The conflict between the Catholics and Protestants stretches back for centuries. In the early seventeenth century the British effectively conquered Ireland and began sending mainly Scottish Protestants to settle in Ulster. For the next three centuries, Catholics in Ireland agitated for independence. In the twentieth century the British began the process of allowing a modicum of home rule for some of Ireland. When the British partitioned Ireland in 1920 under the Government of Ireland Act, six of the nine Ulster counties in the northeastern section were made a separate political entity, with a parliament at Stormont. During 1921–1939 Northern Ireland struggled economically, and unresolved tensions between Catholics and Protestants continued to plague the region.
Northern Ireland became important to the Allied cause during World War II. When hostilities began, the Irish Free State, under the leadership of Prime Minister Eamon De Valera, announced that it would be a neutral power and denied the British the right to use its ports. In Ulster, however, Britain and the United States established bases for the transport of troops and war matériel. Beginning on 15 April 1941 the Germans launched an attack on Belfast. This aircraft bombing campaign extended over several months, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying significant amounts of property.
When the Irish Free State declared itself a republic in 1949, the British responded by passing the Ireland Act, stipulating that Northern Ireland would only leave the United Kingdom by consent. This act also guaranteed the Irish in Ulster the social benefits enjoyed by people in England, Scotland, and Wales. The majority of Northern Ireland's population was Unionist and wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The opponents, the Republicans, desired the unity of Ireland under one government. This political division was abetted by the Protestant-Catholic feud and economic tensions (Protestants tended to be better off economically).
Tensions between the two sides continued, but in the two decades following World War II there was little violence. During the same period, Northern Ireland experienced unrest because of a stagnant economy and persistently high unemployment. Problems also arose with London over the cost of social legislation and fears that the British government might agree to Ireland's unification (in which the majority Protestants of Ulster would be subsumed by a largely Catholic Ireland) if the Irish Republic agreed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
During the 1960s civil rights groups, in particular the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Associations (NICRA), began to demonstrate in Northern Ireland for equal rights for Roman Catholics. Discrimination there against Catholics was widespread, and many professions were closed to them. Modeling their effort after the American civil rights movement, these protestors adopted nonviolent means to achieve their goal of equality for all.
Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labour government (1964–1970, 1974–1976) in Britain favored improvements for the Catholic population of Ulster, which put pressure on the government at Stormont to establish measures to alleviate the discrimination and poverty faced by many Catholics. Terence O'Neill, Northern Ireland's prime minister during 1963–1969, introduced several measures to aid the Catholic population. These were insufficient to satisfy the Catholics and went too far for many Protestants. Soon, Catholics and Protestants were fighting one another, especially in Londonderry and in the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital. The bloodshed reached its zenith in 1969, and the Ulster government requested that the British send troops to augment its police forces.
In 1969 Catholic extremists formed the Provisional IRA. Pledged to uniting Ireland by force, the Provisional IRA waged a terror campaign in Ulster. Militant Protestants, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defense Association, fought back against the IRA.
During 1969–1972 violence in Northern Ireland escalated, culminating in an event that became known as Bloody Sunday. On 30 January 1972, members of NICRA planned to march in the city of Derry to protest the arrest of hundreds of Republicans who were being held without trial. However, authorities banned the march. When the protestors went ahead with their plans, British paratroopers opened fire on the crowd, killing thirteen and wounding fourteen others.
The British government responded to the massacre by closing down the Northern Ireland government and assuming control of Ulster. In 1973 the Provisional IRA began launching terrorist attacks in England. In the ensuing violence during the next twenty years, thousands of people were killed and tens of thousands wounded. The British maintained a military presence in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s and found strong support from the United States, particularly during President Ronald Reagan's administration (1981–1989), which supported the British hard line against the IRA.
In the 1990s peace talks between the warring parties yielded some results, and in 1998 the IRA issued a declaration renouncing violence. On 10 April 1998, all parties signed the Good Friday Agreement, establishing a Northern Ireland Assembly and opening up the possibility for a peaceful solution to the sectarian problems of Ulster.
Justin P. Coffey
Dixon, Paul. Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace. New York: Palgrave, 2001.; Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600–1972. London: Penguin, 1988.; Hughes, Michael. Ireland Divided: The Roots of the Modern Ireland Problem. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.