Constituent part of the United Kingdom, in the northeast of the island of Ireland; area 13,460 sq km/5,196 sq mi; population (2001) 1,685,300. It is comprised of six of the nine counties that form Ireland's northernmost province of Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone) which are divided into 26 regional districts for administrative purposes. The capital is Belfast, and other major towns and cities include Londonderry, Enniskillen, Omagh, Newry, Armagh, and Coleraine. Geographical features are the Mourne Mountains, Belfast Lough, Lough Neagh, and the Giant's Causeway. Major industries include engineering, shipbuilding, aircraft components, textiles, processed foods (especially dairy and poultry products), rubber products, and chemicals.
In 2000, 56% of the population were Protestant and 44% were Catholic. 5.3% of the population are Irish-speaking.
Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland has a 108-member assembly, elected by proportional representation. It exercises executive and legislative authority, devolved from the UK Parliament at Westminster, in areas including health, social security, education, and agriculture. It came under direct rule from the UK from 1972 until devolution in 1998; devolution was suspended in 2000 and again in 2001 following stalemate over the decommissioning of the IRA. Northern Ireland is entitled to send 18 members of Parliament to Westminster, and there are 26 district councils. The region costs the UK government £3 billion annually.
Agriculture is declining in importance in Northern Ireland, while manufacturing and service industries are increasing. The region has suffered from high rates of unemployment, though this has improved since the late 1990s. The Catholic unemployment rate has been substantially higher than the Protestant rate. The onset of the peace process brought an economic dividend to Northern Ireland as visitor numbers increased dramatically from 1997.
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 when the Irish Free State (subsequently the Republic of Ireland) was established separately from the mainly Protestant counties of north and northeastern Ireland, which were given limited self-government as Northern Ireland, but continued to send members to the House of Commons in Westminster. The central political divide has been between Unionists, who wish Northern Ireland to remain part of the (Protestant) United Kingdom, and Republicans (or Nationalists), who want reunification with the (Catholic) Republic of Ireland. From its creation until 1972, when direct rule was imposed from Westminster, Northern Ireland was ruled by Unionist governments, under which significant discrimination was practised against the Catholic minority. The Northern Ireland parliament is known as Stormont, from the location where it met from 1932 onwards.
Developments up to the 1960s
The Northern Ireland parliament met for the first time in 1921, the first prime minister being James Craig, later Viscount Craigavon, who headed the government until his death in 1940. Craig was a fervent champion of continued union with the UK and during the early years of the Irish Free State, when civil strife spread over the border into Northern Ireland, his forceful character had a steadying influence on Northern Ireland politics. Craig was succeeded by J M Andrews.
Northern Ireland was severely hit by the depression of the 1930s, and unemployment in the region remained high until 1939. During World War II Northern Ireland had a considerable strategic importance, filling the gap created by the Republic of Ireland's neutrality. The country's agriculture and industries contributed much to the British war effort and there was full employment. In 1943 Andrews was succeeded by Sir Basil Brooke, later Viscount Brookeborough. After the war, Northern Ireland enacted legislation on health, social insurance, and housing, which transformed it into a welfare state on the British pattern. During the 1950s unemployment increased and continued at a high level into the 1990s, despite strenuous efforts to persuade new industries to build factories in the region.
In 1949 the Republic of Ireland withdrew from the British Commonwealth and as a legal consequence the UK Parliament passed the 1949 Northern Ireland Act, which declared that Northern Ireland remained part of the UK and would not cease to be such without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland. This confirmation of the breach with the Republic was followed by six years of Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity on the border (1956-62).
Many attempts were made to improve relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In 1963, Brooke was succeeded by Terence O'Neill, who in 1965 met the prime minister of the Republic, Seán Lemass, in Belfast - the first meeting of two Irish premiers since the establishment of Stormont. But all such developments lapsed with the spread of civil disorder in Northern Ireland from 1968 (‘the Troubles’), and the inevitable identification of the Republic with the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.
The beginning of the Troubles
The summer of 1968 saw the first disturbances resulting from a civil-rights campaign against anti-Catholic discrimination in voting, housing, and employment, and the counter-demonstrations of Protestant extremists led by Rev Ian Paisley. The justice of the civil-rights campaign was tacitly admitted and reforms promised. In 1969 the republican party Sinn Fein and its military wing, the IRA, split into two factions, the ‘Official’, which sought reunification with Ireland by political means, and the ‘Provisional’, which continued to practise terrorist violence. O'Neill, although re-elected on a reform platform, lost the confidence of the Unionist Party and was replaced in May 1969 by James Chichester-Clark. In August, after further rioting, British troops were called in to maintain law and order - and to protect Catholics. The most prominent civil-rights leader, Bernadette Devlin, was later imprisoned for her part in the disturbances.
Rioting and street fighting continued intermittently in 1970, despite the announcement of a five-year development and reform programme, and the disbanding of the (largely) Protestant B Special volunteer constabulary. Two new political parties were formed: the Alliance Party, which aimed to unite Protestants and Catholics on a platform of moderate policies; and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a republican party that sought the reunification of Ireland by constitutional means.
The crisis deepens
As the country drifted from civil disturbance to the edge of civil war in 1971, there were an increasing number of sectarian murders and evidence of struggles between the Official and Provisional wings of the IRA for control of the Catholic areas of Belfast. Violence became a part of everyday life in the city and, with the UK and Northern Irish governments disagreeing on security measures, a political crisis led to the resignation of Chichester-Clark, who was succeeded by Brian Faulkner. Internment of suspects without trial, chiefly at the Long Kesh camp, was introduced, to the outrage of the Catholic community, and open warfare on the Belfast streets followed. The same year Ian Paisley established the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as a more hard-line rival to the ruling dominant Ulster Unionist Party.
The following year, 1972, was the worst so far experienced in the violence. It began with the demonstration in Londonderry that produced Bloody Sunday, in which 13 demonstrators were killed by British soldiers. In March Stormont was suspended, and Northern Ireland came under direct control of Westminster, through the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Brian Faulkner and his whole cabinet resigned, and many Protestants reacted bitterly to what they saw as British betrayal.
The British government adopted a policy of phasing out internment and holding the army in check, in an attempt to conciliate Catholic opinion. However, the (Provisional) IRA's activities increased and an opposition emerged in the shape of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Defence Association. Now both communities possessed an armed, potentially aggressive force, and a wave of sectarian, reprisal killings followed. By the end of the year, 467 people had been killed.
The power-sharing experiment
In 1973 a new democratically elected authority was formed. However, despite a poll indicating strong support for unionism, elections to the new Irish assembly fragmented the Unionist Party and gave the SDLP a powerful voice. Talks began on the formation of a ‘power-sharing’ Northern Ireland Executive Council, which was formed after agreement was reached between the political parties and UK and Irish governments at Sunningdale, England, in December.
The new Executive, a coalition of Protestants and Catholics led by Brian Faulkner, took office in 1974, but was repudiated days later by the Unionist Party. It was brought down six months later, after a massive strike in protest by Protestant workers. Direct rule from Westminster was reimposed.
The IRA's campaign of violence spread increasingly to mainland Britain and to the Republic, where, in 1976, the British ambassador was murdered. In 1979 Lord Mountbatten was murdered, and in 1984 the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the Conservative Party conference was being held, was bombed. In the early 1980s republican hunger strikes in prison raised political tension, and led the republican movement to embark on a more sustained and successful political campaign. Fears in London and Dublin that Sinn Fein might overtake the more moderate SDLP as the party representatives of most Northern Irish republicans led to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement
The Agreement was a major intergovernmental initiative, giving the Republic of Ireland a consultative role (via an Anglo-Irish conference) in the government of Northern Ireland. The Irish government agreed that there should be no change in Northern Ireland's status except by majority consent. However, Unionists were unhappy with the agreement, and all 12 Northern Irish members of the UK Parliament gave up their seats, so that by-elections could be fought as a form of ‘referendum’ on the views of the region on the agreement.
Towards the Downing Street Declaration
In April-September 1991, against the backdrop of continuing loyalist and republican paramilitary violence, political parties held their first direct negotiations on Northern Ireland's political future since 1975. However, follow-up talks between the British government and the main Northern Ireland parties September-November 1992 made little progress.
In September 1993, it emerged that the SDLP and Sinn Fein had held talks aimed at achieving a political settlement. This revelation prompted the British government to engage in bilateral talks with the main Northern Ireland parties, and in December 1993 London and Dublin issued a joint peace proposal, the Downing Street Declaration, for consideration by all parties. At this point, the Northern Ireland peace process can be said to have begun.
Despite the reforms of the 1970s, and the peace process, Catholics remained disadvantaged. Job discrimination was outlawed under the Fair Employment Act of 1975, but in 2000 Catholics were still two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts - a differential that had not improved since 1971. Residential integration was also still sparse: in 1999 over half the population lived in areas that were above 80% Catholic or Protestant.
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