In 1921, after centuries of strife between Ireland and Great Britain over sovereignty, colonialism, and small clashes between Catholics and Protestants, the Republic of Ireland was given its independence from the United Kingdom. However, the North of Ireland, containing 6 of Ireland’s 32 counties, remained with the British, naming it Northern Ireland and adding it to the United Kingdom with Scotland, Wales, and England. Although the island of Ireland was predominantly Catholic, this small country divided from its home was majority Protestant, producing a Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Because of this division created by the British, Catholics found themselves “denied their Irish identity, cut off from their co-religionists in the Free State” (McKittrick, pg. 14, 2000). The British managed to influence Protestants to treat their co-equals as unequal, inferior, and outcasts. They spawned a system that would create a “Protestant” state, consisting of discrimination in housing, voting, education, property, and the legal system against Catholics lasting for many decades. This, however, ignited a Catholic civil rights campaign, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), modeling themselves after Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the United States. Many of the NICRA’s marches and demonstrations were met with violence from Protestant vigilantes and the RUC (majority protestant police force). After watching innocent Catholics be beaten, abused, and killed for their civil rights activity, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched a fleet of attacks against the British Army, protestant paramilitary groups, and anyone they suspected of not supporting the cause of a united Ireland. This is what caused the 30 years of “sectarian violence” between Catholics and Protestants, ending officially in 1998 after the signing of the Good Friday agreement. It is also known as the Troubles.
Today marks a little over a month and a half since I landed in Belfast to explore the depths of the Troubles. Since then, I have met with NGOs, government agencies, professors, ex-prisoners, relatives of deceased, and community activists to discuss the ways their country has and will transition from its brutal past. I even did a tour with an ex-prisoner and former member of the IRA. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison for carrying bombs and served an extra 2 for not possessing good behavior while in prison. He shared with the tour group a plethora of stories to garner a deeper sense of the Troubles, including losing his brother to the conflict. We were walking along Falls Road (Catholic neighborhood) when we stopped in front of the International Wall, dedicated to people across the world who fought for liberation against an oppressor. From Nelson Mandela to Che Guevera, Martin Luther King Jr. to Bobby Sands, he talked about each of these men being connected by their struggles against tyranny. There was one comment, however, that left the tour group, and me specifically, in awe. He said to understand the conflict, you must look at the 850 years of British occupation in Ireland. If you want to understand the UK’s desire for Northern Ireland, look at their desire for other countries across the world historically, like Kenya, India, Barbados, and even the United States. If you want to understand why this period appeared to be rooted in religious strife rather than colonialism, look at the strategy of divide and conquer. I was perplexed. For once I did not feel like a foreigner; it felt right at home. Immediately I thought to myself, “Catholics aren’t white. They’re black. Protestants aren’t white either. They just don’t want to be black.” Allow me to expound.
Why would 52% of college educated white women and 76% of white Christian evangelicals in America vote for President Trump, or how could a poor white Trump supporter scream that he wanted to get rid of Obamacare but keep the Affordable Care Act? It was definitely not for Trump’s piety and previous encounters discussing how he approaches women, or because the Affordable Care Act was better for that man’s family than Obamacare. It is because these people would rather be white than equal. Whiteness exudes a sort of invisibility, one that grants privileges in each pillar of life, ranging from leniency in the justice system to social and social mobility, most importantly, superiority. Any deviation from this, like equal rights for all people, feels like injustice to them. Despite any actions from a white individual or government that oppresses them in similar fashions to African-Americans, they will always find refuge in the place they think is their home: whiteness. This wealthy and male dominant structure, that has evidenced its ambivalence to their needs, manages to receive their support because they instill in them the idea that,, although they may endure struggles, at least they aren’t black. Any resource given to African-Americans for advancement in society, like Affirmative Action, feels like oppression to them. This grotesque fanaticism of whiteness parallels to Northern Ireland’s Protestants and their love for the British. When Northern Ireland became a separate state from the Republic of Ireland in 1922 under British rule, it was effectively designed to be a “Protestant State,” serving the interests and desires of citizens loyal to the British. Communities were gerrymandered to give Protestants more political power than Catholics. Protestants had more access to jobs and housing options than Catholics, and the police force largely mirrored and protected a country designed for a white class to prevail, producing an arduous identity crisis, yet extol their blackness in the midst of a predominantly white country designed for whites to be superior? It is because there is an unwavering spirit in the souls of black folk, reminding them daily that despite all of the pain they have endured for centuries, their cause and fight for freedom is right and what makes America live up to its written ideals. This blackness creates a sense of blind hope, or faith in a more just society still unseen by its inhabitants. However, they still manage to agitate a system designed for them to fail through activism, politics, religion, and business. For some blacks, it is time we leave the past where it is and make the most of the freedoms we have as Americans today. For others, blacks cannot be satisfied until America addresses its plunder of their ancestors for over 400 years. This resolute determination for what is owed connects to Northern Ireland’s Catholics and their fight for a united Ireland against the British.
What many people fail to realize is that not only do the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, as African-Americans and poor whites, have more in common than they are taught, but history showcases how they united with each other against a common enemy. Just as white frontiersmen and indentured servants alongside enslaved Africans rebelled against a tyrannical governor in Jamestown, VA in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon, in 1798 Catholics and Protestants joined forces in Ireland and rebelled against the British, calling themselves the United Irishmen fighting for Irish independence. The IRA, who is labeled as one of the most notorious terrorist groups against Protestants and the British, was founded by both Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. This shows that it is not race or religion that divides people: it is propaganda of the fruits of capitalism and fears of socialism. And when one side gets a taste of capitalism, a glimpse of superiority, and a peck of whiteness, the forces bringing different races, religions, and cultures together, now divides them. It is easy to stand with the oppressed when you are too. But when given privilege, what is done for those suffering as you once were? But maybe if I had those privileges, I would understand the divisions. And maybe, just maybe, I would want to be white too.