“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view,
to be useful to the modern traveler.” – Henry Glassie, US Historian
For thirty years, Northern Ireland, an area comprising the northeastern corner of the island, was plagued by violence and religious and political upheaval. The Troubles, as the period came to be known, was a manifestation of deeply rooted discontent among Protestant “unionists” or “loyalists,” who largely preferred to remain under British rule—as Northern Ireland had been for centuries—and Catholic “nationalists” or “republicans” who sought reunion with the primarily Catholic southern counties (the Republic of Ireland) that had been granted independence after the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921).
In Northern Ireland, British Protestants, who made up a majority of the population and identified solely as “British citizens,” held significantly more influence in the region’s politics than the Catholic minority, who viewed themselves as Irish. However, the impending struggles were less related to religious or ideological differences than cultural and political identities. Specifically, segregation between the groups created deep societal divides. Neither Irish history nor the Gaelic language was taught in schools, the Catholic minority faced unequal access to employment and housing, and from 1956 to 1974, Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party, was banned from political participation.
In a dawning age of civil rights movements and increased political engagement, several young Catholic activists established the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967. However, the Protestant government promptly and violently stifled several protests and marches organized by NICRA; these confrontations catalyzed the Troubles.
The period of struggle is characterized by extreme, indiscriminate violence by both sides of the conflict. Bombings, shootings, riots, kidnappings, and assassinations of prominent leaders became commonplace. To counter loyalist political and paramilitary forces, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was formed in December 1969 as the “defender of the nationalist cause.”
Later, as the IRA and political wing Sinn Féin determined the need for political action beyond the violence of street battlefields, a splinter group, the Provisional IRA, took over the mission and applied guerilla tactics to wage a war of unification between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Over three thousand people were killed and thirty thousand wounded during the Troubles. The campaigns of terror waged by both sides were a sobering reminder that anyone could be caught in the crossfire.
Perhaps the most infamous incident is known as “Bloody Sunday.” On 30 January 1972, British troops, unprovoked, fired into a crowd of Catholic demonstrators, killing more than a dozen. The unjustified killings sparked recruitment into the Provisional IRA and contributed to the single most deadly year in the Troubles.
Finally, after decades of violence, highly publicized hunger strikes, and numerous negotiated and failed ceasefires, peace talks that included the loyalists, nationalists, and international mediators began. A contentious process that continued amidst mass parliamentary resignations and renewed bombing campaigns, the peace negotiations finally culminated in an agreement on 10 April 1998.
The Belfast Agreement, or Good Friday Agreement as it came to be known for the date on which it was signed, proposed a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and provided for enhanced cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as between British and Irish governments. This was accomplished through three “strands.” First, a Northern Irish Assembly was to be created with elected representatives from both loyalist and nationalist parties. Second, a cross-border cooperation arrangement was reached between the North and the South of the island. Third, the Republic of Ireland recognized Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, though the agreement gives the option of a future referendum for reunification should the people desire it. Included in this strand was a choice granted to the people of Northern Ireland. Individuals could decide their nationality: Irish, British, or both.
A referendum was held on 22 May 1998 in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to determine whether the populace supported or rejected the deal. The Agreement was easily passed with 94% of voters in Ireland and 71% of voters in Northern Ireland approving the proposal. The Agreement was officially adopted, and though it marked a formal end to the Troubles, much work was yet to be done to mend the wounds and bridge the gaps that still existed in Northern Ireland. The newly integrated government faced challenges of disarming and demobilizing paramilitary forces, reforming the police and judicial institutions, and dampening political mistrust for many years.
Now, twenty-five years later, the Good Friday Agreement has largely been implemented and maintains relatively peaceful relations in the country. In 2017, a government collapse occurred when the two biggest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, disagreed over the handling of a scandal revolving around green energy. The National Assembly was restored in 2020 but promptly faced another test with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (dubbed “Brexit”). The threat of discontent in Northern Ireland emerged once again; with over half of Northern Ireland’s population voting to remain in the EU, unionists feared a disconnect with the UK.
The border between the north and the Republic of Ireland became a contentious issue as well, as it became the only land border between the UK and EU. Technically, goods must be checked when passing between EU and non-EU countries, but this threatens the cooperation established by the Good Friday Agreement. To address the sticky issue, the UK and EU agreed upon the Northern Ireland Protocol, which allowed goods from the UK to enter and be checked at Northern Irish ports before moving on to the Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin was among the supporters of the Protocol since it protected the cross-border agreement. The DUP, however, rejected it as severing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK by requiring checks of UK goods. As such, the DUP refused to participate in the National Assembly until the issue was resolved. Thus, the government in Northern Ireland set up by the Good Friday Agreement has been suspended since February 2022.
In February 2023, the UK and EU developed a new deal called the Windsor Framework to distinguish goods coming from the UK that would stay in Northern Ireland (and not require checks) from goods destined for the Republic of Ireland (that would require checks). The Framework has been agreed to by the UK and EU, but the DUP has not fully accepted the deal. Time will tell whether the Framework will solve the border problem, or whether a new proposal must be drafted. In the meantime, Northern Ireland continues to operate without a functioning, power-sharing government.
The Good Friday Agreement restored peace and order to the politically charged situation in Northern Ireland and withstood the trials of the immediate aftermath of the Troubles. The deal maintained harmony for nearly a decade. Questions about national identity, self-governance, and international cooperation remained, though, and are now resurfacing. A follow-up deal in 2007 helped to solidify power-sharing, but now, new adjustments may be required to smother the rising flames. Sensitive issues faced by all people who call the island their home must not be dismissed. For the sake of sustaining peace in Northern Ireland, an enduring pact must build on the Good Friday Agreement and provide solutions for current and anticipated problems.
Sources, and to learn more about…
The Troubles, start with this Council on Foreign Relations article and Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
The Good Friday Agreement, start with these articles from the BBC, the Council on Foreign Relations, the German Foreign Office, and Encyclopedia Britannica.
Recent tensions due to Brexit, read Peter Hain’s article for The Guardian.
The Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework, read this post by the European Council.