How the Peace Process Divided Ireland

Danielle Ni Dhighe nidhighe at
Thu Jul 25 18:20:14 MDT 2002

The Blanket
25 July 2002

How the Peace Process Divided Ireland
By Brendan O'Neill

Sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants is flaring in
parts of Northern Ireland. On 3 June 2002, three people were injured
in shootings as violence raged for the fourth night running in East
Belfast. According to the BBC, "At one stage, up to 1000 people were
involved in hand-to-hand fighting
[as] sectarian tensions boiled
over between nationalists and loyalists after an uneasy day in the
flashpoint area".

This strife in East Belfast is only the latest sectarian violence to
rock Northern Ireland. Over the past year there have been
intermittent clashes between Catholics and Protestants in North
Belfast over the route taken by Catholic mothers to the Holy Cross
primary school for girls. According to Peter Shirlow, a senior
lecturer in human geography at the University of Ulster who has
studied Northern Ireland's rising sectarian tension, 64 percent
of Belfast residents think that "inter-community relations have
deteriorated since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires" of the early

Shirlow's latest research follows his studies in 1999 of parts of
working-class North Belfast, where he found that the number of
residents who worked in mixed workplaces had fallen from 75 percent
to 33 percent over the previous 10 years; that around 80 percent of
residents would not shop in areas dominated by the other community;
and that "despite five years of relative peace and the continual
decline in the level of violence between [Catholics] and
[Protestants], social relations between the two communities have not
significantly improved".

So what is behind Northern Ireland's rising sectarian tension? Where
did the peace process go wrong? When it was kickstarted by British
and Irish governments in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, one
of the peace process's main aims was to "end sectarian division"
by "embracing cultural diversity" and "celebrating the worth" of both
Catholic and Protestant communities. But Northern Ireland seems more
divided than ever before. "These divisions, this tension, threatens
the very core of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement",
says Northern Ireland secretary John Reid.

But in reality, the deepening divide is a result of the peace
process, not a threat to it.

Over the past 10 years, many of the root causes of sectarianism in
Northern Ireland have gone - but still sectarianism persists. From
the start of the conflict in 1969 to the IRA ceasefire in 1994, much
of the British media depicted the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland as a
sectarian feud between Catholics and Protestants, fuelled by
historical animosities, religious antagonism or just the inability of
Irish people to live together. But in truth, the Troubles were a war
between the British Army defending Northern Ireland as part of the
United Kingdom, and the Irish Republican Army, which wanted an end to
British interference in Ireland. And sectarian tensions in Northern
Ireland were caused by the everyday reality of inequality and
discrimination within Britain's Northern Ireland statelet.

Since the partition of Ireland in 1921, Catholics in Northern Ireland
suffered discrimination - first under successive Northern Ireland
Unionist governments and then, after 1972, under direct British rule.
In the 1920s, the rate of unemployment among Protestants in Northern
Ireland was 6.6 percent while for Catholics it was 17.3 percent.
Sixty years later, in 1983, this disparity still existed - with 14.9
percent unemployment among Protestants and 35.1 percent among

According to a study published in 1987, "Over the period 1971 to
1985, Catholic men were about two-and-a-half times as likely as
Protestant men to be unemployed". Catholics also suffered
discrimination in housing, education, harassment by the largely
Protestant police, and a lack of political representation.

It was this inequality, rather than simply history or religion, which
led to the two communities being divided. The advantages of this set-
up were marginal for the Protestant community, but considering that
Northern Ireland was the most impoverished part of the UK such
material divisions assumed a great importance. And the cultural
symbols of the Protestant community, like Orange parades, were not
just cultural expressions, but were about Protestants defending their
position in society.

Northern Ireland's Protestants tended to see concessions to Catholics
as a threat to their position, while Catholics saw change as the only
way forward. It was Catholic demands for civil rights over housing
and employment that sparked the conflict at the end of the 1960s -
which soon became a war over whether Northern Ireland was Irish or
British, with Catholics putting their hope in Irish reunification and
Protestants wanting to keep the Union between Northern Ireland and
Britain. In short, under British domination Northern Ireland had
sectarianism built in, where Catholic and Protestant interests were
often at loggerheads.

Now all that is changing - and Catholic inequality is becoming a
thing of the past. A report issued by the Equality Commission in
August 2001 showed that "the Catholic share of the workforce has
risen from 34.9 percent in 1990 to 39.6 percent in 2000". The
commission found that the share of employment between Protestants and
Catholics is now almost the same as the share of the population: the
economically active population in Northern Ireland is 58 percent
Protestant and 42 percent Catholic, while the overall composition of
the workforce is 60.4 percent Protestant and 39.6 percent Catholic.

And with the share of Catholic workers in the university sector
rising from 21 percent to 33 percent over the past 10 years - and
from 23 percent to 32 percent in insurance companies, and from 18
percent to 32 percent in banking - one of the few areas where
Catholics are seriously under-represented today is in the security
sector (8.7 percent Catholic and over 90 percent Protestant).

Yet as Protestants and Catholics move closer to being equal, the more
divided they seem to become. The material divisions between
Protestants and Catholics might be narrowing, but sectarian tensions
are widening - and it is the peace process that is driving them.

The Irish peace process has division and instability built in. With
its aim of containing the conflict rather than resolving it, the
peace process draws the political parties into a dialogue without
resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences. So
throughout the peace process, both Unionism and nationalism have been
robbed of their rationale.

Unionist parties cut their teeth by defending the link between
Britain and Northern Ireland against the threat posed by republicans -
but now that no such threat exists, Unionists often seem to lack a
sense of purpose and direction. On the other side, republicans have
ditched the principles on which their movement has been based since
the early 1900s - no longer talking about being the "legitimate
government of Ireland", but instead effectively accepting their
position as a minority movement within the six counties of Northern

With the national question off the agenda, and the conflict robbed of
its political content, all sides in Northern Ireland are turning to
culture and identity. The peace process is not about resolving the
conflict but about "celebrating cultural diversity" - not about
overcoming the divisions between Catholics and Protestants but about
recognising those "cultural differences" and respecting them. This
might sound like an improvement on the past, when Protestants lorded
it over Catholics and the IRA was fighting a war with the British
Army and loyalist paramilitaries - but in reality it means that
divisions have intensified.

As political questions have moved down the agenda, so cultural and
purely sectarian conflicts have risen to the fore. Consider the
annual problem of the Orange marching season, particularly around
Drumcree in Portadown - often presented as a case of history
repeating itself year in year out, but which in fact has its roots in
the peace process itself. The number of Orange parades has risen
exponentially as the peace process has progressed. In 1985, there
were 1897 loyalist parades, rising to 2467 in 1990 - and then upwards
throughout the 1990s, from 2411 in 1993 to 2520 in 1994 and then 2581
in 1995. According to the Parades Commission, there were 3200 parades
in Northern Ireland for the year 1998 to 1999.

Violence and rioting as a result of Orange parades is also more
frequent today, becoming an annually predictable feature of life in
Northern Ireland. No doubt, most Catholics were never very fond of
Orange marches and would do their best to avoid them - but since the
mid-1990s Orange parades have resulted in more and more serious
disturbances. In 1986, nine Orange parades were re-routed by the
Royal Ulster Constabulary - in 1998/1999, 203 Orange parades were
judged to be "possibly contentious" and 119 were re-routed by the
Parades Commission.

By elevating "cultural difference", the peace process has unleashed a
new round of sectarianism - driven not by inequality and
discrimination but by the idea that Northern Ireland has two distinct
communities whose culture and interests are different, and who must
be constantly policed and kept apart. Cultural diversity is the new
sectarianism - and in many ways, this new sectarianism is even worse
than the divisions of the past. Stripped of any political content,
today's conflicts in Northern Ireland are now what many wrongly
assumed them to be during the Troubles: base, atavistic, sectarian

Even worse, these divisions are being set in stone. Each new
institution of the peace process is built around the question of how
best to accommodate the two distinct communities. So the Parades
Commission's role is to balance the rights of Protestant marchers
against the rights of Catholic residents - as if Protestant and
Catholic rights are clashing things that need to be managed by an
outside force. And the Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalises
sectarianism, by demanding that "at their first meeting, members of
the Assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist,
Unionist or other - for the purpose of measuring cross-community
support in assembly votes" - effectively freezing different
identities in law.

But setting up more bodies to ensure respect for cultural differences
and to police the two communities is like fighting fire with petrol -
and can only drive another wedge between Catholics and Protestants,
as they are increasingly encouraged to see themselves as distinct
from each other.

Welcome to the New Northern Ireland. 

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