Northern Ireland

Alternative names: Ulster
Location: north-eastern area of Ireland
Population: 1,482,000 (1981); Protestants 1,067,500; Catholics 414,500
% of population: Protestants: 72%; Catholics: 28%
Religion: Protestant (50% Presbyterians); Catholic
Language: English

The six counties of the province of Northern Ireland, often referred to as Ulster, are part of the United Kingdom and have existed as a separate political entity since the 1921 Treaty which partitioned Ireland (the Treaty came into effect on January 1, 1922) into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. For over three hundred years there has been a troubled relationship between the two major religious communities, the majority Protestants and the minority Catholics; a problem which dates back to the British colonization of the region in the seventeenth century.


The English crown had an uneasy dominance over parts of Ireland from the eleventh century. Eager to prevent rebellion against their rule in the seventeenth century they offered grants of land, previously seized from the Irish, to any who were willing to maintain forces to suppress such rebellions. Thousands of Scots and English migrated to the region and accepted the land grants in the so-called Protestant Plantation. Most settled in the north-eastern counties where they gradually came to be in the majority. Differences of origin and religion combined with the circumstances of entry, caused enmity between the two communities. Cromwell’s brutal 1649 military campaign in Ireland further alienated Catholics and entrenched Protestant ascendancy. Many Irish Catholics supported the Catholic “Jacobite” claim to the crown and the Protestant William of Orange decisively defeated Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. These events, most especially the actions of the Protestant apprentice boys of Deny (Londonderry), are still relived in the myths and present struggles of Catholics and Protestants today.

In 1801 an Act of Settlement made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. Disastrous famines in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in large-scale emigration and depopulation. However industries such as textiles and ship-building were also established primarily in the north in Belfast and Londonderry. From the mid-nineteenth century there were demands for Home Rule (autonomy) for Ireland. There were several attempts by parliament to implement such a measure in 1886,1893 and finally in 1912. This aroused great opposition in Protestant-dominated Ulster which did not wish to be dominated by Catholic Dublin and an armed Ulster Volunteer Force was ready to resist its imposition. When the bill had its third reading in 1914 Ireland seemed on the brink of civil war. Home rule was not put into operation because of World War I and in 1916 an armed uprising, known as the Easter Uprising, was suppressed by British troops. After this Sinn Fein and Irish Republican Army troops conducted a guerrilla war against the British which ended only with the 1921 Treaty and agreed partition of Ireland between a Free State in the south (about 75% of the territory of the island) and the six provinces of Antrim, Down, Armagh, Londonderry, Tyrone and Fermanagh which became Northern Ireland. In the south many would not accept the partition and as a result a civil war was fought which eventually resulted in a victory for the supporters of partition.

In the north a separate Northern Ireland Parliament was established, which was effectively dominated for almost 50 years by a small group of Protestants. The communities tended to remain apart each with their own religious affiliation and way of life but there was little overt violence between them. However the majority Protestants were in a position of advantage in housing and employment while Catholics were not only discriminated against in public housing and industrial employment but were often prevented from voting in elections, thus entrenching the Protestant political dominance. The relative proportions between the communities – about three to one in favour of the Protestants – changed little, for although Catholics had a higher birth rate, their poverty also meant that they migrated in greater numbers.

“The Troubles”

The educational reforms of the 1940s created better educational standards and spawned a new generation

1Ulster was one of the four historic provinces of Ireland and was larger than the present area of Northern Ireland.

2From 1936 Eire and from 1949 the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland

of Catholics dissatisfied with second-class status and prepared to take part in the running of the province. However it was not until the late 1960s that clashes broke out when growing — and at first mainly peaceful — civil rights agitation culminated in serious rioting in Londonderry in October 1968 and the militancy of the Catholics caused a similar militant backlash among some Protestants. In August 1969,90 houses in the Catholic Falls Road area of Belfast were destroyed by Protestants and the British Army was called in to restore order. Some reforms of the franchise, the police and local government (all of which had favoured Protestants) were attempted by the Northern Ireland government but it appeared too late to stem the rising tide of violence and in any case they were badly received by the Protestants.

The number of violent incidents in the province increased dramatically after the arrival of British troops. At first the troops were welcomed by the Catholic population but later they became bitterly opposed. The most serious incident was “bloody Sunday” in January 1972 when 13 Catholic demonstrators were shot dead by British troops. Many Catholics, especially in working-class areas of Belfast and Londonderry, supported paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which began a campaign of terror within the province which reached a peak after the introduction of internment without trial in August 1971. Terrorist attacks spread to mainland Britain and were at first aimed at military targets but later became indiscriminate. Bombs exploded in pubs, hotels and cars and in 1974 a series of civilian bombings, resulting in large-scale loss of life, outraged opinion in the UK and Ireland. In response to these bombings the UK government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1974, which gave special powers for terrorist suspects to be held by police for longer than normal periods without charge. The PTA has been renewed by successive UK governments. There have been continued terrorist attacks since in both Northern Ireland, especially on police stations and military installations, and on the UK mainland, including the deaths of Conservative Party politician Airey Neave and Earl Mountbatten in 1979 together with an attempt to assassinate members of the UK Cabinet at Brighton in 1984.

Internment without trial ended in 1975. During the period of internment there had been allegations by the Irish government and others of maltreatment of suspects by the military and police during interrogation sessions and the Dublin government had complained to the European Commission on Human Rights, which in 1978 ruled that interrogation methods were not torture but “cruel and inhuman treatment”. Since that time Amnesty International has reported that reports of ill-treatment have dropped considerably, although it has continued to express concern over practices such as strip-searching of prisoners and a possible “shoot to kill” policy by elements in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Special category status was introduced to deal with the large numbers of extra prisoners — both Unionist and Republicans — during the troubles. Although this was not an official political status its partial withdrawal in 1976 caused demonstrations by the Nationalists and the prisoners themselves. Its complete withdrawal in 1980 led to protests by Republican prisoners in the “H-Block” prison culminated in a hunger strike by prisoners which resulted in the deaths of 10 prisoners before the strike was called off. Those who died included Bobby Sands, who had been elected to the Parliament at Westminster during his internment. Amnesty International has also expressed concern about the widespread use of “Diplock Courts”, introduced during the 1970s, which have no juries and are presided over by a senior judge, and the “supergrass” trials which took place between 1983 and 1985.

Changes in governmental structures

It became obvious very early in the Troubles that the governmental structure in Northern Ireland would always give a majority to the Protestants and that they would use it to block further advancement for the Catholics. Attempts to reform Stormont (the Northern Irish parliament) failed due primarily to intransigence by Protestants, and in March 1972 Stormont was suspended for one year by the Westminster government and ruled directly from London by William Whitelaw as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The change was welcomed by most Catholic opposition leaders but was opposed by most Protestants, who organized a two-day general strike which disrupted the Northern Ireland economy. There were attempts over the next year to create an alternative structure but while these initially appeared promising, they soon collapsed amid unprecedented violence in mid-1972, while a referendum, the Border Poll conducted in March 1973, was boycotted by the Catholic community. In May 1973 a Northern Ireland Assembly Bill was enacted, providing for an election on June 28 with an executive, drawn from members from both communities to be appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Although the elections did take place the executive was not appointed until December and consisted of members from the Unionist Party, the main Protestant group, the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), the main Catholic party and the much smaller Alliance Party, a non-communal centralist group. In that month a Tripartite (UK, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland) Conference held at Sunningdale established an Anglo-Irish Commission on Law Enforcement, but when the Assembly met in January 1974 there were violent scenes and the Unionist Party split and withdrew from the power-sharing executive, which finally collapsed after a strike by Protestant workers in April 1974.

There have been other attempts to create direct government in Northern Ireland. In late 1974 a Constitutional Convention discussion paper was published which featured a deliberate non-Executive body. The election and first meeting of the convention took place in April 1975 but the Ulster United Unionist Council declared its opposition to any form of power sharing. The Atkins Constitutional Conference opened without the Official Unionists in January 1980 but it adjourned in March and the two-option devolution proposals put forward were rejected by all parties. Elections to a Northern Ireland Assembly, set up under the Northern Ireland Bill of 1982, were held in October 1982 but the Assembly failed to function as members of the SDLP and Sinn Fein (the legal political party of the Provisional Irish Republican Army) refused to take their seats. Other parties temporarily withdrew from it and the Assembly was dissolved in 1986. The major reason for the failure of these institutions has been the refusal of major Protestant parties to accept meaningful sharing of power with Catholic-dominated organizations, although the Protestants appear to be neither as united or as powerful as in the past and several attempts at successful strike action by Protestant organizations have failed.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, also known as the Hillsborough Accord, specified that an Inter-Governmental Conference concerned with Northern Ireland and the relationship between the two parts of Ireland be established, and that representatives of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland meet on a regular basis to put forward views on the future of Northern Ireland. The Agreement explicitly accepted that a change in the status of Northern Ireland could only come about with the consent of the majority of the population of the province, that for the moment the majority did not wish to change their status, but if in the future the majority wished to join a united Ireland both parliaments (i.e. UK and Ireland) would enact legislation to enable this to take place. It also recognized for the first time a clear-cut advisory role for the Irish government in the affairs of the north. The Agreement was formally recognized by the UK and Irish governments in November 1985.

Immediate opposition to the Agreement came from the Ulster Unionists who denounced it as giving a foreign government the right to interfere in the province’s affairs. Unionist MPs at Westminster resigned in protest; in January 1986 most were re-elected but on smaller turnouts. Attempts to organize strikes and other protests have generally been regarded as an irritant but not as a serious obstacle to its implementation. The SDLP and Alliance Party have generally supported the agreement as have, in practice, the main British and Irish Parties. Nationalists such as Sinn Fein have denounced the Agreement as perpetuating British occupation of Northern Ireland; however they also admit that the Agreement came about in part because of the strength of nationalist feeling. There have since been several meetings of the Inter-Governmental Conference and, despite disagreements and disappointments on both sides, to date it has survived.

Group perceptions and politics

The position of the Protestants in Ulster is fraught with tension: they are the ruling majority but they feel themselves to be a besieged minority, since south of the border the Protestants form less than 5% of the population. Protestants are aware that the British government saw Irish unity as the ultimate objective in 1921 and fear that the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 leads the same way. They are distrustful of the British and the chief concern of erstwhile Ulster governments has been the preservation of the border with the Irish (Catholic) republic. They are fearful of Catholics who they see as wishing to destroy the basis of the Northern-Irish state and reunite with the rest of Ireland and of being dictated to by the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the Protestants have developed a siege-mentality.

The Catholics, on the other hand, feel with justification that they are discriminated against. They are the poorer community, historically the under-dogs. The Catholic unemployment rate is high, averaging 35% in 1988, and in some areas much higher; the amount of low cost housing is inadequate for their needs and they play little part in the administration of the province. Most of Northern Ireland’s wealth is found in the eastern counties and in the city of Belfast where the greater part of the population (mostly Protestants) live. Catholics feel a sense of bitterness that the western (and mostly Catholic) counties of Londonderry. Tyrone and Fermanagh remain largely poor and underdeveloped. The alarming unemployment rate contributes markedly to a sense of frustration among Catholic men and this in turn finds expression in high levels of political violence.

The two communities live in fear of each other and look for support to the British government and the Irish government respectively; meanwhile extremist politicians on both sides exploit these fears to gain support for their policies. Ian Paisley commands an emotional response from Protestants of all classes and has succeeded in gaining election as a Democratic Unionist at Westminster and as a Member of the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, makes a similar appeal to Catholics and has also been elected as a Westminster MP although he refuses to accept his seat. The SDLP is a mainly Catholic-supported party which pursues a peaceful solution while of necessity tolerating the Catholic community’s ambivalent attitude to political violence. The RUC and the part-time local Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) are paramilitary groups formed to control security, but charges of Protestant partisanship have been directed at both and there are very few Catholics in either.

A major obstacle to a rapprochement between the two communities has been the segregation of schools along a religious divide. Until recently Catholic and Protestant children did not meet in schools. The situation has been seriously aggravated by increasing segregation on new estates, some of which are in themselves highly alienating (such as the Divis Flats in Belfast, now in the process of being demolished); a segregation which governments have been obliged to impose after attempts at integrated living failed. Segregation is especially apparent in working-class areas of Belfast (such as the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road) and Derry (such as the Catholic Bogside and the Protestant Waterside). Working places are also segregated, despite the efforts of the government’s Fair Employment Agency, and as a result Catholics and Protestants rarely meet and mutual fear and distrust is intensified and perpetuated. A new move to integrate schooling has proved popular but the numbers of pupils attending these schools is still very small.

The present situation

Northern Ireland has, with the Basque country, been the longest running and most violent conflict in postwar western Europe. According to the Irish Information Partnership there were 2,170 conflict-related deaths in the province between 1969 and 1987, of which 1507 were committed by the IRA and other armed Republican groups and 663 by Loyalist armed groups. Over 300 deaths were caused by the army and police and there were further deaths as a result of civilians being caught in crossfire. Although British troops were sent into Northern Ireland as a supposedly temporary measure, 20 years later 10,000 are still stationed there, although most routine security work is now handled by the 13,000-strong RUC and the 6,000-strong UDR. More than 12,000 people have been charged with terrorist offences and the present prison population stands at 2,000. The already disadvantaged economy has been further hit by political violence and economic recession.

However, despite the continuing conflict, some observers have seen signs of progress in the implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the working together of different political parties and factions in local government, the emergence of a growing middle class across denominational lines and the normalization of life in many areas. Churches, trade unions and peace groups have been working to achieve greater tolerance between the two communities and there are some hopes that further integration within the European communities might have far-reaching effects.

(See also Protestants of Eire)