacrifice would galvanise the Irish people in support of an independent republic. The Rising was quickly quashed, but the consequences far surpassed the hopes of its organisers. The British population was outraged that anyone would attack Britain when it was at war and considered the Rising an act of treason. The leaders were executed and the Irish population, which had treated the rebels as an irrelevance, was in turn outraged by the executions. And so republicanism was born, and in elections two years later the Irish Parliamentary Party was swept away from the political arena, with Sinn Féin winning almost all the seats, apart from the northeast where unionist candidates were successful. Sinn Féin refused to take their seats in the British parliament and the War of Independence began, culminating in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. The Treaty led to the formation of the Irish Free State, as it was known. It also provided Northern Ireland, made up of the six northeastern counties, with the option to opt out of the Irish Free State, which it exercised – resulting in its partition from the rest of Ireland.

From this point for 50 years, the UK government took little interest in Irish affairs, although during the Second World War Ireland became strategically important in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Irish Free State was notionally part of the British Commonwealth, and a Council of Ireland, representing both parts of the island, had been proposed. However, the southern part of Ireland essentially became an independent republic, which was finally recognised in the new Irish Constitution of 1939, and so a new interested party in the conflict had emerged. But it was preoccupied with establishing the new state and was mainly concerned with demonstrating its independence from the UK.

The Republic did not recognise the legitimacy of the partition of Ireland but was not in a position to do anything about it. The colonial history continued to dominate relationships between the sides. At the extremes, the English displayed an underlying sense of superiority towards the Irish, who in turn struggled to overcome a sense of inferiority and impotence at their inability to prevent the partition of the island. To some degree, these attitudes persisted until the 1980s and only began to change to mutual respect when Ireland was able to take its full role in the global family of nations. In particular, it was an equal to the UK in the European Community and often seen to play a more constructive role than its neighbour. This change was one of the bases on which the new settlement could be negotiated.

Northern Ireland was also preoccupied with internal matters – in particular, with bolstering itself against the threat of republicanism and potential attempts to reunite the island, even though there were no serious attempts to do so. One third of Northern Ireland’s population was Catholic and broadly supportive of a united Ireland. They were seen as a threat, and the unionists set about limiting Catholic influence and discriminating against them. Edward Carson, the leader of the movement to maintain the union of Ireland and Britain, was disillusioned with partition and took no further part in Irish affairs. However, his parting comment to the new Northern Ireland administration was that they should ensure that “the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from the Protestant majority”. In spite of this appeal from Carson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland remarked, “In the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State.” This sentiment was generally remembered by subsequent generations as ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’. It is not surprising that these words fuelled continuing resentment.

In the 1960s a new educated group of Catholics, with some Protestants, formed a new civil rights movement. This group comprised children of the welfare state, and were inspired by the civil rights campaign in the US as well as by the student protests in Paris and elsewhere in 1968. They were campaigning for basic human rights and against discrimination, without reference to the constitutional question. However, their campaign unleashed the fear and hostility of the Protestant community towards radicalism, protest, republicanism and Catholicism, as well as the resentment of the Catholic population against the discrimination that they had experienced. The traditional conflictual behaviours, which Ireland had experienced through the centuries, escalated from hostility through street protests to rioting and armed violence.

Northern Ireland’s ‘double minority’

It would be easy to give the impression that relations between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland are strained and hostile, overlooking the reality that many Protestants and Catholics work together and support each other. Farmers help their neighbours regardless of religion; Protestants and Catholics can be found in adjacent beds in hospitals tended to by Protestant and Catholic nurses and doctors; trade unionists, down the years, have made common cause in defence of their interests; as noted already, both communities have fought on the same side in the First and Second World Wars. However, even when the different communities interact in these ways, they avoid topics such as the constitutional position of Northern Ireland or relations between the communities, lest they cause friction and a rupture in relations. As a song by Colum Sands goes, “Whatever you say, say nothing”. The overt violence has been fairly localised, but awareness of the conflict is never far below the surface, even among those who have not directly experienced violence or unrest.

The people in the north of Ireland have a vivid awareness of history, as it has been handed down to them and as they have experienced it themselves. Encouraged by a common fear of cultural assimilation, the communities have developed their sense of identity in opposition to each other, stressing those aspects that are different. They fear that the attitudes and behaviours of the other community will lead to cultural assimilation as well as political dominance and that they will continue in the future. Perhaps the concept of a ‘double minority’ may give the best insight into why the conflict has persisted. Nationalists have long been a marginalised minority in Northern Ireland, while Protestants are aware that they are a minority within Ireland as a whole. It is important to understand these perceptions and the relationships that have built up over the years in order to comprehend the process and mechanisms that were needed to allow the parties to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement, as it is also known). They are also crucial in explaining the continuing hesitation and opposition to completing the process of building a new future.

Building and maintaining support

Because relationships have traditionally been conflictual, all interested parties have tried to build solidarity within the group, albeit also, involving sympathetic external actors, and excluding those who would not be supportive. The organs of civil society often have had a more important role in ensuring conformity and compliance with the dominant attitudes in their identity group than in promoting dissent and alternative visions or positive relations with other groups. We have noted how, at different times, the Anglican Church allied with the state and the Catholic Church with the opposition because of shared interests. They have both worked to maintain the religious identity of their communities and in doing so have reinforced the divisions – even though the biggest threat to all the Churches may be the secularisation of society.

The press

The print media has also more often represented its community than challenged it. As Gandhi[4] said, “A journalist’s peculiar function is to read the mind of the country and to give definite and fearless expression to that mind.” In Ireland, the mind of the community has often been exclusive and in opposition to others. Newspapers have reinforced these attitudes, for both ideological and commercial reasons. The Irish Times, published in Dublin, is an excellent example of this in Ireland. It was formed as a Protestant nationalist paper, but within 20 years had become the voice of Irish unionism. Since independence, it has come to represent the establishment in independent Ireland and effortlessly shifted its political stance, but still remains a sound and impartial source of information. Mention was made of the Belfast News Letter, which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously published newspaper in the world. It was founded by dissenters who were part of the radical tradition in Belfast in the late 18th century; however, as that community became successful and part of the establishment, fearful of instability, the paper moved to reflect those views and eventually became the organ of unionism. On the other side, The Irish News was founded in 1891 by the Bishop to oppose the leader of the Home Rule movement because of a scandal in that politician’s private life, and it has carried information of interest to Catholics who were not catered for by other papers and in time came to articulate nationalist sentiment. There was also an evening newspaper, The Belfast Telegraph, now also published in the morning, which for commercial reasons has attempted to cater for the whole community. In addition to the commercial press, parties to the conflict have produced their own newspapers. For example, the republican movement publishes An Phoblacht, to get their message across, and the Irish language community encouraged the development of an Irish language paper, . The local communities have also developed a tradition of wall murals to influence local attitudes. At the same time, in Northern Ireland many more copies of local editions of London-based papers, such as The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror, are sold than the local papers.

Radio and television

The situation of the broadcast media has been different as the BBC and Radío Telefís Éireann (RTÉ) were established by the British and Irish states respectively. Because they were state owned, they had a charter that required them to report impartially. This has often been taken to mean balance, so that every effort is made to ensure that all sides of an issue are broadcast. When independent television was introduced in Northern Ireland, Ulster Television also had a responsibility for impartial coverage. Censorship was more common in the Republic of Ireland, as the threat from republicanism was seen to be a bigger threat to the state, and its leaders were banned from speaking publicly. From 1988 to 1994 the British government banned supporters of paramilitary groups on both sides from speaking on British television and radio, and the broadcasters responded by having their words read by actors.

RTÉ radio previously had good coverage over most of Northern Ireland, but when television was introduced reception of events by radio became rather patchy. This has meant that, throughout the period of the Troubles, the whole community relied on the BBC and independent television and so watched and listened to the same news and heard the opinions and views of the leaders from all sides.

Outside parties

Unlike many other conflict situations, there has been little involvement in the Northern Ireland conflict by outside interests, partly because Ireland is a peripheral region of little strategic importance. However, its perceived strategic importance has often been the argument used to explain British interests. It is true that Britain did not want instability or foreign influence in the neighbouring island. It was only during the Second World War, and to a lesser extent during the Cold War, that the North Atlantic was a strategically important battleground. During the recent Troubles, both the European Union and the US have been interested in offering help to resolve the problems, while countries such as Libya under Colonel Gaddafi were willing to support insurgents. The nationalist lobby in the US sought to get the US government involved in resolving the conflict and tried to set the terms for the approach that should be taken. Mindful of the significance of the Irish lobby in internal US politics, the US administration has tried to satisfy their demands, while not always agreeing with their analysis or strategies.

Nationalists and unionists have been keen to get any external support they could. However, the UK has seen even the most benign interest as interference in its internal affairs and has been powerful enough to limit support to encouragement, financial aid and expertise. Ultimately, the UK and Ireland have taken the steps to improve relations while outside bodies could not make it happen. Equally, the unionists and nationalists took the steps to improve relations independently. While they had outside help in the process, neither Britain nor Ireland nor the other interested external parties were able to achieve any success in the peace process until the internal parties themselves decided they were ready for those steps.




[1] F. Glasl (1999). Confronting conflict. Bristol: Hawthorn Press.

[2] J. Whyte (1991). Interpreting Northern Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[3] P. Wallensteen (1988). ‘Understanding conflict resolution: A framework’, in P. Wallensteen Peace research: Achievements and challenges. London: Westview Press.

[4] M. Gandhi (1996). Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. XXVI. Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India. p. 369.


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