Northern Ireland

Roman Catholics versus Protestants

Protestants and Catholics have distrusted each other in Northern Ireland for many centuries.

The Protestant Reformation won for the Protestants substantial civil and religious liberty which they fear would be lost if Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor were to be merged – the goal of the present minority Catholics.  Thus, if Ireland were to be reunited as 32 counties, there would be three million Catholics to only one million Protestants.  So, instead of being a powerful majority as they are today in Northern Ireland, Ulster Protestants would then be in the minority. They fear that it would no longer be easy for them to divorce or practice birth control; that they might be dominated in other respects – to their discerned disadvantage.  So, they resist any forced reunion of the two Irish territories.

Catholics, on the other hand, see their present position as a minority in Northern Ireland, as untenable. In the past, the Protestants have felt compelled to safeguard their freedom by discriminating against the Catholics and treating them unfairly in such areas as employment.  The Catholics continue to fear a repetition of the 1641 massacres, which they also remind themselves of every July 12th.

And, these religious divisions underpin political divisions in Northern Ireland where “Protestant” has become a shorthand way of describing Unionists, who want the province to remain part of Britain; while “Catholic” is used to describe nationalists who want a reunited Ireland, one way or another.

Though many allege that this conflict and ensuing violence may not be the result of any single cause, there appears to be little doubt that if the emphasis on the religious-based differences has not been the cause, it has certainly contributed to and exacerbated an already difficult situation.

The good news – we hope – is the peace agreement agreed on March 26, 2007 between the leaders of the opposing religions, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.  This unprecedented move – the two leaders sitting down at face-to-face meetings – allowed for the return from British rule to the Stormont Assembly (Northern Ireland rule).  This came thirteen years after the IRA called its first ceasefire and 18 months after the terrorist organization was finally judged to have decommissioned its weapons.  Though it has not consistently held, it does hold hope for the future.

In spite of the 2007 peace agreement serious tension remains between the Catholics and the Protestants.  In early 2013 the Protestants hung out the English flag in vast numbers, a move which offended the Catholics.  Violent demonstrations erupted.  This was not the first time, nor probably the last, that that such actions would be on display.  As the French are fond of saying: “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.

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