The Conflict between Northern Ireland and England

Table of Content

            The Northern Ireland conflict was an internal war that happened in Northern Ireland between1968 and 1969 after people marched along the streets for their civil rights. The term that is commonly used is ‘The troubles’ and has its roots from the Irish war of independence (1919-1923) It is also used to refer to the subsequent disruptions that resulted from the civil war. The conflict ended in 1994 when a cease fire was agreed by the paramilitary. This conflict involved the loyalist paramilitary and the Republican organizations, civil rights groups and the political activists. It also involved the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Although an agreement was reached on the 10th of 1998, this was not a perfect solution as violence continued to be witnessed after this period but on a mild level. This conflict encompasses many reasons such as religious, economical, social and political and the acts of violence that are witnessed in this region are often referred to as terrorism, guerilla tactics and ethnic conflict. What is the background of the Northern Ireland conflict, how has it developed over time and what is being done to bring violence to an end? This is basically what this paper will try to intensively research on.

            North Ireland is a home of so many contradictions for example in its politics, religion and its people. The territory has for many centuries been under the leadership of England and it is this leadership that has created social and political conditions that have for years subjected this region to violence and conflicts. The origin of this violence could be traced back to the 17th century when England managed to suppress a number of rebellions that were staged by the island. After this, they put this area under their leadership however, much of the Northern part became under Protestants mainly the Scottish and English. This move led to the division of the region into two groups: the Protestants and the Catholics. (Darby 2008)

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Historical Background.

            Now the actual problem arose from the settlement of the Ulster Plantation by the colonial powers in 1609. The settlement allowed both the Scottish and English planters to inhabit the land something that saw the natives being pushed far away to the margins of their land. Again at the same time there were other Protestants who kept on flocking the island for better prospects and obviously they put a strain to the region as they demanded more and more land to settle. The natives who were Irish Catholics were pushed out of their geographical area but they were not exterminated.

            “The Plantation of Ulster was unique among Irish plantations in that it set out to attract colonists of all classes from England, Scotland and Wales by generous       offers of land. Essentially it sought to transplant a society to Ireland. The native Irish remained, but were initially excluded from the towns built by the Planters,             and banished to the mountains and bogs on the margins of the land they had        previously owned. The sum of the Plantation of Ulster was the introduction of a     foreign community, which spoke a different language, represented an alien          culture and way of life, including a new type of land tenure and management.”            (Darby, 2008)

This created a territory with people who had different interests for example they differed in their political interests, cultural, values and on religious interests. The Irish natives believed that their land was being grabbed for selfish motives by the foreigners and had to do something to stop these Protestants and planters from making further encroachment on their land. These foreigners were not concerned with the welfare of the natives but were only interested with advancing their interests. (BBC History. 2007)

            This continued conflict of interests and encroachment culminated into two ethno- religious bloody conflicts: 1641-53 and that one of 1689-91. These conflicts worked to the advantage of the British Protestants who managed to establish their political dominance in the region. They instituted their harsh penal laws that curtailed political, religious and legal freedoms to both Protestants and Catholics. (Darby 2008)The Protestants who were affected were those who did not follow the teachings of the Anglican church of England. The British also introduced some government institutions that resembled those of Dublin for example the parliament, the government and the monarchy system.  In a bid to establish more control over the Irish affairs, the government and the parliament were abolished and taken by Westminster by an Act of Union.

            According to Tonge, (2000) the Irish people tried to overthrow the union by forming various movements for example the Repeal Movements of the 1840s and the Home Rule Movement. Other movements such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood used direct physical confrontation to terminate the rule. At this period, the Northerners and the Southerners moved further apart as a result of economical differences. The living standards in the North were higher that those in the south because the North had well established industries while the south had no industries and enough resources.

            As the war continued, various attempts to repossess Dublin were made in 1916 during the Easter week but the move proved to be futile. The leaders and the organizers were captured and executed and this was a very big blow to the Irish Republican Amy (IRA). In 1918, the old Irish parliamentary system was replaced by the Irish parliament. The wave of independence struggle among the IRA against the United Kingdom came to an end when the Government Act of 1920 was signed. A year later after it was passed, it was decided that the island would be partitioned into two regions, the Northern Ireland and the Southern Ireland. (Darby 2008)

            The partition of the island led to the establishment of two states. The southern part comprised of twenty six counties while the Northern one comprised of six counties and within no time this became part of the United Kingdom. The move to partition prepared the ground for the civil war that took place in the southern counties between those who supported the move and those who didn’t. The Northern counties came to be referred to as the Northern Ireland while the twenty six counties in the Southern part came to be known as the southern Ireland. Many of the people who were in the northern part supported the move and therefore United Kingdom decided to take it for they would not get more problems that in the south. Due to the difference in the way people looked at this problem, the civil war was eminent and was unavoidable unlike in 1914 when the same was about to happen but was averted by the outbreak of the First World War. (BBC History. 2007)

             Though the two states were separate, both were integral parts of Ireland but the sad thing was that people were not free and they remained under the leadership of the Union. Separation of the two regions was confirmed by the Anglo-Irish treaty of the 1921. The idea of separating the region was not unanimously agreed as the natives were not consulted but was made by the unionists alone. These people just wanted to get rid of the Irish nationals from Westminster parliament. (English, R. 2007)

The set rule of law and that it was in accordance with the will of the majority who stayed along the borders who wanted the region to be part of the United Kingdom. Although when the move looked from a neutral standpoint was illegal and contrary to the will of the natives. (Coogan, 2006)

            It is the failure to integrate the leadership of the region with that of the natives that sparked off animosity as per English, R. (2007). The natives were not happy as the United Kingdom sidelined them in fact thirty three percent of all the Catholics from the North were against this move. They wanted a united Ireland with self determined leadership and they were determined to do everything in their power to achieve this end. The United Kingdom went ahead and established its leadership on the island something that was not taken kindly by the Irish republicans whose main goal was to see a united Ireland. Because this goal seemed not to be forth coming, they resorted to using force something that culminated into the 1920s, 40s and 50s Irish Republican Army campaigns. During these military operations, many people lost their lives for example at least about six hundred people perished as a result of the 1920-1922 sectarian and political violence emanating from the independence war. (English, R. 2007)

            Many of those who died were Catholics followed by the Protestants and then the Royal Constabulary. In Belfast, of all the people who died about hundred and eighty five were Protestants while four hundred and fifty two were Catholics. (Coogan, 2006)This was one of the areas that witnessed violence in its fullest because in other areas it was just a direct confrontation between the British force and the Irish Republican guerillas whereas in the north, it was strife between the two denominations: Catholics and the Protestants. Most of the violence in the Northern Ireland targeted the natives and was perpetrated by the unionist’s army, police, loyalist groups and the B-Specials whose work was to keep in check the activities of the Irish Republican Army.

            According to Sinn F. (2008), though most violent rebellions occurred in the Northern Ireland, nationalists from the rest of the Ireland were busy campaigning against the Northern Ireland products. They advised their people not to buy goods from the north because it was like promoting UK’s leadership. By this time the northern state was more developed that the southern one. There were many industries in the north than in the south and that was why they were looking for the market for their products in the south. Other nationalists for example Michael Collins, believed that nothing else apart from violence would lead to the reunification of the two regions.

According to English, R. (2003) there was one thing in the eyes of the unionists that seemed to affect the future of this region and this was the establishment of the Irish Republican remnants army from the marginalized community. The republican armies were geared towards overthrowing the leadership of both the northern and southern states and bring the area under one government and leadership but the unionists would not let this to happen. To countercheck the advances of the Irish Republican army, the Special Powers act was passed in 1922 by the Northern Irish government. The act empowered the northern Irish government and the police force in particular to do whatever they could to reestablish and maintain the rule of law.

This method of peace restoration was not stopped to be used even after violence ended. Many Irish nationalists wanted some parts of the Northern Ireland to become part of the Free State or if that was not the case, then the partition be done away with. These grievances were directed to the boundary commission which instead of doing what they expected it recommended that the partition will be a permanent thing. Many in the Free State agreed to this decision though the move to re-unite the Northern and the Southern states was kept alive but this time it was not through violence but through constitutional amendments. (English, R. 2003)

            The strife continued until the two sides established their own representatives who represented the will of their people for example Eamon de Valera represented the southern states and he claimed that the whole of Ireland was a catholic state while the Northern Ulster prime minister James Craig claimed that the north was for the protestants with a protestant government and parliament. After the first attempts to end the conflict failed in the 1920s, the nationalists did not give up in fact they went on with their campaigns in 1940s, 1950s but in 1960s due to lack of hope the pace for peace search slowed down. In 1966 in what was seen as a revival of the Irish Republican Army, the Northern Ireland responded by forming a loyalist paramilitary called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to counter the moves of the IRA. The main targets of this paramilitary were the Catholics who were in the IRA. In the same year after Irish Republican army launched massive attacks on the Protestants, the UVF found a good opportunity to officially declare war against the former. (English, R. 2007)

            Since the region was partitioned, the Catholics who were the minority were marginalized both politically and socially and were pushed to the margins of existence by the Northern leadership. The Protestants used whatever means to suppress the Catholics even in areas where Catholics were the majority for example in Derry. This was done by altering the boundary of the local government so that Protestants would be favored. Another method that was used to suppress the natives was by limiting the number of legible catholic voters for example it was only the rate payers that were allowed to participate in the local government elections whereas the protestants who owned properties in more than one ward were given an opportunity to vote more than once but with a maximum of six times. (BBC History, 2007)

            Due to the imbalance in the voting strength, the Protestants received more council houses than the Catholics. Apart from daily and constant harassment of the Catholics by the police, they received less investment opportunities than the Protestants but during the postwar period, the welfare state was introduced in the Northern state by the Labor Government. With the introduction of the welfare state, the quality of the Catholics’ life slightly improved for example; in the 1950s they had the opportunity to pursue higher education for the first time. This helped them to look beyond the horizons and with time they were able to bring a generation that was determined to change the status quo of the natives. By this time, the unionists had somehow managed to quell the anti partition’s demands and no one ever thought that violence would recur in future in this region.


            After the end of the Second World War, the gap between the south and the north continued to widen and this was because the war had favored the north which was already developed. The northern industries were very vital in making war materials something that solidified the economy of the north. The war boom continued all the way to 1950s but in the 1960s it was no more because of the UK’s inability to address the issues that were affecting their economy. Due to the economic retrogression, the then minister Brooke borough was replaced by Terence O’Neil the former army officer. O’Neil came up with new strategies to improve the region’s economy. He also tried to put an end to the political and social strife that existed in the two regions.

            In order to achieve this end, he met Sean Lemass, the prime minister of the Ireland republic. This became a historic move as it had not been witnessed in the last forty years but it was not applauded by the unionists who believed that this would give the nationalists an opportunity to make their claims that Ireland should be a united nation. Not knowing what was cooking, O’Neil realized later that he had already opened a can of worms as troubles had already begun with the Catholics on one side and the Protestants on the other side.

            By 1960s, violence was the order of the day for example in 1968 there were violent attacks in Londonderry and the same was witnessed a year later in Belfast and again in Londonderry. British soldiers were taken there to quell violence but they were overwhelmed by the IRA forces if anything, the violence instead of being reduced it increased. The Ulster Volunteer Forces started its operations and in the process a protestant and a catholic were killed and this complicated the situation and without their knowledge, they had already set a very bad precedent of blood letting. O’Neil was not impressed by the Ulster Volunteer’s move and in his response he banned the organization. His strategy of bringing peace to the region was very practical although the Catholics were impatient. They were not contented with the pace at which the things were going and for this reason they formed (NICRA) the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967. (Cottrell P. 2006)

            NICRA was very vibrant in agitating for the rights of the Irish natives, the Catholics. The organization was basically a civil rights movement that was geared towards ending the ‘seven injustices’ which to them were the most suppressing. Most of the members of this organization were Catholics but the membership was open to all. Though the members were concerned with the partitioning of the region, NICRA at first did not concern itself with the issue but focused on the civil rights of its people.

            In October 1968, Catholics initiated civil rights marches where they marched in the streets of Derry but they met a stiff resistance from the government, the unionists and security forces such as the Royal Ulster Constabulary. These security forces used whatever means in their power to disperse the protesters. The chaos watered down the achievements that had been already been made by the moderators. They failed to control both the nationalists and the unionists. The situation worsened to such extent that the British troops had to be called to intervene and end the violence. (Sinn F. 2008)

            It is during this time that the Prime Minister, O’Neil was asked to explain to the British government what was happening in his state and he got an opportunity to let them know about the level of inequality that was in Northern Ireland. It is then that the Northern Ireland government announced that some reforms would be made for example in the allocation of council houses although the issues of the repressive rules and the special powers act were not touched. They forgot that those were the areas where the Catholics were more concerned and without making reforms on the same meant that no progress was to be made.

            People resulted again to demonstrations. At first they were organized by a group known as the People’s Democracy but were later organized by NICRA. When the marches intensified, the Northern Ireland government made some more reforms but the Catholics could not be calmed down. The Catholics even marked some places as no go zones and nobody not even the security forces were allowed to go there except the natives. (Kelleher 2003) To make sure that this move materialized, they formed a provisional Irish

Republican Army which was in a number of ways related to the IRA. In response, the British authorities came up with a policy of arresting the perpetrators of violence and especially the natives without trial in 1971 but their move proved to be counterproductive because instead of scaling down the amount of violence, it made the Irish Republican Army to intensify their efforts. (Tonge, J. 2000) In January 1972, thirteen unarmed demonstrators were shot down by the British paratroopers something that added fuel to the fire but all in all it served as a wake up call to the British government and they had to stop relying on the unionists to run the affairs of the region. The killing of these 13 unarmed demonstrators came to be referred to as the Bloody Sunday.

Direct Rule.

            From this moment, another system of ruling known as direct rule was introduced when it was realized that the army had no intention of backing down even after they conducted a house to house search for the IRA soldiers. The efforts to quell this bloodletting violence was not something easy on the side of the British authority and that was why they came up with very harsh policies such as arresting people without trial. Also in 30th January 1972, the parachute regiment was dispatched by the Northern Ireland government to quell violence. (Coogan, 2006)

            When nothing seemed to work, the prime minister on behalf of the British government stopped the security forces from being controlled by the Northern Ireland’s government and a secretary of state was appointed instead. This did not go along well with the Northern Ireland’s government and it sparked off protests in all government sectors. (Sinn F. 2008)They termed this as power abuse. This marked the end of the Stormont Home Rule that was under the control of the unionists. This direct rule was not meant to stay for along time but was just a temporal thing to wait for self-government to be installed.

            In 1973 according to Cottrell (2006) the British government came up with an idea of creating the Northern Ireland assembly. It was to be characterized by equal member representation and power sharing between the native Catholics and the Protestants. At the same time, the council of Ireland that was also to be comprised of the republicans was to be formed although this had created fear in the minds of the unionists since the region was partitioned. These ideas were quickly implemented and in June 1973 there was a pro power sharing assembly that was made as per the Sunnigdate Agreement. The agreement was not applauded by the unionists and also by the IRA whose main goal was to unite the two regions while the unionists believed that it was a move to destroy the Northern state. (Cottrell P. 2006)

            The Sunnigdate Agreement was short lived because it was terminated when massacres resulting from conflicts between the loyalists and the Protestants occurred. Next a general strike known as Ulster Workers Council Strike was organized which had far reaching effects. It paralyzed the normal running of the businesses in whole of the Northern Ireland. (Coogan, 2006)This led British authorities to contemplate of withdrawing its troops from the region something that was much awaited by IRA although it did not happen as soon as they wanted. When they saw that no troops were being withdrawn, they resumed violence but in 1975 a cease fire was brokered. After this period due to loss of hope of winning this fight, IRA’s war efforts went down and this paved way for another group known as the Peace People. (Sussman P.)

            The objective of this group was to end violence and the group made positive moves that made it to win the Nobel Prize but unfortunately it lost its fame when it asked the nationalists to provide the security forces with the information about the IRA and yet the security forces were the last people the natives wanted to be associated with. (Kelleher W.F. 2003)

            In 1980, there were very serious hunger strikes in the prisons something that evoked sympathy to both the Ireland and international community but this did not touch Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, the political wing under Sinn Fein contested in the 1983 elections and won. He continued to advocate for use of violence to institute change in Northern Ireland. According to Taylor P. (1997) the efforts to unite both the Catholics and the Protestants were not bearing fruits and there was no hope that the strife would be resolved in the near future especially after Margaret Thatcher narrowly escaped death from a bomb that had planted by the Irish Republican Army. As a result of this, she maintained her hard line position that the two regions would remain the way they were but later she changed her mind due to the relentless efforts of Sinn Fein and as the rate of violent activities in the region intensified. After this she agreed to meet her Irish counterpart and an intergovernmental conference was held where the natives got a chance to express all the issues that affected them. (Coogan, 2006)

            In 1985, an Anglo-Irish agreement (AIA) was signed. The agreement gave the Catholics a platform on which they would reduce the inequalities that affected them and especially in the employment sector. In 1998 under the Belfast agreement, more reforms in the government, assembly, economic integration and in the elections were achieved. For the first time though the Protestants were the majority in Northern Ireland, there was created institutions where both the natives and the Protestants would work hand in hand but they viewed this move differently for example, the republicans viewed this as a stepping stone towards more achievements while unionists saw this as a move that would bring more stability in the union. (Tonge, J. 2000)


             It was also agreed that Irish Republican Army should surrender their weapons but the Irish Republican army declined to do so something that hampered the peace making process. In response, the British government broke the Northern Ireland assembly and reintroduced the direct rule although the assembly elections of 2005 went ahead as planned. As the pressure for the IRA to disarm intensified, they agreed to surrender their weapons and to end their campaigns against British rule. Though political turbulence was reduced some things like segregation in living places and sectarian animosity are yet to end. In 2007, the Northern Ireland assembly was restored with both DUP and Sinn Fein sharing power.  Later Paisley became the first prime minister of Northern Ireland while the former Irish Republican army man and a Roman Catholic activist Sinn Fein became its first deputy minister.


BBC History. 2007. The Troubles, 1963 to 1985. Accessed at


Coogan, T. 2006. Ireland in the Twentieth Century. Pal grave Macmillan
Cottrell P. 2006. The Anglo-Irish War: The Troubles of 1913-1922. Osprey Publishing.

Darby 2008. Conflict in Northern Ireland. Available at


English, R. 2003. Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA. New York, Oxford University Press.                                                                                                                      English, R. 2007. Irish Freedom: A History of Nationalism in Ireland. Macmillan           Publishers.                                                                                                                  Kelleher, W.F. 2003. The Troubles in Ballybogoin: Memory and Identity in Northern     Ireland. University of Michigan Press. Osprey Publishing.                                                 Sinn, F. 2008.  Building an island of equals: History of the Conflict. Available at                                                                               Sussman, P. Conflict and Hope in North Ireland:  Breaking the cycle of violence.           Accessed at                                                                                                                                  Taylor, P. 1997. Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, TV books, New York.                       Tonge, J. 2000. Northern Ireland: Conflict and Change. Longman


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