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.
Throughout the 19th Century and until partition in the 20th Century the British Government provided its colonial rule in Ireland with a cover of ‘democracy’. In the changed conditions of a partitioned Ireland it now used the wishes of Irish Unionists in North East Ireland as justification for its continued occupation.
Within the Six-County statelet the British government fostered political division between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants through a system of political, social and economic privilege. The in-built manufactured unionist majority meant continuous government by the Unionist party. Today the unionist community represent some one in five of the Irish nation.
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.
History of the conflict, 1968-1992
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.
1973 - 1976:
1974: Power-sharing “Sunningdale Executive” is brought down by Ulster Workers’ Council strike supported by unionist politicians and enforced by loyalist paramilitaries.
1974: IRA Volunteer Michael Gaughan dies on hunger strike in an English Prison.
1975: 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.
1980 - 1981:
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.
1982 - 1983:
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.
1984 - 1992:
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.
1980/81 Hunger Strikes
In the 1980’s there were two hunger strikes. The first began in October 1980 and ended in December 1980 without loss of life. There were ten prisoners on hunger strike, seven in the H-Blocks and three women in Armagh jail. The second hunger strike began in March 1981, five years after the British government withdrew political status from the prisoners. The second hunger strike claimed the lives of ten republican prisoners:
Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Tom McElwee, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty and Michael Devine.
During the hunger strike Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Kieran Doherty was elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan and Paddy Agnew TD for Louth. These election results, the tens of thousands of people on the streets across Ireland in support of the prisoners demands, the deaths inside the prison and the determination of the prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh, defeated the British government’s attempts to criminalise the republican struggle.