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Conflict In Northern Ireland A Background Essay Questions&Answers

The story of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the violent conflict that embroiled the province from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, is the story of a multi-faceted conflict, involving many individuals and groups with opposing interests and means of achieving those interests.  The Northern Ireland Troubles provides an ideal case study of a conflict once seen as intractable.  An understanding of the intricacies of the Troubles provides both a realistic view of the seemingly insurmountable difficulties inherent in managing conflict, and hope that even situations, which seem impossible to resolve do in fact contain the seeds of transformation and resolution.


The genesis of the Northern Ireland conflict can be found in the birth of the province itself.  In 1921, the island of Ireland was partitioned into the Irish Free State, which would later become the Republic of Ireland, comprised of the island’s twenty-six southern counties and Northern Ireland, which contains the six northeastern counties in Ulster.  The island was partitioned to satisfy the interests of two groups:  the predominantly Catholic, Irish Nationalists and Republicans who sought independence from Britain, and the predominantly Protestant, British Unionists and Loyalists who primarily lived in the northeastern six counties and desired to remain a part of the United Kingdom.


Unionists & Loyalists.  The community of citizens in Northern Ireland whose constitutional and territorial aspirations were to remain a part of the United Kingdom.  This group was overwhelmingly Protestant and is primarily represented by two political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).  Unionism in Northern Ireland was characterized by several qualities including:  traditional opposition to the involvement of the Republic of Ireland in the affairs of Northern Ireland; traditional opposition to power-sharing arrangements with Nationalists and Republican political parties; and a distrust of Britain’s commitment to the union, despite their desire to remain a province of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists & Republicans.  The community of citizens in Northern Ireland whose constitutional and territorial aspirations were to secede from the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland.  Nationalists and Republicans were overwhelmingly Catholic and were primarily represented by two political parties: the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin.  The historical differences between the SDLP and Sinn Féin involved the means by which Northern Ireland should be joined to the Republic of Ireland.  The SDLP sought a non-violent, political approach to the resolution of the conflict, while Sinn Féin was generally accepted as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army which pursued an armed struggle.

Paramilitary Organizations.  In both the Unionist and Nationalist communities in Northern Ireland paramilitary organizations emerged and engaged in various forms of physical violence as a means of advancing their political interests.  The largest Republican paramilitary involved in the Troubles was the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which initially emerged to protect the Nationalist community from Loyalists and British security forces, but later actively targeted British armed forces, Unionist political leaders, and police through bombings and assassinations.  Many citizens, both Protestant and Catholic, were also killed or wounded through PIRA violence.  The majority of the PIRA’s most notorious acts of violence were bombings.  The Loyalist paramilitary organizations, like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), claimed to be reactionary organizations playing tit-for-tat with Republicans, however there were notable acts of Loyalist violence, which were seemingly unprovoked.  Though the Loyalist paramilitaries used bombs, their primary means of violence came through the use of guns and knives.

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.  Both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic had significant roles in the conflict.  The traditional British view was that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.  However, the Republic of Ireland, through Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, laid claim to all 32 counties of Ireland, including the six counties of Northern Ireland.  As the conflict progressed, both governments worked together to address the violent dispute, and through a series of agreements, both governments accepted the principle of self-determination as the deciding factor in whether or not the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain or join the Irish Republic.


Like most intractable conflicts, the Northern Ireland Troubles were multi-dimensional in both causes and drivers of the conflict.  The three broad areas of national identity and aspirations, inequality, and the process for resolving the conflict capture the essence of the struggle.

National Identity & Aspirations.  The national identity and ambitions of the two main communities in Northern Ireland were a significant contributor to the conflict.  The essence of the conflict was between those who considered themselves Irish and wanted an end to the partition of Northern Ireland and those who considered themselves British and sought the continued partition of Northern Ireland as a British province.  The predominantly Catholic Nationalists, who considered themselves Irish, saw the conflict as a struggle for independence against the politically dominant Unionist majority and the British government that was protecting a colonial and territorial interest.  The predominantly Protestant Unionists, who considered themselves British, believed that they were the minority in the broader context of the island of Ireland and were using their political dominance in the province to protect their community and cultural identity from the Nationalist’s ambition of a united, Catholic Ireland.  The differences arising from both communities’ need for protection and expression of their cultural identities has continued to cause difficulties in the province to this day.  These differences of identity and aspirations divided the people of Northern Ireland in both a political and community context, and there is still little intermingling of the two communities.

Inequality.  In the years between the partition of Ireland and the Troubles, the political dominance of Unionism led to systematic political discrimination against the nationalist minority.  The discrimination was manifest in the electoral system, which supported the continued political dominance of Unionist parties.  This electoral discrimination led to further injustice in public housing, in public and private employment, and in community representation in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force.  Though many of the structural problems leading to this discrimination have been addressed,  complaints of injustice still exist in the province today.

Process.  The process by which a conflict is addressed can aid in resolving substantive and relational differences, or it can lead to further escalation of the conflict.  In the case of the Troubles, the process of conflict resolution adopted by the British army and paramilitary organizations led to an escalation of the conflict.  The persistent paramilitary violence led to an entrenched view of the conflict by many parts of both communities.  Despite the prevalence of violence during the Troubles, there were strong and consistent supporters of non-violent means for resolving the conflict, most notably the SDLP, led by John Hume.

The interconnection of the major issues affecting the Troubles created a complex situation that was difficult to resolve.  In the end, even the Good Friday Agreement, which was a commitment by most of the major parties in Northern Ireland to work through non-violent and political means to resolve the differences between the two communities, did not resolve the underlying drivers of the conflict.


From the time of partition in 1921 until the beginning of direct rule by the British in 1972, the parliament in Northern Ireland, known in the province as Stormont, was dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).  The UUP formed every provincial government during this period.  This political domination was due in part to the demographics of the province, which had a majority Protestant population, but also due to systematic electoral discrimination against Catholic Nationalists.  Specifically, voting rules and gerrymandering helped the UUP maintain an unchecked political dominance that subjugated the Catholic population.

By the late 1960s, the tensions between the Nationalist and Unionist communities over the systemic discrimination against Nationalists erupted into violence, and in 1969, British troops were deployed to maintain order in the province.  The deployment of British troops coincided with the re-emergence of Republican and Unionist paramilitary organizations like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).  By 1972, the British had suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and reinstated direct rule, which was administered by the appointed British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.


Violence was a frequent and persistent aspect of the conflict from the 1960s through the 1990s, and it continues to infrequently arise to this day.  There were also several key agreements negotiated between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments that were milestones of the conflict.  Both the high profile acts of violence, which illuminate the human suffering of the conflict, and the key moments marking the long walk towards peace are essential elements to understanding how the conflict unfolded.  These events trace the path to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, which is often seen as the major transformational point of the conflict leading to a prolonged abstention from large-scale violence by the paramilitary organizations.

Derry Housing Action Committee March.  In October of 1968, a march by the Derry Housing Action Committee and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) devolved into a riot when an altercation between Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, turned violent.  This incident is considered by some to be the beginning of the Troubles, and it raised awareness of the situation in Northern Ireland to an international level.

Bloody Sunday.  One of the most infamous acts of violence during the Troubles took place in Derry (or Londonderry) on January 30, 1972.  The event that would become known as Bloody Sunday involved British soldiers firing into a crowd of Nationalist protesters.  The protesters had gathered in opposition to internment, or the holding of prisoners without trial, which had disproportionately targeted Nationalists and Republicans.  The protest devolved into rioting, and fourteen people (all Catholic, some of whom were shot in the back) died as a result of the shooting.  This event was a galvanizing moment for the PIRA as large numbers of previously moderate Nationalists and Republicans began supporting the PIRA and its violent tactics.  The details of this incident were contested for many years, but in 2010, after a twelve year inquiry into the shooting which concluded that the violence by the British army was unjustified, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a formal apology.

The Bloody Friday Bombings.  In late 1972, the PIRA orchestrated the detonation of twenty-six bombs over the course of an eighty minute period in Belfast.  The incident known as Bloody Friday resulted in eleven casualties.  Those who died in the bombings included both British soldiers and Protestant and Catholic civilians.  The bombings were considered a response to Bloody Sunday and a breakdown in negotiations between the PIRA and British government.  During the negotiations, the PIRA demanded the release of Republican prisoners and a withdrawal of British troops from the province by 1975, which was untenable to the British government.

Sunningdale Agreement.  In late November 1973, members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), along with William Whitelaw, the British Secretary of State of the province, announced an agreement to create a power sharing executive to govern Northern Ireland that would ensure protection of the Catholic minority’s rights.  Several weeks later, representatives of the aforementioned parties, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Edward Heath, and Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Liam Cosgrave, met in Sunningdale, England to discuss remaining issues surrounding the power sharing government.  Of particular importance was the issue of the “Irish Dimension”, or the role the Republic of Ireland should play in the new Northern Ireland government.  A role for the Republic was supported by Nationalists but resisted by Unionists.  Ultimately, the negotiations led to the proposal for the establishment of the Council of Ireland, which would have two bodies consisting of members from the Dáil (Irish Legislature) and the Northern Ireland Assembly.  Loyalist opposition to the agreement was intense.  Following the announcement of the agreement and general elections in the United Kingdom, the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC), a Unionist group, called a general strike throughout the province in 1974.  The strike only lasted thirteen days, but it was effective enough to halt the implementation of the Sunningdale Agreement and stalemate the attempts that had been made for a political resolution to the conflict.

The La Mon Hotel Bombing.  On February 17, 1978, a PIRA bomb exploded at the La Mon Hotel outside Belfast.  The bomb was planted after the PIRA had received faulty information that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was holding a meeting at the hotel.  The RUC had actually met at the hotel a week before, and a dinner dance was being hosted at the hotel the night of the bombing.  The PIRA claimed that, upon learning the RUC was not meeting at the hotel, they attempted to warn the hotel of the bomb.  However, the warning came only nine minutes before the bomb detonated, and the explosion resulted in twelve casualties, and thirty people who were wounded.  This event was especially gruesome because the bomb was an incendiary device, which exploded as a ball of fire, causing the victims to be burned alive.

The 1981 Hunger Strikes.  On March 1, 1976, the British government ended the special category status which had designated newly convicted members of paramilitary organizations as political prisoners, however the special category status for existing prisoners remained.  Almost four years later, the special category status was revoked for all prisoners regardless of conviction date.  In response to the change in status, members of the PIRA began a hunger strike, refusing to eat in protest of the status change.  However, the strike was cut short in respect of the request of the Catholic Primate of Ireland.  On March 1, 1981, the PIRA leader in  Maze Prison, Bobby Sands, began a hunger strike, exactly five years after the announcement to end special category status.  Sands was soon followed by other hunger strikers in Maze Prison, and a month after Sands began the hunger strike, he was elected as a Member of Parliament to Westminster for the Fermanagh / South Tyrone district.  Despite many attempts by outsiders to persuade Sands and the others to stop the strike, he died on May 5, 1981, after 66 days.  In total, ten prisoners died throughout the strike.  This was another galvanizing moment for Republicans who saw the refusal of the British government, then led by Margaret Thatcher’s, to concede special category status to the prisoners as evidence of a callous perspective the British held towards the Irish.  Thatcher and her government received much international condemnation for their handling of the hunger strikes.  The strikes are also considered to be the initiation of the paradigm shift by Republicans away from violence and towards political means of settlement. Bobby Sands’ election demonstrated the political potential of republicanism.

Anglo-Irish Agreement.  Over a decade after the collapse of the Sunningdale Agreement, British and Irish governments negotiated an agreement regarding their respective roles related to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been a strong supporter of the Unionist cause, began to change her view seeing that only an agreement which included a role for the Republic of Ireland could bring an end to the political violence in the province.  Thatcher and the Irish Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, came to agreement on two significant issues.  First, they “affirm[ed] that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of ‘the people of’ Northern Ireland,” and “that the present wish of a majority of ‘the people of’ Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland.”  Second, the agreement established an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council to address political, security, legal, and cross-border matters.  The body established by the agreement accomplished a similar aim to that of the Sunningdale Agreement by creating the opportunity for the Republic of Ireland to be involved in affairs of Northern Ireland.  The agreement marked a significant step forward for Anglo-Irish relations establishing cooperative relationship between both governments.

Hume-Adams Talks.  In early 1988, John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin (generally considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army), began a series of talks that eventually led to the Hume/Adams initiative.  The talks went on for a number of years, and points of agreement between the two leaders eventually became part of the Downing Street Declaration. These discussions are considered by some commentators to mark the beginning of the “peace process” in Northern Ireland.

The Downing Street Declaration.  In 1993, Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds issues a joint statement outlining the opinions of their respective governments on the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The declaration was an important milestone for the emerging “peace process” because it clarified the views and intentions of both the British and Irish governments and enabled the Nationalist and Unionist communities to better understand how each government viewed their constitutional aspirations.  The declaration stated that its primary goal was to recognize that the conflict in Northern Ireland could only be addressed through a political and democratic process and that the British Government would assist in facilitating and implementing an agreement reflective of the will of the people of Northern Ireland.  The document was powerful in that it contained several key ideas that marked a clear direction for the resolution of the conflict.  First, the British Government stated that it had “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”  This idea was a counter to the PIRA’s claim that they were engaged in a colonial struggle.  Second, the document recognized three important relationships that would need to be addressed to resolve the conflict: the relationships between the Unionist and Nationalist communities, Northern Ireland and the Republic, and the Irish and British governments.  Third, the British Government stated, “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.”  This statement further supported the idea that the British Government’s primary interest in Northern Ireland was not for the province to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but to find a peaceful resolutions to the conflict.  Finally, the declaration stated that the Irish Government recognized it could not impose its will on the island’s minority Unionist population in bringing about a united Ireland.  The declaration noted, “It would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland, in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

PIRA Ceasefire.  On August 31st, 1994, a major breakthrough in the conflict came when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) called an indefinite cessation of all military activity.  The ceasefire is generally seen as a response to the Downing Street Agreement.  On October 13, 1994, the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) also called for a cessation of violence from the CLMC member organization’s the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and the Red Hand Commando.  The PIRA’s ceasefire lasted until February 9, 1996, when the PIRA bombed the Canary Wharf.  The bombing is considered a response to the refusal of Unionist politicians to allow Sinn Féin to participate in negotiations regarding the future of the province.  The Unionists’ refusal was based on their unmet demand for a full decommissioning of PIRA weapons.  From February 1996 until July 1997, the ceasefire was called off, but resumed again on July  19, 1997.   The PIRA ceasefire has been in place since that time.

The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.  On Good Friday of 1998 (April 10), an agreement was reached after almost two years of negotiations led by former U.S. Senator and Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, George Mitchell.  The agreement was reached between the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Progressive Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, the Ulster Democratic Party, Labour, and the British and Irish Governments.  It is notable that the Democratic Unionist Party led by Ian Paisley abstained from participation in the negotiation in protest of Sinn Féin’s presence.  The agreement created a framework in which the political parties representing Northern Ireland’s communities could work towards a lasting peace.  The agreement consists of two broad agreements, one between the parties in Northern Ireland and the second between the British and Irish Governments.  The agreement was organized into three sections, or strands, that address the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom.  The agreement was important because it marked a significant turning point in how the Northern Ireland conflict was addressed, shifting from violence to political methods of dealing with cross-community differences.  The agreement was a reiteration of many of the concepts contained in earlier agreements, and controversially to the Unionist population, led to the replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  The agreement set the stage for a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, which was initially implemented on December 2, 1999, but was suspended on four occasions until May 7, 2007, from which time it has been operational.

The Omagh Bombing.  Several months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a dissident splinter group of the PIRA calling themselves the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) detonated a car bomb in Omagh that killed twenty-nine people.  The bombing was the single deadliest act throughout the Troubles.  The bombing was a reminder that though the parties had agreed to a resolve their differences by peaceful means, there were still those who did not agree with the pivot away from an armed struggle.  By 1998, approximately 3500 people had died as a result of the conflict, and approximately 36,000 were injured.  Expressed in terms of the United States population these numbers were equivalent to the 350,000 deaths and 3,600,000 injuries sustained by Americans.


Since the Good Friday Agreement and the implementation of the devolved government in Northern Ireland, three issues have persisted in the province.  First, cross-community relations between Unionists and Nationalists have remained either non-existent or very fragile, as they were before violence erupted in the late 1960s.  A symbol of this persistent division are the almost 90 “peace walls” separating Unionist and Nationalist areas throughout the province.  The second problem is best described as “dissident violence” committed by individuals or splinter groups of former paramilitaries as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the changes in the region.  Finally, the political parties, which have shifted power from the moderate SDLP and UUP to the more partisan Sinn Féin and DUP, have made much commendable progress but still appear to struggle to effectively work together on contentious issues.  As of now, large-scale, organized violence has given way to political means of conflict resolution, and the progress that is being made in this ancient conflict is real albeit understandably slower than most outside observers can appreciate.

Works Referenced

  1. Aaron Edwards and Cillian McGrattan. The Northern Ireland Conflict. (Oneworld Publications, 2012).
  2. “Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985.” United Nations Peacemaker. Last Accessed December 23, 2013.
  3. David Cutler. “Factbox: History of Northern Ireland conflict.” Reuters.com. Last Updated June 27, 2012. Last Accessed December 4, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USBRE85Q17D20120627.
  4. David McKittrick and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. (New Amsterdam Books, 2012).
  5. “Downing Street Declaration.” BBC News. Last Accessed December 18, 2013. http://goo.gl/bZM6Fg
  6. Feargal Cochrane. Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. (Yale University Press, 2013).
  7. Jason Walsh. “15 years after Good Friday Agreement, an imperfect peace in Northern Ireland.” The Christian Science Monitor. Last Updated April 10, 2013.  Last Accessed December 19, 2013. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2013/0410/15-years-after-Good-Friday-Agreement-an-imperfect-peace-in-Northern-Ireland
  8. John Darby. “Conflict in Northern Ireland: A Background Essay.” in Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. ed. Seamus Dunn. (Macmillan Press, 1995).
  9. John Hume. A New Ireland: Politics, Peace, and Reconciliation. (Roberts Rinehart, 2012).
  10. Jonathan Tonge. Northern Ireland (Global Political Hot Spots). (Polity Press, 2006).
  11. “Joint Declaration on Peace: The Downing Street Declaration, Wednesday 15 December 1993.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 18, 2013. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dsd151293.htm
  12. Martin Melaugh. “The Hunger Strike of 1981 – A Chronology of Main Events.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 13, 2013. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/hstrike/chronology.htm
  13. Martin Melaugh. “The Sunningdale Agreement – Chronology of Main Events.” CAIN Web Service – Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland – University of Ulster. Last Accessed December 18, 2013. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/sunningdale/chron.htm
  14. “Northern Ireland.” Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Last Accessed December 5, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/419739/Northern-Ireland.

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Thirteen Questions about Northern Ireland

Ireland’s history is a long story about suffering, suppression and poverty, but also one of  strong people who refuse to give up and who manage to see things from a humorous side in the face of hardship. After most of Ireland got its freedom from Britain, the northern part remained in union with England, Scotland and Wales. In the following text we will look at some frequently asked questions (FAQ) in connection with the situation in Northern Ireland.

What is the difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland?

Ireland – or the Republic of Ireland as it is officially named – is now a completely separate country and has no longer any formal bond to the UK. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is still a part of the UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland), together with England, Scotland and Wales.
Therefore, Northern Ireland is now isolated from Ireland.

Why is there so much talk of Catholics and Protestants in the conflict in Northern Ireland?

The Republic of Ireland is historically a Catholic country and a large majority of the Irish are Catholics. Many people in Northern Ireland are descendants of the original population of this region and are also Catholics. However, the majority of the Northern Irish have forefathers who emigrated from England and Scotland and these two countries have been Protestant for almost 500 years. Therefore, we end up with a rather confusing situation with a split population belonging to different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Why has this separation between the two Irish nations taken place?

Ireland is one of England’s first colonies. Already in the 1100s, England started to gain control over this region. Since that time the Irish have continued to rebel against their oppressors.
The English had a particularly difficult job in ruling the peasants in the northern corner of the country (called Ulster). To increase their control they sent Protestant Englishmen and Scots to settle in this area and simply take over land from the Irish. This immigration proved very effective and by 1703, less than five per cent of the land of Ulster was still in the hands of the Catholic Irish.

In 1801, the Act of Union made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom. The Catholics were suppressed through discriminatory laws and regulations, and they started several uprisings which were swiftly crushed by the police and the British Army. The wish for independence grew stronger and stronger and England had more and more difficulty in controlling the rebellious Irishmen.

After a period of guerrilla war, an agreement was reached with England about Irish independence in 1921. The only condition was that the six counties in the north (Ulster) were were to remain in the union with Great Britain. This was of course done because the majority in the north was Protestant and wanted to keep the bond with Britain. In Ireland this decision stirred strong feelings and disagreement threw the country into a civil war. Many felt that giving up the North would mean to betray that region. Still, the negotiators had never planned this arrangement to be permanent. When things cooled off, the North could be reunited with the rest of Ireland. The war did not change the decision. Ireland was liberated, but divided in two. Now more than 80 years later the situation is still unresolved.

What do the Catholics and the Protestants want in Northern Ireland?

The Catholics want to be reunited with the rest of Ireland and to leave the union with England, Scotland and Wales. The Protestants on their side wish to remain within the UK because they feel culturally and historically a part of this union since their ancestors emigrated from England and Scotland some hundred years ago.

Is the conflict a religious one?

The conflict is primarily a social and cultural one. Religious teachings are not an issue between the Catholics and Protestants. They do not believe in different gods. Historically, the Catholics have been poor, oppressed and often unemployed whereas the Protestants have represented the oppressive British side consisting of the privileged classes in society with better jobs, brighter opportunities, and better wages. So the conflict is cultural, social and historical rather than religious, although religion is indirectly linked to the conflict because the names of two directions within Christianity happen to be identical with the two opposing sides.  

What is the IRA and the Sinn Fein?

The IRA (the Irish Republican Army) is a Catholic paramilitary organization whose goal is to force the British out of Northern Ireland and to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland. This terrorist organization has existed since 1919 and is said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 1,700 people between 1969 and 1993. Violence against civilians has been accepted by the IRA as a means in the fight for independence.

The Sinn Fein is the political party in Northern Ireland which has had the closest bond to the IRA. This party has official MPs who are legally elected for Parliament in London. However, they refuse to take their seats there as a protest against British political and military presence in Northern Ireland. To go to London would mean to acknowledge/that they accept being part of the union and that they would swear loyalty to the Queen.

What does ‘RUC’ mean?

The RUC is the police force in Northern Ireland – the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Although the police is supposed to serve the public independent of Catholic or Protestant connections, the fact that more than 90 % of the police officers have been Protestants has made Catholics very sceptical towards the police. This has become a vicious circle. Because of the great majority of Protestants in the police it is difficult for Catholics to be recruited and at the same time few Catholics would want to join the force because that would involve a loyalty bond to a British government they do not acknowledge. To many Catholics the IRA has therefore served as a kind of special police force to see to their needs for protection and to assist them if they have been ill-treated in various situations.

What are the ‘Troubles’ and why are there British soldiers in Northern Ireland?

After Irish independence was a fact, the struggle continued to get Ulster back from the British. The biggest obstacle was that the majority of people in this region did not want to be liberated, they were Protestants and were happy as citizens of the United Kingdom.

In the 1960s the confrontations hardened and the revolutionary spirit that swept across Europe and the USA affected the green island as well. The Catholics felt suppressed and demonstrated for civil rights and equal treatment with the Protestants. Protestants, however saw this action as a provocation against them as a group and the situation ran out of control. The period after1968 has been called the ‘Troubles’. British soldiers came in 1969 to bring order to society, but unfortunately took sides and the discrimination against Catholics went on. Terrorism and murder were carried out both by extreme Catholics and extreme Protestants. A lot of civilians have been hurt or killed. People suspected of being terrorists could be kept in internment (in practice the same as jail) for years without a trial. Most people who were brought in were Catholics. The soldiers’ presence in Northern Ireland today is extremely provoking to the Catholic side. 

How do people in Northern Ireland react to the use of violence?

Although many people are trapped by their views of who is right, the majority on both sides are tired by all the violence and the personal losses caused by it. More than 3,500 people have been killed in this conflict and with a total population of just 1,5 million this is a very large number.
Many saw the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998 as a milestone for peace, since it was signed by the most important political leaders on both sides. The referendum following (this) showed that approximately 3 out of 4 said ‘yes’ to the agreement. The political leaders Catholic John Hume and Protestant David Trimble later received the Nobel Peace Prize for their contribution.   

What about the future?

The Peace Agreement and the optimism it created was soon followed by the worst terrorist action in the history of Northern Ireland. On 15 August 1998, terror struck in the quiet village of Omagh. A car bomb of 650 kilo went off in the middle of the main street. Twenty-nine people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The terrorist group behind the bomb was against the peace process and wanted to ruin the productive communication between the two sides by creating new hatred. They were not successful.

There has been some progress as a result of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, but the terrorist organizations who acknowledged it have not kept their deal entirely, which was to hand in their weapons without delay. Some weapons have been returned, but not nearly enough to satisfy the opposing side. Therefore, the communication has broken down several times, but they have continued their cooperation and the fact that both sides actually keep a dialogue instead of killing each other is a positive sign. Northern Ireland has had its own government in the period following the Peace Agreement. However, in the autumn of 2002 they were governed from London again because of too much disagreement between the different sides. Time will show when they get their own government back.

Why do not the Catholics move south to Ireland?

A lot of people wonder why the Catholics who feel suppressed simply do not move down south to the Republic of Ireland where they would be among their own. And some people do move, but obviously to many Catholics this is a too simple solution to a very complex question. The Catholics of the northern region feel that the area is theirs and they do not accept to turn their backs on it just to avoid difficulties. Also, it is important to remember that the actual fighting is limited to a small part of Northern Ireland. Most people who live in the countryside do not witness the violence in any other way than TV viewers around the world. Belfast and Londonderry are cities with many Catholics and Protestants alike. It is here most of the fighting has taken place. They are both small cities and to compare them to Norway, even the capital Belfast is smaller than Oslo.   

How do people live in Belfast?

Certain parts of the city are Protestant whereas others are Catholic. Some of these areas are physically divided by a wall, absurdly called the Peace Line. Enormous paintings on various buildings show which area you are in. It can be very dangerous to be in the neighbourhoods of the other side, but there are also neutral districts in Belfast. Although there are some integrated schools, most children go to separate schools and a lot of inhabitants have never spoken to Protestants or Catholics, respectively. Still, they are convinced that the other side is wrong. People in Northern Ireland are born and bred with scepticism and even hatred towards those on the other side. It is still the hope that more integrated schools and the fact that people are tired of violence may lead to reconciliation, although this may take a  generation or more to achieve. As always, the hope for a better future lies with the children, who are not as overpowered by hatred as adults.

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