Century of UK-Ireland Clashes, Compromise
Relations between Britain and Ireland have experienced a century of rebellion, terror and treaties, culminating in this week’s first-ever state visit by Ireland’s president. A look at key flashpoints:
In 1916, Irish nationalists seized control of key Dublin buildings and declared a “Provisional” Irish Republic. They spent a week fighting Irish police and British troops; 466 people, mostly civilians, were killed. The Easter Rising was militarily doomed, but Britain’s decision to execute 16 ringleaders fueled support for further rebellion. One commander, Eamon de Valera, avoided the firing squad.
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE
From 1919 to 1921, the Irish Republican Army ambushed police and soldiers in pursuit of an Irish Republic. As war raged in the Catholic south, the mostly Protestant north carved out a new British territory called Northern Ireland with its own parliament. Britain’s 1921 treaty with the IRA, accepted by most rebels, created a new Irish Free State. It was functionally independent but remained tied to Britain.
NO MORE MONARCH
De Valera, who opposed the treaty, tore it up as prime minister. His 1937 constitution paved the way for southern Ireland to become a republic, replacing the British monarch as Ireland’s head of state with an elected presidency. To British fury, he kept Ireland neutral in World War II, barred Allied ships from Irish ports and sent condolences to Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler’s death.
Northern Ireland, with its Protestant government and security forces, maintained a peace built on inequality. When Catholics demanded equality in employment, housing and votes in the 1960s, Protestant followers of the Rev. Ian Paisley confronted them, often with police backing.
In 1969, as Catholics battled police in Londonderry and Protestants attacked Catholic homes in Belfast, Britain deployed its army as peacekeepers. Catholics turned hostile as the Protestant government used the forces chiefly to combat a newly founded Provisional IRA. This group started killing police in 1970, soldiers in 1971 and planting car bombs in 1972.
With Martin McGuinness in command, the IRA in Londonderry erected road barricades to block British security forces. In January 1972, the Protestant government sent paratroopers to confront a protest march there. Soldiers stormed thorough a barricade and shot 13 unarmed demonstrators. As Britain exonerated the troops, IRA support swelled. Britain abolished the Protestant government and again imposed direct rule of Northern Ireland.
In 1973, Britain and Ireland struck a visionary peace treaty on Northern Ireland. At its heart, a new Catholic-Protestant government would cooperate with the Irish Republic. The coalition faced hostility from both sides and collapsed in 1974.
The outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force detonated four car bombs in the Irish Republic, killing 33 civilians, the deadliest attack of the conflict. Direct rule resumed.
The IRA in 1979 killed Lord Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, near his Irish Republic castle. Two years later, 10 Irish republicans died in a prison hunger strike. Voters elected their leader, Bobby Sands, to the British Parliament a month before his death by starvation. Sands’ victory inspired the IRA’s political front, Sinn Fein, to start contesting elections.
Amid rising Protestant paramilitary violence against Catholics, Sinn Fein in the early 1990s discussed peace terms secretly with the Irish, British and U.S. governments. The Provisional IRA ceased fire in 1994, soon followed by the main outlawed Protestant groups, the UVF and Ulster Defence Association. Although marred by violations, these cease-fires inspired U.S.-led peace talks on Northern Ireland.
LONG GOOD FRIDAY
On Good Friday of 1998, after 22 months of negotiations, chairman George Mitchell unveiled a comprehensive peace deal that Paisley opposed.
It proposed a Catholic-Protestant government, police reforms, British military cuts, parole for paramilitary convicts and disarmament of the IRA and Protestant gangs. That final goal proved a stumbling block. Sinn Fein demanded seats in government but the IRA refused to disarm.
When the IRA finally renounced violence in 2005, Protestant voters had rallied to Paisley, who demanded more.
The deadlock was broken in 2007, when Sinn Fein voted to accept the authority of Northern Ireland’s police. Paisley formed a government alongside McGuinness, the former IRA commander. The Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein coalition since has governed the country with relative harmony.
More than 3,600 have died in four decades of bloodshed over Northern Ireland. Thousands more were maimed. Barely a family in the province of 1.7 million avoided scars of “the troubles.” The simmering conflict still boils over into rioting, triggered by disputes over the display of British and Irish symbols and traditional Protestant parades.
Small IRA factions seek to shatter the fragile peace but their occasional attacks have little impact. Sinn Fein now seeks to unite Ireland by building support in both parts of the island. Polls show most Northern Ireland residents, including many Irish nationalists, would rather stay in the UK.