History of the Conflict

The deep history of conflict in Ireland dates back eight hundred years, with the start of the Thirty Year's War. The key issue in recent history has been Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. After the Irish War of Independence, the Protestant majority in the north wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom while the Catholic majority in the south sought an Irish Republic encompassing the entire island of Ireland. In the end, the six counties now comprising Northern Ireland remained a part of the United Kingdom. This division remains deeply troubling to many Catholics that live in Northern Ireland today. Most Catholics are nationalists, who desire a united independent Ireland. The crux of the conflict in Northern Ireland is the struggle between the nationalists, who want to join the Irish Republic, and the Unionists, who wish to remain part of the UK. The extreme polarity of the two groups results in what Rachel Macnair1 calls a zero-sum conflict. In a zero-sum conflict one side has to win. That is to say that for it to be over for the extreme nationalists Northern Ireland must join the Republic of Ireland.

The conflict has some features of a religious struggle because the vast majority of nationalists are Catholics and the vast majority of Unionists are Protestants. This religious division in the society is deepened by the sectarianism and segregation that has plagued Ireland since Protestant settlers first arrived in the sixteenth century. This religious division is supported by an even older cultural divide that dates to the twelfth century.

Pre-Troubles History

The English first came to Ireland in 1169. The first foreign colony, The Pale, was established in 1170. In 1175, the Treaty of Windsor cemented England's involvement in England. The Treaty established the King of England as the overlord of the King of Ireland, but left all lands unconquered by the English under Irish control. This first wave of settlers was somewhat absorbed into the existing Irish culture.

Things changed when England became Protestant in the sixteenth century, after King Henry the XIII argued with the Pope over divorce. Henry XIII created the Anglican Church, and outlawed Catholicism. A new wave of English and Scottish immigrants came to Ireland at this time, and they brought their new religion with them. These new colonists remained completely separate from the native population, beginning the religious and cultural divide between the native Catholics and the English and Scottish Protestants.

Since the English first arrived in Ireland in 1169, Irish revolts were not an unusual occurance:

First Desmond Rebellion, 1569-1573
James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald gathered a confederation of lords from the Munster province to fight Queen Elizabeth I's attempts to control more of Ireland's affairs. He and his forces attacked Cork and Kilkenny. He was defeated in 1573. As a result of the rebellion, Gaelic customs and the maintenance of private armies were banned.

Second Desmond Rebellion, 1579-1583
James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald managed to gain the support of the Pope, and with the aid of troops from Rome, he launched another campaign. He was killed early in the campaign, and John Fitzgerald assumed leadership of the rebellion. A huge victory was gained for the rebellion by Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne at the Battle of Glenmalure (commemorated in the Irish folk song "Follow me up to Carlow"). It wasn't enough to sustain the rebellion, however, and the rebels were defeated in 1583.

Tyrone Rebellion/Nine Years War, 1584-1603:

Rebellion of 1641/Planter's Rebellion:
Catholics revolted against their Protestant landlords. Many Protestant families were turned out of their homes, stripped, and left to die of exposure.

Rebellion of 1798:
Led by the Society of United Irishmen.
Commemorated in the Ballad "Rising of the Moon"

Emmet’s Rebellion/Rebellion of 1803:
Led by Robert Emmett

Rebellion of 1848:
“young Ireland” and “Ribbon” societies, result of the Famine

Rebellion of 1867:

Easter Rebellion, 1916:
Led by Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke. Dissident forces took over the General Post Office in Dublin. The rebellion was supposed to call the rest of the country into action. Instead, the rebels were forced to surrender several weeks later. However, the Easter Rebellion gave the War for Independence the momentum it needed to start.

The British government encouraged Protestant settlers to move to Ireland to provide a loyal segment in the local population and to serve as a butress against uprisings by the native Irish.

Cromwell: Drogheda and Wexford

Oliver Cromwell is remembered with great bitterness in Ireland.

Depiction of Cromwell's Massacre at Drogheda2

See Segregation for excellent information about the Plantation System and the Penal Laws, two things which created much anger and resentment among Catholics.

Once the British had support on the island they passed several acts and bills to make sure that their supporters kept power. “The Act of Union,” in 1801, joined Ireland with England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as part of the United Kingdom. At this point the English dictated Irish matters and excluded Irish Catholics from becoming members of their parliament. However, in 1829, Daniel O'Connell gained Catholic Emancipation, which allowed Irish Catholics to serve as members of the British parliament. This helped the Irish little, however, as there was not yet a secret ballot and Protestant landlords of English descent were still in charge of voting for people living on their estates. However, the Irish had politicians. Charles Stewart Parnell was an Irish Member of Parliament who first introduced Home Rule Bill. In 1905, the Irish nationalists formed the political party Sinn Fein [http://sinnfein.org]. But political parties were not the only organizations being formed.

In 1914, it seemed certain that the Home Rule Bill would become a law. "The response of the Unionists was to pledge their determination to oppose Home Rule by 'all means which may be found necessary'."3 To carry out this opposition the Unionists formed the Ulster Volunteer Force; "an unofficial Protestant militia."4 The formation of the UVF pushed the Irish to create the Irish Volunteers to add to the Citizen Army, formed to protect the citizens from British harassment, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an underground organization that chose to work through other groups. Later that year, the UVF armed themselves by smuggling weapons out of Germany, creating a potentially explosive situation. However, the onset of World War I in the fall of 1914 caused the British government to shelve any plans for Home Rule in Ireland for the duration of the war.

During the war the Irish nationalists kept close contact with Germany. The Germans were eager to cause Britain problems by capitalizing on the Irish desire for material support and by assuring a free Ireland in the event of a German victory. Nonetheless, both unionist and nationalists enlisted in the British armed forces to fight Germany.

The desire for an independent Irish state did not subside, however, and during the war the IRB planned and mounted the famed Easter Rising. After the failed rebellion, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Citizens Army were disbanded, but the Irish Volunteers moved on to form the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

When World War I ended, the negotiations between the United Kingdom and Ireland continued, but the Home rule Bill was forgotten. The nationalists now demanded total independence. In 1918, the newly formed IRA began a "campaign against the British which is today referred to in the south as the War of Independence."5 In 1919, Sinn Fein created the Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary legislative body, and declared Ireland's independence. Later that year, a group of a few IRA members attacked and killed two officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (now the RUC.

The IRA preferred guerrilla tactics as they waged war against the British administration. The British responded by creating a paramiliary force known as the "Black and Tans." This force, comprised of large numbers of World War I veterans, used ruthless tactics but failed to quell the rebellion. Instead, the increased violence lead to more popular support for independence in Ireland as well as more skepticism from the British public. In 1920, the British passed the Government of Ireland Act granting Home Rule to twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties. The remaining six counties, in the north-eastern part of the island, became what is now Northern Ireland.


The Home Rule parliament never met as the IRA and Sinn Fein continued to agitate for total independence. In 1921 the British government proposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which would establish the Irish Free State in the twenty-six counties. At this point, a split occurred in Sinn Fein. Some leaders opposed the treaty, while others saw it as a stepping stone that would allow them to fight for complete independence. Eamon De Valera, former leader of Sinn Fein until the Anglo-Irish Treaty, founded a new republican party known as Fianna Fáil. In 1932, the party swept the general elections. Those opposed continued to fight in what is known as the Irish Civil War. In 1923, the Irish parliament, known as the the Oireachtas, voted in favor of the treaty.

Upon conclusion of the treaty, the six north-eastern counties remained a part of the United Kingdom with its own local parliamentary assembly. Unionists took steps to consolidate their power in Northern Ireland, where they comprised a majority of the population. In 1922, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, implemented a change from proportional representation to a first-past-the-pole system which gave the majority a distinct advantage. With this power, the Unionists were able to move Protestants from Members of Parliament straight to judges. At this point it was nearly impossible for an Irish Catholic to find a job. This change allowed Craig's party to win thirty-seven out of fifty-two seats in Northern Ireland's parliament.7 To keep order the unionists formed a police force known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). It was hoped that the RUC would become religiously integrated, but it's ranks remained 90 percent Protestant during it's entire existence (1922-2001). In addition, unionists established an all-Protestant parmiliatary force called the Ulster Special Constabulary (B specials), widely known as the "B Specials."

In 1933, Fianna Fáil saw it's own split. Within the group there were those who supported the IRA and those who supported the newly formed-fascist Blueshirts. In that year violence between the Blueshirts and police escalated. In addition to fighting the law, the Blueshirts and IRA began fighting each other. In order to stop this rouge group, De Valera banned the organization and set up a special military council to deal with Blueshirt members. In 1934, the Blueshirts disintegrated. The IRA became increasingly critical of De Valera and his inability to create an independent Ireland. In 1935, De Valera severed his ties with the IRA and banned the organization.

De Valera worked hard to remove British influence in the Free State’s government. In 1933 he abolished the oath of allegiance to the British Crown. The office of governor-general was ignored by the new administration and in 1936 it too was abolished. The Free State senate, a British senate that delayed moves toward a free Ireland, was effectively abolished in 1935. In 1936, De Valera removed all references to the British kKng in the Free State constitution. On June 1, 1936, De Valera's new constitution was passed. The new constitution established a president as head of state and created a republic in all but name. Under the new constitution the Free State became known as Eire, but remained a member of the British Commonwealth until 1949, when it was officially declared the Republic of Ireland.

In the closing years of the 1930's, the British returned the Irish "treaty posts" and granted free trading to Eire. In 1939, the IRA began bombing in Britain. Later that year WWII broke out and Eire remained neutral but with "a special consideration" for Britain. In the first years of the war Germany launched a major bombing campaign on Belfast. Later that year, there was a accidental bombing of Dublin. When the war ended De Valera voiced his condolences to the death of Adolf Hitler. Four years later, on Easter Monday 1949 (twenty-three years after the Easter Rising) Eire declared full independence and became the Republic of Ireland; De Valera lost his office after sixteen years. The British granted full independence to Ireland but refused to give up Northern Ireland. The London cabinet secretary of the time "wrote that the south's departure from the Commonwealth meant that keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom had become 'a matter of first-class strategic importance to this country'."8

The first national election of the Republic was held in 1951, and De Valera was elected Prime Minister. The fact that De Valera was so willing to accept the role of Prime Minister without achieving independence for the whole island caused the IRA to re-emerge and preform armed raids along the boarder of Northern Ireland. The IRA continued their "Boarder Campaign" through the end of the 1950's and into the first half of the 60's. During this period Ireland is accepted into the UN and John F. Kennedy paid a visit to the island. In the last years of the 1960's the discrimination of Catholics was becoming hard ignore. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was established to directly target this discrimination. In 1968 the island saw it's first civil rights marches. These were met by RUC and ended in violence. From this stemmed more marches, bombed attacks, and the British military occupation of Northern Ireland. Thus, the troubles began.

The main reason that the conflict lasted as long as it did was due to the split views of the nationalists. Macnair brings up two views on "sources of power"9. The first is the Monolithic Theory. Those who hold this view believe that the people depend on the government. Those who put into power are at the top of society and power is not easily changed. The second view is the Pluralistic-Dependency Theory. This theory states that the government depends on the cooperation of the people in order to function. It is thought the the power is weak and anyone can rise to achieve it. Those who feel violence is necessary (i.e. the IRA) believe in the first view and those who seek non-violent means (Sinn Fein and the civil rights groups) follow the second. To groups like the IRA, the only way to disrupt a strong system is with force. While marches and other non-violent protests are thought to be enough to unsettle a weak system of power. Lately the major players in the Ireland conflict have been following the second view as peace talks continue.


Memorial commemorating the Famine10

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