Ireland, Northern: A Troubled History

A Troubled History

Northern Ireland's relatively distinct history began in the early 17th cent., when, after the suppression of an Irish rebellion, much land was confiscated by the British crown and “planted” with Scottish and English settlers. Ulster took on a Protestant character as compared with the rest of Ireland; but there was no question of political separation until the late 19th cent. when William Gladstone presented (1886) his first proposal for Home Rule for Ireland. The largely Protestant population of the north feared domination under Home Rule by the Catholic majority in the south. In addition, industrial Ulster was bound economically more to England than to the rest of Ireland.

Successive schemes for Home Rule widened the rift, so that by the outbreak of World War I civil war in Ireland was an immediate danger. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 attempted to solve the problem by enacting Home Rule separately for the two parts of Ireland, thus creating the province of Northern Ireland. However, the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland (see Ireland, Republic of), which was established in 1922, refused to recognize the finality of the partition; and violence erupted frequently on both sides of the border.

The late 1960s marked a new stage in the region's troubled history. The Catholic minority, which suffered economic and political discrimination, had grown steadily through immigration from the Republic. In 1968 civil-rights protests by Catholics led to widespread violence. Prime Minister Terence O'Neill had sought to end anti-Catholic bias as part of his policy of fostering closer ties between Ulster and the Irish Republic, but opponents within his ruling Unionist party forced his resignation in Apr., 1969. His successor, James Chichester-Clark, was unable to restrain the growing unrest and in August called in British troops to help restore order.

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