Northern Ireland: A brief background to the conflict



Ireland's history is a long story of suffering, suppression and poverty, but also one of strong people who refuse to give up and who manage to see things from a humorous side in the face of hardship. After most of Ireland got its freedom from Britain, the northern part remained in union with England, Scotland and Wales. In the following text we will look at some frequently asked questions (FAQs) in connection with the situation in Northern Ireland.

Note: To find out more about the history of the conflict and the current situation in Northern Ireland, go to the links given below.


What is the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Ireland – or the Republic of Ireland as it is officially named – is now a completely separate country and has no longer any formal bond to the UK. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is still a part of the UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), together with England, Scotland and Wales.


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Why is there so much talk of Catholics and Protestants in the conflict in Northern Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland is historically a Catholic country and a large majority of the Irish are Catholics. Many people in Northern Ireland are descendants of the original population of this region and are also Catholics. However, the majority of the Northern Irish have forefathers who emigrated from England and Scotland and these two countries have been Protestant for almost 500 years. Therefore, we end up with a rather confusing situation with a split population from two different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Why has this separation between the two Irish nations taken place?

Ireland is one of England’s first colonies. Already in the 1100s, England started to gain control over this region. Since that time the Irish have continued to rebel against their oppressors.

The English had a particularly difficult job in ruling the Irish in the northern corner of the country (called Ulster). To increase their control, they sent Protestant Englishmen and Scots to settle in this area and simply take over land from the Irish. This immigration proved very effective and by 1703, less than five per cent of the land of Ulster was still in the hands of the Catholic Irish.

In 1801, the Act of Union made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. The Catholics were suppressed through discriminatory laws and regulations, and they started several uprisings which were swiftly crushed by the police and the British Army. The wish for independence grew stronger and stronger and England had more and more difficulty in controlling the rebellious Irishmen.

After a period of guerrilla war, an agreement was reached with England about Irish independence in 1921. The only condition was that the six counties in the north (Ulster) were to remain in the union with Great Britain. This was of done because the majority in the north was Protestant and wanted to keep the bond with Britain. In Ireland this decision stirred strong feelings and disagreement threw the country into a civil war. Many Irish felt that giving up the North would mean to betray that region. The civil war did not change the decision. Ireland was liberated, but divided in two. Now, more than 85 years later, the situation is still unresolved.

What do the Catholics and the Protestants want in Northern Ireland?

The Catholics want to be reunited with the rest of Ireland and to leave the union with England, Scotland and Wales. The Protestants, on the other hand, wish to remain within the UK because they feel culturally and historically a part of this union since their ancestors emigrated from England and Scotland hundreds of years ago.

Is the conflict a religious one?

The conflict is primarily a social and cultural one. Religious teachings are not an issue between the Catholics and Protestants. They do not believe in different gods. Historically, the Catholics have been poor, oppressed and often unemployed. On the other hand the Protestants have represented the oppressive British side consisting of the privileged classes in society with better jobs, brighter opportunities, and better wages. So the conflict is cultural, social and historical rather than religious.

What is the IRA and the Sinn Féin?

The IRA (the Irish Republican Army) is a Catholic paramilitary organization whose goal is to force the British out of Northern Ireland and to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. This organization has existed since 1919 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 1,700 people between 1969 and 1993. Violence against civilians has been accepted by the IRA as a means in the fight for independence, but this has changed in recent years.

Sinn Féin is the political party in Northern Ireland which has had the closest bond to the IRA. This party has official MPs who are legally elected for Parliament in London. However, they have refused to take their seats there as a protest against British political and military presence in Northern Ireland. To go to London would mean that they accept being part of the union and that they would swear loyalty to the Queen.

What are the ‘Troubles’ and why are there British soldiers in Northern Ireland?

After Irish independence was a fact in 1921, the struggle continued to get Ulster back from the British. The biggest obstacle was that the majority of people in this region did not want to be liberated; they were Protestants and were happy as citizens of the United Kingdom.

In the 1960s the confrontations hardened. The Catholics felt suppressed and demonstrated for civil rights and equal treatment with the Protestants. Protestants, however, saw this action as a provocation against them as a group and the situation got out of control. The period after 1968 has been called the ‘Troubles’. British soldiers came in 1969 to bring order to society, but unfortunately took sides and the discrimination against Catholics went on. Terrorism and murder were carried out both by extreme Catholics and extreme Protestants. Many civilians have been hurt or killed. People suspected of being terrorists could be kept in internment (in practice the same as jail) for years without a trial. Most people who were brought in were Catholics. The soldiers’ presence in Northern Ireland is extremely provoking to the Catholic side. 

How do people in Northern Ireland react to the use of violence?

The majority on both sides are tired of all the violence and the personal losses caused by it. More than 3,500 people have been killed in this conflict and with a total population of just 1.5 million this is a very large number.

Many saw the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 as a milestone for peace, since it was signed by the most important political leaders on both sides. The referendum following this showed that approximately 3 out of 4 said 'yes' to the agreement. The political leaders Catholic John Hume and Protestant David Trimble later received the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution.   

What about the future?

The Peace Agreement and the optimism it created was soon followed by the worst terrorist action in the history of Northern Ireland. On 15 August 1998, terror struck in the quiet village of Omagh. A car bomb of 650 kilos went off in the middle of the main street. Twenty-nine people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The terrorist group behind the bomb was against the peace process and wanted to ruin the productive communication between the two sides by creating new hatred. They were not successful.

There has been some progress as a result of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, but the terrorist organizations who acknowledged it have not kept their deal entirely, which was to hand in their weapons without delay. Many weapons have been returned, but not enough to satisfy the opposing side. Therefore, communication has broken down several times, but they have continued their cooperation and the fact that both sides actually keep a dialogue instead of killing each other is a positive sign. Northern Ireland has had its own assembly ('parliament') in the period following the Peace Agreement.
NOTE: see for updates on the current situation in Northern Ireland.

Why do not the Catholics move south to Ireland?

A lot of people wonder why the Catholics who feel suppressed simply do not move down south to the Republic of Ireland where they would be among their own. And some people do move, but obviously, to many Catholics this is a too simple solution to a very complex question. The Catholics of the northern region feel that the area is theirs and they do not accept to turn their backs on it just to avoid difficulties. Also, it is important to remember that the actual fighting is limited to a small part of Northern Ireland. Most people who live in the countryside do not witness the violence in any other way than TV viewers around the world. Belfast and Londonderry are cities with many Catholics and Protestants. It is here most of the fighting has taken place. They are both small cities and to compare them to Norway, even the capital Belfast is smaller than Oslo.   

How do people live in Belfast?

Certain parts of the city are Protestant whereas others are Catholic. Some of these areas are physically divided by a wall, absurdly called the Peace Line. Enormous paintings on various buildings show which area you are in. It can still be dangerous to be in the neighbourhoods of the other side, but there are also neutral districts in Belfast. Although there are some integrated schools, many children go to separate schools and a lot of inhabitants have never spoken to Protestants or Catholics, respectively. Still, they are convinced that the other side is wrong. Many people in Northern Ireland are born and bred with scepticism and even hatred towards those on the other side. It is still the hope that more integrated schools and the fact that people are tired of violence may lead to reconciliation, although this may take a generation or more to achieve. As always, the hope for a better future lies with the children, who are not as overpowered by hatred as adults.