Religious Conflict in Northern Ireland and the Role of the State

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Northern Ireland’s past is distinct by its religious conflicts that began the time when Celtic pagans realized their customs and religion cluttered by Christians with scripture and wielding swords. When Ireland was under British rule in the 18th century, the prohibited Catholics not to hold office in the parliament of Ireland, a rule that ran for another century up to 1829 when it was reversed. And then the acquirement of parliamentary majority by Catholics was the beginning of routinely passing legislation in opposition to birth control and divorce to implement church ideology. Then came the brutal clashes or “the troubles” that rocked Northern Ireland in late sixties as a result of a conflict between predominantly catholic civil rights groups and the mainly protestant regime. At the time British troops worked as it was seen in favor of the protestants which followed decades of religious apartheid practice by northern Ireland whose violence only ended when a cease fire agreement that was negotiated during mid 1990.

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Conflict Background

[1]Planters or British settlers were given confisticated land from the Irish natives in the Ulster plantation in the early 1600, together with the migration of Protestants to the “fallow” regions of Ulster resulted in a conflict between the settlers and indigenous Catholics. As a consequence of this, there came two bloody religious and ethnic clashes with victory going to Protestants during the periods 1641-6153 as well as 1689-1691 also called the battle of Boyne. The political dominance of British Protestants was guaranteed by the endorsement of the penal laws that curtailed legal, political and religious rights of Catholics and other Anglican church of Ireland (state church) dissenters like Presbyterians. The fall of the penal laws at the end of the 18th century increased land rivalry due to the lifting of controls on Irish Catholics’ rent ability. With the permission of Catholics to trade and purchase land which had been banned previously, attacks from Protestants increased on the community that led to catholic organization and counter attack in 1790s in the Ulster south region. This shaped a polarized environment between the two parties and a theatrical decrease of reformers within the community of Protestants who prior were growing receptive of democratic reform ideologies. Subsequent to the establishment by Catholics, liberal Anglicans and Presbyterians of the united Irishmen society and the failure of the Irish rebellion in 1798, there was a continuous sectarian aggression among Protestants and Catholics. [2]The orange order with its avowed ambition of keeping and perpetuation of protestant doctrine and devotion to William of orange and his successors that is still active ate present is dated to that period of time.

State Involvement

A new political structure was designed with the integration of Ireland into the British Empire and the elimination of its parliament in 1801. This bore a closer alliance between Anglicans and Presbyterians formerly pro-republican into a dedicated protestant society. [3]Despite the fact that emancipation of Catholics was realized in 1829 when O’Connell eradicated legal prejudice against Jews, dissenters and Catholics who formed 75% of Irish population, his long-term aim of the abolishment of the 1801 alliance and home rule was by no means accomplished. This home rule association aided in delineating the partition between nationalists or majority Catholics who wanted an Irish parliament majority and the unionists mostly protestants who dreaded the idea of being minority in a dominantly catholic Ireland thus favored the continued merger of Ireland with the United Kingdom to be permanent.

Ulster Covenant and Home Rule Bill

[4]Restricted Irish autonomy government or home rule was on the threshold of being approved in the early 20th century owing to Irish parliamentary party campaigns. In retort there was resistance of both independence and  Ireland’s self governance in Ulster by mostly protestant unions who feared for their destiny in an overpoweringly catholic state, later in 1912 they pledged to oppose home rule if necessary by force when they became signatory to the Ulster covenant in 1912 with Edward Carson as their leader. As a follow up the Ulster volunteers paramilitary was established and weapons were imported from Germany, of which to counter the Ulster volunteers was formed the Irish volunteers  by nationalists and also to make sure the Third Home Rule Bill’s endorsement in the occasion of unionist or British defiance. [5]A probable civil war crisis was averted temporarily in 1914 due to WWI outbreak and the decision of Irish independence question was deferred. Although home rule was passed in the United Kingdom parliament and royally assented, it was under postponement for the whole war period. Ireland basically seceded from Britain and the Irish independence war pursued which ultimately led to the republic of Ireland independence at the end of WWI.

Ireland Partition

The government act of 1920 divided Ireland’s island into two separate authorities, northern and southern Ireland as delegated states of the Birish Empire. With the Northern Ireland’s parliament exercised right to move out of the recently created free Irish state under the 1921 Anglo Irish treaty in 1922 was a sure confirmation of Ireland partition. [6]Taylor asserts that even though Northern Ireland remained part of Britain it was under a separate government system with its own devolved government and parliament. Although this was viewed as a good pact by the unionists to continue being a component of Britain, the nationalists observed this as an arbitrary and illegal partition of the island contrary to majority of the people’s will. With an initial Catholic population of about 33%, Northern [7]Ireland was seen as neither democratic nor legitimate but established with a deliberate gerrymandered majority of unionists or Protestants. Thus northern island was established in a brutal manner where hundreds of people mostly Catholics were killed during 1920-1922 in sectarian or political aggression in the course and after the independence Irish war. This has since sowed seeds of public discord between Protestants and Catholics, with autonomists describing this bloodshed particularly that in Belfast, as a pogrom in opposition to their society welfare and existence. [8]The endurance of the marginalized vestiges of the Irish republican army later haunted Northern Ireland with huge shocks as legacy of the civil war. The special powers act approved by the northern Irish regime in 1922 bestowed far-reaching authority to the police and government to practically do anything deemed fit to restore rule and order, albeit long after the violent period the nationalist communities were still feeling the brand of the act.

[9]Subsequent to this era of strife were severe definitions of both sides, and from unionists’ perspective, nationalists of Northern Ireland were essentially treacherous and taken resolute to compel protestants into a united Ireland this was exemplified in the 1970s when the government of Britain attempted unsuccessfully to implement the Sunning dale Agreement. A threat seen as justification of unionist special treatment in employment, housing and other areas combined with the Catholic rapid increase in population due to large family treatment. The nationalized viewed continued catholic discrimination as evidence that Northern Ireland was an intrinsically corrupt state imposed by the United Kingdom. The unionist regime had ignored the 1921 forewarning by Edward Carson that alienating the Catholics would create an inherently unstable environment in Northern Ireland. Following the preliminary disarray in 1920s were occasioned episodes in Northern Ireland of sectarian conflict and brief IRA ineffective and abortive campaigns in the 40s and 50s to comparatively steady state in 1960s.

Civil Rights and Political Violence

[10]Civil authorities and police met marches of civil rights associations like NICRA with fierce reactions in the late 1960s. The Northern Ireland civil rights association was established to seek means to level out grievances of nationalists and catholic in particular to end electoral constituency gerrymandering that created deceptive local councils by virtually positioning Catholics in restricted number of electoral zones; and end to special powers act, inequitable allotment of jobs and homes and uneven protestant voting power. To this moderate campaign came a favorable response from the prime minister, however most hardliner unionists opposed him claiming that NICRA was an IRA front and was planning to start fresh armed operations. [11]Several civil rights demonstrations turned violent when off duty police and people loyal to Protestants attacked the marching civil rights activists with clubs and other blunt objects, the government banned marches and incase of the licensed ones there was little protection for the demonstrators from the police. [12]In the wake of such violence and accusations, the regime in Northern Ireland sent a request to the United Kingdom to deploy British army in the Irish state to thwart sectarian assault on Catholics and to bring back the rule of laws. In the start nationalists received and hailed the army as they had lost trust in the police force to act impartially, but later the heavy handedness of the army soured the relations. Violence political explosion peaked in 1972 in Northern Ireland with hundreds of civilians losing their dear lives. The escalation of violence was blamed on the Provisional LRA by the unionists who argued that the LRA’s new role was to defend the catholic community instead of looking for working class alliance across both societies as was the goal of the officials. On the other hand the increase in violence was seen by nationalists as emanating from the disillusionment of the engendered expectations by civil rights movements and their community’s successive directed repression incidences like curfews and bloody Sunday in Belfast. [13]The official LRA hitherto, not fully committed to armed confrontation called for an armistice momentarily in the 1972 talks with British officials, but at the same time the determination and continued campaign for a united Ireland was being implemented by the relentless the Provisionals. In response to the escalating violence, the royal paramilitary of the two Ulster groups waged a sectarian assassination campaign on nationalists or Catholics in their simple identification. [14]The political violence was also marked by forced and involuntary displacement of both Protestants and Catholics from hitherto mixed areas of residence. With the believe the northern Irish regime was unable to contain the security condition, the British administration in London suspended unionist dominated Stormont rule regime at the time and enforced direct rule from London. This was taken for the short term assessment while the long term strategy was self government restoration on a tolerable foundation to both nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland; however the accord proved hard to pin down and in the political deadlock context the “Troubles” continued in 70s and 80s. The formation of the “Peace People” who through large campaign organizations called for a stop to paramilitary violence in the late 1970s and subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize was seen as a manifestation both societies’ weariness for war. [15]Despite all this the war continued, prisoner hunger strikes interpreted differently by the two groups, and it was not till 90s before a political process was engaged.

Political and Peace Process

Talks between Northern Ireland’s major political parties to find a political accord started after the ceasefires with this dialogue producing in 1998 the Belfast Agreement that restored self government on a power sharing basis. The exposure within the office of a spy ring of the Provisional IRA led to unionist withdrawal and the suspension of power sharing assembly and executive in 2002, however IRA decommissioning completed in 2005 has led to general satisfaction among most parties. Although there is great reduction in political violence sectarian animosity is still rampant with segregation in residential areas unionist Protestants and catholic nationalists than ever. [16]As a result development in the power sharing institution restoration have been tortuous and slow, but the peace process though slow is aided by the formation of arrangements help the affected communities to boast relations among catholic and protestant families in the whole nation.

Conclusion and analysis

The inaction of the interfaith ethics in several forms of combined deeds like interdenominational activities, prayer groups and shared services within northern Ireland’s ecumenical churches after the violence gives victims support in dealing with remembrance and forgiveness matters. When church associations and churches join the political process particularly in the politics of negotiation and reconciliation, they space of operation is able to deliver peace agreements and afterwards aid conformation by monitoring. The wholly exclusion of churches from the political process in Northern Ireland because of internal disagreement anticipation over resolution was far fetched because they were used as feed back contacts during decommissioning and on how conflict history should be portrayed.

[17]According to Coogan the minority status is the obvious thing that should be drawn, its status that powerfully affects specific social circles those churches hold in civil society during the processes of peace and reconciliation such as the part played by minority Methodists within the majority Protestants of Northern Ireland. In these sense minority churches lead a peace activism example with less to loose and more to gain unlike the major churches who are state bound and linked to the mainstream populace with a nationalism sense find it hard to challenge the regime and other ethno-nationalism forms. On the other hand minority status can lead to a sideline by the mainstream resulting in strange feelings from the majority and other minorities’ empathy. But Northern Ireland Methodists numbering to 3% of the entire population have been involved disproportionately in the peace restoration process to win the world Methodist peace award. In most cases liberals in the religion or world denomination will often prefer to interact with other liberals rather than those hardliners in their midst, the basis of such an assessment the leads to broader conclusions on how to understand quarrels with religious inclination. We need to understand complexity, seriously engage fundamentalist for probable conflict resolution and finally regimes and religious actors to complement their roles in conflict transformation.


Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan

 English, R. (2003).  Armed Struggle and the History of the IRA. Oxford University Press

Taylor, P. (1997) Behind the Mask. The IRA and Sinn Féin.  New York,

Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador

[1] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[2] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[3] English, R. (2003).  Armed Struggle and the History of the IRA. Oxford University Press

[4] Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan
[5] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador

[6] Taylor, P. (1997) Behind the Mask. The IRA and Sinn Féin.  New York,
[7] Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan
[8] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[9] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[10] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[11] Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan
[12] [12] English, R. (2003).  Armed Struggle and the History of the IRA. Oxford University Press
[13] [13] English, R. (2003).  Armed Struggle and the History of the IRA. Oxford University Press

[14] Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan
[15] English, R. (2003).  Armed Struggle and the History of the IRA. Oxford University Press

[16] Toolis, K. (2000). Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul. Picador
[17] Coogan, T. P. (2006). Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Palgrave Macmillan


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