Throughout history, the island of Ireland has been regarded as a single national unit. Prior to the Norman invasion from England in 1169, the Irish had their own system of law, culture and language and their own political and social structures. Following the invasion, the island continued to be governed as a single political unit, as a colony of Britain, until 1921.
At various times over the next 800 years Irish men and women resisted British rule and attempted to assert Irish independence. Between the years 1916 and 1921 Irish nationalists waged a combined political and military campaign against British occupation. In 1920 partition (dividing Ireland into two sections - the 26 and Six Counties) was imposed by a British Act of Parliament. The consent of the Irish people was never sought nor freely given.
For nationalists, life under Stormont rule meant institutionalised discrimination, electoral gerrymandering and human rights abuses and sectarian pogroms instanced by a sectarian state. Indeed patterns of discrimination which existed at this time remain today with nationalists still 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed.
Organised discontent began to emerge in the late 1960s, leading to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Their moderate demands were:
• One person, one vote;
• An end to the gerrymandered local government boundaries;
• An end to discrimination in the allocation of housing;
• An end to discrimination in employment;
• The repeal of the repressive Special Powers Act.
These demands were viewed by the unionist majority as a threat to their privileged position. But the violent reaction of the state shocked the world as television cameras relayed scenes of unprovoked attacks on civil rights marches and demonstrations.
As widespread political unrest spread, on August 14th 1969, British soldiers were deployed into Belfast and Derry. Within a relatively short period came the introduction of curfews in nationalist areas, internment without trial and the murder by British Paratroopers of 14 unarmed civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. Within weeks of this massacre the British Government abolished its local assembly, Stormont, and resumed direct rule.
Chronology 1968 to Present
Inspired by the student protests in France and the civil rights campaign in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement takes to the streets, rejecting the sectarian structure of the Six-County state and campaigning for equal rights for all. They are beaten off the streets by the RUC and unionist mobs backed up by the RUC reserve, the B-Specials. British troops are deployed allegedly to keep the peace but effectively to back up the RUC.
Republicanism splits amid differing attitudes towards the deteriorating situation in the Six Counties. One section was in the process of abandoning the demand for complete British withdrawal from Ireland and went on to become Sinn Féin The Workers Party (the remnants of which were recently subsumed into the Labour Party). Sinn Féin emerges as a party of resistance of the nationalist people in the Six Counties and becomes the leading advocate of British withdrawal and a 32 County socialist republic. While the IRA, in response to the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, unionist pogroms in Belfast and the introduction of internment without trial, goes on the offensive.
The British Government introduces internment without trial, rounding up hundreds of nationalists (and a handful of loyalists) in dawn raids. The Civil Rights Movement launches a civil disobedience campaign, including a rent and rates strike.
After the massacre by British Army paratroopers of 14 Civil Rights marchers in Derry on what becomes known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, the IRA intensifies the war against the crown forces in the Six Counties. British Government introduces direct rule. Truce between British Army and IRA. Republican leaders (including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) are flown to London by the British Government for talks with Secretary of State William Whitelaw. British Army breaks truce and invades Free Derry and ‘no go’ areas in Belfast.
Power-sharing “Sunningdale Executive” is brought down by Ulster Workers’ Council strike supported by unionist politicians and enforced by loyalist paramilitaries.
IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan dies on hunger strike in an English Prison.
New truce between IRA and British Army leads to ‘Truce Monitoring Centres’ liaising between republicans and British Government officials. There is a heightened campaign by loyalist death squads. Constitutional Convention to discuss future government of the Six Counties meets but is collapsed by the Ulster Unionist Party the following year.
Truce between IRA and British Army breaks down. The British Government unilaterally withdraws the political status won by republican prisoners and introduces a “criminalisation policy” to remove the embarrassing acknowledgement to the world that the conflict is a political struggle. This leads to the blanket protest, where republican freedom fighters refuse to wear prison uniform. IRA Volunteer Frank Stagg dies on hunger strike in an English Prison.
European Court of Human Rights rules that interrogation techniques used on internees in 1971 amounted to “inhuman and degrading” treatment.
The prison protest against criminalisation is taken to a new level in 1980 and 1981, with the hunger strikes for the restoration of political status. Ten prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, protest to the death in 1981. The prisoners win their demands in the wake of the hunger strike.
As the IRA’s campaign to secure a British withdrawal continues, Sinn Féin emerges as a real political force in the 1980s, attempting to build mass support for its demand for self-determination for the Irish people. The result is substantial electoral progress, including the election of Gerry Adams as MP for West Belfast in 1983. This same year 38 republican prisoners escape from the H-Blocks.
The party’s successes, despite repression and censorship, place it centre-stage and thwart British Government efforts to impose an internal partitionist solution in the Six Counties. Having always pursued a durable peace settlement based on national self-determination, the party redefines its peace strategy in key documents, including Scenario for Peace (1987) and Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland (1992). The pursuit of that strategy lays the groundwork for the efforts to achieve lasting peace. John Hume and Gerry Adams meet to agree the foundations for a peaceful pathway to Irish Unity.
Irish America secure a commitment for a Visa for Gerry Adams and a US Special envoy from President Clinton. The IRA declare a ceasefire to provide space for peace talks. British government fail to convene meaningful talks and ceasefire ends. Efforts continue to rebuild the peace process. 1998 IRA ceasefire reinstated, and US Special Envoy George convenes all-party talks that leads to the signing and ratification of the Good Friday Agreement in referendums North and South. The agreement provides for a peaceful and democratic pathway to Irish Unity if it is the will of a majority north and south. Power-sharing Government and Stormont Assembly is established, and all Ireland bodies and a Ministerial council convened. Prison release scheme is started.
IRA formally end their campaign and place weapons beyond use. The RUC is disbanded and the PSNI established as its replacement. Control of policing and justice is moved from London to democratic control of the power-sharing government in Belfast. Sinn Féin become the largest political party across Ireland and jointly leaders the power sharing government in Belfast. The people of Britain vote to leave the EU. The people in the North of Ireland vote to remain within the EU. The British Government refuse to respect the vote of the majority in the north and impose Brexit. The unionist parties lose their majority in Stormont Assembly
Ireland is changing. The Unionist Electoral Majority is gone. The very basis of partition is ending. Irish Unity is the route back to the EU for the North Ireland. We are the first generation in history to have a democratic and peaceful pathway to break the link with Britain and establish a new and united Ireland. It is now time to secure and win a Unity Referendum as led out in the Good Friday Agreement.