‘The Irish Question’, first used in the latter part of the last century to refer to the long, difficult and often violent relationship between Ireland and Britain, has continued to be a permanent feature of British political and cultural life. Up until the creation of Saorstat Eireann (the Irish Free State) in 1922, made up of 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland (with six counties in what became Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom), Britain’s answer to the Irish Question was some sort of Home Rule. In many respects, the ‘unfinished business’ of Britain’s relationship with Ireland is at the heart of the problems of Northern Ireland, for while Home Rule was eventually seen as too little too late for the majority in Ireland, for the Unionist/ Protestant minority in the northeast, ‘home rule was Rome rule’.
   Throughout its history as a British colony, Ireland had periodically revolted or rebelled against Britain, such as in the failed risings of 1798, 1848 and, most significantly, in the Easter Rising of 1916. Irish nationalist politics has always (like other nationalist politics) had both constitu-tional/democratic/nonviolent and violent/terror-istic aspects. Particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the movement for Irish independence gained strength, especially when the political impetus for independence joined with the movement for the revival of Irish culture in the 1890s. An example of the deep impact of Britain’s ‘Irish problem’ is that Irish nationalism was perceived to be such a threat that the London Metropolitan police force was created primarily to combat it.
   The ‘defining moment’ of the Irish independence movement was the failed Easter Rising in 1916, when a small group of ill-equipped and badly-trained Irish nationalists led by Padraig Pearse took over by force of arms major key installations in Dublin and declared an independent Irish Republic. As Britain was at war, this rising was viewed as treason and British forces quickly and brutally suppressed the rebellion. While at first the rebellion did not have great public support in Ireland, public opinion quickly changed in favour of the rebels as a result of the decision to execute the leaders of the rebellion. As a result, in the next elections in 1918 Sinn Féin (the leading Irish nationalist party) won the overwhelming majority of Irish Westminster seats. However, in keeping with the practice of the contemporary Sinn Féin party, these Irish MPs refused to recognize the British Parliament and set up their own shadow Parliament (The Dáil). Efforts by the British government to quell this illegal parliament in Ireland and the movement for Irish independence led to the War of Independence (1919–21). Following a ceasefire in 1921, the British government agreed to talks and the result was the creation of the Irish Free State, which required the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of Ireland, contained a majority of Protestants who did not wish to become part of an independent united Ireland which was seen as an exclusively authoritarian, Catholic and Gaelic entity. However, the new entity of Northern Ireland also contained a sizeable minority of Catholic Irish nationalists. The creation of Northern Ireland led to the Stormont regime, which lasted from 1922 to 1972. Effectively, Northern Ireland became a statelet, with all the trappings of a state, and until the eruption of the ‘troubles’ in 1968, successive British governments simply ignored it and let the Protestant majority rule. In the words of one-time Prime Minster of Northern Ireland, William Craig, ‘Northern Ireland is a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, a statement which graphically highlights the status of non-Protestants from the regime’s point of view. While the amount, severity and degree of discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland is a fiercely disputed issue, it is fair to say that they were effectively second-class citizens. Catholics were denied job opportunities, were treated unequally in terms of housing and welfare and suffered discrimination in work, while, since most of them were also Irish nationalists, they were also viewed by the Stormont regime as ‘the enemy within’, seeking to destroy Northern Ireland and create a united Ireland.
   In 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed to demand: equal citizenship for Catholics, the vote for everyone (and not just ratepayers in local elections), an end to gerrymandering (the practice of artificially drawing electoral boundaries to ensure a Unionist majority), fair allocation of public housing, and the scrapping of the hated ‘B-Specials’ security force. The Civil Rights movement led to a Protestant backlash, and throughout 1967 and 1968 Northern Ireland erupted into violence as loyalist extremists (including Ian Paisley) and the police attacked civil rights marches, leading to rioting in Belfast, Derry and other urban centres. Northern Ireland witnessed what we now call ‘ethnic cleansing’ as thousands of Catholics and Protestants were forced from their homes by violence or the threat of violence. In August 1969 the British government decided to send in British troops to restore law and order, and the ‘troubles’ were born.
   The IRA (Irish Republican Army), which had long been a spent force, found a new lease of life as it defended Catholic ghettos in Belfast and Derry from attacks by Protestant mobs and the paramilitary B-Specials. At this stage, equal British citizenship within a reformed Northern Ireland, the original aims of the NICRA, was too little too late for many Catholics, who flocked to support or join the IRA and its political wing Sinn Féin. For the IRA, Northern Ireland was unreformable, a ‘failed entity’, and nothing short of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and the creation of a united Ireland would do.
   The ‘Provos’, or Provisional IRA (which spilt in 1970 from the more socialist ‘Official IRA), have become one of the most feared and successful terrorist organizations in the world, and synonymous with the ‘troubles’. In the mid-1970s, the IRA began a series of terrorist campaigns both within Northern Ireland and on the mainland to try and force Britain to leave Northern Ireland. As a result of these bombing campaigns, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was hastily passed. Anti-Irish feeling in the wake of IRA atrocities such as the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings of 1974 led to the wrongful convictions of the ‘Birmingham Six’ and the ‘Guildford Four’, both groups being eventually released from prison in the early 1990s. Other IRA atrocities included the murder of Earl Mountbatten and the car bomb in the Palace of Westminster which killed Conservative MP Airey Neave, both in 1979; the failed bombing of the Conservative party conference in Brighton in 1983; and a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in 1991. Non-IRA atrocities include ‘Bloody Sunday’, when members of the British Parachute Regiment opened fire on innocent nationalist civilians in Derry in 1972, killing twelve, and the notorious ‘Shankhill Butchers’, a loyalist sectarian death squad which brutally tortured and murdered thirty Catholics in the mid-1970s. Since the abolition of Stormont and the imposition of ‘direct rule’ in 1972, Northern Ireland has been governed from Westminster by the Northern Ireland Office. Millions of pounds have been spent in trying to reform, police and support Northern Ireland. Over 3,200 people have been killed in Northern Ireland as a result of the troubles. In reality, the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland amounted to an undeclared war which, while strenuously denied by the British government, characterized its military strategy in trying to defeat and contain republican and loyalist warring paramilitaries. For some, evidence that the troubles were viewed as a war can be seen in the British Army’s ‘shoot to kill’ policy in the 1980s, and the alleged collusion between elements of the security forces in Northern Ireland and loyalist paramilitaries.
   However, the devastating effects of the troubles go beyond those killed or injured and the millions of pounds worth of property destroyed, for they have affected political and everyday life in the Republic of Ireland, Britain and Northern Ireland. On the whole, with the exception of Scotland, for most of those on mainland Britain, Northern Ireland has always been a ‘place apart’ and radically different from the rest of Britain. A stark example of this is the statement in November 1990 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, who claimed that: ‘The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage.’ This admission of the conditional status of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom is something which would be unthinkable if the same were to be said of Cornwall or Cheshire. This is perhaps the paradox, irony and tragedy of Northern Ireland: while Unionists loudly proclaim their ‘Britishness’ and loyalty to the Crown, the overwhelming majority of Britons do not see them as ‘fellow Britons’, but as ‘Irish’ and having more in common with the nationalist community than with the mainstream of British society. A similar view can be said to characterize the attitude of those in the Republic of Ireland towards the Northern Ireland nationalists, and it is important to note that support for a United Ireland has been falling in the Republic over the last decade or so. Nevertheless, a majority support the aspiration to a United Ireland.
   The ceasefire declared by the IRA in August 1994 (followed by a Loyalist cashier in October), and restored in May 1997, was the starting point of the ‘peace process’ which culminated in the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ of 10 April 1998. This multiparty agreement, the result of months of negotiation between all the major parties in Northern Ireland (with the exception of the Democratic Unionist Party), sets forth a new political settlement in Northern Ireland, and is an attempt at powersharing.
   A similar attempt at a power-sharing arrangement in 1974, the Sunningdale Assembly, lasted from January to May until it was brought down by loyalist extremists, who called a general strike organized by the Ulster Worker’s Council. According to the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is to have its own assembly, with proportional representation for the two communities. There is also provision for ‘North-South’ bodies between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as ‘East-West’ bodies between Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Westminster and Dublin. Elections to the new assembly took place in June 1998.
   Oscar Wilde once said: ‘The problem between England and Ireland is that the English cannot remember history while the Irish cannot forget it.’ There is some truth in this claim, particularly when one looks at the reliving of history in the annual Orange marches celebrating the defeat of Catholic King James by Protestant William of Orange in 1690. Such traditions and the passion (and sometimes dogmatism) with which they are asserted strike many on the British mainland as singularly odd in their reliving of religious wars from over 300 years ago at the end of the twentieth century. Equally, the Irish republican perspective, which often sees the problems in Northern Ireland as stemming from the Ulster plantations of the early seventeenth century by Britain and sees Irish history as a series of glorious defeats at the hands of ‘perfidious Albion’, seems equally caught in letting the past guide the present and future. However, it also needs to be pointed out that the relationship between Ireland (both North and South) and Britain has not been completely negative. Many of the greatest English-speaking writers of the twentieth century have been Irish, from W.B.Yeats, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett to the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Additionally, Irish culture has become increasingly popular in Britain and elsewhere. At the same time, what Britain and Ireland share is as (some would say more) important than what divides them, such as common cultural origins, a joint if tragic history, a common language, a long tradition of settling and living in both islands, and similar political cultures and institutions. While it is always dangerous to predict events in Northern Ireland, it seems that the current peace process (which does not of course mean peace) has resulted in a truly historic opportunity of ending the troubles and marking a new, more positive relation between Britain and Ireland, one that is oriented towards the future rather than continually reliving the past.
   Further reading
    Aughey, A. and Morrow, D. (eds) (1996) Northern Ireland Politics, Harlow: Longman.
    Catterall, P. and MacDougall, S. (eds) (1996) The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
    O’Leary, B. and McGarry, J. (1996) The Politics of Antagonism: Understanding Northern Ireland, 2nd edn, London: Athlone Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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