Not much different from Northern Ireland

Madeleine Birchenough,
United Kingdom

I was born in Derry, raised Irish Catholic, now studying at Queen’s in Belfast.

Up here in Northern Ireland, the divides are not racial in the biological sense, but ethno-religious, one that pits Irish Catholics against Scots-descended Ulster Protestants, one that dates back to the Plantations of Ireland established by King James II of Scotland and England. And I see many parallels between what is going on here locally and what is going on in the United States at this moment and throughout history.

The British in the first decade of the 1600s gained control over Ulster and sought to colonise Ireland. They brought in Scottish and English settlers into Ulster and attempted to convert the native Irish population to Protestantism and make them culturally British; while their efforts to take away the Irish people’s culture failed, they did succeed in changing the demographic composition of Ulster from majority Irish in the late 1500s to majority Ulster-Scots in the early 1700s. Many of the things the British did at the time in Ireland and in Ulster especially were later to be implemented at a wider and a more successful scale across the ocean in the United States – compare Oliver Cromwell’s mass confiscation of lands from Irish Catholics to be lent to members of his New Model Army and other settlers from England and Scotland with how the British colonists and later the Americans treated their original native population. There were even British politicians suggesting that they should deport all the Irish to Connacht. The end result is a lot of anger and resentment between the two groups, the British Protestants and the Irish Catholics, one that lasts up to this day in Ulster. The British forced the Irish into a lower-class status, and discriminated against them by and large for the next 300 years.

In 1919, Ireland declared independence from Britain and for the next two years the British fought to keep Ireland in the union. This war directly lead to the creation of Northern Ireland as a separate entity from the rest of Ireland, because the British-identified Ulster Protestants were utterly terrified of losing political, economic, social, and cultural power to the Irish Catholics. So, by the end of the war when it was clear that they weren’t able to keep all of Ireland, they sought to section not all of Ulster, as by the 1910s the demographics of Ulster were trending majority Irish Catholic, but enough of it so that the British-identified Protestants had a majority population and still was large enough to support itself economically. Hence the six-county partition into Northern Ireland.

In the mid-late 1960s, we had a civil rights movement that was hugely influenced by the African American civil rights movement in the United States, where Irish Catholics, largely marginalised by the British and the Ulster Protestants, fought for equal rights in Northern Ireland and to end discrimination against Irish Catholics and segregation. However, unlike in the United States, efforts largely failed, as the RUC tried to suppress the movement in Ireland and Ulster loyalists began attacking members involved in the movement. As a result of this, the IRA, which was largely a spent force by this time, gained new vigour and retaliated back, leading to a 30 years-long insurgency between the RUC (former British police force in Northern Ireland), the IRA, and Ulster unionist paramilitaries such as the UVF, where innocent people in both communities were killed only because they were Catholic or Protestant, Irish or Ulster unionist. This ended in the late 1990s due to the Good Friday Agreement, thank goodness.

However, the two sides are still as divided today as they are back in the 1960s and 1970s. While discrimination against Irish Catholics have largely subsided in the past 20 years and Irish Catholics have a lot more opportunities in today’s Northern Ireland, segregation of the two communities still remains extremely strong. Ulster unionist communities still remain largely Ulster unionist, Irish communities largely remain Irish and Catholic, and in the border regions the British have put up peace walls dividing the communities so that the two sides do not try to fight against each other. The Irish Catholic population is increasing at a faster rate than the Ulster Protestant population and set to become majority Irish Catholic in 20 years, and the traditional jobs for Ulster Protestants in manufacturing and industry have been largely sent elsewhere due to globalisation, integration into the European Union have brought more Irish from Ireland itself and immigrants from elsewhere in Europe into Northern Ireland, and the culture as a whole have largely shifted in a more liberal direction since the 1990s, and the Protestant Ulster unionist community is feeling very threatened by all these economic, social, political, and cultural changes, and by their loss of status relative to the Irish Catholics. There are still huge tensions surrounding the British government’s treatment of the Irish Catholic community during the Troubles especially with its tacit alliance at times with the UVF/UDA and its framing of innocent victims.

Recently the two major parties agreed to reestablish the regional government in Northern Ireland; we haven’t a government full stop since 2016, due to the RHI scandal and since both the DUP and Sinn Fein were deadlocked in a giant culture war (abortion, homosexuality, Irish language act, etc) to compromise. Before, there was a general election, where the Unionist parties lost Belfast North, a seat they have held on since the beginning of Northern Ireland’s existence and formally a hotbed of Unionism hosting Edward Carson’s old seat. During the campaign, various loyalist paramilitaries threatened violence if the election didn’t go their way, and I’m seriously worried that the Troubles are going to start again soon and I would be killed by some unionist partisan simply because I am Irish or Catholic.


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