New Stabs at Old Wounds

By Elesha Coffman, associate editor of CHRISTIAN HISTORY

As a historical journalist, I feel I ought to know things like why July 12 marks a flash point in Northern Ireland, or, for that matter, why Protestant-Catholic relations there have been so bad for so long. When I realized that much of what I know about Irish politics comes from U2 songs, I went looking for a rough outline of the conflict. I learned that it's tough to outline a situation where only the blurriest of boundaries separate religion and politics, England and the continent, history and the present.

This week's showdown centers on a planned march by Protestant hard-liners through a predominantly Catholic neighborhood near Belfast. The Protestant group, members of the Orange Order, has marched this route since 1807, but the event first triggered widespread violence in 1996, when police moved to block, then decided to permit, the parade. This year, police, politicians, and more moderate Irish Protestants are calling for the cancellation of the march, which commemorates the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Jumping back to the 1600s, we land in a particularly tumultuous time in British history (if any period can be singled out for such a label). From 1534, when Henry VIII declared himself head of the English Church, to 1689, when James II was forced from the throne, the monarchy flip-flopped between Protestant and Catholic four times, not including the brief Puritan rule. Each switch resulted in persecutions and deaths, for, as CBC newswriter Gary Katz puts it, "Countries don't change their religion as easily as, say, their sales tax rate."

James's ouster was directly related to the Battle of the ...

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