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Northern Ireland Ethnic Conflict: A Historical Perspective

The Northern Ireland ethnic conflict was considered a violent conflict that occurred between Catholics and protestants. It started in 1968 and ended in 1998. The protestants were close to the United Kingdom and they want the United Kingdom to remain present in the province. On the other hand, the Catholic nationals who were also called republicans wanted to make Northern Ireland part of the Republic of Ireland.

There were many actors in this conflict. The major roles were played by Roya Ulster Constabulary, the British army, and Ulster Defense Regiment. These actors also played role in the peacekeeping process, especially with the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Irish Republican Army fought for independence, and they viewed the conflict as a guerrilla war. During this long-lasting conflict, it is estimated that 3,600 were killed and about 30,000 wounded by sensational bombing, street fighting, roadblocks, and sniper attacks. The conflict converted into civil war and it lasted for 30 years. In 1998, both the government of Ireland and the United Kingdom reached the table for a peaceful solution.

Historical Background of Conflict

The Troubles

The Northern Ireland conflict is also named “The Troubles”. It is a euphemistic folk name and this name was applied in the earlier period of political violence. While analyzing the name, it is a neutral name and both sides were satisfied with this name. The Republicans, particularly the Irish Republic Army considered this conflict as “The War” and they did this for national liberation and independence.


In 1920, Northern Ireland was created under the Government of Ireland Act. This was done by excluding the lobby of Ulster unionists from Ireland. In the province of Ulster, Northern Ireland contains six northeastern counties of Ireland. Three Ulster countries were left out which comprised large nationalist and catholic majorities and two countries named, Tyrone and Fermanagh were included and these countries have small nationalist majorities. South Armagh and Derry city which are close to the border also comprised significant nationalist and catholic majorities.

The existence of Northern Ireland was confirmed based on the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and the Irish War of Independence ended after this treaty. After 1922, The function of Northern Ireland worked as a self-governing region of the United Kingdom. The government was formed by the Unionist party. This party was supported by some Protestant organizations like the Orange Order.

After the formation of the protestant backed government, there was some systematic discrimination against the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Their strength of voting was diluted by the technique of ‘gerrymandering’. In local government, only one could vote who paid the rate and most of them were protestants. So, the Catholics were discriminated against politically and the protestants avoided them. In the case of employment, the Catholics were discriminated against by the government.

The Irish government is dictated by London and a series of violence occurred in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. The conflict became more severe when Catholics were discriminated against by the Protestants in the areas of housing, jobs, education, and local elections and this discrimination led to the civil rights movement.

In the initial phase, the campaign was peaceful but gradually it converted into violence. After that British troops were deployed in the region, and the situation became deteriorated. The existing government was abolished and the region was administered by London.


The ethnic conflict between the groups has some causes which pushed ethnic differentiation towards ethnic conflict. One group wanted the influence of the United Kingdom in the region and another group wanted to reunify the whole Island of Ireland. Some political, religious, historical, and economic causes transformed the civil rights campaign into an armed conflict which resulted in many causalities.

Historical Causes

To understand the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, we need to go back to the 16th Century. In the 16th Century, there was a conflict between the people of Ireland and the English. England had made control over the resources of the Irish people. With the emergence of Protestantism in England, the identity and faith of the Irish people got into a crisis and England increased its influence over the resources.

A community of foreigners named Ulster was planted in the North of Ireland and they were mainly scots and protestants. After this, the number of Protestants gradually increased in Northern Ireland. In the 18th Century, the colonizers came to the region and occupied 95% of the land.

They snatched the lands from the natives and supported the Ulster group.  This put a direct threat to the native Catholics. Then a series of rebellions started by the native Catholics. After the partition, Northern Ireland was ruled by protestants. The Irish government is dictated by London and a series of violence has occurred in Northern Ireland and violent conflict started in 1968 and remained till 1998. These were some historical reasons which aided in the ethnic conflict of Northern Ireland.

Religious Causes

Some religious causes assisted in the ethnic conflict of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland church membership was high: Of the 87% of the people, almost 62% claimed that they weekly attend church in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, 14% of people out of 66% claimed that they weekly attend church in Great Britain.

The terms named as “Catholic” and “Protestant” are two groups. It is as ethnic and political as religious. In Northern Ireland, people considered one as “not religious” who hasn’t attended church. Someone themselves considered Catholics and some are Protestants. A small group of the population belonging to Protestants were anti-Catholic and considered Catholic Church as “unchristian and evil.”

The number of Catholics in Northern Ireland was high and in the Catholic world, the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy has been one of the most conservative. This conservative hierarchy considered Protestant churches as churches "in error." This hierarchy also influenced the laws of the Republic of Ireland and also has a say in the matters of birth control and divorce.

Political Causes

In Northern Ireland, the protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and on the other hand, the Catholics wanted to Unify the Ireland Republic with its nationality. That’s why the protestants were called Unionists or Loyalists and the Catholics were called a nationalist. The Unionists were in majority while the nationalists were in minority. After the formation of the protestant backed government, there was some systematic discrimination against the Catholics in Northern Ireland. Their strength of voting was diluted by the technique of ‘gerrymandering’. In local government, only one could vote who paid the rate and most of them were protestants. So, the Catholics were discriminated against politically and the protestants avoided them.

Economic Causes

Some economic causes increase ethnic differentiation and the inequality between the groups resulted in violent conflict in Northern Ireland. This factor has caused more conflict. In Northern Ireland, there were large families, low standards of health, high living costs, high unemployment, low earning, and poor housing. The worsened when the Protestants were dominating most of the sectors.

The rate of high unemployment for Protestants was (8%) while for Catholics (18%). We can also say that 9% of protestant men were unemployed and on the other hand, 23% of Catholic men were unemployed. There were fewer Catholics who owned houses and the households of Catholics were dependent on social security. Almost (8%) of Protestant children left school, on the other hand, almost (12%) of Catholic children left school due to a lack of formal education. In the case of employment, the Catholics were discriminated against by the government. The top salaried jobs were given to the Protestants and low salaried jobs were given to the Catholics.


After the violent conflict fought between Catholics/Nationalists and Protestants/Loyalists, there occurred many consequences and a huge tangible cost was paid. After the conflict, there needed money to maintain the security forces and to rebuild the buildings which were destroyed in many bomb explosions.

The rate of unemployment increased after the conflict and there was a decline in tourism income and inward investments. There came the problem of emigration as well. Though, there are fewer statistics through which we measure the economic costs of the conflict. There were also some social and psychological consequences as well like the effects of the situation on mental health and the effects of increasing community divisions.

The Peace Process

In August 1994, we saw an intention toward the peace process. The Irish Republic Army declared a cease-fire and then secret talks were initiated between the British government and The Irish nationalists. The negotiation process started but people became less hopeful when IRA again started to bomb in February 1996.

The Unionists blamed on IRA that they had taken the advantage of cease-fire and resumed a campaign to unite Ireland. On the other hand, the Republicans blamed the Unionists and British who made obstacles for Republicans like the decommissioning of arms. In July 1997, the second cease-fire had established.

This cease-fire remained more than the previous one. On April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed which resulted in peace between the two groups. U.S. Senator George Mitchell also played a good role in the peace process. The peace agreement enabled the People of Northern Ireland to establish their government. The new government had given authority over some issues like education and health. The agreement also included the requirement of power-sharing between pro-Irish and pro-British parties.

The agreement also included the strategy for the disarmament of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups and these groups were in tens of thousands in numbers. This violence came to an end which has spread fear in the region for 30 years.

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