The protest and violence that broke out in Northern Ireland in 1968, which developed into the horrendous civil strife of the last decade, was rooted in the six-county semistate of Northern Ireland itself… The violence erupted when it did as a consequence of the dynamics of that region and society.. (Brown 1985 : 215) In 1969 began “The Troubles” — the protracted violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Ever since, Northern Ireland had been torn by civil disturbances, violence and terrorism. The consequences of this long-lasting conflict in Northern Ireland have been devastating.
Nearly 2 per cent of the province’s population have been killed or injured since fighting began. Between 1966 and 1997 a total of 3,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and 37,000 injured as a direct consequence of the conflict, both within and beyond Northern Ireland’s borders (Birch 6). The period known as “The Troubles” is merely one link in a long chain of religious bitterness and conflict stretching back across centuries of Irish history. (Sussman) The endemic violence of Northern Ireland is deeply rooted in the history of Ireland.
The bitterness between the Protestant settlers and the Catholic natives that developed during the 17th century is one of the chief of the modern Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Celts arrived in Ireland in fifth century BC. Their Gaelic culture and language gradually spread. In the fifth century A. D. , Christian missionaries, among them St. Patrick, arrived in Ireland from various parts of Europe and converted much of the Irish population to Christianity. In the twelfth century, Anglo-Normans, led by Strongbow, conquered much of Ireland and intermarried with the Celts.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Celts (also called the Gaels) rose up against their invaders. In the 16th century, the British launched a reconquest of Ireland under Henry VIII, who declared himself king of Ireland and forced the Irish chieftains to acknowledge his sovereignty. His daughter Mary encouraged colonialism after his death, and her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, sent a steady flow of British settlers into Ireland. Due to Henry VIII’s split with the church in Rome, Catholics began to be persecuted in Ireland.
In 1649, the ruthless Puritan English leader Oliver Cromwell arrived in Ireland, with the goal of taking the whole of Ireland under English control. Cromwell’s army raged through Ireland, butchering thousands, and by 1652 controlled the country. Cromwell dispossessed Catholic landowners. Though Catholics caught a glimpse of hope when Catholic King James II came to the throne, it was very short-lived and ended as the Glorious Revolution brought Protestant William of Orange to the throne. James struck back in Ireland, launching the unsuccessful siege of Protestant Derry.
In what is considered to be the most important battle in Irish history, James was defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, giving Protestant England complete control over Ireland. The population of Ireland depended on the potato as it main diet staple. When a fungus killed off potato crops for five successive years, beginning in 1845, the island was thrown into turmoil. More than a million people died as a result of starvation, and another million left Ireland for the shores of the United States and other countries, beginning a flow of Irish emigration that would continue till 1930’s.
While famine ravaged the rest of Ireland, Protestant Ulster began to experience an Industrial Revolution and Belfast developed from a small town into an industrial city. Both Catholics and Protestants joined the working class in Belfast, and riots between the two groups, spurred by their long history of mutual hatred, were already common at this time. In 1918, the nationalist party of Sinn Fein won the General Election in Ireland. But instead of taking their seats in the British Parliament, they declared an independent Irish Parliament.
The British were not pleased with this turn of events, and Ireland plunged into a civil war of independence, led by Michael Collins. A truce was reached in 1921, followed by the Angle-Irish Treaty. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 ended the southern conflict. Autonomy was granted to the 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties. Home Rule was granted to the six most Protestant counties of the northeast. These six counties (in Ulster territory) remained part of the UK and became known as Northern Ireland.
But partition did not pacify the island, for many on both sides of the new border rejected it altogether. This rejection eventually led to the violent flashpoint of 1969, the backdrop to the current troubles in Northern Ireland. (Adams 10) The Irish Free State corresponded to that part of the island which had remained Catholic at the time of Reformation in 1500’s. Many Irish, eager to finally reach peace, accepted the accord for the Irish Free State, even though it kept Ireland in the British Common wealth. Many others, led by Eamon de Valera, wanted to sever all ties with Britain.
Another civil war broke out, claiming Michael Collins as one of many victims, but de Valera’s side eventually triumphed, officially cutting all ties with Britain when the Republic of Ireland Act was passed in 1948. The Catholic Republic of Ireland emerged in 1949. The notion of colonial subjugation is the strongest theme in Irish republican nationalism. The Republican political analysis of the escalation of violence since 1969 follows these lines: Ireland was for centuries the victim of British imperialist oppression. Ireland, north and south, is still the victim of imperialism.
The violence in Northern Ireland after 1969 has been an anticolonial war of liberation. Ireland must recover its cultural identity from centuries of colonialist impositions. Northern Ireland is a British colony. The Unionist (or Loyalist, or Protestant) community in Northern Ireland is a colonial settler enclave. Such thinking forms the basis of the Republican ideology of Sinn Fein and its allies. From a Protestant perspective, of course, these claims do not hold much validity. Yet most can agree that the conflict and violence in Northern Ireland are the unfortunate and perhaps inevitable consequences of partition.
However, it may not have been that inevitable if the unionists did not resort to violence first. Political violence after 1969 is explained by the fact that the peaceful campaigns for civil rights in the 1960s were met with violence and repression, and burning of homes. In the late 1960s, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to campaign against religious discrimination in jobs, politics, and housing. These civil-rights meetings deteriorated into violence. In August 1969 Protestant mobs invaded Catholic streets and hundreds of homes were burned.
Thousands of Catholic families fled the city in what amounted to the greatest population displacement since the Second World War. Most of the violence occurred in what was the historic battleground for the two communities, West Belfast. The escalation of terrorist violence in connection with the troubles in Northern Ireland was the outgrowth of communal rioting in Belfast and Derry during the summer of 1969. The violence of the summer and autumn of 1969 changed the situation in Northern Ireland utterly. The “Troubles” commenced.
For more than 30 years, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland have kept this small corner of Europe on the world stage and given it a reputation for violence, bigotry, and hatred. (Adams 8) The Royal Ulster Constabulary, and especially its division, the B-Specials, were held primarily responsible for causing the escalation of protests and demonstrations into riots. The B-specials were an armed and locally recruited but poorly trained part-time auxiliary police force, established after partition to assist the police and counter the threat from IRA (the Irish Republic Army, the nationalist paramilitary group).
They were largely recruited from among ht Ulster Volunteer Force (a Loyalist paramilitary organization) and the Orange Order, and from the beginning it was a Protestant, Loyalist force. Throughout their history they were prone to serious breaches of discipline and acts of violence and intimidation against Catholics, who came to fear and hate them, and view them as little more than the armed wing of Unionist regime. In 1969, there were about 10,000 B-Specials, and disbandment of the force was one of the major demands of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movements.
As a result of the their mishandling of Catholic civil rights protest and other disturbances, at the end of 1969 the British government finally abolished the discredited force. In 1970, the British government replaced the disbanded B-specials with the Ulster Defense Regiment. The British Army was deployed on the streets of Belfast and Derry in august 1969 following the attacks on Catholics’ homes in both those cities. Their arrival followed demand from the Dublin Government and Nationalist Politicians in Northern Ireland for a peacekeeping force.
Although the soldiers were welcomed by the Catholic population at first, the army presence came to be bitterly resented and contributed to the escalation of tensions. The presence of the army also did not prevent the erection of barricades in both Catholic and Protestant communities where the hatred of the other side had reached an unprecedented pitch. The Army did not attempt to remove the barricades, on the basis that it was an understandable reaction by two communities who had fought and hated each other and were terrified that the conflict could start again at any moment.
Behind the barricades other groupings began to flourish, particularly vigilante organizations who set themselves up as protector of their respective communities. None of the paramilitary groups in the two communities was well prepared for the communal violence on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969 and the vigilantes were able to thrive though they would later be absorbed in paramilitarism. In many respects the barricades provided the closed atmosphere in which Republican and Loyalist paramilitary organizations could begin to reform and restructure.
The Army in those early days saw its role as keeping the two communities apart in those areas where they lived in close proximity. The ghetto system was reinforced. On the Catholic side of the divide there was disillusionment at the failure of the IRA to defend its own districts, and vigilante groups were set up and organized into Citizen’s Defence Committees. These led to the emergence of the Provisional IRA which was formed in January 1970. Similarly, in the Loyalist strongholds, the UVF was found wanting. It did not have the arms or manpower to patrol its own neighborhoods, and vigilante groups too to the streets.
These groups later developed into another paramilitary force, the Ulster Defence Association. The vigilantes established what were called ‘no-go’ areas which in effect meant that they controlled the streets, though in most Catholic districts the British Army held the balance of power. Tension remained high in 1970 but, with the emergence of the Provisionals, there was a recrudescence of romantic nationalism, and soon the historical clock was turned with the provisional IRA engaged in a struggle with the old Republican enemy, the British.
Since 1970, a campaign of terror was waged by the Provisional IRA in the name of freedom. Thus, the runaway rift between the Catholic and the Protestant communities exacerbated the conflict to the levels of brutal violence. The emergence of vigilante and paramilitary organisations guaranteed the further spiraling of the conflict, embroiling the republican and loyalist populations of Northern Ireland as well as the British government: [The] paramilitary groups from both sides of the sectarian divide have sought to press home their point with bombs and guns. Sussman) The partiality of the local institutions of law in Northern Ireland revived the hitherto dormant IRA as defenders of the nationalist community. The resurfacing of Republican nationalism virtually promised that the conflict, violence and terrorism would not end any time soon, as they have all now assumed the identity of freedom struggle. After the Westminster’s intervention and the introduction of troops in 1969, the British army quickly ceased to be impartial bears its share of the blame in causing the escalation of violence.
The conflict indeed got aggravated as a result of British miscalculations and misdeeds such as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ in January 1972 when British troops killed 13 unarmed Catholics attending civil rights march. Since then the Belfast Parliament has been abrogated and Northern Ireland has been governed directly from London (Birch 4). The British presence in Ireland is often perceived as the fundamental causes of violence and political stalemate in Northern Ireland since 1972. In the subsequent years, various negotiations between London and Dublin did not produce any significant results.
However, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 proved to be an auspicious beginning. The Agreement recognized that any change in the status of Northern Ireland could only come about with the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and established an intergovernmental conference where both the governments could discuss the policy affecting Northern Ireland; the governments committed themselves to resolve any differences between them through the intergovernmental conference.
Though there was considerable opposition of the Unionists to the Agreement, it was widely backed in Britain and in the Republic of Ireland and pave the wave to Belfast Agreement in 1998. On 10 April 1998, all parties involved in the Stormont (Belfast) peace talks signed an historic “Good Friday Agreement. ” After a referendum, held north and south of the border, showed that people were overwhelmingly in favour of the agreement, the Irish government changed the constitution by deleting its territorial claim tot he six counties of Northern Ireland.
However, the Unionists refused to participate in any governing body until the IRA began handing over its weapons, and it was not until late 1999 that an all-party assembly, with Unionists and Republicans facing each other for the first time, was set up to provide demonstrably fair government. Although still on shaky ground, the fragile peace holds, allowing for a slow progress towards stability in the North.
But perhaps the most exciting development in the North of Ireland , and around the world, is that at this stage in history, many of us are realizing that the way forward is no longer the old way of taking up the gun, fighting a revolutionary cause with a bomb, or fighting over political issues with bullets. Violence has created only further violence and hatred and broken hearts. (15) – Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Co-founder of Community of Peace People, Northern Ireland.