Irish History Overview

Northern Ireland since Partition, 1921

Northern Ireland, comprising six of the nine counties of Ulster, effectively came into being with the first elections for the Northern Ireland parliament in May 1921. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) (founded 1905) got 40 of the 52 seats (70% of the northern electorate was Protestant). The party, effectively the Irish branch of the British Conservatives, was closely identified with the sectarian Orange Order, with its arcane degrees of membership such as the Royal Arch Purple Order and the Royal Black Preceptory, and other groups proud of their “loyalism” to the British Crown. The new Northern Ireland Prime-Minister was the Ulster Unionist leader, Sir James Craig, later Lord Craigavon, who held the post until 1940.

The IRA made an all-out drive to destabilise Northern Ireland. Hostages were seized, police and special constables were ambushed, and IRA snipers defended Catholic ghettos in Belfast and Derry. Within Northern Ireland, Catholics were scapegoated for the IRA violence and the expulsion of Protestants from their homes in the Free State. This resulted in a dramatic rise in sectarian violence and rioting, particularly in Belfast. About 11,000 Catholics were forced to leave their jobs in Belfast’s factories due to attacks from Protestant colleagues. Sectarian murders and reprisals continued, as the very survival of Northern Ireland seemed to be at stake. Craig’s government acted in April 1922 by creating a new armed police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and by adopting draconian special powers, including the right to imprison without trial. However, with the outbreak of civil war in the Irish Free State at the end of June, the IRA units withdrew south of the border to fight each other

King George V (1911-1936) opened the first Northern Ireland parliament on 22nd June 1921 in Belfast City Hall. It sat at the Presbyterian Church’s Union Theological College in Belfast until new buildings at Stormont Castle was ready to house it in 1932. One of the first acts of the Unionist government was to consolidate its power by introducing legislation changing the voting system and local council boundaries to ensure themselves a perpetual majority. Discrimination against Catholics was rife in politics, housing, employment and social welfare. On various occasions Stormont leaders reinforced the message that it was a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. To the Protestant loyalist community Stormont became a symbol of their power, but to the Catholic nationalists it was a symbol of oppression.

Northern Ireland participated as much as the rest of the UK in World War II, and Belfast was badly bombed by the Germans. The post-War years were a time of quiet prosperity in Northern Ireland. The Welfare State had been introduced by the UK Labour government and many poor people in Northern Ireland saw their standard of living rise dramatically.. In 1946 the Health Service was made completely free and unemployment allowances were introduced in 1948. An IRA terrorist campaign was initiated in 1956, but met with nationalist apathy and even opposition and ended in 1962.

Northern Ireland’s loyalist leaders were deeply conservative, and often even more illiberal than their southern counterparts.  At municipal level, repressive bylaws prohibited any recreation whatsoever on the Sabbath. Protestants continued to be deeply suspicious of the Irish Republic for a number of reasons: the Irish constitutional claim to sovereignty over the whole island, the decline in the numbers of Protestants in the Irish Republic, and the Catholic church’s policies, such as banning members who married Protestants from bringing up their children in their own faith. With the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, sectarian tensions rose further. A vehemently anti-Catholic loyalist named Dr Ian Paisley, founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, set up the Protestant Unionist Party, the first of many to challenge the formerly impregnable UUP. The Orange Order and other Protestant organisations continued to celebrate triumphalist anti-Catholic marches on July 12th, the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and other provocative occasions.

Instability in the North began to reappear in the 1960s, and when a peaceful Civil Rights march in 1968 was violently broken up by the RUC, the Troubles were under way. British troops were sent to Derry and Belfast in August 1969; the nationalist community initially welcomed them, but disillusionment rapidly set in with the Bloody Sunday massacre of civilians by soldiers at a peaceful demonstration in Derry.

The IRA had already re-surfaced, and the UVF announced that it would protect Protestants. The next twenty six years were punctuated by seemingly endless terrorist bombings, sectarian violence and tit-for-tat killings on both sides, the internment of IRA sympathisers without trial, the introduction of terrorism to cities in Britain, bank robberies in both parts of Ireland, the notorious “dirty protests”, hunger strikes and deaths of Bobby Sands and his fellow “H-Block” prison inmates, marches, demonstrations, riots, and an ever more numerous and oppressive British Army presence combined with RUC activity widely seen as being anti-nationalist in its bias and soft on Loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Northern Ireland lost its parliamentary independence in 1972, and was thereafter ruled directly from London The UUP now faced serious competition from within the Protestant Loyalist community, especially the faction led by the reverend Dr. Paisley. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) was the leading Irish Nationalist party, staunchly opposed to violence, but lost ground to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, whose elected candidates refused to occupy their Parliamentary seats in Westminster, famously subscribing to a policy of winning “with a ballot box in one hand and an armalite [machine gun] in the other”. Loyalist and nationalist political and paramilitary groups came and went amid an ever-changing array of acronyms, and moderates such as the Alliance Party, the Peace People (awarded the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize) and the Women’s Party had little impact.

A 1974 British initiative, the Sunningdale Agreement, allowing for a limited form of power sharing between moderate nationalists and loyalists, collapsed in the face of a massive loyalist strike orchestrated by Dr Paisley and rebellious Unionist leaders. Thereafter, successive London governments adopted a policy of containment, appointing a series of mediocre politicians to the post of Northern Ireland Secretary. .

The Irish authorities were in a difficult position when the Troubles began, due to a gun smuggling conspiracy involving Fianna Fail government figures.  However, successive Dublin governments did all they could to help resolve the conflict. Fine Gael’s Garrett FitzGerald established a good relationship as Taoiseach with the conservative UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, but ironically it was his successor Charles J. Haughey, one of the ministers involved in the arms scandal, who made the most impact. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 gave the Dublin government an official consultative role in Northern Ireland’s affairs for the first time.

The intervention of prominent Irish-American politicians and businessmen helped lead to the jubilantly received IRA ceasefire of 1994, but this was undermined by further murder and the reoccurrence of terrorism in Britain.

The mood shifted again with the elections of Tony Blair as British Prime Minister in 1997, with a huge Labour majority to support him, and Fianna Fail‘s Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach. The various sides resumed discussions under the aegis of US President Bill Clinton, and in 1998 formulated a peace plan that offered a degree of self-government for Northern Ireland and the creation of a North-South Council that would ultimately be able to implement all-Ireland policies if agreed to by the governments in Belfast and Dublin. As part of the plan, which was fully endorsed by referenda in both parts of Ireland, the South gave up its constitutional claim to the North. Peace was definitely in the air, and most major paramilitary organisations on both sides agreed to suspend hostilities.

Credit (and a Nobel Peace Prize) for this Belfast/Good Friday Agreement went to the SDLP’s John Hume and the UUP’s David Trimble, who was prepared to countenance working with Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Unionist opposition to the Agreement came mainly from Dr. Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), demanding complete decommissioning of the IRA. The situation  degenerated into one of frustration and stalemate, but widespread paramilitary sectarian violence did not resume. Racist attacks on Asian immigrants became a problem.

Sinn Fein and the DUP both increased their respective votes in the next elections at the expense of their more moderate counterparts. After intensive negotiations involving both governments and the two victorious political parties, Dr Paisley finally agreed to accept the post of First Minister in a government with Sinn Fein.



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