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In the early 17th
century, as part of their plan to subjugate Ireland, the English
government decided to 'plant' settlements of English and Scots
colonists in Ulster, on land taken away from the native Irish who had
remained faithful to the Catholic religion and were regarded as potential
rebels. These plantations are the historical cause of the present ethnic
and religious divide. The Protestant community, mainly consisting of
Presbyterians (of Scots origin), still form a majority in the north,
whereas Catholics predominate in the south. The northern Catholics feel
little allegiance to the British crown.
Up to the 19th century, Ulster had been regarded as a remote and insignificant part of Ireland and of the British Isles as a whole. Protestants, and especially Presbyterians, made Ulster a province distinctly different from the rest of Ireland. Ulster Protestantism was regarded by Irish Catholics as a foreign and hostile phenomenon. In the early 19th century Belfast was an almost exclusively Protestant city but an influx of Roman Catholics from the countryside added a significant Roman Catholic minority. Changes in the British economy resulted in the rise of Belfast as the economic centre of Ireland. Religion or rather differences in religion soon became a dominant political force. A clash of identities between 'Britishness' and 'Irishness' became increasingly apparent.
The proposal by the Liberal government just before World War I to grant 'Home Rule' to a united Ireland was bitterly opposed by the more militant Ulster Protestants (also known as 'Orangemen' because of their historical association with the Protestant William of Orange, who as William III defeated the Catholic forces of the Stuart king James II in 1690). The intransigent Orangemen feared that in a united Ireland they would lose their power and their identity. The World War intervened before Home Rule could be enacted. After the war the southern rebels finally succeeded in obtaining Irish independence by the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, but the six counties of Northern Ireland were excluded from the new southern Irish State. The island was partitioned: Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom but with its own Parliament, in which the Protestant parties had a permanent majority. The issue of partition led to a civil war in the south between those who refused to accept this partition (the founders of the Fianna Fail party) and those who were willing to accept partition as the price of independence (the Fine Gael party).
For nearly fifty years after 1921, power in Northern Ireland was exercised by the Protestant Unionist party which had a permanent majority in the provincial Parliament. The Catholic minority suffered from discrimination and injustice. In the late 1960s a Civil Rights Association was formed to campaign for reform of the political system. Their protests led to rioting and sectarian violence, an in 1969 British troops were sent to the province to keep the peace. They were initially welcomed by the Catholic population, but this mood changed after the events of 'Bloody Sunday' (30 January 1972) when 13 Civil Rights protestors were shot dead during a banned demonstration in Londonderry. The anger caused by this event was exploited by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), which now began its campaign of bombing and terror as a means of ending partition. In 1974 there was a brief experiment in 'power-sharing' between the Unionist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic) parties, but this was bitterly opposed by the Protestant Ulster Workers' Council, and later that year direct rule by Westminster was reintroduced. Since then the opposing parties in Ulster have failed to reach agreement on a new system of government, and effective power has been in the hands of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who is a member of the British Cabinet.
From 1971 to 1994 the IRA waged an indiscriminate campaign of terror in Ulster and on the mainland of Britain. Their most sensational coups were the assassination of the Queen's cousin, Earl Mount-batten, in 1979, and the bomb attack at Brighton in 1984, which narrowly missed killing the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher. Far more shocking, however, was the killing and maiming of many ordinary citizens going about their daily business. Violence bred violence: extremist Protestant Unionists formed their own paramilitary organisations to combat the IRA, and both sides carried out 'tit-for-tat' murders, raiding each other's territory.
Ulster is not the only region in Europe to be torn apart by sectarian strife whose causes can be traced back several centuries. The conflict is not a religious war between Catholics and Protestants, but a conflict between two ethnic groups who inhabit the same territory but are estranged from each other by history, religion and culture. They go to different schools, attend different churches and live in different areas of the same towns and cities. Again and again the vast majority of Ulster people, on both sides of the divide, have voiced their demand for peace, but the politicians have not been able to reach compromise.
In 1994, following many months of secret negotiations, the IRA declared a cease-fire, but the British government refused to allow representatives of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) to attend allparty peace talks unless they agreed to 'decommission' (hand over, or surrender) their arms. This the IRA refused to do, and the cease-fire ended early in 1996. Since then there have been renewed bomb attacks, but on a reduced scale. The 'Irish Question' has now become internationalised, since the United States (which has a very large number of citizens of Irish origin) has a vested interest in negotiating a settlement, and there has been increased cooperation between the governments in London and Dublin.
The political parties in Northern Ireland generally reflect the sectarian divide. On the Protestant side there are two main parties: the Official Unionists (the heirs of the old Unionist party which held power in the Ulster Parliament from 1921 to 1974), and the Democratic Unionists (DUP), led by the charismatic preacher-politician the Reverend Ian Paisley. On the Catholic side, the Social Democratic and Unionist Party (SDLP) has consistently waged a non-violent, democratic campaign for a united Ireland and for reconciliation between the two communities. Sinn Fein has close links with the IRA, and has never condemned its terrorist activities. Ml these parties have representatives in the Westminster parliament. The non-sectarian Alliance party has had limited success in local elections, but has never achieved representation in Westminster.
In October 1997, for the first time in 25 years, Protestants and Catholics sat together to seek a solution to Ulster's problems. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, shook hands with Sinn Fein's leaders, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 set the terms for the final peace settlement and in June elections were held for a 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, in which both Catholics and Protestants began to share power and responsibilities.
However, the conflict in Ulster persists. A few months after the peace accord the terrorists from the so-called 'real' IRA committed in Omagh the worst atrocity in the modern history of Northern Ireland, killing in a bomb attack 29 and injuring more than 200. Horrified by the Omagh attack, the people in Northern Ireland look forward with apprehension to a lasting peace.
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