Ireland and Northern Ireland

Events leading to the Easter rising, 1916

The basic problem

From 1801 onwards, Ireland was formally part of the United Kingdom. The majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic and these people became increasingly opposed to government by a distant and largely Protestant parliament. They were sometimes referred to as nationalists or republicans. However, in the north-east, there existed a Protestant majority who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom, referred to as unionists or loyalists.

The outbreak of the First World War, 1914

In August 1914, the United Kingdom entered the First World War, and was soon to deploy many Irish troops. In September 1914, following an extremely long campaign, an Irish Home Rule Bill was passed by the parliament in Westminster. This would free Ireland from British control, although it would remain part of the British Empire. However, it was agreed that this law would not come into operation until the end of the war. This was not good enough for some Irish nationalists.


Irish Volunteers on paradeIn April, a group called the Irish Volunteers seized key government buildings in Dublin (the centre of British government in Ireland). They declared that Ireland was now a republic, free from British rule. Initially they gained very little support from the people of Dublin, surrendering after five days. However, when the British government executed the leaders of the rebellion it caused great anger in Ireland, even among people who had not supported the Easter Rising.

Civil war in Ireland, 1918-23

General election, December 1918

Following the end of World War I in November 1918, a General Election was held. Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in Ireland, won 73 out of 105 Irish seats in the Westminster parliament. However, they refused to go to the Westminster parliament, instead setting up an unofficial parliament in Dublin. They shared the aim of the rebels of 1916 – Irish self-governance.

Guerrilla war, 1919-21

Many Irish had fought on behalf of the British Empire during the Great War. These men were now re-mobilised and joined by additional British forces, totalling 60,000 troops. They became involved in a vicious conflict against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), successors of the 1916 Irish Volunteers.
In 1920, the Government of Ireland Act allowed Sinn Fein a Home Rule parliament in Catholic Dublin as well as a Home Rule parliament in Protestant Belfast to govern six of the nine counties in Ulster. However, Sinn Fein rejected this compromise.

The Irish Free State, 1921

After another year of fighting, the two sides agreed to the creation of an Irish Free State in southern Ireland:
  • This would be part of the British Commonwealth
  • Irish MPs would swear an oath of loyalty to the British Crown
  • Ulster would stay in the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland ‘problem’

After 1921, the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland created a Protestant state. However, Roman Catholics, who supported the idea of a united Ireland, were discriminated against:
  • The government drew constituency boundaries to ensure that few Catholics were elected to Parliament
  • Local councils gave priority to Protestants in jobs, education, housing and business contracts
  • Many employers refused to employ Catholics.

The Northern Ireland troubles, 1968-98

The Civil Rights Movement

For over forty years, the Catholics of Northern Ireland did little about the problems they faced. Then, in 1968, they formed a Civil Rights Movement and began to march and demonstrate. There were violent clashes and British troops were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace.
All attempts by the Northern Ireland government to introduce reforms for the benefit of Catholics failed. So, in 1972, the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont was abolished and Northern Ireland returned to being governed directly from London.

Growing extremism

The IRA had had little support since the 1920s. Now, its willingness to use violence was seen as a way of protecting Catholics. It launched a guerrilla war against British targets, both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland.
There were also violent groups on the Protestant side, notably the Ulster Volunteer Force.
In the period up to the 1990s, many people from both communities, together with police officers and British soldiers, were killed and injured, particularly by bombing campaigns and summary executions. Property was also destroyed.

The Good Friday agreement, 1998

The Good Friday agreementBy the 1990s, there was growing realisation on both sides that violence was not going to solve Northern Ireland's problems. A deal was brokered by the UK government and signed on Good Friday of 1998. The agreement saw the Belfast parliament restored to Stormont:
  • The nationalist community and the Irish government accepted that Northern Ireland would remain in the United Kingdom until a majority of its people voted to become part of Ireland
  • The British government accepted that the people of Ireland as a whole had the right to solve the issues between North and South themselves, without any outside interference
  • Arrangements were made to ensure that all governments in Northern Ireland contained representatives from the two communities.

Since 1998

In the years following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, a sometimes-uneasy truce prevailed in Northern Ireland. Armed groups from both communities decommissioned their weapons and levels of violence were significantly reduced. Although the power-sharing arrangements between politicians from the two communities have regularly been a source of tension, the level of reconciliation achieved has been greater than seemed possible a generation previously.
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