Northern Irish History
In order to fully understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland, we must go back as far as 1688. When William of Orange arrived in England to claim the crown, the former king, James II, fled to Ireland where Catholicism was still dominant. There he organized an army with which he wanted to regain “his” throne. However, was defeated by William in the Battle of the Boyne and Protestantism began to gain the mastery. By the beginning of the 18th century the Protestants already owned 90% of the land even though they were a minority in numbers. The Penal Laws, which were introduced between 1695 and 1728 then secured the Protestants even more powers and achieved to suppress the Catholic majority: Catholics now could only receive very limited education and were neither allowed to buy land nor to hold any public position. In the end, they even lost their voting rights.
The situation got worse when the 1801 Act of Union was passed: the Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland was thus formally united with Britain, meaning that it was now under the rule of Westminster Parliament and the British Monarch.
Unrest among the Catholics increased as English landlords threw out Irish farmers so that thousands of families became homeless. All their revolts were suppressed more or less violently.
As we have seen, the average people in Ireland were already suffering- they had few political rights and most of them were very poor, much poorer than their Protestant countrymen. To make things worse, the Potato Famine set in. Between 1845 and 1848, the potato crop was struck by a disease and more than 1.5 million people starved to death. The British government did nothing to help them. This had two main effects on the remaining population: thousands of men and women left Ireland to seek their fortune in the USA and those who stayed in Ireland were filled with hatred and, of course, this hatred was bequeathed to the following generations.
From 1880 onwards, Irish MPs in Westminster made plans for Home Rule and introduced several Home Rule Bills in Parliament. They demanded a separate parliament in Dublin and wanted a government of their own. These claims were supported by most of the Catholics living in Ireland, while Irish Protestants were worried that they would then lose their power and feared revenge if they were to become subject to a Catholic government. At first, Westminster did not implement these, since they did not want to exasperate the Ulster inhabitants, who- as Protestants and loyalists to the British Crown- were important voters whom they, of course, didn´t want to alienate. As violence started to increase, the British Parliament launched an attempt to pacify the situation: they planned to introduce Home Rule to the Southern areas, whereas the six predominantly Protestant counties in the North would stay with the United Kingdom. This solution, however, didn´t succeed in acquiescing Irish Nationalists. To the contrary: as Nationalists (people who demanded a departure from British rule that would concern the entire country) remained committed to the idea of a united free Ireland, while Protestants (predominantly Unionists) were unwilling to leave the UK. In order to be able to remain with the UK, most of them were even willing to accept separation from the South.
During the First World War, many Irish men joined the British army. Despite their general dislike of the British, they wanted to show that they deserved Home Rule. But there was also a military organization established by Irish Nationalists who were convinced that Britain was losing and thus saw their chance their chance to push through the separation of the whole of Ireland instead of accepting its partition. This para-militant group, which was called the “Irish Volunteers” by then, would later become the IRA.
On Easter 1916, a thousand Volunteer-rebels marched through Dublin and their leader, Patrick Pearse, then proclaimed the Irish Republic. Soon British forces arrived in the city and opened fire. 400 people were killed and another 2500 were injured. The Volunteer members had to surrender and their leaders were executed. While a majority of the Irish population had blamed the Irish Volunteers for unnecessary bloodshed, they were even more enraged by the fact that the British army had sentenced these 70 rebels to death. Some of the dead Volunteer-members were now treated as martyrs and many people joined the organization.
When in 1920 the partition of Ireland was finally put into effect, the twenty-six counties in the south now becoming the Irish Free State received a measure of independence including an own government. Northern Ireland also got a devolved government but remained widely dependent from Britain. An Irish Council was set up to arrange things between the two states.
In early 1922, British forces began to leave Ireland leaving their role to the Irish Volunteers. But the group soon split into a part that was in favour of the partition and a large section that was strictly against the separation and wanted reunification. The tension between the two groups developed into a civil war which was won by the pro-Partitioners.
The Irish Free State became fully independent from Britain in 1948 and changed its name to the Republic of Ireland.
By 1967, the Catholics in Northern Ireland were still suppressed with the anti-Catholic laws still in force. Impressed with the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, they now started to demonstrate for equal rights. In the beginning, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Irish police) was able to keep down rebellions. The British government didn´t match the Catholic demands and the tensions between Catholics and Protestants increased. Even though all marches were banned, they continued to walk the streets and some of their demonstrations turned into violent riots as Unionists (wanting to remain with the UK) started to do counter-demonstrations. At the same time the IRA made several attacks on British troops. It had been IRA members who had proclaimed entire Ireland a republic during the Easter Risings and now they wanted to make their dreams a reality by reuniting the two separate states. Seeing their possibility to achieve their goals, they were willing to take whatever steps might become necessary. The situation slowly deteriorated. In 1972, there was a Unionist march through Derry that was secured by British soldiers who set up several barricades. When some youths started throwing stones at them, British paratroopers intervened. They opened the fire and killed 14 civilians. Later they claimed that they had thought them to be terrorists from the IRA. This, however, is more than doubtful: most of them didn´t even wear any weapons and a majority was killed by shots from behind. And, what is even more, six of them were of minor age.
Following the Bloody Sunday, more and more people started to support the IRA and since the NI government wasn´t able to control the situation any longer the direct rule was imposed. NI was now directly governed by the Westminster Parliament. But even their interventions, for example the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, could not stop the attacks by the IRA.
Things only started to get better when the leaders of Britain and Ireland met in 1985. They discussed the situation and as a result came up with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This treaty gave Dublin some control over Northern Irish affairs making the government in Dublin a major advisor. Of course, this outraged the Unionists and so the Agreement was never fully implemented.
On 15th December 1993, the Prime Ministers of Britain and of Ireland met and issued a declaration which stated the inhabitants of Northern Ireland would have to decide whether they wanted to become part of the Republic or not. This means that it will only come to a reunification if a majority of the people says so. Furthermore they installed an assembly were all the different interest groups would discuss a solution together- even the Sinn Fein Party, which is the legal section of the IRA. As a result of this agreement the IRA declared a peace fire.
A number of peace talks in 1996 and 1997 were then followed by the Good Friday Agreement on April 10th 1998.
This treaty claimed several important aspects that have helped to steady the situation:
- Ireland shall not be one united country without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland
- The people of Northern Ireland have the right to call themselves either Irish or British
- A multi party assembly will be elected to govern the community.
- An Anglo-Irish council be set up to consider areas of mutual interest
- All people shall have basic human rights, civil rights and equality
- Linguistic diversity to be recognized - Irish to be taught in all schools
- Paramilitary groups to be decommissioned within two years
- A gradual reduction in the number of security forces deployed in Northern Ireland
The agreement was accepted in a referendum by inhabitants of both Ireland and NI with a great majority of supporters.
Since then there have been no major conflicts or serious terrorist attacks, even though some problems remain and from time to time it still comes to smaller riots or residual cases of homicide that have probably happened with relation to struggles between Protestants and Catholics.
Timeline: Most important dates
Glorious Revolution 1688
Battle o f the Boyne 1690
Penal Laws 1695-1728
Act of Union 1801
Potato Famine 1845-1848
Plans for Home Rule 1912-1920
Easter Risings 1916
Civil War 1922
Creation of the Republic of Ireland 1948
Civil Rights Protests 1968
Bloody Sunday 1972
Direct Rule 1972
Anglo-Irish Treaty 1985
Downing Street Declaration 1993
Peace Talks 1996
Good Friday Agreement 1998
List of works cited:
Morgan, Kenneth, ed . Young Oxford History of Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Oakland, John. British Civilization: An Introduction. 1989 . Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2010. Print.
“Good Friday Agreement.” BBC History. BBC, 2014. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement>
“Bloody Sunday.” BBC History. BBC, 2014. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/bloody_sunday>
“The Troubles.” BBC History. BBC, 2014. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/troubles>