Faith, Partisanship, and National Identity: Northern Ireland in Crisis as Familiar Foes Resurface

Jack Walsh

March, 2018

Irish Republican Army fighters

Irish Republican Army fighters


Formed in the aftermath of Irish independence, Northern Ireland is one of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom, and the only one not located on the island of Great Britain.  Unlike its heavily Catholic neighbor, the Republic of Ireland, Protestant descendants of 17th century Scottish and English colonists form the majority of Northern Ireland’s population, and this group has conventionally maintained strong loyalty to its British roots.  Northern Ireland also has a sizable Catholic minority however, and this group tends to favor greater unity with the rest of Ireland.

For most of the 20th century, this pronounced sectarian divide colored Northern Irish society, and it took a violent turn in the late 1960s when conflict erupted between state-supported Protestant unionist forces and predominately Catholic, Irish republican paramilitary groups.  The turmoil, known simply as “The Troubles”, would cause over 50,000 casualties, claim hundreds of innocent lives, and last until the momentous Good Friday Agreement brought peace in 1998. 

This accord was major development in the regional peace process and replaced direct political administration from London with a devolved regional government that “must, in effect, be led by a coalition between the region’s largest nationalist party and its largest unionist counterpart”.  It also helped generate ten years of prolific economic growth after ratification, and most importantly, its key reconciliatory measures have successfully addressed many of the centuries-old grievances, inequalities, and fears that fostered strife and ensconced denominational boundaries in the first place.

Today, Northern Ireland has all the appearances of a model wealthy, Western democracy, marked by few of the social conditions typically associated with instability.  The country has one of the most stable birth rates in Western Europe as well as one of the lowest youth unemployment rates, and its Catholic minority has finally secured equal representation in politics, the economy, and law enforcement.  There appears to be negligible civilian support on either side for paramilitary activity, and although there have been sporadic incidents of terrorism and political violence in the last twenty years, infamous guerilla forces like the Provisional IRA are all but vestiges of the past – the final organized group of holdouts to claim that title announcing their dissolution just over a month ago.

Other than to provide convenient identifying labels, religious doctrine itself has not really figured in Northern Irish conflict since the 1960s, but much of the lingering antagonism between Northern Ireland’s religious institutions has also dissipated in the face of mounting secularization pressures.  Indeed, both the Catholic Church and its Protestant counterparts now enjoy a greater degree of political and social influence in Northern Ireland than they do in either Ireland or the rest of the UK.

Yet although a far cry from the 1970s and 80s, when entire districts were under the effective control of paramilitary groups, and British troop concentrations hovered at around 20:1000 of the civilian population – the highest ratio found in the history of counterinsurgency warfare – significant divisions and distrust still persist throughout Northern Ireland and within its government.  Provocative partisan parades, the voluntary segregation of schools and neighborhoods, and the public exhibition of certain symbols are all remnants of “The Troubles” that continue to buttress the figurative – and literal – walls between Catholic and Protestant communities.  

Recently, this social fragmentation has surfaced in the political arena after the republican Sinn Fein party withdrew from its governing coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in January of 2017 – paralyzing the country’s institutions and threatening to upend the delicate power-sharing arrangement central to the 1998 peace deal.  Civil servants have kept the state machinery in motion, but as unelected officials, they can neither react to changing circumstances nor make important budgetary decisions.  This has forced a number of cuts to jobs and services; in one notorious example, education officials had to scrap an intensive support program for about a thousand of the most vulnerable children and teenagers in the country.

Although a relatively unexceptional economic scandal initially sparked this standoff, underlying issues related to national identity are largely responsible for since obstructing a successful, and much-needed resolution.  Foremost among them are a controversial proposed Irish language act and the prospect that the current Brexit process may lead to border controls between Northern and southern Ireland for the first time since 1997.  Sinn Fein views the economic, social, and symbolic ramifications of the latter issue as a severe threat to the party’s underlying purpose of furthering Irish reunification.

This toxic nexus of divisive political partisanship, nationalism, and ethno-religious identity is hardly exclusive to Northern Ireland.  But for a wealthy, liberal democracy, its state of polarity is anomalous and somewhat illogical in how its pronounced and persistent ideological underpinnings are now mostly symbolic, largely transcend socioeconomic divides, and yet remain the predominant source of political contention. 

Part of the problem is the Good Friday Agreement itself, particularly the landmark power-sharing system that it established.  Upon election to Northern Ireland’s assembly, all members must designate themselves "nationalist," "unionist," or "other”, and thanks to the terms of the agreement, most bills in the assembly require 40 percent support from both the nationalist and unionist designations voting.

Although this arrangement was designed to equitably represent both sides of an issue that has been the region’s single greatest point of conflict, its binary nature ultimately rewards tribalism and the most extreme sectarian voices.  Simultaneously, this system precludes the existence of a distinct Northern Irish identity – a nomenclature that now describes over twenty percent of citizens – as well as the permanency of Northern Ireland’s current constitutional status, which is unlikely to change anytime soon. 

One proposed long-term solution to Northern Ireland’s crisis of political polarization thus involves reshaping the current power-sharing arrangement to allow for other forms of coalitions, rather than a mandated partnership between the country’s largest nationalist and unionist parties.  The presence of a third party that would conceivably represent much of Northern Ireland’s growing population of religious-nationalist independents, could ultimately help bridge the chasm between the other two factions, and moderate the current centrality of divisive and superficial identity politics.