Understanding the Conflict in Northern Ireland

James I, king of England, Scotland and Wales in the early 17th century.
Not all of the island of Ireland belongs to the country of Ireland.
The Battle of the Boyne in 1690, part of a larger conflict over control of Ireland which the Christian Protestant English king won.
St. Andrew’s Church in Killaney, a protestant church in Northern Ireland.
The United Kingdom of today, made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Antrim, Northern Ireland.

In order to understand the conflict in Northern Ireland we have to go back several hundred years.

A king with a plan

In the 17th century, England ruled much of Ireland, but this domination was under threat. The Irish rebelled again and again, and in an attempt to keep control over the island, the English king decided to encourage large numbers of his own peoples, Englishmen and Scots, to settle in the antagonistic northern parts of Ireland. His compatriots, he thought, would balance out the hostile Irish by making the area more Christian Protestant and English-speaking.

In a sense, the king’s plan worked. Just as envisioned, over time, the influence of Englishmen and Scotsmen in northern Ireland increased. However, the arrival of competing settlers upset many Irishmen, especially when land that historically had been held by Irishmen was occupied by English or Scottish newcomers. For this reason, hostility towards English influence and English rule continued.

Staying with Britain

Despite the resentment against its rule, England, and later the United Kingdom, kept more or less control over the entire island of Ireland until the early 20th century. At this point though, in the early 20th century, an Irish revolt finally succeeded, and most of Ireland won independence. Still, the areas in northern Ireland where there lived many descendants of Englishmen and Scots did not join the rest of Ireland in becoming independent. Instead, they decided to stay in the United Kingdom.

Moving forward about a hundred years from when Ireland won independence, today, Northern Ireland is still split between two groups: the unionists and the nationalists. The unionists, who are predominantly inhabitants of English and Scottish descent, want to remain a part of the United Kingdom, while the nationalists, who are mainly Northern Irelanders of Irish descent, have strong historical and cultural ties to the rest of Ireland and want to join them.