Catholics versus Protestants: that’s behind the riots in Northern Ireland

Road blockades, burning cars, attacks on police officers. After years of calming the Northern Ireland conflict, young people are fighting again on the streets of Belfast and Derry with the police. Why is the conflict flaring up again?

There are scenes that are reminiscent of the darkest times in Northern Ireland. There have been serious riots in the streets of Belfast and Derry for several weeks, with young people from Northern Ireland in particular messing with the police. The rioters throw Molotov cocktails, set fire to cars and even a double-decker bus. Dozens of police officers are injured, and the emergency services respond with water cannons and plastic bullets.

According to security authorities, among other things, militant Protestant groups are behind the attacks. The trigger for the current outbreak of violence is the dealings with the public prosecutor’s office with politicians from the Sinn Féin party, which is committed to the reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland. High-ranking members of the Catholic party had attended a funeral of a former terrorist of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) without respecting the corona rules, but were not prosecuted for the violations.

“We are also seeing protests against Corona requirements in some European countries, some things could get mixed up. These nationalist conflicts may not be the driving factor yet, but if things come to a head and the conflicting parties see this as an opportunity to assert their positions , a certain dynamic could emerge from it. ” So appreciate Great Britain expert Stefan Schieren, Professor of Political Science at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, the situation in the ntv podcast “Again was learned”.

Division for centuries

The roots of this conflict go quite far in the past. The starting point of the disputes “were the efforts of England in the 12th century to subjugate Ireland,” explains Schieren. At that time England had her eye on the fertile and agricultural land of Ireland. For centuries the English tried again and again to usurp the island. But because that doesn’t work, the strategy is changed. In the 17th century, the English and especially Scots settled in the province of Ulster in the north of the Irish island in order to take over the country little by little.

However, this only works to a limited extent because it is estimated that only around 20,000 people are relocating. Too few to take Ireland. “But these were, and this is of great importance for today’s conflict, not Catholics, but Protestants. Protestants have settled in what is now Northern Ireland, while the rest of the country has remained Catholic.” That already points to the current split, emphasizes Schieren.

When looking into the past, the military subjugation of Ireland by King William of Orange at the end of the 17th century is also important. “He actually distributed the whole land among his own followers. So there have been masses of expropriations. Ownership of land and property was in the hands of a very small English, Protestant upper class,” Schieren explains in the podcast. At the end of the 17th century, it is estimated that 70 percent of Ireland was in the hands of just 2000 mostly Protestant landowners from Great Britain. So in Ireland at that time there is a politically and economically oppressed Catholic majority on the one hand, and a ruling Protestant minority on the other.

Bitterness from famine

In 1800 the Act of Union is passed and the British and Protestant Irish Parliaments vote for the unification of Ireland with Great Britain. From 1801 on, Great Britain and Ireland belonged together. The situation then calmed down by the middle of the 19th century. That changed suddenly, “when a famine broke out due to the potato epidemic,” reports Schieren. “The mother country was completely uninterested in the fate of the Irish. That contributed to a lot of bitterness.” This resulted in several smaller, but unsuccessful, uprisings.

Only at the end of the 19th century does London give in. The UK government is starting to take into account the particular situation of the Irish. During this time, the so-called Home Rule movement campaigns for Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom. The project initially fails twice in the British Parliament. When the law finally passed parliament on the third attempt in 1914, the First World War broke out. The law therefore stays in a drawer. Especially since the radical Protestant opponents of the Home Rule movement are threatening to plunge Ireland into civil war at the time, should the country break away from Great Britain.

“Then there was the Easter Rising of the Irish nationalists in 1916, which also led to much bitterness because it was carried out with great brutality on both sides.” And because the hard clashes would not stop from now on, the British Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd George, arranged for Ireland to be divided into the Protestant north and the Catholic south. In 1921 a border was drawn through Ireland. The south receives the status of a Free State within the Commonwealth, in the north six of the nine counties in the province of Ulster become Northern Ireland, which has its own parliament.

The south initially only regards this as a temporary division, but a few years later it is de facto confronted with a fait accompli. When Ireland was released from the Commonwealth in 1949 and became the Republic of Ireland, the then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared that there could be no reunification with the Republic of Ireland over the heads of the Northern Irish. The Protestant north would have to agree to this in a referendum.

Because that was completely unthinkable at the time due to the clear majority, the Catholics in the south are foaming with rage. “They said to each other: We can do what we want, there will be no agreement.”

Escalation on “Bloody Sunday”

The result is severe riots, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, “there were violent counter-reactions, also due to police violence,” says Schieren, looking back on the so-called “Troubles”. Tough street battles are the order of the day, which is why the British government is sending the military to Northern Ireland. But there was no pacification, on the contrary: January 30, 1972 went down in history as Bloody Sunday. During riots on the sidelines of a demonstration in Derry, Northern Ireland, 13 unarmed Irish are shot dead by paratroopers from the British military.

The “Bloody Sunday” marks the final escalation of the conflict. The years after that were marked by bloody attacks. It is estimated that more than 3,000 people are victims of acts of terrorism by the hostile paramilitary groups.

Peace will only be brought about by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In it the paramilitary troops declare their readiness to disarm, Great Britain is reducing its troops in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland renounces its demand for Irish reunification. The “Good Friday Agreement” also provides for a division of government power in Northern Ireland. “Both camps must always be involved, that is, Protestants and Catholics,” explains Schieren. A majority policy, as is otherwise common in Great Britain, is no longer possible in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement will significantly defuse the conflict. There are still individual acts of violence, but there are no escalations. Then the Brexit referendum in summer 2016 will disturb the new calm. With its internal market, the European Union promoted the economic integration of the two parts, said Schieren. “The border has practically disappeared, which has apparently contributed to pacifying the situation.”

The Protestants are “nervous”

The inner-Irish border becomes a dispute in the Brexit negotiations between Great Britain and the European Union. The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol aims to ensure that the EU does not have a hard external border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Instead, there is now de facto a customs border within the United Kingdom, i.e. between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. This upsets the Protestants in Northern Ireland, who see it as a hint for a possible separation from the United Kingdom.

Stefan Schieren specifically sees two things that make Protestants “nervous”. In the British general election in 2019, the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland won more seats than the Protestants for the first time. “This is because Catholics have a higher birthrate and the majority population is beginning to change demographically.”

The second point that speaks in favor of a further escalation of the Northern Ireland conflict is the Scots. “You were granted an independence referendum in 2014. And now you look very carefully what happens after the Scotland elections in 2021 and whether there will be a second referendum. If that happens, things will come to a critical point in Northern Ireland. Then a demand could come to a head of the Catholic majority after a referendum in Northern Ireland is unlikely to be rejected. “