For starters, Ulster and Northern Ireland are almost one and the same thing. But to call Northern Ireland, Ulster would be tantamount to saying Ukraine instead of Ukraine. The difference is symbolic. In other words, Northern Ireland is referred to as Ulster by those who advocate its reunification with the rest of Ireland, while those who stand for its continued union with Britain call it Northern Ireland. And now that we have made that clear let's take a look at how the confrontation between these two factions has been evolving over the past few decades. Besides, there's been a third party involved in this confrontation to boot. But more on that later.
A summary of the previous instalment
Our previous feature on Ireland’s 800-year-long struggle for independence ended with the account of how, in 1949, the country was officially split into two parts: the independent Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which went on to become an administrative entity within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That said, Northern Ireland remains a de facto part of the traditional province of Ulster that is made up of nine counties: three of these are in the Republic of Ireland, whereas the remaining six constitute Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom. Finally, the principal difference between Ulster and the rest of Ireland is that its population is traditionally predominantly Protestant. At the same time, the people of the Republic of Ireland are mostly made up of Catholics. And it is the strife between Catholics and Protestants that is arguably the underlying cause of all conflicts here.
The events of 1969-1971
A new wave of rallies and clashes between Catholics and Protestants swept across Northern Ireland amid student protests worldwide. The passions ran so high that Britain was forced to send its troops to the island with the officially stated mission of putting an end to street riots and violence. But the task that should have only taken a couple of days to accomplish turned into a bloody civil war that dragged on for nearly forty years. The main challenge was that the military supported Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority prompting Irish Catholics to confront the British troops with an army of their own, the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA for short.
Truth be told, the IRA was founded as early as 1916, during the Easter Rising in Dublin, as a militant wing of the Sinn Fein (Irish for "We Ourselves") political party initially. However, later on, it started to act as an independent force. The IRA's stated goal was to free Northern Ireland from Britain's occupying forces and to split Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom.
The Irish Republican Army was confronted not only by regular British troops but also by several Protestant terrorist groups, including the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, that are known to have been engaged not only in bombings and assassinations but also in drug trafficking and kidnappings. These two Ulster-based groups are thought to be the first neo-fascist organizations in post-WWII Europe.
The armed confrontation in Northern Ireland came to a head in 1971 when the number of British troops deployed in the province reached 27,000. That year alone saw more than 1,700 street firefights between the British military and the IRA fighters. The government’s forces defused 1,100 explosive devices. Forty-eight British soldiers and officers ended up getting killed in the fighting. Dozens of IRA activists were arrested and thrown behind bars, where they were subjected to the most brutal forms of torture.
In 1972, in an effort to bring the situation back under control, Britain introduced Direct Rule in Northern Ireland, but this only made things worse, resulting in street riots and mass protests.
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Sunday Bloody Sunday, one of Irish rock band U2’s most performed tracks, was written in response to Bloody Sunday, the massacre in Northern Ireland's city of Londonderry on January 30, 1972. That day, British troops opened fire on a peaceful march of Catholic protesters, killing thirteen people outright, including five shots in the back. Fourteen more were wounded. The massacre galvanized Northern Ireland and led to an increase in the frequency of attacks on British servicemen.
British military arrest civilians during the Bloody Sunday.
The terror and its victims
IRA fighters, far from being angels themselves, started to increasingly target specific military and political figures. Of particular note here is the case of the famous British Admiral Louis Mountbatten, who was assassinated when his fishing boat was blown up using a radio-controlled explosive device. The explosion also claimed the lives of his daughter, his 14-year-old grandson, and a 15-year-old Irish teenager who was working as a sailor on the boat. Most IRA attacks were carried out in England. In 1984, the IRA bombing attack on Britain’s Conservative Party conference killed five MPs and wounded 31. In 1991, IRA fighters opened mortar fire on the residence of Prime Minister John Major, which was hosting a meeting of his war cabinet, wounding several people. The meeting’s attendees were saved by bomb-proofed netting on the building’s windows. From 1980 through 1991, the IRA carried out 120 terror attacks in the UK and more than 50 more elsewhere in the world.
Unlike the IRA, who had always warned the authorities about their forthcoming bomb attacks so as not to harm civilians, the Ulster volunteers, by contrast, went out of their way to ensure that as many civilians as possible got harmed or killed as the main thrust of their attacks was primarily to intimidate civilians.
A case in point is the bombing, in 1971, of McGurk's Bar, frequented by Catholics, resulting in the deaths of 15 people. The Northern Irish carried out most of their attacks inside the Republic of Ireland. In 1974, they carried out a series of bombings in the counties of Dublin and Monaghan, killing 33 civilians. The Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have been accused of being behind more than 500 murders. Most of those killed were Catholics.
What was left of McGurk’s Bar following the bombing attack.
In the early 1980s, Britain passed a law that removed political status for members of the IRA and equated them with ordinary criminals. In response, the prisoners protested against this policy by going on a hunger strike that resulted in ten deaths. The mastermind of the hunger strikes, poet Bobby Sands, ended up dying on May 5, 1981, after refusing food for 66 days. More than a hundred thousand people came to Sands' funeral. Ultimately, the UK authorities were forced to reverse their policy.
Ulster Third Way
1988 saw a new political party, the Ulster Independence Movement, led by Hugh Ross, a Presbyterian minister, is founded. Rev. Ross advocated full independence for Ulster, not only from the tyranny of the United Kingdom but also potentially from Dublin. The movement, however, enjoyed very modest following. After several failed election campaigns, the party chose to self-dissolve in 2000. Some of its members continued fighting for their political cause by setting up the Ulster Third Way movement, but this lasted only for a few more years.
On the path toward peace
On April 10, 1998, the United Kingdom and Ireland governments signed the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement as it is more commonly known to end the conflict in Northern Ireland. It had taken the parties a full 22 months to prepare the agreement. The participants of the signing ceremony took a moment to take stock of the conflict that had lasted for 30 years. It claimed the lives of three and a half thousand victims, including 763 British soldiers and more than 300 members of the IRA. More than ten thousand people were in prison on terrorism charges.
Under the agreement, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, on the one hand, and the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, on the other, agreed to establish a number of jointly administered institutions to monitor the observance of human rights, to reform the local police (including to drop the word "royal" from the force’s official title), to release political prisoners, and to end all hostilities on all sides within two years of the signing.
The first to put an end to the hostilities were the members of the IRA. In 2005, the IRA leaders issued an official order to cease all armed hostilities. In 2007, all British troops were withdrawn entirely from Northern Ireland. The Ulster Volunteer Force was disbanded in 2009. The last to declare disarmament was the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
As this article was already being written, an almost sensational piece of news came from Northern Ireland. The Sinn Féin Party had won its local elections there. It had announced that it would begin preparations for a referendum on Ulster's secession from Britain and its reunification with the Republic of Ireland. This means that nine centuries of bloodshed and violence are coming to an end, and the Emerald Isle is edging one step closer to the long-awaited reunification.