Northern Ireland or the wound that never heals

Axel Azoulay and Maxence Salendre
20 Août 2013

The violent riots in Northern Ireland during the Orange Walk, a parade of British unionism and Protestantism advocates, served as a reminder that the war of Faith has not yet come to an end.

Crédits photo -- Peter Muhly/AFP
Crédits photo -- Peter Muhly/AFP
From the 12th to the 15th of July, massive riots occurred in Belfast and other cities in Northern Ireland. Cars were burnt, houses were damaged and a Protestant MP was hurt. The Orange Walk triggered these unfortunate events. Every year, on the 12th of July, the members of an organisation commonly named the “Orange Order” gather in parades across the whole country. This movement, both Protestant and Unionist (i.e. favouring a permanent partnership with England) firmly opposes Irish Nationalist Catholics.

Though the conflicts between the two parties are a recurring feature during each walk, neighbourhood associations all over the country denounce an increasing level of violence. Sinn Féin, the nationalist Irish party, denounced what they coined as “youngsters finding a way to spend time during boring holidays”. Mary O'Hara, from The Guardian, noted that the neighbourhoods involved were marked by a significant decrease in standards of living, resulting in increased tension. However, these explanations do not suffice to explain these events. As is often the case in politics, divergent opinions can be traced back to historical discrepancies. Follow the guide through the Northern Irish political maze.

William of Orange and the origin of the riots

It all started with a military victory. On the 12th of July 1690, William of Orange (aka William III) defeated the army of King James VII during the battle of the Boyne. By doing so, he ensured his place on the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland. It may appear as nothing more than another civil war, but its results were of tremendous significance for it helped to maintain a Protestant crown at the head of the three countries. In the case of Ireland, it was of utmost importance, given that a large part of the inhabitants were of Catholic Faith. As such, it seems possible to understand the never-ending conflicts between the Orange Order and the Irish Catholics.

The former took the name of William to claim their respect to the English crown and to the Protestant Faith. However, the Catholics, in favour of a reunification with the Republic of Ireland (Eire in Gaelic) opposed the idea. Henceforth, and though Sinn Féin denied all responsibility, it is clear that Irish Catholics tried to push for the unification of Ireland as an independent State and strongly opposed the Orange Order. But politics and religion have always been close on the Emerald Isle and the fights darkened as a political war turned into a war of Faith.

A war of Faith deeply rooted in a political maze

Conflicts in Northern Ireland are closely linked to Faith and religious issues. Four main parties constantly opposed each other – rendering impossible each attempt to settle this decennial conflict in a peaceful way. On the Unionist side (pro-UK), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP - Protestant) used to run the region until their conservative counterpart, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP - Protestant) which defends conservative stances on abortion, capital punishment and support social programmes for its agricultural and working-class base took the lead in the polls. On the Nationalist side, since the rising unpopularity of the IRA, Sinn Féin, the nationalist Catholic party led by Gerry Adams and in favour of an all-Ireland republic took the lead over the traditional Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which rejects the use of violence in politics. For a long time, discussions between Sinn Féin and the DUP remained at a standstill with both sides standing their grounds.

However, in 1997/1998, following the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution act (by which political powers were transferred from London to Belfast), strong opinions had to be watered down and both DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams had to start working together to provide stable governance in Ulster. For a few years, the two more extreme parties (DUP and Sinn Féin) were first contained. However, their growing number of seats in parliamentary elections (the UUP and the SDLP kept losing seats in the Northern Irish Parliament over the last ten years) threatens a weak political coalition. This is when Catholic and Protestant fanatics from the IRA and the Orange Order come in. Whether they oppose English domination during the G8 (IRA Nationalists) or rebel when the Union Jack is taken down the Mayor's Office in Belfast (Orange Order Protestants), troubles in Northern Ireland remain intense.

The war of Faith, the political maze and the crisis

Undoubtedly, the increase in poverty levels in certain areas of Northern Ireland played a role in the rise of more extreme parties such as Sinn Féin or the DUP promoting secessionist or unionist solutions (respectively) which are obviously far from the current objectives of the Northern Irish Parliament. The population is highly divided between Protestants and Catholics, nationalists and unionists but among the new generation, the desire to live together and get over the years of war is stronger. Joining the Republic could be a solution but it does not seem to be either Belfast or Dublin's priority as both are glued in their own economic mayhem. Recovery was on the way but unfortunately, the rise in poverty, the decrease in standards of living due to the crisis and the weaknesses of an economy strongly dependent on the UK have turned Northern Ireland into an explosive cocktail. Let us hope that this time Molotov does not join the party.