20 January, 2022

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The Relevance of the Troubles in Today’s Northern Ireland

The effects of the Troubles– perhaps one of the darkest times in the history of the Guinness drinking leprechauns– still greatly impacts people of all faiths living in Northern Ireland to this day.

To truly understand the root of this bloody conflict, and what it even is at all, we have to examine the religious ideologies that took issue with each other in the first place. For starters, Nationalists and Republicans are mainly Irish Catholics, whereas Loyalists and Unionists are British Protestants. While a person’s religion isn’t the criterium to be a part of any of the 4 groups above, (and there are many anomalies) these sects have become affiliated with each of these groups. 

Now for the principle aspect of understanding this convoluted backstory: What even are the Troubles? The Troubles was a thirty-year time period in Northern Ireland, from 1968 to 1998, consumed with conflict, fear and death (to put it simply). The brawl included two groups, the Catholic Republicans and the Protestant Loyalists, who would come to fight to the death out of hatred and animosity. The root of this lasting disdain stems back to hundreds of years of persecution and cultural suppression. Catholic voices being rejected by the Unionist Government prompted a widespread movement for Catholic rights, inspired by the US Civil Rights movement at that time. Irish men and women saw the similarities between their black brothers and sisters half-way across the world, from work-place discmination to gerry-mandering to keep the Unionist government in power.

Many of the peaceful protests that occurred as a result of this movement were met with severe violence from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British troops. On the 30th January 1972, (also known as Bloody Sunday) British soldiers opened fire on twenty-six unarmed catholic civilians who were protesting against internment without trial. Fourteen people lost their lives that day. These assaults on Catholics eventually led to an increase in the involvement of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), an Irish paramilitary organization that sought to eradicate British rule in Northern Ireland, and bring about the reunification of the Island. On Bloody Friday, 21st July 1972, in an attempt to send a message to the government, the IRA set off twenty-one bombs across Belfast, which horrifically murdered nine innocent civilians. Offensives from both sides of the conflict awarded the city of Belfast the title “The European Capital of terrorism” and put Northern Ireland on the world stage during the thirty years of conflict. Ultimately, roughly 3,500 people perished and 40,000 were injured during the three decades of terror, up until the ceasefire in 1997, giving way to the Good Friday agreement in 1998. 

This agreement between the Northern Ireland parties, the Irish Government, and the British Government laid out how Northern Ireland should be governed, creating the N.I Executive,  a devolved power sharing legislature. The agreement stated that anyone living in Northern Ireland could have both Irish and British citizenship, it also allowed for the reunification of Ireland and Northern Ireland through a majority vote, should a referendum be held. The Good Friday Agreement was such an incredibly pivotal moment in the history of Ireland, as it satisfied the demands of both sides putting an end to the continuous violence. 

Peace had finally been restored to the Emerald Isle… or that’s what we thought. 

Despite the absence of paramilitary organizations, such as the PIRA or the UVF within Northern Ireland, the effects of the 30-year conflict are far greater than what meets the eye. 

The first step in this eventual return to uncertainty was in 2017, when the Northern Ireland Government collapsed due to policy disagreements between its power-sharing leadership (not the first time). The Stormont building (the home of the NI government) was absent for 1096 days due to the political stalemate between the two sides. In early January  of this year, the government was finally restored after negotiations finally came to a peak. 

“If you are talking about a shared view of history, in therapy terms it’s like an agreement between a husband and wife who still can’t stand each other but have to find a way to live together.” said Paul Bew, a leading historian and emeritus professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, describing the current political situation of Northern Ireland. During that time of political drought, schools had seen a nine percent cut in budget, the national health service was crippled, and the country’s mental health crisis was exacerbated, as no government ministers were able to sign off or release funding for a mental health policy agenda. 

The next, and perhaps the most severe impact of the troubles has been the Mental Health Crisis. Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the whole of the UK, higher than Ireland and higher than the USA. Many researchers blame the Troubles for the crisis right now, as people were exposed to trauma and fell victim to abuse and terror, ultimately leading to addiction. Siobhan O’Neill, interim mental health champion and professor, has even stated “The Troubles was a source of stress that was uncontrollable…. you need to do something to try and get rid of that terrible, terrible feeling. A lot of people turned to drugs and alcohol, and alcohol particularly is easily available. And culturally, it’s what we do to cope with things, to celebrate. So that was a way that people learnt how to manage their stress.” She also suggests that, although not being alive during the troubles, today’s youth suffer a mental struggle which is rooted in the 30-year conflict. “Whenever parents inadvertently create adversities for their children because of how they are coping with the trauma that they’ve experienced. And alcohol is a huge, huge part of that.” Parents who lived through the troubles are still at conflict, but this time it’s with their mind.” 

Despite the trauma, mental struggle and post conflict society my generation has inherited, we are slowly but surely breaking down the barriers of silence and removing the stigma around Mental Health. We are simply more aware than any generation before us, and I have hope that we can start the conversations needed to improve the mental health of our country. 

And the final lasting impact of the conflict, the sectarian abuse and division. As mentioned before, the country is split into two different groups: The Unionists and The Nationalists (There are of course people who don’t align themselves). There is discord in nearly every conversation concerning the Troubles. One of the principal consequences of this meant we couldn’t have a functioning government for three years because the two sides simply couldn’t agree. 

Though, the disagreements and disunity go further than just Stormont. 

Peace walls are concepts not unfamiliar to the people of Northern Ireland. There are over ninety-seven lines and related structures which divide and separate the two groups physically in order to minimise inter-communal violence. These walls were mostly built in 1969 after the outbreak of civil unrest, initially set up as temporary structures, however they weren’t taken down due to their effectiveness during the height of The Troubles. In 2013, the Northern Ireland government committed to the removal of all peace lines by mutual consent by 2023. These walls only promote intolerance and division, and they clearly aren’t as necessary, like they were 50 years ago at the height of the conflict. 

Every year, the two groups celebrate their cause, on St. Patrick’s Day for the Nationalists, and Orangemen’s Day (12th of July) for the Unionists.St. Patrick’s Day celebrates Irish culture and history, and as many Americans are familiar with it is celebrated with a parade, alcohol and music. I would expect many Unionists to be uncomfortable at the events, in which republican songs which might offend them are sung from the tops of people’s lungs, with phrases like,” Tiocfaidh ár lá” which is “Our day will come” in Irish. This phrase is synonymous with the Irish struggle for freedom and other phrases like,” Up the IRA” praising the paramilitary group rampant in the Troubles. On the contrary Orangemen’s Day celebrates the Protestant culture and history, more specifically the Battle of the Boyne, there is a parade and communities around Northern Ireland have a bonfire, fuelled by wooden pallets stacked higher than their houses. Attached to these bonfires are usually pictures of Republican figures, dead catholic priests, Irish hunger strikers and even the Pope. The Irish flag also burns on every bonfire in an attempt to strike fear and terror at the other side. 

The fact that the two groups are polar opposites doesn’t help ease tensions. The majority of Irish nationalists support the freedom of Palestinians while Loyalists support Israel. The main Unionist party in Ireland, the DUP,  oppose gay marriage and abortion while the nationalist party, Sinn Fein, are for both. Irish nationalists are vocal on their dream of a United Ireland while Unionists are totally against it and are happy with their status in the UK.

Despite all the odds stacked against the two sides coming together to coexist in harmony and tolerance, there are people who intelligently recognise that all the bickering and fighting is only inhibiting the country from prospering. The future of Northern Ireland is quite frankly a mystery. With the uptick of support for the reunification of Ireland, will there be a United Ireland? Or, will it remain in the United Kingdom? Only God knows! Whatever the future may entail, the people of our state must come together if we are to make any progress and create a better place for future generations to prevent yet another generation from being tainted by the same conflict that occurred decades ago.

My name is Bradley Bell, and I am a 17 year old Irish high school student. At school I study Chemistry, Math, Physics, and Computer Science. I also enjoy politics and learning about history.