Divide and Conquer
Many people picked up on the religious aspect of the problem in Northern Ireland from the short story ‘A Division Between Friends’ I recently posted on Authors Den, but I wish they had picked up more on the friendship between the religions when left alone. I cannot deny that there is a religious aspect to the problem, but I feel many use religion as an excuse to cover the cause of the problem. I believe the dividing line is that between a conquering and a vanquished people. I think it all goes back to the popular song from South Pacific ‘You’ve got to be taught how to hate’ and the religious makeup of the country is a very convenient tool.
Unfortunately England did not recognize the change that was taking place in the world in the wake of the American and French Revolutions. A powerful nation cannot get away any more with the methods they used in the past to suppress their own populace or nations they had conquered. The rest of the world was now watching and the masses were on the move. The shot at Lexington on April 19 1775 had been heard around the world, but apparently England has continuously tried to ignore it. When faced with the rising numbers at the peaceful demonstrations of O’Connell in Ireland, the English Government got concerned and banned the demonstrations. O’Connell complied but the problem did not go away, it only festered. They did not realize that in the modern age a country had to solve its problems and not just sweep them under the rug and forget them especially during the Great Hunger of 1845-1848 when the potato crop failed (The Irish do not call it the great Potato Famine anymore. A famine is when there is insufficient food grown in a country to feed the population. There was more than enough wheat and other grain grown in Ireland to feed the 8.5 million population but it was all shipped to England each of the four years of the famine.) The apathy with which England treated the plight of the Catholics where a million died of starvation and other millions were forced to emigrate to other countries, mainly America, generated great hatred and created a breeding ground for rebellion. By 1921 the population had dropped to under 4 million.
Let us look at the religious aspect for a few moments here. When I grew up in Ireland in the 1940’s and 50’s a Catholic was often referred to as a Fenian, and you may or may not have heard the words to the song:-
“For Ireland had great men, but she never had better. Glory o, Glory o, to the Bold Fenian Men”
Some of O’Connell’s disillusioned followers in 1848 formed The Young Ireland Group and mounted an unsuccessful ‘war of independence’ One of the rebels, James Stephens fled to France but came back later to reorganize the Young Ireland into the “Fenian” movement. His religion was:- No, he was a protestant. So also was Wolf Tone who wanted Ireland as an Independent Republic separate from England. He was also the major leader of the main Irish rebellion before the Easter week rebellion of 1916. That is the rebellion of 1798. So also was Charles Stewart Parnell who succeeded in getting England to pass much needed land reform, and almost succeeded with Home Rule for Ireland.
You can say this is ancient history, but many of you have seen and heard the Rev. Ian Paisley speaking and would not expect him to ever lift a finger to help a Catholic. Some Catholics even vote for him because he considered it his duty to fight for any of his constituents regardless of religion. The inflammatory rhetoric can be a very useful tool when you are trying to get elected and is used by many candidates.
There were three main religious groups in Ireland. The Presbyterians from County Down and County Antrim, who came from Scotland at the time of the Ulster Settlement in the seventeenth century, made up 15% of the population; the Catholics, the Gaelic Irish and the Norman Irish, made up 75% of the population and the Anglicans made up 10% of the population. The Catholics were reduced to ownership of only 14% of the land by the seventeenth century and the Anglicans owned most of the land. There was conflict between the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, who were treated as second-class citizens and required to tithe to the Anglican church of Ireland. They were prohibited from holding government office or military commissions. The Irish Catholics had even more grievances than the Presbyterians and treated as lower citizens than the Presbyterians. The Catholics and the less affluent Presbyterians made up 90% of the population and often found themselves on the same side seeking land reform, parliamentary reform, elimination of the tithe and repeal of the penal laws which affected both of them.
By the time these grievances were removed however the Irish Catholics were still looking for Home Rule and this is where the Catholics and Presbyterians came to a parting of the ways. The Irish Party voting as a block held the balance of power in the English Parliament and voted with the Liberals, who were more receptive to their demands. The conservatives needed to split the Irish Party vote and to do so started to instill fear into the Presbyterians, who were the largest group in the North, about being controlled by the Catholics of the South and interference from Rome. They used this very successfully and were able to create a division of the country.
When it comes right down to it the division in Northern Ireland is therefore politics not religion. I cannot in any way condone any of the acts of violence and terrorism perpetrated by both sides in this conflict against innocent civilians, it is abhorrent to me, but I can understand the feeling of fear and despair felt by many. The tragedy is that in many cases both religious groups have suffered and have not been able to attain their full potential and are taken advantage of. The Catholics however were in the minority and suffered greater when deprived of jobs and housing. Because of the conflict companies will not locate there and there are not enough jobs to go around. Because of the fear they instilled in the non-Catholic group the Conservative Government in London know they will always have the support of the non-Catholic Unionist Party and when resources are scarce Ireland gets missed. The Labour Party knows they will not get any support form the Unionists and they too give Ireland a miss when resources are scarce.
The people of Northern Ireland will be fine living together if the politicians leave them alone. They have been taught how to hate. Both sides just want a decent job to provide for their family and a decent home to raise them in. I have not lived there for some time and I know things are changing hopefully for the better. The European Union Government is another group to which the people can apply for justice.
Many will say the Irish live too much in the past and remember all their old grievances and this is probably true . Then we all like to look back on our memories especially the good ones. If however all you have are bad you might be inclined to mention them. What they need is a period to build up some good memories. I think they would prefer that too and they can look back at those instead.
Copyright March 2005
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