The Northern Irish Conflict: A Chronology

A history of the conflict and the slow progress towards peace

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Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not come until the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule.

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A Centuries-old Conflict

The history of Northern Ireland can be traced back to the 17th century, when the English finally succeeded in subduing the island after successfully putting down a number of rebellions. (See Oliver Cromwell; Battle of the Boyne.) Much land, especially in the north, was subsequently colonized by Scottish and English Protestants, setting Ulster somewhat apart from the rest of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic.

The Nineteenth Century

During the 1800s the north and south grew further apart due to economic differences. In the north the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished, while in the south the unequal distribution of land and resources—Anglican Protestants owned most of the land—resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.

The Twentieth Century

Political separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not come until the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule. Most Irish Catholics desired complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by a Catholic majority.

Government of Ireland Act

In an attempt to pacify both factions, the British passed in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act, which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government. The Act was accepted by Ulster Protestants and rejected by southern Catholics, who continued to demand total independence for a unified Ireland.

The Irish Free State and Northern Ireland

Following a period of guerrilla warfare between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces, a treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State from 23 southern counties and 3 counties in Ulster. The other 6 counties of Ulster made up Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1949 the Irish Free State became an independent republic.

"The Troubles"

Although armed hostilities between Catholics and Protestants largely subsided after the 1921 agreement, violence erupted again in the late 1960s; bloody riots broke out in Londonderry in 1968 and in Londonderry and Belfast in 1969. British troops were brought in to restore order, but the conflict intensified as the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other acts of terrorism. This continuing conflict, which lingered into the 1990s, became known as "the Troubles."

Despite efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict during the 1970s and 80s, terrorist violence was still a problem in the early 90s and British troops remained in full force. More than 3,000 people have died as a result of the strife in Northern Ireland.


An Early Attempt

A serious attempt to bring about a resolution to the conflict was made in 1985 when British and Irish prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which recognized for the first time the Republic of Ireland's right to have a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. However, Protestant politicians who opposed the Agreement were able to block its implementation.

The IRA Declares a Cease-fire

Further talks between rival Catholic and Protestant officials and the British and Irish governments occurred during the early 1990s. Then, in late Aug. 1994 the peace process received a big boost when the pro-Catholic IRA announced a cease-fire. This made it possible for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, to participate in multiparty peace talks; hitherto Sinn Fein had been barred from such talks because of its association with the IRA and its terrorist tactics.

On Dec. 9, 1994, the first officially sanctioned, publicly announced talks took place between Sinn Fein and British officials. Negotiators for Sinn Fein pushed for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; Great Britain countered that the IRA must give up its weapons

Sinn Fein Participates in Official Talks

On Dec. 9, 1994, the first officially sanctioned, publicly announced talks took place between Sinn Fein and British officials. Negotiators for Sinn Fein pushed for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; Great Britain countered that the IRA must give up its weapons before Sinn Fein would be allowed to negotiate on the same basis as other parties. The issue of IRA disarmament would continue to be a sticking point throughout the negotiations.

An Anglo-Irish Proposal for Peace

In late Feb. 1995, the British and Irish governments released their joint proposal for talks on the future of Northern Ireland. The talks were to be held in three phases involving the political parties of Northern Ireland, the Irish government, and the British government. The talks would focus on the establishment of a form of self-government for Northern Ireland and the formation of Irish-Northern Irish "cross-border" bodies that would be set up to oversee such domestic concerns as agriculture, tourism, and health. Results of the talks would be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The U.S. Gets Involved

In Dec. 1995, former US senator George Mitchell was brought in to serve as mediator for the peace talks. His report issued in Jan. 1996 recommended the gradual disarmament of the IRA during the course of the talks, thus breaking the deadlock caused by the IRA's refusal to disarm.

Multiparty Talks Open in Belfast

On June 10, 1996, multiparty peace talks opened in Belfast. However, because of the breakdown of the IRA cease-fire the preceding Feb., Sinn Fein was turned away. Following the resumption of the cease-fire in July 1997, full-scale peace negotiations began in Belfast on Oct. 7, 1997. Great Britain attended as well as most of Northern Ireland's feuding political parties, including Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the largest Protestant political party in Northern Ireland. The more extreme Democratic Unionist Party and the tiny United Kingdom Unionist Party refused to join.

Click here for who's who in the Good Friday Agreement.

Good Friday Agreement

The historic talks finally resulted in the landmark Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by the main political parties on both sides on Apr. 10, 1998. The accord called for an elected assembly for Northern Ireland, a cross-party cabinet with devolved powers, and cross-border bodies to handle issues common to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus minority Catholics gained a share of the political power in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In return Catholics were to relinquish the goal of a united Ireland unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of it.

Real Hope for Peace

With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, hope ran high that lasting peace was about to become a reality in Northern Ireland. In a dual referendum held on May 22, 1998, Northern Ireland approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and the Irish Republic by a vote of 94%. In June 1998, voters chose the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the locally elected government.

International recognition and support for peace in Northern Ireland came on Oct. 16, 1998, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to John Hume and David Trimble, the leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties, respectively, in Northern Ireland.

Hope Proves False

In June 1999, the peace process stalled when the IRA refused to disarm prior to the formation of Northern Ireland's new provincial cabinet. Sinn Fein insisted that the IRA would only give up weapons after the new government assembled; the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant party, demanded disarmament first. Consequently the new government failed to form on schedule in July 1999, bring the entire process to a complete halt.

Sinn Fein, Over to You

At the end of Nov. 1999, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, relented on the "no guns, no government" position and agreed to form a government before the IRA's disarmament. If the IRA did not begin to disarm by Jan. 31, 2000, however, the Ulster Unionists would withdraw from the parliament of Northern Ireland, shutting down the new government.

New Parliament Is Suspended

With this compromise in place, the new government was quickly formed, and on Dec. 2 the British government formally transferred governing powers over to the Northern Irish parliament. But by the deadline Sinn Fein had made little progress toward disarmament, and so on Feb. 12, 2000, the British government suspended the Northern Irish parliament and once again imposed direct rule.

A New Beginning

Throughout the spring, Irish, British, and American leaders continued to hold discussions to try to end the impasse. Then on May 6 the IRA announced that it would agree to put its arms "beyond use" under the supervision of international inspectors. Britain returned home rule powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 30, just three days after the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest Protestant Party, again voted in favor of a power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein.

On June 26, 2000, international monitors Martti Ahtisaari of Finland and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced that they were satisfied that a substantial amount of IRA arms was safely stored and could not be used without detection.

However, while the IRA did allow for the inspection of some of its arms dumps, the months limped by without any real progress on disarmament. Caught in the middle was David Trimble, who was accused by his fellow Protestants of making too many concessions to the Republicans. On Oct. 28, 2000, he was nearly ousted by his own party, a move that surely would have spelled the end for the Good Friday Agreement. But Trimble survived, pledging to get tough by imposing sanctions on Sinn Fein.


Into 2001, Still No Major Progress

Through the first months of 2001, Catholics and Protestants remained at odds, especially over the establishment of a neutral police force in Northern Ireland and IRA disarmament. In early March 2001, the IRA unexpectedly initiated a new round of talks with Northern Ireland's disarmament commission, but no real progress was made.

Trimble Resigns

Shortly before Britain's general election on June 7, Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble announced that he would resign on July 1 if the IRA did not start disarming. The announcement helped bolster his position among his constituents, and Trimble managed to hold on to his seat in the British Parliament. However, his pro-British Ulster Unionist Party fared badly overall. In the weeks that followed, the IRA took no steps to dismantle its arsenal, and Trimble resigned as planned.

Violence Renewed as Marching Season Begins

The fragile peace process faced another crisis in mid-June when sectarian violence broke out again in Belfast. The clashes began after a group of schoolgirls and their parents were stoned by Protestant youths as they left a Catholic primary school. In what was deemed the worst rioting in several years, rival mobs hurled gasoline bombs, stones, and bottles and set fire to cars. The violence coincided with the start of the annual "marching season" when Protestant groups commemorate past victories on the battlefield against the Catholics.

IRA's Offer to Disarm Rejected

On Aug. 6, 2001, the commission responsible for the disarming of paramilitary forces in Northern Ireland announced that the IRA had agreed to a method of permanently placing its weapons arsenal beyond use. Although the commission did not disclose any details or indicate when disarmament might begin, Britain and the Republic of Ireland hailed the plan as a historic breakthrough. Protestant leaders in Northern Ireland were less enthusiastic and rejected the proposal as falling too short of action.

On Aug. 11, Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, John Reid, suspended the power-sharing government for one day, a move that allowed Protestant and Catholic politicians six more weeks to negotiate before British authorities would be required to call for new elections to the assembly. (In the event of new elections, moderate David Trimble stood little chance of being reelected, since Protestants as well as Catholics have become increasingly opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.)

The IRA withdrew its offer to disarm on Aug. 14, but veterans of the process were confident that the matter remained on the negotiating table.

Northern Ireland Government Suspended Again

With some small progress having been made on policing and arms decommissioning, Britain suspended the devolved government again on Sept. 22, creating another six-week window for the parties to resolve their differences. The move was criticized by UUP leader David Trimble, and on Oct. 18, the three remaining Ulster Unionist cabinet ministers resigned, in an attempt to force Britain to impose direct rule again indefinitely.

However, on Oct. 23, the IRA announced that it had begun to disarm, and it appeared that the peace process had once again been rescued from the point of collapse. Guns and explosives at two arms dumps were put beyond use.

Trimble regained his position as first minister in the power-sharing government in a vote rerun on Nov. 6, after narrowly losing his reelection bid in the initial vote a few days earlier. Mark Durkan, who succeeded John Hume as leader of the largely Catholic SDLP (Nov. 10), was elected deputy first minister.

IRA Scraps More Weapons

On April 8, 2002, international weapons inspectors announced that the IRA had put more stockpiled munitions beyond use. The move was welcomed by British and Irish leaders alike, who expressed the hope that Protestant guerilla groups would also begin to surrender their weapons.

However, in mid-June British and Irish political leaders called for emergency talks to try to stem the rising tide of violence that had been ongoing in Belfast for several weeks. Police believed that the nightly outbreaks of firebombing and rioting were being organized by Protestant and Catholic paramilitary groups in direct violation of standing cease-fire agreements. The street disturbances continued into July, and a 19-year-old Catholic man was shot—the first death caused by sectarian violence since January.

IRA Members Arrested in Colombia

The call for talks also came hard on the heels of a BBC report concerning three IRA members who had been arrested in Aug. 2001, in Bogota, Colombia. According to the BBC, one of the men involved in the weapons activity was Brian Keenan, the IRA representative charged with disarming the guerilla group in Ireland. The three Irish guerillas were accused of testing new weaponry and teaching bomb-making techniques to Colombian rebels. They were scheduled to go on trial in Colombia in July.

Also in July, during the annual Orange Order parade through Portadown, Northern Ireland, Protestant supporters of the Orangemen hurled stones and bricks to protest the ban on marching down Garvaghy Road, past a Catholic enclave in the town. Throughout Northern Ireland, members of the Orange Order march to celebrate the military victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholics in 1690. Two dozen police officers were injured and several people were arrested.

IRA Apologizes for Deaths

On July 16, 2002, the IRA issued its first apology to the families of the 650 civilians killed by the IRA since the late 1960s. The apology was released several days before the 30th anniversary of the IRA's Bloody Friday attack on July 21, 1972, which left 9 people dead and some 130 injured. During the attack in Belfast, 22 bombs exploded during a period of only 75 minutes.

Trimble Threatens to Resign Again

In late Sept. 2002, First Minister David Trimble announced that he and other Unionist leaders would force the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly by resigning unless the IRA disbanded by Jan. 18, 2003. The ultimatum came under pressure from hard-line constituents within the Unionist Party, following a number of incidents (including the trial of IRA guerillas in Colombia on weapons-related charges) that pointed to continued IRA military activity.

Britain Suspends Home-Rule Government Again

By early October, the situation had deteriorated, with Trimble threatening immediate mass resignation unless the British threw Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, out of the Assembly. The discovery of an alleged I.R.A. spy operation within the Northern Ireland Assembly was the last straw. Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, suspended the power-sharing government on Oct. 14, 2002. It was the fourth time the British government had had to take back political control of Northern Ireland since the Northern Ireland Assembly came into being in Dec. 1999.

On Oct. 30, in response to the British move to impose direct rule again, the IRA suspended contact with the arms inspectors who were overseeing the disarmament of Northern Ireland's guerilla and paramilitary groups. The Council on Foreign relations has estimated that Protestant paramilitary groups have been responsible for 30% of the civilian deaths in the Northern Irish conflict. The two main Protestant vigilante groups are the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Strongest during the 1970s, their ranks have diminished since then. While Protestant paramilitaries have observed a cease-fire since the IRA declared one, none of these groups has made any moves toward surrendering their weapons as stipulated by the Good Friday Accord.

Showdown in 2003

In March and April 2003, negotiations were again underway to reinstate the Northern Ireland assembly. But Sinn Fein's vague language, weakly pledging that its "strategies and disciplines will not be inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement caused Tony Blair to challenge Sinn Fein to once and for all make a clear, unambiguous pledge to renounce paramilitary for political means." According to the New York Times (April 24, 2003), "virtually every newspaper in Britain and Ireland has editorialized in favor of full disarmament, and the Irish government, traditionally sympathetic to Sinn Fein, is almost as adamant about the matter as London is."

In Nov. 2003 legislative elections, the Ulster Unionists and other moderates lost out to Northern Ireland's extremist parties: Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The prospect of power-sharing between these antithetical parties looked dim.

Deadlocked in 2004

An effort to revive the deadlocked powersharing negotiations was broached in March 2004 by Tony Blair and Ireland's Bertie Ahern, who announced, "The elections were in November, this is March, we must move on." In Sept. 2004, another round of talks, aimed at ending the impasse, broke up with no significant progress. A $50 million bank robbery in Dec. 2004 was linked to the IRA, although Sinn Fein has denied the connection. Sinn Fein's growing acceptance as a political organization suffered a severe setback as a result, putting power-sharing negotiations on hold indefinitely. Evidence of the IRA's criminality as well as its continual refusal to give up its weapons has strained its relations not only in Northern Ireland and Britain but in the Republic of Ireland as well.

Violence and Vigilantism in 2005

The brutal murder on Jan. 31, 2005, of Belfast Catholic Robert McCartney by the IRA, and the campaign by his five sisters to hold the IRA accountable, further diminished the IRA's standing, even in Catholic communities that had once been IRA strongholds. The IRA's subsequent offer to kill the men responsible generated further outrage. Instead of inviting Northern Irish political parties to the White House—the custom for the past several years—the U.S. invited the McCartney sisters instead.

Real Hope in July 2005

On July 28, the IRA stated that it was entering a new era in which it would unequivocally renounce violence: The statement said that IRA members have been "instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively political means," and that "all I.R.A. units have been ordered to dump arms" and "to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use."

Delays in 2006

In Feb. 2006, the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), a watchdog agency monitoring Northern Irish paramilitary groups, reported that although the IRA "seems to be moving in the right direction," dissident republican paramilitaries are still engaged in violence and crime.

On May 15th, Northern Ireland's political parties were given six months (to Nov. 24) to come up with a power-sharing government or else sovereignty will be revert indefinitely to the British government.

In October, a report by the Independent Monitoring Commission in Northern Ireland indicated that the IRA had definitively ceased all paramilitary activity and declared that "the IRA's campaign is over."

Milestone Meeting in 2007

Shortly after parliamentary elections in March 2007, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, and Rev. Ian Paisley, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party, met face to face for the first time and hashed out an agreement for a power-sharing government.

Former Enemies Resume Power-Sharing Government

Local government was restored to Northern Ireland in May 2007 as Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionists, and Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, were sworn in as leader and deputy leader, respectively, of the Northern Ireland executive government, thus ending direct rule from London. "I believe we are starting on a road to bring us back to peace and prosperity," said Paisley. British prime minister Tony Blair praised the historic deal. "Look back, and we see centuries marked by conflict, hardship, even hatred among the people of these islands," he said. "Look forward, and we see the chance to shake off those heavy chains of history.”

On Feb. 5, 2010, with the signing of the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen, prime ministers of England and Ireland, respectively, created a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process. According to the terms of the accord, Britain will hand over control of the six counties' police and justice system to Northern Ireland. The shift to local control of the courts, prosecution system, and police has been the most important and contentious of the issues plaguing the tenuous power-sharing government. The agreement passed its first test on March 9, when the Northern Ireland Assembly voted its support 88–17, setting the stage for the April 12 power transfer deadline. "For the first time, we can look forward to policing and justice powers being exercised by democratic institutions on a cross-community basis in Northern Ireland," Cowen said.

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