Most disputes involving borders and treaties and governments lend themselves to better resolution in hindsight than they do at the time of the controversy. That is probably not true, however, of the Northern Ireland troubles, which are centuries old but have been blazing anew since 1968.
Northern Ireland (Ulster), Great Britain, and the Irish Republic (Eire) are the principals in this struggle, which almost defies solution, and it is not likely that a different course of action some fifty years ago would have altered appreciably the tensions that exist today. The time and the precipitators of the present violence may have been different, but the ingredients for conflict would still exist if a united Ireland had been created in 1920 instead of an Ireland minus the six counties of Ulster.*
The friction between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland and the parallel confrontation between the Irish and the English go back hundreds of years. With the renewal in 1968 of this historic pattern of violence and death, additional emphasis is given to the fact that mere profession of Christianity does not necessarily bring peace and love into the hearts and lives of people.
In a technical sense, the Northern Ireland riots do not represent an international problem. Ulster is part of the United Kingdom, and British troops are there as an internal peace-keeping force. On the other hand, the Irish Republic, which at times has been identified as a model Catholic state, has deep-seated emotional and physical ties with Catholics in Northern Ireland.
Further, there are Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants scattered throughout the world, particularly in England, Canada, and the United States. Most of them have strong opinions on one side or the other of the issue.
And in a day when civil rights are a rallying point, the apparent denial of some rights to Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland has made the situation there more than just a local issue.
For Latter-day Saints, there should be concern because Northern Ireland is the scene of an active missionary program, and there are thousands of Church members in Ulster and the Irish Republic. This exposition will attempt to provide some historical perspective to this contemporary situation.
The major background fact that should be understood is that the Irish have struggled for hundreds of years to free themselves from English control. In 1916 the abortive Easter Rebellion in Dublin gave impetus to that struggle. In 1920 the British Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act providing a parliament and dominion status for the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland and a separate parliament for the six counties in the north.
This partition of the country was basically a response to the Protestant majority in the six counties of the north, who threatened rebellion if they were not allowed to maintain their ties with England. In the south, while a partitioned Ireland was not really acceptable, the agreement was ratified in 1922 by the Dail, the Parliament of what was then known as the Irish Free State. Those elements in the south that could not accept a divided Ireland or even the language of the dominion began a bloody civil war that lasted into 1923 when the pro-treaty forces finally gained total control.
It seems likely that if the British had elected to give independence to a united Ireland there would have been revolution and bloodshed in the north.
Since the end of the civil war in Eire, the border has been accepted there as an undesirable reality by all but the Catholic extremists, who are epitomized by the Irish Republican Army, an outlawed militant organization of earlier rebellion days.
In the north, the border very early became the focus of most political activity. Most Catholics, representing about one-third of the population, would have preferred a united Ireland. Protestants generally supported the political party dedicated to the preservation of the border.
The border and religion are closely intertwined and have successfully kept a single party in power in Northern Ireland for fifty years.
By looking a little further back into history, we can see better the relationship between the English and Irish and the role played by religious differences. The Normans, coming by way of England, exerted some authority over Ireland starting in the twelfth century, but this was never really effective. In fact, English authorities and settlers were virtually absorbed into the Irish society.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was renewed English interest in Ireland, which included the plantation system. This brought more and more English and Scottish settlers into the country, particularly in the northern counties.
The religious issue took on greater significance in the latter part of the seventeenth century. James II, a Catholic king of England, was driven from his throne in 1688. He came to Ireland from France in 1689, enlisting the support of Irish Catholics in his attempt to regain power. King William of Orange defeated James at the River Boyne in 1690, which placed the Irish Catholics in a difficult situation.
Thus began the “protestant ascendancy” in Ireland and the more or less complete domination by the English. These events had more religious overtones than any conflicts prior to this time. Protestant fears of a Catholic returning to the monarchy precipitated harsh measures against Catholics in Ireland politically, economically, and socially.
It was also this period that gave rise to the Orange Order, a bitterly anti-Catholic organization dedicated to Protestant domination. And Ireland was dominated by Protestants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Protestant landed class ruled locally throughout Ireland, and in the north they dominated the whole society as workers, tradesmen, manufacturers, and landlords.
The nineteenth century saw significant stirrings against British rule that had support from both religious groups and in both the north and south. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the nationalism gave indications of achieving success, the Protestant aristocracy decided that a Catholic majority ruling from Dublin would not be desirable.
Thus it was that the closer Ireland came to independence in the early part of the twentieth century, the more militant were the protests in the north against separation from England. The result, as previously noted, was independence for the southern twenty-six counties, and a special parliamentary system within the United Kingdom for the northern six counties.
During the past fifty years, that system has worked a great hardship on the Catholic minority in Ulster. The Catholics have been and are now sufficiently numerous to raise fears in the minds of many Protestants a change in the political balance of power could take place.
Added to economic and political fear has been the anti-Catholic position fostered by the Orange Lodges. The annual July 12 celebration of King William’s defeat of King James brings 100,000 marching Orangemen to Belfast each year. Admitting the strong political overtones of the celebration, it is still an amazing display of religious bigotry. The whole religious atmosphere of Northern Ireland makes it difficult for Protestants and Catholics to find a common meeting ground.
The upshot of this climate has been job and housing discrimination aimed at Catholics. Politically, they have been neutralized, either through districting or psychological pressures.
This general atmosphere brought the first civil rights demonstration in Northern Ireland in 1968. The violence and bloodshed have continued sporadically since then, despite the presence of British troops in Belfast and Londonderry. Northern Ireland is now on its third prime minister since the troubles began. His name is Brian Faulkner, and he gives promise of trying to move more vigorously than his predecessors to correct some of the inequities of Ulster political life. He announced plans in July to bring some members of the Roman Catholic opposition into the higher levels of policy making.
The political practicality of such a move is fraught with danger. Protestant extremists, characterized by such men as Ian Paisley, have thus far refused to give an inch to Catholic demands. The somewhat timid steps of earlier prime ministers O’Neill and Chichester-Clark to correct the problems were met with such opposition that both had to resign.
Despite the violence that has marked Irish history, the Irish people, both north and south, are generous and in many ways a gentle folk. The country itself is a beautiful, calming tapestry. It is a modern tragedy that old fears cannot be calmed and all men be allowed to live in peace with one another in such a mellow land.
There must be many, many Ulstermen who quietly pray that Prime Minister Faulkner can untie the cords of dissension and bring peace to the city and the countryside.