What Violence in Northern Ireland Can Teach Us About Turmoil in Gaza Today

Looking back on Bloody Friday, The Troubles, and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

This Monday marked the anniversary of Bloody Friday, one of the worst days of 1972 in Northern Ireland. In the span of a single day over twenty bombs were detonated in Belfast, killing 10 people and injuring 130 others. It was two devastating car bombs that took the lives of those ten people, who were so dismembered by the explosions that initial reports over calculated the death count. Those who lived through the day recall its horror and chaos — the scattered limbs and sanguine streets. It’s a day that, like Bloody Sunday, has entered into the collective consciousness (mostly in Belfast): even during a time of such endemic violence, Bloody Friday stands out.

1972 remains the bloodiest and deadliest year on record of the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles with a body count of 496, more than half of who were civilians. The day itself seems to mark a turning point for the IRA, both in the recklessness of their violence and in their public perception. It was only recently in 2002 that the IRA apologized — however callow an apology it was — for the bombings. How do you trace the spiraled, inexorable path from sectarianism to terrorism, from nationalism to senseless violence? Or can you ever?

Even when you consider the centuries long conflict that has characterized Ireland’s history — from the beginning of British dominion, to the revolutionary period starting in 1912, the subsequent partition of the country, a bloody civil war, and finally the precipitating riots that began at the end of the 1960s, submerging the country into a three-decade long period of sectarian conflict — it’s hard to fully make sense of the conflict.

The rehearsed layman’s explanation of the conflict is: Catholics versus Protestants, one religious faction pitted against another. That’s a crude explanation for a complicated conflict, though there does exist a division between Protestant Unionists and Republican Catholics.

It would be more accurate to say that the conflict was (and still is) based on two competing nationalisms. The Troubles was a religious conflict, sure, but it was also an ethnic, geographic, and ideological conflict. Religion is just one more variable, one more signifier in fact, of the factions that make up societies. Once it becomes solidified as a means of political mobilization, religion is an inadequate descriptor on its own. This is why it’s wrong to reduce a conflict to a statement of “Catholics versus Protestants” — or “Jews versus Arabs/Muslims,” for that matter.

While it’s one thing to recognize the violent tendencies that inform certain religious factions, it’s another to look beyond the nominal differences of sectarian groups and to consider the ideologies and power structures that underlie them.

In the case of Northern Ireland, that would mean recognizing the territorial interests at play, the history of British dominion, the politics of segregation — and so forth. It’s tempting to conflate a visibly two-sided conflict into a recognizable vocabulary, because it can offer us the assurance that terrorism has a specific face, or that religious violence can be pinpointed to a specific time, creed, or faction. It’s as if to circumscribe an imaginary line around religious violence, as though it’s a category immured from everything else. That’s a naïve and damaging perspective, and it shouldn’t have any place in serious discourse.

Secularization has probably played a role in the decline of violence in Northern Ireland, though it’s also fair to say that religiosity was never the main factor in the violent outbursts in the first place. And despite secularization, sectarianism continues to leave its mark on the country. On Bloody Friday, Belfast witnessed sectionalist violence at its worst. Though violence greatly decreased after the Belfast Agreement of 1998, the evidence of the conflict is still written in the city’s landscape, from the segregated communities to the miles of “peace walls” that maintain that segregation. These massive structures, scattered throughout the city, evince a city that still hasn’t overcome its problems.

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It’s altogether strange and horrifying to witness another ongoing sectarian conflict in real time. The violence occurring in Israel and Palestine, like The Troubles, could be described as a religious conflict — but, like The Troubles, it’s also an ethnic, territorial, and colonialist conflict.

In a world of 24-hour news media, we are, I would hope, no longer exonerated by our ignorance. This is why it’s frustrating to observe mainstream news channels equivocate and misrepresent their way out of offering a truthful version of events. How we explain conflicts matters just as much for the history of The Troubles as it does for what is currently happening in Gaza. Recognizing these injustices calls us to confront our own prejudices and conflations. It should make us question the discrepancies in coverage of the crisis and the fallacious logic that defends it. It should cause us to consider the colonialist logic that engenders the killing of civilians and children and give us pause for our own country’s relationship to what’s happening, something most of us are unwilling to consider.

It took 30 years to come to some kind of resolution in Northern Ireland — how long will it be for Gaza?

Image via Recuerdos.

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  • Martin Hughes

    That these problems take a long time to solve and that religion is rarely the whole story are points true enough. I would also say that identifying the start times of the problems is always controversial, maybe even screamingly so: did the latest Irish troubles arise in the late 1960s or in the 12th century? I won’t even mention rival start dates for the Palestine problem. But thesne oe things are only the beginning. We need to ask what are the rights due to every individual.