Overview

Northern Ireland


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A unit of the United Kingdom comprising the six north-eastern counties of Ulster.

Physical.

Structurally, it is a south-westward extension of Scotland, separated by the North Channel of the Irish Sea. The central expanse of Lough Neagh is drained to the north by the River Bann, separating the Sperrin Mountains to the west and the Antrim Hills to the east. In the south-east are the Mourne Mountains, while in the south-west lies Lough Erne.

Economy.

The traditional linen and shipbuilding industries have declined but remain important, along with engineering and chemical industries. There is some mining. Many people are now employed in the service sector. Agricultural products include barley and potatoes; sheep and cattle are raised.

History.

Northern Ireland was established as a self-governing province of the United Kingdom by the Government of Ireland Act (1920) as a result of pressure from its predominantly Protestant population. Economic and electoral discrimination by the Protestant majority against the largely working-class Catholics (about one-third of the population) erupted in violence in the 1960s, heralding the decades of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Extremist Unionist reaction to protest marches organized by the civil rights movement (1968) led to riots, and violence escalated with paramilitary groupings such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) clashing with ‘Loyalist’ militant organizations, such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In 1969 British soldiers were sent to the province to keep the peace, at the request of the Stormont government, and have remained there ever since. The British government suspended (1972) the Northern Irish constitution and dissolved the Stormont government, imposing direct rule from London. In 1973 a power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive was established, responsible to a more representative Assembly. It collapsed in 1974, however, when Unionist leaders, such as the Reverend Ian Paisley, together with the Ulster Workers Council, organized a general strike that paralysed the province. After 1979 closer cooperation between the Republic of Ireland and Britain developed, leading to the Anglo-Irish Accord (the Hillsborough Agreement), signed in 1985, which gave the Republic a consultative role in the government of Northern Ireland. Sectarian terrorism continued, claiming over 3500 lives by the early 2000s. In 1991–92 talks were held with all major parties except Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA; for the first time these included representatives from the Irish Republic. In 1993 the Downing Street Declaration was signed by John Major and Albert Reynolds, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, paving the way for negotiations with Sinn Fein (as well as other political groups) on condition that they commit themselves to peaceful and democratic means. In 1994 the IRA declared a ‘complete cessation’ of military activities, which was followed by similar declarations by Loyalist paramilitary groups. However, little progress was made in peace negotiations during 1995 as a result of the UK government's refusal to negotiate with Sinn Fein until decommissioning of IRA weapons took place. In February 1996 the IRA broke the ceasefire by launching bomb attacks on London and Manchester. Sinn Fein was then excluded from the talks, which began in June 1996, but was admitted, following a new IRA ceasefire, in September 1997. In January 1998 the British and Irish governments issued, as a basis for negotiation, a joint document containing proposals for the future government of Northern Ireland, including: (1) a Northern Ireland Assembly to be elected by proportional representation, with a powersharing executive, (2) a north–south ministerial council linking the two parts of Ireland, and (3) an intergovernment council linking assemblies in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales with representatives of the British and Irish governments. In April 1998 a peace agreement based on these proposals, known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed by the British and Irish Prime Ministers and the leaders of the negotiating parties. The agreement allowed for the phased release of paramilitary prisoners and required the decommissioning of terrorist weapons within two years. Following elections David Trimble became Northern Ireland's First Minister. However, the new political institutions have operated only intermittently, mostly because of the unionist parties' reluctance to engage with Sinn Fein in the absence of firm evidence of progress towards IRA disarmament. An executive that included Sinn Fein members was established in December 1999, but this and the assembly have operated only for two periods (December 1999–February 2000; May 2000–October 2002). Divisions seemed to harden in 2003 when elections for the still-suspended assembly made the hardline Democratic Unionists the largest party (and its leader, Ian Paisley, the prospective First Minister) and Sinn Fein the largest nationalist party. However, prospects for progress improved in 2005 when the IRA announced that its ‘war’ was over and that it had completed decommissioning its weapons. After further Assembly elections in 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein agreed to a power-sharing executive, and devolved power returned to Northern Ireland in May 2007.

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Subjects: History.


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