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Killed 76
Injured 54
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Injured 485
Suicide Blasts 5
Countries 21
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The Northern Ireland Conflict:
Same as Sunni-Shia?

Was the Northern Ireland conflict really the same?

The conflict that consumed Northern Ireland for so many years following 1969 is often described as a war between Catholic and Protestant Christians.  Knowing no more than this, many assume that religion was the point of contention, and that Christians were actually killing each other over theological differences in the same way that the Shiites and Sunnis have been going at it for fourteen centuries.  Throw in the Crusades - sans historical context - and suddenly Christianity looks a lot like Islam... at least in theory.

This comparison tends to delight Muslims, while frustrating religious Christians.

Although Northern Ireland is used paradoxically by multiculturalists (to denigrate Christianity) and by Muslims (to improve the standing of Islam), it is not necessarily comparable to Islamic terror simply on the cursory observation that the warring parties were generally aligned into sectarian factions.

Even if we accept all of the premises assumed, there is still the obvious matter of degree.  More civilians are killed every three months by Islamic terrorists than died in the entire 36 years of the Northern Ireland "Troubles."  In fact, 19 Muslim radicals killed more innocent people in just two hours on September 11th than the number of non-combatants killed over Northern Ireland in three and a half decades.

As far as body counts from sectarian violence goes, the Muslim world offers up far more than the ten to fifteen people who were killed each month on average before the Belfast Agreement in 1998.  Take the Iraq-Iran war, for example... or can we?

In fact, not all violence in the Islamic world is necessarily about religion.  Certainly Muslims wage Jihad to spread their faith, and many die in true sectarian violence, but neither are their leaders above starting conflicts for political and territorial ambitions.  

Was the Northern Ireland conflict truly a religious sectarian war, in the same way that Sunnis and Shiites violently bump heads for no other reason?  Or was religion largely incidental to differences that were predominantly economic and political?

To be fair, religious sectarianism has played a role in the historical tension between the Irish and English.  For centuries, Catholics were victims of institutionalized discrimination, and it would certainly be hard to argue that the brutal Puritan invasion of Ireland under Oliver Cromwell wasn't motivated in part by religious hatred.  However, this was several centuries prior to the violence of the late 20th century.

Northern Ireland was provisioned as a separate territory in 1922.  This point of contention between England and the Republic of Ireland turned habitually violent in 1969 with the formation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), a terror group that was considered to be the armed wing of the Sinn Fein political party, which supports Irish nationalism and Marxist ideology.  The violence abated in the mid-1990's with an agreement between the sides.

Although it's popular to think of this chapter in the conflict as Catholic versus Protestant, it is also simplistic and misleading.  The IRA does not stand for "Catholic Army." Historians and political scientists usually describe the two sides with words like Nationalist, Republican, Ulster, Loyalist and Unionist.  Even the religious sectarian labels often did not hold up.  Protestants were found on both sides of the conflict, for example, and there were notable Catholics who remained loyal to England.

The IRA did not have a Biblical charter.  In fact, they were a Marxist-atheist organization.  Neither did the British government have religious motives, nor any of the other major groups.  There were some smaller, radical groups that used the language of religious purity, but they were relatively obscure.  The issue for the "Catholic" factions was Irish nationalism, and for the "Protestants" it was self-preservation and an end to the violence.  Only a very small minority of the citizens in Northern Ireland actually participated in the conflict, although the grief was spread among many.

Some victims were killed around churches, but these were targeted assassinations that were incidental to the location.  There appears to be no concerted campaign against rival churches or cathedrals, and few (if any) deadly bombings actually occurred in a house of worship (see 

Church leaders on both sides routinely condemned the violence - in fact, the Catholic church excommunicated members of the IRA.  The claims of responsibility for the bombings and assassinations did not typically quote from the Bible or make reference to God.  (Muslim terrorists quote liberally from the Quran in their statements, and are very explicit about their battle for the cause of Islam).

Neither was there any expressed interest on the part of either side in the Northern Ireland conflict to convert unbelievers or spread sectarian beliefs beyond the disputed area.  Protestant clerics in Ireland weren't targeted by Irish Catholics (for being clerics) and neither were priests in England by English Protestants.  Religious affiliation was a loose marker of identity, but there were no glaring theological differences between Protestants and Catholics on which the conflict was specifically based.  Rather it was political in nature.

By contrast, the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s was a veritable tent revival meeting.  The Mullahs of Iran made no secret of wanting to spread the Islamic Revolution across the Middle East, and actively encouraged Shia resistance to Saddam Hussein for that reason. In turn, Saddam Hussein used language that was meant to appeal to Sunnis, some 85% of the Muslim world. Both sides referred to their adversaries as infidels.  Both had religious clerics that issued fatwas and aroused the spiritual passions of the people.  Both sent their poorly trained people into combat with government-issued Qurans.

Yet, the Iraq-Iran conflict of the 1980s was not fundamentally religious, although the sectarian divisions were certainly exploited by both sides.  If Iran had been the one to begin the war then we might think differently, but as it was, the conflict ensued from Saddam's quest for territory and power.  More than a million people were lost in the nine years that the two countries rallied their martyrs against each other.

The toll from the 36 years of conflict in Northern Ireland is 3,323 total lives - a ridiculously small number by comparison.  Only a little over half of these were non-combatants, a casualty count that is comparable to the number of passengers lost in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.  Yet the length of the conflict and its status as an anomaly has exaggerated our perception of it.

And this is particularly so for critics of Christianity, be they self-righteous Westerners or equally self-righteous Muslims who try and draw moral equivalence between Northern Ireland and Islamic terror where there is simply no valid basis for comparison.

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