Alright. I think it’s about time to get something straight. Contrary to popular belief, I haven’t spent the past three months in Ireland. Yes, I did travel to Ireland, but I’ve actually been living in Northern Ireland. What’s the difference?
Before I explain, I’d like to point out that I’m not an expert. I can only relay what I learned in my politics class and what I learned through personal experience. I hereby make the disclaimer that anything I say is what I observed, and not an attack on or defense of anything that has happened in the region. With that out of the way, let’s get started.
Northern Ireland is a part of the island of Ireland. You can see it is the dark part shown below. Even though it’s on the island, it’s technically a part of the United Kingdom. In case you didn’t know, the official name of the UK is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In all, the UK has four parts: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
So that means I was really living on British territory the whole time? Yes! But what about the rest of the island? The rest of the island is what we commonly think of as “Ireland.” It is officially called the Republic of Ireland.
Now you’re probably wondering how on Earth Northern Ireland came to be a part of the UK. Let me give you a brief history.
In the beginning, of this history lesson at least, Ireland was an island ruled by various clans and families. There was no centralized government and Ireland wasn’t really a country; however, across the Irish Sea was England, a powerful neighbor.
So do you remember that crazy English king that had all those wives? King Henry VIII was his name. If you’ll recall, he was desperate for the same thing all kings wanted: a male heir. The problem was, his wife, Catherine of Aragon, didn’t give him one. So, Henry VIII asked the pope for a divorce which was denied. Obviously, that didn’t make the king happy and led to England’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church.
As a result of the separation, England is a Protestant country. You probably remember a certain saint, St. Patrick, who was one of many missionaries in Ireland. So by this time, most of Ireland had been converted to Catholicism.
At the beginning of Henry VIII’s time on the throne, England had already established their rule in some parts of Ireland, including Ulster where I was studying. Henry made the decision to conquer all the rest of Ireland during his rule. Like I said, there wasn’t a central Irish government and there certainly wasn’t an Irish Army, so after some fighting Henry actually did manage to conquer all of Ireland.
Now, add colonialism. At the same time that Jamestown was being established in America, a plantation was also being established in Ulster. In Ulster, there was a strong loyalty to England, so some declared themselves Protestants as a show of loyalty. Being Catholic was to be against the king (you know, especially since the king was still mad about that divorce-rejection thing).
As you have probably figured out, this leads to the concentration of Protestants with British loyalty in the northeast part of Ireland with the rest of Ireland remaining solidly Roman Catholic and against British rule.
Fast forward through history a little and we arrive at World War I. The Irish, who were still ruled by the British, were sent to fight in the war. Fighting side-by-side resulted in a temporary stabilizing effect for the duration of the war. After the war, especially with all of Woodrow Wilson’s talk about national self-determination, the Irish wanted more than ever to address the issue of their nationality once and for all.
Britain took a look at the island of Ireland and thought, well, overall the majority of the island wants to be their own nation. In six of the northern counties, however, the majorities wanted to remain a part of Britain. Thus, we have partition in 1920 with the Government of Ireland Act. This effectively said there will be a Northern Ireland and a Southern Ireland, each to be governed separately with their own Home Rule, but still a part of British territory.
As you can imagine, the Irish in the South still weren’t happy, and they launched an Irish War of Independence. This eventually led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which made the South their own Irish nation in 1922. In 1949, it officially declared itself the Republic of Ireland, which is what we are familiar with today.
But… What about Northern Ireland? Like I said, they were majority Protestant, loyalists, unionists. (Okay, majority by gerrymandering.) Most of them wanted to be ruled by Britain instead of this Home Rule stuff they were being given. So no, they weren’t happy either. But it wasn’t just that simple.
The minority was Catholic (this “side” was also referred to as nationalists and republicans), and they wanted a united Ireland. In reality, though it seems like the problem was solved, it was really just being managed and ignored with some easy solution that neither side was really happy with.
Enter Northern Irish Conflict, otherwise known as “The Troubles.”
There was a lot of turmoil and unrest, and in Londonderry / Derry on 5 October 1968 tensions finally boiled over at a civil rights march. Marches and parades were common during this time, and the riots and violence they caused eventually led to the British Army coming to Northern Ireland in 1969. With things getting ever worse, in 1972 Northern Ireland returned to Direct Rule by the British.
At this point the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a nationalist paramilitary, was in for “the long war,” willing to accept nothing other than British withdrawal and a united Ireland. So, a period of several decades of violence ensued. There were bombings, open warfare in the streets, and other horrible acts of violence.
I won’t sugar coat it. This time of roughly thirty years (up to 1998) was awful. If you don’t know anything about the history of the conflict, I would encourage you to do some reading on it, watch some videos, and be ever mindful of the prejudices from both sides while doing so.
This period of conflict was a horrible cycle of “you bombed us so now we will bomb you” on both sides. Paramilitary organizations were often the local “protectors,” acting as police, jury, and executioner all at once. Parades continued, as did the riots.
A couple of stabs at peace were made, including the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. In this, the British government and the Irish government agreed to work together on containing the situation in Northern Ireland, work on issues of reconciliation, and provide international support for the region. It held up, but it didn’t bring peace.
It wasn’t until the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) in 1998 that the peace, or at least a framework for it, seemed to have arrived. Even with the agreement, there were still considerable issues to be addressed, including rights and equality, policing, parades, prisoners, victims, and decommissioning of weapons.
There are some successes here. Decommissioning is complete and the permanent disbanding of the paramilitaries has occurred. A police force, called the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), is functioning fully today. Many prisoners have been released, with limitations. And in 2007, Northern Ireland was able to finally have a devolved government again.
However, many questions still remain. Who counts as a victim? What about the prisoners who were treated unfairly? Is the PSNI actually better, or is it just the same people who were active in paramilitaries performing the same discrimination as before? Which flags do you fly, and when, and where? Who can have parades, and is it okay to do them along the historical routes, even if they go through areas that aren’t of the same community? Should the peace walls come down? How should issues of housing be addressed? Should the school system be integrated?
Yeah, Northern Ireland isn’t perfect. But as a foreigner who lived there for several months, I can tell you that it’s gorgeous, the people are the nicest I’ve ever met, it’s safe and it’s recovering. It hasn’t even been ten years since Northern Ireland got a devolved government, and not yet twenty since the Good Friday Agreement, but I would definitely say it’s healing and well worth a visit.
Which side was ultimately right? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.