History of the problem: Ireland and BritainA Centuries-old ConflictThe history of Northern Ireland can be traced back to the 17th century, when the English finally succeeded in subduing the island after successfully putting down a number of rebellions. Much land, especially in the north, was subsequently colonized by Scottish and English Protestants, setting Ulster somewhat apart from the rest of Ireland, which was predominantly Catholic.The Nineteenth CenturyDuring the 1800s the north and south grew further apart due to economic differences. In the north the standard of living rose as industry and manufacturing flourished, while in the south the unequal distribution of land and resources—Anglican Protestants owned most of the land—resulted in a low standard of living for the large Catholic population.The Twentieth CenturyPolitical separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland did not come until the early 20th century, when Protestants and Catholics divided into two warring camps over the issue of Irish home rule.
Most Irish Catholics desired complete independence from Britain, but Irish Protestants feared living in a country ruled by a Catholic majority.Government of Ireland ActIn an attempt to pacify both factions, the British passed in 1920 the Government of Ireland Act, which divided Ireland into two separate political entities, each with some powers of self-government. The Act was accepted by Ulster Protestants and rejected by southern Catholics, who continued to demand total independence for a unified Ireland.The Irish Free State and Northern IrelandFollowing a period of guerrilla warfare between the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces, a treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State from 23 southern counties and 3 counties in Ulster. The other 6 counties of Ulster made up Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1949 the Irish Free State became an independent republic.
"The Troubles"Although armed hostilities between Catholics and Protestants largely subsided after the 1921 agreement, violence erupted again in the late 1960s; bloody riots broke out in Londonderry in 1968 and in Londonderry and Belfast in 1969. British troops were brought in to restore order, but the conflict intensified as the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other acts of terrorism. This continuing conflict, which lingered into the 1990s, became known as "the Troubles." Despite efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict during the 1970s and 80s, terrorist violence was still a problem in the early 90s and British troops remained in full force. More than 3,000 people have died as a result of the strife in Northern Ireland.The Peace ProcessAn Early AttemptA serious attempt to bring about a resolution to the conflict was made in 1985 when British and Irish prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which recognized for the first time the Republic of Ireland's right to have a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. However, Protestant politicians who opposed the Agreement were able to block its implementation.
The IRA Declares a Cease-fireFurther talks between rival Catholic and Protestant officials and the British and Irish governments occurred during the early 1990s. Then, in late Aug. 1994 the peace process received a big boost when the pro-Catholic IRA announced a cease-fire. This made it possible for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, to participate in multiparty peace talks; hitherto Sinn Fein had been barred from such talks because of its association with the IRA and its terrorist tactics.Sinn Fein Participates in Official TalksOn Dec. 9, 1994, the first officially sanctioned, publicly announced talks took place between Sinn Fein and British officials. Negotiators for Sinn Fein pushed for a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland; Great Britain countered that the IRA must give up its weapons before Sinn Fein would be allowed to negotiate on the same basis as other parties. The issue of IRA disarmament would continue to be a sticking point throughout the negotiations.An Anglo-Irish Proposal for PeaceIn late Feb. 1995, the British and Irish governments released their joint proposal for talks on the future of Northern Ireland. The talks were to be held in three phases involving the political parties of Northern Ireland, the Irish government, and the British government.
The talks would focus on the establishment of a form of self-government for Northern Ireland and the formation of Irish-Northern Irish "cross-border" bodies that would be set up to oversee such domestic concerns as agriculture, tourism, and health. Results of the talks would be put to referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.The U.S. Gets InvolvedIn Dec. 1995, former US senator George Mitchell was brought in to serve as mediator for the peace talks. His report issued in Jan. 1996 recommended the gradual disarmament of the IRA during the course of the talks, thus breaking the deadlock caused by the IRA's refusal to disarm.Multiparty Talks Open in BelfastOn June 10, 1996, multiparty peace talks opened in Belfast. However, because of the breakdown of the IRA cease-fire the preceding Feb., Sinn Fein was turned away. Following the resumption of the cease-fire in July 1997, full-scale peace negotiations began in Belfast on Oct. 7, 1997. Great Britain attended as well as most of Northern Ireland's feuding political parties, including Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the largest Protestant political party in Northern Ireland. The more extreme Democratic Unionist Party and the tiny United Kingdom Unionist Party refused to join.
Good Friday AgreementThe historic talks finally resulted in the landmark Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by the main political parties on both sides on Apr. 10, 1998. The accord called for an elected assembly for Northern Ireland, a cross-party cabinet with devolved powers, and cross-border bodies to handle issues common to both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus minority Catholics gained a share of the political power in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In return Catholics were to relinquish the goal of a united Ireland unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of it.Real Hope for PeaceWith the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, hope ran high that lasting peace was about to become a reality in Northern Ireland. In a dual referendum held on May 22, 1998, Northern Ireland approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and the Irish Republic by a vote of 94%. In June 1998, voters chose the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the locally elected government. International recognition and support for peace in Northern Ireland came on Oct. 16, 1998, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to John Hume and David Trimble, the leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties, respectively, in Northern Ireland.
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