Northern Ireland, an integral part of the United Kingdom, elects members (currently 18) to the lower house of the British parliament, the House of Commons. In recent years some of those elected—usually from Sinn Fein—have chosen not to go to London, usually in order to protest against the domestic situation and because they have refused to be sworn in, that is, to swear the oath of allegiance to the British monarch.
Executive and Legislature
1. Stormont Parliament
The Government of Ireland Act, passed by the British parliament in 1920 and modified by several subsequent agreements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, is the country's basic constitutional document. It provided for Northern Ireland to have its own devolved parliament, which met at Stormont Castle in Belfast for 50 years from 1921, and was dominated during that period by the Protestant Unionists (that is, those supporting continued union with Great Britain). In 1972, however, because of political and religious strife, the British government decided to take over responsibility for law and order. The Northern Ireland government resigned in protest, and direct rule from London began.
A 1973 act gave Northern Ireland much local autonomy as part of attempts to restore devolved rule; London retained control over defence, foreign policy, currency, tariffs, and communications.
2. Direct Rule
In May 1974, following the collapse of the power-sharing agreement between the political parties in Northern Ireland, direct rule was reimposed. The office of governor and the Northern Ireland Parliament were suspended, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the British government became the head of government in the province.
3. Anglo-Irish Agreement
In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement created an intergovernmental conference as a forum for joint discussion of issues such as cross-border security and cooperation. The agreement also provided for the Irish government to put forward views and proposals on matters relating to Northern Ireland, provided these would not be the responsibility of a devolved Northern Ireland administration. Each government retained full sovereignty over decisions and administration within its own jurisdiction.
In September 1993 the British government began bilateral discussions with three of the four Northern Irish parties, to explore a basis for a dialogue on the future of the province. In December of that year, the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland issued a joint declaration as a basis for all-party talks to achieve a political settlement. In late May 1996 elections were held for a 110-member forum to discuss issues pertaining to the promotion of understanding in the province; it had no formal or legislative function.
The Stormont Agreement of April 10, 1998 (Good Friday), which was accepted by 71 per cent of the Northern Ireland electorate in a referendum held on May 22, 1998, established the basis for a new 108-member assembly, elected by proportional representation, based on UK parliamentary constituencies. Elections occurred in June 1998, and the assembly was inaugurated on July 1, when it elected a first minister and deputy first minister. It had its first sitting in September 1998, and in February 1999 it endorsed a blueprint for the devolution of powers from the UK parliament. However, negotiations between nationalist and Unionist parties over the issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons delayed the formation of an executive until late 1999.
A. Partition of Ireland
In 1920, when Ireland was granted home rule, six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster, northernmost of the four Irish provinces, were given the opportunity to separate politically from the rest of Ireland and remain part of the United Kingdom. Under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which effected the partition of Ireland, the six counties became a separate political division of the United Kingdom, known as the province of Northern Ireland, with its own constitution, parliament, and administration for local affairs. The Irish Free State (later Éire, and now the Republic of Ireland) did not accept the separation as permanent, and the reunification of the island remained an element of the constitution until the referendum of May 1998 (see below).
The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland has consistently refused to consider a reunion. The boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was fixed in 1925. Most people in Northern Ireland saw partition from the Roman Catholic south and union with the United Kingdom as the safeguard of their Protestant religion and dominant political, economic, and social position. For many Irish Catholics, the creation of Northern Ireland was simply the latest of a very long line of British injustices inflicted upon the people of Ireland.
B. World War II and After
Northern Ireland participated in World War II, supplying military personnel and producing ships, aircraft, and cloth for military uniforms. The ports of Belfast and Londonderry (Derry) were of strategic importance to Allied shipping. Belfast was severely damaged in German air raids.
In 1949, when Éire became the Republic of Ireland, the British parliament affirmed the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless its own parliament were to decide otherwise. Although the Republic still claimed the six northern counties, its withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Nations was deemed a tacit acceptance of the partition. In 1955, however, the IRA began a campaign of terrorism aimed at securing the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic. Terrorist acts, mainly in border areas, continued through 1957 and 1958, gradually becoming less frequent in the early 1960s. In 1962 the government of the Republic of Ireland condemned terrorism as a means of achieving unification.
Persistent economic difficulties through the post-war years led to the formation in 1955 of a Northern Ireland Development Council, which met with considerable success. By the mid-1960s some 230 new firms had been founded and another 200 considerably expanded; also, social welfare programmes were inaugurated after the war by the UK government. However, the violence that erupted in the early 1970s and continued for over two decades has had an adverse effect on prosperity and economic development.
C. Civil Rights Movement
After partition, Catholics in Northern Ireland were a disadvantaged minority in matters of employment, housing, education, and effective cultural and political participation—a situation which the British government failed significantly to address. In 1968 an active and articulate civil rights movement emerged to protest against this discrimination, often provoking violent reactions within the Protestant community. Moderate Protestants recognized a need for governmental reform, but were strongly opposed by a right-wing faction of the ruling Ulster Unionist Party.
D. British Army Presence
British troops, sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 partly to help the beleaguered local police, and partly to offer protection to the Catholic communities, became a permanent presence. They maintained British authority but also became the focus of terrorist attacks and growing resentment. In 1971 internment (imprisonment without trial) was introduced in Northern Ireland as a measure to counter terrorism. The following year the British government suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule. The move followed the incident that became known as “Bloody Sunday”, when on January 30, 1972, British troops fired on civil rights protestors in Londonderry (Derry), killing 13.
In a 1973 referendum, largely boycotted by Roman Catholics, the voters of Northern Ireland again chose to remain part of the United Kingdom rather than join the Irish Republic. In 1974 a 15-member Northern Ireland power-sharing executive, made up of both Protestants and Roman Catholics, was quickly abandoned when it provoked a general strike led by Protestant extremists. IRA bombs killed 21 and injured 120 in two Birmingham pubs in the same year. Two Belfast women, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for working to reconcile Northern Ireland's religious communities. Their work, however, foundered in the face of the failure of attempts to bring the two factions together.
E. The IRA Campaign
Violence in Northern Ireland and terrorist attacks in England increased in intensity, reaching a peak in 1973 and 1974.
The Provisional IRA (the hard-line faction that broke away from the official IRA in 1969) maintained steady terrorist pressure, which included bombing campaigns on the British mainland. Protestant extremists matched them outrage for outrage. In one day in July 1974 more than 20 IRA bombs, many of them car bombs, were detonated in Belfast. In August 1979 the Provisional IRA assassinated Earl Mountbatten of Burma and, on the same day, ambushed a party of British soldiers at Warrenpoint, killing 18 of them.
In 1981 a number of Provisional IRA prisoners in Long Kesh (the Maze) prison began a hunger strike; the first of 11 to die was Bobby Sands, who had been elected as the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, on May 5.
The division between the Northern Irish communities remained as sharp as ever, with no solution in sight. The intergovernmental conference established in 1985 was welcomed by many as an important step towards cross-border cooperation on security, economic, and social issues, and eventual peace. Protestant Unionists and some Irish nationalists, however, denounced the accord.
As the 1990s began, British troops were still patrolling the streets of Londonderry/Derry and Belfast, and the IRA continued to launch sporadic terrorist attacks on British civilians and military personnel in the British Isles and continental Europe. In all, more than 3,000 people had been killed and at least 36,000 injured since the start of the Troubles in 1969.
F. Moves Towards Talks
Efforts begun in the mid-1980s (see Anglo-Irish Agreement) to achieve a peaceful settlement gained new momentum in the early 1990s. Between 1991 and 1992 four of the five main parties met to see if they could reach agreement on the political future of the province. Sinn Fein was excluded because of its support for the terrorist acts of the IRA. The talks ended in November 1992 without agreement. In September 1993 the British government began bilateral talks with three of the four parties. The Democratic Unionists refused to join.
G. Downing Street Declaration
Three months later, on December 15, 1993, the British and Irish prime ministers signed the Downing Street Declaration, a statement of fundamental principles with regard to the future of the province—notably that any constitutional change required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The statement also provided that only democratically mandated parties with an established commitment to exclusively peaceful methods could participate in the dialogue. In the event of a permanent cessation of violence by the IRA, Sinn Fein could join that process.
H. IRA Ceasefire
On August 31, 1994, the IRA announced a complete cessation of its military operations, ending 25 years of fighting. In October of that year, the Loyalist terrorist paramilitaries followed suit. In December 1994 the British government, despite strong opposition from the Democratic Unionists and other Protestant groups, held its first public talks with Sinn Fein; secret, often indirect, talks had gone on with the IRA for some time previously.
The ceasefire held throughout 1995, despite severe strains at times. The insistence of the British government that the IRA turn in its arms, and the rejection of the IRA of this demand, delayed the start of all-party talks including Sinn Fein. During early 1995, the British government scaled down the number of troops in Northern Ireland for the first time in 25 years, and then, in March, ended routine British troop patrols in the province. In the previous month, the British and Irish governments issued a framework document for all-party talks on a durable settlement in Northern Ireland.
I. Mitchell Report
In July 1995 John Bruton, Ireland's prime minister, tried to break the impasse over IRA disarmament by proposing that talks that included Sinn Fein could start if it agreed to parallel disarmament talks. His efforts failed because of continuing British insistence on IRA disarmament.
On November 28, with the peace process in danger of derailment, and US President Bill Clinton about to visit Northern Ireland, Bruton and British Prime Minister John Major announced an international commission to study the decommissioning programme, to be chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell. On December 15 the international decommissioning panel began its hearings. Its report, published on January 24, 1996, rejected decommissioning in advance of all-party talks. Instead, the report proposed that all parties should commit themselves to a phased disarmament, parallel to the talks, and recommended that the decommissioning should be carried out under international supervision. The report also discussed the idea of elections to a constitutional assembly.
The Irish government endorsed the report, but the British government focused on the idea of an elected assembly. Major told Parliament that both Republican and Unionist parties should seek an electoral mandate and discuss peace in the new forum. This drew furious criticism from the Republican movement, which accused Major of adopting a Unionist agenda and of buying votes to bolster his dwindling parliamentary majority.
J. Ceasefire Ends
On February 9, 1996, the IRA ended its 17-month ceasefire by exploding a huge bomb in the Canary Wharf area of London's Docklands, killing two people and injuring many more. In an effort to save the peace process Major and Bruton issued a communiqué on February 28 detailing a timetable for future negotiations and setting a specific date for the start of all-party talks: June 10. This was viewed as a concession to Sinn Fein by Major, but the plan also included an elected assembly, a concession to the Unionists. Both leaders made it clear, however, that only if the IRA re-established the ceasefire could Sinn Fein attend the all-party talks, and also the preceding “proximity talks” to be held in the first half of March to discuss details of the elected assembly.
The IRA did not declare a ceasefire; Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was therefore prevented from attending the proximity talks. The results of these talks included the establishment of a 110-member elected forum to discuss issues relevant to the promotion of understanding in Northern Ireland, and which would select teams to attend the all-party negotiations in June.
K. Forum Elections
The forum elections were held on May 30, 1996: 90 members were elected on the basis of 5 each from the 18 parliamentary constituencies in the province; the other 20 seats in the forum went (2 each) to the 10 most successful parties according to their total vote across the province. Sinn Fein came fourth with 15.47 per cent of the vote, a record and far higher than had been expected. The Ulster Unionist Party (24.17 per cent) was first, followed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (21.37 per cent), and the Democratic Unionist Party (18.8 per cent).
L. Manchester Bombing
Despite this success, Sinn Fein was excluded from the all-party talks, which started on June 10. On June 15 a huge IRA bomb exploded in Manchester city centre; although nobody was killed, hundreds were injured. The Irish government therefore announced that it would have to re-evaluate its relationship with Sinn Fein, and, for the first time, backed Britain's insistence on a permanent IRA ceasefire, and on moves towards IRA disarmament before Sinn Fein be allowed participation.
M. Marching Season Violence
The all-party talks followed a period of rioting during the marching season in 1996 that led to some of the worst incidents of violence in the province in decades. The violence worsened on July 12, the main marching day of the year when Orangemen celebrate the Battle of the Boyne. The rioting was most widespread in Londonderry (Derry); the police responded with force, firing plastic bullets at the protesters. The violence subsided on July 14 after 17 people were injured when a car bomb, the first in Northern Ireland since before the ceasefire, exploded at a hotel in Enniskillen, near the border with the Republic.
N. New Labour Government
In 1997 sectarian killings by all paramilitary groups and sporadic IRA attacks on RUC and army bases continued before and after the British general election, despite an undeclared ceasefire by the IRA. The two main Sinn Fein candidates, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, won the seats they contested in the election. The appointment of Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam as Northern Ireland Secretary, with a more neutral record on the issue of its constitutional status, underlined the approach of the newly elected Labour Government.
O. The Good Friday Agreement
The Stormont talks were resumed in June 1997. On September 15, 1997, Sinn Fein was allowed into the talks following the renewal of the IRA ceasefire in July. In August it made concessions over demands for Irish unity in a meeting with Mowlam.
In October 13, 1997, the Sinn Fein leaders met the new British prime minister, Tony Blair, for the first time at Stormont Castle, and on December 9 at Downing Street—the first Republican encounters with a British premier since Michael Collins negotiated the partition of Ireland in 1921. In January 1998 Sinn Fein formally rejected the British and Irish governments' new proposals for a settlement and the next phase of the talks was marred by wrangling and by a series of Republican and Loyalist killings. These were succeeded by various Republican bomb attacks in the North during March and April, some of which were attributed to a breakaway faction, Continuity IRA, comprising dissidents who are believed to have left the IRA in October 1997.
After Sinn Fein's brief suspension because of the attacks, it rejoined the now round-the-clock talks in late March and all parties were presented with a deadline of April 9 for completion. Several days of frantic activity between the Irish and British governments and all parties finally led to the agreement, signed by the Irish and the British prime ministers, on Good Friday, April 10, 1998.
The main principles of the agreement are:
1) Change in the status of Northern Ireland can only come about with the consent of a majority of its people, and if that situation changes, there is a binding obligation on both governments to comply with the wishes expressed by the people of the North.
2) The right of the people in Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship remains, and would not change even if the status of Northern Ireland changed.
3) Proposed new North-South bodies are to be set up.
4) A 108-member assembly is to be elected by proportional representation; key decisions of the assembly must be taken on a cross-community basis. For a decision to be made by simple majority, there must be a majority among both Nationalist and Unionist members. The assembly will meet first as an interim body without legislative and executive powers.
5) A new British-Irish Agreement will establish a new British-Irish Conference, which will subsume the inter-governmental machinery established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
P. Irish Referendums
The Irish government was bound by the Stormont Agreement to hold a referendum to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which laid territorial claim to the North, and to allow the proposed new North-South bodies to exercise powers on the island of Ireland. This referendum was held in the Republic on May 22, the same day as the referendum in the North; the result in the Irish Republic was an overwhelming 94.39 per cent vote in favour of the agreement.
In Northern Ireland's referendum, over 71 per cent of voters endorsed the agreement; a clear majority of Unionists taking part in the referendum voted “Yes”, despite the efforts of the “No” campaign's leaders, most notably Ian Paisley. The Unionist vote was 54 per cent to 46 per cent in favour. There was a turnout of almost 81 per cent, higher than at any election and surpassing all expectations.
Q. The Road Ahead
IRA demands for early prisoner releases and Ulster ministerial posts for Sinn Fein will depend on the decommissioning of weapons, to be overseen by an International Commission on arms. The first major post-agreement event was the election in June 1998 of the 108-member assembly; the assembly was inaugurated in July. In August a car bomb exploded in Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds—it was the worst terrorist action in Northern Ireland for over 30 years. In reaction to the incident a series of tough new anti-terrorist laws were introduced in the United Kingdom. In October two Northern Ireland political leaders John Hume of the SDLP and David Trimble of the UUP were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 'their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland'. In February 1999 the assembly endorsed blueprints for devolution from the UK government and the formation of an executive, but progress faltered over the issue of decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. In an attempt to derail peace process talks, there was an upswing in loyalist violence in March, including the car-bomb killing of a prominent nationalist rights lawyer.
In September 1999 Senator George Mitchell agreed to help formulate a new peace plan. Ten weeks later the Ulster Unionists voted to accept Mitchell's proposals. On December 1, 1999, Northern Ireland's executive and general assembly met for the first time, with Trimble as the first minister. The Assembly was suspended in February 2000 because of the impasse over a formal and precise deadline for decommissioning; direct rule from Westminster was temporarily re-imposed before the assembly was reconvened in late spring 2000, with the UUP voting to rejoin a provincial power-sharing government with Sinn Fein, after the IRA pledged to begin disarmament.
Mo Mowlam was replaced as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in October 1999 and was succeeded by Peter Mandelson. However, Mandelson's tenure was shortlived and he resigned from the post in January 2001 over an unrelated row over passports. Blair replaced him with John Reid.
R. Weapons Decommissioning—The Stumbling Block
In May 2000 the IRA pledged to put its weapons “completely and verifiably beyond use” in return for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The IRA also agreed to permit regular inspections of its weapons stockpiles by an international panel supervising disarmament. In June the inspectors made their first report: former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari and ex-secretary-general of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, stated that they were “satisfied with the cooperation extended to us by the IRA to ensure a credible and verifiable inspection”.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the final prisoners held in connection with sectarian violence were freed in September 2000. In total over 400 prisoners were freed early; the final releases led to the closure of the Maze prison (Long Kesh).
In May 2001, David Trimble again announced his intention to resign, on July 1, over the issue of weapons decommissioning. Talks to avert this move, including the participation of Blair and Ahern, failed to resolve the issue and Trimble resigned on the appointed date, nominating fellow UUP minister Reg Empey as caretaker first minister in his place. General John de Chastelain said in early August that the IRA had put forward a plan to put weapons beyond use; the statement was confirmed by the IRA shortly afterwards. However, less than a week later the IRA withdrew the plan, again resulting in stalemate.
Two world events then had an extraordinary effect on putting pressure on the IRA to reconsider. First, it was announced that three suspected members of the IRA had been arrested in Colombia, accused of providing military training for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Marxist guerrillas, who the US government suspects of major drug dealing. The capture of the men was a major public relations blow to the IRA. Secondly, the terrorist events of September 11, on the US cities of New York and Washington, hardened the resolve of nations, especially the US, to fight all forms of terrorism worldwide. In such a climate, the return to discussion over arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland seemed inevitable.
On September 19 the IRA issued yet another positive statement, but the Unionists continued to fight to exclude Sinn Fein from the executive and, on October 18, Trimble, UUP and DUP ministers resigned from the assembly in protest. A mere four days later Gerry Adams issued a statement in which he announced that he and Martin McGuinness had called for the IRA to make a “ground-breaking move” on arms and, amid great expectations, the IRA stated that it had indeed begun to decommission arms in order to “save the peace process” and to “persuade others of our genuine intentions”. De Chastelain confirmed that the process had begun and Trimble welcomed it as a positive move, to which he responded by returning to the assembly. The UK government, also welcoming the move, set about dismantling British army watchtowers in the province.
Trimble's attempt to regain his first minister post was frustrated by two members of his party who, being suspicious of the IRA claim to decommission arms, voted against him in an effort to have the assembly dissolved. Instead of taking this option, Secretary of State John Reid allowed the parties to broker a deal, whereby members of the Alliance party voted for Trimble in the second round of voting on November 6. Mark Durkan of the SDLP became the new deputy in place of Seamus Mallon.
S. Continuing Violence in the Province
Despite, and alongside, the political manoeuvring, violence continued in the province throughout the summer and autumn months. John Reid repeatedly warned the loyalist paramilitary UDA (Ulster Defence Association) to refrain from violence. The UDA was linked to rioting in north Belfast in the late summer and also was suspected of the blast bomb attack on police who were protecting Catholic schoolgirls making their way to the Holy Cross School in north Belfast through a staunchly Protestant area. The long-running violent protests had started in June. On October 12, Reid declared that the UDA-pledged ceasefire, nominally in effect since 1994, was ended. He took similar action against the LVF (Loyalist Volunteer Force), suspected of involvement in the murder of a journalist.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was dissolved on November 4, 2001, and its personnel transferred to a new body, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The change came about as part of the recommendations of the Good Friday Agreement for a police force that embraced both Catholics as well as Protestants.
Sitaru Dan Alexandru, 11M
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