Northern Ireland is part of the British Isles, although not as the rest know it...
On 19 November 2015 the Belfast Telegraph reported that a middle-aged man from the Traveller community had received a gunshot to the body shortly before 9am whilst in the passenger seat of a black Vauxhall car on Rossnareen Avenue, West Belfast, Ulster. It was the morning rush-hour at the time of the shooting, the car was reported to be close to a school, and the shot was fired through the passenger-window of the car. The man was left in a critical condition in hospital.
Subsequent to the shooting, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) sent 2 officers in an unmarked car parked on Rossnareen Avenue for some nights in observation. Then, just before 7pm on Thursday 26 November 2015, someone used a heavy-calibre automatic weapon (a Kalashnikov) in an attempt to kill the 2 officers inside the vehicle. Up to 8 shots were fired and, as can be seen in the photo above, a number hit the vehicle. The gunman escaped in a Black BMW 3 Series car, parked nearby & subsequently found abandoned & on fire at Cluain More Drive, West Belfast.
The officers in the car were reported to be “shaken” but unhurt, as the car was both armour-plated plus had bullet-proof windows. What?! I have never heard before of the police routinely driving such vehicles, unless for special situations such as conveying high-profile visitors that may be subject to death-threats. What on earth is going on in West Belfast that could cause such precautions?
In Ireland, events that occurred 300/400 years ago are spoken of as if they happened last week. So, we need to consider history...
The island of Ireland became Christianised in the 5th Century and, indeed, Celtic Christianity was renowned during the 1st millennium.
Problems with England began for Ireland following the Norman Invasion of England in 1066. After William the Bastard invaded & conquered England, he claimed sovereignty over Ireland. 100 years later Henry II of England invaded Ireland & the Roman Catholic Pope supported Henry, partly as to get the Irish Church integrated into Roman Catholicism.
The Norman feudal system was utterly foreign to Gaelic Brehon Law, and you can perhaps imagine how the native Irish would have felt about the imposition of a foreign King’s laws upon their land & ways. However, the gaze of the English Crown was mostly elsewhere after Henry II and, gradually, the Norman rulers went native. By the end of the 15th Century English authority in Ireland had all but disappeared. But then, and most unfortunately for the Irish (and many others), England got Henry VIII as king.
Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1542, and re-established the control that had formerly existed. The whole process continued for 60 years until, under James I, the entire country was under English control. The whole thing was about as bad as you could imagine an invasion to be:-
It continued further under Cromwell (1650). 50,000 Irish were sent into slavery in the West Indies. It is estimated that, as a result of all these conflicts from Henry VIII to Cromwell, that half of the Irish population died. I believe that the word for this may be “Genocide”.
- Law: the law was English law
- Language: the language was English language
- Land: the land was confiscated by English, Scots and Welsh colonists
- Culture: the culture was English culture
- Religion: the religion was Anglicanism (Protestant Church of England), following the King’s rejection of Roman Catholicism.
Ulster is the northern part of Ireland:-
Ulster was the region that, in the preceding century, had given the greatest resistance to English control.
On 14 September 1607 the ancient Gaelic aristocracy of Ulster went into permanent exile, in an event dubbed the Flight of the Earls. In 1609 half a million acres (2,000 km²) of Ulster was confiscated from those Gaelic chiefs, and offered by James I to English-speaking Protestants in an act dubbed the Plantation of Ulster. A very large number of the settlers were Scots & mostly Presbyterian, although some were Catholic & many spoke Gaelic. The English settlers were Anglican, whilst a quarter of the land was still occupied by the original native Irish.
An astonishing feature of Ulster & the Scots settlers is that long-standing contact and settlement between Ulster and the west of Scotland was common at that time, and indeed more common than traffic between Scotland & England.
For 30 years Ulster prospered with “tacit religious tolerance”. That became utterly turned on it’s head in 1641 as the Irish rebelled against the planters. At the same time (1639 to 1651) an intertwined series of conflicts took place in England, Ireland and Scotland, dubbed the Wars of the 3 Kingdoms (plus similar-natured conflicts occurred in Europe at the same time, so something was in the air). This is when the English Civil War occurred and, unfortunately for the Irish & the Scottish Presbyterian army, the person that came to sort them out was the terrifyingly efficient Cromwell & his New Model Army.
Many specific events from this period are burned deep into the psyche of all sides in Ireland, and particularly in Northern Ireland.
In 1782 Poynings’ Law was repealed, giving Ireland legislative independence from Great Britain for the first time since 1495. The Irish rewarded this with a republican rebellion in 1798, attempting to gain an independent Ireland. After the rebellion was suppressed (and in spite of support from France) both British & Irish Parliaments passed Acts of Union, merging the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to create a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That became effective on 1 January 1801. The historical record is that substantial bribery, funded by the British Secret Service, was required to achieve their desired result.
Ireland was now ruled directly from Westminster, London, and thus when the Great Famine of the 1840s caused the deaths of one million Irish people, the responsibility for it’s management can be placed directly at the feet of Westminster politicians. The response of the Irish people was to emigrate. It is reckoned that, by the end of the decade, half of all immigration to the United States was from Ireland. Meanwhile, the Irish population was eviscerated. The 1841 Census (just before the Famine) recorded 8.2 million people in Ireland. That is the highest it has ever been; it has not recovered to that level to this day (the last Census returns were in 2011:- 1.8m NI + 4.6m Ireland = 6.4m).
The Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed by the English Parliament into law in 1829; Catholics were now fully emancipated & could take their seats in the House of Parliament. Both the House of Lords & the King (George IV) were against it, and it took the personal efforts of the Duke of Wellington (who had been born in Ireland) to persuade the first to accept it & the second to sign it.
After the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, the Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell led a campaign for the repeal of the Act of Union, but that failed. Much later the campaign was for Home Rule, which was for autonomy within the Union. Support for this in Ireland split mostly by religion, with non-Catholics--and especially those in Ulster--fearing domination by the majority.
After many attempts it seemed by the early 20th Century that Home Rule would be passed in 1914. The Ulster Volunteers were formed in 1913 under the leadership of Edward Carson precisely to stop that from happening. The Irish Volunteers were established in 1914 with the opposite aim - to make sure that the Home Rule bill would be passed. These were armed paramilitaries, each. We now have all the necessary ingredients for the powder keg, and it has delighted in blowing itself--and any others within range--to bits, ever since.
The 3rd Home Rule Bill was passed. The six counties of Ulster--which later became Northern Ireland--were excluded. However, before the island of Ireland could be allowed to shred themselves, Europe claimed prior rights to that process & thus began the First World War (Jul 1914 - Nov 1918).
Most of the Irish Volunteers supported Irish involvement in the war but others did not (175,000:13,000), so they split. The smaller group kept the name.
In 1916 the Irish Volunteers (together with some others) launched the Easter Rising (armed insurrection). The English response was draconian. In the December 1918 General Election, Sinn Féin--the pro-independence, republican party--received overwhelming support. In 1919 they proclaimed Independence as an Irish Republic and setup both a Parliament & Government. Simultaneously the Irish Volunteers launched a 3-year guerilla war, taking on the name Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the process.
In November 1920 the British government attempted to legislate it’s way out of the war by passing the Fourth Home Rule Bill (although that has the formal name of the Government of Ireland Act 1920). It is this act that was legally responsible for Ireland’s partition into two:-“Southern Ireland” was to be all of Ireland except for “the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry” which were to constitute “Northern Ireland”.That was 6 of the 9 counties of Ulster, and it was no coincidence that together they provide a comfortable, continuous, parliamentary majority for the Protestant Unionists (only Fermanagh, Tyrone + Londonderry/Derry had small--Catholic--Nationalist majorities).
The idea of this Act was that each part of Ireland would be self-governing, whilst England kept control of all the grown-up concerns of government (defence, foreign affairs, international trade, and currency).
The Parliament of Northern Ireland was inaugurated in Belfast in June 1921 but, frankly, the Brits were deluding themselves. When the Nationalists had demanded Home Rule the English government had dragged it’s feet. By the time it was eventually offered it was too late; the Nationalist consensus was now for full Independence. One of the very astonishing features of the 1920 Act is that--in spite of almost all parts almost immediately becoming irrelevant--it was never repealed until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
As an Englishman, I’m proud to say that someone seemed to learn the lesson of the previous paragraph for later years. The countries that are now members of the Commonwealth were allowed to achieve Independence with good grace & relatively little loss of life.
There was a state opening of the Parliament of Southern Ireland in Dublin, also in June 1921, but almost no-one turned up. The new legislature was suspended, and Southern Ireland was governed directly from London.
A truce was called in July 1921 to the IRA’s guerilla war, and in December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty gave full independence for the rest of Ireland + an opt-out for Northern Ireland (which it promptly accepted) to remain part of the UK. It provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State within a year as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations (and the first time that this term was used in an official British document).
The IRA transferred most of it’s violence across to Northern Ireland after the Truce, until June 1922. The Nationalists & Republicans split over the terms of the Treaty & a civil war began in June 1922 until May 1923. The two political parties within the current Irish government are essentially the direct descendants of those combatants.
The Irish Nationalists were given military arms by the UK & were considered victors of the civil war; they governed the country for the first 10 years. When the Republicans got power they began a process of gradual separation from the UK, adopting a new Constitution in 1937, and adopting a position of Neutrality during World War II. The Republic of Ireland was not declared until 1949. Now, that is practical intelligence at work.
In Northern Ireland (NI), religion is the fuel that drives terrible hatreds. In large part, the Protestants are Unionists/Loyalists (they want to maintain the union of NI within the UK) whilst the Catholics are Nationalists (they want NI to unite with the Irish Free State). The Catholics keenly resent the historic discrimination against them as a minority within NI, whilst the Unionists are scared of the prospect of themselves as a minority within the whole of Ireland. Each of these sects can point to events in history that underscore their views.
Each community historically voted along sectarian lines, meaning that the Unionist Party had a permanent majority within the NI Parliament. That Party could not resist partiality towards their own supporters in housing, employment & other ways.
The whole thing came to a head in the late 1960s with nationalist civil-rights protests, which then provoked loyalist counter-protests. These occurred mainly in Belfast; the city is a patch-work of both communities living cheek-by-jowl within stone-throwing distance of each other. The following is a GIF (image file) of a map of Belfast which graphically illustrates this:-
(1153 × 793 pixels)
Large-scale + serious inter-communal riots exhausted the police (who were also perceived by the nationalists as biased towards the loyalists) and the British Army were called in. The situation was now about as bad as it could get, but 2 factions knew that they could stoke it up to be even nicer.
In 1969 the IRA split. A faction that called themselves the Provisional IRA (and had the desire to become a paramilitary force) spotted their opportunity in Belfast. They began a campaign against what it called the “British occupation of the six counties”. Activists in America used the Irish-American community to raise funds to buy arms that they shipped to Belfast. In response, loyalists tooled themselves up. And so the powder-keg was lit...
And so the Troubles began and, across the next 3 decades, shredded 3,600 lives. After practising in NI & getting good at it the Provos exported terror across the Irish Sea & blew up pubs & hotels & horses in England. The trouble is, explosions do not win you many friends.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement is the one that, after many failed attempts, seems to have held. So far.
That is horribly long but, I hope, that it may shed some light on what is otherwise almost impossible to understand.
--------- Alex Kemp