Modern World History

Closer to home: Northern Ireland

In Ireland, as in Bosnia, the roots of conflict are centuries old. Conquered by the English in the 12th Century the island was ruled for four centuries by Anglo-Irish aristocrats who combined the role of feudal lord and tribal chief in much the same way that clan chiefs dominated the highlands of Scotland. Then came the Reformation: the native Irish remained Catholic in the face of English persecution, leading to the large-scale settlement of Scottish protestants in Northern Ireland where they formed (and form) a separate community. When - following World War One - Ireland as a whole was offered home rule, war between Protestants and Catholics could only be avoided by having two parliaments, one in Dublin and one in Belfast. In due course the Dublin parliament declared its territory fully independent as the Irish Free State (now Eire) whilst the Belfast parliament (Stormont) remained stubbornly loyal to the British crown.

Satisfactory or not partition was undermined by the existence of a large Catholic minority in Northern Ireland who were poorer on average than their Protestant neighbours and excluded from political power. A wholly Protestant police force (RUC) supported by an irregular volunteer constabulary known as the 'B' specials gave the Ulster regime a thuggish aspect which became increasingly unacceptable in an era when civil rights had become an issue in many countries round the world. Ironically troops were first deployed in Northern Ireland to protect Catholic districts from intimidation, but the friendly reception the soldiers received quickly turned to hostility when an apparently peaceful march was fired upon by paratroopers seeking to prevent a confrontation.

'Bloody Sunday' saw the emergence of the so-called 'Provisional' wing of the Irish Republican Army, a revival of the force which had fought for a united Ireland at the time of partition. The 'Provos' quickly became the most feared terrorist organisation in Europe, employing bombs and bullets with increasing sophistication both in Ulster and on mainland Britain. In 1982 they very nearly succeeded in assassinating the British prime-minister, Margaret Thatcher.

IRA atrocities provoked a Protestant backlash of almost equal ferocity whilst the security forces proved increasingly adept at infiltrating IRA units, leading IRA leaders to conclude that a united Ireland would never be achieved by military means. Secret talks with the British and Irish governments began in the early 1990's followed by the Anglo-Irish agreement, effectively a long term plan to bring the two halves of Ireland together. Within Ulster itself the Good Friday agreement led to the setting up of an assembly elected on the basis of proportional representation and the inauguration of a power-sharing executive under the leadership of the largest Protestant party, the Official Ulster Unionists. With the victory of an anti-agreement Protestant party, the DUP in the subsequent elections however, it seemed as if the Good Friday agreement would never be implemented. However, both sides knew the consequences of a return to violence the assembly had to be suspended until a formula could be found whereby the IRA put its weapons 'beyond use' without technically destroying them. Once this was achieved the assembly was reconvened and devolution restored.