Political Promise

Why Northern Ireland Cannot March Away Its Problems

In Conor Campbell on August 6, 2010 at 10:35 am

By Conor Campbell

Every year in the month of July the Orange Order march throughout Northern Ireland to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne which took place in 1690 between the English King James and the Dutch King William, who had dethroned James 2 years previous. The scenes of violence that have being shown on television during these marches are of youths from the mainly nationalist areas  rioting as a  reaction towards these marches taking place, feeling they represent an era of repression of Catholics.

The Civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was an attempt for Catholics to peacefully protest against the repression they had suffered for years. Historians have argued that the over reaction of the Unionist and Protestant communities at the civil rights marches may have been the spark that ignited the ‘Troubles’. During the following years the ‘Troubles’ left over 3500 dead, nearly 2000 of that number being civilians.

Northern Ireland was partitioned from the rest of Ireland after the Anglo Irish Treaty was signed on 6 December 1921. The signing of this treaty signaled the end of the Irish War of Independence.  Although the North was not automatically separated from the south, it was given the chance to decide whether it wanted to remain part of the new Irish Free State, which the Unionist leaders of the country at the time declined to do. Northern Ireland is often referred to as Ulster, but only 6 of the 9 counties which make up the province of Ulster are actually in Northern Ireland. It is a strongly held belief that the way in which the boundary was drawn up, ensured a strong Protestant majority of around 2/1, and the 3 counties which were to remain part of the South of Ireland,  Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan had more of a Nationalist /Catholic majority.

Throughout the years the Catholic minority in the North of Ireland were treated as second class citizens and struggled for equality. Since its incarnation, despite only making up one third of the population, Catholics have made up over two thirds of the unemployed. Catholic individuals in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) were an extreme rarity. Catholics were also randomly targeted for violent attacks by members of the security forces on a regular basis. With all these factors it is understandable, although still not acceptable, as to why after the peaceful Civil Rights movements failed, many young men in the country then turned to violence to vent their frustration.

However Northern Ireland today is a very different place. Yes, there is still violence and yes, there is still discrimination on both sides which may results in some individuals being held back unfairly; however the numbers of these incidents are significantly smaller than in previous generations. In the last Westminster election, Sinn Fein actually received more votes than any other Northern Irish party, despite only winning 5 seats compared to the DUP’s 8. Today in Northern Ireland there are great efforts being made to build and strengthen cross community relations.  From my own experience of living in Northern Ireland for three years and attending an integrated 6th form college I believe the hostility between the two are a product of a small simple minded minority.

The most recent rise of Sinn Fein began when they started to distance themselves from the IRA and decided to go down the more constitutional road of using the Ballet box to achieve power instead of violence. With this is mind it is tragic to see so many Nationalist youths in 2010 using the Orange marches of July as an excuse to return to petulant violence and stir up hostility once again. Although there were peaceful protests by some individuals, the pictures of burning cars and bricks being thrown will always capture the eye of news reporters far quicker. Amongst the violence an encouraging symbol emerged from the chaos in the form of two former enemies standing side by side, mutually condemning the day’s activities as ‘outright thuggery’. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have criticized the violence and called for peace, as the cost of the riots begins to run into the millions.

Living in a democratic society, those rioting at the moment need to realise that the Order have every right to celebrate and march, regardless of how others feel about it. If Nationalists cease to pay attention to these marches, allowing them to march without opposition; then instead of highlighting the cowardly acts of young men throwing objects and running, reporters may instead focus on the marches themselves, and ask why is it that they march? These youths by acting in the way which they have been over the month of July are flying against the winds of an Irish Nationalist past which for so long has tried to hold on the moral higher ground. Irish historians have defended the rebels of the past by claiming their actions are born out of a life of constant suppression by an unwelcomed foreign power. That suppression is no longer sufficient enough to even attempt to excuse the most recent violence and is a sure way to lose any sympathy for a cause, which had been built up by generations beforehand.

‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’ – Nelson Mandela

  1. Hi Conor- Charlotte here.

    Thanks for a well thought out and informative article, I enjoyed reading it. I don’t know as much as you do for sure- but for what it’s worth, I think the recent violence in Ardoyne and other poorer areas of Belfast may have much to do with persistent deprivation. Alienation and poverty must have a big role to play in turning young Catholics towards violence…I wonder what your thoughts are on this?

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    I will agree that some of these areas are deprived of real investment, however this isn’t one sided. There are just as many deprived Unionist/Loyalist areas which many of those that partake in the violence forget. I found that it is often elder generations who pass on their unfortunate stories without informing the younger ones that times can and have changed. Although I will add that that there are other factors which don’t help the country to move on like so called ‘Peace Walls’ which were meant to stop the violence, but if anything have just deepened some of the suspicion and mistrust of the ‘other side’. As well as peace walls government money has been spent on building nearly two of everything, one for each side, bus stops being a big example, which doesn’t encourage the sides to integrate with one another.

    These deprived areas are where Sinn Fein draw some of their largest support, the same party who up until recently supported the armed struggle. Many still believe that despite the ‘decommission’ of the IRA and Sinn Fein’s changing in policy they still have many links with the acts of violence that carry on today. However the ironic thing is that Sinn Fein was founded by a man named Arthur Griffith who actually was opposed to violence.

    I don’t think it’s fair to blame poverty. Especially if the Nationalist aims of having a United Ireland were achieved, then looking at the state of Ireland economy, these areas would be even worse off!

    Hope that answers your question a little more!

    Best Wishes

  3. That was class article. Learned more about my home in a ten minute read than I have in a lifetime!

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