From 1968-1998 Northern Ireland was being torn apart from the inside. Two factions were fighting for the future of the state, and more than 3,000 peoples lives were taken as a result. The loyalist Protestants were fighting in favor of British governance over the six counties that make up Northern Ireland. The republican Catholics were fighting to break away from British rule and create a unified Irish Republic.
The themes of this conflict are pervasive throughout history-persecution, ethno-religious conflict, and rebellious uprising. This event is unique, however, in the proximity, both in terms of time and space. The people who are fighting are mostly educated, healthy, and relatively wealthy. It is fascinating to observe this occurring in a place so similar to America, as opposed to an underdeveloped nation that can be difficult to relate to. We can all benefit from studying the nature of the conflict as well as the negotiations to peace. Perhaps it would provide students a new perspective on the potential all societies have for violence, and the difficulty involved in peace negotiations.
The distrust, angst, and violence between the two primary religious groups in Ireland during the last half of the century was nothing new. The predominantly Protestant region of Ulster in northeastern Ireland and the rest of Catholic Ireland have been at arms since Queen Elizabeth I first began encouraging migration of the English and Scottish to Ireland in the 17th century. There have been several major conflicts in every century since then, beginning with the Catholic massacre of Protestant Ulster in 1641. It is important to note that theology was rarely, if ever, the cause to the conflict. The primary issue at hand was inequalities amongst the people, particularly British favoritism of Protestants. Religion was merely a symbol. The differences became so great that when Ireland fought for and won their independence in 1920, the northern Protestants voted to create Northern Ireland and let it become an administrative district of the United Kingdom. However, roughly 40% of Northern Irelands population at that time was Catholic. Over time, they became weary of living as second-class citizens, and they began to protest in the streets. Violence arose between the Catholic citizens, Protestant citizens, and British police during the protests, and consequently, the Troubles began.
Despite most Americans general unfamiliarity with this issue, it is natural for Americans to feel bias toward the cause of the Protestants and British when one examines photographs (see other document). The Provisional Irish Republican Army (or PIRA) was the primary military (or terrorist, depending on perspective) force fighting for a unified Ireland. These fighters, considering their paramilitary nature, did not wear uniforms when fighting. Instead, they generally wore street clothes and ski masks. Although their function was very similar to that of a professional government, they were not in any way supported by the official government of the Republic of Ireland. In addition, they often fought a guerilla style of warfare, planning ambushes and surprise explosions on British forces and other civilians in the area. The British forces and the Ulster Volunteer Force, the largest loyalist and Protestant paramilitary force, were hardly better. On Sunday, January 30, 1972 British forces shot 27 unarmed civilians, killing 13 of them during a civil rights rally. “Bloody Sunday” as it is now known, sparked more violence from republican paramilitaries in the months following.
The word “paramilitaries” often creates an image of fringe extremists, who represent the thoughts of only a minority. However, when one views the news reports from this time and examines both the images shown and the neutral tone of the reporters, it is clear that neither extremist group was fringe. The paramilitaries on both sides, but particularly that of the republican PIRA, were supported by much of the community, as evidenced in these videos. The news clips show shots of a funeral procession for a PIRA member who died on hunger strike. In the mid-1970’s, the British military introduced a policy in which republican POW’s would be treated like ordinary prisoners, be forced to wear a prisoner uniform, and perform prison work. Ten prisoners died on a hunger strike that ensued.
Peace talks began to become serious in the 1990’s when the IRA declared a cease-fire in 1994. US senator George Mitchell (see document for participant account) led negotiations in 1996 and encouraged disarmament of the IRA. For two years, sides argued over what concessions needed to be made by each group. Finally, on Good Friday, April 10, 1998 the main political parties on both sides signed the Good Friday Agreement 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.
The success of the Good Friday Agreement has been debated. Into the 21st century, agreements between the two parties have been hard to come by. However, peace has continued, and for the most part, so has progress into a long-term existence between the two nations.
Questions to consider while viewing this site:
What role did religion play in this conflict?
What were the goals of each side?
Why is it that peaceful negotiations were not successful?
Does one side have a more compelling case than the others
What events in American history do The Troubles compare to?