There is no handy roadmap for reconciliation. There is no short cut or simple prescription for healing the wounds and divisions of a society in the aftermath of sustained violence. Creating trust and understanding between former enemies is a supremely difficult challenge. It is, however, an essential one to address in the process of building a lasting peace. Examining the painful past, acknowledging it and understanding it, and above all transcending it together, is the best way to guarantee that it does not, and cannot, happen again.
More fine words, this time from the archbishop Desmond Tutu from his handbook for post- conflict reconciliation.
His book is based on extensive research of global historic conflict and of course from first-hand experience from his own country South Africa.
The bottom line being, there is no one size fits all solution and as with all human societies each solution has to be carefully tailored to fit the needs of the communities involved. The handbook does however offer a wealth of experience and wisdom from which we can draw from and hopefully use to tailor our own solutions.
So where do we start?
Why not, “Examining the painful past, acknowledging it and understanding it”
I would say to understand the past events leading to the troubles in the north of Ireland we need to go back to the 1600s with the plantation of Ulster where Britain began the organised colonisation of an estimated half a million acres covering counties Tyrconnell, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Coleraine and Armagh bringing over hundreds of thousands of mainly Scottish and English, all protestants and forcing the gaelic clans lords to flee into exile after a century of leading the fiercest resistance to English control in Ireland.
Most of counties Antrim and Down were privately colonised and the rest taken by force. The plantation of Coleraine was overseen by the City of London Livery Companies who renamed its main trading town of Derry to Londonderry before later redrawing the boundaries and creating the new county of Londonderry.
Colonising Ulster with loyal settlers was seen as the only way to prevent further rebellion.
With the civil wars in England and ascension of James 2, Catholics were appointed into positions of control over the protestant planters which continued until the Williamite wars when after the battle of the Boyne most Irish land was confiscated by the Crown and sold to loyalists who were mainly English soldiers and traders which led to the Protestant Ascendancy who became the ruling class over the native Irish nationalist and Ulster-Scots unionists.
They implemented the penal laws which were designed to restrict the religious, political and economic activities of Catholics and Presbyterian Dissenters.
Excluded them from public office
Banned them from intermarriage with Protestants
Presbyterian marriages would not be legally recognised by the state
Catholics barred from holding firearms or serving in the armed forces
Excluded from voting
Excluded from the legal professions and the judiciary
Banned from foreign education
Barred from entering Trinity College Dublin
Ban on Catholics inheriting Protestant land
Prohibition on Catholics owning a house valued at over £5
In the house of commons, Edmund Burke described these as “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
By the 1780s Britain was preoccupied with its rebelling American colonies and withdrew its soldiers from Ireland to fight in the American Revolutionary War leaving the Irish Volunteers militia defending Ireland from the threat of French and Spanish invasion who along with protestant liberals formed the Irish Patriot Party who wanted to relax the penal laws giving more rights to the catholic Irish nationalist and Presbyterian ulster scots, while encouraging an Irish identity.
At the same time in Ulster, the Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys were carrying out night-time raids on Catholic homes under the pretence of confiscating arms which Catholics were prohibited from possessing under the terms of the Penal Laws to which the authorities failed to act. In response, the Defenders were formed initially defensive in nature but by 1790 they had merged into a widespread secret oath-bound fraternal organisation consisting of lodges, associated to a head-lodge led by a Grand Master and committee with each member swearing an oath to King George the Third and who began raiding protestant homes for arms in a tit for tat sectarian conflict.
With growing sectarian tension, a more radical movement was forming, inspired by enthusiasm for the largely bloodless French Revolution and letters by William Drennan printed in the Belfast Newsletter calling for Irish Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters to unite together to seek independence from Britain. Wolfe Tones Society of United Irishmen sought a fully independent and representative parliament for Ireland free from the interference of the British establishment claiming “We have no national government; we are ruled by Englishmen, and thus servants of Englishmen, whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption; whose strength is the weakness of Ireland.”
Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the movement was outlawed and went underground from 1794 as they became more determined to force a revolt against British rule. The leadership was divided into those who wished to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wished to press ahead regardless. However, the suppression of a bloody pre-emptive rebellion, which broke out in Leitrim in 1793, led to the former faction prevailing and links were forged with the revolutionary French government with instructions to wait, sent to all of the United Irish membership.
Worried by its presence, the Dublin administration conceded some reforms, allowing Catholics the vote, to become barristers and to enrol at Trinity College Dublin in 1793. The Hearth Tax, paid by all households, was abolished in 1795, and St Patrick’s seminary at Maynooth was founded. Catholics were also expected to join the militia and to inform on any United Irish activities.
In 1794, William Drennan became the first leader to be arrested and tried for sedition as the authorities began to react to the growth of the United Irishmen, followed by the Reverend William Jackson. In 1795 the loyalty of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was confirmed with the founding of Maynooth College. At that stage, the Church and the French republic were enemies because of the dechristianisation of France during the French Revolution.
A planned confrontation between the Defenders and the Peep o’ Day Boys at the Battle of the Diamond resulted in 30 Defenders killed inflicting no casualties, which led to the formation of the Orange Order and the onset of “the Armagh outrages” where they drove around 7,000 Catholics out of County Armagh. Later when accused of bigotry by the Irish Patriot Party, they blamed it on the Peep o’ Day Boys who then became the Orange Boys.
In 1796 a French fleet carrying 15,000 troops set sail for Ireland but due to weather conditions spent days in sight of the Cork coast at Bantry Bay but were unable to land and instead returned to France.
The British government responded to the threat it represented by arresting the bulk of the United Irish leadership, imposing martial law and attempting to break the movement by the widespread use of terror during heavy handed searches for weapons. A rising in Cahir, County Tipperary broke out in response, but was quickly crushed by the High Sheriff, Col. Thomas Judkin-Fitzgerald. The Establishment used tactics including house burnings, torture of captives, pitchcapping and murder, particularly in Ulster as it was the one area of Ireland where large numbers of Catholics and Protestants (mainly Presbyterians) had affected common cause. In May 1797 the military in Belfast also violently suppressed the newspaper of the United Irishmen, the Northern Star.
The British establishment recognised sectarianism as a divisive tool to employ against the Protestant United Irishmen in Ulster and the divide and conquer method of colonial dominion was officially encouraged by the Government. Brigadier-General C.E. Knox wrote to General Lake who was responsible for Ulster: “I have arranged… to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen, or liberty men as they call themselves. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.”
Similarly, The Earl of Clare, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, wrote to the Privy Council in June 1798, “In the North nothing will keep the rebels quiet but the conviction that where treason has broken out the rebellion is merely popish”, expressing the hope that the Presbyterian republicans might not rise if they thought that rebellion was supported only by Catholics.
Loyalists across Ireland had organised in support of the Government; many supplied recruits and vital local intelligence through the foundation of the Orange Order in 1795. The Government’s founding of Maynooth College in the same year, and the French conquest of Rome earlier in 1798 both helped secure the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to rebellion; with a few individual exceptions, the Church was firmly on the side of the Crown throughout the entire period of turmoil.
In March 1798 intelligence from informants amongst the United Irish caused the Government to sweep up most of their leadership in raids in Dublin. Martial law was imposed over most of the country and its unrelenting brutality put the United Irish organisation under severe pressure to act before it was too late.
General Napper Tandy, a leader of the uprising, authored a proclamation entitled ‘Liberty or Death’:
“Can you think of entering into a treaty with a British Minister? A Minister too, who has left you at the mercy of an English soldiery, who has laid your cities waste, and massacred inhumanely your best Citizens … Horrid crimes have been perpetrated in your country, your friends have fallen a sacrifice to their devotion to your cause, and their shadows are around you and call for vengeance … wage a war of extermination against your oppressors, the war of Liberty against tyranny, and Liberty shall Triumph”
Tens of thousands rose in the surrounding counties but lack of leadership resulted in the rebellion being crushed with vicious brutality. The campaign met with little success except in Wexford where a number of massacres of loyalist civilians who were largely Protestant raised the spectre of sectarianism which was seized upon by enemies of the United Irishmen to weaken their non-sectarian appeal. The eventual arrival of 1,000 French troops in Killala, County Mayo in August was too little and too late to turn the tide for the United Irishmen. In October, Wolfe Tone himself was captured when a supporting French fleet of 3,000 troops was intercepted and defeated by the Royal Navy near Lough Swilly.
The aftermath of almost every British victory in the rising was marked by the massacre of captured and wounded rebels with some on a large scale such as at Carlow, New Ross, Ballinamuck and Killala. The British were responsible for particularly gruesome massacres at Gibbet Rath, New Ross and Enniscorthy, burning rebels alive in the latter two. For those rebels who were taken alive in the aftermath of battle, being regarded as traitors to the Crown, they were not treated as prisoners of war but were executed, usually by hanging.
In addition, non-combatant civilians were murdered by the military, who also carried out many instances of rape, particularly in County Wexford. Many individual instances of murder were also unofficially carried out by local Yeomanry units before, during and after the rebellion as their local knowledge led them to attack suspected rebels. “Pardoned” rebels were a particular target.
County Wexford was the only area which saw widespread atrocities by the rebels during the rebellion. Massacres of loyalist prisoners took place at the Vinegar Hill camp and on Wexford Bridge. After the defeat of a rebel attack at New Ross, the Scullabogue Barn Massacre occurred where between 80 and 200 mostly Protestant men, women, and children were imprisoned in a barn which was then set alight. In Wexford town, on 20 June some 70 loyalist prisoners were marched to the bridge and piked to death.
Thus the birth of the current sectarian divisions still evident in Northern Ireland today.