Northern Ireland


Governments of Britain and Ireland

Irish Republican Army

Ulster Defence Association

Ulster Freedom Fighters

Protestants (Unionists)

Catholics (Nationalists)





British Empire




In world terms and in comparison with other present conflicts this has been a very low intensity conflict (the annual death rate was of the order of a weekend's killing in Washington DC), but nevertheless shows features present to a greater intensity in other conflicts.

There is a low intensity conflict between one or more armed guerrilla or terrorist organizations (main one is the Provisional Irish Republican Army) and British and local security forces.

This may be the latest phase of a conflict between Britain and Ireland which has lasted for centuries. It has been said that the tragedy of this dispute is that the Irish remember everything that has happened, while the English remember nothing.

Potted History
The Protestant inhabitants of the north were at first supporters of home rule (Wolfe Tone was a Protestant and leader of the United Irishmen who tried to get Napoleon to help them against the English) and a measure of independence from London but as Catholic representation grew they became afraid of being persecuted in their turn and became supporters of the British connection. They expressed this through a semi-secret society, the Orange Order, which commemorates the landing of King William the third (William of Orange) and the battle of the Boyne which established total British supremacy in Ireland.

In the later part of the 19th century the Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone tried to bring in Irish Home Rule to re-establish a parliament in Dublin. (He needed the support of the Irish party for his parliamentary majority). The Protestants then formed a Unionist Party allied with the opposition Conservatives. They threatened war and organized a militia. These hostilities were suspended for the duration of the first world war.

Southern independence
The Unionists of the north organized themselves and were granted a separate state of six counties intended by the British government to be provisional until agreement on an all-Irish state could be obtained. Both sides were promised a boundary revision, which might have resulted in all or part of two counties being transferred to the south because they have a nationalist majority. The revision never occurred.

Agreement on an all-Irish state has never happened because the Protestants have always refused to talk. The British government maintains that their democratic right is to stay part of Britain if they vote to do so.

The extreme republican minority in the south went underground and called themselves the IRA. Although the state is now called the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein and the IRA believe that it is not complete until the six counties of the north are included. This shows a similarity with events in the Balkans where different ethnic groups claim nationalist fantasy ownership of land on which people live of a different persuasion. (e.g. Kosovo).

Within the six counties about a third of the people are Catholic. Some of these wish to join the republic; others don't.

Anglo-Irish Agreement
The government of the Irish Republic and the British government made an agreement in 1985 to allow consultation between the two governments and some powers to the southern government to influence events in the north. The Protestants have violently opposed this agreement.

The conflict was almost dormant from about 1940 until 1969. In 1969 it revived following civil rights agitation for a fairer voting system and an end to the de facto one-party system by which the Unionists monopolized all the government appointments. Police violence against demonstrators led to

a revival of the guerrilla tactics of the IRA, aided by semi-official help from Irish politicians. A decline in employment from the traditional industries - flax growing and weaving and shipbuilding - probably contributed, especially as the Catholic minority suffered more from the resulting unemployment than the Protestant majority.

From one point of view the conflict is an Irish civil war resulting from the events of 1920.

Even though both parts are now in the European Community and the border is less important, the problem seems likely to go on. As with Cyprus, Israel and Palestine there may be no solution other than population transfer which is occurring informally in Northern Ireland itself.

There are similarities with Yugoslavia in the extreme right wing death squads who began to talk about complete independence (for the Protestants).

US role
What is the role of the United States? The descendants of the Catholic emigrants who fled in the 1840s feel an inherited blame for the British government whose dogmatic free market policies made the famine worse. They seem to be important donors to the funds of the IRA and their votes put pressure on American governments. Do they actually understand the present situation, which is that it is the Protestants who need to be converted, rather than the British government? President Clinton seemed to have encouraged peace talks during his visit in November 1995. Did it last?

A Declaration by the British and Irish governments in December 1994 raised the hopes of some that the conflict might be resolved. A ceasefire was proclaimed, which lasted until Feb. 1996.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 eventually led to an elected local government and a ceasefire by most of the armed groups. However, opponents of the agreement continue to let off bombs. Intimidation, beatings up and political murders continue at street level.

On 28 July 2005 the IRA announced that all military activities would cease. Is this the end of the war? We shall see.

Political developments have produced a devolved government for Northern Ireland, and on the surface warlike activity has ceased.

Some former members of the IRA have seceded, presumably being opposed to the political settlement, and still operate as the Real IRA (and perhaps another group, the Continuity IRA - the "conts"). Are they likely to grow or are they just a small group of near psychopaths, addicted to explosions? Growing unemployement caused by the worldwide Crash might affect support for this group. There was one serious explosion in Omagh in 1998, and two soldiers and a policeman were killed in 9 March 2009.

Last revised 31/07/10


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