For many years the conflict in northern Ireland was framed simplistically in the US media. They told us time and again that the IRA was terrorist organisation that was fighting in northern Ireland to get the occupying British troops out of Ireland. This framing was only slightly true and it was mostly a disservice to the whole truth. They hardly ever went into the real reasons people were fighting in northern Ireland and to why the IRA was bombing in London and other places.
The reason that British troops were in northern Ireland in the first place was because they were there to protect the Protestant majority population and to enforce the laws of the area. But even that simple explanation doesn't tell the entire truth and the truth is much more fascinating than anything the corporate media ever told.
The conflict in northern Ireland has it's roots in 1690 when Protestant forces won the Battle of the Boyne. This battle saw the defeat of Catholic King James by British forces. The defeat meant that no Catholic would take claim to the British throne and that Protestantism would be dominant in Britain and that most of Ireland, although still Catholic, would remain subservient to England.
Fast forward to 1801 after England crushed the Irish Rebellion. Ireland and Scotland were forced to sign the Act of Union which created the United Kingdom with England in charge. Once they entered into the union with Britain this meant that the British crown took land from the Irish nobles who were in rebellion against it and that the Church of England was the official church of all the UK. So overnight all Catholics had become members of a church they hated and wanted no part of. They could still go to their Roman Catholic churches but they had to tithe to the Church of Ireland, which in reality was the Church of England. Through a series of shady laws that held that only marriages performed in the Church of Ireland were legally recognized, Irish Catholics were disinherited because only legally recognized offspring could inherit land and property. This meant that the crown could and did seize lands and estates and they turned these over to the British nobles who in turn rented them back out at exorbitant rates to the Irish. So those who once owned and farmed land now were reduced to being landless peasants in their own country and they had no legal means to challenge what had been done. The British now owned most all property in Ireland and they owned what was grown and raised on said property. The farms that used to feed the population in Ireland now belonged to the British and the British owned what was grown and raised on them. Most Irish people were reduced to being allowed to keep and eat only what they grew on little plots of land, hence the reliance on the potato. When the potato blight hit, most Irish went hungry because it was the only food they grew for themselves. In fact, during the so called 'Potato Famine' food crops other than potatoes were normal and the livestock that being raised was at an all time high, so there was more than enough food to feed all the hungry people, the problem was it was being exported to other parts of the UK.
Flash forward to the early 1920's. The Irish nationalist movement rises up and they revolt in an effort to throw off British rule. They fought tooth and nail against the British who were still reeling from all the deaths in World War 1. So a peace was negotiated that created two countries in Ireland, one was called The Irish Free State, later to be known as the Republic of Ireland, and the other was Northern Ireland, which was made up of six of the most heavily industrialized counties in the northern part of the country. In the whole of Ireland Roman Catholics made up the majority of the population but in Northern Ireland they were the minority and the Protestants loyal to the UK ran things in Northern Ireland. Also it was decided that Northern Ireland would technically be part of the UK. Those who were loyal to the British crown were called unionists because they favored union with Britain and those who did not were called nationalists because they wanted Northern Ireland to be part of one nation, a united Republic of Ireland.
During the years leading up to the armed conflict in Northern Ireland the majority unionists rigged the system to favor their majority population. They passed laws that favored their supporters and the Catholic minority was shut out of housing, jobs, and generally given the shitty end of the stick. Unionist leaders in government and business encouraged this discrimination and they encouraged the idea that those in the minority were disloyal traitors to the government of Northern Ireland and to the UK.
Finally in the 1960's Catholics in Northern Ireland began to speak up, peacefully at first and then when that got nowhere, they used violence. And as history has shown us time and again, when a minority tries to get equal rights and a share of power it is always fiercely opposed by the majority in power and so the long bloody war between Irish republicans and the unionists, aided and abetted by the British army, began in earnest.
The conflict, or 'The Troubles,' in Northern Ireland then was a struggle between those who wanted a united Ireland and those who did not and this conflict broke down mostly along sectarian lines, Catholics for a united Ireland with the British 'peacekeepers' out versus the Protestants who wanted to remain in power in a country that was part of Britain.
The story of the conflict and the path to peace in Ireland is told in this fine concise history by Feargal Cochrane, a man who lived in Northern Ireland during most of the conflict. This history is even handed and briskly told. For me it was a riveting page turner that I could not put down until I read twenty or thirty pages. It covers it all, from the roots, to the fighting, to the stalemate, through to the path to peace. I highly recommend it.
For the record, I'm an atheist who has always supported a united Ireland. And to me the story of the fighting and the reasons why they fought so long and hard against each other in the country my maternal great grandparents came from shows once again the corrosive power that religion and capitalism have over us.