How this thirty-year event was not singular and was instead part of a centuries long pattern that occurred in Ireland throughout history and how this most recent part of the pattern impacted the history of the Emerald Isles.
What is commonly known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland lasted from 1968 until 1998 and was a political, religious, and militaristic conflict that affected both Ireland and the United Kingdom. As with many conflicts, there are two invested sides to this thirty-year struggle: the Irish Nationalists and the British Loyalists. The fact that these two sides occupy the same space in Northern Ireland is the main cause of the Troubles. Since its very start, this conflict has primarily been an ideological and political conflict started by the Irish Nationalists as a bid for personal representation in their government and ended in their bid for political independence from the United Kingdom. While many look at this event as a chaotic, random, and ultimately unsuccessful venture made by Irish Nationalists, this paper argues precisely against that idea as the actions taken during the Troubles are part of a centuries long pattern, with this event irrevocably changing the fabric of the nations of Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland in ways that are clear and many that are still to be seen.
The island of Ireland has a very unique and interesting political landscape. There are a total of 32 counties throughout the island; 26 of these counties are part of the Republic of Ireland while the 6 northern counties are part of Northern Ireland and are politically annexed by Great Britain into the United Kingdom.(1) It is due to this political situation that the Troubles were fought over. However, to understand the modern-day tension over this landscape, one must look back into the past to see just how these two separate countries became what they are known as today. In fact, the origin of these tensions began centuries before the Troubles even began. Wherever there is land and the displacement of peoples there will inevitably be conflict. To quote Dr Margaret O’Callaghan (A Lecturer in Politics from Queen’s University in Belfast) on this topic, “People talk about Irish history being exceptional, but perhaps a better way to think about it is the exceptionalness of Britain. And in a way, what’s conditioned Irish history is the fact that the island is beside another island which has had two empires over the course of a number of centuries.”(2) The complexity of the relationship between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain is one trenched in war, rebellion, and violence. How did Great Britain gain control of Northern Ireland? What was it that created the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland? What effect has the historical relationship between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain had on modern times? Truly, it is the memory of this history that played much into the fabric of the Troubles themselves- from its foundation and even past its end.
Due to the growing power of England and the relative weakness of Ireland, England often controlled what went on in its neighboring island itself. The actions of William the Conqueror in 1066 is a well-known and documented event which demonstrated the consolidation of the nation now known as England. As for Ireland at this time, though, it was merely a collection of thirty provinces, each ruled by their own king. In the 1000s when the Anglo-Normans began to settle down in the Irish island itself, the various Irish kingdoms were only just agreeing to consolidate power which ended with the creation of four main provinces: “Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht…During the Norman period, therefore, began the division of Ireland into shires, later called counties.”(3) The Normans had already gained control of England, Scotland, and Wales and were now moving into the island of Ireland. Due to the political weakness of the various counties of Ireland, the English Kings and Queens often got involved in the affairs of their sister island.
Much of the Norman involvement in Ireland was due to Dermot MacMurrough inviting the King of England, Henry II, over to Ireland in the hopes of gaining the Normans on his side. This would allow him to regain his position as the King of Leinster (the mid-eastern province of what is now part of the Republic of Ireland). Together, MacMurrough and the Norman army conquered the various parts of Leinster, yet the King of Connacht and the High King of Ireland Rory O’Connor fought against these men and even managed to capture MacMurrough himself in the hopes that the man would be able to end what he started.
Yet, by this point, the Norman invasion had moved on past the instigator himself and so MacMurrough did not have the power to stop it all, even if he had wanted to. In the end, MacMurrough would help to attack and capture Dublin in 1168, but would then retire and die a year later as the war he started continued on, with his partner the Earl of Striguild, ‘Strongbow’, Richard FitzGilbert de Clare at the lead now. Due to Strongbow’s gain in power, though, Henry II managed to step in and gain the allegiance of the Irish bishops and Church, leaving Strongbow with Leinster under his control only while he gave the province of Meath to Hugh de Lacy. It was with Henry II’s actions, that Ireland truly began to be politically conquered by England as the Irish people had no ability to push them out anymore.(4)
In a display of power, the Normans set out to conquer lands throughout Ireland and build castles as a show of their victory and power, building communities around them in a show of urbanization. The militaristic superiority of the Normans allowed them to quickly conquer more and more locations around the island of Ireland. During this time, Ireland was a mostly rural landscape with separate provinces that did not work together often, allowing each kingdom to fall prey to the force of the Norman military. It was in 1175 that Henry II was instated as the lord of Ireland in the Treaty of Windsor through the compromise of Henry II and Rory O’Connor, who lost his title as the high king of Ireland, though he stayed on as the King of Connacht. Two years later, Henry II’s son John was given the title of lord of Ireland in his place and the conquest of Ireland continued to progress through the royal lineage. In 1263, the Irish leaders tried to unify themselves against the Normans by making King Haakon IV (who was the king of Norway) their king, yet this failed as King Haakon died. The Bruce Invasion in the 1300s was an attempt of the Irish allied with the Scots Robert Bruce to regain their country back, Bruce leading many attacks on Norman Irish settlements over the years, but this ultimately led to failure with his death in 1318. “With Bruce’s death ended the dream of an independent Celtic kingdom – a dream which had brought so much economic and social disaster to Ireland.”(5)
Much of the military actions of the Irish people was in an attempt to fight off the Normans who were moving into their land and often holding off these soldiers so as to keep their own independence. It was during the 1500s and 1600s, though, that the English began to gain even more of an upper hand in the battle with the Irish people. With the actions of Queen Elizabeth as well as the Nine Years War (1593-1603) that involved Ulster (a mostly unaffected northern part of Ireland during all these centuries of battles), it was with the defeat of Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone, and leader of the Ulster Irish that the island of Ireland was finally in the hands of the English, this “…effectively marked the end of the old Gaelic aristocracy and social order in Ireland and prepared the way for the plantation of larger parts of Ulster from 1609.”(6) There continued to be fights of resistance by the Irish throughout this century, but after William of Orange successfully became the king of England, any hope of successful rebellion ended in Ireland with each revolt having little to no effect.
It was around the 1600s that various British and Scottish plantation owners were sent to live in Ireland, specifically in Ulster which is the northern four counties of then Ireland and now most of Northern Ireland’s entirety. What makes this immigration significant, though, is the fact that these British and Scottish landowners still kept their allegiance to their home country, creating this gap between them and the Irish-born people surrounding them. Before this, Ulster was the most Gaelic part of the island of Ireland, but as more and more Scottish and English citizens immigrated to the six counties, it soon became the most British filled area of the entire island. It was this factor that played heavily into the later creation of Northern Ireland. “By 1690, almost all of the land of Ireland is in settler Protestant hands.”(7) It was often during times of rebellion, that the Irish would turn towards the various countries on the European continent for help to gain their independence from England. It was with the failure of the 1798 rising in which the French helped them, that the rest of the European countries effectively denied any further intervention into the relationship of Ireland and England.
It was this rebellion, though, that brought the Irish island to the forefront of conversation in Great Britain. It was at the beginning of 1801 with the Act of Union that Ireland was effectively made a part of Great Britain with England and Scotland as all three nations became known as the United Kingdom. This act dissolved the Irish Parliament that previously existed, instead moving the political power to Westminster in London. William Pitt, who was the British prime minister at the time, argued that “A union…would both strengthen the connection between the two countries and provide Ireland with opportunities for economic development.”(8) Many people resisted this action, yet due to the political actions of the British government, they gained the majority in both the British Parliament and the Irish Parliament that led to the passage of the Act of Union. In 1803, there was a rebellion in response to this event directed by Robert Emmet, but it became a complete disaster as many of the thousands of men that he thought would fight with him in actuality was less than a hundred people- an uprising that would lead to his and around twenty of his fighters being executed. From this point on, English became the dominant language in Ireland both in politics and in the people’s lives.
Other uprisings occurred again throughout the next century, but all were met with failure and disaster, such as the Young Irelanders’ uprising in 1848 during the Irish Famine that led to many of the leaders being shipped off to Van Dieman’s Land as were many of the rebellious Irish during the years of the Irish Famine(1845-1852). Arthur Griffith created the movement of Sinn Féin in 1905 in the hopes that, through this organization, Ireland would be able to become self-sufficient. This group worked together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB)- it was this group that began to seek help from other nations. During the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish rebels actually managed to gain help from the nation of Germany in an attempt of that nation to undermine and weaken the control of Britain who they were in the middle of fighting in the First World War. This secretive alliance was found out by other leaders of the IRB who immediately tried to prevent the alliance and uprising from happening, but in the end the Easter Rising occurred, all centered around the city of Dublin. Though it ended up only lasting a few days in late April before surrender, in modern times this uprising “…has acquired an enduring romantic aura as an heroic if premature attempt to establish national independence by force of arms.”(9) Additionally, it was this event that effectively broke the Continental silence that had existed for over a hundred years on the topic of the island of Ireland and its interaction with Great Britain.
Sinn Féin continued to grow in this time, using the First World War to their advantage. It was through pushing an anti-draft campaign that Sinn Féin managed to gain various seats in the December 1918 election. Even during this time, there was a split in the rebels fighting for independence as some believed that physical force was the only possible way to gain independence while others believed that independence could be achieved through political action. Over the next three years, there would be various attacks placed on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) that would cause the British government to get involved by sending more military members to fight off the actions of the Irish Nationalist rebels. It was in 1921 that the Irish rebels that had banded together over a decade before took on the name of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). “While they could not hope to win a military victory, the IRA’s pertinacity, combined with international criticism, had finally convinced Lloyd George of the need to compromise. In July 1921 a truce was declared; treaty negotiations began in October.”(10) Lloyd George was the British prime minister during the attacks from 1919 to 1921 in Ireland that came to be known as the Anglo-Irish War or, in other words, the Irish War of Independence and he was integral in creating the Government of Ireland Act and the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Government of Ireland Act was the document created in 1920 that first officially split Ireland into two regions: North and South. 32 united counties separated as 26 of them became part of the Republic of Ireland and the 6 northern counties became Northern Ireland. This Treaty ended the war effectively and led to the brightened hopes that would influence the Irish Nationalists actions in the event known as the Troubles.(11)
This Treaty pulled the majority of Ireland out of the United Kingdom and placed it instead in the body of countries that inhabit Britain’s Commonwealth, such as Canada and Australia. In ways of laws and practice, the relationship between the British Crown and the Irish Free State were matched with the political relationship between the British Crown and the Dominion of Canada, with a Governor-General along with the various members of the new Irish Parliament having to take an oath to the British king and also towards the citizens of Ireland.(12) They were involved in paying the UK’s Public Debt and war pensions. The coast of Ireland was protected by The Monarch’s Imperial Forces until the Irish Free State was able to do that themselves through building up their navy. The Irish government was to willingly host the British Monarch whenever they visited Ireland and harbor British troops if needed during times of war. The British government limited the armament of Ireland so that it did not exceed British armament amounts in comparison of population between the two countries. Ports were opened to other countries, the Irish government had to pay towards judges and police members as well as other governmental positions, excluding the Auxiliary Police Force and Royal Irish Constabulary which the British government paid for. This act did not apply to the six counties that made up Northern Ireland which would not be governed by the Irish Free State.
From this, three delegates came together (one from the Irish Republic, one from Northern Ireland, and one from the British government) to decide the parameters of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland. The Irish Free State was able to have their own Parliament with the citizens electing members to it. The leaders of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State could meet to discuss how they would interact, but they were officially separate. There would be steps taken by the British government to allow for a provisional government in the Irish Free State for the year following the treaty’s passage. It was from this very treaty that Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were truly split; Northern Ireland stayed within the United Kingdom while Southern Ireland became the Republic of Ireland, a distinction that still exists today. Two Parliaments were created, one for each of these two new countries, though both would still be subordinate to the British Parliament. There was a mixed response to this event, many happy about the compromise while others still pushed for full independence with a united Ireland. Needless to say, it is this split that would later lead to the violent outbreak of the Troubles themselves.(13)
Yet, despite these protests, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was accepted by Northern Ireland in election by its citizens and so Northern Ireland continued on as part of the UK. From this, a Civil War broke out in Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State with the various Irish Nationalists and particularly the IRA at the head of it all. Fighting them was the Free State army at the direction of the British government. It was truly a destructive Civil War that, in the end, led to thousands of the Republicans being imprisoned or executed and the ultimate failure of their Irish Republicans’ actions. The British government continued to hold the monopoly of military and naval proceedings in the Irish Free State. Due to rising tensions over this fact, though, “An effectively republican Free State Constitution was approved in 1937…The long campaign for political independence was symbolically completed with the formal declaration of the Irish Republic in 1949 which finally severed residual links with the British Crown.”(14) This effectively set the Irish Free State out to begin to create its own government separate from Britain.
This made it so that, when the Second World War broke out, the Irish Free State was able to stay neutral, though some people did wish to get involved and fight on the Allied side and many even did. It was a precarious situation for the Irish Free State considering the threat that Germany posed, especially during the Blitz, but they managed to stay neutral through the entire World War until the end, officially leaving the British Commonwealth in 1949. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, being part of the UK was fully involved in the Second World War in regards to its important ports so as to gain supplies while France was occupied by Germany. They also were important ports where British ships, tanks, and weapons were made during the war and even hosted thousands of troops from the United States during the war. Throughout this war, though, the IRA continued to attack and fight against the British in the hopes of gaining a fully united island of Ireland, though after the war the IRA would pretty much dissolve. Over the next few decades, the IRA would occasionally resurface again and fight against the British, but it was not until just before the Northern Ireland Troubles that they would truly regain power and strength.
At the very core of the Northern Ireland Troubles, in fact at the core of the many rebellions spoken about before, is the ideological beliefs of religion and identity. In regards to the topic of religion, the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain both started out as pagan believing countries that soon evolved into Catholic-dominant lands. It was during the 1500s and 1600s, though, that the religious fabric of Great Britain began to change. With the start of Protestantism at the hand of Martin Luther, more and more people in England began to shift away from the Catholic Church, especially changing with King Henry VIII’s split from the Pope and his creation of the Anglican Church. Though Queen Mary was Catholic, she died shortly after becoming queen and left the English throne to her half-sister Elizabeth who restored Protestantism in England and took her place as the head of the Anglican Church. Her ascension and the subsequent Nine Years War (as mentioned before) was the first major show of this British and Irish clash over a difference of religion. This difference would be exacerbated with the reign of James I with the end of the Nine Years War during his reign in which the Irish fighters were defeated and James I sent various Protestant settlers to live in Ulster on plantations and continued to encourage such immigration over the years.(15) This put the Protestant and British loyal subjects in conflict with the native Catholic Irish citizens and was the start of the Protestant, pro-British citizens that would grow and expand over the next few centuries to hold a majority of the citizenship of Northern Ireland.
There began to be more of an influence of Puritan ideals in the Irish parliament at the hand of Charles I, leaving many Irish Catholics frustrated and angry and even leading to a small planned uprising for Dublin that failed alongside many of the remaining English Catholics. There was even a government set up in Kilkenny known as the Confederate Catholics of Ireland.(16) Yet this government was divided as well since many were Irish and others were English. The Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Basttista Rinuccini intervened as well, but his actions just divided things even more and made peace less likely. Irish Catholics began to hope again when the Catholic king, James II took the throne, leading Catholics to gain more power. Yet, when the Glorious Revolution occurred, the Irish Catholics sided with James II and so when he lost and his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William were put on the throne, that choice backfired on the Irish Catholic. This war between James Stuart and William of Orange still has an influence in Ireland, often shown in the tension between Northern Irish citizens that are Catholic and Protestant and also easily seen in the ‘Orange Order’ when they hold ‘Orange Parades’ in Ulster often times every year to celebrate William of Orange’s defeat of James II.
In the 1798 uprising, many of the Irish fighters were Catholic peasants who fought against Orangemen. In the Anglo-Irish Treaty there was a push for religious protection in terms of there being no allowance towards laws on religious matters- they could not endorse or restrict any religion. The fact that this made it into one of the eighteen points of this Treaty in which they were trying to form a new nation, shows just how important this topic was to the various nations and citizens involved.(17) Since the 1600s when the plantations were set up in Ulster by the British Crown, Protestant British and Scottish citizens began to outnumber the native Catholic Ireland until, by the 1920s, they were the clear majority in the six northern counties. During the Irish Civil War following the adoption of the act, many of the Irish Republicans fighting against the Free State forces attacked various Protestant civilians and burned down many buildings that were Protestant-owned. During the Second World War, many of the Irishmen and women resisting the idea of being drafted were Catholic citizens, leading to this idea not being applied to Northern Ireland. It was especially during the Troubles that many British Loyalists attacked Catholics and many Irish Nationalists attacked Protestants.
Also important in the division between identity throughout many of these rebellions and wars is that all of these wars were started due to the fact that the native citizens of Ireland believed they were independent and did not want to be subject to the English Crown or government. This idea was carried from generation to generation, in the hopes that one day the Irish Nationalist citizens would be victorious in their push. When James I sent all those British and Scottish citizens to settle in Ulster Plantations, the tension arose then due to their differences in nationality. The strength of the idea of Nationalism is clear throughout much of the conflict that has existed between Ireland and England. This matter is complicated even further considering the strong roots of both sides now as both British Loyalist citizens and Irish Nationalist citizens of Northern Ireland have been occupying the same space for centuries now and consider the place their home. This fact complicates the situation in terms of how to find a solution to the problem itself.
Many Irish Nationalists feel as if their identity is being threatened as it has been since the 18th century that the English language has been the dominant language in Ireland, leading to “the situation in present-day Ireland where only a tiny minority of the population still speak Irish as a native language.”(18) This has led many Irishmen and women to believe that their very cultural identity is being washed away by the increasing rise of English speech and customs in Ireland’s communities. Even ones’ believed ethnicity and religion are wrapped up in this situation where, specifically in the case of Ireland, whether you are Protestant or Catholic is reflected heavily in your political decisions. Many have turned to various Irish Nationalist leaders over the past few centuries under the belief that, if they were to win, the Irish language and customs could be saved and restored.
The 1960s was a decade of social upheaval all around the world, especially with the Civil Rights Movement in America that was led by Martin Luther King Jr.. Other nations in Africa were gaining their own independence finally from nations such as the UK and various groups were fighting to better their own country by letting their voices be heard. The Irish Nationalist citizens of Northern Ireland saw all this clamor going on and began to turn it inwards. Throughout time in Ireland and especially during the 20th century, the Protestant citizens were often put at a higher status than the Catholic citizens of Northern Ireland. Irish Catholics believed that they were being discriminated against based on their religious beliefs and that they had no say in the going-ons of the Northern Irish government. They “…sought better housing, better jobs, the end to gerrymandering-which was rendering their votes powerless–and reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)”.(19) Many Irish Catholics felt like they were being harassed by the police and were being treated unfairly by the government while Protestants were given preferential treatment.
In an interview with my Grandfather, Thomas Lambert, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland and who still lives there today, he spoke about his experiences in terms of looking for employment in his youth and around the time of the start of the Troubles.(20) Though my grandfather has never been a truly religious man and has been a devout Atheist for many years now, that did not change the fact in many people’s eyes that he was raised in an Irish Catholic household. He told the story of how he once worked as a salesman at a furniture store in Belfast and had a job offer for another furniture store down the road at the time. During the interview, it had become clear to my grandfather that the man interviewing him was asking questions in a subtle attempt to find out if he was Protestant or Catholic and wouldn’t let him know if he had a chance at the job or not until the interviewer knew which religion he was. At this, my grandfather ended the interview and left back to his own job as to him the religion he was raised in should not matter for the job. He also told the story of how his own father, Thomas Lambert Sr., worked in a shipyard in Belfast as an engineer and how he was one of the only Catholic’s that was employed there as they preferred to employ Protestants. He mentioned how there was a factory in town that was right in the middle of a completely Catholic area, yet the people they hired were primarily Protestants. It was recurring situations like this that led many Irish Catholics to grow frustrated and to feel like they were not valued.
Upon the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 and, from that, an outbreak of violence, tensions began to rise.(21) That year, when two Catholics and a Protestant were killed by a Loyalist group called the Ulster Volunteer Force, riots and chaos began to increase, continuing even as the UVF was banned. Irish Catholics wanted reform and were impatient at the progress that was being made. It was with this that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was created in 1967 by John Hume and Bernadette Devlin. In trying to match MLK jr., many peaceful Civil Rights marches were held in the hopes that attention would be brought to the issues they wanted changed. Many Irish Nationalists saw this as their only way to bring about change as Sinn Féin, the Irish Republicanism political party, was banned from 1956 until 1974.(22) The often held Orange Marches in which Protestant British Loyalist citizens were involved in reminded the Irish Nationalists of the 1690s uprising involving the victory of William of Orange over James II to become king, further increasing tensions. There had been movements to increase the rights of Irish Catholics such as the 1947 Education Act that allowed Catholic children and citizens to gain more opportunities in education. Many saw this as a step in the right direction, but they wanted more and now that it had been over a decade since this act’s passage, they were getting impatient waiting for something else, especially those citizens who had benefited from this act themselves. As the political marches against discrimination and gerrymandering continued, tensions continued to rise in Northern Ireland.
Though the actual start of the Troubles can often be hard to pin down due to the fact that many marches were violently interrupted before so, many cite the October 5th, 1968 march in Derry as the official start of the Troubles. A march that started out as a peaceful action, then took a violent end and was broadcasted all over the world. “The civil rights movement demands one man, one vote, fair housing allocations. They set a list of demands. And they staged civil rights marches. In the process of the civil rights marches, the police are televised beating…the protestors, including political leaders. This stuff’s fed all over the world, and it looks really, really, really bad.”(23) When a similar event occurred in Londonderry about a year and a half after this march on August 12, 1969 at a Loyalist march, a two day long riot occurred that later was called the Battle of Bogside as that was the name of the Catholic area where the riot occurred, after the conflict between the Irish Nationalists and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) who were trying to separate the marching Loyalists from the Catholics nearby. In support of the Nationalists efforts, riots began in Belfast and other places around Northern Ireland, leading to the British Army being deployed in the hopes that peace could be obtained again.
Despite this hope though, violence only continued to escalate as the event known as the Troubles truly began. Upon the arrival of the British army, Irish Nationalists were grateful as these soldiers ended up working as a middle group for the two sides of Irish Nationalists and British Loyalists. As time went on and anger grew, though, many Irish Nationalists felt that the British army was not doing enough and so they began to view the force as in line with the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, especially when they tried to disarm the Nationalist paramilitary groups. It was through this fact that the IRA truly became the main fighter for the Irish Nationalists. Many saw the IRA as too extreme and leaning towards Marxism and so an offshoot group was created: the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos) that fought in the hopes of unifying the entire island of Ireland. This group would soon win out over the original IRA which would continue fighting in the Troubles until 1972 when they declared a cease-fire and left the Provos fighting for the Irish Nationalists.
What started out as a bid for representation in their government and a Civil Rights Movement quickly evolved after the start of the Troubles. Many began to look back towards Ireland’s past and began to see this as an opportunity for the island of Ireland to become unified once again and so to achieve that belief, the Provos took to guerrilla warfare and fought with the supplies and money given to them from Irish-Americans and Muammar al-Qaddafi, a member of the Libyan government. In response, the British Loyalists had the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association act so that the goals of the Irish Nationalists could be stopped.(24) Throughout the passage of time of this conflict, the government tried to make concessions in the hopes that the Troubles would end; they drew more balanced electoral districts, tried to prevent any housing bias in favor of Protestants, and got rid of the B Special part of the Ulster Special Constabulary while increasing security all around Northern Ireland by the Northern Irish government, even including putting many members of the conflict into internment- many of these being Irish Nationalists. Riots were a common occurrence as were bombings throughout Catholic and Protestant communities- the British soldiers kept building walls and fences between the opposite communities in the hopes that the violence would stop.
One of the most memorable occurrences of the Troubles was an event called ‘Bloody Sunday’ which happened on January 3, 1972 (the deadliest year of the Troubles) in Londonderry where 27 Catholic protesters were injured, 14 of these individuals dying at the hands of British paratroopers. This led to outrage in the Irish Nationalist communities and increased the number of volunteers for the Provos. In 2010, long after the conclusion of the Troubles, the British government announced in the Saville Report that the protesters were not at fault for the incident, that instead the deadly event laid in the hands of the British paratroopers. About two months after ‘Bloody Sunday’, the British government dissolved the Northern Irish Parliament, leaving decisions up to Westminster in London. As to whether this was a good idea or not is up for debate; it may have enraged some Irish Nationalist who saw it as taking away the governmental power of Northern Ireland, but it may have also been the right decision to make as the Northern Irish government had been the one to place strict security all across Northern Ireland which did not help diffuse tension.
In interviewing my mother, Eileen Baker née Lambert, who was born in Belfast in 1969 at the start of the Troubles, she said her father ended up moving their family to Australia for five years to escape the dangers that occurred there.(25) Upon returning, they moved to a different area of Northern Ireland called Craigavon in County Armagh (the south of Northern Ireland). My mother stated that the Catholic community that she lived in did not trust the police and so the men formed a group to patrol at night and keep the people living there safe. Oftentimes even the IRA would patrol the area, which was a group that many of the Catholics in the area trusted, despite their harsh tactics. She talked about growing up in this environment with bombs going off, the news speaking about various events occurring; hunger strikes, and riots. She told the story of her uncle Gerard who was caught rioting and was arrested and thrown in prison for the night- he ended up spending 2 years in prison. She told the story of her seventeen year old friend who worked in a Republican-owned mobile shop who was killed along with a customer by the Loyalist Volunteer Force- she had only just talked with her a few minutes before as my mother was out on the town celebrating a friend’s birthday party and had stopped by to talk. In an IRA bombing of a police station, no one was killed, but the windows of my mother’s house were blown in. She stated that though the IRA had done terrible things, that all citizens raised Irish Catholic had them to thank for many of the rights that now exist. And so, the IRA continued to be supported by Irish Nationalists.
A show of this fact was an event called the ‘Bloody Friday’ that occurred on July 21, 1972 where “The IRA sets off 26 bombs in Belfast killing nine people and injuring 130.”(26) Attacks began to be shaped more like raid operations rather than active war-like engagements at the choice of Irish Nationalists while Loyalist groups began to set off bombs as well- these various group attacks during the mid-1970s led to “the death of some 370 Catholics and 88 Protestants.”(27) Throughout the conflict, various political measures were taken in a hope that the anger from both sides would be diffused such as documents like the Sunningdale Agreement where a Northern Ireland Assembly was created that promised to represent all parties. This angered Loyalists though and so this Agreement was quickly stopped after a year of existing. Throughout the next decade, violence continued on and off as did hunger strikes and prison protests. In 1983, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was elected to the West Belfast Parliament in the hopes that they could politically achieve Ireland’s unification. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by Ireland Free State leader Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher, giving the Irish Free State a say in the dealings of Northern Ireland for the first time- it also pushed for power-sharing between the Nationalists and Loyalists. The Loyalists completely opposed this, though, and the Provos continued to bomb places, even London.
In 1993, the Downing Street Declaration was made by John Major (replacing Thatcher) and Albert Reynolds (replacing FitzGerald) that set up a way for all parties to gather and talk peacefully. In 1994 there was a cease-fire announced by the Provos and agreed to by Loyalist groups, but it ended in 1996 as Sinn Féin had been kept out of the peace talks. A year later, Sinn Féin was allowed into peace talks and so a new cease-fire was started. The Troubles finally came to an end on April 10, 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement which allowed for interaction between the Northern Ireland and Irish Free State governments and even set up parameters for conversation between Great Britain’s government and Ireland’s government. To this “Catholic approval of the accord (96 percent) was much higher than Protestant assent (52 percent)”.(28) Due to the actions of an offshoot group called the Real Irish Republican Army in a bombing in Omagh this year, the new Assembly was postponed until December of 1999 when the IRA finally gave up its arms. The Republic of Ireland got rid of its constitutional claims to Northern Ireland and Great Britain gave Northern Ireland back its direct rule. In 2005, the IRA declared that it was going to disarm itself and try to achieve their goals through peaceful movements; in response, Loyalist paramilitary groups did this as well. Peace became even more possible as the two political groups of Sinn Féin and the DUP worked together as DUP leader Ian Paisley was elected as the First Minister and Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister, thereby dissolving direct rule in 2007.
As time goes on, many are wondering what else will develop in terms of the situation with Northern Ireland. Due to the events of the Troubles, electoral districts have become more balanced between Nationalists and Loyalists, Irish Catholics now having a say in their government due to the legitimization of Sinn Féin, and they now believe their vote has more power than it did before. More and more schools are now offering the ability to learn Gaelic throughout the island of Ireland in the hopes of addressing the fear many Irish Nationalist had about losing their culture, and there is more interaction politically and economically between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Nowadays in Northern Ireland one can even choose their own nationality- all citizens of Northern Ireland have the ability to gain either Irish passports or British passports as their form of identification. Of course, tension does still exist in Northern Ireland, but the country itself has come a long way in the two decades since the Troubles ended.
With the topic of Brexit having come into politics over the past few years, many are questioning what effect this will have on Northern Ireland as if the UK leaves, Northern Ireland would have to as well while the Republic of Ireland would stay in the European Union. While military action and bombings seem to be a thing of the past as it truly was political efforts and peace talks that brought the Troubles to an end, many believe that this is not the end of all the changes. With the discussion of Brexit, many Irish Catholics have spoken about how this may tip the power structure of Northern Ireland and lead many Northern Irish citizens towards Nationalistic ideas. This seems to show some possibility in the past few years- in February 2020 in a poll done by LucidTalk (led by The Detail) and written about in the Belfast Telegraph, they found that 82.4% of all Northern Irish citizens polled have stated that Brexit has brought the debate of possible unification to the forefront. This poll “showed 46.8% in Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK, while 45.4% would vote for a united Ireland. 7.8% said they were unsure how they would vote,”(29) a smaller margin of difference between the Nationalist and Loyalist sides than ever before. This same poll was even expanded to hear what the Republic of Ireland thought about this situation and came back with the results that 73.1% of Irish Republic citizens would vote to allow Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland if such a vote occurred. It even spoke of a possible referendum (electoral vote on a single question or idea) on Ireland’s unification occurring within the next ten years. This same article, though, stated that if the vote were to be tomorrow, that many interviewed for this poll would not vote as it would be too soon and hasty.
Here is a country that has been the center of violent conflict with Britain and its citizens for almost 900 years with rebellions and wars occurring almost at a constant pattern throughout this time all on the topic of independence from Britain. Yet while the people have met failure for their true goal each and every time, an interesting situation is now piling up that seems different from all previous British-Irish interactions other than the Anglo-Irish Treaty that it seems to harken back to. Though the Troubles started out with Civil Rights demonstrations and marches of Irish Nationalists in the hopes of gaining representation in their government and more balanced rights before turning into the often repeated pattern for independence that has happened regularly throughout the island of Ireland’s history, the tide seems to be shifting and turning now. More and more Northern Irish citizens are under the belief that political discussions and democratic processes are the best way to achieve their goals rather than any military action as has been common, shown in the hope that many put into the peace talks that ended the Troubles and the now added curiosity towards an official referendum on the topic of Irish unification.
The outcome remains to be seen in the end whether Northern Ireland will continue to stay within the United Kingdom as the British Loyalists wish or if it will be separated from the UK and instead be absorbed into the Republic of Ireland as the Irish Nationalists want. Needless to say, the conflict of the Troubles truly did have a lasting effect on the fabric of the politics of the two islands of Ireland and Great Britain as many of the original wishes of the NICRA and other Irish Nationalists were realized and granted while still protecting the rights and wishes of the British Loyalists of Northern Ireland. The conclusion and true aftermath of the Troubles has yet to be seen though as shown by the debate on Brexit, yet it will hopefully be answered in the future.
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