“It’s not religion; it’s politics.” The cab driver explained. We were on a Black Taxi Cab Tour of Belfast’s main Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods where The Conflict hit hardest. “People think it is about religion, but it’s not. Not really.”
This seems to be the sentiment among the limited North Irelanders that we’ve spoken to on the subject. As an Irish-American tourist with little understanding of the war that waged hottest when I was merely a child in The States, I’m willing to consider this as fairly sound, but I do not speak for those in Northern Ireland and do not claim any considerable knowledge on the subject. This is an outsider’s discussion.
Religion is a descriptor and not an instigator. The two religions are large parts of cultural and historical identity that span back hundreds of years. Ireland, at a point in history, came to be a very Catholic-based culture, merging it’s pagan roots with it’s new Catholic identity. England, on the other hand, abandoned it’s Catholicism with Henry VIII and formed a new identity as Protestants.
England, as it was apt to do around the world, attempted (and succeeded) in exerting dominance over at least part of Ireland. The maps of history are constantly pulsating in and out. Lines of power bubble, expand, and collapse backwards. Cultural and ethnic group boundaries overpower others, shrink beneath them, or fade into a singular mass.
Ireland is no different. The Irish population has merged throughout history with Viking tribes who conquered and then assimilated into them, as did the Danish later (adding in red-hair to Irish the gene pool), and eventually the English. This last group assimilated to the chagrin of England proper and it wasn’t until much later that the current political and culture lines were drawn.
The Conflict of Northern Ireland, as described to me by those I met in Belfast, was naturally born of inequality and repression. The politics and violence of power played out as it has in so many parts of the world. The lines drawn down cultural identities: The Unionists – those who’s identities tended towards their English (Protestant) heritages and held that Northern Ireland best functioned as part of the United Kingdom; and The Separatists – those who’s identities tended towards their Irish (Catholic) heritages and desired that Northern Ireland be independent of The Crown and revert back to an entire island identity united. (Motivations are never exact and I must repeat that my knowledge is very limited. If I am wrong in these accounts, please feel free to correct my mistakes. I welcome insight.)
Has there ever been a conflict where two groups of equal standing could not agree and a conflict of this magnitude broke out? I will always answer, “No.” The Catholics were repressed. They did not have equality. There numbers were fewer and the majority protected it’s own first.
The North Ireland story is not one of religious fundamentalism. It is one equal rights. Of people fighting for a better future for their children. No side is innocent. I like to say that each side has it’s assholes and many times they are pedestalled as heroes and martyrs. But there are true heroes and martyrs, and they can be found painted in the murals of Belfast.
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In “It’s not religion; it’s politics” (2), I will talk about steps being taken to resolve The Conflict and how they mirror events in America’s past as well as the shift in sentiments that have seemed to occur on both sides after such a long and bloody conflict.