The Northern Irish Bonfire
Belfast's Peace Wall

When talking about religious identity, it’s hard to ignore the case of the British Protestant community in Northern Ireland. Their history is a complicated one, but let me try to tell you in a few paragraphs:

A little history

In the 16th century, English King Henry VIII decided to start his own (Protestant) church, mainly because the Pope wouldn’t let him have a divorce. The Irish, never happy to be ruled by the English, mostly decided to stick to Catholicism. This was a thorn in the side of the English crown, and in the early 17th century King James I decided to speed up the so called ‘Plantations of Ireland‘. This meant mass colonization of Irish land by overwhelmingly Protestant English and Scottish settlers. The biggest of these plantations happened in the northern province of Ulster.

the Irish saw their boys drawn into an “English war.”

In the late 19th century, more and more Irish supported ‘Home Rule‘, an Irish autonomous state within the British Empire. As a reaction to this, Protestant Unionists campaigned to keep Ireland within the Union. Tensions escalated during the First World War, when the Irish saw their boys drawn into an “English war.” In 1916 the ‘Easter Rising’, a rebellion against British rule, broke out. Shortly after, in 1921, Ireland was given ‘Home Rule,’ and continued as the ‘Irish Free State’, later ‘Ireland’, and finally in 1949 as the ‘Republic of Ireland’, fully independent from Britain. Though not after an intense civil war.

However, already in 1921, some counties in the northern region of Ulster decided to opt out of the Irish Free State. This meant a newly formed ‘Northern Ireland‘ became a mainly Protestant division of the UK. This event was called The Partition’. But tensions between the Catholics and Protestants built up until the ’60s, when the state fell into full blown chaos. This period, known as ‘The Troubles‘ lasted till the late ’90s. 3,500 People lost their lives in bombings, shootings, and arson attacks.

Though ‘The Troubles’ officially ended with a peace treaty in 1998, no one has forgotten about it. The streets of the Northern Irish captial Belfast are lined with British flags and Irish flags, depending on the neighbourhood and the religion of it’s inhabitants. Large walls divide some of the most incendiary areas. Citizens, even kids, caught on the wrong side often risk their lives.

The Belfy Boys

Vice News recently shot a short documentary in Belfast, during the Protestant commemoration of a major victory against the Catholics. It’s definitely worth a look:

The kids interviewed in this docu are in no way representative of Belfast Protestants, but they do exist and they show the real anger and hatred still present after hundred of years of conflict.

Aoife, who lives just across the border in the Republic of Ireland, tells of this anger: “For me, Northern Irish protestants that identify as British and do the whole ‘God Save the Queen’ thing are very backwards. They’re very against any sort of progress, or building on a community, or trying to get along. They’re very violent as well, they’ve been known to just use petrol bombs, or smuggle guns,… All because they want to remain part of the UK. And if that’s their wish than that’s fair enough, but they’re just so ;this is how we’re gonna do things and that’s how it’ll be.’ If you try to have any sort of discussion they just blank you out. Any argument would always be met with scorn and anger.”

Not only does poverty and a sense of injustice spur on these tensions. There’s more to it (of course). “Because of lower emigration and a higher birthrate among Catholics (with contraception still a taboo in places), the percentage of Catholics in Northern Ireland actually rose from 23% in 1921 to 47% today,” we are told by Mary, lawyer in Northern Ireland. “Among 6 year olds in school here, the Catholics even form a majority. It looks like one day they will be a majority in Northern Ireland.”


Though many Irish chose to live on their side of the border, and fought to stay there, others found themselves lost in a conflict that wasn’t theirs.

Mary: “My father’s father was born in 1888 in County Westmeath but came to Belfast aged 17 in 1905 and by 1921 was married and owned a pub and some houses and a shop which sold meats and wines. His parents and two brothers and one sister were back in the South. My grandmother was from one of the six Northern Ireland counties. Her family were all in Northern Ireland.  He chose to stay as he had established businesses and my grandmother was pregnant with my uncle (and two years later my father). So as the border went up families were split with my grandparents now classified as British (and so too when they were born my father and uncle).

“as the border went up families were split”

My mother’s mother came from the south-western County Clare, but her father – who was a police officer – came North in 1916 after the Easter Rising to deal with political troubles in Northern Ireland. He brought his five teenage children, including my grandmother, with him. When Partition arrived he left the police as he did not want to serve in the new force created loyal to the British Crown. However, he had nowhere to go home to as his previous homes had all been police houses. He was given a payoff and bought a farm in Northern Ireland so as not to interfere with his children’s education. My grandmother stayed and married a local man – one of her brothers went back and another to England and so the family was split British/Irish. She always considered herself Irish and ignored the border.

©cc-by-nc 2.0 Marc Gautier
©cc-by-nc 2.0 Marc Gautier


Since the peace agreement of 1998, a lot has been done to come to terms with the past. Many measures focus on seeing the Troubles as a thing of the past; to be remembered as a tragic time by both sides of the conflict. In 2007, both Irish nationalist leader Martin McGuinness and unionist leader Ian Paisley visited U.S. President Bush in the White House. McGuinness stated that they “were set for a new course.”

If religious belonging is at the heart of this conflict. Shouldn’t the recent wave of secularization slowly take care of that problem? Not really. A recent study found that churches and religious leaders play an important role in peace-building nowadays. With more people leaving the church, the way may be clear for more radical approaches.

And then there’s the matter of Brexit. With the Republic of Ireland in the EU and Northern Ireland in the UK, the two states find themselves again at opposite sides. Luckily, the Republic is not in the Schengen Area, meaning even before Brexit European visitors had to show their passport. However, if the UK gets a rough deal on trade agreements with the EU, the border issue may once again flare up. We can only hope for a peaceful resolution.

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Cover photo of Belfast Peace Wall ©CC BY-NC 2.0 Still Burning


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