IN A NUTSHELL - THE CAUSES OF THE NORTHERN IRISH TROUBLES

KEN WHARTON

1st August, 2020

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Problems between the Irish and the British have their roots in the 17th century and probably even earlier. As starting points, though, many observers point to the repopulation of the historical land of Ulster with Scottish protestants from the western side of Scotland. This resettlement was known as the Plantation and took place from 1609 until 1690. The other key event was the resentment caused by Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in 1649 after the end of the English Civil War (1642-5).


Over the course of the next three centuries, the Irish fought to remove British influence from their soil, with the Fenian Brotherhood at the forefront of their fight for independence. The Fenians believed in two fundamental principles - firstly, that Ireland had a natural right to independence and secondly, that this right could be won only by armed revolution. The movement was represented at various times by politically homogeneous movements such as the Society of United Irishmen, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Patriot Party, and the Young Irelanders, among others. Their protests accelerated after the Great famine of 1845-49. The bitterness of the Irish people over the perceived culpability of the British for the famine grew from this point, culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising, in Dublin. It is a popular misconception, particularly in Irish-American circles, that the terrible hardships inflicted upon the Irish were some sort of systematic and quite deliberate programme imposed by the English. It was regrettable and demonstrates the selfish and uncaring nature of some of the English landlords, but it was neither policy nor was it ethnic cleansing, as the members of NORAID might make out.


It is worth noting that 180,000 Irishmen (1) joined the British Army, fighting with distinction at Mons, Ypres, the Somme and countless other muddy killing fields of Northern France and Belgium. The armed insurrection in Dublin’s City Centre, based around the main GPO Building in O’Connell Street was led by over 1,250 dissidents, variously described as ‘the Citizen Army’ or the Irish Republican Army (IRA). It lasted for a week at a cost of over 500 lives. It did not win popular support, as most of the Irish believed in the planned Home Rule Bill which would see independence at the end of the war anyway. However, Britain’s incredibly clumsy handling of the post-rising period guaranteed that the rebels would win the backing of the majority of Catholic Ireland. Fifteen of the rebel leaders were executed and over 3,000 people were arrested, thus simply driving ordinary civilians into the arms of the dissidents.


At the end of the Great War, with British dead approaching three-quarters of a million, the independence movement continued towards self-determination and independence which came in 1921, together with the compromise of partition into Irish Free State and Ulster (Northern Ireland). There were nine counties in the ‘traditional’ land of Ulster. Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal were now to be governed by the new Irish Government, whilst Fermanagh, Tyrone, Londonderry, Antrim, Down and Armagh would remain part of the UK. The capital of the new state of Northern Ireland, an overwhelmingly Protestant country, would be Belfast.


This might have seemed a simple solution which produced everlasting peace. Sadly it wasn’t. The IRA fought a bitter civil war as they attempted to overthrow the pro-treaty forces of the new Eire government. At the end of the fighting, around 3,800 lay dead. Ireland was still divided, and, for a moment it seemed that the fledgling IRA would dump their arms and that peace would come. This hope was also disappointed. Articles 2 and 3 of the new Irish Constitution demanded the ‘return of the North’ to the Irish Free State. The Irish founding fathers could not have realised that they were effectively legitimising everything that Republican paramilitary groups would do in the name of Irish unity. The IRA have always maintained that these two clauses gave them the moral high ground and the justification for continuing their armed campaigns.


The IRA relied on a hit and run strategy, with, at times, random, pin-prick strikes against the armed forces of Northern Ireland. At other times – the 1956/7 border campaign for example – with more concerted efforts. They even bombed mainland Britain – notably London and Coventry – during the Second World War. These attacks were somewhat ineffectual, but sufficiently forceful to make those fighting the Blitz against the German Luftwaffe occasionally take their eye off the ball.


If we fast forward to the late 1960s we find a Northern Ireland that was a Protestant and Loyalist state with a two-thirds Protestant majority. It was also notable for its unofficial policy of quite effective sectarian discrimination against Roman Catholics. It was not uncommon, pre-1968 for an employer to blatantly place adverts stating that ‘No Catholics should apply’ in displays of naked discrimination. When this was deemed unacceptable, other methods were found to weed out ‘unsuitable applicants.’  Application forms might request religious affiliations, or failing that, the address of a would-be employee would likely reveal their religious leanings. For example, an address on the Falls Road, Ballymurphy Estate etc would likely be the home of a Catholic, whilst an address on the Shankill, Crumlin Road, Woodvale or Tiger’s Bay would demonstrate that the application was a Protestant. The growth of Civil Rights organisations such as NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association) took the fight for equality onto the streets, where they met hard-line Unionists head-on.  A happy ending looked unlikely.


It is necessary, however, to introduce some balance at this point. It is important to examine what drove this discrimination and whether it happened in the manner which  Nationalist politicians would have us believe. It is axiomatic that at the time of the Irish rebellion, the Protestants in the north, in the six counties, had expressed a desire to remain a loyal and integral part of the Union. They wanted to remain in the United Kingdom. After all, they too had fought and bled out in the mud of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, like so many of the Southern Irish. Indeed, the Protestants had continued shedding their blood during the Partition riots in the years following the War. The Loyalists settled on being part of the Union, albeit acutely aware of the still large number of Catholics living inside a country which was overwhelmingly Protestant. Many felt that these Catholics would be traitors who would agitate from within to destroy the Loyalist enclave on the island of Ireland. They saw Catholics as trouble-makers and malcontents. With pressure from the fledgling Irish Republican Army creating dissent from within and border attacks from without, the Protestant siege mentality of ‘No Surrender’ was inevitably part of their mindset. Cross-border attacks by the IRA on RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary), later RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) barracks caused great loss of life and destruction of property.


So, from 1922 onwards – possibly even much earlier – a siege mentality, passed down with mothers’ milk, gained a hold. The new Government of the Irish Republic had made it manifestly clear in the second and third clauses of their new constitution that they considered that the North belonged to them and that they would never stop attempting to bring them back into the fold. The IRA could, claiming historical, constitutional as well as legal precedent, justify their campaign of violence and civil unrest.


A loyalist cogently and rationally put the case to me that when fellow writers raise the discrimination issue, we tend to overlook the surprising fact that the Ulster Civil Service practiced a form of positive discrimination towards Roman Catholics. He also told the author:


’The Roman Catholic Church were the real rulers of Ireland. They preached hatred from the pulpit including telling Catholics not to co-operate with the Ulster Government.’


Additionally, there is clear evidence that the Catholic Church caused further division in Northern Ireland, as they have done throughout the western world, by insisting on a separate education system. In stipulating that no Protestant teacher could be employed in an RC school, in contrast to the fact that State schools embraced applicants from any religion, the Catholics further contributed to the sectarian divide which eventually became an abyss.


Rioting and civil disobedience escalated into out and out violence against the RUC. The ‘B-Specials,’ largely discredited and later disbanded, over-reacted in many cases, increasing the hostility on both sides. Eventually on the 14th August 1969, the then Labour Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Wilson ordered troops onto the streets of the two main riot-torn cities - Belfast and Londonderry - the very next day.


It wasn‘t the invasion which Republicans, Irish-Americans, and Britain’s hard left claimed that it was nor was it the occupation of the North which the IRA’s armchair supporters bitterly described it as. It was simply a matter of reinforcing a part of the UK. In the same way that soldiers based at Tidworth, Aldershot or Catterick might have been sent in to aid the overwhelmed police forces of Dorset, Hampshire and North Yorkshire respectively soldiers were sent in to aid the obvioulsy beleaguered and overrun Royal Ulster Constabulary.


Thus, on 14th August 1969, the troubles effectively began.




1) Casualty figures for the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions were 37,761 Killed, wounded or missing. The 36th (Ulster) Division figures were 32,186 killed, wounded or missing

2) *Post-1921

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