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North(ern) Ireland; deconstructing the Troubles

March 9, 2010


As one of the worst conflicts since the Second World War in Europe, Northern Ireland is one of the most studied conflict areas on the world. It has been said that: “If all the publications, the explanations, the analyses and the ‘solutions’ to the Northern Irish ‘problem’ were put side by side they would span the entire circumference of the world” (Vaughan-Williams, 2006). And yet, the conflict is still called one of the most intractable (political) conflicts of the twentieth century (Hayes, 2001). Why is this the case? Why is there conflict about the conflict? Why seems there to be an overabundance of academic research but a scarcity in insight and understanding? This article seeks out to explain the conflict of Northern Ireland, and tries to offer a complete picture, why the conflict occurred, whether it is still there, how it has changed and what new types of conflict have emerged in the post-conflict stage. It will do so from a cross disciplinary perspective.

Before starting with a historical overview, a short comment on the use of language is needed. Language is very important in conflict situations, because the language that is being used can influence an observer’s understanding of it. One could even speak of a ‘war of words’. For example, when referring to Northern Ireland, immediately the assumption is being made that the writer is pro-Unionist, because the Catholics prefer talking about the North of Ireland, or the North of the island of Ireland. One could call IRA combatants criminals, but also terrorists. In this paper different terms are used interchangeable, it is not the author’s attention to favour one view above another.

Orthodox explanation: Catholics versus Protestants

At first glance, the conflict of Northern Ireland is a simple one to understand. A conflict that has been subsiding since the 1970s and is fought between two communities who are separated by religion; Protestants and Catholics. However, when one delves deeper into the conflict the sheer complexity of it becomes clear and the orthodox stereotypical ethno-national explanation no longer holds ground. The feeling arises that it is impossible to appoint causes. Especially because both communities interpret history differently. The battle over the right interpretation of the history of the Troubles is still being fought and the past is not a given (Conway, 2003). The Troubles have often been explained as a ‘sectarian conflict’. But what is this sectarianism exactly? Sectarianism, according to the Ofxford dictionary definition, is the spirit or tendencies of sectarians, and sectarians are bigoted adherents of a religious sect. The two communities are often labelled by their religious separator, Protestants and Catholics and it is true that religion has been a historical dividing point. But the conflict has never been theological, although the communal division was based upon religious identity. In fact, theology is probably the least important. For a lot of people in Northern Ireland it is not inconsistent to call themselves not religious, but at the same time describe oneself a Catholic or Protestant  (Cairns, 1998). The question that can be asked in this respect is: is the conflict really caused by religion or is religion used for political purposes in the conflict? It looks like the latter is true. Protestants are also called Unionists or Loyalists. Catholics are most often Nationalists or Republicans. Although the labels are often used interchangeable there are some differences between them. Nationalists are Catholics who aspire a united Ireland, but don’t want to use violence in reaching it. Republicans are more extreme and see the use of violence as legitimate. The same distinction exists with Loyalists and Unionists. Not only are there differences between the communities, but also within them. The Unionist community is more fragmented than the Nationalist one and during the height of the Troubles even people within families fought each other. So the communities appear homogeneous, but they certainly aren’t. They are united in their purpose, but divided in how to reach it. For the Catholics the Troubles definitively are a political conflict, but on the Unionist side it is more considered as a religious battle set down political lines. In the end the identities are based upon perceptions, and not experiences. The people of both communities have more than 95% in common with each other and one could not tell from the outside whether a person is Catholic or Protestant. It is narcissism of small differences, where small differences are being magnified.

Setting the stage, important events leading to the Troubles

The Protestant Unionists often point to the Cruthin as the first people to live in Northern Ireland, while the Catholic Nationalists claim that their Celtic forefathers were the first. Different myths are used by the various parties to prove that their account of history is ‘the truth’. One could ask whether the debate about ‘who was here first’ is one of the causes of the conflict or, more likely, a symptom of it. Despite the arguing, there are some historical events that certainly contributed to the rise of the Troubles. As with almost all borders, the Northern Irish border resulted from conflicts of power rather than being a natural phenomenon. In the seventeenth century the English conquered and colonized Ulster, this event is also referred to as the plantation of Ulster (Todd, 2009). During this time, a lot of English Protestants settled in the area. Their settling would cause many problems in the future. In January 1919 the Irish War of Independence started, right after the Irish Republic declared its independence. In 1921 this guerrilla war ended and Ireland was to become a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. The British forces would withdraw from most of Ireland, except from Northern Ireland with its majority of Protestants. A boundary commission drew the boundary between ‘Southern Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’. So Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, but with its own government. This arrangement would be temporary, but lasted a lot longer than the UK intended, and maybe hoped for. Between 1921 and the 1960s the North of Ireland become increasingly polarized. The relationship with the Irish free state also worsened. The Second World War had its own impacts and made Northern Ireland economically more dependent on Britain and unemployment figures rose dramatically during the 1960s (Dixon, 2008). Despite this growing unemployment, both communities were quite optimistic about their future. They both believed that the modernisation process would lead to a victory of one’s ideology over another. Britain viewed the conflict during this time as a ‘backward religious throwback’ to the seventieth century and believed that modernisation was the key to solve the problems. The cause was seen as being economic and the globalisation process would gradually lead to more equality and less violence. A famous saying of Winston Churchill after the First World War is: “The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been left unaltered in the cataclysm that is the modern world” (Tonge, 2006). And still there are some that cling to the belief that modernism will lead to a dominant ideology of consumerism that will replace sectarian ideologies.

British politics and the propaganda war

Despite the division in the Westminster parliament between Conservatives and Labour Britain never showed disagreement on their approach to Northern Ireland. From early on they choose for ‘bipartisanship’. They choose so because in this way the British policy would be consistent and, maybe the most important reason, it would not affect the British policy in itself. It would also prevent domestic critique. Nevertheless, one important question remains. Why didn’t the British government decide to give the North of Ireland independence? Why did they continue to rule the country, indirect or direct? The main reason for it was that Britain feared that if they would leave Northern Ireland, a bloody civil war would emerge. This was something the United States of America also recognized. At first the US was of the opinion that British forces should withdraw, but soon they realized that this would lead to greater unrest and violence, maybe even to ‘Congo-like’ situations.  Withdrawal of British forces would probably lead not only to a destabilization of the North of Ireland, but of the whole of Ireland. The Irish Free State would become involved because it had to protect the nationalist population. This would have negative impacts on Britain, as Ireland is one of its key trading partners.  And maybe this civil war would even spill over to Britain. So the decision to stay in the North of Ireland was a rational choice. To wage the war against the terrorists effectively, not only military force was used, but also propaganda. As British Prime Minister Ted heath said: “we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war” (Dixon, 2008). This propaganda war was waged by different means. One of it was to effectively portray the IRA as terrorists and criminals, and not as political activists, or freedom fighters. However, this ‘criminalization’ did not go without opposition.  The Republican movement gained a large victory in the propaganda war after the hunger strikes in the 1970s. Not only gained the hunger strikers much media attention, in particular from international media, but it also changed the image of the imprisoned combatants. Increasingly they were seen as political fighters, and less as domestic criminals, for criminals don’t starve themselves to death. The political nature of their actions became more known.  For the Unionists, this was a severe blow, especially because the twenty two Unionist people that got killed in the time of the hunger strikes, barely received media attention. In 1981, the hunger strike even succeeded in getting Sinn Fein into electoral politics. This shows that there was a significant support from the population, maybe as a consequence of the strikes. During the whole conflict, Unionists tried to portray the conflict as sectarian, being a conflict between two communities and they stressed the terrorist or criminal nature of the combatants. The Republican side lay emphasizes on the historical view and claimed that their battle was a decolonisation battle and their combatants were freedom fighters fighting against imperial Britain. They see Northern Ireland as a colonial possession and want to remove the British claim to sovereignty (Dixon, 2008). These two contrasting views can also be observed in published articles, books and even movies. Some are clearly a colonial analysis, while others favour the Unionist view and see it as an (legal) irredentist claim. Bono, the front singer of U2, sang: “fact becomes fictions and tv reality”. This is something that can be seen with the popular movie ‘Bloody Sunday’. This movie increasingly became part of the history and was widely seen as truth, while obviously the movie is not objective and favours the Catholic viewpoint.  The movie is also called a simulacrum, a copy of reality, which becomes a reality in itself with its own moral claim( Houtum, 2004). One must look hard for a movie which contains a likeable or sympathetic Protestant character (McIlroy, 2006). It appears that the Catholic view is dominant in popular culture.

Peace comes dropping slow

In 1972 the first Peace Process took place. Sadly enough, it failed. Some say it is because the first Peace Process excluded the different paramilitaries. More likely however, is that the first process failed because the circumstances were a lot worse than at the time of the Second Peace Process. The Sunningdale negotiations came at a time when the Unionist really opposed any form of power sharing, especially when it involved an Irish dimension. The whole political environment was too much polarized and it would take time before any of the parties involved would sign an agreement. In 1985 an important step was made, although it was mainly a symbolic one. The Anglo-Irish agreement was signed. This agreement, which also has been called an experiment in coercive consociationalism, gave the Irish Republic a consultative role in Northern Ireland (Byrne, 2001). Other than the Nationalists, who welcomed this agreement, the Republicans were not happy with it, because they feared it would lead to the defeat of the IRA. A more important step towards lasting peace was the ceasefire by the IRA in 1994. With the ceasefire they wanted Sinn Fein to be included in political talks. This did not happen and they continued with their bombings and shootings. It looked like the Peace Process had again reached deadlock. Despite the failure of it, there was a shift in the IRA’s strategy. They changed from the Tet Offensive strategy towards the so called TUAS. What TUAS exactly stood for was debated, it could be Totally UnArmed Strategy, but also Tactical Use of Armed Struggle (Dixon, 2008). In 1997 the ceasefire was reinstated, after Sinn Fein was re-admitted into the peace talks. In this period, Blair said to the IRA: “The settlement train is leaving. I want you on that train. But it is leaving anyway, and I will not allow it waiting for you. You cannot hold the process to ransom any longer. So end the violence. Now” (Dixon, 2008). This bold language together with the readmission of Sinn Fein led to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, or better known as the Good Friday Agreement. The coming of this agreement was possible because of the pressure from both Irish and British government and an increasing feeling of war weariness. The document itself contained several elements. The most important is that it provided Northern Ireland with its own Assembly, based upon power sharing principles. The historical enemies shared power for the first time. Besides that, it laid the blueprint for further decommissioning of arms and it led to the release of prisoners. The Good Friday Agreement is sometimes being seen as a mixture between consociationalism and integrationism, with emphasises on the latter. The consociationalists are segregation oriented and argue that the unionist and nationalist identities are very difficult to change. Contact between the groups has therefore to be limited. On the contrast there are the integrationists, who favour mixing and contact between members of different groups. They argue that contact will breakdown prejudices and hostile ideological views about the ‘other’ group. Consociationalism is often suggested in conflicts like these, where there is a deeply divided society. But one of the major weaknesses of this approach is that it strengthens group categories, rather than emphasises common ground. Because of this reason the Agreement is sometimes also called the Belfast Disagreement. Its strength was that the extremists were included this time, so that it was unlikely that they would attack the government, while some others argued that they were now in a position where they could sabotage the government from the inside. In May 2007 devolution was restored and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Feinn) en Ian Paisley (DUP) were appointed as deputy first minister and first minister. During their time cooperation was pretty good, and some even called them the ‘chocolate brothers’ (Dixon, 2008) (Tonge, 2006).

When looking at the history of the Irish conflict, a question that emerges is; what about the rest of the world? Did other countries, and notably the US and the EU put pressure on the British government? As for the United States, they did put some pressure on Britain at the end of the 1970s. Before that time, they stayed out of the conflict, but as the SDLP and the Irish Government began to ask the US more and more to bring pressure they undertook some action (Dixon, 2008). The sale of arms to the RUC was stopped and they accused Britain of human right abuses and political inactivity. But until the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the outside world considered the conflict mainly as a domestic issue. After that agreement some more political pressure was exercised. It is however very difficult to decide how much effect these actions had on the actual British policy towards Northern Ireland. The European Union never was involved politically, but was economically more important. It facilitated cross border cooperation and had a more structural influence on the conflict. In this respect, the EU is sometimes seen a ‘cash cow’, rather than an important governing identity (Tonge, 2006). A payer instead of a player. Some think there is a chance that the EU’s supranational identity in the future will transcend the sectarian identity, but it is unlikely to happen. The European Union contributes to the erosion of the borders mainly through its cross border programmes.

Different explanations

Now that some historical events have been discussed, the question on how to interpret them remains. Different explanations are being offered in literature, ranging from agency-oriented explanations to structural explanations, with different degrees of consociationalism and integratonism. The agency oriented explanations is one to be found mainly in the circuit of journalists and historians. When explaining the conflict, a lot of attention is being paid to individuals and great names like John Hume, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. It is argued that despite the public disagreement between political leaders, their relationships when out of the spotlights, ‘backstage’, are often much better. The type of conflict management that is suggested by this view is one that focuses on personal relations between political leaders or other important actors. Systems change when people change is argued. Structuralists however, emphasize the objective structures that constrain or determine the behaviour of actors. Supporters of this view are mainly political scientists and economists. Individuals, they argue, have little influence of themselves. They are products of their environment. Their economic and social context determines how they behave. In the case of Northern Ireland the Catholics clearly had a disadvantaged economic position. When looking at militant republicanism, its combatants are mainly poorer rural workers or poor working class people (Dixon, 2008). This interpretation argues that there was economic discrimination. Needham, a British government minister said: “the type of work done by Catholics was on average more menial, more temporary, less interesting and less rewarding” (Tonge, 2006). There are attempts to merge these two opposite explanations, for example the strategic-relational approach which is a structuralist view, but with some room for the agency. And the conflict in reality did have both structuralist and agency causes. When explaining the rise and fall of the conflict, structuralist provide us with a plausible theory. But this must not lead to economic reductionism. For example, the economic progress in the Catholic community and the increasingly economic parity has not reshaped their identity. In fact, segregation only deepened the past few years and over 80% of the people are living in segregated communities and more than 94% of the children are educated separately. The magic wand of modernism obviously isn’t working here. The first and second Peace Process showed there were indeed structural factors influencing the process. But there was also a role for agents, like McGuinness and Paisley. It looks like consociationalists were a little too pessimistic for the Good Friday Agreement was something they never had foreseen. The integrationists were too optimistic in their assumption that there was something like middle ground. Different polls during the conflict showed that the public opinion was far from moderate and supported the extreme positions of the political elite. It maybe even said that despite the public opinion, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and that is a remarkable achievement. Besides these structuralist and consociationalist explanations, there are some others. One that is important and often neglected is violence in itself. Rather than just being one of the consequences of the conflict, violence can also feed itself off in a continuous and perpetual cycle (Hayes, 2001).

From hotspot to lukewarm area to hotspot again?

After the Good Friday Agreement the conflict did not vanish. It changed form and many things are still troubling. There was paramilitary criminality, low level violence between the communities and a malfunctioning political system. The paramilitary character has changed into a more sectarian violence rioting one, with attacks upon symbols and contested parades.  The late 1990s showed increased sectarianism with more and more eruptions of community violence and increasing residential segregation. The number of killings did not drop significantly. In the areas where the different communities live adjacent to each other the tensions are very high. There are now more than fifty so called peace walls, or peace lines in Northern Ireland, the most of them in Belfast. And it is unlikely that they will be brought down in the near future, on the contrary, more are being built. There is still a political fault line. Also the amount of suicides rose, probably because people found less meaning in their life. Conflict and division gives in a strange way a sense of meaning to people’s live and causes community solidarity (Sluka, 2009).

Of course there are also positive developments, one of them is that the DUP and Sinn Feinn have gained more support in the last elections. Although these parties are quite extreme, it looks like Northern Ireland politics is shifting more and more from a dual party bloc system to a single party per bloc. This will lead to less intra-bloc rivalry and may help to stabilize the country’s politics (Dixon, 2008). Also the parties, and especially Sinn Fein, are showing more willingness to compromise. And one of the major victories has been that the Provisional IRA ceased its violence since 2005. It looks like the different parties in Northern Ireland increasingly believe in the force of argument, and not in the argument of force. Another positive development is that tourism to the North of Ireland is increasing. More and more tourists are coming to see the peace walls. There is a lot of conflict tourism. The dark side of this is that tourism itself is also being used in the conflict. The terror tours, as the bus tours and the shankill tour also are called, are used to condition the external audience (the tourists) to remember the conflict in a certain way. In this way these tourist terror tours could lead to an international legitimisation of sectarian politics and sectarian landscapes. The propaganda war, or the battle for truth, is still going on. The internationalisation of the conflict is also visible on the murals, acting as urban memorials. Especially the Nationalists connect themselves to other oppressed communities, like the Palestinians. Through the murals they enhance their own visibility (Davies, 2001). This also is the case with the different parades, held mostly by Protestants. Both are practices that show a claim to territory and are used as political and psychological weapons (Anderson, 1998). Places become materialized in this way, and provide credibility to the claims of both communities. It seems that in a post-war (transitional) society people tend to legitimate externally their localized sectarian politics and geographies.


The Troubles are difficult to analyze, because it is nearly impossible to appoint a beginning or end to it. Causes are also difficult to distinguish, especially because in this Irish case the act of appointing causes is a subjective act. Also, it is hard to distinguish between causes existing before the conflict and cause created by the conflict.  In the end, the conflict of Northern Ireland is about borders, not the existence of the border, but its survival is at stake. The drawing of the border in 1921 had little geographic logic. The counties that were separated from the rest of Ireland contained both Protestant and Unionist majorities. Conflict in this way was a logical consequence of this partition. The conflict is not only about the border between the countries, but also about borders between communities. The dividing walls also become internalised, become borders that people carry with them. The border is deeply etched within the political culture and the walls represent both power and fear.  So the border in itself is not only a line on a map, but also a question. Is poses the question on which side we position ourselves. How we identify ourselves, and who we see as the ‘other’. The conflict in the North of Ireland shows how borders can be places of change and flux, where identities blur and people move. But more than anything, the Troubles have showed us that borders can be very static too, where identities are fixed and the sociohistorical narratives are materialized in the landscape (Donnan, 2005). The Irish partition is likely to show its trace on the map for a long time. The challenge remaining is to promote reconciliation now that elite power sharing has been achieved. There is a large need for rapprochement. But it will take time to alter the collective memory, the hand of history is still upon people’s shoulders. Things are still viewed against the memory of yesterday and not with the prospect of tomorrow. And those who repeat their stories are bound to remember it. It is highly possible that the conflict will rise up again in the near future. One of the major causes for this is the so called demographic time bomb. Protestant fear that the Catholics may ‘outbreed’ them. Though a number of studies have stressed that the head counting itself is sectarian and that there are major problems of interpretation, it certainly is true that the Catholic population is growing faster than the Protestants (Anderson, 1998). However, it may take generations before this demographic shift will take place. Let us hope that before that time, some solution is found and that Northern Ireland will be granted something that is hasn’t known for a long time… peace.


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Todd, J., (2009). Northern Ireland: a multi-phased history of conflict, a multileveled process of settlement. IBIS Discussion Paper, No.2. Available on the World Wide Web via: < discussionpapers/northernirelandamultiphasedhistoryofconflictamulti-levelled/>

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Vaughan-Williams, N., (2006). Towards a Problemisation of the Problemisations that Reduce Northern Ireland to a ‘Problem’. Critical review of International Social and Political Philosophy. Vol. 9, No. 4, p513-526.

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