History lesson on Northern Ireland until Good Friday


The Northern Ireland conflict 1967 -

Campaigns against injustice soon lapsed into a violent intercommunal conflict, followed by the British Army being placed on active service in Northern Ireland. Protestants and Catholics murdered each other and militant republicans fought to force a British withdrawal creating the longest-running conflict in western Europe since 1945. Several constitutional solutions were attempted by the Dublin and London governments working together.

1.1. The revival of the UVF 1966
Traditional fears and suspicions remained strong despite the fresh atmosphere O'Neill was attempting to create. Ferocious but short-lived rioting had occurred in Divis Street in Belfast in 1964 when the Republican candidate displayed an Irish tricolour in a window. The man who demanded the removal of the flag was the Rev Ian Paisley, founder and Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. Paisley was O'Neill's most vocal critic and called for his resignation. He gathered support from those Protestant fundamentalists with the liveliest fear of Catholicism, but he was beginning to widen his appeal to greater numbers of loyalists who were apprehensive that O'Neill's bridge-building gestures to the nationalist minority were weakening the bulwarks of unionism.

The year 1966 was the 50th anniversary of both the Easter Rising and of the Ulster Division's sacrifice at the Somme, and commemorations increased tensions. A new terrorist Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in Belfast, and members attacked Catholics on several occasions in May and June. One woman was burned to death and two Catholic men were mortally wounded.

1.2. The civil rights movement - up to 1968
During the morning of 28th August 1963, 17 Catholic families occupied prefabricated bungalows due for demolition in Dungannon to protest at the unfair allocation of houses by the urban district council. It could be said that with this action the civil rights movement began.

In several local authorities west of the River Bann, Unionists were reluctant to give houses in certain wards for fear of electoral reverse. The impact of gerrymandering, which had been going on from 1922, was most starkly seen in Londonderry Corporation. There, as a result of ward boundary manipulation, 20,102 Catholic adults and 10,274 Protestant adults were represented by 12 Unionist and eight Nationalist councillors. The movement for black civil rights in America demonstrated the results that could be gained by peaceful process and direct action.

The Campaign for Social Justice was formed in Belfast in 1964 to document discrimination and other injustice. Other organisations and individuals who helped to create the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in Northern Ireland included: the Northern Ireland Labour Party; Gerry Fitt (elected as Republican Labour MP for West Belfast in 1966, he won the support of some Labour MPs at Westminster in the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster); John Hume; Eamonn McCann and the Derry Housing Action Committee.

1.3. Caledon, Coalisland and Derry 1968

In June 1968 Miss Emily Beattie was allocated a council house in the county Tyrone village of Caledon. She was a 19-year-old single woman and could not be described as a priority tenant. Austin Currie, Nationalist MP for East Tyrone, was one of those who occupied the house before being removed by a policeman who happened to be Miss Beattie's brother. A protest meeting by the recently formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association followed in Dungannon on June 22. The Association organised a march from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24. Loyalists held a counter-demonstration at the entrance to Dungannon, and the police prevented the marchers from entering the town.

Another march in Derry was arranged for October 5 but was banned by the government. The march went ahead and included Gerry Fitt accompanied by three Westminster MPs. In Duke Street the police advanced on the marchers and struck them with batons. Water cannon sprayed marchers, spectators and television crews. Film captured by Radio Telefis Éireann cameraman Gay O'Brien changed the course of Northern Ireland's history. Images of unrestrained police batoning unarmed demonstrators flashed across the world and at a stroke the region was destabilised.

1.4. The Troubles begin 1969

Large civil rights marches and loyalist counter-demonstrations followed in rapid succession after 5th October 1968. On 22nd November O'Neill announced major reforms, which met most of the civil rights demands, and on 9th December made an impassioned appeal to leaders to 'take the heat out of the situation'. Marches were called off, and at the end of the year the region was at peace.

Rioting in the Shankill area On New Year's Day 1969, however, the People's Democracy began a march across country to Derry; this march was violently attacked at Burntollet Bridge, and once more Northern Ireland was convulsed. At the end of April, following a number of loyalist bombings, O'Neill resigned to be replaced by his cousin, Major James Chichester-Clark.

Violence erupted at the close of the Apprentice Boys' parade in Derry on 12 August, and the 'Battle of the Bogside' ensued. The police could no longer cope and troops were brought in on active service in Derry on 14th August.

In Belfast, Protestants surged down the narrow streets connecting the Shankill and the Falls, tossing petrol bombs into houses as they went. Police were in conflict with Catholic rioters and used their Browning machine guns. On the night of August 14-15 six people were killed, 12 factories were destroyed and over 100 houses wrecked. Troops arrived in the late afternoon but could not prevent further violence that night.

1.5. Internment 1969 - 1971

Troops were initially welcomed by Catholics on their arrival - even to the point of being given cups of tea - as soldiers were preferred to armed police. 'The honeymoon period between troops and local people is likely to be short lived', Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Freeland said to television reporters soon after his men had moved into Belfast; this proved to be a correct prediction.

The soldiers were not trained as policemen; they were acting on behalf of the despised Unionist administration in Stormont, not on behalf of the London government. A turning point was the imposition of a curfew on the lower Falls in Belfast on 3rd July 1970 after information had been received that a cache of arms could be found there. The area was sealed off for 35 hours and a furious local protest developed. The Provisional IRA, formed towards the end of 1969, now got many recruits and launched a bombing campaign.

As the IRA's actions intensified on 9th August 1971, Brian Faulkner, Prime Minister since March 1971, decided to activate the Special Powers Act and impose internment. By 7.30 that morning 342 men had been seized. Internment was entirely one-sided and no loyalist suspects were arrested. In addition the army lacked the information required and leading members of the Provisional IRA remained at liberty. Terrible violence followed.

1.6. The fall of Stormont 1971 - 1972

The day after internment was imposed, 11 people were killed in Belfast and about 240 houses in Belfast's Ardoyne area were destroyed by fire. By the end of the month there had been 35 deaths and around 100 explosions. Tens of thousands of people fled from their homes. A massive campaign grew in opposition to internment.

On Sunday 30th January 1972, in defiance of a government ban, a large anti-internment march began in the Creggan and made its way towards the centre of Derry. Men of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment opened fire and 14 men, seven of them under 19 years of age, were shot dead or mortally wounded. Three days later 30,000 people gathered in Dublin and burned down the British Embassy there.

Ted Heath, the British Prime Minister, was convinced now that Stormont was incapable of containing a situation rapidly going out of control. He told the Stormont government on 24th March that control of security and of the Royal Ulster Constabulary would be transferred to Westminster. Faulkner and his colleagues resigned and addressed an immense crowd of 100,000 in front of Parliament Buildings. Stormont was suspended for a year, but in effect it was the end of the experiment in devolution under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

1.7. The failure of power-sharing 1972 - 1974

'The war goes on,' the Provisional IRA announced shortly after the introduction of direct rule from Westminster. Responsibility for the region now fell largely on the shoulders of the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw. Public housing was brought under the control of the Housing Executive and local government was completely overhauled, with councillors elected by proportional representation.

A Northern Ireland Assembly was elected in June 1973. The British government's aim was to restore devolved government, but with power shared by both Catholic and Protestant representatives. This was agreed by party leaders and the Irish and British governments at Sunningdale in Berkshire in December 1973. A power-sharing executive, with Faulkner as Chief Executive and Gerry Fitt as his deputy, began work at the start of 1974.

The Ulster Unionist Council, however, rejected the Sunningdale Agreement, and in the Westminster general election of 28th February 1974, 11 of the 12 MPs elected for Northern Ireland were loyalists opposed to power-sharing. When the Assembly approved power-sharing, Protestant workers launched a highly-effective strike which paralysed the region for 15 days until Faulkner resigned. Direct rule would continue from Westminster for many years to come.

1.8. The IRA campaign 1974 - 1980

Constitutional initiatives, both when they appeared to be succeeding and when they were failing, made little impression on the IRA. The organisation, with the help of money and arms from the Republic and from Irish Americans, intensified its bombing campaign to prevent security forces concentrating on Catholic enclaves and, by dislocating commercial life, to attempt to persuade Britain to withdraw. Since the British showed no sign of getting out of Northern Ireland the Provisionals took their campaign to Britain.

The presence of the British army in Northern Ireland led to violence and a 'troops out' campaign The hope was that public opinion there, already showing growing support for a 'troops out' movement, would become so exasperated that withdrawal would become a major issue. Horrific incidents included: a coach explosion on the M62 in February 1974, which killed nine soldiers, a woman and two children; 'no-warning' bombs in Guildford, which killed two soldiers and three civilians on 5th October 1974; a bomb in a Woolwich public house which left two people dead; and bombs in Birmingham which killed 21 people on 21st November.

The Provisionals achieved nothing and suffered a reverse when, after a 138-hour siege in Balcolme Street in December 1975, four men were forced to surrender. Northern Ireland continued to bear the brunt of the Provisionals' campaign. Twelve people died after the bombing of La Mon Hotel near Belfast on 17th February 1978, and in August 1979 18 soldiers were killed at Warrenpoint, and Earl Mountbatten and three others were murdered at Mullaghmore in county Sligo.

Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister since 1979, flew to Dublin in December 1980 to have talks with the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to study 'possible new institutional structures'.

1.9. The Anglo-Irish agreement 1981 - 1985

In November 1981, Provisional Sinn Fein endorsed a strategy of contesting elections while at the same time continuing its support for the IRA's campaign of violence. The party was able win local government seats and in the Westminster general election of June 1983 Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein, defeated Gerry Fitt in West Belfast. In a 73 per cent turnout, 13.4 per cent of the electorate voted for Sinn Fein candidates.

This development was highly alarming to both the London and Dublin governments, especially as the IRA violence had not reduced. Garret FitzGerald, the Taoiseach, was determined to improve relations with Britain and sought to help nationalists in Northern Ireland who opposed violence. He set up the New Ireland Forum in May 1983, and this made its report in May 1984.

In her notorious 'out, out, out' television interview, Margaret Thatcher rejected the options suggested in the report, but continued discussions with FitzGerald. The bombing of the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton in October 1984 strengthened the Prime Minister's resolve. Then, on Friday 15th November 1985, the two premiers held a press conference at Hillsborough, county Down, and announced the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The most striking innovation was the Intergovernmental Conference, headed by the Secretary of State and the Irish foreign minister, which would meet regularly to discuss cross-border co-operation and other matters. Civil servants from the Irish Republic would join British civil servants at Maryfield near Belfast.

1.10. In search of a solution 1985 - 1992

Neither republicans nor loyalists liked the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Recalling the loyalist strike of 1974, the governments designed the accord to make it impervious to protest. The Ulster Unionists, led by James Molyneux and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, came together to conduct a campaign with the slogan 'Ulster Says No'.

A rally at Belfast City Hall on Saturday 23rd November 1985 attracted some 200,000 protesters. Year after year the protests continued, but the agreement remained in place and the joint secretariat was established in highly fortified surroundings. A campaign of non-co-operation and civil disobedience by unionists did not achieve change and led, on occasion, to disorder and violence. The British general election of 11 June 1987 showed that the agreement was achieving one of its objectives: the Sinn Fein vote fell to 11.4 per cent, and in the Republic's general election in the same year Sinn Fein failed to win a single seat.

The IRA continued its violence, concentrating more on engaging the security forces and on planting fewer but larger bombs. On 8th November 1987 a bomb at the war memorial in Enniskillen killed 11 people. One of those killed was Marie Wilson. Her father Gordon Wilson, in a BBC interview, described in a tone of quiet anguish his last conversation with her under the rubble, saying 'I bear no ill will.' There followed a strong mood of revulsion against the IRA. Violence, however, intensified in the early 1990s, characterised by murders carried out by loyalist paramilitaries and the detonation of a series of very large bombs by the IRA, including one in London's financial square mile on 10th April 1992. Premiers in London and Dublin realised that a fresh political initiative was required

1.11. The hunger strikes 1981

Following the phasing out of internment, Provisionals held at the Maze prison were expected to have the same conditions as other prisoners. They began a 'blanket protest' in 1976, followed by a 'dirty protest' in 1978 in their campaign to be treated as political prisoners.

The government refused to meet the prisoners' demands, and on 1 March 1981 Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA prisoners' officer commanding, began refusing food. During his hunger strike he was elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone and after 66 days of refusing food he died on May 5th. On the day of his funeral at least 100,000 people - nearly 20 per cent of the entire Catholic population of Northern Ireland - crowded the route from Twinbrook to Milltown cemetery in west Belfast.

The hunger strike went on, and between May 12th and August 20th 1981 nine more prisoners starved themselves to death. Then prisoners began to accept medical attention and some concessions were made by the government; the strike was called off. The outcome of the hunger strike was a spectacular increase in support for the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein.

1.12. The ceasefires 1992 - 1998

Massive explosions and horrific murders continued through 1992 and 1993 as talks at Stormont seemed to go nowhere. However, the leader of the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party, John Hume, had several talks with the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, with a view to searching for a way to end the conflict. Secretly, representatives of the British government also had its contacts with Sinn Fein.

The loyalists declaring a ceasefire in 1998 Loyalist paramilitaries were incensed at reports of such discussions and random murders of Catholics became more frequent. Incidents in October and November on the Shankill Road in Belfast, at Greysteel in County Londonderry and at Bleary in County Down were followed by peace rallies all over Northern Ireland.

On 15th December 1993 the two premiers, John Major and Albert Reynolds, made a joint declaration at Downing Street inviting Sinn Fein to talks if the IRA ended its campaign. Tit-for-tat slaughter escalated fear throughout the community during the first half of 1994. Then at 11.00am on 31st August 1994 the IRA announced 'a complete cessation of military operations' from midnight. The Combined Loyalist Military Command followed with the loyalist paramilitary cease-fire on 13th October 1994, and in a statement offered 'to the loved one of all innocent victims over the past 25 years abject and true remorse'.

The most euphoric moment of the cease-fire came in November 1995 when Bill Clinton, President of the United States, made a triumphant visit to Northern Ireland. Even as he spoke, however, the IRA had decided to renew its armed campaign and a vehicle was on its way to bomb London. That bomb was detonated on 9 February 1996 at Canary Wharf.

Violent incidents returned and tensions were acute during the summer marching season at Drumcree, but politicians nevertheless continued to work for a solution, now including former United States senator George Mitchell.

1.13. The Good Friday agreement 1998 - 1999

A remarkable feature of Westminster's approach to the Northern Ireland 'Troubles' since 1969 has been the extent to which governments and oppositions down the years set party conflicts aside in searching for remedies and solutions.

When Labour came to power in 1997, the outgoing Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was at pains to do all he could to help the incoming minister, Dr Mo Mowlam. Discussions continued month after month between party representatives. Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern involved themselves in the details to a remarkable degree. Finally, on Good Friday 1998, all the main parties - with the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party - announced agreement.

Essentially the SDLP MP who described the accord as 'Sunningdale for slow learners' was not wrong. A power-sharing devolved government would be formed with ministerial posts distributed according to party strength. The involvement of parties representing paramilitaries (primarily the Ulster Democratic Party, the Progressive Unionist Party and Sinn Fein) depended on the maintenance of ceasefires and 'decommissioning' of paramilitary weapons. A copy of the agreement was delivered to every household in Northern Ireland, and in May 1998 the accord was approved by referendum north and south; by a narrow margin, even unionist voters gave their approval.

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern during the Good Friday agreement talks Two architects of the agreement, David Trimble and John Hume, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A Northern Ireland Assembly was elected, with its representation also indicating majority support for the agreement. The issue of decommissioning, however, constantly delayed the formal creation of an executive, as the IRA had a policy of 'not an ounce, not a bullet' being given up from their armoury, while the Unionists refused to become ministers until some arms had been handed in.

Northern Ireland remained a deeply-divided society and this was most evident in opposing views on policing and in conflicts over march routes, notably at Drumcree near Portadown.

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