Bloodshed and terrorism in troubled Northern Ireland show no sign of letting up. What is the solution to the protracted violence on the Emerald Isle?
Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood ... wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they know not . ... " (Isaiah 59:7-8). Had the prophet Isaiah been transported through time to the battle-scarred streets of modern-day Belfast itself, he could not have rendered a more accurate description of the decades-long violence which has wracked Northern Ireland (also known as Ulster). Outside of the continuing conflict in the Middle East, no problem today appears as intractable and seemingly farther from solution than that of Ireland. Indeed, the situation has reached the point where many in Ulster have come to regard the bombings, shootings, barbed wire, street checkpoints and military patrols as normal! No one seems to know the way to achieve peace.
Last August marked the tenth anniversary of the dispatching of British troops to the anguished province to put down violence between the Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority a conflict which has claimed nearly 2,000 lives (and disabled thousands more) over the past decade alone. Only days after that grim anniversary, violence once again burst forth with a vengeance in the "Bloody Monday" bombing assassination of 79-year-old Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Britain's wartime naval hero and Queen Elizabeth II's cousin, by guerrillas of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). The bombing of Mountbatten's yacht in Donegal Bay off the west Irish coast was followed five hours later by the ambush and murder of 18 British soldiers in Northern Ireland, also perpetrated by the IRA. This bloody resurgence of headline-grabbing violence was a clear signal to all that the war in Northern Ireland had escalated to a new level, heightening already dangerous tensions. Many believe a new wave of terrorism is on the way.
Violence is nothing new to Ireland. And Britain has been enmeshed in it since 1155, when Pope Adrian IV granted English King Henry II lordship over the Emerald Isle. For Britain, Ireland has been nothing but trouble ever since. And from the Irish viewpoint, Britian has been nothing but a curse. Religion has played a large part in the Irish imbroglio from the start. Catholicism had been introduced into Ireland in 432 A.D. by Patrick, a Roman Catholic bishop who subsequently became a patron saint of Ireland. Over a thousand years later, Protestant British monarchs, including Queen Elizabeth I and James I, drove much of the native Irish Catholic population out of the northern portions of the island, replacing them with tens of thousands of loyal Protestants from Scotland and England —the ancestors of the majority of modern-day Ulstermen, or Protestant Scots-Irish. Their strategy was based on the premise that a Protestant community in Ireland would weaken Catholic opposition to English rule. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant "Lord Protector" of temporarily kingless England, landed in Dublin with his army of 20,000 Iron-sides and unleashed a reign of terror upon Ireland in an attempt to extinguish the spirit of rebellion forever—for which his name is cursed by Irishmen to this day. Four decades later, in 1690, England's Protestant King William of Orange routed Catholic forces under James II, England's last Catholic monarch, at the decisive Battle of the Boyne—sealing Protestant control in Ulster for centuries to come. Banners bearing the slogan "Remember 1690" are still seen in parades in Protestant areas of Northern Ireland during Ulster's annual "marching season." On January 1, 1801, the "Act of Union" took effect, bringing full political union between Great Britain and Ireland—much to the chagrin of the majority of Irishmen. British notoriety reached even greater lows a few decades later during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when direly needed food was exported from Ireland to England while the Irish were dying in multiple tens of thousands of starvation.
Throughout the following decades, the "Irish Question" continued to hang heavy about the neck of Britain. The political dilemma often dominated larger foreign and domestic policy questions. Clamorings for "Home Rule" in Ireland were regularly heard in London's Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and the debate raged heatedly. Irish sentiments finally came to a head in 1916, in the so-called "Easter Week Uprising" in Dublin—the start of the modern battle for independence from Britain. Led by the Sinn Fein (a political party demanding the political and cultural independence of all of Ireland), the uprising was quickly crushed by British troops and its leaders executed. But it was nevertheless to be the catalyst leading ultimately to independence for a large portion of the island. A compromise was finally reached in 1922 with the creation of the Catholic "Irish Free State." Under this arrangement, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties 80 percent of the island—were given dominion status within the British Empire. Britain hoped it would bring peace to Ireland. The six Protestant-dominated northern counties in Ulster Province—the size of the state of Connecticut voted by referendum to remain part of Britain. They were granted their own parliament in Stormont Castle outside Belfast. (Britain dissolved Stormont in March 1972, and now administers the province directly from Westminster.) In 1949, the Free State broke completely with Britain, proclaiming itself the sovereign "Republic of Ireland," or Eire. But Ulster remained firm as ever within the British fold. A clear majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain an integral part of the United Kingdom.
Trouble in Ulster
Of Ulster's 1.5 million people, one million are Protestant and 500,000 are Roman Catholic. The two communities in Ulster became increasingly polarized following the creation of the Irish Republic. Catholics charged the Protestants with "gerry-mandering tactics" to ensure that Catholics were not represented in the Stormont Parliament in proportion to their numbers. Undeniably, Protestant control of political and economic power in Ulster has become virtually absolute. The Catholic minority today has little political clout, little voice in government. Discrimination has extended into other facets of society as well. Education is largely segregated by religion. Protestants go to state run schools; Catholics attend church schools. Housing, too, is divided in large measure along sectarian lines. There has also been a certain degree of discrimination against Catholics in employment, with Catholics holding, in general, the less attractive jobs and experiencing higher rates of unemployment. The bitterness and resentment among Catholics over this "second-class citizenship" stiffened increasingly with each passing year. In 1968, a Catholic civil rights movement began in earnest, triggering violence between the two communities. The sudden worsening of the factional violence, first in Londonderry and then in Belfast, led British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send in the first contingent of 1,000 troops to Northern Ireland in August 1969 to restore order until a political solution could be effected. At the time, the British troops were generally welcomed by the Catholics, who saw them as protection from marauding Protestant gangs. But the euphoria didn't last. Increasingly, many Catholics began to look upon the, troops as an army of occupation, to be dealt with violently. Today, over 13,000 troops are stationed in Ulster, down from a maximum of 21,000 in 1972. Over 300 of these British soldiers have been killed in Northern Ireland over the past decade—victims of the militant Irish Republican Army.
The IRA, formed in 1919, had waged guerrilla warfare against the British earlier this century to win freedom for Ireland. Though it had been officially disbanded by its leader, Eamon de Valera, it had reemerged in Ulster following the formation of the Irish Republic. The IRA has never accepted the separateness of Ulster. The organization is dedicated to "liberating" Ulster by ending British control of the province and uniting the entire island as a single, democratic, independent nation. The IRA is using force to seek the liberation of "their country." Its members assert that they simply have limited options on how they can fight for their objectives. They see violence as the only solution. Their strategy is to wear down the British until they simply wash their hands of Ireland for good. A majority of IRA guerrillas live south of the border in the Republic, from which they stage hit-and-run attacks against the North. "Brits out" is the IRA battle cry. But ironically, the IRA terror campaign is the main factor keeping the British troops in Ulster. It is generally agreed among observers that the withdrawal of British troops would lead to a full-fledged civil war in Ulster. It would, they feel, be a signal for Protestant extremists to take the law into their own hands to deal with the IRA—a move which could erupt into a civil bloodbath on a Lebanese scale. Even Prime Minister Jack Lynch of the Irish Republic says he doesn't want to see British troops suddenly withdrawn from the north. "If it were not for the presence of the British Army," he observes, "the danger of civil war would be worse." Yet Mr. Lynch refuses, on the grounds of preserving the Republic's sovereignty, to permit British troops to chase IRA gunmen across the border in "hot pursuit." The IRA had gained significant support among Ulster Catholics by the late 1960s. In 1969 the IRA split into two factions: the small left-wing "Official" group and the more militant right-wing "Provisional" wing. The "Provos," with a hard-core 400 or so fighting men and an additional 1000 reliables ready to join ranks, has now become the dominant force in the secessionist movement. The increasing use of violence by the Provisionals gradually caused many Catholics to reassess their thinking, as they began to realize that they—the people who the IRA had been claiming to "protect"— were suffering the most. Though they largely supported the IRA's goals, they began to seriously question its methods. A majority of Ulster Catholics would prefer to eventually join the southern Republic, but what they are primarily seeking is simply to live at peace in their own country—whether Ulster or the Irish Republic—as equals with the rest of the population. To the south, the majority of Irish Catholics in the Republic have expressed a complete rejection of the IRA and its tactics. The Dublin government officially condemns the IRA. Prime Minister Lynch's Fianna Fail Party supports a united Ireland, but rejects the use of force as a means of achieving that aim, realizing that it can only come about, by the consent of all the people of Northern Ireland.
A relative decline in violence in 1978 had been widely viewed as a possible indication that the situation was finally being brought under control. But not so. A marked increase in the level of violence in 1979—highlighted by the Mountbatten assassination—showed those hopes to have been ill-founded. Humphrey Atkins, Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland, conceded recently that during the period of apparent peace the IRA had been "regrouping, retraining, re-equipping themselves and rethinking their future tactics." The IRA, intelligence reports show, has become a tough and disciplined guerrilla army ready for increased action. This prospect raises the very real possibility of a Protestant backlash which could lead to all-out civil war between the two religious communities. Massive retaliatory action by Protestant paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defense Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters is reportedly being planned. Militant Protestants have vowed a fight to the death against any forced reunion of the two Irish territories. Northern Ireland is now bracing for an upsurge in bloody violence which could thrust the "Irish Problem" back into frontpage headlines around the world.
It is occasionally alleged that the strife in Northern Ireland is not primarily religious in nature. It is true that the Irish were at odds with each other over the question of allegiance to Britain long before King Henry VIII split with the pope in Rome. Some Irish had fought against assimilation by England; others—the Ulster "unionists" or "loyalists," in favor of union with England—cooperated willingly with London. In the wake of the establishment of the Protestant Church of England in 1534, the two opposing Irish factions became split religiously as well as politically, and the factional strife assumed "Protestant" and "Catholic" labels as well. The subsequent confiscation of Catholic land in the north and the "planting" of Protestant Scots and English there added to the religious polarization. Over the centuries since then it has become hard to tell where the political label leaves off and the religious one begins. Religion and politics have become inextricably intertwined. There is an almost total identification between religion and political party. No one in the Northern Ireland conflict, of course, is disputing theological doctrine. In that sense the strife is not religious in nature. But the people of Northern Ireland define themselves in terms of religion. They think of themselves first and foremost as Protestant or Catholic. For all intents and purposes, then, the Irish Problem can be properly viewed as essentially sectarian in nature. But one important fact must be borne in mind. Religious labels are often used as a cloke for the political activities of those who seldom engage in any form of religious activity. Many of the hard-core militants responsible for the bloodshed in Ulster have not darkened a church door in years. Some are even avowed atheists.
Needed: A Change of Heart
What is the solution to the Irish Problem? Is it possible for both communities to live together in harmony? The efforts of politicians have accomplished little. The peace rallies and the work of the scores of peace groups trying to bring the two factions together have had only minimal success. A final, peaceful solution to the problem seems as far away as ever. The solution to the Irish Problem the only real solution—is found in the very Bible which lies in the homes of Irish Protestants and Catholics alike. "From whence come wars and fightings among you?" asks the apostle James. "Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss.. ." (James 4:1-3). Each side in the conflict has largely insisted upon having its own way, on getting what it wants no matter what. Yet neither side has gotten what it wants, and the conflict continues unabated, with no end in sight. The reason, as the apostle James explains, is that they have not properly sought the assistance of God in their quest for a solution. It has often been said that in Ireland there is "too much religion but not enough Christianity." This is the heart of the matter. God will not hear the empty prayers of those who profess His name yet profane His Word—the Bible. Christianity is a way of life—not just a once-a-week congregational ritual. Yet many Irish are involved in a way of life which includes prejudice, hatred, discrimination, resentment and in some cases outright killing and murder. This is obviously not the Christianity of the Bible, the Christianity which says: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Until the vast majority of Irish begin to really live the religion they profess, there simply will be no peace. And to make it work, both sides must change. God declares: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (II Chronicles 7:14). To some, this may appear to be a "simplistic" solution. But the Irish, who pride themselves on being hardheaded realists, should of all people see that this is the only workable solution, for it is the only one which deals with the root cause of the problem, not just with the effects. An imposed solution will never work. Peace can only be brought about by mutual agreement, not by force. Ulstermen must work out their own affairs by accommodation between the two communities, in a true spirit of Christianity. This, of course, will not be accomplished overnight. But a start must be made sometime, and the sooner it is, the better for the people of Ireland. Specifically, prejudice and hatred must begin to be rooted out of homes, schools, social activities and business. Irish of both religious persuasions must abandon their deep-seated antagonisms. They must break free from the shackles of the past and stop refighting their ancient battles. Parents, community and religious leaders on both sides must join hands to tear down the walls of hatred and bigotry. Only then will God begin to hear their prayers and heal their strifetorn land. Ulstermen of both creeds must also clearly demonstrate their opposition to and complete rejection of those individuals who persist in pursuing violence as a means to their ends. It has been observed that if the right 500 men could be put in jail, the violence and terrorism on both sides could be stopped virtually overnight. It is actually only a tiny minority which triggers the violence—the extremists of both factions who hold a fanatical and impenetrable conviction about the justice of their cause and the legitimacy of their actions. These militant zealots can and must be defied! A great public repudiation of violence and gangsterism and a refusal to give support and sympathy to the terrorists would go far toward solving the problem. The overwhelming majority of people in Ulster oppose violence, but most have been afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. This silent majority must come to realize that "whosoever will save his life shall lose it" (Mark 8:35). He who allows himself to be intimidated into compromising with men of violence may well lose his life amid the continuing bloodshed they perpetuate. "Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God," Christ declares (Matthew 5:9). The people of Northern Ireland must call a halt to violence once and for all. Once the bloodshed ends, it will be far easier for ordinary, decent Irish men and women to put aside their antagonisms and get along with one another. In the final analysis, peace will come only when the people of Ulster get together and live in Northern Ireland not primarily as Catholics or Protestants but as Ulstermen, with a fair political and economic role for all, free of prejudice and bigotry. Otherwise, the strife in Ulster will continue as before—and probably escalate—further brutalizing the national spirit and holding up as a laughingstock before the world the spectacle of a "religion of peace" destroying a people who profess it. The good news is that there will be peace in Northern Ireland, whether or not Ulstermen choose to have it now. If they will not solve the problem themselves, it will ultimately be solved for them—by the returning Christ in His soon-to-be established millennial rule over this earth. At that time—for Ireland and for the world at large—the Bible predicts that "violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders" (Isaiah 60:18). Will the slaughter continue in Ulster in the days ahead? Will there be more tragedies yet to come? The answer is up to the men and women of Ulster. "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you," God declares, "that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).