Grim Realism

By Beeson, Trevor | The Christian Century, November 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Grim Realism

Beeson, Trevor, The Christian Century

REALISM, rather than romanticism, is an essential element in Christian judgment. Nowhere is this more true than in Northern Ireland, where a lethal mixture of nationalism, culture, religion and politics has been fermenting for nearly four centuries. Although its geography suggests that Ireland should be unified, there is not the remotest possibility of this happening within the foreseeable future.. However, collaboration between North and South on many matters of common interest is highly desirable.

Most of the Irish--Catholic and Protestant--recognize this. Indeed, opinion polls show that the majority of Catholics in the North have no desire to be absorbed into the southern republic, since this would leave them economically worse off. The cause of Irish unity is being fought only by the Sinn Fein party and its terrorist wing, the IRA, which has virtually no support in the South and only limited support in the North. Thanks to the pusillanimity of both the English and the Irish governments, however, the IRA has become the most sophist): cased and ruthless terrorist organization in Western Europe. Not surprisingly, the IRA's actions over the past quarter of a century have led to the creation of illegal Protestant paramilitary groups in the North, though they are not active at present. These are less sophisticated than the IRA and usually pursue a policy of reprisal.

The Protestant community in Northern Ireland numbers about 1 million--two-thirds of the population of the province. The members of. this community are anything but modern interlopers on the Irish scene. Their forebears arrived in Ireland 11 years before the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth in 1620. Although there were already many Englishmen in Ireland at that time, most tad assimilated into the indigenous Catholic population. King James I was afraid that France and Spain would use Ireland as a base from which to force England back into the arms of Rome, with all the political ramifications of such a religious change. He offered his Protestant subjects grants of land in Northern Ireland in order to establish a bastion against foreign invaders.

Most of those who took up this offer were Scottish Presbyterians, strict Calvinists who could reach Ireland by a sea voyage of only 12 miles. Being fiercely antipapal, they made a solemn covenant not to assimilate with the native Irish. No attempt was made, however, to evict the Irish, who retained a share of the plentiful land.

King James's pre-emptive move paid off handsomely in 1689 when James II, deposed from the British throne for becoming a Catholic, landed an army in Ireland and, with the support of the Catholic population, marched north. He planned to cross over to England in French ships, but the Protestant settlers resisted heroically until King William III, formerly prince of Orange in the Netherlands, arrived with his fleet and won a notable victory at the Battle of the Boyne.

The national identity of the Northern Protestant community was forged during this time, and the events of those stirring days are still commemorated every summer with worship services, parades and rallies. For the minority Catholic community, however, these celebrations are a painful reminder not only of a cause lost more than 300 years ago but also of the repression that followed King William's victory and continued until the present century.

Southern Ireland was released from this yoke of oppression when the Irish Free State was formed in 1922, but discrimination against Northern Ireland's Catholics continued until 1972, when violent demonstrations by the Catholics drove the British government to reimpose direct rule and gradually remove discrimination in housing, employment and public administration.

The IRA, having fought but lost a civil war to prevent the partition of Ireland, has never ceased to use bomb and bullet to secure its aims, and since 1960 has wreaked havoc in the towns of Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and at some British military bases in Germany. …

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