Northern Ireland History

Northern Ireland History

Whereas the Republic of Ireland was born out of a nationalist demand, Northern Ireland arose out of a defensive reaction on the part of a people who never quite became nationalists of any sort. Not being nationalists, Ulster Protestants had no vision of a national fulfillment in which all conflicts would be resolved; on the contrary, they assumed that conflict was inevitable and that constant vigilance was required on the part of the Orangemen and the "Special Constabulary" into which their paramilitary force of 1912-14 had been transformed. This assumption that their state would always be rejected by their "enemies" dissuaded the Unionist governments elected by the Protestant majority from 1921 to the 1970s from even trying to win the allegiance of the Catholics.

Members of that minority, however, were convinced by nationalist ideology that sooner or later Irish unity would be attained; they refused to face the fact that partition was a reality that would not go away. Thus in the North the assumptions of both Catholics and Protestants tended to inhibit reconciliation.
Nevertheless, several factors more conducive to rapprochement were at work in the decades after World War II. The decline of Northern Ireland's traditional industries (shipbuilding, linen, agriculture) turned the government's attention to industrial development.

Some Unionists--notably Terence O'Neill (b. 1914), who served as prime minister (1963-69)--realised that better relations with the Republic of Ireland and with the North's Catholic minority were important to potential investors. O'Neill's overtures struck a responsive chord as the republic was coming to prefer prosperity and interdependence with its neighbors to austere self-sufficiency.
The postwar growth of the welfare state in Great Britain gave many northern Catholics a practical reason for accepting the British connection. Unfortunately for O'Neill, such acceptance was expressed not so much in votes for him as in demonstrations for "British rights" led by Bernadette Devlin (b. 1947), and others beginning in 1968. In turning their attention from "Irish unity" to "British rights," northern Catholics were making an important, if hesitant, step toward rapprochement.

Not all northern Unionsists were ready for rapprochement: a section of them, represented by the Rev. Ian Paisley, were unwilling to accept the premise that Catholics might ever cease to be enemies. O'Neill resigned in the face of attacks from these "loyalists" and was succeeded by James Chichester-Clark (b. 1923), who requested British troops to keep the peace between civil rights demonstrators and extremist Unionist mobs. Even with the backing of troops, the state was collapsing, and its inability to provide minimal protection for its Catholic citizens led to the recrudescence of the IRA first as a community defense force and then as an assailant of the crumbling state. The decision of Brian Faulkner, who became prime minister in 1971, to intern IRA suspects without trial led to increasing violence. The final dissolution of the Northern Irish state was recognized by the imposition of "direct rule" from London in March 1972.

The crisis dragged on because no effective state replaced the rickety one that had collapsed in 1969-72. An experimental "power-sharing" government of Protestants and Catholics was brought down by a Unionist general strike in 1974. A new provincial assembly was elected in 1982, and in 1985, The UK and Ireland concluded an agreement that for the first time gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Irish affairs. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland remained beset by violence until 1994, when secret British negotiations with the IRA finally produced a cease-fire, which remained in effect until 1996. In 1995 the British and Irish governments issued a "framework document" in which they pledged cooperation to create a new political dispensation for Northern Ireland. In 1998 all the parties signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, which bestows a form self governmentto a cross community parliament based at Stormont.

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