Religious Politics: Northern Ireland and England

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Religious Politics: Northern Ireland and England

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is located in Western Europe. Separated from the mainland continent by the North Sea and English Channel, Great Britain includes England, Scotland, and Wales. West of Great Britain and separated by the Irish Sea, Northern Ireland is located at the northern end of an island mass that includes the modern independent nation of Ireland. England, its capital is London, is the administrative and economic center of the United Kingdom.

By the late sixteenth century, England had become the world's leading military and commercial power. With its superior naval fleet, England took control of countries and regions worldwide. Collectively these holdings, called colonies, were known as the British Empire.

England's worldwide dominance came to an end in the first half of the twentieth century following World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45). Many English colonies, predominately these in Africa and Asia, were granted independence between 1945 and 1951. Ireland became a nation independent of England in 1949. Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom.

Prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants in Northern Ireland led to centuries of war with England. The suppression of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland resulted in open rebellion to English rule. Political and religious discrimination (treating some differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) divided the country into the twentieth century. The long-running conflict reached its most violent phase between 1968 and 1994. By the time an agreement was reached between the two sides, thousands had died and many more had their lives permanently altered by prolonged disruption of day-to-day life under the constant threat of violence.

History of English rule over Ireland

The English government took control of Ireland in the twelfth century, and a long struggle developed between the Irish and their English rulers. The English based their army in Dublin, Ireland's capital city. An Anglo-Irish Parliament was established by the English conquerors, who held most of the seats of power in the Parliament (government). They allowed only a few native-born Irishmen to participate in the governing body, and those representatives had no real power. "Anglo" is a term used interchangeably with the term "English." Wars broke out between the army and the Irish population who were opposed to English rule. By the fourteenth century, Scottish invaders landed in Ireland and allied with local Irish tribal chiefs to weaken English rule. Eventually, English power was limited to an area around Dublin called the Pale. By the mid-fifteenth century, English noblemen living in the Pale of Ireland participated in the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) with hopes of increasing their control. The name of the wars came from the depiction of roses on badges representing the two warring English royal factions. Unsuccessful in their attempts, the wars only further weakened England's power in Ireland. Nevertheless, in 1495, the English Parliament subjected all of Ireland to their direct command with an act called Poyning's Law, named after the English-appointed governor of Ireland who sought to secure Ireland under English rule.


Stopping active hostilities.
guerrilla warfare:
Irregular fighting by independent bands.
To confine or imprison a person without a trial.
The national legislative body in various nations including Great Britain.
An oversimplified prejudgment of others using physical or behavioral characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every member of that group.

The social fabric of Ireland further unraveled when the English tried to force their own religion on the Irish. In 1534, King Henry VIII (1491–1547) formed the Anglican Church, or the Church of England. Citing political and religious differences, King Henry broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church, whose seat of power was in Rome. Henry named himself head of the new church he created in England. This protest against Roman Catholicism marked the beginning of Protestantism in England. Despite the fact that most of Ireland's inhabitants were Catholic, England's King Henry VIII created a Protestant "Church of Ireland" in 1541. Catholic monasteries were abolished and Roman Catholicism was prohibited in England and Ireland. This blatant discrimination against their religion intensified Irish hatred of the English rule.


Orangemen belong to a Protestant men's organization called the Orange Order. Founded in 1795 in Loughgall, Ireland, it is largely based in the province of Ulster and western Scotland, but it is a worldwide organization. Separate chapters are located in England, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and West Africa. Its supporters see the Orange Order as a means to celebrate Protestant culture and identity.

Throughout its history, the Orange Order has been associated with politics in Northern Ireland. From the beginning, there was a formal association with the Ulster Unionist Party. The Party was established in 1905 to resist Home Rule, Irish self-government independent from the British Parliament in London. Catholic membership in the party was discouraged. Unionist members were most always Orangemen as well, and Catholics were barred from membership in the Orange Order. The influence of the Orangemen in the government of Northern Ireland was deep and wide-ranging. The Unionist Party was the controlling government from 1921 until 1972. Until 1969, all of the prime ministers of Northern Ireland and all but three cabinet ministers were Orangemen. Eighty-seven of the ninety-five Members of Parliament and every Unionist senator but one was an Orangeman until 1969. The political connection between the two remained until March of 2005 when most Orangemen transferred their allegiance to the Democratic Unionist Party.

The Orange Order holds annual marches or parades along traditional routes on roadways in their chapter's home town. The first Orange parade was held in 1796 in County Armagh, Ireland. Marches have led to rioting, violence, and death in the twentieth century. In Northern Ireland, problems became more intense when traditional routes for Orangemen parades, with their anti-Catholic theme, took them into housing areas now occupied by Catholics. In 1935, thousands of Catholics were forced to leave their homes in Ulster after rioting sparked by a parade left several dead. Many of the bands hired by the Orangemen for their parades openly advertised their association with paramilitary groups (units formed on a military pattern to wield military force against Catholics). The traditional songs at the Orange parades contain lyrics that are insulting and threatening to Catholics and have led to some serious disturbances. Both sides take their community's rights very seriously. Protestants declare their right to freedom of speech and Catholics respond with their right to freedom from fear.

When the English suppressed an Irish rebellion in 1649, they seized much of the land in the northeastern province of Ulster. English and Scottish Protestants settled this land as part of the large-scale colonization of Ireland. As the Protestants moved into Ireland, many Catholics were driven off their lands. Irish farmers found themselves in a tenant farm system. Under the tenant system, Irish farmers worked the land for English landlords who often lived elsewhere. Landlords took the profits while providing the farmers who rented and lived on their land with bare basic necessities.

Continuous open rebellion in Ireland led to the reversal of Poyning's Law in 1782. That meant Ireland's Parliament was no longer under direct control of the English Parliament. It was a real step forward for Irish independence but Catholics were still denied the right to hold office. In 1791, an underground movement called the United Irishmen was founded to oppose English rule and fight for separation of Ireland from England. Called separatists, they believed that the only way to get England out of Ireland was by force. England was in competition with rival European powers at that time, and political control of the Irish island was a military necessity for protection from the French navy. Irish separatists looked to England's enemies for assistance and support. To resist and exercise political power over the Catholics, a Protestant organization called the Orangemen (see box) formed in 1795.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a movement in England to resolve the separatist issue in Ireland. In 1800 the British Parliament passed the Act of Union that merged the kingdoms of Ireland and England into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Put into effect on January 1, 1801, they were united under a central parliament and monarchy (royalty line of kings and queens) based in London. Irish politicians were allowed to serve in the English Parliament. In 1829, Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, overturning all laws directed specifically against Catholics. Further legislation followed further uniting Ireland with the rest of Great Britain. The Parliament passed the Disestablishment Act in 1869 that formally dissolved the Anglican Church in Ireland. British Parliament then passed a series of acts between 1870 and 1903 referred to as the Irish Land Acts to aid tenant farmers. Despite these efforts, Irish independence remained a controversial issue. In Ireland, Catholics supported the rise of the Home Rule movement in the late nineteenth century for self-government. Protestants, who were in the minority on the island, opposed it; they feared Catholic domination. Protestants supported continued English rule. The Home Rule movement was the beginning of a political rivalry between the two groups that continued through the twentieth century.

Irish independence

At the dawning of the twentieth century, politics in Ireland divided communities between the Unionists and the Nationalists. Unionists were mainly Protestant descendants of Scottish and English settlements, and they wanted to remain under direct rule from London. The Orangemen closely associated with the Unionist Party. Nationalists were largely Catholic descendants of the original Irish population and they desired independence from England. In 1905, Sinn Fein (see box) was organized as a political party to secure Irish independence. Sinn Fein's roots go back to 1791 when the Catholic underground movement (secretive organized effort) formed the United Irishmen.

On April 24, 1916, while England was engaged in World War I, a revolt against English rule broke out in Ireland. The fighting began in the streets of Dublin and spread to other parts of the island before the leaders were caught and executed. Known as the Easter Rising, or Easter Rebellion, it seemed a total failure until the English executed its leaders. The general Irish populace reacted with disgust and anger believing the leaders were unjustly killed. The Easter Rising is credited with paving the way for the eventual establishment of the Irish Free State. In 1916, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) formed to fight for Irish independence. A guerrilla war (irregular fighting by independent bands) began between the IRA rebels and British government forces.

When the First World War ended, the idea of Home Rule gained momentum. It was proposed that Ireland be divided into two separate Home Rule areas, northern and southern. Unionists were in the minority on the island but held a majority in the four northern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, and Londonderry, in the province of Ulster. The addition of the two Ulster counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone left northern Ireland with a workable economic plan for Home Rule. It seemed like a good compromise to everyone except the hundreds of thousands of Nationalists from Fermanagh and Tyrone, who found themselves included in the northern area with the predominant Unionists. The other three of the nine counties of Ulster were left in control of the south because of their prevailing Nationalist populations. The outcome of the Home Rule proposal in 1920 was that twenty-six counties, in the south of Ireland, would be ruled from Dublin. Six northern counties—Antrim, Armagh, Down, Londonderry, Fermanagh, and Tyrone—would be ruled from Belfast in northern Ireland. Provision was made for both parliaments to eventually join into one parliament for all of Ireland.

Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein is the oldest political organization in Ireland. Its roots can be traced to the Catholic underground movement of the United Irishmen in 1791. Created to oppose English rule in Ireland, the early leaders believed that only an independent Ireland could guarantee equality and prosperity for the people. The organization evolved over the centuries until it emerged in the twentieth century as Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is a political party that seeks the unity and independence of Ireland. The theories of the separatist political movement were first published in 1905 under the title "The Sinn Fein Policy."

Sinn Fein takes its name from an Irish Gaelic expression, which translates into English as "We Ourselves," or "Ourselves Alone." The modern Sinn Fein party prefers "We Ourselves." During the 1918 general election in Ireland, Sinn Fein won a landslide victory. It set up a separatist parliament, Dail Eireann (Irish assembly), and proclaimed Ireland a Republic with its own Irish army called the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Following several years of guerrilla warfare, the party split over support of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. The act divided Ireland with an international land border.

Reorganized in the 1960s, Sinn Fein launched a political campaign to gain support on issues other than separation. The party split once again and the Provisional Sinn Fein emerged as the party known in the late twentieth century. Provisional means temporary or serving for the time being. From the 1970s onward, Sinn Fein took the role of leading advocate for English withdrawal from Ireland. It campaigned on the streets throughout Ireland for a reunited thirty-two-county island. The IRA also experienced a split in 1969 over political differences among the members. One branch took a more political and less violent approach. The other branch that split off called itself the Provisional IRA and continued the same armed strategies of the earlier IRA. It is the group recognized as the IRA today. Sinn Fein combined with the IRA and came to symbolize militant Irish nationalism to the rest of the world. The IRA conducted armed campaigns of violence within England and Northern Ireland until 1994. By the time a peace settlement was reached in 1998, more than three thousand people had been killed, most of them civilians. It was the longest unbroken period of armed resistance in the long and troubled history shared between Irish Catholics and England.

The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 resulted in the creation of the six-county Northern Ireland and provided for Home Rule. An international land border, the only one within the United Kingdom, was established to separate Northern Ireland from the south of Ireland. The act provided for parliaments in Dublin and in Belfast. Northern Ireland chose to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the remaining twenty-six counties of the south and west formed the Irish Free State under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. These actions failed to end the unrest. Although the Irish had finally gained some independence from England, the long-standing resentment over English domination remained.

In 1926, the Fianna Fail party was founded in Ireland with the goal of severing all ties with England. Eamon de Valera (1882–1975), former president of the Irish Republic and member of Sinn Fein, founded the political party. Through the next several years an economic war existed between Ireland and Britain. As an Irish leading official, de Valera stopped paying annual land payments owed to Britain. Britain responded with restrictions on Ireland's exports to Britain. In 1937, the Irish Free State declared independence as Eire. Eire used its independent status to remain neutral throughout World War II. England suffered heavy losses during the war, both in combat and in sweeping German air attacks on its cities, and was in no position to resist the independence move by Eire. In 1949, Eire was renamed the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland declared final independence from Britain on April 18, 1949. It then renewed its efforts in the movement to unite Protestant Northern Ireland with the Catholic Republic of Ireland.

Two distinct ethnic groups

Riot reports of the early twentieth century recorded the ongoing violence between Catholics and Protestants. The reports focused mainly on troubles within Belfast and Londonderry, where most of the bloody conflicts took place. Until the 1960s, most Catholics and Protestants throughout Northern Ireland dealt with problems locally. It had been forty years since the creation of Northern Ireland and, while there was neither unity nor stability, both sides had more or less accepted the reality of the six-county province. However, Catholics and Protestants still saw themselves as belonging to distinct groups, and the underlying conflict was rooted in their differences and cultural identity. Northern Ireland Protestants were the majority group and strongly favored by London.

There was a high level of stereotyping (an oversimplified prejudgment of others using physical or behavioral characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every member of that group) between the Protestants and Catholics. Catholics considered the Protestants to be rigid and lacking common sense. Protestants thought the Catholics were arrogant and belligerent in school and other community activities. Fear and distrust of each other led to segregation (using laws or social customs to separate certain social groups, such as peoples distinguished by skin color or religious affiliation) at most levels of society. This separation led to real differences in terms of economic prosperity, education, and political opportunity. Schools were segreated. Even senior citizens' homes were separated by religion. The church usually organized social activities, so contact between the two religions was limited. Mixed-marriage couples

Signs of Northern Ireland Ethnic Division

Northern Ireland ethnic division can be seen in the absence of any universally accepted national symbols as a national anthem or national flag. Northern Ireland lacks an official national anthem. When one is required for an event, "God Save the Queen" is most often played and the English Union Flag is displayed. At the Commonwealth Games "A Londonderry Air," the old anthem of Northern Ireland, is played while the Ulster Banner, or Red Hand Flag, is flown. The Commonwealth Games are similar to the worldwide Olympics but with even more sports included that are common mainly to the Commonwealth countries, such as lawn bowling and rugby. The Ulster Banner is based on the flag of Ulster and occasionally still flies, even though it lost its official status when the Parliament of Northern Ireland was abolished in 1972. In an attempt to promote unity the Flag of St. Patrick has been raised by some organizations. It too has failed to receive universal approval because it represented Ireland during English rule and it is still used by some English army regiments.

Nationalist and Unionist communities fly different flags. Nationalists are those of Catholic descent who desire a reunion with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists are Protestants who desire to maintain Northern Ireland under British rule. Nationalist communities typically fly the Irish tricolor flag. Local unity is expressed in the green, white, and orange of its banners and signs. Unionist communities fly the red, white, and blue of the Union Flag, the symbol of English identity.

A point of tension still exists in the twenty-first century between Unionists and Nationalists in the use of name designations for cities, organizations, and even sports clubs. Choice of names often reveals the cultural, ethnic, and religious identity of the speaker. Unionist supporters call Northern Ireland Ulster while Nationalists most always use North of Ireland, or the Six Counties. The media generally use their community's preferred term or they mix the use of disputed names in a report. For example, the city of Londonderry may be referred to when introducing a story and then it will be called Derry for the rest of the report. Unionists prefer City of Londonderry, while Nationalists prefer Derry. When the Derry City Council voted to rename the city Derry, unionists objected and it officially remained Londonderry. To satisfy both sides the Council printed two sets of stationery and replies to its correspondence using whichever term the original sender used.

often stopped attending church altogether. Because of prejudice against them, they were not accepted in either circle. Catholics were more likely to be unemployed, paid lower wages, and living in inferior housing. Without obvious physical differences like skin color, discrimination against a stranger was based on other signals. Centuries of discrimination against Catholics had left the majority of them poor members of the working class. Protestants, who identified more with British culture, were much more likely to be landowners or managers who hired and fired the workers. People judged others on the basis of their home address, school attendance, name, appearance, and speech. The organizations one belonged to and even the sports one played were also indicators used in discriminating against another person. The common hostility and fear between the two groups eventually led to a sense of deprivation and discontent by the Catholic minority.

The Catholic minority held very little power in government. The state was run on the basis of a Protestant majority with the parliament building located six miles east of Belfast in Stormont, a region populated by Protestants. The Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 established the location, and the Ulster Unionist Party had maintained complete control since that time. Individuals from these powerful, upper-class Protestant families were wealthy from businesses as well as land ownership. Protestants from a few individual families controlled the vast majority of Stormont seats under the Unionist party. To the Protestant community, Stormont became a symbol of power; to the Catholic community, it was a symbol of oppression. In the 1950s, the international media began to play a major role in publicizing the views and demands of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. The eyes of the world slowly began to focus on the troubled little island.

The troubles

As the world watched, the political situation in Northern Ireland became increasingly bitter and violent. Throughout the 1960s, violence between Catholics and Protestants increased at an alarming rate. By 1966, the constant clashes erupted into civil war between the IRA and a Protestant group called the Ulster Defense Association, formed in 1971. Sinn Fein and the IRA increased their efforts to make Northern Ireland part of the Republic of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland did little to deter IRA cross-border raids into Northern Ireland. Working in their favor was the deep cultural division that separated Irish citizens in the north. Catholic Nationalists publicly charged that they faced religious and political discrimination from Protestant Unionists. The long-running conflict between the two sides became known as The Troubles, and it reached its most violent phase between 1968 and 1994.

When Sinn Fein and the IRA combined forces in the early 1970s, they created a more militant, or radical, force to fight for Irish nationalism. Using terrorist tactics, such as shootings and bombings, they began a bloody campaign to drive the English out of Northern Ireland. They bombed police stations, army bases, courthouses, buses, and hotels in Northern Ireland and England. Their targets were army, police, and anyone else they saw as cooperating with the English. Hundreds in law enforcement were killed or injured, but many more innocent civilians suffered the same fate. In 1971, the English government began imprisoning as political prisoners those known or suspected of being members of the IRA. English troops were sent to Northern Ireland to reinforce security forces and maintain border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Despite rising economic difficulties at home, England took control of the government in Northern Ireland in the spring of 1972 and suspended the Ulster Parliament at Stormont.

The English presence only increased the violence and political unrest in Northern Ireland. On July 21, 1972, the IRA set off twenty-six bombs in Belfast, killing nine people and injuring one hundred and thirty. Over the next few years, thousands of armed robberies, shootings, and explosions followed. The English responded by searching tens of thousands of homes belonging to IRA suspects. In 1974 the IRA exploded a bomb in the English Houses of Parliament, injuring eleven. Parliament responded with tougher anti-terrorist laws and outlawed the IRA, giving the courts authority to prosecute IRA members and sympathizers. Nonetheless, the violence continued through the year until a ceasefire was agreed upon through secret negotiations between the IRA and English security forces. It lasted until 1975, when the English government ended its internment policy and began criminal proceedings against IRA members guilty of crimes. The troubles continued, and on August 27, 1979, IRA terrorists assassinated British war hero and admiral of the British Fleet, Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900–1979).

Negotiating Peace

Sinn Fein became a serious political force in the early 1980s when it campaigned in support of IRA prisoners being held in British prisons in Northern Ireland. Maze Prison was a famous prison located ten miles west of Belfast in County Antrim. In March 1981, IRA members began a hunger strike in Maze that ended only after ten men had fasted to their deaths. The fasts dramatized the cause of Irish unity and brought worldwide attention on relations between England and Ireland. In November of 1981, an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council was established to formalize regular official contacts between English and Irish government leaders to improve communication.

The IRA continued its acts of bombing, intimidating, and terrorizing for another decade. In October 1984, English prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–) narrowly escaped injury when the IRA exploded a bomb during a government conference in Brighton, England. Thatcher refused to be intimidated and opened the conference on schedule the next morning. Hoping to end the violence in Northern Ireland, the English Parliament approved an Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Ulster Plan, in November 1985. It allowed the Republic of Ireland government to participate as a consultant in Northern Ireland's political, legal, and security matters. In return, the Irish government promised to actively deter IRA cross-border raids into Northern Ireland. The Agreement reaffirmed the Ireland Act of 1949, which gave a legal guarantee that Northern Ireland would not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without consent of the majority of its citizens.

Not everyone agreed with the Ulster Plan. The Ulster Unionist Party was openly opposed to it. Peace seemed unlikely as the world watched television footage of explosions and deaths on a regular basis in Northern Ireland. However, in August 1994, the IRA announced a temporary ceasefire and laid down their weapons. An uneasy peace existed until February 1996 when the IRA, unsatisfied that progress was being achieved toward a resolution, announced the end of the ceasefire and renewed violence. In 1997, peace talks began when Sinn Fein sat down to formal negotiations with the British government. The Northern Ireland Peace Talks proceeded slowly because of more killings on both sides, but they finally produced a settlement that appeared to be a good compromise. That compromise was known as the Good Friday Agreement.

On Friday, April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, was reached in Belfast. Voters in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland approved the Agreement by a large margin with 71 percent supporting it in Northern Ireland and 94 percent in the Republic of Ireland. It provided for an elected Northern Ireland Assembly made up of representatives of all the main parties who would share power on an equal basis. It confirmed the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which acknowledged that the status of Northern Ireland could only be changed with the agreement of a majority of voters in Northern Ireland. Some serious obstacles remained over the issue of disarming terrorist groups of their store of weapons. Opponents of the Agreement continued with bombing raids. A new Northern Ireland government was finally established at Stormont on December 2, 1999. On July 28, 2005, the IRA declared an end to its campaign and removed its store of weapons from service. This act was performed in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, and under the watch of the International Decommissioning Body and others. The end of violence and political unrest has opened the two Irelands to economic stability with tourists returning to the beautiful island. Since 1969 over 3,500 had been killed including 1,100 members of the various British security forces. Over 1,800 civilians had lost their lives. Some 47,000 were injured and almost 20,000 imprisoned.

For More Information


Christie, Kenneth. Political Protest in Northern Ireland: Continuity and Change. Berkshire, UK: Link Press, 1992.

Darby, John, ed. Northern Ireland: The Background to the Conflict. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1983.

Feeney, Brian. Sinn Fein: A Hundred Turbulent Years. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

McColgan, John. British Policy and the Irish Administration, 1920–22. London: George Allen & Unwin Publishers Ltd., 1983.

O'Brien, Brendan. The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein, 1985 to Today. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1993.


Darby, John. "Northern Ireland: The Background to the Peace Process." CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet)—University of Ulster. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

PBS. "Chronology." Frontline: The IRA & Sinn Fein. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

"Sinn Fein." Nidex—Northern Ireland Politics. (accessed on November 29, 2006).

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Religious Politics: Northern Ireland and England

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