What’s the significance of a flag? A historical background to the Troubles in Northern Ireland

Regrettably, we have recently seen parts of Northern Ireland once again flare up. Ethno-political tensions, sparked by new rules regulating the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, are to blame – but how has the flying of a flag come to carry such great significance in Northern Ireland? And why has Northern Irish society come to be split this way? To answer these questions, one has to investigate the historical background of the Northern Irish Troubles.

The genesis of Northern Ireland’s problems can be found as far back as 1609. In an attempt to weaken the opposition and resistance of the Plantation of Ulster, King James I of England carried out an organised colonization of the area, stripping native Catholics of their land in the region, and re-distributing it to Protestant Englishmen and Scotsmen. Angered by the imposition and abuses committed by this Protestant minority, native Catholics were reluctant to accept domination by these new arrivals, and this lead to the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53) and the Williamite War (1689–91) both of which were won by Protestants, thus securing their monopoly of wealth and power, which was further strengthened by the concomitant introduction of the penal laws, persecuting and limiting the freedom of Catholics.

This uneasy relationship between Irish Protestants and Catholics was to characterise much of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, as resistance to being governed by Westminster grew, calls for Irish independence became louder and louder. This was resisted by many Protestants in the country, afraid that they would lose their privileges should they find themselves governed by a Catholic majority, and instead were keen to maintain the union between Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, when the Government of Ireland Act was passed in 1920, partitioning the island into a devolved North and South, the largely Protestant Northern Irish parliament voted to opt out of the Irish Free State which had been newly established in the South. This was the creation of Northern Ireland as a separate entity, and this decision was followed with a great deal of violence in North from those who felt that they were being controlled by a powerful minority against their own wishes and best interests

As a result of the establishment of the Irish Free State, a Civil War broke out in Ireland between nationalists who perceived this to betray the United Irish Republic, and those who supported the treaty, seeing it as the best means of establishing autonomy from Great Britain. By the end of the war in May 1923, the pro-treaty faction had won, and the Irish Free State was established. One important consequence of this war was the formation of the Irish Republican army, the IRA, which was to have an enormous influence on events in Ireland in the latter 20th Century.

Concerned about the violence and agitation of the IRA, in 1966 the Ulster Volunteer Force was created, committed to maintaining the Union and violently confronting any Catholic challenge to loyalists. This campaign of intimidation saw the UVF attack Catholic civil rights marchers, leaders, and others who expressed sympathy for the Catholic cause, a process which was to culminate in the 1969 Battle of the Bogside.

Angry about this campaign of violence and intimidation, and offended by plans of a Protestant fraternal society to march through the Catholic area of the Bogside, many residents took to the streets to fight with loyalists and the police, many of whom were considered inherently sympathetic to the loyalist cause given their predominantly Protestant origins. Concerned about the level of violence, the Government of Northern Ireland invited the British Army into the country to prevent sectarian attacks on Catholics.

Somewhat surprisingly, the British Army was initially cautiously welcomed by Catholic communities, tired of being mistreated by a police force perceived to be sympathetic to loyalists. However, army heavy-handedness such as was seen on Bloody Sunday where 26 unarmed civil-rights protestors were shot dead, quickly meant that this relationship turned sour, with the British army becoming perceived as a legitimate target and yet another manifestation of British / Protestant tyranny over native / Catholic rights.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland remained in a state of turmoil with warring loyalist and nationalist factions creating havoc throughout the country. Despite numerous attempts to establish a ceasefire and negotiate a return of political power and stability to Northern Ireland, extremists on both sides hindered any peace-seeking attempts. Finally, in May 1998 (and in no small part down to the work of Durham alumna Mo Mowlam), the Good Friday Agreement was ratified by a referendum, committing the British and Irish governments, as well as numerous Northern Irish political parties, to talks as a means of ending violence and restoring political stability.

Although only a minority of citizens took an active part on either side during the Troubles, clearly the entirety of Northern Irish society was affected by the traumas and trials experienced in the period, and it is thus unsurprising that issues surrounding the Troubles continue to provoke such evocative and emotional reactions. Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland is truly remarkable and even scenes witnessed recently in East Belfast pale in comparison to the violence and scale of their ante-agreement equivalents.

Clearly, the issue of nationality is central to understanding the historical background of the Troubles. The British flag is an evocative symbol in Northern Ireland, inspiring pride, patriotism and loyalty in some, and abhorrence, anger and offence in others. Whilst such reactions are likely to continue for decades to come, one can but hope that they are not accompanied by the violence which blighted the country for such a large part of the 20th century.

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