Ireland's ancient history is rich with influences from the
first settlers (7000BC), Bronze Age settlers, Celts, Vikings,
and Norman England. With increasing interest and military
pressures from England, the Celts of Ireland had been converted
to Christianity, downtrodden, and robbed to such an extent
that by 1714, the Irish population owned only 7% of Irish
In 1714, Ulster (Ireland's northern region) was a mixture
of nationalities and religions, a division evident in today's
street names, Irish Street, Scotch Street, and English Street.
In England, Oliver Cromwell's parliamentarians had
come to power and briefly destroyed the rule of the monarchy.
Cromwell, came to Ireland and ruthlessly imposed his authority
in such barbaric fashion that it still lingers in Irish consciousness.
Every person in Drogheda, women and children included,
were executed in a fashion that Cromwell described as being
in 'the spirit of God'. From Drogheda, Cromwell's Puritan's
marched throughout Ireland making sure that the Protestant
English minority would triumph. The 7% of Irish landowners
were banished to barren Connaught. 'The curse of Cromwell'
James II, the Catholic King, restored hope in Ireland by
appointing Catholics to governmental positions. He hoped to
scrap Cromwellian Land Law, but unfortunately for Ireland,
he became embroiled in a battle for the throne with William
of Orange (William III). In 1690, 'King Billy' defeated
James II in the Battle of the Boyne, near Drogheda,
and took control of Ireland. The battle is still celebrated
annually by Orangemen on July 12, during the 'marching season',
and many murals depict him sitting astride his white charger,
on the walls of 'Loyalist' housing estates. A battle known
as The Siege of Derry also entered the Northern Irish
consciousness. James II laid siege to the walled Protestant
City of Derry. English reinforcements for the City fled, thinking
it was a lost cause for the Protestant army. However, the
Derry army held firm and eventually won, becoming a successful
symbol of protecting Protestant Ulster from Papists. For the
time being all of Ireland remained under English rule.
Catholic prejudice and discontent
In 1691, Penal Law started. Catholics were forbidden
from buying land or owning stock. Catholicism was outlawed
along with Catholic education and professional practice. Irish
culture, music, and education was banned. However, 'open air'
masses, and illegal outdoor schools (hedge schools) arranged
by the Catholic Church nurtured Irish tradition, culture and
religion. By 1715, Irish Catholics lived in squalor, owning
just 5% of the most barren land.
Protestant Dublin thrived. Its elite, consisting
of descendants of Cromwellian soldiers, Anglo Normans, and
Elizabethan settlers, formed a prosperous upper class known
as 'The Protestant Ascendancy' who held a Protestant
only parliament, under British Rule. It was these educated
Protestants that first brought pressure on the Crown to treat
Ireland fairly. With inspiration from the American Civil War
and the French Revolution, young Irishmen began to see independence
as a real possibility. The United Irishmen were formed
by Belfast Presbyterians, whose leader Wolfe Tone brought
men of all creeds together to strive for independence. They
tried both political and military manoeuvres while England
was pre-occupied with a French war, but were defeated in 1798,
when Wolfe Tone was arrested. The Protestant Orange Society
(later to be known as The Orange Order) was created at this
period to defend Protestant interests in this precarious political
climate. In 1800, the Act of Union united Ireland and
One of Ireland's great leaders, Daniel O'Connell,
came to the fore in 1823 when he founded the Catholic Association.
Using peaceful, mass rallies of up to 500,000 people, O'Connell
garnered popular support, easily winning a parliamentary election
in 1828. Rather than risk the wrath of his followers, parliament
passed the 1829 Act of Catholic Emancipation, allowing
some Catholics to vote and be elected. O'Connell unfortunately
died soon after, while his country was being ravaged by famine.
Famine and reform
The Great Famine (1845-51) needlessly took the lives of
two million Irish. The potato crop had failed, and Penal Law
meant that the impoverished population could not afford reserve
potatoes. Whilst there was an abundance of wheat and corn,
the British monarch insisted it was almost exclusively for
export only. Despite some caring Quakers, Protestant and British
landowners, many Irish Catholics spent all their money on
food, causing arrears in their outrageously high rent. 'Poor
Laws' in operation at the time encouraged eviction of non-rent
payers, or assisted emigration. Consequently, many were forced
into disease ridden 'coffin ships' and shipped to America,
killing many during the months it took to sail. Mass emigration
depleted the population for the next 100 years.
Despite huge bitterness, there was little to challenge British
authority. In 1875, an Anglo-Irish Protestant landowner was
elected to Westminster. Parnell wanted Irish independence,
unlike many of his contemporaries. At 31, he became leader
of the Home Rule Party, who wanted a degree of autonomy
for Ireland. In 1879, as famine threatened yet again, Parnell
teamed up with Michael Davitt to form the Land League.
Using widespread agitation it gained reduced rents for tenants
and improved working conditions. By encouraging the shunning
of Mr. Boycott, the Land League carried out the first 'boycott',
and the result of their efforts, led Prime Minister William
Gladstone to introduce the Land Act of 1881, improving
life for the Irish tenants immeasurably.
Home rule for all
In 1892, Gladstone, under Parnell's influence attempted but
failed to introduce a Home Rule Bill. The Ulster Unionists
(formed in 1855) realised that they had narrowly avoided
Irish independence. Led by Sir Edward Carson (1854-1935),
a Dublin lawyer, the Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer
Force (UVF), who opposed Home Rule. They vowed to fight
for a 'British' Ulster if Home Rule was introduced. The British
acquiesced, and Carson allowed partial Home Rule in 1914,
keeping Northern Ireland separate, thus establishing the principle
As the UVF grew, a republican counter group formed, known
as The Irish Volunteers, to defend 'home rule for all
of Ireland'. They lacked the power of the UVF who were armed
by the British government. A civil war loomed but World War
I put everything on hold, and men from both religions fought
against the Germans.
The 1800s and 1900s saw an Irish cultural revival. Writers
such as W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and George
Russell, wrote of Ireland's myths, legends and romance.
Others revived the language, sport and music. Irish literary
and art figures would be prolific from this period on.
A small group known as Sinn Fein (meaning 'We Ourselves')
was created encouraging Irish MPs to leave Westminster and
set up a parliament in Dublin instead as the Socialist movement
grew. Jim Larkin and James Connolly brought
workers out on strike, and the Irish Volunteers grew in strength.
At this point 'independence' was still a romantic notion,
not a realistic goal.
Easter Rising and warfare
The Easter Rising changed that. Under the poet Padraig
Pearse and James Connolly, a small force staged
a rebellion in Dublin, based in the General Post Office.
They claimed Ireland as a Republic and flew the Irish Tricolour.
The rebels were captured within a week. Most of the leaders
were executed, turning the small uprising into a massive public
outrage. The executed became martyrs and Republican sentiment
grew rapidly. In 1918, Sinn Fein stood as the Republican
Party and won a large majority of seats. They made a 'Declaration
of Independence', shunned Westminster, and set up Dail
Eireann, Ireland's first parliament in Dublin, led by
1916 veteran, Eamonn DeValera. The Irish Volunteers
became the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and were authorised
to wage war on British troops in Ireland.
An Anglo-Irish war ensued from 1919-1921. Michael Collins
came to the fore as the ruthless but charismatic IRA leader,
also serving as Ireland's Finance Minister. The British deployed
the violent 'Black and Tans' to deal with the insurgents.
These ex-soldiers, given a free hand, used unprecedented violence
and corruption against the IRA and Irish citizens, opening
fire at a football match on one occasion in Croagh Pairc,
Dublin. The net effect, however, was to push the Irish population
further behind the Republican Movement, and into small
armed groups who fought the British independently, briefly,
and successfully until the July 1921 truce. On 6 December
1921, the Irish reluctantly signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty
giving 26 counties independence, and keeping six counties
The partition of Northern Ireland
The partition of Ireland meant that Northern Ireland's six
counties had a population of 30-40% Catholic, and 60-70% Protestant.
In 1921, James Craig became the newly formed country
of Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister in a parliament
where politics was based primarily on religious and economic
The Northern Ireland parliament in Stormont (1920 - 1972)
excluded Catholics from power, making Protestant authority
absolute. In Belfast in 1970 the Catholic populace (25%) held
just 2.5% of corporate jobs. Catholics were discriminated
against in all walks of life and did not have the right to
vote. Northern Ireland, along with Portugal, had become the
poorest country in Western Europe. During World War II, Protestant
and Catholic soldiers excelled themselves in the Battle
of Somme and other battlefields, and relative peace remained
in Northern Ireland.
Resurgence of 'The Troubles'
When trouble restarted in the late 1960s it took some by surprise,
as there had been relative peace for the first time in memory.
IRA violence soared as they controversially took it upon themselves
to 'defend the Catholic community' from what they viewed as
the unjust treatment of a foreign government, and corrupt
Protestant dominated state bodies. It prompted Northern Irish
Prime Minister Terence O'Neill to meet the Irish Taoiseach
(Prime Minister), and visit local Catholics. Reaction to these
symbolic gestures propelled Reverend Ian Paisley into
the limelight as the ranting face of extreme Protestantism,
who was to play a prominent part right up until the present
day. BBC reporter John Simpson explains that Paisley
was "infuriated that Catholics should dare to challenge
the authority of a Protestant government".
Protestant political domination, unfairly rigged via gerrymandering
and lack of civil rights for Catholics, had kept Protestant
majorities in virtually every town. A perfect example of this
is Derry City which has never had a Catholic dominated City
Council despite over 60% of the population being Catholic.
In October 1968, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)
police force, violently broke up a Catholic Civil Rights march,
and perhaps started 'the Troubles'. In January, 1969, another
civil rights march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by an
unappreciative Unionist mob sporting nailed truncheons, and
led by Ian Paisley, just outside Derry. The RUC stood aside.
To compound matters, they later carried out a raid on the
Catholic area of the City, Bogside. Similar events occurred,
and it became apparent that the police contributed to the
problem. Catholic citizens viewed the RUC as a tool of repression
rather than protection. Consequently, O'Neill arranged for
British soldiers to be sent in for the protection of the Catholic
population, and to restore order.
Catholics initially welcomed them. Television news reports
showed old ladies bringing them cups of tea in the Catholic
townships. However, things would change dramatically. Violence
and overreaction on behalf of the British troops would see
them rejected by the Catholic community, and they were physically
and psychologically barred from many 'dangerous' Catholic
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
In 1971, the British Government attempted to inhibit IRA violence
by interning and imprisoning, without trial, hundreds of suspected
IRA 'sympathisers'. This caused a lot of indignation in the
Catholic community who rightly believed many of those imprisoned
to be innocent and unfairly treated. On 30 January, 1972,
thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by an 'out of control'
British paratroop division in Derry.
The event became inconicised as Bloody Sunday and is
remembered to this day. No soldiers or politicians were found
guilty in the original public inquiry, The Widgery Report,
which was widely viewed as a 'whitewash'. However, politicians,
media and locals highlighted a number of vital omissions and
a new inquiry was commissioned and is only reaching its conclusion
Locals claim that those killed were innocent protestors, at
worst unarmed vandals, gunned down by paratroopers who were
instructed by government officials to enact a crackdown. The
victims included seven teenage boys. Stormont ended in 1972.
The Sunningdale Agreement, a power sharing deal attempted
to address civil rights. However, the deal was destroyed and
made unworkable instantly by a massive strike which saw the
Protestant Ulster Workers' Strike of 1974 bring the
country to a standstill.
A war on two fronts
Eventually, the IRA started to attack people and buildings
both within Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. This 'war
on two fronts' marginalised them increasingly from both Catholics,
Protestants and the British. However, Protestant paramilitaries
such as the UVF and UDA (Ulster Defence Association) were
now carrying out cold-blooded murders of Northern Irish Catholics.
Things reached a crescendo when IRA prisoners in 'The Maze',
outside Belfast, went on hunger strike, demanding the right
to be seen as political prisoners. British Prime Minister
Margaret Thatcher, who had adopted a very tough stance
on Northern Ireland, opted not to have the prisoners force
fed and ten of them starved to death, the most famous being
MP Bobby Sands, who has become a popular Republican
IRA bombs devastated pubs and shopping centres in Guildford,
Birmingham, Warrington, Manchester and Brighton. The
effect of the bombs was an increased attention from Britain.
However, Margaret Thatcher made sure that no attention was
sympathetic, causing the ignition of an early concept of 'War
on Terror'. For the large Irish community in Britain it meant
mistrust, police arrests, and many unfair convictions, later
to be overturned.
The violence was made more difficult to understand, as the
main terrorist groups splintered. The IRA broke up into the
Official IRA and the Provisional IRA (known
as the Provos). The 'Provos' then split into extremist groups,
the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and subsequently
into DAD (Direct Action Against Drugs), and Continuity
IRA (CIRA). Killings had become tit-for-tat murders of
soldiers, policemen, prison guards, workmen, and innocent
citizens alike. The troubles escalated, and little was done
in the way of genuine moves for peace. At present, the 'Provos'
are operating as an Irish equivalent of the Mafia - drug running,
racketeering and murdering. Little remains of their original
'idealists', save for very controversial claims that their
activities are carried out to finance their political wing,
A parallel can be drawn between the 'terrorists' of Palestine,
the ANC and the IRA. Viewed as 'freedom fighters' and 'terrorists'
at the same time, 'idealist' and 'fundamentalist', 'just'
and 'criminal', depending on the viewpoint. The underclass
of people feel drawn into militant and extreme activity based
on lack of any power or voice in government, but as that voice
is found, and political gains are made, the extreme violence
seems increasingly unjustified.
Living with 'The Troubles'
There is no doubt that 'the Troubles' has taken a toll on
the population. The fear and anger, fuelled by extreme violence
on both sides, drove a barrier, quite literally between the
communities. 'Ethnic cleansing' (an unknown term at the time)
meant that most housing estates were dominated by one religion
or the other. In certain areas, separating walls were built
between estates. Belfast was split by the 'peace wall' and
a walled highway dividing the city in two. Most people, even
now, have been effected by 'the Troubles'. Their neighbours
are policemen, soldiers, Catholic teachers, Protestant teachers,
have relations who have been injured, beaten up, harassed
by police, and so on. Yet, everyday life is lived in a startlingly
The peace process
In 1990, things began to change for the good. External factors
came to bear. A sympathetic British government, US interest,
and EU membership brought economic renewal. The Catholic Churches'
influence was waning in the Republic, which was also booming
economically. All of these influences made a big contribution
to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
In 1991 and 1992, thanks to John Hume's Social Democratic
Labour Party (SDLP), most political groups met with British
Prime Minister John Major. The 1993, Downing Street
Declaration was the outcome, stating that Britain had
no, 'selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland'.
In other words, what the people of Northern Ireland vote for,
they will get.
Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, then announced an
IRA ceasefire. British troops reduced their presence, and
the streets began to seem normal. In 1995, the British and
Irish governments drew up 'Framework Documents' outlining
a self-governing body, and for relations between that body,
Westminster and Dublin. The Framework documents were for discussion
only. The main controversy in discussions on the documents
was the issue of 'decommissioning'. The IRA refused to decommission
while British troops remained in Northern Ireland. This was
unacceptable to the British or Ulster Unionists who have an
understandable mistrust of the IRA. The talks broke down.
On February 9, 1996, the cease-fire ended with the IRA's destruction
of Canary Wharf in London.
The Good Friday Agreement
In May 1997, Tony Blair's Labour Party won a landslide victory
in Britain and brought a renewed commitment to Northern Ireland.
Fianna Fail's Bertie Ahern was an equally good-willed
leader of the Irish Republic. Northern Ireland Secretary Mo
Mowlam allowed Sinn Fein into all party talks in Stormont,
after a new cease-fire was acknowledged. The decommissioning
issue was being dealt with simultaneously with the Stormont
talks as suggested by peace broker Senator George Mitchell.
On April 10, 1998, after intense negotiations, the historic
Good Friday Agreement was signed and greeted enthusiastically
by those waiting for the breakthrough at home. The agreement
ultimately allowed Northern Ireland's fate to be decided electorally
within its own borders, and also set up good relations with
the Republic and allowed religious equality in Northern Ireland.
It was resoundingly endorsed.
The new Northern Ireland assembly had legislative and executive
control over most areas of life, whilst independent commissions
were set up to examine policing and other issues. Assembly
elections put the Ulster Unionists (UUP) in charge with the
SDLP in second, closely followed by Ian Paisley's Democratic
Unionist Party (DUP) and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein. David
Trimble became Northern Ireland's First Minister in the
new assembly, with SDLP's Seamus Mallon as his deputy.
Peace in our time?
Peace is not a foregone conclusion. The Orange Order
marches remain a very contentious issue. The IRA have splintered
again, and internal Republican violence remains contentious.
The newly formed Republican dissidents, the Real IRA devastated
the town of Omagh, killing 29 people. Condemnation
was swift from all sides including Sinn Fein. Cease-fires
were called by the extreme Real IRA, INLA and LVF (Loyalist
Volunteer Force), but not universally upheld. The decommissioning
issue continues to dog the Assembly. Chris Patten's
independent policing commission was controversial. It advocated
radical changes to the RUC who since 1922 had been almost
100% Protestant. The commission wanted the force to be 30%
Catholic. He wanted it renamed, with new uniforms, and to
stop flying the British flag. The lack of willing to carry
out the commission's suggestions was to become for Republicans
what decommissioning was to Unionists.
In October 1999, Mo Mowlam, seen as something of
a hero for her efforts, was replaced by Tony Blair's close
political ally, 'spin doctor' Peter Mandelson. The
treatment of Mowlam is highly political and remains controversial.
Gang war between rival factions of Loyalist Paramilitaries
broke out. IRA gangs continued to live beyond the law. In
January 2001, Mandelson was replaced by John Reid,
and things continued as usual. Relative peace remained but
little political progress was being made.
In the general election of 2001, the UUP clung on to
power, but recent elections have changed the political landscape.
Ian Paisley's DUP topped the most recent poll, with
Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein the biggest Nationalist party.
With political extremism at the fore in Northern Irish politics,
it is difficult to predict Stormont's future. Paisley is a
fierce opponent of the 'Good Friday Agreement', and refuses
to share power with Sinn Fein. Perhaps, he just wants to direct
the future, a position he has never been in before. Many people
see him simply as a hate-filled, anti-papist madman. Being
physically removed from the UN buildings for verbally abusing
the Pope during an address lends credence to this opinion.
However, in day to day runnings, both Catholics and Protestants
view him as a fair local politician. No doubt, there is truth
in both sides of the argument.
Inclusive talks continue, and the Irish watch, weary but hoping
that something can be achieved. Many have seen it all before.
So many hopes have been smashed that many view the situation
as hopeless. However, a younger, outward looking generation
is growing up, and the longer the peace, the more likely a
constructive generation will emerge.