“A Protestant state” (1921–1972)
The 1920 Government of Ireland Bill enabled the reformation of the Northern Ireland counties which consisted of six Northeastern counties of Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Antrim, Down and Armagh. From 1921 to 1972, Northern Ireland was governed by a Unionist government, based at Stormont in east Belfast. Unionist leader and first Prime Minister, James Craig, declared that it would be “a Protestant State for a Protestant People”. Craig’s goal was to form and preserve Protestant authority in the new state which was above all an effort to secure a unionist majority. In 1926 the majority of the population in the province were Presbyterian and Anglican therefore solidifying Craig’s Protestant political power. The Ulster Unionist Party thereafter formed every government until 1972. Discrimination against the minority nationalist community in jobs and housing, and their total exclusion from political power due to the majoritarian electoral system, led to the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the late 1960s, inspired by Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement in the United States of America. The military forces of the Northern Protestants and Northern Catholics (IRA) turned to brutal acts of violence to establish power. As time went on it became clear that these two rival states would bring about a civil war. After the Second World War, keeping the cohesion within Stormont seemed impossible; increased economic pressures, solidified Catholic unity, and British involvement ultimately led to Stormont’s collapse. As the civil rights movement in the United States gained worldwide acknowledgement, Catholics rallied together to achieve a similar socio-political recognition. This resulted in the formation of various organisations such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967 and the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) in 1964. Non-violent protest became an increasingly important factor in mobilizing Catholic sympathies and opinion and thus more effective in generating support than actively violent groups such as the IRA. However, these non-violent protests posed a problem to Northern Ireland’s prime minister Terrance O’Neil (1963) because it hampered his efforts to persuade Catholics in Northern Ireland that they too, like their Protestant counterparts, belong within the United Kingdom. Despite O’Neil’s reforming efforts there was growing discontent amongst both Catholics and Unionists. In October 1968 a peaceful civil rights march in Derry turned violent as police brutally beat protesters. The outbreak was televised by international media, and as a result the march was highly publicised which further confirmed the socio-political turmoil in Ireland. A violent counter-reaction from conservative unionists led to civil disorder, notably the Battle of the Bogside and the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969. To restore order, British troops were deployed to the streets of Northern Ireland at that time.
The violent outbreaks in the late 1960s encouraged and helped strengthen military groups such as the IRA, who posited themselves as the protectors of the working class Catholics who were vulnerable to police and civilian brutality. During the late sixties and early seventies recruitment into the IRA organization dramatically increased as street and civilian violence worsened. The interjection from the British troops proved to be insufficient to quell the violence and thus solidified the IRA’s growing military importance. On 30 January 1972 the worst tensions came to a head with the events of Bloody Sunday. Paratroops opened fire on civil rights protesters in Derry, killing 13 unarmed civilians. Bloody Friday, Bloody Sunday, and other violent acts in the early 1970s came to be known as the Troubles. The Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972 and abolished in 1973. Paramilitaryprivate armies such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, resulted from a split within the IRA, the Official IRA and Irish National Liberation Army fought against the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Moreover, the British army and the (largely Protestant) Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) also took part in the chaos that resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 men, women and children, civilians and military. Most of the violence took place in Northern Ireland, but some also spread to England and across the Irish border.
Direct rule (1972–1999)
For the next 27½ years, with the exception of five months in 1974, Northern Ireland was under “direct rule” with a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the British Cabinet responsible for the departments of the Northern Ireland government. Direct Rule was designed to be a temporary solution until Northern Ireland was capable of governing itself again. Principal acts were passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in the same way as for much of the rest of the UK, but many smaller measures were dealt with by Order in Council with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Attempts were made to establish a power-sharing executive, representing both the nationalist and unionist communities, by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 and the Sunningdale Agreement in December 1973. Both acts however did little to create cohesion between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Constitution Act of 1973 formalized the UK government’s affirmation of reunification of Ireland by consent only; therefore ultimately delegating the authoritative power of the border question from Stormont to the people of Northern Ireland (and the Republic of Ireland). Conversely, the Sunningdale Agreement included a “provision of a Council of Ireland which held the right to execute executive and harmonizing functions”. Most significantly, the Sunningdale Agreement brought together political leaders from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK to deliberate for the first time since 1925. The Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention and Jim Prior’s 1982 assembly were also temporarily implemented; however all failed to either reach consensus or operate in the longer term.
During the 1970s British policy concentrated on defeating the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) by military means including the policy ofUlsterisation (requiring the RUC and British Army reserve Ulster Defence Regiment to be at the forefront of combating the IRA). Although IRA violence decreased it was obvious that no military victory was on hand in either the short or medium terms. Even Catholics who generally rejected the IRA were unwilling to offer support to a state that seemed to remain mired in sectarian discrimination, and the Unionists were not interested in Catholic participation in running the state in any case. In the 1980s the IRA attempted to secure a decisive military victory based on massive arms shipments from Libya. When this failed, senior republican figures began to look to broaden the struggle from purely military means. In time this began a move towards military cessation. In 1986 the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo Irish Agreementsignalling a formal partnership in seeking a political solution. The Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) recognized the Irish government’s right to be consulted and heard as well as guaranteed equality of treatment and recognition of the Irish and British identities of the two communities. The agreement also stated that the two governments must implement a cross-border cooperation. Socially and economically Northern Ireland suffered the worst levels of unemployment in the UK and although high levels of public spending ensured a slow modernisation of public services and moves towards equality, progress was slow in the 1970s and 1980s. Only in the 1990s, when progress toward peace became tangible, did the economic situation brighten. By then the demographics of Northern Ireland had undergone significant change, and more than 40% of the population was Catholic.
Devolution and direct rule (1999–present)
More recently, the Belfast Agreement (“Good Friday Agreement”) of 10 April 1998 brought – on 2 December 1999 – a degree of power sharing to Northern Ireland, giving both unionists and nationalists control of limited areas of government. However, both the power-sharing Executive and the elected Assembly were suspended between January and May 2000, and from October 2002 until April 2007, following breakdowns in trust between the political parties involving outstanding issues, including “decommissioning” of paramilitary weapons, policing reform and the removal of British army bases. In new elections in 2003, the moderate Ulster Unionist and (nationalist) Social Democrat and Labour parties lost their dominant positions to the more hard-line Democratic Unionist and (nationalist) Sinn Féin parties. On 28 July 2005, the Provisional IRA announced the end of its armed campaign and on 25 September 2005 international weapons inspectors supervised the full disarmament of the PIRA. Eventually, devolution was restored in April 2007.