a badge of identity

Religion is the badge of identity, and identity the key to allegiance. The million Protestants of Northern Ireland are for the most part "Unionists" or "Loyalists." They support the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, they regard themselves as ethnically British, they fly the Union Jack or the flag of Ulster, their national anthem is "God Save the Queen," their strongest cultural links are with Scotland, and their allegiance is primarily to the British Crown rather than to the British Parliament. Indeed, many are deeply resentful of the intrusion of the British Parliament into "their" affairs. Thus one of the ironies of the conflict: rabid Loyalists are often more anti-English in their invective than rabid Republicans. Hence their periodic mumblings about "going it alone," about taking matters into their own hands.
On the other hand, the half a million Catholics in Northern Ireland are, for the most part, ethnically Irish. They regard themselves as part of a historic Irish nation artificially divided by the partition of the island in 1921. They are called "nationalists" or "Republicans" because they support, by and large, the historical nationalist aim of an all-Ireland republic; they fly the Tricolour, and their national anthem is the "Soldier's Song." Thus the labels, according to historian Desmond Fennell:
Due to the absence of any language difference between the two communities, the preponderance within them of Catholics and Protestants respectively, and the self-defined Protestantism of the British community, the two communities are conventionally referred to as "Protestants and "Catholics." In this conventional usage, therefore, these dominational names are ethnic terms with cultural and political connotations, analogous to "Greeks" and "Turks" in Cyprus...6

At its most basic level, therefore, the conflict pits one million plus Protestants who believe "the maintenance of the Union with Great Britain is the only means of securing their future"7 against the one half million Catholics who believe "they can only secure their future within a united Ireland."8
And thus the arithmetic of the impasse: the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland is too great for Protestants to impose their will unilaterally within a stable political structure in Northern Ireland, while the number of Protestants in Ireland as a whole is too great for Catholics to impose their will within a stable political framework in Ireland as a whole. Either situation is subject to the tyranny of the minority.
The smallness of it all adds to both the intensity and the poignancy of the conflict. In terms of physical size, Northern Ireland is just slightly less than one fifth of the area of Ireland, which itself would almost fit into Lake Superior. Northern Ireland's land area is 5451 square miles, the Republic's 27,073; the greatest length of the island as a whole is a mere 302 miles from north to south, and its greatest width 189 miles from east to west. But the geographic strictures add to the claustrophobia of the violence: some 2300 have died. Between 1971 and 1982, there were over 28,500 shooting incidents in Northern Ireland, over 7200 bomb explosions and another 3100-plus bombs neutralized, over 9600 armed robberies, and over 17,000 civilian injuries--an injury or death in one out of every twenty households. Which means that in the tight-knit community that is Northern Ireland there is hardly a family that does not personally know at least one other family that has sustained at least an injury as a result of the violence of the last decade. And behind every injury there is a personal story-- of random victims, luckless scapegoats, and innocent pawns caught in the vise of the extreme. You get an idea of the scale of the violence if you multiply the figures by a factor of 150 to arise at comparable figures for the U.S. population. Thus, the number of dead would stand at 345,000--almost as many as the number of people who died in the American Civil War--and the number of civilians injured at 2,550,000.
Adding to the climate of intensity is the fact that for the most part the violence is compressed into the Catholic and Protestant working-class areas of Belfast and some other towns, and into certain Border areas. Memories are constant, fixed in time, set in some immutable dialectic, immune from change, impervious to reason. In 1922 Winston Churchill wrote:

"The whole map of Europe has been changed...The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world." 9

Other cataclysms have followed and doubtless more are yet to come. But the quarrel persists, its integrity pristine, the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone as dreary, ugly props in what one disillusioned commentator calls "a tragedy in endless acts."10

7. John Hunter, "An Analysis of the Conflict in Northern Ireland," p. 15.
8. Ibid.
9. Winston Churchill, quoted in A.T.. Stewart, The Narrow Ground, p. 14.
10. J. Bowyer Bell, "The Chroniclers of Violence in Northern Ireland," p. 510.

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