Northern Ireland: "The Troubles" and Some Possible Solutions

The small country of Northern Ireland has occupied a large part of the global headlines during the last 40 years. The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland trace their roots back to the Protestant Ascendancy of the 17th century, but they still exert a considerable influence on the contemporary landscape of the country and the political climate of the United Kingdom.


The current-day problems that are seen in N. Ireland can be viewed as a result of the historical context within which the country itself was formed. The religious basis of the disagreements was fueled largely by the Protestant Ascendency, which began in 1690. William of Orange, who was himself a Protestant, succeeded in driving James II, a Catholic, from the English throne. History knows this event as the Glorious Revolution. Once William had gained the throne, he established a large group of his Protestant allies in positions of authority in the traditionally Catholic country of Ireland.

This Protestant group used its power in order to subjugate and discriminate against the Catholic people of Ireland. Catholics in Ireland were prohibited from holding any political office, they could not own firearms or serve in the militia, and even their marriages were governed by strict, segregationist laws. Because the Ascendancy lasted until the late 19th century, most of the Catholic inhabitants of Ireland became embittered towards the Protestant noblemen and sought to gain independence. This is where the current-day “Troubles” begin. The Easter Rising happened in the spring of 1916 when the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood organized an independence uprising in order to gain an Irish state free from British rule. This uprising was ultimately successful and was the main catalyst of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This treaty created a fully autonomous Republic of Ireland comprised of the 26 southern counties of Ireland. The remaining 6 counties remained part of the UK and became known as Northern Ireland.

The most distinguishable difference between the Irish Republic and N. Ireland is the religious makeup of the countries. The Irish Republic is overwhelmingly Catholic, 88% of its citizens claim to be Catholic. Northern Ireland, however, has a population that is about 45% Catholic, 55% Protestant. This relatively even split has led to bitter, sometimes violent tension over how the country itself should continue.

“The Troubles”

The dividing factor between the Nationalists and the Unionists is their belief about how N. Ireland should be governed. Nationalists believe that N. Ireland should be removed from British control and united with the Irish Republic. Understandably, almost all who hold to the nationalist view are themselves Catholic. The Unionists, however, wish to remain united with the Protestant United Kingdom, as they themselves are also Protestant. We can see here that at the center of the animosity are both political and religious differences. The period known as “The Troubles” is recognized for its decidedly violent tendencies, and they began early on in N. Ireland’s existence.

The Irish War of Independence took place from 1920-1922 and was essentially a guerrilla war between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government’s forces. It saw a total of 557 people killed. The violence reached an escalated level during the 1960’s and 70’s. These years saw the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a Unionist militia based in Ulster. The Provisional IRA was also formed by a split within the traditional IRA. Many scholars point to 1972 as being the peak of physical violence because 480 people were killed in 1972 alone. The infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre also occurred in 1972 when 13 unarmed nationalist civil rights demonstrators were killed by British military forces. Sporadic violence continued into the 1980’s but has markedly declined since the advent of several ceasefire agreements in the mid 90’s. In all, the “Troubles” have claimed the lives of over 1,800 civilians and 1,100 security force members. These highly publicized deaths have contributed to the headline status of the problems in N. Ireland.

The Solution

To date, several different solutions have been explored in response to the escalation of violence in N. Ireland. The United Kingdom began devolving power to a representative assembly in Stormont during the 60’s, but this led to a rapid increase in violence and Britain eventually reassumed control in an attempt to curb the violence. As of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, however, it seems that a gradual devolution is the best solution. The Blair government was able to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement among the involved parties and platforms in N. Ireland. It was also approved by 71% of N. Ireland’s citizens when it was voted on in referendum. This Agreement made provision for another self-governing assembly in Stormont. When it was formed, it consisted of 108 members voted upon by the eligible voting population.

An executive branch was added to the assembly in 1999, but this assembly was also short lived. Disagreements among the members led to the virtual ineffectiveness of the assembly and Westminster stepped in once again to assume control in 2003. Devolution was again restored in 2007 after Sinn Fein leaders and leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party leaders were able to reach agreements. What is the solution? The leaders of the various factions in N. Ireland must remain willing to work together in order to overcome the divisive violence of the last 50 years. Only through political discussion will the violent history remain in the past.