VARIOUS TEXTS: Northern Ireland: A society at war with itself

A society at war with itself
Der Weg von der Teilung Irlands im Jahre 1921 bis zum Karfreitagsabkommen von 1998 war lang und dornenreich — und auch drei Jahre später ist Nordirland noch lange nicht mit sich im Reinen.

It was in 1921, after a bitter and indecisive war with the Irish Republican Army, that Britain agreed to withdraw from the 26 southern counties of Ireland, making way for an independent Ireland. The other six north-eastern counties, where most of the mainly Protestant descendants of Scottish and English settlers lived, had already been granted self-government within the United Kingdom to meet the passionate determination of those British "Unionists".

Partition was welcomed by few. It left many —— Irish nationalists stranded in the new Northern Ireland, and many Unionists cut off from Britain in the new Irish Free State. Yet to almost everyone's surprise, partition provided stability for many decades, even if it was not a permanent solution to "the Irish question".

London governments gladly withdrew from Irish affairs, while the new Free State concentrated on the problem of creating a nation that had lost six counties. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, held on to its Britishness, and London left it very much to its own, though the UK provided a large financial subsidy.

The arbitrary* six-county border had been drawn in order to create a Northern Ireland with a secure 2:1 Protestant, and therefore British Unionist, majority. The arrangement provided short-term security and a measure of stability, but it also guaranteed bitter division. By changing the voting rules and redrawing constituency boundaries to its own advantage, the ruling Unionist party maintained tight control. As a result, it provided one-party rule continuously from 1921 until 1972.

Unionist dominance extended to all areas of public life, from the police and courts to administration, housing and employment. The Orange Order, a kind of Protestant masonry* opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, had a strong influence: between 1921 and 1969, only three of the 54 cabinet ministers were not Orangemen.

Over the years, the absolute domination of politics by the Unionist party resulted in the atrophying* of political life in both the Unionist and nationalist communities. Nationalists saw little point in participation, and Unionists saw little need to conciliate nationalists who were always seen as the enemy. Occasional, though minor and futile. IRA campaigns simply kept alive the bitterness and strengthened a Unionist laager* mentality.

The arrival of a new Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O'Neill, in 1963, quickly ended the political ice age. Faced by economic problems, the rise of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland and a Labour government in London pressing for reform, O'Neill saw the need to deal with community problems. Looking back, one finds that his initiatives were largely cosmetic. Among the high points were visits to Catholic schools, conciliatory statements and, most controversially, an invitation in 1965 to the Irish Republic's prime minister, Sean Lemass, to visit Northern Ireland.

O'Neill's initiatives succeeded in angering hardline Unionists and destabilizing his grass roots; but they failed to convince the nationalist community that significant change was being delivered. Splits in the once monolithic Unionist party and the emergence of Ian Paisley, a hardline Unionist clergyman-turned-politician known for his anti-Catholicism, marked the start of Unionist infighting. It has been going on ever since — a battle that has made it more difficult for Unionism to adapt to political challenges.

By the mid-1960s, significant changes were apparent within the Catholic community. A growing and more confident Catholic middle class provided leadership for the Catholic working class, which suffered from high unemployment and bad housing. Street demonstrations reached their peak in a huge protest march in Londonderry in October 1968, when police overreaction was seen on television and received considerable international media attention.

Major violence followed in August 1969, with a series of deaths and large numbers of people fleeing their homes. The almost open warfare between the Royal Ulster Constabulary* and a number of nationalist areas added to the sense of breakdown. It was then that British soldiers were sent in to restore order in 1969: over 30 years later, they are still there.

The IRA, which until then had been a small and almost ineffectual historical hangover, grew and split as Catholic anger at its failure to protect the community increased. The split led to the emergence of a new Provisional IRA, which was supposed to protect Catholic districts, but which quickly began an aggressive campaign of bombings and shootings aimed at driving the British out of Ireland.

Violence escalated rapidly. In 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, almost 500 people were killed. In that year, the Conservative British government suspended the government and parliament of Northern Ireland and took direct control. Years of violence and unsuccessful political initiatives followed. By the late 1970s, the two nationalist blocs, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and republicans (made up of the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein), were rethinking their strategies. After the failure of the 1974 power-sharing initiative, the SDLP, led by John Hume, looked beyond Northern Ireland to a strategy that would involve Dublin, London, Irish America and Europe.

A prison hunger strike in 1981, during which ten republicans died, gave a huge and unexpected boost to republican politics when hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to the British parliament. This and subsequent successes in other elections convinced republicans that a political strategy was possible. In the years since 1981, Sinn Fein developed as a strong political party with significant electoral support.

The rise of Sinn Fein helped push London and Dublin closer together, as each recognized the danger that republicanism — rather than the non-violent SDLP — might become the chief voice of northern nationalism. In 1985, the two governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was greeted as a historic new development. It ensured that Northern Ireland would remain British for as long as a majority of its citizens wished, but it also guaranteed a role for Dublin in representing the interests of northern nationalists. This was very much a victory for the SDLP, which argued that Northern Ireland contained two communities whose different national identities, British and Irish, should both be respected and institutionalized. Unionists reacted angrily, feeling it weakened their Britishness. In the years that followed, the agreement did not fulfil the hopes of its supporters, but it represented a significant and formal British acceptance that the Northern Ireland problem had to be addressed jointly by the two governments. Subsequent initiatives have been built on this Anglo-Irish basis.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, together with other factors such as the longevity of the conflict, resulted in much debate, generally led by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, within both the IRA and Sinn Fein. Over a period of years, the republicans gradually came to realize that they might make better progress towards their ultimate goal of Irish unity through political activity rather than through the use of violence.

The 1990s saw secret talks going on between the republicans, the British government, the Irish government and the SDLP, which in 1994 resulted in an IRA cessation* of violence. It broke down in 1996, but was reinstated* the following year, and in 1998 most of the major parties signed up, after lengthy negotiations, for the Good Friday agreement. This put off a decision on Northern Ireland's ultimate future, leaving the region in the meantime to be administered by a new assembly and an executive made up of all major parties. It was regarded as a significant development, as the executive included both Unionists and Sinn Fein. Violence was sharply reduced, though events such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, when a dissident republican group killed 29 people with a car bomb, made it clear that complete peace was not yet possible.

Although both Unionists and republicans were in government, they often disagreed on a range of points. Chief among these has been police reform and decommissioning — the question of whether and when the IRA would give up its enormous store of weapons. The IRA made some compromises on weapons, but Unionists complained that it was not enough. Lack of agreement on this and other points has slowed the development of the new institutions and helped keep tensions high among politicians and in society at large.

In the British general election in June 2001, increased support for both Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party, at the expense of* more moderate parties, appeared to confirm the theory that Northern Ireland remains a highly polarized society. As one observer put it, it seems to be moving towards peace but is not yet at peace with itself.
c. 1400 words

More information:

Loyalist: a Protestant citizen of Northern Ireland who is loyal to the British Crown and wants the province to remain part of Britain. Loyalism is deeply rooted in the working class and is often expressed through protests and violence.
Nationalist: a Catholic citizen of Northern Ireland who wants the province to join the Irish Republic, thus creating a united Ireland. The term is usually applied to those who seek Irish unification through political means.
Orange Order: a Protestant political society formed in 1795 as the Association of Orangemen. It probably got its name from the wearing of orange badges in support of King William III (William of Orange). The Orange Order supports the preservation of the monarchy and the protection of Protestantism.
Republicanism: an extreme form of Irish nationalism. Republicans believe that violence is justified in the struggle for a united Ireland. The movement has strong socialist roots and is often associated with the working class.
Ulster Defence Association: a Protestant paramilitary organization formed in 1972 that has been responsible for a number of killings in Northern Ireland. The UDA is an umbrella group that includes the Ulster Freedom Fighters, established to fight the IRA. No political party has acknowledged links with the UDA.
Unionist: a citizen of Northern Ireland, usually Protestant, who wants the province to remain part of Britain. Unionism is traditionally a middle- and upper-class movement. Unionists generally use political means rather than violence to achieve their goal.

Source: Spotlight of Aug. 2001, p.24ff

* arbitrary - willkürlich
* masonry - Freimaurerei
* atrophying - Verkümmerung
* laager - hier: Festungs~
* Royal Ulster Constabulary - nordirische Polizei
* cessation - Einstellung
* to reinstate - wieder einsetzen
* at the expense of - auf Kosten von

1. Describe the status of the Irish isle before and after the partition of 1921.
2. Why was it that animosities between Unionists and Nationalists grew between 1921 and 1969 when even British soldiers were sent to N I to restore peace?
3. Why did the British government assume direct rule over N I in 1972?
4. Since 1981 hopes for more understanding and an agreement between the two factions rose. What were the reasons for such hopes and what was the outcome?
5. How did the Good Friday agreement of 1998 come about?
6. Controversial issues remained still after 1998. What were these?

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