War and Conflict
What is the “Irish Question”?
The Irish Question is an ages-old and very complicated problem that encompasses issues of land ownership, religion, and politics between Ireland and Britain. The chronology of events is:
Twelfth century: A feudal landowning system is imposed on Ireland by the British, creating an absentee landlord class and an impoverished Irish peasantry.
1700s: The English try to impose Protestantism on a largely Catholic Ireland; Irish rebellions flair.
1801: The Act of Union unites England and Ireland, forming the United Kingdom. Though Ireland has representation in Parliament, it is divided.
1800s: The British Crown begins to populate the six counties of the northeastern Irish province of Ulster with Scottish and British settlers, giving the area a decidedly Protestant character. The division deepens between the 26 counties of southern Ireland and Ulster: The north becomes increasingly industrialized and Protestant, while the south remains agricultural and Catholic.
1840s: Irish discontent with British rule heightens when a great famine strikes Ireland, resulting in widespread hunger, illness, and death. Many who survive emigrate to seek a better life elsewhere.
1858: A secret revolutionary society forms in Ireland and among Irish emigrants in the United States. Called the Fenian movement, the group’s objective is to achieve Irish independence from England by force. Fenians stage rebellions, which are suppressed by the British.
1868: The head of the Liberal Party, William Gladstone (1809–1898), becomes British prime minister. He will be prime minister three more times during the last four decades of the century. Gladstone becomes an advocate for the peaceful settlement of the Irish Question.
1870: Parliament passes the First Land Act, encouraging British landlords to sell land and providing reduced-rate loans to Irish tenants wishing to buy land.
1875: Irish nationalist leader C. S. Parnell (1846–1891) enters British Parliament. He uses filibusters to prevent Parliament from discussing anything but the Irish Question.
1886: C. S. Parnell forms an alliance with Prime Minister William Gladstone. The First Home Rule Bill (providing for Irish self-government) is introduced in Parliament but fails to pass.
1893: The Second Home Rule Bill is introduced in Parliament. It is passed by the House of Commons but fails to be passed by the Lords.
1905: An Irish nationalistic movement called Sinn Fein (meaning “we ourselves”) forms under the leadership of Arthur Griffith (1872–1922). The group seeks to establish an economically and politically independent Ireland.
1912: The Third Home Rule Bill is introduced in Parliament. Again, the House of Commons passes the legislation providing for Irish self-government. Fearing domination by Catholic southern Ireland in the event of Irish Home Rule, there is agitation—including threat of civil war—in Ulster (northern) Ireland. To prevent the outbreak of violence, the Lords exclude Ulster Ireland from the provisions of the Home Rule Bill. It does not take effect due to continued unrest.
1916: Refusing to accept the divided Ireland proscribed by the British parliament, revolutionary Sinn Fein member Michael Collins (1890–1922) organizes a guerrilla movement led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The nationalist organization becomes dedicated to the unification of Ireland.
1920: Parliament passes the Government of Ireland Act, establishing separate domestic legislatures for the north and south, as well as continued representation in British Parliament. The six northern counties of Ireland accept the act and become Northern Ireland. The 26 southern counties refuse to accept the legislation.
1921: The Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, providing for the 26 counties of southern Ireland to become the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).
1922: The Irish Free State, headed by Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith, is officially declared. It gradually severs its ties to Britain.
1927: Sinn Fein ends as a movement, but some intransigent members join the IRA, and Sinn Fein becomes the political arm of the Irish Revolutionary Army.
1939–45: IRA violence and its pro-German stance cause both Irish governments to outlaw the organization, which goes underground.
1969: The IRA splits into an “official” majority, which disclaims violence, and a “provisional” wing, which stages attacks on British troops in Northern Ireland via random bombings and other terrorist acts. Still determined to forge a unified and independent Ireland, the IRA continues to stage acts of violence into the 1990s. At times, bombings become part of everyday life in Belfast, Northern Ireland. London is also the target of random IRA bomb attacks.
June 6, 1996: Britain and Ireland agree on an agenda for multiparty peace negotiations on Northern Ireland, but finding ways to disarm Northern Ireland’s rival guerrilla groups remains an obstacle to political settlement.
April 10, 1998: A Good Friday peace accord is signed by Catholic and Protestant leaders who agree to form a multiparty administration by October. Disarmament will remain a sticking point to moving this agreement forward.
May 22, 1998: 71 percent of voters in Northern Ireland vote for an agreement on a power-sharing government, which is also backed by 94 percent of the voters in the Republic of Ireland. The peace agreement is designed to heal the divisions between Catholics and Protestants that have left 3,400 dead, 40,000 injured, and millions of dollars of property damage. Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern (1951–) has a simple message for those who still aimed to promote violence: “Forget it. The people on whose behalf you claim to act have spoken. Your ways are the ways of the past.”
August 15, 1998: Violence is renewed when a car bomb in Omagh, Northern Ireland, kills 28 people and injures 220. The Real IRA, a dissident faction of the Irish Republican Army, claims responsibility.
October 16, 1998: The leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main political parties win the Nobel prize for their efforts to end three decades of religious-inspired violence in the British province. John Hume (1937-), a Catholic, heads the Social Democratic and Labour Party (whose membership is predominately Roman Catholic); David Trimble (1944-), a Protestant, leads the Ulster Unionist Party (consisting of pro-British Protestants).
December 1998: British prime minister Tony Blair (1953-) tries to jumpstart the stalled Good Friday peace agreement: Catholic and Protestant politicians have failed to set up the multiparty administration to which they had agreed. Leaders have been hampered in their efforts to do so by the question of disarmament: Protestants demand exclusion of the Sinn Fein party from government until its military wing, the IRA, disarms. Blair also presses for north-south bodies, committees that will oversee cooperation between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland on matters of industry, tourism, and transportation. Blair insists that his government will hold all parties to a May 2000 disarmament deadline.
2000: The disarmament deadline is not met.
October 23, 2001: The IRA promises to disarm in order to “save the peace process.”
2002: The peace process is suspended after police discover that the IRA is operating a spy ring inside Northern Ireland government offices. Sporadic violence continues. Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern and other major political figures in the Republic of Ireland move to distance themselves from Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political arm.
December 2004: Belfast’s Northern Bank is robbed of $50 million the week before Christmas. The biggest heist in the history of British crime is believed to have been carried out by the IRA to fund its operations.
Early 2005: Despite the Good Friday agreement, the IRA has not yet disarmed. According to news reports, IRA gunmen have become an “increasingly mafialike crime organization,” involved in drug trafficking, extortion, money laundering, and the violence associated with those criminal activities. In a January 30 Belfast pub brawl, Robert McCartney, an “amiable” forklift operator, is murdered in what the perpetrators tell pub patrons is “IRA business.” Though witnesses are intimidated, McCartney’s sisters are not; the five women demand that the IRA be held accountable for the slaying. The McCartney sisters are hailed as heroes for their courage to speak out against the IRA and are embraced by Sinn Fein. But Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects dimmed in the aftermath of the murder. The event provides another roadblock to peace.
July 2005: The IRA renounces the use of violence in its fight against British rule in Northern Ireland. The group vows to disarm, and to use only peaceful means in its ongoing efforts. The announcement is widely hailed.