Northern Ireland is made up of six counties of the Irish province of Ulster. It was formed by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, when the whole island was still under British rule. The reason for the partition was that Home Rule for Ireland was to be restored, but the predominantly protestant population of the Northeastern counties wanted to remain under Direct Rule from Westminster. The effect of the Act was to create a devolved parliament for the six counties, which was to remain in place until the 1970s, when it was fatally destabilised by the Troubles.

However, the population of the rest of Ireland had come to view Home Rule as inadequate, and swept Sinn Féin to power in the 1918 General Election. The Sinn Féin MPs seceded from the Westminster parliament and formed a parliament in Dublin (Dáil Éireann), sparking off the Irish War of Independence. The treaty which settled this conflict contained as one of its terms the retention of partition, subject to a review of the border by an independent commission.

The supporters of the treaty on the Irish side assumed that the border commission would create a northern state so small that assimilation into an all-Ireland state would be inevitable. However, the commission's report was never released, as it was leaked that they would be recommending no significant changes to the border, and Northern Ireland remained intact.

After the Irish Civil War, the leaders of the southern political entity got on with the business of establishing it as an independent state, and more or less left Northern Ireland to its own devices. Some die-hard republicans continued to fight against partition, and the 1937 Constitution of Ireland included an aspiration to unity, but for the most part southerners had enough to occupy them.

Although the majority of the population of Northern Ireland were strongly in favour of the Union with Britain, however, the province contained a significant minority (mostly Catholic), who wanted to be part of an independent Ireland. Northern Ireland then, was a state (for this period it was ruled by a local parliament) seriously divided between predominantly protestant Unionists and predominantly catholic Nationalists. The Unionists had the upper hand, being in the majority, but on the island as a whole, however, they were massively outnumbered. A seige mentality caused their leaders to extend their local advantage through discrimination against Nationalists and catholics, gerrymandering of political constituencies, and anti-democratic electoral rules, which only extended the vote to property-owners.

This situation simmered away for decades, until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s brought it to a head. Catholics marched in Derry and Belfast demanding equal rights in issues such as the allocation of public housing. Widespread public disorder ensued, with catholic families being burned out of their homes in areas of mixed population. This, coupled with the police (including the now disbanded B Specials) coming down hard on the protesters, led to the resurgance of the largely dormant IRA, and Loyalist organisations such as the UVF, and the start of "The Troubles".

Since then, Northern Ireland has been more or less defined in the world's eyes by this devastating and brutal conflict, although normal life has continued for most, especially those wealthy enough to avoid living in the trouble spots. The IRA's ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement lead to hope that the conflict can be put to rest, although the peace is uneasy at best. Nonetheless, there is enormous hope that the people of Northern Ireland can put the past atrocities and inequities behind them and enjoy peace in what is, after all, one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

I can't seem to find a comprehensive WU about the Troubles in Northern Ireland that exploded in the late 1960s, so I decided to node this. I don't deal with more recent development, but I just seek to explain why the Ulster troubles of the late 1960s and the 70s, proved almost impossible to solve:


The politics of Northern Ireland especially in the 1960s and ‘70s (or the Troubles as they are more commonly known) stands out for the extent of violence and distrust that characterised both sides in the conflict. Any analysis of why the Ulster troubles proved intractable must first examine what led to the Troubles in the first place. The two broad themes that characterise the pre 1960 phase (and continue to manifest themselves later on) are the differing perceptions between the Catholics and the Protestants and the inequality and discrimination that were prevalent. These provided a powerful cocktail that exploded in the 1960s and a spiral of violence and distrust meant that any solution to the Troubles would be blocked by one side or the other, or usually both. This cycle of violence continued right upto the 1990s but the brutality of the earlier period was diminished. It is useful to analyse the Troubles in terms of three broad themes- the lack of contact and trust between the two communities, the inequality and discrimination that led to this lack of trust and also exacerbated it and finally, post-1968 the increasing militarism, which because of previous two factors remained unstoppable.

A Brief History

Northern Ireland’s population is about 55% Protestant and 45% Catholic, and the two communities do not see eye to eye even on the issue of what constitutes their core differences. Protestants are more inclined to see the troubles in constitutional and security terms whereas Catholics either view it as a struggle for national self determination or as a problem of corrupt and unfair practices by successive Unionist governments. Interwoven into these two themes are questions of politics, violence, community relations and inequality. The partition of Ireland in 1921 did little to ease the sectarian distrust and feelings of separateness that both communities felt and this was particularly acute in the six counties of Ulster devolved to Unionist rule.

Deepening dis-trust

This mistrust has been buttressed by physical segregation of the two communities. This has manifested itself in various ways. For instance, as most schooling is conducted by religious denomination, most Protestant and Catholic families find housing closer to their schools. Further, Church attendance is high and the church provides an important arena for social interaction. Even marriages tend to take place with people from the same area, creating family structures that are isolationist and segregated. This feeling of separateness also means that there is not much contact between the two communities and while the hostility does not always hamper day to day relations, specific events and incidents tend to reopen all wounds and confirm stereotypes.

This lack of contact, and empathy is also underlined by the differential access to power between the two communities. The inequality and discrimination that was prevalent in Northern Ireland manifested itself not just in politics, but also in the economic and the social sphere. At the time of Partition, Stormont, the Parliament of Northern Ireland, was given control over its own affairs with the exception of the right to mint money, conduct foreign affairs and raise money. However, in the early years of the establishment of Northern Ireland, many felt that unless the Ulster Protestants were regimented a united front could not be maintained. There was genuine fear among any Ulster Unionists that any downplaying of nationalism would have serious political consequences for them. It would then enable Protestants to turn to sectional interests rather then remain mobilized for the Union. It was also feared that class interests would make a section of the Protestant workers vote for Labour. This fear of losing power was the worst case scenario for the Ulster Unionists but it was one they could not afford to ignore. They resorted to a number of tactics, that would now be considered highly improper, but were deemed necessary for the survival of Northern Ireland. The first of these was the practice of gerrymandering or the altering of boundaries of constituencies to ensure that the Catholics were always at a disadvantage. The othe tactic was that of holding elections at a time when the Union seemed most at risk which would then maintain the Unionist alliance on an eternal war footing. Proportional representation was abolished as that would have helped fringe parties. But, the most controversial measure was the decision by Stormont to retain an electorate based on a rate payer’s franchise. There were now two categories of voters- ratepayers and those who owned commercial property valued at more than 10 pounds a year. Both these categories favoured Protestant voters and disfranchised Catholics.

Even the judicial system was highly divisive. In 1968, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 68 to 6 and 15 out of the 28 appointees to the high court of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972 were either current or former members of the Unionist party thus strengthening links between political power and judicial control.

Other areas of Protestant domination included public sector employment, housing allocation and educational revenues where discrimination was usually the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, various electoral reasons made it essential to ensure a certain economic status for the Catholics. There was pressure to maintain the relative wealth disparities of Catholic and Protestant districts or else the entire delicate framework would collapse. There were structural factors that suppressed overall Catholic wealth and employment relative to Protestant; large Catholic family size, their concentration in peripheral areas west of the River Bann, and relatively poor standards of education in Catholic run schools that enjoyed lower levels of state subsidy. This discrimination continued in the field of economic opportunities. Unionist minister Basil Brookes in 1933 acknowledged argued that the Catholics in Northern Ireland were increasing in number and he advised employers: “Do not employ Roman Catholics where they could get good Protestants to take their place.” Fear of Catholic infiltration limited the recruitment of Catholics to the higher echelons of the state, and little was done to encourage a conciliatory policy on the part of the political representatives. Throughout the Stormont era there was consistent and largely successful pressure from the Unionist grassroots to keep Catholics out of senior public employment positions. This anxiety continued into the 60s as well when it was believed that if the Protestants did not apply themselves to education, opportunities in the civil service would be lost to them. Even in the sphere of housing extraordinary care was taken to ensure that constituencies were not upset.

By the 1980s Northern Ireland had the most substantial health and education provisions in the UK, while also having the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of income. Catholics, perhaps due to their historic concentration in areas of high unemployment and low grades within jobs, were disproportionately affected. Protestants enjoyed almost all the economic advantages of 20,000 well paid jobs connected to the security forces.

There are thus two broad trends that stand out in the murky politics of Northern Ireland prior to the Troubles and the two are inextricably linked. Much of the suspicion and misunderstanding between the two communities did indeed have historical roots, but the inequality that was often an institutionalised nature, certainly exacerbated these feelings. If we look at the precise reason why the Troubles broke out and why they were so difficult to resolve, we see that these two themes of distrust and economic disparity are an integral part of later events. It also means that any attempt to solve the Ulster Troubles would have meant addressing these questions. However, we see that while measures were taken to control the more obvious manifestations of the Troubles, such as the violence, the deep-seated reasons for the violence remained. The spiral of violence that developed from 1968 onwards was fostered by these very reasons and the inability to tackle them, meant that the spiral acquired a logic and a momentum of its own.

Spiral of violence- and reactions to it

Along with the nature of the violence that broke out, we must also look at how the violence was sought to be tackled. Here we see that the methods and forces used only served to intensify the sense of suspicion and distrust that the Catholics felt. The RUC or the Royal Ulster Constabulary which was seen as a principal instrument for tackling the violence was seen by many Catholics as a partisan force that bowed to political pressure as a result of discriminatory hiring practices. Another element in this smoldering cauldron was the presence of the B Specials. Part of the Special Ulster Constabulary that had been created in the 1920s they were given the task of combating potential subversion of the state, and were recruited as an exclusively Protestant paramilitary force. There were often open ties between the B Specials, the Orange Order and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The B Specials gained notoriety for their use of violence in the execution of their duties; offences included beatings, harassment, and body searches of Catholics at checkpoints. In an already charged atmosphere, such actions could only deepen divisions. Thus, we see that prior to 1968 there was atmosphere of inequality, discrimination, suspicion but no overt violence on a mass scale. The spark that caused this violence was provided by the civil rights movement and the introduction of internment as a response to it.

Civil Rights Movement

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) managed to exert huge pressure on the Unionist government not merely as a huge media spectacle but also through the sheer force of numbers on the streets. That pressure operated on the ground as well and via media coverage through Westminster and Dublin. The central success of the campaign was its ability to bring outside pressure on the Northern Ireland government. It was also an outburst of Catholic grievances, long suppressed that had finally found an outlet. But the use of internment as a policy to counter the marches and demonstration of NICRA was a fatal mistake. The tactic was used largely against the IRA and the Catholic community and although Loyalist paramilitaries too were responsible for the violence, few Protestants were arrested. The level of civil unrest and the level of IRA violence surged.

Hunger strikers

These developments would have probably been enough to hurtle Northern Ireland into the endless cycle of violence that followed. But a poignant and moral dimension was added to it by the hunger strikers. Now republican prisoners appeared in the rather unusual role of accepting suffering for their cause rather than inflicting it. The level of popular support at their funerals and the impressive Sinn Fein electoral performances were testimony to the popular support that the hunger strikers enjoyed. The hunger strike of 1981 is seen a huge turning point in the Troubles, not least because it was a propaganda victory for the republican movement. Active and tacit support for the IRA increased considerably and political support for the Sinn Fein was demonstrated in two by elections and it led to the emergence of the Sinn Fein as a significant political force in Northern Ireland.

The violence continues

The violence that engulfed Northern Ireland in the late 60s and early 70s and continued well into the 80s had an inexorable logic of their own. Violence by the IRA (by now the Provos) would provoke Loyalist paramilitaries into violence of their own. This only served to increase mistrust and meant that any attempts at peace were doomed to failure. The fact that those who were meant to maintain law and order, the police forces were seen as being partisan, meant that the Catholics felt more than ever, that they were under siege. The forcible eviction of Catholic families from various parts of Belfast and the increasing migration of Catholics into pockets of safety, meant that they felt they were surrounded by the enemy. In such circumstances, they felt they had little choice but to turn to the IRA as their saviour. The IRA was not unified on the course of action that had to be taken. But following the split, the Provisional IRA was dominated by those who felt that sheer brute force was the way forward, and thus the endless cycle of violence was perpetuated.

If the pre-1968 period is characterised by inequality and suspicion, then the post-’68 period is noticeable for the sheer intensity of the violence. And given the inequality and distrust, it meant that this violence was almost unstoppable. Attempts by O’Neill to bring about reconciliation were misinterpreted by many Protestants and Catholics too did not trust O’Neill as civil rights had not been granted. On the other hand, most Unionists saw civil rights not as a demand for equal citizenship rights but as an anti state activity. There fundamental differences in perception meant that there was no force that could put a halt to the violence.

The Protestant backlash

The violence did not emanate from the IRA alone. The civil rights movement also provoked a Protestant backlash. While the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been banned after a series of miscalculated acts of terror, a Protestant Volunteer Force developed under Reverend Ian Paisley and Major Roy Bunting. They organised themselves such that they would block all civil rights marches. Some of these began to turn violent and the RUC began to fear civil war. At this stage, the loyalists change tactics. They organised a series of terrorist acts (including cutting off Belfast’s water supply), which they hoped would be blamed on IRA. Loyalist aggression continued including the tactic of ‘pub rioting’. There was destruction of Catholic homes and many Catholics began to move to safer areas. The result of this was that nationalism in the Catholic community now began to acquire more militant undertones. IRA flyers asking for more new recruits appeared. This militarization then provided further ammunition for the Protestants who perceived the reorganization of militant republicanism as a threat and readied themselves for an insurrection.

Like the IRA, the Loyalists violence too seemed to glory in their barbarity. Torture-murders were not unusual. Over the Troubles, almost 700 Catholic civilians died at the hands of the Loyalists. The aim of such violence was to impress upon British and Irish nationalism that political appeasement of republicanism was not a violence free option. There was always an underlying method of the madness. First, they hoped to terrorise the IRA civilian support base. But more importantly, they hoped to drive home the point that the Protestant militants would go to any length in case of a British withdrawal- it would lead to a bloodbath.

Battle of the Bogside

There were certain key moments in this long saga of bloodshed that further pushed away any chance of peace. One of these was the Battle of the Bogside where it was soon clear that the response of the RUC was wholly inappropriate. It resulted in a final loss of faith of the Catholics in the RUC. Following the Bogside battle, the loyalists were successful in squeezing the Catholics out of their districts. Around 60,000 people in Belfast were forced to leave their home. In their strategy of trying to isolate and provoke the Catholics the loyalists had admirably succeeded. Moreover, Unionist politicians had lost all credibility with the Catholic population as neutral arbiters and armed self defence seemed a wholly natural response. It was also a key moment for the IRA which was rejuvenated by the Troubles. Although there was a split within the ranks of the IRA, the events of August 1969 and later of Bloody Sunday marked a further closing of ranks by both parties in the conflicts.

What were the British doing?

A final feature of this violence was the British response to it and Catholic perceptions of that response. There is no doubt that the IRA was very skilful in exploiting Catholic sentiments. But without the repression of the British army, it is doubtful if it would have received the mass sympathy that it did. The British army, once on the streets of Ulster, seemed to fuel the desire of the Ulster Catholic community to ensure that their martial prowess was represented. The armed struggle was a source of national pride- a militant refusal to be assimilated or subordinated. House searches by the British army especially between 1972-74 was seen by Catholic civilians as the actions of an occupation army and viewed as intrusive. So Republican violence increased as moral barriers to political violence eroded. For many Catholics the actions of the British army re-vindicated their belief in the IRA as authentic community defenders. The British army now believed that their aim of winning Catholic ‘hearts and minds’ would be doomed to failure.


It might seem perhaps that the Troubles of Northern Ireland had a social and economic basis and was given militaristic undertones by the events after 1969. However there was a political dimension to it as well and the Troubles had a significant impact on British politics of the period. The Sinn Fein, on the other hand, feared that Catholics would vote for the SDLP and were afraid that if they joined politics the IRA would be seen as little more than the armed wing of a minority political party. But the hunger strike, and the success of Bobby Sands resulted in a reworking of existing strategies. The primary ambition of the Sinn Fein was to dislodge the SDLP as the primary political expression of nationalism in the north as well as build a substantial presence in the south by appealing to leftist radical inclinations of the working class.

The politics of Northern Ireland was characterised by a constitutional deadlock. The Catholics were hostile to a purely ‘internal’ solution to the problem. Having come so tantalisingly close to a constitutional recognition of their Irishness in 1974 with Sunningdale’s Council of Ireland, they were in no mood to accept British insistence that they settle for anything the Ulster Unionists, now led by veterans of the anti-Sunningdale movement, were likely to offer. Unionists too saw little need to negotiate. Direct rule was a small price to pay for avoiding power sharing. The Anglo Irish agreement of 1985 led to huge protests in Ulster with the Unionists fearing that the British had let them down. Impressive mass demonstrations mobilized the bulk of the province’s Protestant population. Loyalist violence resumed with both Catholics and the RUC as targets- an indication of Protestant alienation. Thus, even political developments of the region saw the two underlying features that were an integral part of this conflict- distrust leading to violence and further distrust.

Northern Ireland has a bloody history and even today with disagreements over the decommissioning process, that history has not been laid to rest. While there can be no magic formula that will wipe away years of conflict, death and terrorism, it is clear that Northern Ireland was a victim of its own diversity and differences. It is this diversity that caused rifts, and these were heightened by injustices both perceived and real. Once this resentment had turned to violence, there was perhaps a final chance to stop further bloodshed. But the use of repressive measures by the government of Northern Ireland meant that the chance was lost. Northern Ireland just plunged deeper into chaos and turmoil.

Hopefully this will shed some light on the present situation in Northern Ireland, to supplement the excellent write-ups above.


On April 10, 1998, the peace process in Northern Ireland entered a new phase with the Good Friday Accord. The year before, British politics had also entered a new phase, as the Labour Party swept the elections, ejecting John Major from office and replacing him with Tony Blair. The charismatic new leader immediately set to work on the problem of establishing peace in Northern Ireland. Although he initially met the challenges with enthusiasm and innovation, the relentless polarization of Ulster politics wore him down, and now, seven years after he took office and six years after the signing of the agreement that was to revolutionize the peace process, the two most radical parties on both sides are once again in power and unable to work together. It does not seem as if Tony Blair or the Good Friday Accord will effect any long-term change in Northern Ireland’s centuries-old conflict of Protestant vs. Catholic, Unionist vs. Republican.

History is impossible to forget in Northern Ireland. Protestants march every summer to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry—both of which took place in the late 17th century. Protestants and Catholics alike have long stories of oppression and discrimination which seem to irrevocably divide the groups. All attempts to solve the problem of Northern Ireland in the past three hundred years have either failed or, worse, resulted in the intensification of violence. From the failure of Home Rule to Partition in 1921, and throughout the Troubles, where thirty years took over 3,000 Irish lives on either side,1 the British government has been unable to bring peace to Northern Ireland. As United States Senator George Mitchell, the chair of the peace talks that produced the Good Friday Accord, said, “Centuries of conflict have generated hatreds that make it virtually impossible for the two communities to trust each other.”2

Partition—the division of the tiny island into two parts, imperfectly separated by religion and national loyalty—is the state of mind and geography in Northern Ireland today, as it has been ever since the events commemorated in the Marching Season. The Protestant majority in Ulster, sharing its religion, culture, and economy with the United Kingdom, naturally adheres to Unionism. There is also a minority of Catholics, who have much stronger ties to the Republic of Ireland, and who have a long history of oppression under British, Protestant overlords. The Protestants, in turn, feel that they are an embattled minority on the island, and that if the Republic annexed their territory, they would lose all of their rights. The lines drawn between the two groups are physically manifested in Northern Ireland’s capital city of Belfast, where barbed wire strung along the tops of concrete walls marks the boundary between Protestant and Catholic.

Build-Up to the Good Friday Accord

Peace talks chaired by United States Senator George Mitchell began in 1995, after the IRA agreed to a ceasefire. They were slow to begin because, as Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s Taoiseach, later wrote, there were problems just getting the two sides to meet together.3 In an interview with NPR, Mitchell described the surreal feeling of sitting at a table with men who had previously committed acts of terrorism against each other.4 The Democratic Unionists, led by the famously tenacious figure of Ian Paisley, refused to meet with Sinn Fein, the radical Nationalist party, until the Irish Republican Army (IRA) decommissioned their weapons. In January of 1996, Mitchell issued a report stating that, “prior decommissioning should instead take place in parallel with political negotiations.” Mitchell reached this conclusion after being told by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, was unable to control the IRA5. This meant that talks would be delayed for several months while the IRA surrendered its weapons. Neither side was pleased. However, a bomb blast on Canary Wharf in London that killed two brought the peace talks to a halt.6 The IRA admitted to breaking its ceasefire, proving that its word was not to be trusted. In the tense period that followed, both sides agreed to elections to choose delegations for talks. The poll took place in May, and the results indicated that the people of Northern Ireland wanted peace, but June was filled with astounding violence committed by the IRA. August witnessed the Unionists’ marching season, which erupted into bloodshed in Drumcree. However, the leaders on both the Nationalist and Unionist sides distanced themselves from the perpetrators of these acts and continued trying to piece together an agreement under Mitchell.

In October, another IRA bombing destroyed the army’s Northern Ireland headquarters. The result was John Major, the British Prime Minister at the time, expressing his disgust with Sinn Fein and their claims of ceasefire by declaring, “I don’t believe you, Mr. Adams. I don’t believe you.”7 He ignored the next plan to cross his desk that would restart the peace process, effectively ending talks for the rest of his term.

Enter Tony Blair

This was the situation Tony Blair entered when Labour won the general election of 1997. His initial strategy in Northern Ireland was to work toward peace through the diplomatic process. He summed it up by saying, “I do think that the more they are drawn into the political process the harder it gets for them to return to violence.”8 His ulterior motive was to make every effort to negotiate so that if (or when) violence did erupt, the blame could be laid solely on the Nationalists and the IRA, and not on the British government. Showing a remarkable ability to control the lesser politicians around him, Blair began to play the leaders on both sides off of their constituencies. He kept Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble in a constant state of tension with Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionists, while pressuring Gerry Adams to control the IRA. However, by playing the moderates of the two groups off of their more radical counterparts, he encouraged the partition mentality. Paisley continued to refuse to negotiate with Sinn Fein so long as the IRA remained armed, while Adams sought another ceasefire from the fringe elements of the IRA. Blair continued to ask for devolution of power, and also for better cross-border ties between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.9 When, in July 1997, the IRA agreed to another ceasefire, the talks began to head toward an agreement.

Blair himself took command of the talks around Easter of 1998, and was instrumental to the writing of the Good Friday Accord, which moved Northern Ireland closer to self-government. It established an assembly (which would be elected in July of that year) and created a first minister. The Accord gave the assembly powers to legislate on agriculture and education, and offered nationalists a fair share of the power. To draw the Republic of Ireland closer to Northern Ireland, it created a North-South Ministerial Council which would work together on tourism, Ireland’s status in the European Union, environment, and health (its first meeting was in Ulster, December 1999). The Accord specified that, “Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll.”10

The two most controversial parts of the Accord were the new policies on the RUC and the renewed ceasefire. The RUC had long been a point of contention because they were almost entirely Protestant, and the Catholics often complained of oppression at their hands. The Accord specified that the British government would reduce the numbers of police and armed forces and remove security installations, and also that an Independent Commission would be established to determine the future of policing in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, both sides agreed to decommission and reaffirmed the ceasefire, with the stipulation that paramilitary prisoners would be released in two to three years if their organizations kept to the ceasefire. As a result, James McArdle, the 29-year old convicted of the Canary Wharf bombing, was released in July 2000.11

Fallout of the Good Friday Accord

For the Democratic Unionists, the Good Friday Accord appeared to be a representation of the British government’s waning commitment to Northern Ireland. As Mairead Nic Craith writes, “It confirmed the legitimacy of the political will of advocates of Irish nationalism and affirmed their political aspirations for a united Ireland.”12 By placing the future of Northern Ireland in the hands of the voters, the Accord made personal identity vital, something that also threatened the Unionists. The Catholic population grows at a much faster rate than that of the Protestants, and it will not be long before the majority becomes the minority. Then, when cultural identity rather than the will of the British government makes the decision, Northern Ireland will probably join the Republic. Ian Paisley summed up the sense of betrayal his party felt towards Tony Blair by calling him a “traitor” and a “liar;”13 he and his followers seemed unable to accept that the nationalists deserved a voice in Ulster government.

Although, as Sully writes, “cynics saw the Good Friday agreement as typical Blair politics-- good on show but lacking substance,”14 the Accord was overwhelmingly supported at the polls. 55% of Protestants and 96% of Catholics voted for it.15 Unfortunately, despite the political process, the violence continued. In August, an IRA splinter group calling itself the Real IRA committed the worst atrocity in the thirty years of the Troubles. They set off a car bomb in the centre of Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200.16 Immediately afterwards, the Real IRA declared a ceasefire.17 That declaration—so crucial to the Blair-engineered talks—revealed how little control the Prime Minister had over the radical elements in Northern Ireland. Ceasefires could be proclaimed or revoked on a whim, and had no bearing on real life.

Two weeks later, Blair visited Omagh with President Bill Clinton, who, throughout the negotiations, advocated and actively supported peace in Northern Ireland with enthusiasm that no American president past or since has matched. Together, they argued that, “such horrifying acts of violence strengthened rather than weakened the case for the peace process.”18 A large body of the press followed their every move and also gave publicity to the angry invective of Unionist and Nationalist leaders.

From late 1998 through 2003, Blair and leaders in Northern Ireland experienced setback after setback as the Unionists and the Nationalists maneuvered and postured. Although John Hume, leader of the moderate Nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, true peace and political stability still seemed to belong to the distant future. The IRA offered weapons inspections and surrendered arms caches, only to break ceasefires with bloody urban violence every few months. In working class areas, armed gangs retained power and, as written in the New Statesman, “low-level ethnic cleansing never ceased.”19 Up until 2003, Marching Season resulted in violent clashes between the police and the marchers, as the Protestants repeatedly tried to enter Catholic neighborhoods, particularly the march to Drumcree in County Armagh.20 Meanwhile, internal feuds within the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Unionists resulted in assassinations in the former and in David Trimble losing his support in the latter. Talks moved in spurts of productivity and stalemate.

The Future Looks Suspiciously Like the Past...

The general election of 2003, taking place on November 28, revealed that the power sharing government that the Good Friday Accord attempted to create was still a distant hope. Protestant Unionists supported Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionists overwhelmingly after five years of disillusionment with the Good Friday Accord. Their main point of contention was the IRA’s deceptions about decommissioning. They were also upset over the reform of the RUC; previously, it was 94% Protestant, but ever since the Accord only Catholics had been recruited.21 In reaction, the Catholic Nationalists voted for Sinn Fein. As explained in an interview on NPR, “It’s because the see-saw principle tends to operate—people see the other side edging towards the extreme and feel they need to edge towards the extreme to balance it off as it were… People vote out of fear of what the other side is up to.”22 Once again, talks ground to a halt, and as of the writing of this paper the government of Northern Ireland remained broken. Controlled by the two extremes, divided by history and the partition politics of the Good Friday Accord, peace remains elusive.

The essential problem with the Good Friday Accord, and the reason why it has not solved problems in Northern Ireland, is the fact that it was engineered by Tony Blair and the British government. By presiding over the peace talks, he allowed the two sides to negotiate through him, rather than with each other, turning the “compromise” into a fight over who could win the most concessions. It also allowed the leaders to use Blair as a scapegoat when they did not achieve the ends that their extreme constituents demanded. Meanwhile, Blair added his own political ends into the already tangled mix of compromises. His desire to make the British government appear blameless in the situation should violence erupt again meant that most of the bad publicity went to the Nationalist side. Although the IRA’s continuing squabbles over decommissioning are pathetic and negative for the peace process, Blair’s well-known and internationally trusted face denouncing them proves that he is too biased to be an effective arbiter in a situation that requires equality of all parties involved.

In the near future, it does not seem likely that Northern Ireland will fall back into open civil strife. An article in the New Statesmen from late October of 2003 states, “An IRA return to full-blooded terrorism in the near future is unlikely: Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness enjoy the international celebrity circuit too much to make outlaws of themselves again…”23 The opposite side of this is that complete peace in Northern Ireland also unlikely because, without tension and grandstanding, Ulster’s politicians will fall into obscurity. Blair’s advocacy and creation of the government created by the Good Friday Accord ensures that there will always be plenty of fodder for men like Adams and Paisley to exploit. Today, Paisley continues to perform his ritual of denouncing talks with the “IRA terrorists;”24 meanwhile, the IRA continues to give him a reason to do so by making and breaking ceasefires and decommissioning deals every few weeks.25 As of March 13 of this year, Blair is interfering in the problem by appointing an intelligence committee to review IRA claims in an attempt to break the impasse in the peace talks. Publicity and outside intrusion are thus far the only result.

Northern Ireland cannot exist as two separate entities compromising on every issue. Proportional representation, and the power-sharing government that comes of it, is an institutionalization of the divisions within Northern Ireland. As the recent polls proved, radical groups thrive in this environment by playing on fears of the “other” gaining more power than they were allotted. Elections become contests of extremist one-upmanship rather than ways to make national decisions. Blair needs to step back from the situation and force the two sides to work directly with one another, rebuilding their government from scratch without any British intervention. Possibly he could guarantee basic civil and human rights, as suggested in the New Statesman,26 but this is not necessary. In the absence of publicity, away from the interfering hand of the Prime Minister, maybe Northern Ireland’s leaders could achieve their own peace.


1Stephens, Philip. Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, (London, 2004), pg. 139.
2Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 146.
3Ahern, Bertie, Harvard International Review, Vol. 24, Issue 4, Winter 2003, pg. 26.
4Brand, Madeleine, and Senator George Mitchell. “The Election Outcome and Aftermath,” NPR, February 5, 2004.
5McKittrick, David and David McVea. Making Sense of the Troubles, (Chicago, 2002), pgs. 206-207.
6“1996: Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire,” BBC News, February 10, 1996.
7McKittrick and McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, pg. 212.
8Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 143.
9Sully, Melanie A., The New Politics of Tony Blair, (Boulder, 2000), pg. 103.
10Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 105.
11“1996: Docklands bomb ends IRA ceasefire,”
12Nic Craith, Mairead, Culture and Identity Politics in Northern Ireland, (New York, 2003), pg. 56.
13Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 150.
14Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 106.
15Sully, The New Politics of Tony Blair, pg. 105.
16“Keeping the Dissidents at Bay,” pg. 1.
17McKittrick and McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, pg. 311.
18Stephens, Tony Blair: The Making of a World Leader, pg. 151.
19Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights and leave the rest to the people of Ulster, allowing them to rebuild democracy from the bottom,” New Statesman, (London, Oct. 27, 2003) Vol. 16, Iss. 780, pg. 6.
20“Keeping the Dissidents at Bay,” pg. 1.
21“Northern Ireland Power-Sharing in Doubt After Elections,” NPR, November 29, 2003.
22Gelky, Adrian. “Talk of the Nation,” NPR, December 2, 2003.
23Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights…” pg. 6.
24Brand, Madeleine, and Senator George Mitchell. “The Election Outcome and Aftermath,” NPR, February 5, 2004.
25Brown, John Murray. Financial Times, (London, March 13, 2004), pg. 2.
26Anonymous, “The British should guarantee human and civil rights…” pg. 7.

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