Introduction: Accord Northern Ireland (1999)
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History says, ‘Don't hope
On this side of the grave.’
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
The relationship became more balanced in recent years, not least because of the common British and Irish membership of the European Union (EU). Partly as a result of EU membership, Ireland’s economy has prospered to the extent that it is now known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and Britain’s world standing has diminished from the days of the British Empire. These changes have had a significant effect on British–Irish relations and have helped both countries to leave behind past assumptions and work together to find a way out of the conflict.
Over the centuries the communities living in the northern part of Ireland have found it difficult to coexist. Suspicion and hostility have been a significant feature of their inter-communal relationships. Although there are many examples of cooperation and good neighbourliness, mutual distrust has fed the conflict and in turn provided numerous experiences of hurt and grievance, which have reinforced hostilities.
The most obvious difference between the two communities is religion – Protestantism and Catholicism – although there have also been bitter disputes between different strains of Protestantism. But the conflict is not about religion, though the churches as institutions have worked to safeguard the religious identities of their communities and in doing so have reinforced the divisions. A few people reject the dominant political aspirations of their community of origin: some Catholics are happy to be part of the UK while some Protestants favour a united Ireland. Consequently, the use of political categories such as unionist and nationalist is more accurate, though the religious distinction is very strong.
This pattern of sectarian relationships continued and even intensified within the new Northern Ireland. Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which was intended to establish arrangements for the future administration of Ireland, a subordinate administration was established in Belfast and an imposing parliament building was erected in the suburbs at Stormont. Though in principle subordinate, it acted with no oversight from the British Parliament and this contributed to the entrenchment of relationships between the communities.
It seems remarkable that the conflict has persisted and remained significant for so many people despite changes in the surrounding environment. It is perhaps not surprising that there are contradictory views on the nature of the problem. Some see it as unfinished business from the colonial era that will only be resolved when the United Kingdom, as the colonial power, has no further involvement. Others see it as a new, post-colonial problem of two communities who are thrust together by history and need to find ways to manage their differences.
Although the unionist and nationalist communities define themselves in terms of their differences, on the surface, the lifestyles of the communities are not dissimilar. Traditionally both communities consisted of small farmers and, from the early 1800s, they became increasingly urbanised working in the tough and squalid conditions of the factories of the industrial revolution and living in the neighbouring terraces of poor overcrowded houses. Each community had its share of all social classes but Protestants had a bigger and more influential landed and business class whereas a much more significant proportion of the Catholic community lived in poverty. There were Protestant poor, but they valued their sense of privilege or comparative advantage even if it was more apparent than real. They felt connected to the Protestant establishment and their families always had the hope that they might gain some benefit from this connection. In more recent times improved standards of living and public welfare have meant that the circumstances of both communities have improved.
Conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland 1969-94
In the late 1960s individuals from the new educated classes, unionist and nationalist, spearheaded the civil rights movement which was inspired by the civil rights campaign in the USA and stimulated by the student protests of 1968 in Paris and elsewhere. They included John Hume, the future leader of moderate nationalism. In the past the nationalist argument had been that Northern Ireland was ‘irreformable’ in the sense that it had been established to protect unionist interests and could therefore never become an equitable society. The civil rights movement took a different approach and believed, or at least acted on the assumption, that Northern Ireland could become a society where the civil rights of all citizens were protected and everyone had equal opportunities. They took no position on the reunification of Ireland, but many unionists, most notably the emerging leader of uncompromising unionism Ian Paisley, believed that they were the republican movement under a new guise and opposed their demands and public demonstrations.
By the early 1970s a new phase of open and violent hostility had developed between the two communities, which is euphemistically known as the Troubles. On the streets rioting was a daily occurrence though it later diminished as shootings became more commonplace. On each side a number of paramilitary groups were using violence and terror to achieve their ends. Most constitutional politicians and the public at large were against the use of force by paramilitary groups but there was little consensus on an acceptable way to govern Northern Ireland. Moderate nationalists, mainly in the new coalition known as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), hoped for some kind of power-sharing or cooperative arrangement of government between unionists and nationalists. Most unionists were unwilling to lose any of their authority and distrusted all nationalists as ultimately working to undermine Northern Ireland and join with the Irish Republic. Many in the Republic of Ireland felt sympathy for the nationalists but also felt unable to make a significant impact and were afraid that the instability would spread to their state. The British tended to see themselves as somehow above the conflict. In 1972 they dissolved the Stormont parliament in the face of its incapacity to contain the growing violence and its unwillingness to accept more British control of the security response. Direct rule was established and the British presence, together with a measure of self-control on all sides, prevented the situation from breaking down completely. Had Britain not intervened the situation might have escalated further, or there could have been stronger pressures to resolve it.
A number of peace campaigns emerged from within civil society calling for an end to the violence. The most remarkable of these was the Peace People campaign, which quickly gained mass support in 1976. However, as with smaller initiatives, there was no consensus on how the conflict should end and its efforts made little long-term impact. Since the 1970s there have been repeated attempts to find a constitutional settlement. The main thrust of these efforts was to find arrangements for the constitutional parties to work together in such a way as to satisfy nationalist demands while limiting the scope for change enough to prevent unionist withdrawal. Initiatives were based around three elements: giving expression to the conflicting aspirations of the parties, creating a more equal society, and meeting the need for security and protection of the community. It was hoped that these arrangements would marginalise the paramilitary groups whose campaign would become irrelevant as had happened in the past. All of these attempts failed and the paramilitary campaigns continued.
During the 1970s the scars of the conflict were allowed to remain very evident, perhaps in the hope that the sight of damage and destruction would shock the public into rejecting violence. However, in the 1980s there was another shift in government policy to create an air of normality. Damage was repaired quickly and the dividing lines between the communities were masked by environmental improvement schemes, which it was thought might create more optimistic attitudes, and make the conflict irrelevant. The hunger strikes of 1981 signalled a further intensification of the struggle. Little progress was made through a campaign to win over the ‘hearts and minds’ of those people who supported paramilitary groups by improving their quality of life and creating a more fair and non-discriminatory society.
In 1985 the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo–Irish Agreement which indicated their willingness to accept each other’s goodwill and work together with the common aim of destroying the paramilitary threat. It was hoped that a combination of tighter security measures and the involvement of the Irish government in policy making would achieve this. It was strongly opposed by the unionist community, which objected to the role given to the Irish government in the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland. The IRA also perceived the cooperation between the British and Irish governments as a threat. However, as a treaty between two states, it was an attempt to create a structure for dealing with the conflict which was impervious to political and community pressure within Northern Ireland.
Consequently the parties realised that they needed new strategies which might accommodate the interests of their opponents and in this way the Anglo–Irish Agreement became the stimulus for the creation of a new basis on which a peace process could be built. The awareness of other realities was also encouraging parties to rethink. It had proved impossible for the constitutional parties to create and maintain a political settlement in the face of the instability caused by the paramilitary groups. Republicans were becoming aware that IRA attacks on members of the security forces from the Protestant community only increased Protestant reliance on the British state to protect their interests and prolonged the conflict. It was also becoming clear that the SDLP did not have sufficient leverage on their own to achieve a settlement that they would accept as fair and reasonable. Unionists had also to face up to the steady erosion of their position while the conflict continued and the fact that the population balance was shifting in favour of Catholics. The conclusion was that a political settlement and an end to violence were mutually beneficial, but the determination not to compromise on core commitments and values was still strong. At this point there was still a long way to go if those initial vague hopes were to lead to a durable settlement.