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Sociological Background to the Northern Ireland Conflict

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The aim of this essay is to present a sociological interpretation on the background to the Northern Ireland as not simply a religious war by looking Catholic discrimination in detail and also help develop a better understanding of how the discrimination has been reversed in recent years. Firstly, two key theorists Hewitt and O’Hearn will be discussed in relation to the conflict and the discrimination of Catholics in voting, housing and employment. Their views will then be expanded in relation to the themes of nationalism, identity, power, religion and social class.

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Next, the issue of gender discrimination of Catholic women will be discussed. Lastly, how the conflict of Northern Ireland has weakened in recent years will be investigated through Miller’s longlinear analysis which identifies the generational changes of social mobility in Northern Ireland. Throughout this essay theorist’s ideas and methods will also be compared and contrasted and several key concepts will be explored in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict, sociologically.

The issue of Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland has been debated by theorists, Hewitt and O’Hearn.

Both theorists argue over the importance of Catholic discrimination as a factor of the Northern Ireland conflict. Hewitt (1985) argues against the conventional view supported by O’Hearn (1987) which claims Catholic discrimination (housing, voting and employment) led to the Northern Ireland conflict is wrong and instead the violence was caused by Irish nationalism. O’Hearn argues Catholic claims of discrimination were accurate. O’ Hearn rejects Hewitt’s claim that nationalism was a much stronger force in the Catholic population. O’Hearn’s research is adamant on proving discrimination was widespread in northern Irish and British policy.

Hewitt understands there is a general agreement on Catholic discrimination. He isolates the issue of gerrymandering, to see if it was undemocratic and if it affected employment and housing. Much of the evidence of grievance and complaint when analysed was found to be concentrated upon housing and employment. These were the two main issues that affected the lives of ordinary men, much more than issues of voting and the gerrymandering of boundaries. Hewitt did not consider employment as a more serious problem than gerrymandering or occupation.

O’Hearn (1987) states Hewitt had no justification for not considering unemployment as key to discrimination. He provides a Marxist interpretation of this. The middle class community maintain their position with a divided working class. Such unemployment could not be due to laziness on the part of Catholics, since Hewitt maintains they have a remarkably Protestant work ethic. O’Hearn argued violence was blamed on unemployment. Hewitt’s own evidence then proves this conclusion. Hewitt correlated violence to both unemployment and nationalism but chooses to conclude nationalism is the cause.

On the issue of gerrymandering Hewitt and O’Hearn clash on opposite sides of the issue. According to Hewitt’s research, Protestants made up almost 60% of the marginalized and could not prove an example of discrimination against Catholics. Hewitt believed because of ignorance of fertility rate differences between Catholic and Protestants, higher Catholic fertility meant that the Catholics in the voting age population is noticeably lower. O’Hearn responded that Catholics did not suffer disproportionately. If gerrymandering was to make sure Catholics could not become a political majority, thereby controlling houses and employment.

Permitting more Catholics to remain in Northern Ireland where their natural fertility rates might eventually make them a majority would then mean the purpose of the laws should be to make sure the Catholics did not have political power and did not remain in Northern Ireland. Even if 80% of those affected by marginalization were Protestant, it would be irrelevant as long as Catholics did not have power. There exist differences between religious groups in their educational aspirations and work habits. The larger family size of the Catholics may be a disadvantage.

Catholics are overrepresented in the working class and underrepresented in the upper middle class occupations. This implies that one must abandon the position that Catholics were severely discriminated against in Northern Ireland, and explain why socio-economic disparities in these societies have not led to sectarian violence. O’Hearn argues that within occupations Catholics suffer discrimination. However Hewitt maintained that examples of discrimination by occupation simply did not exist in Northern Ireland because of the figures for Catholics in Northern Ireland in relation to Protestants in upper-middle class occupations.

Hewitt rejected social and economic abuse of political power as a cause of violence and instead suggested nationalism was the dominant cause. O’Hearn devoted his response to effectively establishing discrimination. Hewitt ignored the crucial variable of the introduction of British troops into Northern Ireland. There was a striking difference in the level of violence before the British Army was introduced in 1969. Hewitt’s evidence suggests there could be some common cause linking nationalism, unemployment and violence.

For O’Hearn, if it can be assumed that the discrimination against Catholics was the cause of the Northern Ireland conflict, then accepting this may be a step to resolving the as it will also take time to resolve the violence itself. As demonstrated by Hewitt, nationalism was an important concept throughout the Northern Ireland conflict. Anderson (1983) defines a nation as “an imagined political community. ” It is imagined because members feel like they belong to one community and limited in the sense the nation includes some people but excludes others.

It is sovereign because nationalism seeks independence for a group of people. Effectively, Catholics and nationalists in Northern Ireland were not adequately represented. While it could be argued this was the result of their disengagement from the state and its institutions, to which they were opposed, it can also be said the state did little to encourage their active involvement. In the early years, republicans showed their opposition and alienation from it through violent protests, further polarising the community between Protestant and Catholic.

This example illustrates that Anderson’s definition is not accurate. Although nationalism is related to sovereignty, precise definitions vary and there is no absolute agreement. Anderson’s definition is too simplistic. While nations have imaginary boundaries there are real economic boundaries which are forced upon. For instance, the preferential position enjoyed by unionists in political, but also economical terms meant that nationalists, as the minority, perceived themselves to be openly discriminated against.

Cohen (1994) argues that nationality and identity are not clear cut. He discusses what he calls “fuzzy boundaries” of being British and Irish. Irish national consciousness is both much stronger and more problematic for Northern Ireland. Cohen believes that despite the strong Irish identity there are overlaps at being Irish and English. For example, Northern Ireland unionists identify much more closely with England than with Ireland. This is also evident in contemporary society as Irish citizens can travel freely to the United Kingdom and vote in British elections.

Cohen argues, for the English, the ‘Celtic fringe’ is a “familiar but inexplicit internal boundary” (Cohen 1994:12). Cohen’s work illustrates the complexity and changing nature of nationalism and identity. Nationalism however can sometimes be used an ideology to remove some of the ‘fuzziness’. This is because national identities are socially constructed and there is always the possibility of them changing. While ideological and economical power is important, O’Hearn argued political power is just as important. For example, the state can be an independent source of power.

Foucault (1991) suggests that power is found in all social relationships and is not just exercised by the state. Nevertheless, much of his work is concerned with the way in which the state develops its ability to classify and exercise power. From Foucault’s point of view, it is always possible to resist the exercise of power and there are numerous examples in Northern Ireland, one being Bloody Sunday. When attempts are made to exercise power, the result always has an element of uncertainty because there is always some chance to resist the exercise of power by challenging the knowledge on which it’s based.

Foucault’s work can also be used to help understand the sociological reasoning for direct rule. Foucault saw reasoning as an important feature. Techniques of surveillance are used to check on people’s behaviour and this encourages self discipline where people become accustomed to regulate their own behaviour (such as the British troops in Northern Ireland). Discipline is an important part of government, but as seen in the early years of conflict in Northern Ireland it is not always successful.

Furthermore, Hindess (1996:118) description of society is a perfect example of Northern Ireland during the conflict; “…We live in a world of disciplinary projects…the result is a disciplinary, but hardly a disciplined society. ” Observers of the Northern Ireland conflict have frequently sought to establish religious feeling as the fundamentalist cause of political division. The view that the Northern Ireland conflict is essentially one of sectarianism has found considerable favour and as a consequence there exists popular opinion (particularly outside Northern Ireland) that the violence represents a form of ‘holy war’.

Bruce (1996) acknowledges a more sophisticated version of the ‘holy war theses’. He believes religion remains strong in Northern Ireland because of its social importance than because of deep religious convictions. Bruce claims that religion tends to serve one of two main purposes: cultural defence or cultural transition. The Northern Ireland conflict is an example of both of these purposes. Religion takes on the role of cultural defence in Northern Ireland when the Protestant and Catholic religious identities are used to become a way of asserting ethnic pride.

From Bruce’s point of view, it is their ethnic identity that is important rather than their religiosity. Religion is used as resources for dealing with situations were people have to change their identity to some extent. For Bruce, religion loses this role when a group becomes integrated into the host community. For example, Irish Catholics who migrated to England were originally subject to considerable hostility and discrimination. Already highlighted by O’Hearn (1987), the conviction that religion exercises has little influence over the Northern Irish conflict.

O’Hearn places particular emphasis in Marxist writings. The most influential materialist reading of the Northern Ireland conflict was that provided by Farrell (1976). The analysis that Farrell and O’Hearn make insists that the conflict is not a direct result of religious attitudes. Religious identities are considered to be merely signifying other forms of division that are grounded in the material realities of Northern Irish society. Farrell believes economic status has more influence over society than the religious attitudes upon life chances.

For Farrell, within Northern Ireland, given the nature of inequalities, social class is the most important source of political identity. Social class has an enormous impact upon the manner of Northern Irish society and therefore an appreciation of the crucial role that social class plays in the lives of residents in Northern Ireland should be considered essential. The political violence that has cursed the province generated enormous material benefit for Northern Irish Catholic working classes. The persistence of “the Troubles” has demanded an expansion of those occupations concerned with the maintenance of law and order.

The Northern Ireland conflict has indeed impacted most upon working classes. Most of those who played a direct role in the conflict have been drawn from working class communities. The security forces were recruiting ‘respectable’ elements of the Protestant working classes. Research conducted by Breen (2000) revealed that a majority of those charged with politically motivated offences were unemployed. In addition, most of the people who have killed during the conflict in Northern Ireland have come from working class backgrounds. The expansion of both higher education and ublic employment under direct rule enabled many working class nationalists to ascend the social ladder. The opportunities for social mobility available to unionist working classes were also enhanced by the political violence in Northern Ireland. The Marxist idea of class exploitation and alienation can also be seen to illustrate the alienation of the Catholic community. Many Marxist sociologists such as Farrell argue that the contradictions of capitalism will lead to a class-consciousness which involves a full awareness by members of the working class of their exploitation.

Similarly, the nationalist community in Northern Ireland showed recognition of common interests, identified unionists as the opposing group and realised only by collective action could the opponent be overthrown. This emphasises an “us and them” relationship which polarised the Protestant and Catholic communities. For Marxist sociologists, class position is a determinant of experiences of affluence of hardship, of economic security or insecurity and prospects of material advances or constraints, and this can easily be translated to incorporate nationalist and unionist groups too.

Class represents an important source of inequality and division within Northern Ireland. Economic status generates distinctions within Northern Ireland and social class strongly influences the means that people ascribe to their lives. However, the class consciousness stimulates members of the nationalist and unionist members to become attracted to political ideologies and nationalist feeling. There is therefore a close tie between class, ideology and nationalism. There is as much importance to be placed on cultural aspects of class as to the economic aspects.

It is important to note, class position is not the most important concept in understanding the conflict. Other bases of social power, such as gender have also played an important role in the Northern Irish case. Throughout the Northern Ireland conflict, gender differences have largely been ignored by social theorists and this is a key criticism of Hewitt, O’Hearn and Farrell’s work. Over the period of the conflict, Northern Irish women have faced violence in their own community. As has been the case in other circumstances of political turmoil, rape has been employed as a political weapon in the Northern Ireland conflict.

The physical abuse that women have endured has often articulated a communal concern to maintain boundaries and regulate sexual conduct. At first, British soldiers were greeted with great enthusiasm from the nationalist community and women inevitably forged romances with soldiers. However, as relations degenerated Catholic women involved with British soldiers were advised to terminate their relationship. Those who refused were often subject to discrimination. Some women who persisted in dating British soldiers were tied to lampposts, had their heads shaved and were covered in tar and feathers.

These public rituals of humiliation represented an attempt on the part of the wider community to intervene in the private lives of young Catholic woman. This is a dramatic example of the broader processes through which every society seeks to regulate women’s sexual lives. Walby (1997) helps understand the discrimination of Catholic women through the concept of patriarchy which remained central in Northern Irish society. When analysing gender inequality she argues there are various patriarchal structures which restrict women and help maintain male domination.

Each of these structures has some independence from the others, but can also affect one another. Walby also acknowledges other divisions other than gender such as religion and class and she discusses the ways that capitalism and patriarchy interact. Like other feminists, Walby sees violence as a form of power over women. The use of violence helps to keep women in place and discourages them from challenging patriarchy. State policies relating to gender are also another means of control. The state is patriarchal as well as capitalist.

State policies did little to improve women’s position in the public sphere and there were forced into the private sphere. However, theorists including Anthias (1992) believe that patriarchy and capitalism are not separate systems; they are part of one system, which advantages some and disadvantages others. However, Walby successfully manages to create an overall account of the systematic oppression of women in northern Irish society. One of the most fundamental shortcomings of the Northern Ireland conflict is the lack of research on the forms of discrimination and violence suffered by women.

During the Northern Ireland conflict there evidently was gender inequality of Catholic women and also inequality of the Catholic population on the whole. However, there remains a debate on the extent Catholic discrimination has weakened in the bid for progress after the peace process. To analyse the extent on whether Catholic discrimination has been reversed the study of social mobility can be used in order to demonstrate generational changes and to investigate equality of opportunity.

Miller (1996) used a social mobility survey to uncover patterns in the 1990s in comparison with the 1970s in order to access whether actual patterns of social mobility have changed. Miller used a longlinear analyse in order to differentiate between structural mobility and exchange mobility. Miller used job availability as an example of structural mobility. There has been less emphasis being placed on manual work as society changed which led to an increase in non manual work. Longlinear analysis has the advantage of separating groups and comparing them, such as Catholics with non Catholics which makes it easier to compare.

Miller’s longlinear research found that in the 1970s Catholics were disadvantaged as they were given less opportunities in favour of Protestant members. However, by the 1990s the differences between the two groups were made more equal. In his analysis Miller discovered Catholic mobility was affected because the majority were working class. With the exception of a few there was clear evidence that there as a significant change across the generation. There has been a significant shift from the past as there is a move towards more equality for Catholics.

Breen (cited in Osborne and Shuttleworth; 2004) argues equal mobility chances were the result of educational reforms. Many of the restrictions that were placed on Catholics during the Northern Ireland conflict were now removed which led to upward social mobility from the working class and this created a Catholic middle class phenomenon (Morgan et al, 1996). In comparison with the past this was evidence that discrimination to an extent was reversed as Catholics were expected to have benefited from the enhanced opportunities because education was seen by the majority as a road to upward social mobility.

Miller’s research highlighted, while Catholic students tend to attend Northern Irish universities and stay, a significant portion of Protestant students go to Britain. This provides a greater opportunity for educated Catholics if Protestant students leave then there are bigger prospects for Catholics to succeed in Northern Ireland. The various attempts at seeking a resolution to the conflict cannot be ignored. There was fair employment legislation which included the Sunningdale Agreement and the Anglo Irish Agreement.

However, it was the Downing Street Declaration that lay the foundation for the ‘peace process’ that developed in the 1990s. The two key milestones to the peace process were the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement. The fragile peace that developed in Northern Ireland, especially after the years of the Good Friday Agreement allowed Catholics to gain experience from the peace bonus which brought investment and employment. The St Andrew Agreement did not mark the failure of the Good Friday Agreement, but rather another stage in the development.

Social capital has also been seen to be important for why jobs are found. Miller reported the social ties were to be important at the start of Catholic men’s careers. Friends and family were the main way to find their first job. Officially this should not occur, because jobs, particularly given the terms of the fair employment legislation, are not supposed to be found by these means. However both Catholics and Protestants used this equally and the more privileged labour market position of Protestants was removed. According to Miller’s research, the success of reversing discrimination for Catholic men was notably prosperous.

Unfortunately Catholic women had not enjoyed the same success. For both Catholics and Protestants, the main difference in mobility in comparison with the past between women and men surrounded around higher job statuses in favour of men. The poorer opportunity for women explains the lower mobility performance of Catholic women and this explains the patterns of Protestant women. Miller‘s data analysis proved men have better chances of upward social mobility. The data proved that men have an advantage and that women are the victims of job discrimination even including when educational attainment is considered. The main reason that women have a smaller upward inter generational mobility is that the distribution of female jobs is less favourable than that of males. ”(Miller, cited in Osborne and Shuttleworth; 2004:64) There is a steady expectation of continued growth in female employment in contemporary society. This means that existing social mobility trends will continue to push forward, with the possibility that women will eventually reach full equality with men. In conclusion, in agreement with Miller, when comparing the generational differences of Catholics it is evident there is a move towards meritocracy.

Unlike the previous generation, if Catholics and Protestants begin their working lives with the same education and first job; their mobility through their careers will not be directly advantaged or disadvantaged by religion. The research suggests that there is less clear evidence of Catholic disadvantage than in the past, but gender remains a major issue. In addition, the sociological background to the Northern Ireland conflict reveals it was not simply a religious war and also understands how Catholic discrimination extended to a variety of social issues which included nationalism, social class and gender.

Cite this Sociological Background to the Northern Ireland Conflict

Sociological Background to the Northern Ireland Conflict. (2016, Oct 25). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/sociological-background-to-the-northern-ireland-conflict/

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