Info Sheet: Northern Ireland

By Anna Synakh // Managing Editor

Where?

Northern Ireland is located in the northeastern corner of the island of Ireland and shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign country. Northern Ireland is officially a part of the United Kingdom and is the closest territory to it on the island. The most recent unrest has been occurring in Belfast, which is Northern Ireland’s capital and has served as the main port city for the country for decades.

What’s the history?

There is a long history of armed conflicts in Northern Ireland that stem back to the 13th century when the British had originally taken control of the territory of the island of Ireland. The conflict had originated because the vast majority of the people who were living on the island were Catholic, whereas the British, who had begun settling in the north of the island, were devoted Protestants. These religious conflicts between the Catholic natives and the Protestant colonizers lasted for hundreds of years and flared up in the early twentieth century. In the early 1920s, the British government made the decision to split the island in two, maintaining control of the northernmost part of it, and giving independence to the majority of the territory. Such a crude division has resulted in endless backlash, as the split did not consider historical, ethnic, and religious differences, but rather was simply an easy way out for the British. 

So what?

Ever since the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was artificially installed, there has been pushback within Northern Ireland as there were many culturally different groups living on the territory and many of them were disregarded by the British. In the 1960s the Catholic population held civil rights protests to call attention to the discrimination they had been facing within their own country. The protestors were violently attacked by the Protestant community and these attacks were ignored by the royal constabulary, which pushed the IRA to reorganize and begin violent attacks on the British government in an attempt to push it out of the country. Northern Ireland did not see peace up until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, when the Irish and British governments, along with many Northern Irish political organizations reached an agreement on how to rule the territory, and ensure the protection of everyone’s rights. There have been outbreaks of violence since then both in Northern Ireland and mainland England, but always with relatively quick resolutions. 

Who?

The main actors you should be aware of are the IRA, PSNI, Sinn Fein, and UDA.

IRA – Irish Republican Army was organized in the early twentieth century as an opposition force to British rule and lasted into the late twenty-first century as a protective Catholic organization. From the 1960s to the early 1990s the IRA killed 18,000 people through violent action. There was a split within the organization later, and there are now multiple subgroups with two major splits: one that believes terrorism and violence are the only way to rid of the British control (Continuity IRA “CIRA”, and the Real IRA “RIRA”), and one that prefers dialogue and cooperation.

PSNI – The Police Service of Northern Ireland, is the successor to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which was involved in the 1960s protests, and is in its majority Protestant. It is supported by the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties, but due to its religious difference from many of the protestors there is a lot of tension within the communities in which policing is common.

Sinn Fein – a major national political party that had existed in Northern Ireland for most of the twentieth century and is continuing to remain popular. There are close ties between the IRA and Sinn Fein as essentially their ideas are quite close, and Sinn Fein acts strongly against the British government especially in the light of Brexit. Sinn Fein has called for a referendum multiple times since Brexit was announced.

UDA – The Ulster Defense Association is a large paramilitary Protestant organization that dominates Northern Ireland’s drug market. It was formed in the early 1970s as a response to the increase in IRA activity, and since then has been engaging in violent action both in response to IRA and at random, killing 400 civilians over the years.

Why now?

In the past week, there has been an increase in violent activity in Belfast causing many to think that the 25-year long peace treaty may be coming to an end. It seems that Brexit had pushed the community to think much deeper about a referendum, as they would prefer to maintain the current trading relationship with the EU. The resolution to this issue was creating an Irish Sea border which would cause every parcel and package shipped from the UK to be reviewed once it reaches the Island of Ireland. While the Irish Sea border silenced or rather tuned down the referendum conversation, it has caused many unionists, such as those who are a part of the UDA, to get angered. The UDA and many other unionist organizations, feel a close tie to the mainland UK and this border separates them on paper and serves as a sign that change may be coming. 

To show their displeasure the unionists took to the streets, and have been protesting for nearly a week now. The PSNI is holding its ground, but due to the violence by the unionists, it is likely that those who would want to separate from the UK altogether will soon begin fighting back, and it is unclear what the effects of these protests will be in the long run.

Junior Anna Synakh is the Managing Editor. Her email is asynakh@fandm.edu.

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