Northern Ireland comprises the six north-eastern counties of the island of Ireland. On January 21st, 1919, The Republic of Ireland declared itself independent from the United Kingdom. That same day, following the ambush and murder of two Irish police officers, war broke out between the Republic and Britain. In 1920, the British partitioned Ireland and, in 1921, signed a treaty with the twenty-six counties that made up the Republic, or the Irish Free State. What followed was more than 60 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. The G8 host country’s dark history of terrorist violence claimed the lives of 3,526 people, according to Malcolm Sutton’s Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland.
The factors which drove the violence in Northern Ireland, or Ulster, as it is referred to by Unionists, were both political and religious; the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which fought the British during the Anglo-Irish War – along with a number of other Republican terrorist groups – continued an armed struggle against British rule over the six counties. Opposing them were a number of Loyalist paramilitary groups – which could also rightly be described as terrorist organizations. The IRA’s goal was the unification of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The Loyalist groups were determined to prevent this and preserve Ulster as a part of the United Kingdom.
The religious divide followed the political split; The Republic of Ireland is an overwhelmingly Catholic nation and Northern Ireland’s minority Catholic population supports the ending of British rule and the unification of the two Irelands. The Protestants, who have a slim demographic dominance, are loyal to Britain and opposed to Irish nationalism. Hatred between Protestants and Catholics runs deep and each side indulges in the practice of indoctrinating their children to hate and distrust the other. Northern Ireland is an intensely religious place, with almost half the population regularly attending their respective church. Tensions became so high that, in Belfast, a wall was built to divide Catholic (and Republican) West Belfast and the Protestant eastern part of the city. Ironically, it was known as “the Peace Line”.
There are a number of terms used to define the two sides in this conflict and it is often confusing to those not familiar with Northern Ireland’s situation. Those who support British rule – Protestant, by religion – are known as Loyalists, or Unionists. The latter term is a more political one, referring to the political parties that support the continuation of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Catholic opposition to the union is Republican – referring to their goal of becoming part of the Irish Republic – or Nationalist. The Unionists speak of Northern Ireland, or Ulster, while the Nationalists most often use the term “the six counties”, indicating their belief that Northern Ireland is merely a part of Ireland.
Each side in the struggle gave birth to an almost bewildering number of paramilitary organizations. On each side, these groups indulged in acts of terrorism against the civilian population, armed conflict with paramilitary groups from the other side of the divide and even power-struggles between themselves. In addition, the Nationalist groups targeted police, the British Army and British civilians, even in mainland Britain. On the Loyalist side, the most prominent and active groups were the Ulster Defence Association (UDA – British spelling of ‘defense’ intentional) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), although both groups use various other names and several splinter groups existed. On the Nationalist side, the most well-known group is generally referred to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), but, in fact, this more of an umbrella term, following the splitting up of the original IRA in 1969; The Provisional IRA, or PIRA, was the more active and dangerous group; responsible for many of the deadliest terror attacks. Another group referred to itself as the Real IRA (RIRA) and there was also the Official IRA. The Irish National Liberation Army INLA), founded in the mid-70’s, was a particularly violent group. In 1979, INLA assassinated British Member of Parliament Airey Neave, earning them increased respect within the Nationalist community, but internal feuding and confrontations with the IRA resulted in the group’s eventual disbandment.
From the 1960’s to the late 1990’s, G8 host Northern Ireland’s dark history of violence and terrorism plagued both the province and the British mainland; bombings, assassinations, the torture and murder of civilians – both Catholic and Protestant – and clashes with the British troops who patrolled the streets and fields of the six counties dominated the news in the United Kingdom. The Provisional IRA had established itself as a ‘respected’ terrorist organization and developed close ties with groups such as ETA in Spain and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. It was being supplied with weapons from Libya and also from the United States, with the tacit approval of prominent American political figures. The Kennedys, in particular, were enthusiastic supporters and fundraisers for Republican terror groups.
Arguably the darkest day for Britain came in August of 1979, when the Provisional IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, cousin of Queen Elizabeth II. Later that same day, a roadside bomb killed six British soldiers and 12 more were killed when a second device exploded. The dead included a British Army Colonel. It was the biggest loss suffered by the British Army in one day. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the IRA suffered heavy losses to the British Army – often as a result of special forces operations.
By the late 1990’s, the IRA had entered into negotiations to end their campaign and fully integrate themselves into the political process. Although Northern Ireland is still not completely at peace, the G8 host’s history of terrorist violence is largely behind it. Neither side could really claim victory – although the Republican terrorists had found themselves increasingly restricted in their ability to operate and were suffering a growing number of casualties; many of which could be attributed to information gathered from British informers and intelligence operatives. As for the prospect of the six counties ever being united with the twenty-six counties of the Republic of Ireland; that outcome remains remote and is still no more than a subject for speculation, for the time being.
Written by Graham J Noble