The tumultuous history of Northern Ireland | Explained

The story so far: On February 3, pro-Irish unity politician Michelle O’Neill from the Sinn Fein party made history by becoming the first Nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland, after the opposition Democratic Union Party (DUP), the largest pro-U.K. party, returned to government ending a two-year long political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

What led to the political deadlock?

Northern Ireland is governed by a power-sharing agreement known as consociationalism as laid down in the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) of 1998. This system believes that power should be shared equally between the various sectarian groups in a state, in this case, between the pro-Irish unity faction, called the Nationalists or Republicans, and the pro-U.K. faction, the Loyalists or the Unionists. Sinn Fein is the largest Nationalist political party, while the DUP is of the latter. The party that wins the largest vote-share will hold the First Minister position while the party with the second largest vote share will keep the post of Deputy First Minister. Of these two posts, one must be a Unionist and the other a Nationalist. Both positions hold equal weight and one cannot exist without the other.

In the 2022 elections, Sinn Fein finished first with a 29% vote share, while the DUP secured the second position with a 21.3% vote share. However, a government was not formed as the DUP exited Stormont (Northern Ireland’s Parliament) because it objected to the new border controls between Britain and the Island of Ireland, which came in the aftermath of Brexit. When the U.K. exited the EU, Northern Ireland became the only province to share a land border with an EU country (Republic of Ireland). The U.K. and the EU then came up with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which stipulated that the trade border, where goods are checked for compliance, would be shifted to the Irish ports, essentially making it a sea border. However, this was rejected by the DUP, which held that this was against the Good Friday agreement which sanctioned free movement of goods and people across borders. In protest, they exited the government and the political deadlock set in.

The U.K. and the EU then drew up fresh rules, called the Windsor Framework, which stated that on arrival at the border of Northern Ireland, goods will be demarcated into two. The ones which were entering the region would go into the ‘green lane’ with no inspections while those entering the Republic of Ireland (EU territory) would go to the ‘red lane’ for compliance checks. After assurance from the U.K. of Northern Ireland’s place in its internal market, the DUP has agreed to return to government.

How did Northern Ireland come into being?

Northern Ireland was the site of a 30-year civil war (1968-1998) known as ‘The Troubles’ between the Republicans and the Unionists, which killed over 3,500 people. It also had a religious aspect to it with the Republicans being mostly Catholic and the Unionists being largely Protestants.

Northern Ireland was formerly part of the Ulster province, which lies to the north of modern-day Ireland. Conflict between the Protestants and the Irish Catholics goes all the way back to 1609, when King James I started an official policy of migration wherein people from England and Scotland were encouraged to move to Ulster to work in his various plantations there. The religious war that was being waged in much of Europe at the time, between the Protestants and the Catholics, made its presence felt in Ulster as well. However, a much stronger resistance was brewing. Ireland at the time was under the rule of England. The growing resistance against the colonial English rule, especially after the Potato Famine of 1845 where over 1 million Irish people died due to disease and starvation, cemented these sectarian and religious differences. Finally, in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, during Easter week, Ireland rose up in arms against colonial rule under the leadership of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). After a bloody war, it was able to gain independence from England with the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921.

However, Ireland was split into two territories. As there was a protestant majority in Ulster, out of the 32 counties in Ireland, six remained with the U.K, forming the region of Northern Ireland.

What led to the Good Friday agreement?

Peace did not come easy in Northern Ireland. The years that followed were rife with discrimination and instances of sectarian violence. The Irish Republicans being the minority were often victims of discrimination when it came to housing and public service jobs. Moreover, there have also been claims that elections were heavily skewed towards the Unionists due to gerrymandering practices. In the late 1960s, various protests against the Northern Ireland government descended into violence with the IRA and the Unionist paramilitary forces taking up arms.

A civil war had officially started and the British Army was deployed to maintain peace. The Army was often accused of colluding with the Unionists against the Republicans. Walls were built between communities to segregate them, curfews were implemented and dissidents were being arrested without trial. However, violence continued and in 1972, in an incident known as Bloody Sunday, the British Army shot and killed at least 13 unarmed civilians during a protest march in the Bogside area of Derry. In its aftermath, the war spread to the mainland of the U.K. and Ireland, with attacks and bombings orchestrated in London and Dublin.

In the backdrop of the ever-increasing tit-for-tat violence between the IRA and the Unionists, in the 1980s, IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein started taking a more active role in the political landscape of Northern Ireland. It contested elections and played a part in governance. Peace talks were also being negotiated with the U.S. acting as a mediator.

The 1990s brought about a significant shift in the war. The public was weary of violence and wanted peace. Both parties agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks were in full swing. While decommissioning of arms was heavily pushed by the U.K., both the IRA and the Unionists at the time refused to give up their arms entirely. Therefore, talks took the ‘twin approach’ wherein peace and decommissioning was to happen in parallel as a treaty was being reached.

Finally, on April 10, 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Belfast bringing to an end the 30-year-old civil war in Northern Ireland.

What is the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement is a unique peace treaty in that it conceded to most of the demands from both sides of the conflict. The treaty had three main aspects — that the Northern Ireland government would be formed on the sovereign wishes of both Republicans and the Unionists and that they would share governance equally; that the people of Northern Ireland could seek reunification with Ireland any time subject to a referendum; and that the citizens of Northern Ireland can seek Irish or British nationality or both. It also abolished border checks and encouraged the freedom of movement of people across the U.K. and Ireland.

However, tensions of the conflict still linger in the region. The power sharing system has not been smooth. Stormont has fallen multiple times before the completion of a term. The Assembly was suspended in 2000, in 2001, from 2002-2007 when Unionists withdrew from the executive and from 2017-2020. In February 2022, the government again collapsed as Unionists withdrew over border controls between the U.K. and Northern Ireland.

What next?

The significance of a Nationalist First Minister cannot be understated. Ms. O’Neill said as much when she remarked that “we are in a decade of opportunity” indicating the possibility of a referendum on the reunification of the region with Ireland in the next 10 years.

However, in a paper released by the U.K. government, it said that it “sees no realistic prospect of a border poll leading to a united Ireland,” citing recent polling. In a similar vein, Irish premier Leo Varadkar, whose government in principle supports a united Ireland, also said the question of reunification was “not for today.”

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Why Ireland’s leaders are willing to be tougher on Israel than most

A long anti-colonial history and specific recent incidents mean Irish-Israeli relations are noticeably strained by European standards.

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Like other European countries, Ireland is watching in horror as thousands of people are killed in Gaza, knowing that among them are likely to be some of its own citizens.

One particularly shocking case stands out: that of Emily Hand, an eight-year-old girl who was thought to have been killed by Hamas terrorists at a kibbutz during the massacre on 7 October. 

Her father was initially informed of her likely death, but DNA tests have indicated her body was not among the remains recovered from the kibbutz. 

She is now thought to be alive and held hostage in Gaza, providing the Irish government with an imperative to secure her release – if at all possible – requiring intense diplomatic work as fighting rages in Gaza. 

But at home in Ireland, Hand’s case is part of a complicated political reality. While many European governments have hesitated to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza – if they have criticised it at all – many Irish leaders have taken a noticeably tougher tone.

The Irish Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, has repeatedly condemned the Hamas massacre of 1,400 people in Israel, but has also said that Israel’s response in Gaza resembles “something more approaching revenge“.

At an international aid conference for Gaza hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Thursday, Varadkar said that failure to observe humanitarian law “can’t be inconsequential”.

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins, meanwhile, has accused Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of nothing less than undermining international human rights norms.

“To announce in advance that you will break international law and to do so on an innocent population, it reduces all the code that was there from Second World War on protection of civilians and it reduces it to tatters,” Higgins said in mid-October as the air campaign in Gaza began to claim increasingly more civilian lives.

His remarks were criticised by the Israeli ambassador in Dublin, Dana Erlich, who accused him of being misinformed and suggested that Israel’s overall impression of Ireland was one of unconscious anti-Israeli bias.

Another Israeli diplomat in Dublin posted their criticism on X: “Ireland wondering who funded those tunnels of terror? A short investigation direction – 1. Find a mirror 2. Direct it to yourself 3. Voilà.” The post has since been clarified and disowned.

Higgins has also been critical of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whom he said was “reckless” in her initial pro-Israeli response to the outbreak of war. 

He continues to call for a humanitarian ceasefire, and for international independent verification of the death toll in Gaza – a number currently reported only by the Hamas-run health ministry.

So while many Western European governments remain in near-lockstep, why are Ireland’s leaders noticeably more ambivalent in their public statements about Israel’s actions?

Long memories

For one thing, the two countries have not had the warmest relationship over the last two decades. In 2010, it was revealed that agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, had used counterfeited passports to travel undercover to Dubai, where they assassinated a Hamas leader

Among their forged travel documents were Irish passports, including some using stolen genuine passport numbers.

The episode put a chill on Irish-Israeli relations, one that marks the relationship to this day. At the time, Irish ministers warned that Mossad’s actions may have put Irish travellers at risk. But six years after the incident, the then-Israeli ambassador to Ireland declined to guarantee that the same thing would not happen again.

On both sides of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, many Irish nationalists have identified with the Palestinian cause for decades, seeing in it a parallel with their own resistance to military violence from the British state. 

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This resonance is still felt today. Sinn Fein, the largest and oldest party that advocates for Irish reunification, is widely expected to lead the next government in Dublin, and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has made her views on Israel abundantly clear.

In 2021, during a major outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence, she told parliament that Israel needed to be condemned as a “racist, apartheid regime”, and grounded her call for Palestinian statehood in the grand narrative of Irish history.

But as independent Irish Senator Tom Clonan, himself a former military officer, told Euronews, while Ireland’s experience of colonisation makes it something of an outlier in Western Europe, most of its politicians or population do not take a negative view of Israel’s existence.

“Irish people support Israel and believe in the legitimacy of the state of Israel,” he said. 

“We have strong links in terms of trade, and there’s a large diaspora of Irish Israelis. Chaim Herzog, the president of Israel for most of the 1980s, was an Irish-Israeli who grew up in Dublin! What we’re critical of are the actions of the Netanyahu government.

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“Hamas committed truly genocidal attacks on October 7th, breaking all the laws around armed conflict, which it continues to do in Gaza. But at the same time, the Israeli military has failed to provide safe passage to the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and so on, as they are required to under the Geneva Conventions. Forcibly expelling civilians from their homes, firing on hospitals and schools and civilian areas – all of that and more is prohibited.

“That’s what Varadkar was referring to: proportionality of response, which is an objective standard in the law of conflict. In fairness to the British, for instance, when the IRA was setting off bombs in the UK and murdering innocent civilians, including children, the UK government didn’t order air strikes on republican neighbourhoods in Belfast!”

Actions beyond the pale

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has condemned Hamas’ attack, but is also criticising Israel for “ignoring” calls for a ceasefire. And like party leaders to the left of Sinn Fein, she is also calling for the Israeli ambassador in Dublin to be expelled because of Israel’s actions since 7 October. 

Varadkar has rejected that call, pointing out that not even the Russian ambassador has been expelled and warning that to eject Erlich would “disempower” Dublin as it tries to get 40-odd Irish citizens out of Gaza.

Varadkar’s partners in the coalition, centre-right party Fianna Fáil, meanwhile hosted Erlich at their annual party conference last weekend. Her appearance was met with outrage on the left, but party leader and current foreign secretary Micheál Martin defended the government’s decision not to expel her, pointing out that to do so would likely result in Ireland’s own ambassador being expelled from Israel just as they try to save Emily Hand and the other Irish citizens trapped in the crossfire.

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All the while, Ireland’s voice in Europe remains a distinctive one. Clonan suggests that since Ireland has itself been through a difficult peace process at home, its leaders are perhaps particularly alert to double standards when it comes to the protection of civilians in conflict.

“I was very dismayed when Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Tel Aviv and gave absolutely unqualified support for Israel,” he says. “It must be remembered that when Russia targeted the electricity network in Ukraine, she said that hitting civilian targets there was a war crime.

“I would encourage her to reflect on that, and look at Israel’s actions through that prism as well.”



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