By Malcolm Campbell

This recent period of instability is attributable to a range of factors, both external and internal to Northern Ireland.

The first week of May marked the 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland. The centenary follows hot on the heels of a turbulent month that has seen widespread civil unrest in the territory and a leadership crisis in its Democratic Unionist Party. In early April, riots and demonstrations in the principal cities and towns attracted worldwide attention and rekindled memories of the violence of ‘The Troubles’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The resignation this week of the First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, has initiated a contest to see who will lead Northern Ireland’s response to the disturbance. Why the current turmoil?

A key to understanding Northern Ireland is the Act of Union. In 1801, in the wake of the Bloody 1798 Rising, Ireland was incorporated into the United Kingdom. The Irish parliament in Dublin was abolished and political control of the island passed to the parliament at Westminster.

The nineteenth century saw various attempts by Irish nationalists, sometimes involving violence, to disrupt this new connection with Great Britain. The woeful failure of British policy, most visible in the terrible years of the Great Famine, added to the urgency felt by nationalists.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century witnessed an increasingly effective political campaign to alter the constitutional connection. With the support of the Liberals in the British Parliament, the Irish Parliamentary Party advocated for restoration of a measure of self-government in Ireland. This was strongly opposed by Unionists in Ireland who wished to see the island remain firmly within the United Kingdom.

As the momentum towards an Irish Home Rule state increased, Unionism was itself transformed. Once an Ireland-wide movement that encompassed various shades of political opinion, the Unionist movement became an increasingly defensive, conservative and austere one whose strength was concentrated in a small number of counties in the north of Ireland where Protestants outnumbered Catholics.

The outbreak of the First World War disrupted the transition to a Home Rule state and plunged Ireland into a decade of disturbance and bloodshed. To address the escalating crisis and in an attempt to placate both sides, the British Government decided, through the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, to create, in effect, two Home Rule states, one for Unionists and one for Nationalists. The first of these states, the partitioned region of Northern Ireland, comprises six of Ireland’s 26 counties; the southern Home Rule state included the remainder of the island. However, the majority of Irish people did not accept this two-state solution and the southern home rule entity was soon supplanted by what became known as the Irish Free State.

From its conception, Northern Ireland was designed to meet the aspirations of the predominantly Protestant, chiefly Unionist population in the six counties. Northern Ireland soon because what one prominent leader unapologetically declared to be ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’. Discrimination against Northern Ireland’s minority Roman Catholic population was quickly embedded in its public institutions and economic structures. Gerrymandering and malapportionment cemented the Protestant hold on power.

After the Second World War, social reforms in Britain undermined the Unionist hold on the North. An increasingly assertive Roman Catholic middle class asked why the benefits of social welfare reform available elsewhere in the UK were unavailable in Northern Ireland. Roman Catholics complained about the denial of their civil rights and pointed to institutionalised discrimination in the provision of policing, public housing, education, transport, and facilities.

This campaign for civil rights paved the way for confrontations between Northern Ireland’s Catholic population and Unionists, the Protestant-dominated police force, and later the British Army. Northern Ireland quickly spiralled into The Troubles, a period of violence and destruction as Unionist paramilitary groups and the Provisional IRA contested the past, present and future of the region.

Between the 1970s and the 1990s the British and Irish governments, and Northern Ireland’s political parties, attempted to chart a path beyond the bloodshed. The signing of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement and its ratification by the people appeared to signal an end to Northern Ireland’s period of conflict. The agreement provided for power sharing among Northern Ireland’s communities and a commitment from the British and Irish governments that the long-term future of Northern Ireland would be decided by its peoples.

Despite early optimism, Northern Ireland continued to face grave challenges. A lack of trust among the former adversaries, the failure of some extremists to accept the peace deal, and the deeply entrenched stereotypes and divisions within the population continued to cause disruption. Moments of hope, such as the growth of an unlikely friendship between Democratic Unionist hard-liner, the Reverend Ian Paisley, and a former IRA commander in Derry, Martin McGuinness, suggested power sharing might work. Conversely, sporadic acts of violence cast doubt whether the fragile agreement would hold. Dysfunction in politics and periods of suspension of the Northern Ireland parliament also pointed to the depth of the challenges.

Why has the turmoil increased?

This recent period of instability is attributable to a range of factors, both external and internal to Northern Ireland.

Brexit has been one key catalyst. While the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland shared European Union membership, the cross-border movement of people and goods within the island of Ireland was uncontroversial. Residents in border areas frequently filled their tanks with petrol on whichever side of the border was cheaper. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, and the unacceptability of recreating a ‘hard border’ within the island has left Northern Ireland peculiarly stranded as, in some senses, both in and out of the United Kingdom. While outgoing DUP leader Arlene Foster, in particular, has been blamed for the situation, the conundrum has brought to the surface deeper questions of Northern Ireland’s future and revived many of the hatreds and anxieties of past generations.

Another catalyst for the current situation is the deep conservatism within parts of Northern Irish society. In contrast, the Republic of Ireland’s recent successful referendums on the recognition of same sex marriage and abortion rights indicate its transition to a more progressive and secular society. No wonder that, for many Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the strongly socially conservative environment within this one corner of the United Kingdom seems anachronistic. Press reports suggest one reason Foster lost the support of her party was her relatively softer stance on social issues. This includes her recent decision to abstain from, rather than to oppose, another party’s motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly to outlaw gay conversion therapy.

Looking forward, with the Roman Catholic share of the population in Northern Ireland increasing, the political power of the Republican Sinn Féin party on the rise across Ireland, and Brexit renewing talk of independence in Scotland, little wonder the future of Northern Ireland and Unionists’ confidence in the cherished connection with Britain are clouded in uncertainty.


Malcolm Campbell is Head of the School of Humanities and Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in Irish history. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

See Also:

What is behind the latest unrest in Northern Ireland?

What happens when a nation’s leader is a doctor?