Northern Ireland Primer

Information about the geography of Ireland, the history of Britain and Ireland, and an overview of the Irish peace process.
Grades:
6 |
7 |
8
Holidays:
Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It occupies the northeast part of the island of Ireland and is made up of six of the nine counties originally forming the historic province of Ulster. Still commonly referred to as "Ulster," Northern Ireland covers an area slightly larger than the state of Connecticut.

A Centuries-old Conflict

The history of Northern Ireland can be traced back to the 17th century, when the English finally succeeded in subduing the island after successfully putting down a number of rebellions. Much land, especially in the north, was subsequently colonized by Scottish and English Protestants, setting Ulster somewhat apart from the rest of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic.

The Nineteenth Century

During the 1800s the north and south grew further apart due to economic differences. In the north the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished, while in the south the unequal distribution of land and resources—Anglican Protestants owned most of the land—resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.

  [divider]

Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not come until the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule.

[divider]
 
 
The Twentieth Century

Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not come until the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. Most Irish Catholics desired complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by a Catholic majority.

Government of Ireland Act

In an attempt to pacify both factions, the British passed in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act, which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government. The Act was accepted by Ulster Protestants and rejected by southern Catholics, who continued to demand total independence for a unified Ireland.

The Irish Free State and Northern Ireland

Following a period of guerrilla warfare between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces, a treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State from 23 southern counties and 3 counties in Ulster. The other 6 counties of Ulster made up Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1949 the Irish Free State became an independent republic.

"The Troubles"

Although armed hostilities between Catholics and Protestants largely subsided after the 1921 agreement, violence erupted again in the late 1960s; bloody riots broke out in Londonderry in 1968 and in Londonderry and Belfast in 1969. British troops were brought in to restore order, but the conflict intensified as the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other acts of terrorism. This continuing conflict, which lingered into the 1990s, became known as "the Troubles."

Despite efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict during the 1970s and 80s, terrorist violence was still a problem in the early 90s and British troops remained in full force. More than 3,000 people have died as a result of the strife in Northern Ireland.

An Early Attempt

A serious attempt to bring about a resolution to the conflict was made in 1985 when British and Irish prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which recognized for the first time the Republic of Ireland's right to have a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. However, Protestant politicians who opposed the Agreement were able to block its implementation.

The IRA Declares a Cease-fire

Further talks between rival Catholic and Protestant officials and the British and Irish governments occurred during the early 1990s. Then, in late Aug. 1994 the peace process received a big boost when the pro-Catholic IRA announced a cease-fire. This made it possible for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, to participate in multiparty peace talks; hitherto Sinn Fein had been barred from such talks because of its association with the IRA and its terrorist tactics.

Sinn Fein Participates in Official Talks

On Dec. 9, 1994, the first officially sanctioned, publicly announced talks took place between Sinn Fein and British officials. Negotiators for Sinn Fein pushed for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; Great Britain countered that the IRA must give up its weapons before Sinn Fein would be allowed to negotiate on the same basis as other parties. The issue of IRA disarmament would continue to be a sticking point throughout the negotiations.

An Anglo-Irish Proposal for Peace

In late Feb. 1995, the British and Irish governments released their joint proposal for talks on the future of Northern Ireland. The talks were to be held in three phases involving the political parties of Northern Ireland, the Irish government, and the British government. The talks would focus on the establishment of a form of self-government for Northern Ireland and the formation of Irish-Northern Irish "cross-border" bodies that would be set up to oversee such domestic concerns as agriculture, tourism, and health. Results of the talks would be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The U.S. Gets Involved

In Dec. 1995, former US senator George Mitchell was brought in to serve as mediator for the peace talks. His report issued in Jan. 1996 recommended the gradual disarmament of the IRA during the course of the talks, thus breaking the deadlock caused by the IRA's refusal to disarm.

Multiparty Talks Open in Belfast

On June 10, 1996, multiparty peace talks opened in Belfast. However, because of the breakdown of the IRA cease-fire the preceding Feb., Sinn Fein was turned away. Following the resumption of the cease-fire in July 1997, full-scale peace negotiations began in Belfast on Oct. 7, 1997. Great Britain attended as well as most of Northern Ireland's feuding political parties, including Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the largest Protestant political party in Northern Ireland. The more extreme Democratic Unionist Party and the tiny United Kingdom Unionist Party refused to join.

Good Friday Agreement

The historic talks finally resulted in the landmark Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by the main political parties on both sides on Apr. 10, 1998. The accord called for an elected assembly for Northern Ireland, a cross-party cabinet with devolved powers, and cross-border bodies to handle issues common to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus minority Catholics gained a share of the political power in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In return Catholics were to relinquish the goal of a united Ireland unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of it.

Real Hope for Peace

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, hope ran high that lasting peace was about to become a reality in Northern Ireland. In a dual referendum held on May 22, 1998, Northern Ireland approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and the Irish Republic by a vote of 94%. In June 1998, voters chose the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the locally elected government.

International recognition and support for peace in Northern Ireland came on Oct. 16, 1998, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to John Hume and David Trimble, the leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties, respectively, in Northern Ireland.

Hope Proves False

In August 1998, a car bomb in Omagh injured at least 100 people and killed dozens in an attempt to derail the peace process.

In June 1999, the peace process stalled when the IRA refused to disarm prior to the formation of Northern Ireland's new provincial cabinet. Sinn Fein insisted that the IRA would only give up weapons after the new government assembled; the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant party, demanded disarmament first. Consequently the new government failed to form on schedule in July 1999, bring the entire process to a complete halt.

Sinn Fein, Over to You

At the end of Nov. 1999, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, relented on the "no guns, no government" position and agreed to form a government before the IRA's disarmament. If the IRA did not begin to disarm by Jan. 31, 2000, however, the Ulster Unionists would withdraw from the parliament of Northern Ireland, shutting down the new government.

New Parliament Is Suspended

With this compromise in place, the new government was quickly formed, and on Dec. 2 the British government formally transferred governing powers over to the Northern Irish parliament. But by the deadline Sinn Fein had made little progress toward disarmament, and so on Feb. 12, 2000, the British government suspended the Northern Irish parliament and once again imposed direct rule.

A New Beginning

Throughout the spring, Irish, British, and American leaders continued to hold discussions to try to end the impasse. Then on May 6 the IRA announced that it would agree to put its arms "beyond use" under the supervision of international inspectors. Britain returned home rule powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 30, just three days after the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant Party, again voted in favor of a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein.

On June 26, 2000, international monitors Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced that they were satisfied that a substantial amount of IRA arms was safely stored and could not be used without detection.

However, while the IRA did allow for the inspection of some of its arms dumps, the months limped by without any real progress on disarmament. Caught in the middle was David Trimble, who was accused by his fellow Protestants of making too many concessions to the Republicans. On Oct. 28, 2000, he was nearly ousted by his own party, a move that surely would have spelled the end for the Good Friday Agreement. But Trimble survived, pledging to get tough by imposing sanctions on Sinn Fein.

infoplease.com
Provided by Infoplease—an authoritative, comprehensive reference website that offers an encyclopedia, a dictionary, an atlas, and several almanacs. Visit Infoplease.com to find more resources endorsed by teachers and librarians.
Join TeacherVision today

Spend more time teaching and less time searching.
Get full, ad-free access to all our learning resources—curated and vetted by teachers
and curriculum specialists—for one-low price.

Sign Up Sign Up

Go Premium

Get unlimited, ad-free access to all of TeacherVision's printables and resources for as low as $2.49 per month. We have a plan for every budget. 

Select a plan

All plans include a free trial and enjoy the same features. Cancel anytime.
Learn more about Premium