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Assessment for Catholics in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Catholics in Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
United Kingdom Facts
Area:    228,365 sq. km.
Capital:    London
Total Population:    58,970,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Although violence may recur in Northern Ireland, several recent events are hopeful. The Catholics have several of the risk factors that sustain rebellion including high levels of group concentration and organization, experience of repression, and a long and active heritage of violent opposition to Protestant domination and British rule. However, the Good Friday Accords, although at times implementation has floundered, do attempt to redress Irish Catholic grievances. Furthermore, the IRA began decommissioning weapons in October 2001. IRA disarmament was certified as complete by an international panel in 2005, although some more militant factions may have maintained arms.

Protests are likely to continue in the near future, although the magnitude of protests has declined. Major problems remain unresolved, and with the Protestant Orange Order intent on continuing their traditional marches through Catholic neighborhoods each July, there will be provocations for protest for the foreseeable future.

The keys to the conflict may no longer lie with the main signatories to the agreement. Those responsible for the riots at the Protestant Orange Order marches, for example, are rarely members of the Order itself, but are rather unaffiliated youths who come looking for trouble. Likewise, many of the attacks blamed on the IRA have in fact been the work of individuals, rival Catholic factions, or even Protestants trying to increase tensions. Thus, even while political leaders on both sides make conciliatory gestures and move away from hard-line views, their attitudes do not always mirror the groups they are supposed to represent.

Another important long-term factor is demographics. Northern Ireland's Catholic population is growing at a faster rate than that of the Protestants. Thus, the Catholics will eventually outnumber the Protestants and will be able to use the ballot to achieve their objectives. This alone will be a powerful consideration during the creation of the new government, and may impel Protestants to reach some kind of agreement soon, before they lose their numerical superiority.

Analytic Summary

Contemporary resistance by Northern Ireland's Catholic community to Protestant domination and British rule has its remote origins in the 12th century conquest of Ireland by barons of the Anglo-Norman monarchy (TRADITN = 1). The conflict was reshaped by Oliver Cromwell's Calvinist invasion in the 1660s, which led to massacres of resisting Catholics and the settlement of Scottish Protestants, mainly in Ulster. Repeated Irish rebellion – in 1689-90, 1798, 1916, 1919-21 – and limited British reforms culminated in 1923 with the establishment of the Irish Free State (which left the commonwealth in 1949 and became a republic). The five counties of Ulster, where Protestants were a two-thirds majority, remained part of the United Kingdom with regional self-government dominated by the Unionist Party. Catholics on both sides of the border have ever since demanded the unification of the five counties with the Republic.

Apart from their difference in religion (BELIEF = 1), the two groups are indistinguishable linguistically (LANG = 0) and culturally (CUSTOM = 1). Obviously the two groups celebrate different days, but these follow from their differences in religion and historical experience. The Catholics in Northern Ireland are concentrated in urban neighborhoods (GROUPCON = 1) and are highly cohesive (COHESX9 = 5).

Catholics face minor demographic disadvantages (DEMSTR03 = 2) due mainly to higher birth rates. This is potentially an advantage for the group since eventually the Catholics will outnumber the Protestants and might then vote to join the Republic of Ireland. While the group has been discriminated against in the past, the Good Friday Accord is an example of the policies that have been introduced to try to correct past wrongs (POLDIS03 = 1). The problem is that the Accord is only enforceable in the absence of political and communal violence. The Catholics are still severely under-represented in the police ranks, even though there are policies to add Catholics to the force. Economically the group faces deliberate exclusion (ECODIS03 = 3). Historically the Protestants have been economically advantaged and, since each group favors its own, the Catholics have suffered economically. The Catholic community has encountered what its members consider to be government repression in the form of many arrests of Catholic activists. The group also faces threats from Protestant militant organizations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force. There have been numerous bombings and assassinations by these contending groups that have caused many deaths (COMCON03 = 3). Another threat to the Catholic community has from internal conflict between competing factions. There have been numerous assassinations and attacks between factions and against those who are deemed not fully committed to the cause of Ireland's unification. However, no violence between different factions was reported between 2001 and 2003. (FCCS101-03 = 0).

The Catholics in Northern Ireland are represented by a mix of militant and conventional organizations (GOJPA03 = 3). The best known is the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein. Within the IRA different factions have competing views towards goals and strategies. Two of the main factions are the Real IRA and Continuity IRA. Another militant group is the Catholic Reaction Force and its conventional political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party. Nationalists who support less militant goals tend to support the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The SDLP favors co-operation and equality between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

It should be noted that the Catholic community receives support from the Republic of Ireland and has in the past benefited from efforts by the United States and the Republic to help mediate an end to the violence in Northern Ireland.

The most militant Catholic organizations have only one demand, unification with the Republic of Ireland (SEPX = 3). Less radical concerns include more effective power-sharing with the Protestant majority. Economically, the Catholic community wants improved economic opportunities and greater access to public funds. Culturally the group has always been concerned with the protection of their religious rights. While religion has always been a major issue, it is important to note that observance of the Roman Catholic faith is protected in the region, and while many frame the conflict in religious terms, very few religious figures are targeted and none of the groups involved in militant activity use religion in their organization names. Another concern is the protection of the Gaelic language, although very few people actually speak it. Finally, Catholics are deeply concerned with protection from the militant Protestant organizations.

Civil rights marches began in the late 1960s (PROT65X = 4), and demonstrations persist to the present (PROT01-02 = 3, PROT03 = 1). While a few bombings occurred in the late 1950s (REBEL55X = 1), the campaign of terrorism began in full force in the late 1960s (REBEL65X = 3) and has continued, with a gradual decline in amplitude, to the present (REB03 = 1).

The current "troubles" began in summer 1968 with student-initiated demonstrations on behalf of Catholic rights. They were modeled on civil rights marches in the U.S. and sought an end to Unionist policies that restricted Catholics' job opportunities, political participation, and access to public services (especially housing). Counter-demonstrations by Protestants soon escalated into communal rioting. Catholics responded by establishing "no-go" areas in Londonderry and Belfast, from which the army and police were excluded (the barricades remained up until July 1972). The Irish Republican Army, which had carried out sporadic terrorism on behalf of reunification from across the border since the 1920s, began a major campaign of terrorism. After 1970, the shootings and bombings that have killed more than 3200 people in Northern Ireland were mainly the work of the IRA's breakaway Provisional faction. Terrorism peaked in 1972, then began an irregular decline that has continued to the late 1980s. Catholic political action has taken every conceivable form, from conventional politics to rallies, campaigns of civil disobedience, hunger strikes (especially in 1980-81), and riotous attacks on army and police. Protestants have entered the fray with massive demonstrations and strikes (against proposed British concessions to Catholics) and their own extremists' campaigns of terrorism against Catholics.


Church, Jenny ed. Regional Trends, 29th ed. England: Government Statistical Service, 1994.

McGarry and O'Leary (1995) Explaining Northern Ireland

Crighton, Elizabeth and Martha Abele Mac Iver "The Evolution of Protracted Ethnic Conflict: Group Dominance and Political Underdevelopment in Northern Ireland and Lebanon" Comparative Politics, 23 (2), 1991. pp. 127-42.

Munck, Ronnie "The Making of the Troubles in Northern Ireland" Journal of Contemporary History, 27, 1992, pp. 211-29.

Lexis/Nexis: Reuters 1990-2003.

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