Conflict In Northern Ireland A Background Essay Topics

'Conflict in Northern Ireland: A Background Essay' by John Darby

The following chapter has been contributed by the author, John Darby, from the book 'Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland', with the permission of the editor, Seamus Dunn, and the publishers, Macmillan Press Ltd.. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Facets of the Conflict
in Northern Ireland
edited by Seamus Dunn
Published by: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1995
ISBN 0 333 60717 1 (Hardback)
ISBN 0 333 64252 x (Paperback)
£13.99 Paperback 289pp

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This publication is copyright Macmillan Press Ltd. 1995 and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Macmillan Press Ltd, the editor and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

This chapter is in three sections; first, an outline of the development of the Irish conflict; second, brief descriptions of the main contemporary parties and interests in conflict; and third, an overview of approaches to managing or resolving the conflict.


Dates are important in Ireland. This section will select four critical dates, each of which represents a major lurch in the already unstable chronicle of Anglo-Irish relationships. What follows, therefore, is not an abbreviated history but an attempt to identify a succession of themes.

1170: The Norman Invasion

More than a century after the Norman Conquest of England, Henry II of England claimed and attempted to attach Ireland to his kingdom. He succeeded in establishing control in a small area around Dublin known as the Pale. Over the next four centuries this area was the beach-head for the kingdom of Ireland, adopting English administrative practices and the English language and looking to London for protection and leadership. A number of attempts were made to extend English control over the rest of Ireland, but the major expansion of English dominion did not take place until the sixteenth century. For the Irish clans who disputed the rest of the island with each other, England became the major external threat to their sovereignty and customs.

1609: The Plantation of Ulster

By the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign, military conquest had established English rule over most of the island of Ireland, with the principal exception of the northern province of Ulster. The Ulster clans, under Hugh O'Neill, had succeeded in overcoming their instinctive rivalries to create an effective alliance against Elizabeth's armies. After a long and damaging campaign, Ulster was eventually brought under English control and the Irish leaders left the island for Europe. Their land was confiscated and distributed to colonists from Britain. By 1703, less than 5 per cent of the land of Ulster was still in the hands of the Catholic Irish.

The Plantation of Ulster was unique among Irish plantations in that it set out to attract colonists of all classes from England, Scotland and Wales by generous offers of land. Essentially it sought to transplant a society to Ireland. The native Irish remained, but were initially excluded from the towns built by the Planters, and banished to the mountains and bogs on the margins of the land they had previously owned. The sum of the Plantation of Ulster was the introduction of a foreign community, which spoke a different language, represented an alien culture and way of life, including a new type of land tenure and management. In addition, most of the newcomers were Protestant by religion, while the native Irish were Catholic. So the broad outlines of the current conflict in Northern Ireland had been sketched out within fifty years of the plantation: the same territory was occupied by two hostile groups, one believing the land had been usurped and the other believing that their tenure was constantly under threat of rebellion. They often lived in separate quarters. They identified their differences as religious and cultural as well as territorial.

The next two centuries consolidated the differences. There were many risings. The Dublin based institutions of government - an Irish monarchy, parliament and government, reflecting those in Britain enforced a series of penal laws against Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Presbyterians. In 1801, in an attempt to secure more direct control of Irish affairs, the Irish parliament and government were abolished by an Act of Union and its responsibilities taken over by Westminster. During the nineteenth century a succession of movements attempted to overthrow the union. Some of these movements, including the Repeal movement in the 1840s and the Home Rule movement from the 1870s, were parliamentary. Others, like the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were dedicated to overthrowing the union by the use of physical force. It is probable that the union would have been repealed by a Home Rule act but for the intervention of the First World War. During the war an armed rising was attempted in Dublin during Easter week, 1916. The rising failed and the leaders were executed, creating a wave of sympathy for the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin. In the 1918 election Sinn Féin effectively replaced the old Irish Parliamentary Party and established its own Irish parliament. The resulting War of Independence between Britain and the IRA was eventually ended by a treaty and the Government of Ireland Act in 1920.

Since the 1880s, many Ulster Protestants had become increasingly concerned about the possible establishment of home rule for Ireland. They prepared for resistance. In 1912 a civil war seemed imminent, but the focus was shifted from Ulster by the start of the First World War and by the Easter rising. From 1918, Ulster Protestants increasingly settled for a fall-back position and set out to ensure that the northern counties of Ireland, at least, should be excluded from any Home Rule arrangements. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which came into effect in the following year, recognised and confirmed their position by partitioning the island.

1921: Partition

The 1921 settlement precipitated a civil war in the southern 26 counties, between those willing to accept the settlement and those who believed it was a betrayal. Northern Ireland, the name given to the new six county administration, had been created through demographic compromise. It was essentially the largest area which could be comfortably held with a majority in favour of the union with Britain. The new arrangements established a bicameral legislature, and a subordinate government in Belfast with authority over a number of devolved powers, including policing, education, local government and social services. London retained ultimate authority, and Northern Ireland sent MPs to Westminster.

The establishment of these institutions was a challenge to what some Irish republicans saw as unfinished business. The objective of securing a united independent Ireland, by force if necessary, remained, and there were IRA campaigns in the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s. For many unionists the new arrangements and the union itself could only be maintained with constant vigilance. Emergency legislation was introduced on a permanent basis; a police force and police reserve was established which was almost exclusively Protestant; local government electoral boundaries were openly gerrymandered, a stratagem also used by nationalists when they were able to do so; and a system of economic discrimination was introduced against the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. This minority formed about one third of the population for most of the twentieth century, and currently represents around 40 per cent.

A number of Westminster-led social changes after the Second World War, including the introduction of free secondary education for all, led during the 1950s to the emergence of a Catholic middle class. It was their growing dissatisfaction that led to the civil rights campaign of the 1960s.

Civil Rights and After: 1969

By the 1950s there were growing signs that some Catholics were prepared to accept equality within Northern Ireland rather than espouse the more traditional aim of securing a united Ireland. In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed to demand liberal reforms, including the removal of discrimination in the allocation of jobs and houses, permanent emergency legislation and electoral abuses. The campaign was modelled on the civil rights campaign in the United States, involving protests, marches, sit-ins and the use of the media to publicise minority grievances. The local administration was unable to handle the growing civil disorder, and in 1969 the British government sent in troops to enforce order. Initially welcomed by the Catholic population, they soon provided stimulus for the revival of the republican movement. The newly formed Provisional IRA began a campaign of violence against the army. By 1972 it was clear that the local Northern Irish government, having introduced internment in 1971 as a last attempt to impose control, was unable to handle the situation. Invoking its powers under the Government of Ireland Act, the Westminster parliament suspended the Northern Ireland government and replaced it with direct rule from Westminster. This situation continued into the 1990s.

On paper the civil rights campaign had been a remarkable success. Several of its objectives had been conceded by the end of 1970. By that time, however, proceedings had developed their own momentum. The IRA campaign developed strongly from 1972. Instead of the riots between Catholics and Protestants which had characterised 1969 and 1970, the conflict increasingly took the form of violence between the Provisional IRA and the British Army, with occasional bloody interventions by loyalist paramilitaries. The violence reached a peak in 1972, when 468 people died. Since then it has gradually declined to an annual average of below 100.


Since the twelfth century therefore, it is possible to discern significant shifts in the Irish problem. Until 1921, it was essentially an Irish-English problem and focused on Ireland's attempt to secure independence from Britain. From 1921 the emphasis shifted to relationships within the island of Ireland, between what later became the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; this issue has somewhat revived since the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Finally, since 1969, attention has focused on relationships between Catholics and Protestants within Northern Ireland.



Unionists are the successors of those who opposed Home Rule in the nineteenth century, and eventually settled for the state of Northern Ireland. The main unionist parties are the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which formed all governments from 1921 to 1972; and the more recently established Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is more populist, more anti-nationalist, but less popular in electoral support. Both are opposed to the involvement of the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland, and are unwilling to share executive power with non-Unionist parties. They also share a suspicion of Britain's commitment to the union. The DUP holds all these positions more extremely than the UUP, and also is more preoccupied with the power of the Catholic church. In 1994 the leader of the UUP was James Molyneaux, and Ian Paisley led the DUP.


The basic tenet of nationalists is the aspiration to unify the island of Ireland. The main constitutional party is the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which contests the nationalist vote with Sinn Féin, generally accepted to be the political arm of the IRA. The SDLP campaigns for internal reforms, and has accepted that unity must await the support of the majority in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin argues that force is necessary to remove the British presence, and that its mandate is historical. Sinn Féin has refused to condemn the IRA, and has not been included in any official political talks. John Hume led the SDLP in 1994, and Gerry Adams Sinn Féin.

The Paramilitary Organisations

The republican paramilitary organisations, of which the IRA is by far the most important, believe that only force will remove the British from Ireland. Initially they saw themselves as defenders of the Northern Catholic minority, but later spread their military activities throughout Northern Ireland, Britain and Europe. There is disagreement about whether loyalist violence is essentially reactive, but certainly the pattern of loyalist violence has shadowed republican violence. There has been a major shift in the form of violence since 1990, with loyalists for the first time killing more victims than republicans. It has been speculated that this rise in loyalist violence may be connected to the failure of recent political talks.

The United Kingdom

The official British position is that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. This is shared by all parties, although the Labour Party favours Irish unity, when the majority in Northern Ireland support it. Until 1993 most political talks have aimed to restore a devolved government, with power shared between unionists and nationalists. The 1985 Anglo-lrish Agreement between the British and Irish governments accepted that the Dublin government had the right to be consulted on Northern Irish affairs.

The Irish Republic

Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution lay claim to the 32 counties of Ireland, somewhat modified by the Irish government's acceptance in the Anglo-Irish Agreement that any move towards unity required the agreement of a majority in Northern Ireland. The same agreement assures the Irish government a role in Northern Irish affairs, which tends to be primarily an advocacy one for Northern nationalists.


'The Northern Irish problem' is a term widely used in Northern Ireland and outside as if there were an agreed and universal understanding of what it means. It is more accurate, and more productive, to consider the issue, not as a 'problem' with the implication that a solution lies around the corner for anyone ingenious enough to find it, but as a tangle of interrelated problems:

  • There is a central constitutional problem: what should be the political context for the people of Northern Ireland? Integration with Britain? A united Ireland; independence?
  • there is a continuing problem of social and economic inequalities, especially in the field of employment;
  • there is a problem of cultural identity, relating to education, to the Irish language and to a wide range of cultural differences;
  • there is clearly a problem of security;
  • there is a problem of religious difference;
  • there is certainly a problem of the day-to-day relationships between the people who live in Northern Ireland.

All of these are elements of the problem, but none can claim dominance. Each affects the others. Any approach to change needs to take into account all elements of the problem. Viewed against this broader context, an evaluation of conflict relations policy over the last 20 years can point to some successes: discrimination in the allocation of housing, a major grievance in 1969, has been removed; integrated schooling has been encouraged, and the segregated schools attended by the vast majority of children are required to introduce the concepts of cultural diversity and mutual understanding; minority cultural expression, especially through the use of the Irish language, has been allowed and even encouraged through the acceptance of a small number of Irish language schools. At local government level, 11 of Northern Ireland's 26 councils were in 1993 operating a power-sharing regime, often involving rotation of the chair, and 18 had agreed to implement a community relations programme with specific and binding requirements.

On the other side of the balance, a number of major problems remain. Catholics are much more likely to be unemployed than are Protestants, more than twice as likely in the case of males. The problem of violence remains as persistent as ever. Progress towards a more general political solution has been disappointing. Since the introduction of direct rule from Westminster in 1972 there have been six attempts to reach a political accord. All have failed.

1973-74: The power-sharing Executive, which lasted for three months, remains Northern Ireland's only experience of a government shared by Catholics and Protestants. It attempted to construct a devolved system based on power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, and on a Council of Ireland to regulate affairs between the two parts of Ireland. It was opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party and most of the Ulster Unionist party, but eventually was brought down through a Protestant workers' strike in May 1974.

1975-76: A Constitutional Convention was convened to enable elected representatives from Northern Ireland to propose their own solution. The majority unionist parties proposed a return to majority rule, modified by a committee system with some minority rights inbuilt. It was rejected by both the British and the minority SDLP.

1977-78 and 1980: Two attempts to set up devolved institutions were initiated by two Northern Ireland secretaries of state, Roy Mason and Humphrey Atkins. Neither got to first base. They were opposed, for different reasons, by the SDLP and the UUP, but both simply petered out. As a measure of the cultural gap between the two sides, two bars were set up in Stormont during the Atkins talks of 1980, one serving only non-alcoholic beverages. Students of national stereotyping may guess which bar was designed for which political parties.

1982-84: Rolling Devolution, introduced by James Prior, was perhaps the most ingenious proposal, again involving an elected assembly and a committee system. This envisaged a gradual return to power by elected representatives, but only if the proposed powers had 'Widespread acceptance', defined as 70 per cent agreement. In other words, the amount of power allowed to local political parties depended on their ability to agree, and would roll along at the speed of progress determined by them. It was boycotted by the SDLP because it did not guarantee power-sharing.

1991-92: The Brooke-Mayhew initiatives sought to introduce phased talks, involving the Northern Irish parties first and the Dublin government at a later stage. This initiative followed the introduction of the Anglo-lrish Agreement in 1985, an agreement signed by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, but which did not involve local politicians and has been bitterly opposed by unionists. A major survey in 1990 confirmed that, for Protestants, the Anglo-lrish Agreement is still perceived to be the biggest single obstacle to peace.

Prior to 1993 Sinn Féin was excluded from all major political talks, mainly because unionist parties refused to talk with terrorists. In 1988 and 1993, however, those whom they regarded as the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin held two series of bilateral talks. The consequences remain to be seen.

1993: The Downing Street Declaration, jointly announced by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, John Major, and the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, introduced for the first time the possibility of Sinn Féin becoming involved in talks. The condition was an ending of violence for at least three months. In return, the Irish government accepted that any constitutional change in the status of Northern Ireland required the support of a majority within Northern Ireland. At the time of writing, three months after the Declaration, the unionist parties were divided on the initiative and Sinn Féin was still considering it. The Declaration offered, for the first time, the possibility of addressing the constitutional and security problems together as part of a peace package.

In summary, then, if a broader definition of conflict management or resolution is accepted, Northern Ireland has experience of a wide variety of approaches:

  • Majority domination, from 1921 to 1972;
  • Integration, for a three-month period in 1974 when a power-sharing executive was formed and failed;
  • Administrative reforms, since 1969, when legislative changes covering housing, employment, social and educational reforms were introduced, with varying results;
  • 'Holding the fort' with a standing army, since 1969;
  • Political talks, as detailed above;
  • Superordinate agreement between the two main governments, as with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

The story of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the violent conflict that embroiled the province from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, is the story of a multi-faceted conflict, involving many individuals and groups with opposing interests and means of achieving those interests.  The Northern Ireland Troubles provides an ideal case study of a conflict once seen as intractable.  An understanding of the intricacies of the Troubles provides both a realistic view of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties inherent in managing conflict, and hope that even situations, which seem impossible to resolve do in fact contain the seeds of transformation and resolution.


The genesis of the Northern Ireland conflict can be found in the birth of the province itself.  In 1921, the island of Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State, which would later become the Republic of Ireland, comprised of the island’s twenty-six southern counties and Northern Ireland, which contains the six northeastern counties in Ulster.  The island was partitioned to satisfy the interests of two groups:  the predominantly Catholic, Irish Nationalists and Republicans who sought independence from Britain, and the predominantly Protestant, British Unionists and Loyalists who primarily lived in the northeastern six counties and desired to remain a part of the United Kingdom.


Unionists & Loyalists.  The community of citizens in Northern Ireland whose constitutional and territorial aspirations were to remain a part of the United Kingdom.  This group was overwhelmingly Protestant and is primarily represented by two political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).  Unionism in Northern Ireland was characterized by several qualities including:  traditional opposition to the involvement of the Republic of Ireland in the affairs of Northern Ireland; traditional opposition to power-sharing arrangements with Nationalists and Republican political parties; and a distrust of Britain’s commitment to the union, despite their desire to remain a province of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists & Republicans.  The community of citizens in Northern Ireland whose constitutional and territorial aspirations were to secede from the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland.  Nationalists and Republicans were overwhelmingly Catholic and were primarily represented by two political parties: the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin.  The historical differences between the SDLP and Sinn Féin involved the means by which Northern Ireland should be joined to the Republic of Ireland.  The SDLP sought a non-violent, political approach to the resolution of the conflict, while Sinn Féin was generally accepted as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army which pursued an armed struggle.

Paramilitary Organizations.  In both the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland paramilitary organizations emerged and engaged in various forms of physical violence as a means of advancing their political interests.  The largest Republican paramilitary involved in the Troubles was the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which initially emerged to protect the Nationalist community from Loyalists and British security forces, but later actively targeted British armed forces, Unionist political leaders, and police through bombings and assassinations.  Many citizens, both Protestant and Catholic, were also killed or wounded through PIRA violence.  The majority of the PIRA’s most notorious acts of violence were bombings.  The Loyalist paramilitary organizations, like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), claimed to be reactionary organizations playing tit-for-tat with Republicans, however there were notable acts of Loyalist violence, which were seemingly unprovoked.  Though the Loyalist paramilitaries used bombs, their primary means of violence came through the use of guns and knives.

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  Both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic had significant roles in the conflict.  The traditional British view was that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.  However, the Republic of Ireland, through Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, laid claim to all 32 counties of Ireland, including the six counties of Northern Ireland.  As the conflict progressed, both governments worked together to address the violent dispute, and through a series of agreements, both governments accepted the principle of self-determination as the deciding factor in whether or not the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain or join the Irish Republic.


Like most intractable conflicts, the Northern Ireland Troubles were multi-dimensional in both causes and drivers of the conflict.  The three broad areas of national identity and aspirations, inequality, and the process for resolving the conflict capture the essence of the struggle.

National Identity & Aspirations.  The national identity and ambitions of the two main communities in Northern Ireland were a significant contributor to the conflict.  The essence of the conflict was between those who considered themselves Irish and wanted an end to the partition of Northern Ireland and those who considered themselves British and sought the continued partition of Northern Ireland as a British province.  The predominantly Catholic Nationalists, who considered themselves Irish, saw the conflict as a struggle for independence against the politically dominant Unionist majority and the British government that was protecting a colonial and territorial interest.  The predominantly Protestant Unionists, who considered themselves British, believed that they were the minority in the broader context of the island of Ireland and were using their political dominance in the province to protect their community and cultural identity from the Nationalist’s ambition of a united, Catholic Ireland.  The differences arising from both communities’ need for protection and expression of their cultural identities has continued to cause difficulties in the province to this day.  These differences of identity and aspirations divided the people of Northern Ireland in both a political and community context, and there is still little intermingling of the two communities.

Inequality.  In the years between the partition of Ireland and the Troubles, the political dominance of Unionism led to systematic political discrimination against the nationalist minority.  The discrimination was manifest in the electoral system, which supported the continued political dominance of Unionist parties.  This electoral discrimination led to further injustice in public housing, in public and private employment, and in community representation in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force.  Though many of the structural problems leading to this discrimination have been addressed,  complaints of injustice still exist in the province today.

Process.  The process by which a conflict is addressed can aid in resolving substantive and relational differences, or it can lead to further escalation of the conflict.  In the case of the Troubles, the process of conflict resolution adopted by the British army and paramilitary organizations led to an escalation of the conflict.  The persistent paramilitary violence led to an entrenched view of the conflict by many parts of both communities.  Despite the prevalence of violence during the Troubles, there were strong and consistent supporters of non-violent means for resolving the conflict, most notably the SDLP, led by John Hume.

The interconnection of the major issues affecting the Troubles created a complex situation that was difficult to resolve.  In the end, even the Good Friday Agreement, which was a commitment by most of the major parties in Northern Ireland to work through non-violent and political means to resolve the differences between the two communities, did not resolve the underlying drivers of the conflict.


From the time of partition in 1921 until the beginning of direct rule by the British in 1972, the parliament in Northern Ireland, known in the province as Stormont, was dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).  The UUP formed every provincial government during this period.  This political domination was due in part to the demographics of the province, which had a majority Protestant population, but also due to systematic electoral discrimination against Catholic Nationalists.  Specifically, voting rules and gerrymandering helped the UUP maintain an unchecked political dominance that subjugated the Catholic population.

By the late 1960s, the tensions between the Nationalist and Unionist communities over the systemic discrimination against Nationalists erupted into violence, and in 1969, British troops were deployed to maintain order in the province.  The deployment of British troops coincided with the re-emergence of Republican and Unionist paramilitary organizations like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).  By 1972, the British had suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and reinstated direct rule, which was administered by the appointed British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.


Violence was a frequent and persistent aspect of the conflict from the 1960s through the 1990s, and it continues to infrequently arise to this day.  There were also several key agreements negotiated between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments that were milestones of the conflict.  Both the high profile acts of violence, which illuminate the human suffering of the conflict, and the key moments marking the long walk towards peace are essential elements to understanding how the conflict unfolded.  These events trace the path to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, which is often seen as the major transformational point of the conflict leading to a prolonged abstention from large-scale violence by the paramilitary organizations.

Derry Housing Action Committee March.  In October of 1968, a march by the Derry Housing Action Committee and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) devolved into a riot when an altercation between Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, turned violent.  This incident is considered by some to be the beginning of the Troubles, and it raised awareness of the situation in Northern Ireland to an international level.

Bloody Sunday.  One of the most infamous acts of violence during the Troubles took place in Derry (or Londonderry) on January 30, 1972.  The event that would become known as Bloody Sunday involved British soldiers firing into a crowd of Nationalist protesters.  The protesters had gathered in opposition to internment, or the holding of prisoners without trial, which had disproportionately targeted Nationalists and Republicans.  The protest devolved into rioting, and fourteen people (all Catholic, some of whom were shot in the back) died as a result of the shooting.  This event was a galvanizing moment for the PIRA as large numbers of previously moderate Nationalists and Republicans began supporting the PIRA and its violent tactics.  The details of this incident were contested for many years, but in 2010, after a twelve year inquiry into the shooting which concluded that the violence by the British army was unjustified, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a formal apology.

The Bloody Friday Bombings.  In late 1972, the PIRA orchestrated the detonation of twenty-six bombs over the course of an eighty minute period in Belfast.  The incident known as Bloody Friday resulted in eleven casualties.  Those who died in the bombings included both British soldiers and Protestant and Catholic civilians.  The bombings were considered a response to Bloody Sunday and a breakdown in negotiations between the PIRA and British government.  During the negotiations, the PIRA demanded the release of Republican prisoners and a withdrawal of British troops from the province by 1975, which was untenable to the British government.

Sunningdale Agreement.  In late November 1973, members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), along with William Whitelaw, the British Secretary of State of the province, announced an agreement to create a power sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland that would ensure protection of the Catholic minority’s rights.  Several weeks later, representatives of the aforementioned parties, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Edward Heath, and Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Liam Cosgrave, met in Sunningdale, England to discuss remaining issues surrounding the power sharing government.  Of particular importance was the issue of the “Irish Dimension”, or the role the Republic of Ireland should play in the new Northern Ireland government.  A role for the Republic was supported by Nationalists but resisted by Unionists.  Ultimately, the negotiations led to the proposal for the establishment of the Council of Ireland, which would have two bodies consisting of members from the Dáil (Irish Legislature) and the Northern Ireland Assembly.  Loyalist opposition to the agreement was intense.  Following the announcement of the agreement and general elections in the United Kingdom, the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC), a Unionist group, called a general strike throughout the province in 1974.  The strike only lasted thirteen days, but it was effective enough to halt the implementation of the Sunningdale Agreement and stalemate the attempts that had been made for a political resolution to the conflict.

The La Mon Hotel Bombing.  On February 17, 1978, a PIRA bomb exploded at the La Mon Hotel outside Belfast.  The bomb was planted after the PIRA had received faulty information that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was holding a meeting at the hotel.  The RUC had actually met at the hotel a week before, and a dinner dance was being hosted at the hotel the night of the bombing.  The PIRA claimed that, upon learning the RUC was not meeting at the hotel, they attempted to warn the hotel of the bomb.  However, the warning came only nine minutes before the bomb detonated, and the explosion resulted in twelve casualties, and thirty people who were wounded.  This event was especially gruesome because the bomb was an incendiary device, which exploded as a ball of fire, causing the victims to be burned alive.

The 1981 Hunger Strikes.  On March 1, 1976, the British government ended the special category status which had designated newly convicted members of paramilitary organizations as political prisoners, however the special category status for existing prisoners remained.  Almost four years later, the special category status was revoked for all prisoners regardless of conviction date.  In response to the change in status, members of the PIRA began a hunger strike, refusing to eat in protest of the status change.  However, the strike was cut short in respect of the request of the Catholic Primate of Ireland.  On March 1, 1981, the PIRA leader in  Maze Prison, Bobby Sands, began a hunger strike, exactly five years after the announcement to end special category status.  Sands was soon followed by other hunger strikers in Maze Prison, and a month after Sands began the hunger strike, he was elected as a Member of Parliament to Westminster for the Fermanagh / South Tyrone district.  Despite many attempts by outsiders to persuade Sands and the others to stop the strike, he died on May 5, 1981, after 66 days.  In total, ten prisoners died throughout the strike.  This was another galvanizing moment for Republicans who saw the refusal of the British government, then led by Margaret Thatcher’s, to concede special category status to the prisoners as evidence of a callous perspective the British held towards the Irish.  Thatcher and her government received much international condemnation for their handling of the hunger strikes.  The strikes are also considered to be the initiation of the paradigm shift by Republicans away from violence and towards political means of settlement. Bobby Sands’ election demonstrated the political potential of republicanism.

Anglo-Irish Agreement.  Over a decade after the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, British and Irish governments negotiated an agreement regarding their respective roles related to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been a strong supporter of the Unionist cause, began to change her view seeing that only an agreement which included a role for the Republic of Ireland could bring an end to the political violence in the province.  Thatcher and the Irish Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, came to agreement on two significant issues.  First, they “affirm[ed] that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of ‘the people of’ Northern Ireland,” and “that the present wish of a majority of ‘the people of’ Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland.”  Second, the agreement established an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council to address political, security, legal, and cross-border matters.  The body established by the agreement accomplished a similar aim to that of the Sunningdale Agreement by creating the opportunity for the Republic of Ireland to be involved in affairs of Northern Ireland.  The agreement marked a significant step forward for Anglo-Irish relations establishing cooperative relationship between both governments.

Hume-Adams Talks.  In early 1988, John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin (generally considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army), began a series of talks that eventually led to the Hume/Adams initiative.  The talks went on for a number of years, and points of agreement between the two leaders eventually became part of the Downing Street Declaration. These discussions are considered by some commentators to mark the beginning of the “peace process” in Northern Ireland.

The Downing Street Declaration.  In 1993, Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds issues a joint statement outlining the opinions of their respective governments on the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The declaration was an important milestone for the emerging “peace process” because it clarified the views and intentions of both the British and Irish governments and enabled the Nationalist and Unionist communities to better understand how each government viewed their constitutional aspirations.  The declaration stated that its primary goal was to recognize that the conflict in Northern Ireland could only be addressed through a political and democratic process and that the British Government would assist in facilitating and implementing an agreement reflective of the will of the people of Northern Ireland.  The document was powerful in that it contained several key ideas that marked a clear direction for the resolution of the conflict.  First, the British Government stated that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”  This idea was a counter to the PIRA’s claim that they were engaged in a colonial struggle.  Second, the document recognized three important relationships that would need to be addressed to resolve the conflict: the relationships between the Unionist and Nationalist communities, Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the Irish and British governments.  Third, the British Government stated, “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.”  This statement further supported the idea that the British Government’s primary interest in Northern Ireland was not for the province to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but to find a peaceful resolutions to the conflict.  Finally, the declaration stated that the Irish Government recognized it could not impose its will on the island’s minority Unionist population in bringing about a united Ireland.  The declaration noted, “It would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland, in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

PIRA Ceasefire.  On August 31st, 1994, a major breakthrough in the conflict came when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) called an indefinite cessation of all military activity.  The ceasefire is generally seen as a response to the Downing Street Agreement.  On October 13, 1994, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) also called for a cessation of violence from the CLMC member organization’s the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the Red Hand Commando.  The PIRA’s ceasefire lasted until February 9, 1996, when the PIRA bombed the Canary Wharf.  The bombing is considered a response to the refusal of Unionist politicians to allow Sinn Féin to participate in negotiations regarding the future of the province.  The Unionists’ refusal was based on their unmet demand for a full decommissioning of PIRA weapons.  From February 1996 until July 1997, the ceasefire was called off, but resumed again on July  19, 1997.   The PIRA ceasefire has been in place since that time.

The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.  On Good Friday of 1998 (April 10), an agreement was reached after almost two years of negotiations led by former U.S. Senator and Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, George Mitchell.  The agreement was reached between the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the Ulster Democratic Party, Labour, and the British and Irish Governments.  It is notable that the Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley abstained from participation in the negotiation in protest of Sinn Féin’s presence.  The agreement created a framework in which the political parties representing Northern Ireland’s communities could work towards a lasting peace.  The agreement consists of two broad agreements, one between the parties in Northern Ireland and the second between the British and Irish Governments.  The agreement was organized into three sections, or strands, that address the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom.  The agreement was important because it marked a significant turning point in how the Northern Ireland conflict was addressed, shifting from violence to political methods of dealing with cross-community differences.  The agreement was a reiteration of many of the concepts contained in earlier agreements, and controversially to the Unionist population, led to the replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  The agreement set the stage for a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, which was initially implemented on December 2, 1999, but was suspended on four occasions until May 7, 2007, from which time it has been operational.

The Omagh Bombing.  Several months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a dissident splinter group of the PIRA calling themselves the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) detonated a car bomb in Omagh that killed twenty-nine people.  The bombing was the single deadliest act throughout the Troubles.  The bombing was a reminder that though the parties had agreed to a resolve their differences by peaceful means, there were still those who did not agree with the pivot away from an armed struggle.  By 1998, approximately 3500 people had died as a result of the conflict, and approximately 36,000 were injured.  Expressed in terms of the United States population these numbers were equivalent to the 350,000 deaths and 3,600,000 injuries sustained by Americans.


Since the Good Friday Agreement and the implementation of the devolved government in Northern Ireland, three issues have persisted in the province.  First, cross-community relations between Unionists and Nationalists have remained either non-existent or very fragile, as they were before violence erupted in the late 1960s.  A symbol of this persistent division are the almost 90 “peace walls” separating Unionist and Nationalist areas throughout the province.  The second problem is best described as “dissident violence” committed by individuals or splinter groups of former paramilitaries as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the changes in the region.  Finally, the political parties, which have shifted power from the moderate SDLP and UUP to the more partisan Sinn Féin and DUP, have made much commendable progress but still appear to struggle to effectively work together on contentious issues.  As of now, large-scale, organized violence has given way to political means of conflict resolution, and the progress that is being made in this ancient conflict is real albeit understandably slower than most outside observers can appreciate.

Works Referenced

  1. Aaron Edwards and Cillian McGrattan. The Northern Ireland Conflict. (Oneworld Publications, 2012).
  2. “Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985.” United Nations Peacemaker. Last Accessed December 23, 2013.
  3. David Cutler. “Factbox: History of Northern Ireland conflict.” Last Updated June 27, 2012. Last Accessed December 4, 2013.
  4. David McKittrick and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. (New Amsterdam Books, 2012).
  5. “Downing Street Declaration.” BBC News. Last Accessed December 18, 2013.
  6. Feargal Cochrane. Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. (Yale University Press, 2013).
  7. Jason Walsh. “15 years after Good Friday Agreement, an imperfect peace in Northern Ireland.” The Christian Science Monitor. Last Updated April 10, 2013.  Last Accessed December 19, 2013.
  8. John Darby. “Conflict in Northern Ireland: A Background Essay.” in Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. ed. Seamus Dunn. (Macmillan Press, 1995).
  9. John Hume. A New Ireland: Politics, Peace, and Reconciliation. (Roberts Rinehart, 2012).
  10. Jonathan Tonge. Northern Ireland (Global Political Hot Spots). (Polity Press, 2006).
  11. “Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration, Wednesday 15 December 1993.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 18, 2013.
  12. Martin Melaugh. “The Hunger Strike of 1981 – A Chronology of Main Events.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 13, 2013.
  13. Martin Melaugh. “The Sunningdale Agreement – Chronology of Main Events.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 18, 2013.
  14. “Northern Ireland.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Last Accessed December 5, 2013.

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