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.
SEEDS OF THE CONFLICT
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.
THE PARTIES TO THE CONFLICT
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.
THE MAJOR ISSUES LEADING TO THE TROUBLES
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.
THE BEGINNING OF THE TROUBLES
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.
SIGNIFICANT EVENTS DURING THE TROUBLES
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.
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