Status: Part of United Kingdom
Area: 5452 sq. ml. (14,121 sq. km)
Population (1998 eat.): 1,688,600
Capital and largest cIty (1992): Belfast, 287,500.
Monetary unit: British pound sterling (i). Language:
English. Religions: Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic, Methodist.
Geography Northern Ireland is composed of 26 districts, derived from the boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry and the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. Together they are commonly called Ulster, though the territory does not include the entire ancient province of Ulster. Predominantly Protestant, it forms the northern part of the island of Ireland, westernmost of the British Isles. It is slightly larger than Connecticut.
Government Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom (it has 12 representatives in the British House of Commons), but under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, it had a semiautonomous government. In 1972, however, after three years of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics that resulted in more than 400 dead and thousands injured, Britain suspended the Ulster Parliament. The Ulster counties became governed directly from London after an attempt to return certain powers to an elected assembly in Belfast.
As a result of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a coalition government was to be formed by July 16, 1999, after which the transfer of legislative powers from the British Parliament to the assembly was to take place on the 17th, thereby ending three decades of direct role from London. Peace talks broke down once again just before the government was to be formed. David Trimble, Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, was to have been first minister.
History Ulster was part of Catholic Ireland until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558—t603) when, after suppressing three Irish rebellions, the Crown confiscated lands in Ireland and settled the Scots Presbyterians in Ulster. Another rebellion in 1641—51, brutally crushed by Oliver Cromwell, resulted in the settlement of Anglican Englishmen in Ulster. Subsequent political policy favoring Protestants and disadvantaging Catholics encouraged further Protestant settlement in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland did not separate from the South until William Gladstone presented, in 1886, his proposal for home rule in Ireland. The Protestants in the North feared domination by the Catholic majority. Industry, moreover, was concentrated in the North and dependent on the British market. When World War I began, civil war threatened between the regions. Northern Ireland, however, did not become a political entity until the six counties accepted the Home Rule Bill of 1920. This set up a semiautonomous Parliament in Belfast and a Crown-appointed governor advised by a cabinet of the prime minister and eight ministers, as well as a 12-member representation in the House of Commons in London.
Whets the Republic of Ireland gained sovereignty in 1922 relations improved between North and South, although the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.), outlawed in recent years, continued the struggle to end the partition of Ireland. In 1966—69, rioting and street fighting between Protestants and Catholics occurred in Londonderry, fomented by extremist nationalist Protestants, who feared the Catholics might attain a local majority, and by Catholics demonstrating for civil rights. These confrontations became known as “the Troubles.”
The religious communities, Catholic and Protestant, became hostile armed camps. British troops were brought in to separate them, but themselves became a target of Catholics, particularly by the I.R.A., which by this time had turned into a full-fledged terrorist movement. The goal of the I.R.A. was to eject the British and unify Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic to the south. The Protestants remained tenaciously loyal to the United Kingdom, and various Protestant terrorist organizations pursued the Unionist cause through violence. Various attempts at representational government and power-sharing foundered during the 1970s, and both sides were further polarized. Direct rule from London and the presence of British troops failed to stop the violence.
In Oct. 1977, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, founders of the Community of Peace People, a nonsectarian organization dedicated to creating peace in Northern Ireland. Intermittent violence continued, however, and on Aug. 27, 1979, an I.R.A. bomb killed Lord Mosantbatten as he was sailing off southern Ireland, heightening tensions. Catholic protests over the death of I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981 fueled more violence. Riots, sniper fire, and terrorist attacks killed more than 3,200 people between 1969 and 1998. Among the attempts at reconciliation undertaken during the 1980s was the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985), which, to the dismay of Unionists, marked the first time the Republic of Ireland had been given an official consultative role in the affairs of the province.
In 1997, Northern Ireland made a significant step in the direction of stemming sectarian strife. The first formal peace talks began on Oct. 6 with representatives of eight major Northern Irish political parties participating, a feat that in itself required three years of negotiations. Two smaller Protestant parties, including hard-liner Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists, boycotted the talks. For the first time, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the I.R.A., won two seats in the British Parliament, which went to Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and second-in- command Martin McGuinness. Although the election strengthened the I.R.A.‘s political legitimacy, it was the I.R.A’s resumption of the 17-month cease- fire, which had collapsed in Feb 1996, that gained them a place at the negotiating table.
A landmark settlement, the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, came after 19 months of intensive negotiations that involved eight of the ten Northern Irish political parties. Chaired by former U.S. senator George Mitchell, the talks were advanced by a high-profile set of mediators, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahem, and President Bill Clinton. Two participating groups, the Protestant Ulster Democratic Party and Sinn Fein, were temporarily suspended from the talks because of continued paramilitary activities. The accord called for Protestants to share political power with the minority Catholics, and gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in Northern Irish affairs. In turn, Catholics were to suspend the goal of a united Ireland—a territorial claim that was the raison d’être of the I.R.A. and was written into the Irish Republic’s constitution—unless the largely Protestant North voted in favor of such an arrangement, an unlikely occurrence.
The resounding commitment to the settlement was demonstrated in a dual referendum on May 22, 1998: the North approved the accord by a vote of 71% to 29%, and in the Irish Republic 94% favored it. But the deaths of three Catholic boys in July 1998 during the traditional Protestant marches through Catholic neighborhoods were an appalling reminder of the fragility of peace. In October, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to John Hume and David Trimble, leaders of the largest Catholic and Protestant political parties an incentive for all sides to ensure that this time the peace would last.
In Dec. 1998 the rival Northern Ireland politicians agreed on the organization and contents of the new coalition government, but in June 1999 the peace process again hit an impasse when the I.R.A. refused to disarm prior to the assembly of Northern Ireland’s new provincial cabinet. Sinn Fein insisted the I.R.A. would only begin giving up its illegal weapons after the formation of the new government; Unionists demanded disarmament first. As a result, the Ulster Unionists boycotted the assembly session that would have nominated the cabinet to run the new coalition government. The embryonic Northern Irish government was stillborn in July 1999, and subsequent talks have not produced results.
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