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Posted by Admin on January 30, 2011

“Is the notion of a deeply divided society the right template for comparing Northern Ireland with other cases of ethnic conflict?”

Table of contents:

Part I: Outline;

Part II: Limitation of this study:

Part III: Key words;

Part IV: General discussion;

Part V: Conclusion.



Part I:


The central argument of this paper revolves around the native-settler discourse of ethnic conflicts. Obviously, no conflict, ethnic or other, can happen in a vacuum and without a reason. Keeping this in mind, this paper presents the basic reasons for which major ethnic conflicts have been taking place around the world today. It presents a brief background to the ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland, mainly to understand that this is a case of a deeply divided society, for this is necessary to form the basis of the thesis topic. The next component of this paper is a presentation of the core background to some other leading ethnic conflicts around the world. The conflicts taken up in this section are South Africa, Israel/Palestine and Sri Lanka.  This is done with the intention of underscoring the essential nature of these conflicts –while being ethnic in nature, all these have happened out of a deeply divided society brought about by these ethnic aspects. More importantly, a brief explanation of the other conflicts taken up for this study is provided in view of the fact that this is meant to be a comparative paper, in which these are used as the frame of reference. The section on the background to these other conflicts is brief and is not a historical, blow-by-blow account, as it is meant to just enable an understanding of the roots of the ethnic nature of these conflicts. Then, this paper traverses into another of its central arguments –the element of territory in these conflicts. Since it is implied in this thesis statement that a) Northern Ireland’s is an ethnic conflict, and b) that other cases of ethnic conflict are a product of a deeply divided society, this paper does not explore a popular perspective on this conflict, which is whether the conflict in Northern Ireland can be classified as an ethnic one. In the concluding part, it sums up its understanding of the paper. It avoids reference to some commonly used interpretations of ethnic conflicts.


Part II:

Limitation of this study:

One area of incompleteness of this study is that while there are several ethnic conflicts raging on in the world at this point of time, this paper, due to the paucity of space allotted to it, makes a comparison of only a select list of these to the conflict in Northern Ireland. An inclusion of some of the other leading ethnic conflicts, such as those of the Basque region of Spain, Corsica, East Timor, Cyprus and some in Africa to name a few, would have made this paper more comprehensive.


Part III:

Key words:

Ethnic conflict, society, Natives, settler, commonality, land, catholic, protestant, whites, blacks, slavery, Jews, Arabs, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Israel, Palestine, Sri Lanka, persecution, Diaspora, homeland, Holy Land, Sinhalese, Tamil.


Part IV:

General discussion:

The ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland:

A reading of the history of Northern Ireland points to the clear fact that it is indeed a case that can be fitted into the template of a deeply divided society:  the conflict dates to almost five centuries, to the reign of Henry VIII. This Tudor monarch’s newfound zeal, the result of his break from Rome, was to make him target his neighbour, whose catholic nature he viewed as a challenge to English expansionism. It was basically a sectarian conflict, in that attempts were made by the English monarchs, led by Henry VIII and followed up later by Edward VI and Elizabeth I, to supplant the existing catholic religion with its brand of Christianity, Protestantism. Naturally, the essentially Gaelic population resented these efforts at forced Anglicanism. When these original inhabitants refused to be forcibly converted to the new religion, the English persecuted them by outlawing some of their cherished religious practices, and alienated them by developing a condescending attitude towards the followers of the scurrilously termed ‘popery’. (Finnegan, 1983, pp. 9, 10) The depths of this division took a turn for the worse following a policy of forced ‘plantation’, or augmentation of the population of the Settlers by successive English monarchs. The most notable example of this attempt to change the ethno-demographic character of the province was the one by James I, king of both the English and the Scots, to settle in about 150,000 protestant Presbyterians from Scotland into Ulster in Northern Ireland. This was a direct effort at undermining the local catholic population –the language and religious affiliation of the new Settlers were markedly different from those of the Natives. In the later part of that century, Oliver Cromwell, too, enforced this policy by rewarding these Settlers with grants of vast areas of land in Northern Ireland. The crux of the problem could be crystallised into the efforts of the native catholic population to get the Protestants out of their country, and the recalcitrance of the Settlers to stay on. (Morris-Hale, 1997, p. 95) Thus, in this sense, it qualifies as a problem of a deeply divided society.

The next section explores the similarity in the nature of this problem with some other cases of ethnic conflict in different regions of the world.

The ethnic conflict in South Africa:  Like its counterpart in Northern Ireland, the ethnic conflict in South Africa, too, is deeply rooted in the divisions of society. The origins of the ethnic conflict of this country can be traced to 1717, when the number of slaves who had been employed by the Dutch East India Company, the VOC in local parlance, was a mere 2000. That year, the company’s directors in Amsterdam asked the local administrative council of Cape if slavery was required for the company for economic reasons. Only one of the council members wanted an abolition of slavery. From here, the increase in the number of slaves working for the Settlers was dramatic –in 75 years, the number of black slaves had grown twelve-fold. This system was to get perpetrated with greater crudity and oppressiveness in the later decades and centuries: “By the mid-1700s the colony had over 650 slave owners, but more than half owned six or fewer slaves. Yet slave owning was widespread enough to promote a dependency on slave labor rather than the development of intensive settlement and agriculture. This dependency lasted into the nineteenth century and encouraged a mentality among White Settlers that certain work and occupations were “beneath” them.” (Beck, 2000, pp. 28, 29) This was to not only leave a seemingly unbridgeable gap in society between the Natives and the Settlers who came to be called Boers, it was also the forerunner to the institution of apartheid, (Pomeroy, 1986, p. 4) an abhorrent practice which came to define standards of human cruelty and oppression. This again is a clear case of a deeply divided society.

Israeli –Palestine conflict:  One of the most violent conflicts of the 20th century, the one between Israel and Palestine, is a premier example of a conflict of ethnicity and nationality being a result of a deeply divided society.

Israel was born in such circumstances that its raison d’etre was detested by its Arab neighbours. The Jews, who had been persecuted for centuries by the Christian masses of Europe in possibly every conceivable manner from being blamed for natural disasters to being degraded publicly for belonging to that religion to being tortured in gas chambers, had finally reached such a precarious stage of their existence by the time World War II ended, that they were left with no alternative to carving out a homeland for themselves. The formation of a separate Jewish nation, they believed, was the only guarantee of their very survival. That homeland had to be the biblical land of Israel, or none else, given the primacy of this nation to their history and culture; unfortunately for them, this was now Palestine, into which Arabs had been ossified for a full 13 centuries, ever since the birth of their own religion, Islam. The declaration of Israeli independence on May 14, 1948, was the culmination of a nearly 19-century old cherished dream of a motherland, and achieved after a lot of bickering in the United Nations. In this declaration, they made clear that for the Jews to become a cohesive nation for the first time in their history out of the reassembly of their people from their Diaspora, there was only one possibility: the existence of the new immigrants at the exclusion of the native population! The following words in the declaration sums up the belligerent Jewish attitude, overlooking the fact that the Holy Land was in Arab possession for all these centuries:


Naturally, this was at direct loggerheads with the native population, which saw this as an intrusion into their very existence. A strange situation had developed, by which two nationalities were trying to compete for existence and survival on the same piece of land to the mutual elimination of each other. Both the cause and result of this was the inculcation of deep-seated animosities, which continue to this day.

The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka:  The Sri Lankan or Ceylonese ethnic conflict dates to the early part of the previous century. It was fed and exacerbated by a threat perception felt by the land-owning and economically well ensconced, western-educated, mostly Sinhalese native elite on account of the assertiveness of the plantation workers of Indian origin following the departure of the colonial power, Britain. As explained by Perera (1998), although the land mass left behind by the colonizers was nowhere near what it was when it was first occupied, “…the post-colonial rulers of Ceylon, (the Sinhalese elite)… were not ready to accept the plantation workers of southern Indian origin, classifying them as “Indian Tamils” and reaffirmed that they were a foreign population…[w]ithin two years, the United National Party government of 1948 deprived the plantation workers of southern Indian origin of both their citizenship and voting rights. They had already participated in the socialist-led struggles for independence in the 1940s and their voting pattern had helped many socialist candidates win in the 1947 elections. If anti-colonial struggles had brought these plantation workers into Ceylonese politics and the “national” space, the post-colonial state denied these. As the planters had attempted, the post-colonial rulers of Ceylon also resorted to apartheid…” (Perera, 1998, pp. 102, 103) Further proof of the deep division of the society along ethnic lines is the fact that the Tamils have been living in Sri Lanka for ages, and have been in a majority in at least four northern districts. It is these four districts that the Tamils claim as their ‘traditional homeland’, the Tamil ‘Ealam’, for the reason that there was hardly a presence of the Sinhalese in these areas till independence. (Kearney & Miller, 1987, pp. 91-94)


Some researchers, such as Mitchell (2000), have taken the view that while these conflicts taken up for this study (with the exception of Sri Lanka) are essentially ethnic, what marks these out is the fact that they have a strong sub-element of native-settler conflict. Elaborating, he theorises that this is a case in which animosities and attitudes have hardened since the settler has stayed back, and has sought to coexist with the native population. This, according to Mitchell, is as strong a common factor as is the element of ethnicity in the cases he takes up. This is different from cases such as Australia, America, Canada and New Zealand, in which the Natives were all but extirpated. This aspect of the native-settler coexistence, no matter how tumultuous it may have been, is the main commonality among these conflicts. All cases of ethnic conflict in which the Settlers have stayed back have an indispensable element –land issues. In most cases, land has been pivotal to the affairs of the ethnic conflict, because the Natives have been relegated to inferior lands. Another feeling that has run through the colonisers is the feeling of superiority to the Natives, irrespective of whether the Settlers belonged to the same race as the Natives or not. This is the feeling that the Irish war of independence failed to correct. (Mitchell, 2000, pp. 1 and 2) In all the cases of ethnic conflict taken up here, the Settlers have arrived with the aim of betterment, with varying degrees. It is natural that the bone of contention had to be land, since it was natural resources that were the means for a betterment of life. This is the basis for which dispute over territory has been an integral part of these conflicts.

Conclusion: In all these societies taken for this study, the extent of deep divisions in society can be gauged from the fact that irrespective of the point of time of the country’s history at which these conflicts have started, these conflicts have come to be the defining moments of these nations –the ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland may not be as old as the country itself, but nearly five centuries have failed to erase these divisions. In the case of South Africa, apartheid and ethnic conflict have been present almost from the time the white minority came to dominate the country; as for Israel, the warring parties have had to contend with ethnic conflict quite literally from day one of the birth and existence of a Jewish nation. In Sri Lanka, the feeling of ‘them and us’ has been persisting from the time the Tamils settled there, and all it took was the spark of the departure of the colonists to ignite it and make it a full-scale conflagration.

These conflicts have different sub-dimensions that mark them out from each other. For instance, if the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Israel are essentially predicated along nationalist and religious lines, that in South Africa is centred round the colour of the skin, while the conflict in Sri Lanka is ethno-linguistic in character. Yet, the overriding common factor has been the deep divisions between the Natives and the Settlers. Whatever the nature of these elements of conflict, these have at best been sub-components of the conflict, whose main theme is undoubtedly the deep divisions in society. It is exactly these divisions that have not only caused the conflict in the first place, they have nurtured and sustained them.

In fact, so deep are the divisions of the mind that even as late as 1994, when the official obituary was written for apartheid in South Africa,  “…emotionally far too many whites, even liberal whites, still regard(ed) themselves as superior to blacks and far too many of them only accepted the changes that came in 1994 because they could see no alternative rather than because they actively believed in a non-racial society.” (Arnold, 2000, p. 11) It can be said without much fear of contradiction that the same attitude could possibly be prevailing in the other societies taken up here. In sum, it can be fittingly argued that the notion of a deeply divided society is the basis on which all ethnic conflicts of this study have taken place; there is little in Northern Ireland to suggest any radical departure from this norm.

Written By Ravindra G Rao




Arnold, G., 2000, The New South Africa, Macmillan, Basingstoke.


Beck, R. B., 2000, The History of South Africa, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.


Dunner, J., 1950, The Republic of Israel: Its History and Its Promise, Whittlesey House, New York.


Finnegan, R. B., 1983, The Challenge of Conflict and Change The Challenge of Conflict and Change, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.


Kearney, R. N., & Miller, B. D., 1987, Internal Migration in Sri Lanka and Its Social Consequences, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.


Mitchell, T. G., 2000, Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.


Morris-Hale, W., 1997, Conflict and Harmony in Multi-Ethnic Societies: An International Perspective, Peter Lang, New York.


Perera, N., 1998, Society and Space: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Postcolonial Identity in Sri Lanka, Perseus, Boulder, CO.


Pomeroy, W. J., 1986, Apartheid, Imperialism, and African Freedom (1st ed.), International Publishers Co., New York.


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