Ireland Revisited Week One

January 6, 2011

By Paul Malone Email:

Over the coming weeks and months I will be revisiting Irish history and politics, looking at the events which shaped our country, ranging from 1969 until the present day.

This week I will briefly write about the background of the thirty year conflict before revisiting each major event in depth each week to ascertain what happened, why, and whether the events in question could have been avoided or were necessary to helping us along the road to peace. The ‘Troubles’ in Ireland encompassed religious, cultural and political differences between the Nationalist and the Unionist community, some of which still exist today to a certain extent.

The boundaries of the island of Ireland were set through partition in 1921 and established a 6 county; Unionist dominated country which was to remain in union with the United Kingdom, now known as Northern Ireland. The other 26 counties were handed back to the Irish government, who in turn, established the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. The boundaries of Northern Ireland ensured that it was developed intentionally to be Unionist dominated in all its various strands, ranging from local to national government.

Such obvious tampering of the boundaries to gain political advantage perhaps can now be acknowledged as a key factor in what was to come in the decades afterwards. The Catholic minority in the North had been politically marginalized as a direct result of the two thirds majority which Northern Irish Protestants enjoyed, even in predominately Nationalist areas. Such political gerrymandering led to inequality for Catholics in the North, ranging from poor job prospects, electoral disadvantages and unequal allocation for council houses, further alienating a Catholic population already feeling ill at ease with their surroundings. This triggered the Civil Rights protests which would leave a lasting legacy in Ireland.

Although the Civil Rights protests were peaceful at first, they soon descended into riots after accusations that the RUC was guilty of heavy handedness. Reforms were mooted by then Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill but did little to appease the Nationalist masses and inflamed an already volatile situation rather than calming it. Many argue over when the ‘Troubles’ actually started but it is probably fair to acknowledge that May 1966 laid the foundations for what was to become a long, painful and bloodied conflict. The UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) issued a public statement of intent on 21st May 1966 declaring war on the IRA and claiming that the Loyalist paramilitaries comprised of “heavily armed Protestants dedicated to this cause.” June of 1966 saw the UVF step up its campaign and target Catholic civilians in West Belfast, murdering two Catholics, sparking fury and vows of revenge.

With Nationalist dissent at an all time high following the serious rioting between Civil Rights protestors and the RUC, a new, militant group broke away from the ‘Official’ IRA and styled themselves as the Provisional IRA. Although the PIRA had essentially the same aspirations as the ‘Officials’ – it differed in the fact that its members were prepared to pursue Irish unification with an armed campaign against the British government, its army and police service. Ireland now had two well armed, significantly supported paramilitary groups (The IRA and UVF) ready to take up arms for and against the unification of Ireland. This, in conjunction with major civil unrest and a British Government forced to call in British troops to the streets of Northern Ireland meant that the situation was quickly developing into chaos. The scene had been set for a conflict which would last thirty years….