Thursday, February 25, 2010

Catholics vs. Protestants

Countdown to April 12, 2010

We will spend all our time in the Republic of Ireland, excluding the six northeast counties that comprise Northern Ireland. While we visit castles, drive through gorgeous scenery and soak up Irish music, art and folklore, we must remember that there is a painful past and present on this small island, driven by political and religious intolerance.

The recent history of Ireland is characterized by painful, divisive and frequently violent acts between Catholics and Protestants. The country is still divided into the Protestant North (six counties in the proximity of Belfast), which is British and thus uses the British pound for currency, and the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland (the remaining 26 counties), which uses the Euro for currency.

In the 17th century much land, especially in the north, was colonized by Scottish and English Protestants, subsequent to the quelling by the British of several major uprisings. This set Ulster, nine counties in the northeast, apart from the rest of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic. During the 1800s the north and south grew farther apart due to economic differences. In the north the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished, while in the south the unequal distribution of land and resources (Anglican Protestants owned most of the land) resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.

Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland came in the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. Most Irish Catholics desired complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by a Catholic majority.

In an attempt to pacify both factions, the British passed in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act, which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government. The Act was accepted by Ulster Protestants and rejected by southern Catholics, who continued to demand total independence for a unified Ireland.

Following a period of guerrilla warfare between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces, a treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State from 23 southern counties and 3 counties in Ulster. The other 6 counties of Ulster made up Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1949 the Irish Free State became an independent Republic.

Although armed hostilities between Catholics and Protestants largely subsided after the 1921 agreement, violence erupted again in the late 1960s; bloody riots broke out in Londonderry and Belfast in 1968-69. British troops were brought in to restore order, but the conflict intensified as the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other acts of terrorism. This continuing conflict, which lingered into the 1990s, became known as "the Troubles." More than 3,000 people have died as a result of the strife in Northern Ireland, and still counting. Sadly, the illustrations and photos for this post date from 2009.

A serious attempt to bring about a resolution to the conflict was made in 1985 when British and Irish prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which recognized for the first time the Republic of Ireland's right to have a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. However, Protestant politicians who opposed the Agreement were able to block its implementation.

Further talks between rival Catholic and Protestant officials and the British and Irish governments occurred during the early 1990s. Then, in late Aug. 1994 the peace process received a big boost when the pro-Catholic IRA announced a cease-fire. This made it possible for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, to participate in multiparty peace talks; hitherto Sinn Fein had been barred from such talks because of its association with the IRA and its terrorist tactics.

On December 9, 1994, the first officially sanctioned, publicly announced talks took place between Sinn Fein and British officials. Negotiators for Sinn Fein pushed for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; Great Britain countered that the IRA must give up its weapons before Sinn Fein would be allowed to negotiate on the same basis as other parties. The issue of IRA disarmament was a sticking point throughout the negotiations and continued to undermine future peace proposals through 2007. During that time span Britain had to suspend the Northern Ireland Parliament on three occasions. Sadly, these issues remain unresolved today, pending an April 12, 2010 deadline.

In 2001 a group of schoolgirls and their parents were stoned by Protestant youths as they left a Catholic primary school. In what was deemed the worst rioting in years, rival mobs hurled gasoline bombs, stones, and bottles and set fire to cars. The violence coincided with the start of the annual “marching season,” when Protestant groups commemorate past victories on the battlefield against Catholics.

Local government was restored to Northern Ireland in May 2007 as Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as leader and deputy leader, respectively, of the Northern Ireland executive government, thus ending direct rule from London. British prime minister Tony Blair praised the historic deal. "Look back, and we see centuries marked by conflict, hardship, even hatred among the people of these islands," he said. "Look forward, and we see the chance to shake off those heavy chains of history.”

On Feb. 5, 2010, with the signing of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen, prime ministers of England and Ireland, respectively, created a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process. According to the terms of the accord, Britain will hand over control of the six counties' police and justice system to Northern Ireland. The shift to local control of the courts, prosecution system, and police has been the most important and contentious of the issues plaguing the tenuous power-sharing government.

The agreement passed its first test on March 9, when the Northern Ireland Assembly voted its support 88-17, setting the stage for the April 12 power transfer deadline. "For the first time, we can look forward to policing and justice powers being exercised by democratic institutions on a cross-community basis in Northern Ireland," Cowen said.

Cross your fingers.

On both hands.

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