Northern Ireland : 

a brief history of the province and the latest developements



Northern Ireland  : from warfare to partnership  

Lecture on Northern Ireland, University of Syracuse (New-York), Wednesday April 7 2003


1.The historical background to the conflict.

In the 17th century  200 000 Protestants migrated from   England and Scotland to Ireland with the encouragement of the Crown. The aim was to « keep Ireland loyal ». They settled mostly in Ulster where the colonization was more systematic than in the other provinces.(see map)

The Ulster plantation began in 1649 followed by Cromwell’s campaign which was marked by the slaughter of thousands of catholics and the confiscation of their property.

By the end of the 17th century Irish catholics only owned 7% of their land.

The penal laws passed in 1695 prevented them from practising their religion and deprived them of their civil rights.

The whole of Ireland was treated as a British colony till 1800 when the  Act of Union made Ireland full part of the United Kingdom.

*In the XIXth century nationalism rose and developed throughout Europe and Ireland made no exception.

There was a very slow evolution in favour of catholics thoughout the XIXth century. The catholics were given the right to vote and become MPs in 1829 and the repeal of the Penal laws followed in 1834.

The nineteenth century was also marked by the worst tragedy of all the Great Famine in the years 1845-1849. At the time most Irish catholics were tenants and their only source of food was the potato. When a blight attacked the potato the result was famine on a very large scale. Out of a population of eight and a half million, one million died and one million and a half emigrated to America (there are 42 million Americans of Irish acestry in the United States ).

In the North the catholic population increased from 10% to one third due to the famine migration of Southern Catholics to Ulster in search of jobs. Protestants and catholics were then in intense competiton for jobs but protestants were always given the preference

In the 1880s nationalism made more progress with the Home rule movement while unionism gained ground with the creation of the Orange Order in 1795 and of the UVF (Ulster Voluntary Force) which is a unionist paramilitary organisation created to defend the status quo.

(In the parlance of Northern Ireland , Catholics are referred to as Republicans or Nationalists and Protestants as unionists or loyalists).

Divergences grew between the North and the South of Ireland for religions and economic reasons. While the south had a 90% catholic majority the proportion in the North was one third catholics for tho thirds protestant. Also while the north became largely industrialized the south remained agricultural.

Despite the division between North and South no one really wanted a different treatment for these two parts.

The idea of partition and its implementation

The idea came to birth with the 1912  3rd Home Rule Bill when Lloyd George put it on the agenda. The bill was passed but the implementation suspended during WW1.

 In 1918 elections were organized all over Ireland . *In Ulster the unionists won the election with a large majority while in what is now southern Ireland there was a huge victory for Sinn Fein -(we ourselves) a party- which was created in 1900 and claimed for the independence of Ireland –no more Home rule.

As a consequence of those results, In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act established the partition of Ireland .

With the Anglo-Irish Agreeement of December 1921 Ireland was to be divided into two parts with 2 governments and two parliaments.

 The northern part composed of six counties of Ulster with a Parliament was still depending on Westminster while the 26 counties were to form the Irish Free State with an Irish Government. The new state of Northern Ireland had an in-built protestant majority (roughly 65% protestant and 36% catholic at the time of partition) and acquired its own parliament and considerable autonomy within the United Kingdom . Soverignty was retained in Westminster as was responsibility for defence, foreign policy and other concerns of national interest. London left most Northern Ireland matters in the hands of the new Stormont administration.


 2.From the Stormont regime to The Troubles

The Stormont regime and the protestant supremacy.

Each election brought a majority of unionists to the Stormont Parliament which lasted until 1972.

The unionist Parties which were always in power established a majority dictatorship.

From the very beginning Protestants were given preferential treatment ; consequently catholics felt more and more discriminated against.

The social and economic differences between the two sides led to a nearly complete separation of the two communities.(voir transparent a divided society). Protestants and Catholics lived in different quarters, attended different schools and different churches and went to different pubs.

Generally speaking the protestants were better off. They of course controlled the political system, in the rural areas they owned the best of the land and they held the best jobs in the towns. Unemployement and emigration were higher among the Catholics. It is no surprize that resentment was growing among the Catholics.

The Civil Rights Movement.

In the late 1960s a powerful Civil Rights movement came into being on behalf of the Roman Catholic and nationalist minority. Among its leaders John Hume who was to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998. It was inspired by the Black civil leaders in the United States . They formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Its priority was to secure for Catholics a fairer society and the end of all kinds of discrimination. Among other things they wanted a fair share of council housing which had been denied them, a fairer electoral system (with the end of gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, Gerrymandering (the practice of dividing constituencies of a voting area so as to give one party unfair advantage) had become a common practice especially in Derry and the disbanding of the Ulster Special Constabulary).

The unionist Government in Belfast first responded favourably to those proposals but a fraction of the unionist population under the leadership of Ian Paisley, founder of the free Presbyterian Church, was opposed to any kind of concession to the Catholics.

The NICRA organized peaceful marches and during one of them- the Derry Civil Rights march of October 5th 1968- the marchers were violently attacked along the route by orange men and the police. This confrontation between civil rights campaigners and the police in Derry on 5 October 1968 marked the beginning of the Ulster crisis know as the Troubles.


Mounting tension and violence

 In the Summer of 1969 violence returned  in July in Derry and in August in Belfast .

Barricades went up and firing broke out between the police and Catholics. Catholics were forced out of their homes which were then burned.

An alarming wave of bombing attacks in English cities signified that the IRA (the paramilitary branch of Sinn Fein) .

*British Prime Minister Harold Wilson then decided to send in British troops into Belfast and Londonderry to restore order. What is worthy of notice is that originally the British soldiers were welcomed favourably by the Catholics.

In 1970 the SDLP was formed. Its aim was to promote Irish unity on the basis of the consent of the people in NI and obtain social justice for the Catholics and the end of discrimination on the grounds of religion in the areas of employment and housing, one man one vote in local elections. .-

(The two branches of nationalism : on the one hand the moderate side with the SDLP and people like John Hume and the radical and violent side of nationalism with Sinn Fein and the IRA).


Meanwhile on the protestant side paramilitary groups arose to combat the IRA ; protestant extremists formed the Ulster Defence Association (UDA ) in 1971 and reorganized the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) which had appeared in 1966.

The province entered its bloodiest period with increasing violence and confrontation between the two communities.

-On 30 January 1972 a Parachute regiment shot dead 13 catholics unarmed marching for Civil Rights. This tragedy became known as Bloody Sunday and intensified catholic opposition to British presence. The IRA then launched a paramilitary attack to force the British to withdraw from Northern Ireland .

*As a result of the political instability the Stormont Parliament was abolished and direct rule was introduced in March 1972.

A few other tragic events :

-On May 5 1981 Republican martyr Bobby Sands and 9 others died after a 66-day hunger strike in protest against the British refusal to grant special political prisoner status to 700 I.R.A.prisoners.

Over the years catholics became increasingly hostile towards the state while protestants feared that Northern Ireland was under threat. Sectarian violence and murderous confrontations became commonplace. Rioting and burning of houses forced thousands of families to flee their homes ; approximately 10% of Belfast ’s population had aready moved by February 1973.

-In 1982 the IRA moved the conflict back to England where a bomb exploded in Hyde Park and another one in Regent’s Park killing 11 soldiers.

-In 1983 on December 17 a car bomb exploded outside Harrod’s in London . Five people died and more than 80 were hurt.

-In 1984 the next year in Brighton at the Conservatives’ Annual Conference a bomb exploded killing 5 people and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a narrow escape. The list of attacks, bombings and murders is very long, too long to go through.

The Troubles were to last nearly thirty years (a thirty years’war)and since 1969 there has been more than 3,600 people who, by official count have died in bombings, shootings and massacres and about 200 000 people were wounded. Out of a population of 1 million and a half you may say that hardly no home was spared. From 1970 to 1990 180 000 people left the region. The economy of the province was devastated by the conflict : In the eighties unemployment reached a peak of 17%.


3.Towards a peace settlement.

 Both the Irish government and the British government were trying to find a solution out of this terrible deadlock. There were a series of unsuccessful attempts to find an agreement that could reconcile the two sides and bring peace back to the province. The peace process was to go through a series of twists and turns before any successful outcome could be achieved.

-On November 15 1985 had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher and the Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald which gave the Irish a voice in  the running of Northern Ireland .

-In mid-December 1993 the Downing Street Declaration signed the two Prime ministers British Prime Minister John Major and Irish Prime minister Albert Reynolds which provided a framework for a peace settlement. The idea that the future of Northern ireland depended on the consent of the people and that the aspirations of the two communities came into force.

The USA also pledged to help resolve the conflict as an impartial advisor.

-On August 31 1994 IRA announced a ceasefire in September, pledging a complete cessation of all military operations.

In December 1994 the Forum for peace and Reconciliation began meeting in Dublin Castle 1994 with the participation of Sinn Fein along with the British government but no participation of the unionist party participated in the discusions.

-In November 1995 an international commission under the chairmanship of former U.S.senator George Mitchell was set up. It included representatives of all the different groups involved. It recommended the decommissioning of arms and called on all groups to renounce violence.But nothing concrete came out of those discussions due to the insistence of the British government that the IRA decommission its weapons as a pre-condition to negociations.

-In February 1996, the IRA ended ceasefire, setting off a huge bomb in London 's Docklands district, killing two people.This was the end of a 17-month truce.

-In June 1996, multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland began in Belfast , but Sinn Fein was excluded.

There seemed to be no way out of the deadlock however the situation was to change dramatically when :

-In May 1997 a huge majority of Labour MPs were elected to Westminster and Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Britain 's new Labour government ended the ban on contacts with Sinn Fein. Tony Blair thought he would manage to get the peace process under way through the following means :

1.Everything had be done to bring all parties to the negociationg table and of course Sinn Fein  because Sinn Fein could exercise pressure on the IRA as regards decommissioning.

2.He had to pretend to believe that the IRA  and Sinn Fein are two different things though everyone knows that there is a common leadership.

3.The problems had to be dealt with separately and not globally. Decommissioning had to be temporarily pushed aside . As a result :

-In July 1997 IRA announced "unequivocal" ceasefire.

-In August 1997, an independent commission under the authority of General de Chastelain was set up in order to supervise the process of decommissioning.

September 5 The negociations began. They were to last 7 months until the Good Friday Agreement was reached on April 10 1998 .

 1998 April 10 -  Good Friday Agreement providing for a Northern Ireland Assembly, an executive committee, a North-South Ministerial Council, a Council of the Isles, a reform of the RUC, constitutional changes and the promise of decommissisoning.

May 22 - Agreement submitted to approval by referendum on both sides of the border

 Results : Republic of Ireland > 98% yes         Northern Ireland      > 71% yes

 June 25 -Election of the Northern Assembly.

The Good Friday Agreement is a remarkable achievement in the sense that it established institutions within a specific framework between former ennemies who have become partners in government. It was achieved as a result of the peace process in the 1990s, the consequent paramilitary ceasefires and many other factors which contributed to the settlement such as the end of the cold war, the internationalisation of the search for a peaceful future and thanks to the determination of a number of outstanding figures like Senator George Mitchell, General de Chastelain, Matti Ahtissari and Cyril Ramaphosa who played the part of brokers, emissaries and witnesses.

As John Hume, the SDLP leader and major architect of the peace agreement said also the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace who was awarded has said: «Conflict is about difference and the answer to conflict is to respect difference».

It marks the most significant shift in party political positions since the partition of Ireland . However one should be reminded that it is an agreement and not a settlement. In other words this agreement had to prove workable to ensure a definite and permanent peace.


The Belfast Agreement, or in common parlance, the Good Friday Agreement, was the result of negotiation between the British and Irish Governments and the ten parties which obtained an electoral mandate for the Talks in June 1996. All the parties were involved at one time or another, although Sinn Féin was excluded until the second IRA ceasefire (October 1997), and two Unionist parties left when Sinn Féin arrived and both Sinn Féin and the UDP were excluded at different times when their paramilitary associates broke their ceasefires. Agreement on such a scale was inevitably a compromise.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly was elected. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland , though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan. The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The number of Ministers is to be ten, in addition to the previously elected First and Deputy First Ministers. Application of d'Hondt proportional representation will result in the leaders of the four largest parties nominating, in turn, one of their colleagues to take a particular portfolio. the Assembly elected in May 1998 produced three Ministers from the Ulster Unionist Party (28 Assembly seats), three from the SDLP (24 seats), two from the DUP (20 seats) and two from Sinn Féin (18 seats). Alliance , with six seats, and all other parties are excluded. The process of negotiation between potential parties is thus reduced to a crude mathematical formula. However Unionists, with 54% of the Assembly seats get only 50% of executive posts, while Nationalists, with 39% also get 50%. The trend of recent elections is that Unionists comprise a bare majority, with around 40% Nationalist and 10% from the Centre. The Executive will provide a forum for discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more Ministers, for prioritising proposals and agreeing a common position where necessary. No party got all it wanted and the final resolution of difficulties over the issue of decommissioning of terrorist weapons remains

Over the last two years the Northern Ireland institutions had been operating at reduced capacity and under the continuous threat of suspension. Due to the persistent refusal of the IRA to make any gesture towards decommissioning.There has been many delays, threats, deadlines that haven’t been met and all the efforts of the British the Irish and the Amercians as well as the three secretaries for Northern Ireland seemed to be fruitless until the IRA made the first gesture towards decommissioning last November 2001, which was one of the major requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. The Assembly and its Executive were suspended in October 2002 and dissolved in April 2003 over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery of an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service. Government was then once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland , Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.


The major priority is to enforce security and order within an inclusive administration in a deeply divided society. NI 's pomulation is approximately 55% protestant and 45% catholic and the two communities place their emphasis on different elements of the problem. Protestants are more likely to see the conflicts in constitutional and security terms and are primarily concerned about preserving the union. While catholic view tend to fall into two broad categories. Some of the more radical elements tend to perceive the issue as a nationalist struggle for self-determination, looking back to what they regard as the historical integrity of the island. Others the more moderate approach it as a problem of corruption and antidemocratic practices by successive unionist governments between the 1920s and the 1970s which have prevented catholics and protestants from living peacefully together. The peace process has delivered changes unimaginable in 1994, but in 2003 the sectarian suspicions and fears are still there. However even though a lot of problems remain to be solved a number of significan steps mark solid progress and strengthen the foundation for a new society.

 Latest developments

Elections aimed at restoring Northern Ireland 's power-sharing institutions are to be held in the province on November 26 2003 , after being postponed twice already this year. The announcement came after Northern Ireland 's Catholic and Protestant leaders struck a landmark deal to restore the province's assembly and executive, which were dissolved in April 2003.

The deal on elections was supposed to include a commitment by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Northern Ireland 's most powerful Catholic paramilitary organisation, to make a further step towards disarmament. Following the announcement, Blair was scheduled to leave for Northern Ireland to join his Irish counterpart Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, was then expected to announce in his own terms that the IRA was ending its 30-year armed struggle. Shortly after, the head of the international body on weapons decommissioning in Northern Ireland, General John de Chastelain, was due to produce a report confirming the IRA had agreed to a compromise on disarming.There would then be a statement from the IRA confirming Sinn Fein's announcement, followed by a statement from David Trimble, the head of the province's largest Protestant political party, the Ulster Unionists. Finally, Blair and Ahern were scheduled to seal the agreement with a joint statement at a news conference at Hillsborough Castle , the official residence of Britain 's minister for Northern Ireland , Paul Murphy. However the failure of the IRA to deliver a clear statement as regards the decommissioning of weapons caused those carefully planned events to fall through. The consequence is that elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be held in the absence of a commitment by the major parties to forming a power-sharing executive.


Marie-Claire Considère-Charon


A propos du conflit en Irlande du Nord (in French)

Calendrier des événements depuis l'accord du Vendredi Saint le 10 avril 1998


Projet Albion (c) 2000-2004 Lauric Henneton 
Irish Economy (c) 2001-2004 Vanessa Boullet 
Mise à jour: 24/03/2004