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Britain sowed violence and division in Ireland

This article is over 13 years, 11 months old
The conflict in Northern Ireland did not begin with Bloody Sunday in 1972. It didn’t even begin with the partition of Ireland into north and south fifty years earlier.
Issue 2207

The conflict in Northern Ireland did not begin with Bloody Sunday in 1972. It didn’t even begin with the partition of Ireland into north and south fifty years earlier.

Ireland was Britain’s first colony. In the seventeenth century Oliver Cromwell led a bloody war of conquest, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Religion came to divide occupier from occupied. The colonists were Protestant, while the conquered Irish people came to identify with the Catholic church as a symbol of opposition.

It was never a religious or even “ethnic” conflict, but one directly caused by imperialism.

In 1798, the United Irishmen, influenced by the French revolution, brought Catholic and Protestant republicans together in a rising against British rule.

The British sought to undermine unity by deepening sectarian divisions. It encouraged the Orange Order, which exists to impose Protestant supremacy over Catholics.

Belfast became a wealthy industrial centre in the nineteenth century. Protestant capitalists no longer looked to revolution and become loyal to the British empire.

Protestant bosses now used sectarianism to divide Catholic and Protestant workers.

In the rest of Ireland, Britain interfered in the economy to keep its colony in poverty and stop it from becoming a competitor.

The most devastating result was the famine that began in 1845. Crops failed but millions would not have starved if the food they’d grown hadn’t been sold for profit by the rich.

By the early twentieth century, demands for Irish independence spread.

Unionists – an alliance of Protestant industrialists, landowners and workers – formed a 100,000-strong private army, the Ulster Volunteers, backed by the Tories and parts of the British army.


In 1916 republicans and socialists organised what would be known as the Easter Rising, taking over the centre of Dublin with a few hundred people. After a week of fighting, it was crushed.

The next few years saw that revolt gather pace. In Ireland the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, was founded. There were mass strikes and occupations in support of its demand for independence.

Faced with a nationalist revolution, Britain’s ruling class came up with a “solution” – it would split the country into two.

Partition was designed to keep Belfast, a centre of industrial production for the British empire, in the new Northern Ireland state, while handing over the poorer areas to the new Irish Republic.

The Irish socialist James Connolly had warned that partition would create a “carnival of reaction”. He was right.

Northern Ireland entrenched sectarianism in every institution.

Catholics were systematically discriminated against – in employment, housing, education and more – while Protestant businessmen got extra votes in local elections.

Yet there were moments when sectarianism was pushed aside. In the 1930s Catholic and Protestant workers came together to fight against unemployment.

By the 1960s many Catholics were increasingly unwilling to accept their second-class status. A peaceful civil rights movement grew under the slogan “one man, one vote”, inspired partly by Martin Luther King and the black movement in the US.

Britain’s response was brutal repression and murder.

The British army smashed up working class homes and shot the people inside – all before the IRA had killed a single British soldier.

On 9 August 1971, British troops killed nine civilians as they seized hundreds in dawn raids who were imprisoned without trial.

Bloody Sunday itself, in 1972, was a premeditated act of intimidation, with the British army opening fire on a demonstration of 30,000 people, killing 14.

The British state went on to arm the loyalist death squads that used murder to terrorise republicans.

Mass support for the Provisional IRA grew, as many turned to armed struggle in self-defence.

The British army was unable to defeat the IRA. But neither was the IRA able to drive the British out.

This stalemate led Britain’s rulers to look for a constitutional settlement to end the war.

They began talks with the IRA, and then brought the political wing of republicanism, Sinn Fein, into a power sharing government with the Unionists.

This didn’t end sectarianism but institutionalised it.

David Cameron still dismisses the IRA’s campaign as “terrorism”. But the real terrorist – in Ireland then as in Afghanistan today – was the British state.

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