The popular perception usually centres on such things as gang warfare, tribal disputes, or religious animosity or perhaps even an inclination for straight-forward mindless violence. As is so often the case, this turns out to be, if not completely misguided, at least a gross over-simplification of a complex human phenomenon.
One of the main aims of this essay will be to illustrate not just how popular myths as to the causes of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are misconceived, but also how some of the more serious attempts to understand the conflict have suffered from a limited appreciation of the multiple factors involved. In order to pursue this goal, it is first necessary to identify the main historical precursors that led to the conflict and the various strategies that were engaged by way of resolution. We will then be in a better position to assess the different theoretical frameworks that have suggested a way forward and to ascertain how they might be applied to the political reality of Northern Ireland from the perspective of religion and secularisation.
Even before England became a Protestant country, its brand of Catholicism was different to that of Ireland. Irish Catholicism was deemed to be idiosyncratic because it followed the northern Celtic tradition. So, though both countries were Catholic, differences had already begun to emerge in their respective religious identities. Henry II of England was the first to invade Ireland gaining control over the region around Dublin but the expansion of English influence did not occur until the 16th century with the reign of Elizabeth I. It was during this period that the Ulster clans allied themselves against the invading army. By the time of Elizabeth, however, England had already left the Roman Catholic Church. The break from Catholicism was essentially political and not doctrinal, the Anglican and Catholic services remaining almost identical. It was only after Henry VIII's death and the accession of Edward VI did the tendency towards Lutheran Protestantism begin. It was also during Elizabeth's time, in face of the threat from the Catholic Spanish, that English nationalism became wedded to Protestantism.
Eventually, Ulster came to be dominated by the English and Irish leaders sought sanctuary in Europe. Their lands were confiscated and given to colonists from England. As English foreign policy had come into conflict with those of Catholic Europe, Ireland became a convenient 'back door' to European enemies. To counter this problem a program of colonial settlement called the Plantation was embarked upon. Although English settlers were at first encouraged, they were reluctant to take up the invitation and it was the Scots from Galloway, who were already accustomed to travelling to Ulster, who took up the challenge. With the arrival of the Scottish Presbyterians, the native Irish were banished to peripheral lands.
There was no deliberate policy of populating Ireland with Scottish Presbyterians as, like the Catholics, they were regarded as dissenters by James 1 of England (Clayton 1998). The counties of Antrim and Down, where Presbyterians were most numerous, did not form part of the Plantation but were