When you move to a town like Belfast, the first thing you wonder is if it’s safe. Belfast is a welcoming town for foreigners, and the answers that I’ve heard so far are that there is nothing to fear. However, the town bears the signs of a political and religious division in its areas, and I think a little bit of cognition about its history is necessary to understand its people and the city itself. Here’s what I’ve grasped from different sources so far – please, feel free to correct me if I got something wrong.
The Troubles is the common name for the etno-nationalistic conflict in Northern Ireland that, at various times, also involved parts of the Republic of Ireland, England and mainland Europe. The conflict began in the late 1960s and is deemed by many to have ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. Internationally, this conflict has been described as a war.
An unsettled area
According to David McKittrick and David McVea (“Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of Northern Ireland“), Northern Ireland has never been a place at rest with itself. Northern Ireland’s historic conflict between Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, had its roots in the first Norman incursions in the 12th century, when the English resolved to subdue the potential enemy they saw as Ireland. The northern province of Ulster proved the hardest to conquer, but in 1607, its Irish nobility fled, their lands then given by the English to ‘the Planters’ – Protestants from England and Scotland. Since the 1920s, the record of the time reveal an unsettled society, whose stream of incidents can be seen as the violent expression of unresolved issues of nationality, religion, power and territorial rivalry. In this view, these series of events are the seeds for the most recent episodes of violence.
How Ireland and Northern Ireland were born
In 1918 the people of Ireland voted for Sinn Féin (“Ourselves Alone”), the Nationalistic party that believed in Irish independence from Great Britain. In Ulster, however, 22 out of 29 seats went to the Unionists, who believed to maintain British rule. The Newly formed Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a violent campaign against Britain, which is today referred in the South as the War of Independence. After lengthy negotiations, Westminster in 1920 passed the Government of Ireland Act in an attempt to satisfy the conflicting demands of the two traditions. The Act hoped to keep all of Ireland in British hands providing for a Home Rule parliament in the 26 southern counties, together with a separate devolved parliament for the six north-eastern counties. Ulster unionists accepted and Northern Ireland was born. However, the Irish nationalists rejected the plan and their war of independence continued until a treaty in 1921 created a twenty-six-county Irish Free State.
Northern Ireland was born in violence: for the first six months of its existence there were occasional IRA raids from across the new border, as well as sectarian violence. In the two years from June 1920 to June 1922, 428 people were killed, ⅔ of them Catholics. The creation of Northern Ireland didn’t bring security for the protestants despite their majority. They lived in a state of political nervousness, constantly fearing that British policy might move to support a united Ireland. They also remained suspicious of the half-million Catholics who found themselves within the boundaries of the new Northern Ireland.
In 1949 the South became the Irish Republic.
The four elements of Northern Irish society
In the 1960s, four basic elements were present in Northern Irish society:
- The Protestants: they made up roughly ⅔ of the population and were mainly Unionists – favouring the existing link with Britain. Although critic towards the Government of London, they saw themselves as British as opposed to Irish. Even more, they feared Irish nationalists attacks to their political, religious and economic interests. Almost all Protestants voted Unionists but scarcely any Catholic did.
- The Catholics: They saw themselves as Irish and not as British. Most of them regarded to Northern Ireland as an illegitimate state and believed in the natural unity of Ireland.
- The British Government
- The Irish Government
The heart of the Northern Ireland problem lies in this clash between two competing national aspirations.
The start of the Troubles
In 1968 students in Belfast’s Queen University launched a civil rights protest that met brutal British suppression. This, in turn, awake the IRA. To regain control, Britain imposed direct rule. The struggle came to a head on January 30, 1972 – the Bloody Sunday – when British paratroopers opened fire on people participating in a non-violent protest in Derry, killing 13 Catholics. Decades of guerrilla conflict ensued between the IRA and the UDA/UVF (Protestant/Loyalist paramilitaries) and continued until 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, which finally gave the province its parliament. Just two months later, a car bomb exploded in the quiet market town of Omagh on August 15, by the hand of a group of Republicans. 31 were killed, but the peace process went on.
Northern Ireland today
Today, Northern Ireland is enjoying the longest period of peace in its history. In September 2005 the IRA decommissioned all its weapons. In 2009 the Loyalist paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force and its splinter group – the Red Hand Commando – destroyed their weapons. By early 2010, the biggest Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association, also decommissioned all weapons. In June 2010 the British government apologised for the Bloody Sunday.
I am aware that this short reconstruction is partial (many parts are missing, and I hope I will amend that with time)… It helps, however, to read the murals scattered around the city, the buildings and the moods of people. I think that today, Belfast has much more to offer than its violent past.