The Troubles, Blood and Politics in Belfast

Catholics vs. Protestants. But not over the issue of religion. In Belfast and Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants have been in conflict for decades (and in the leading nationalist party, Sinn Fein’s opinion, for centuries). During our trip to Ireland we visited party head quarters on both sides of the conflict, talked with ex-prisoners, ex-soldiers, and people on both sides of the wall that divides Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast.

The main players: Unionists (people who want to stay united with Great Britain) and Nationalists (people who want Northern Ireland reunited with Southern Ireland).

The Bloodshed: It started years ago and since the peace agreement in the early 90’s there has been slight hassling and occasional bombings or police officer killings, but overall the bloodshed by the main political parties has diminished greatly. Now violent extremists terrorize, on both sides.

Understanding the Conflict–Back to the Beginning:

According to Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, they consider themselves, and are proud to be “Irish Republicans”. “We believe in a human’s natural right for self determination and self government. Most countries have that right or can exercise that right but Ireland is not given the opportunity to be a sovereign state,” says Tom Holland, a leader in the Sinn Fein party. The island of Ireland is partitioned into north and south sectors, a political barrier that has become a social, religious, economical and governmental barrier as well over the years.

Sinn Fein believes the conflict began back in 1169 c.e. during the first colonial invasion by the English. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was a massive movement of the plantation. The English wanted to ensure that land conquered in Ireland remained in British hands so the monarchy handed out land to British aristocrats and military leaders. Oliver Cromwell went to Ireland to enforce English land ownership and during his conquest he and his men slaughtered thousands of Irish people. In 1798 a rebellion led by the “United Irish Men” gave birth to the idea of a republic against British rule and Sinn Fein traces the forefathers of the republic back to this rebellion.

In 1801 an active union was forged between England and Ireland because the British were aware that they were close to losing Ireland. However in 1845-49 when the famine struck, an estimated 1.5 million Irish people died of starvation even though there was food just across the Irish sea in England. This caused tension between the two nations that continued to build despite the “union” and in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin where several republican military leaders commandeered the General Post Office, greater opinion turned to support the republic. British officers captured and executed the Irish Republican leaders which caused the public to sympathize with nationalist desires. In 1918 an election throughout Ireland showed Sinn Fein’s views to be 46% of the vote and the majority of people clearly wanted the end of British rule. After this, the War of Independence began between the IRA and the British Security Services and it resulted in the division of Ireland’s 32 counties—26 remained in the south and 6 became the north. “For catholic, republican nationalists this equaled disaster. It led to a sectarian, unjust, illegal rule in which many Catholics were discriminated against in the north,” says Holland. “We were treated like second class citizens.”

The demands of the civil rights campaign that followed over the next several decades were modest: one man, one vote. Marches of people were banned, people were not allowed to gather in groups of three or more, they were arrested and battered off the streets in their own country by foreigners, in their view. In 1994 the IRA called a ceasefire and all parties began to agree that no one was a clear winner but that the bloodshed on both sides had to stop and the talking must start. Since then there has been significantly more peace between the two states and the people within Ireland, but for the north in particular peace is not 100% the case. For example, occasionally a radical movement will target catholic police officers, for example. Overall according to Holland, Sinn Fein thinks there is political naivety on the orange side of the union state and the party’s view for a peaceful future includes a united Ireland without British rule.

Photo: me signing the peace wall in Belfast. 40 foot walls separate protestant and catholic areas. Schools are separate and workforce discrimination is illegal but it’s a mixture of civil rights, political, social, economical and religious injustice on both sides that has this country torn apart. The issue is not as simple as I make it appear here either. We also had walking tours of the neighborhoods from war prisoners on both sides. I highly recommend a visit to Belfast and taking a closer look at the conflict to get a full perspective.

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