The aim of this chapter is to describe several basic facts about the conflict, without which it would be impossible to properly understand the significance and the meaning of the main chapters dedicated to the recent round of peace efforts. This chapter also includes a brief description of the historic roots of the conflict. (1)
The small population of Northern Ireland consists of approximately 1,600,000 people. About 56 per cent of them are Protestants, or are descended from Protestants, and almost invariably unionists in their political persuasion; about 41 per cent (2) of them are Roman Catholics, or descended from Roman Catholics, and are usually, but not invariably, nationalist in their politics.
The manifest cause of the conflict is simple: whereas Ulster unionists insist that Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom, Irish nationalists maintain that it must immediately or eventually become part of a sovereign Ireland.
This conflict of aspirations has produced republican paramilitaries dedicated to the triumph of Irish nationalism, and loyalist paramilitaries committed to maintaining the Province within the UK.
Since 1969 nearly 3,000 people have died because of political violence in Northern Ireland. Nearly 2 per cent of the Province's population have been killed or injured. (3)
Political murders, sectarian assassinations, car-bombings, petrol bombings, and "human bombs" have made Northern Ireland infamous, as have armed robberies, punishment beatings, knee-capping, and other forms of communal intimidation associated with the actions of paramilitary groups.
As many commentators say, (4) the British security forces have often added to the region's notoriety, cataloguing developments which have done little for the UK's reputation among civil libertarians: internment and detention without trial between 1971 and 1975; the torture of civilians suspected of being nationalist paramilitaries in the 1970s; the killing in January 1972 of thirteen unarmed civilians on "Bloody Sunday" by troops from the Parachute regiment; "dirty tricks" by army and intelligence personnel conducting "low-intensity war" operations in the 1970s and 1980s; the use of "supergrasses" (paid informants) to generate "assembly-line" justice; and allegations about "shoot-to-kill" policies throughout 1980s and early 1990s.
The conflict has often spread outside the region, leading to the deaths of approximately 200 hundred people in Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and sites elsewhere in Europe, from Gibraltar to Germany.
In the sense of the traditional definition, the nationalist paramilitaries are revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and the establishment of an independent Irish state. They see themselves as conducting a "long war" against the United Kingdom.
The largest and most important of them is the Provisional IRA or (P)IRA. It was formed in 1969 when the older paramilitary organisation of the IRA split into two factions. The Provisionals were more militarist and traditionally nationalist that the remaining Marxist and largely dormant Official IRA fraction. Since the Official IRA has gradually ceased to be of any importance, it has become standard practise to refer to the Provisionals as the IRA, and vice versa.
The IRA has killed or injured more people than any other paramilitary organisation, tied down tens of thousands of British soldiers for two decades, imposed immense economic damage in the region, launched bombing campaigns regularly in Great Britain and the European continent, assassinated key members of the British political elite, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the royal family. Two British Prime Ministers have narrowly escaped the IRA's assassination attempts (Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1984, and John Major at the Cabinet Office in 1991).
The active membership of the IRA is variously estimated anywhere between 500 and 2,000. (5) Its arsenal is thought to include three tonnes of Semtex explosive, 650 AK47 semi-automatic rifles, at least a dozen general-purpose machine guns, 20 Russian heavy-calibre armour-piercing machine guns, at least one Sam-7 missile, up to 40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and up to 100 Webley revolvers. (6)
From 1975 until 1987 the IRA faced one minor rival within the nationalist camp: the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), another break-away group from the Official IRA. However, the INLA remained a very small faction which was weakened by several violent internal feuds. It is not believed at present to be capable of mounting a major bombing campaign, partly because of the seizure outside Dublin in April 1995 of much of its arsenal.
Another small nationalist splinter group, known as Republican Sinn Fein, split from the IRA in 1986. According to a recent report, (6) this organisation recruited in 1994 and 1995 a number of dissident IRA hardliners opposed to the then IRA ceasefire. Republican Sinn Fein repeatedly denounced the 1994 ceasefire as a "surrender." In July 1996, security forces speculated about RSF's possible responsibility for a bomb explosion in Enniskillen.
Loyalist paramilitary organisations define themselves as counter-revolutionaries, dedicated to maintaining Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK.
Although about a dozen different groups are mentioned by historians, there are two main illegal loyalist paramilitary groups: the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
The Ulster Defence Association was a legal organisation until August 1992, when it was outlawed by the British Government. At its peak in the early 1970s the UDA had nearly 40,000 members, mostly working-class Protestants, mobilised with military training to resist the actions of the IRA and defend the loyalist community. Then however, its membership dwindled to below 10,000. (8)
Formally the UDA did not carry out assassinations and attacks on nationalist paramilitaries, or people suspected of supporting them, but it is universally recognised that the killings and actions carried out in the name of such bodies as the Ulster Freedom Fighters or the Ulster Protestant Action Group were in fact those of the UDA.
The other main loyalist paramilitary organisation is the Ulster Volunteer Force (the UVF). Founded in 1966 as a sectarian organisation, it was soon outlawed. The UVF peaked in 1972, when it had some 1,500 members. It has been responsible for many sectarian assassinations of Catholic civilians, sometimes under the pseudonym of the Red Hand Commandos.
In 1990-91 the UVF and the UDA began to sponsor joint operations, and in the summer of 1991 renewed the scale of their operations on a scale not witnessed since the mid-1970s. (9) For instance, in 1992, loyalist terrorists killed 39 people, more than the republican paramilitaries. (10)
The arsenals of the UVF and the UDA are smaller and less sophisticated than the IRA's. The security forces do not have a detailed inventory of them, but the UVF and UDA are thought to have East European assault rifles, including a supply of AK47s; shotguns, handguns and a limited supply of rocket-propelled grenades. They have relied more on home-made weapons, including sub-machine guns. Their explosives capability is also less sophisticated than the IRA's. (11)
2.3.1 The creation of Northern Ireland
In the 19th century, Irish pressure for receiving limited self-government (Home Rule) for Ireland rose. It was met by increasing resistance among the Protestants (descendants of Scottish and English settlers that began to colonise mainly the north of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries). These Protestants lived primarily in Ulster, and were determined to remain in the UK.
In 1912, the British government began to discuss the plan to grant home rule to Ireland for the third time in two decades. The following year, Protestants formed the Ulster Volunteer Force with the aim to fight against it. The beginning of the First World War prevented the crisis from immediate resolution through negotiation or civil war. Both sides decided to postpone the crisis: the home-rule bill passed into law in September 1914, but its application was delayed.
The postponement and the UVF's activities prompted Irish nationalists to organise an insurrection in Ireland. The Eastern Rising of 1916 was bloodier and more wide-ranging than any other nineteenth-century rebellion, but was nevertheless rapidly crushed by the British army because it had not been properly prepared. However, the execution of its leaders, together with the threat of war-time conscription, decisively shifted nationalist opinion. Sinn Fein (a nationalist party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905) emerged considerably stronger after the uprising, becoming an umbrella organisation for people with variety of political ideologies who agreed on Irish independence.
In December 1918 Westminster election, the first conducted under universal male franchise, Sinn Fein won a total of 73 of Ireland's 105 seats. Unionists won 26 seats, 23 of them in the six counties of the north-east.
The new Sinn Fein MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, set up an Irish Parliament, Dail Eireann, and began to construct a parallel independent republican administration. Sinn Fein leader Eamon de Valera was elected president of the Dail. The British authorities decided to coerce Ireland, prompting republican militants of the Irish Republican Army to organise a guerrilla war. The Irish War of Independence (Anglo-Irish War, 1919-1921) began.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists continued to negotiate for the permanent exclusion of the six counties of north-east Ulster from any kind of independence for Ireland. From October 1919 until late 1920 the British Cabinet drafted a fourth home-rule bill, which eventually became the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 (known by Irish nationalists as the "Partition Act"). It created two home-rule parliaments, one to be established in Belfast, as the capital of a six county Northern Ireland, and the other in Dublin, as the capital of a twenty-six county Southern Ireland. The act was implemented in Northern Ireland but was ignored in the south, where the IRA continued to fight for complete "independence."
During the negotiations about this Act, Ulster Unionists lobbied hard to ensure that the Belfast parliament would govern the six counties of the north-east rather than the nine of historic Ulster. In the nine counties Protestants precariously outnumbered Catholics (56:44), but without three counties (Donegal, Monaghan, Cavan) the religious ratio altered dramatically in favour of Protestants (65,5:34,5). Therefore, the territorial definition of Northern Ireland guaranteed an in-build Protestant/unionist majority. The partition was dramatically imperfect on national, ethnic, or religion grounds. The Catholics, and largely Irish nationalist, population not only composed over a third of the entire population, but was also a local majority in two of the six counties (Fermanagh and Tyrone), the second city of the territory (Derry), and in almost all of the local government jurisdictions contiguous with the new border.
The War of Independence, fought between 1991 and 1921 by the IRA volunteers against Crown forces, eventually brought the British government and Sinn Fein representatives to the negotiating table. In the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 the British conceded Irish independence for the twenty-six counties, granting Ireland dominion status under the Crown, but maintained almost the entirety of the settlement already implemented in Northern Ireland by the Government of Ireland Act. Northern Ireland had been established.
The Dail adopted the treaty by a narrow margin. De Valera's continuing objections let to his resignation, and Michael Collins took over as president. In June 1922, the Irish Free State was established and a new D‡il elected. The conflict over the Treaty lead to the Irish civil war (1921-22) soon afterwards.
At the second half of 1960s, social and economic discrimination against Catholics led to the emergence of a civil-rights movement demanding equality. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded in 1967, did not challenge the existence of Northern Ireland, it only called for changes in many aspects of the position of the nationalist minority. In August and October of 1968, several civil-rights marches were violently dispersed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. (Eruption of violence following a march in Derry on 5 October 1968 is sometimes used to define the beginning of "the Troubles".)
In response, the Unionist Prime Minister Captain Terence O'Neill announced the following month a five point programme of political reform (setting up, for example, an independent housing executive). After the implementation of these measures, large scale inter-communal disorders died down but the reforms and promises of further improvements began to alienate the more extreme Unionists (especially around Ian Paisley).
On August 12, 1969, a Protestant march was attacked by Catholic protesters, large scale rioting and clashes returned. The British Army troop had to be called to the Province to assist with getting the situation under control. The British government issued the Downing Street Declaration confirming that every citizen of Northern Ireland was entitled to the equal treatment and freedom from discrimination granted to citizens throughout the rest of the UK. It aimed to placate Catholics that were really, as analysts agree, discriminated against by the Protestants.
Despite the Declaration, peace and unity remained elusive, with the IRA organising a continuous campaign of violence, bombing, shooting and harassment.
On 30 January 1972, thirteen civil-right protesters were killed by British Paratroopers in Derry. "Bloody Sunday" launched another outbreak of violence. In Dublin, the British embassy was burned. The British government decided to abolish the regional parliament at Stormont and introduced the present direct rule from Westminster.
The campaign of violence continued through 1970s, many peace initiatives and attempts to find a compromise solution failed. (Such as the Northern Ireland assembly in 1973 and 1974 which tried to establish a new devolved administration which would be run jointly by Protestants and Catholics. It was blocked by loyalists.)
In the 1980s, IRA prisoners, such as Bobby Sands, used peaceful, essentially passive measures like hunger strikes to draw attention to the struggle against Britain's presence in Ireland. The deaths of the hunger strikers, ignored by the government of Margaret Thatcher, stirred deep resentment among Irish nationalists. The IRA responded with waves of bombs.
In 1983, Irish leader Garrett FitzGerald established the New Ireland Forum, a peace initiative masterminded by John Hume, the leader of the moderate nationalist SDLP. The aim of this forum was to discuss the prospects of Northern Ireland conflict among all the main nationalist parties both from North and South. (Sinn Fein was excluded for its failure to renounce violence.)
Although the parties agreed that a united Ireland was the preferred solution, the final report of the Forum explored two other options: a federal/confederal state, and joint authority of both London and Dublin over Northern Ireland.
The examination of join authority was very important, as it implied an acceptance that the total withdrawal of Great Britain might not be necessary for the solution of the problem.
On 15 November 1985, the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement (also known as the Hillsborough Agreement) that allowed the Irish Republic to have a consultative role in the affairs of Ulster. Both governments recognised that any change in the status of Northern Ireland needs consent of majority of it people. It also stated that if such a moment came, both governments would support this decision.
The Agreement was considered by many analysts to be very important, especially because the British government indirectly claimed in it that it was ready to negotiate about the future of the Province and that it is, in fact, prepared to accept a united Ireland. Moreover, the Agreement significantly improved relations between London and Dublin.
It was strongly opposed by Ulster unionists, who were afraid of being "betrayed and sold out" by the British government.
The importance of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was overshadowed by the fact that violence did not cease in following years. On the contrary, campaigns of paramilitaries continued with higher intensity.
In 1991, Mary Robinson was elected president of Ireland, John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as the British Prime Minister, and John Bruton succeeded Alan Dukes as leader of Fine Gael party. By opening the possibility of direct dialogue with extreme republican circles, these leaders tried to open the door to peace.
In 1991, the new British government, led by Major, stepped up efforts to find a political solution via all-party talks. In 1992, the Irish government held talks with Protestant political parties from Northern Ireland for the first time in 70 years.
Another round of the peace process began.
1. This chapter is based mainly on following texts:
John Whyte: Interpreting Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1990.)
Brandan O'Leary and John McGarry: The Politics of Antagonism - Understanding Northern Ireland (Athlone Press, London. 1993.) T.W. Moody and F.X.Martin: The Course of Irish History (Mercier Press Limited, Cork, Ireland. 1994.), published in the Czech republic as: Dejiny Irska (Lidove noviny, Prague. 1996.)
2. Britain in the USA - Northern Ireland
3. O'Leary, McGarry: The Politics of Antagonism - Understanding Northern Ireland (Athlone Press, London. 1993.), p.13
4. Ibid., p.9
5. Ibid., p.25
6. the Times, 16.1.1996
7. the Independent, 15.7.1996, p.2
8. O'Leary, McGarry: The Politics of Antagonism - Understanding Northern Ireland (Athlone Press, London. 1993.), p.26
9. Ibid., p.27
10. T.W. Moody and F.X.Martin: The Course of Irish History (Mercier Press Limited, Cork, Ireland. 1994.), p.283
11. the Times, 16.1.1996
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