Northern Ireland: The Omagh Bomb, Nationalism, and Religion

views updated

Northern Ireland: The Omagh Bomb, Nationalism, and Religion

The Conflict

Northern Ireland, an area in the north of the island of Ireland that has been part of the British Empire for six hundred years, has experienced horrible religious strife for much of the last century. Bombings and shootings have targeted both Protestants and Catholics.


  • Many Catholics—or republicans—believe Northern Ireland should be independent or should be united with the Republic of Ireland.
  • Many Protestants—or unionists/loyalists—believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom.
  • Republicans charge gross human rights abuses have been committed by the United Kingdom and by the Protestant army in Northern Ireland.
  • Unionists claim that republicans, especially the IRA (and PIRA), are terrorists that target civilians.



• Catholics believe they have been economically marginalized and discriminated against, including having their lands taken by a conquering British army. Catholics are generally poorer than Protestants in Northern Ireland.

On Saturday August 15, 1998, the small town of Omagh in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland became known throughout the world. At 3:10 P. M., a five-hundred-pound car bomb shattered the center of the town, killing twenty-nine people and injuring another 220. In the thirty-year history of the violence, euphemistically termed "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, it might seem strange that this particular incident should cause such shock and uproar. The fact that it was the incident that caused the single greatest number of deaths in Northern Ireland was certainly a factor. However, the context of this horrific act was particularly significant in that it took place in the midst of a cease-fire called by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and adhered to by the loyalist paramilitary groups, such as the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). After twenty-five years of violence, peace of a sort had been brokered between the opposing factions, which could be broadly described as Catholic, nationalist, and republican on the one side, and Protestant, loyalist, and unionist on the other.

Hence, the shock of the bomb—which had been placed at the junction of Market Street and Dublin Road, in the center of a busy town at peak shopping time. There was no political or military targets singled out—the aim seems to have been to maximize the loss of life. A warning had been given to a Belfast news agency some forty minutes before the explosion, but this warning designated the Omagh Courthouse as the site of the bomb and was some four hundred meters from the actual explosion. Usually in the context of the violence in Northern Ireland, such bombs were part of an economic war, waged largely by the PIRA, and some smaller groups such as the Official IRA (OIRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), against unionist businesses and those that were part of the support-structure of the British Army in Northern Ireland. In this case, however, no such target was visible; instead carnage and the massacre of ordinary people were the only results.

Fears that this bomb was a sign that the PIRA had ended its cease-fire were ended when responsibility for the Omagh bomb was claimed by a hitherto unknown group—the Real IRA (RIRA). This group was formed when, at Provisional Sinn Féin's Ard Fheis (annual party conference), in 1986, the party agreed to end its policy of abstention from the taking of seats in both the Irish and British parliaments. This policy had long been a corner stone of militant republicanism, which refused to recognize the legality of the Republic of Ireland or of Northern Ireland. Those delegates who did not agree with this decision walked out of the conference, and ultimately, out of the party, and formed a new party, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), which was led by Ruairí Ó Braídaigh, former president of Provisional Sinn Féin, and Dáithí Ó Conaill, former chief of staff of the PIRA. Two years later, in 1988, this RSF reaffirmed its support of the "armed struggle" and subsequently rejected the peace talks that had led to the cease-fires of 1994-96 and 1997 to date.

The reasons behind the planting of this bomb are imbedded in the history of the northern Irish state itself, in its constitution, and in the history of its different communities. However, the history of the northern Irish state is a long and tangled one, and needs to be seen in the context of the relationships of colonization and decolonization of Ireland by England over a period of some seven hundred years. The context of the violence in Northern Ireland over the past thirty years or so must bee seen within the context of the period from 1170 to 1600, as gradual English incursions into Ireland became more formally structured; the period from 1600 to 1800, a time when plantation and colonization set up the structural divisions that have existed in Ulster to the present day; the period from 1800 to 1922, when allegiances to Ireland and England became the defining factors in the creation of the northern Irish state; and the period from 1922 to the present, when Northern Ireland's endemic cultures of division and separation, along both religious and political lines, gave way to violent conflict.

Historical Background

Remote Origins

The terms Northern Ireland and Ulster have often been used interchangeably, but in actual fact they are derived from different sources. Ulster is one of the original divisions of Ireland into five different sections, or provinces (the others being Munster, Leinster, Connacht, and Midhe), and there is evidence of the term's existence since 30,000 b. c. It was comprised of nine different counties, whereas the political term "Northern Ireland" was first coined in 1922, and referred to six of these counties. Hence, the early history of Northern Ireland is inextricably connected with that of the whole island, though there has been a long history of separation. In 100 b. c. a defensive rampart, called Black Pig's Dyke, was built by the people of Ulster as a fortification against invasion from the south of Ireland. From the earliest times, there was a strong Scottish influence in Northern Ireland, with clear divisions between the Ulster Gaelic families, led by the Ui Neill, and the more Scottish influences of the Cruithin. At the Battle of Moira, in 637 a. d., Congal Claen leading an army of Ulstermen, reinforced by Picts, Anglo-Saxons, and Britons were defeated by the Gaelic (Irish) families.

These remote battles and conflicts demonstrate a long connection between Ulster and Scotland, with an equally long history of conflict between the Scottish and Gaelic influences. Clearly emigration and immigration between Ulster and Scotland has long been a feature of Ulster's history, and predate the more formalized plantations and colonizations of the seventeenth century.

1170 to 1600: English Colonization of Ireland

In 1169 the first Normans arrived in Ireland at the invitation of Diarmad MacMurrough, the king of Leinster. Normans, a people from a province in northern France, colonized England, part of Wales, and Italy in the eleventh century. The Normans who arrived in Ireland were a mixture of Norman-English and Norman-Welsh and they were acting very much on their own initiative. In 1177 John de Courcy marched into Ulster, killing the king of Ulster in 1200. The ongoing animosity between the Gaelic and Anglo-Norman factions in Ulster continued, with Belfast Castle being demolished by the O'Neills in 1476 and 1489. In 1522 the Irish Privy Council appealed for ships to patrol the coast and stem the Scottish settlement of Ulster. The ongoing friction between the Gaelic families, allied to some of the long-settled English families (Old English), and the "new" English settlers, was to be further reinforced by the reformation. After Henry VIII's repudiation of Catholicism, and the resultant rise of Protestantism, the lines of battle that have become so familiar to students of the Northern Irish conflict began to emerge.

In 1549 King Edward VI further altered the Church of England, following the example of Martin Luther, removing confession, processions, and the doctrine of transubstantiation. Many Irish refused to accept the changes both for religious reasons and because the changes were written in the English, as opposed to the Irish, language. Therefore Ireland remained Roman Catholic while England gradually became more overtly Protestant. Politically, this had important consequences for Ireland, as the Gaelic Irish, and their Old English allies, were almost completely Catholic in religion, whereas the New English were, conversely, practically all Protestant.

From an early stage, therefore, politics and religion were signifiers of different sides of the conflict. The connection of the political with the religious meant that each side had a strong sense of belief in the righteousness of their cause. The battle lines of native, Irish-speaking, and Catholic, as opposed to colonizer, English-speaking, and Protestant were being established even then.

Stung by incursions of the new English, and their replacement of the Gaelic and Old English in offices of state, Hugh O'Neill and his ally, Hugh O'Donnell, mounted a war against the Elizabethan English, winning a number of battles over nine years of war. O'Neill and O'Donnell adopted defensive postures inside Ulster, defeating whatever armies were sent against them, culminating in the defeat of Sir Henry Bagenal and six thousand men at the battle of the Yellow Ford. O'Neill attempted to make this war a national and religious one, calling on King Philip of Spain and the Pope for aid. The war culminated in the Battle of Kinsale, a battle which was to become one of the foundational moments in the history of Ireland. The war also led to the plantation of Ulster, a plantation which led directly to the presence of the unionist population in Northern Ireland, and by extension, to the ongoing conflict between English and Irish notions of identity in Ulster.

The plantation was the catalyst for the huge differences in identity, culture, and religion that characterize the northeast of Ireland. The very act of creating a plantation was an opportunity for the new settlers, but a tragedy for the natives who had been driven out from their homes. As these native people remained close by, a legacy of bitterness was sown that would grow over the years.

1600 to 1800: Plantation and Post-Reformation

In September 1601, O'Neill and O'Donnell received aid from Spain in the form of an army of thirty-five hundred men, who landed at Kinsale, on the south coast of Ireland. The Spanish army was attacked by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Mountjoy, in October, and O'Neill and O'Donnell marched south to relieve the siege. O'Neill, O'Donnell, and the Spanish were defeated by Mountjoy on December 24, 1601, a defeat which broke the power of the Gaelic families in Ulster. The English government was determined to seize this opportunity and began an ongoing policy of plantation. For example in 1605, land in county Down was granted to Hugh Montgomery and James Hamilton. The first Scottish settlers arrived in 1605-06. Their first task was to build cottages and dwellings. By 1630 about five thousand Scots had settled in county Down.

By 1607 both O'Neill and O'Donnell had left the country, their lands being declared forfeit to the English rulers, and by 1610, a large-scale plantation of four million acres with English and Scottish settlers was undertaken. Different strategies were used, with counties Down, Monaghan, and Antrim being planted by private individuals, while counties Derry and Armagh were primarily planted by English settlers with more centralized organization. Counties Tyrone and Donegal were planted largely with Scots, while there was a mixture of Scots and English in counties Fermanagh and Cavan.

This plantation set out to lessen Gaelic influence and instead to incorporate an institutionalized sense of Englishness into the province. In 1613, for example, a charter was granted renaming Derry the city of Londonderry, and creating a new county of Londonderry. The government had learned from the earlier failures of Queen Mary's plantation of Laois and Offaly in Leinster, and of Queen Elizabeth's plantation of Munster. In both of these, the settlers had been isolated and were vulnerable to attacks from the Irish whose land had been taken. In Ulster, this problem was overcome by the construction of plantation towns, wherein most of the planters could take shelter. Defending huge tracts of land was often impossible, so three sizes of plantation were set out: 405 hectares, 607 hectares, and 810 hectares. Planters were expected to build fortified houses, called bawns on their land. These plantations proved popular, with an estimated twenty thousand Scots settling in Ulster between 1605 and 1609, bringing with them their Presbyterian religion, which was different from both Catholicism and the Church of England, although still being classified as Protestant.

The careful planning of these plantations led to their success. Given the fact that the planters were living on land that had been taken from the native Irish, high levels of animosity existed between both groups. The building of bawns testified to the fear and siege mentality that existed in the mindset of the planters.

In 1641 the displaced native Irish, many of whom had been evicted from their homes, rose in rebellion. Ten thousand to fifteen thousand planters were killed in a series of attacks, which drew the battle lines of the present conflict very clearly, as native, Catholic Irish attacked planted, Protestant Scots and English. In the following year, some ten thousand Scottish troops were sent to defeat this rebellion, and many of the Scottish soldiers remained in Ireland, taking up the land vacated by the earlier planters. Oliver Cromwell led the army during the war and sought to punish Ireland, and subsequently the planted areas were largely untouched, as parts of the rest of Ireland were planted by Cromwell's soldiers, a plantation again based on religious, as well as political criteria. The ongoing sense of religious, social, and cultural differences within the region continued to develop, and this development would come to a climax in 1687.

In England, the increasingly pro-Catholic policies of King James II, from 1685 onwards, began to make his Protestant subjects fear that he was going to reintroduce Catholicism as the state religion. To complicate matters, his daughter, Mary, had married Prince William of Orange, a Dutch Protestant, making the latter heir to the throne. Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, began strengthening the Irish army with an eye towards future conflict. It was his attempted garrisoning of some Catholic soldiers in Londonderry in 1688 that was to set in motion a train of events that are commemorated to this day by the "marching season," in Northern Ireland. The marching season takes place during the summer months when unionists and the Orange Order celebrate the events of the Williamite war by a series of marches or parades through the cities and rural areas of Northern Ireland. In latter years, they have become contentious as they often pass through nationalist areas, where they are perceived as being triumphant. The Protestant citizens of Londonderry were unwilling to appear openly hostile to the Catholic soldiers, and it was left to the Apprentice Boys of the city to bar the gates, an action that was repeated in Enniskillen, in County Fermanagh.

In 1689 William and Mary expelled James from England and were crowned in the Glorious Revolution, and re-established Protestantism in England. The Catholics in Ireland declared support for James, who landed in Ireland to begin his fight to recapture the throne later that same year. He had some early victories, going on to besiege the towns of Londonderry and Enniskillen. In August of that year, William landed at Carrickfergus, County Antrim.

In 1690 four thousand Danish troops from the European Grand Alliance troops arrived in Ireland to aid William, while Louis XIV of France sent troops to aid James. On July 1, 1690, the most significant battle of the war took place at the River Boyne, in County Meath. William won the battle, losing four hundred men to James's thirteen hundred, and this battle is still celebrated by unionists as their victory over the forces of Catholic Ireland. After the Treaty of Limerick, in 1691, the position of the Protestants was strengthened by the inception of the penal laws, which prohibited Catholics and Presbyterians from land ownership, voting, taking part in politics, and the ownership of weapons. The Toleration Act, in 1791, removed the stigma of illegality from being a Presbyterian. In the same year, the United Irish Society was founded in Belfast by Presbyterian radicals.

The United Irish Rebellion of 1798, led by Theobald Wolfe Tone, was influenced by the American and French revolutions, with high levels of involvement by Presbyterians in Ulster. Tone, influenced by the French Enlightenment, had little time for religion, and saw the aim of his organization, the United Irishmen, as the creation of a country where the terms Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter (Presbyterians were known as Dissenters) would be subsumed under the common name of Irishman. However, economic, religious, and political differences were by now deeply set, and the rebellion was a failure. In Ulster, tensions between Catholics and Protestants still ran high, with competition for land in Armagh leading to the formation of the Peep o'Day Boys, a Protestant agrarian movement, whose counterpart was the Catholic Defenders. After a skirmish in County Armagh in 1795, afterwards known as the Battle of the Diamond, the Protestant Orange Society (later called the Orange Order) was founded.

The battle of the Boyne remains an icon of identity for Ulster Protestants. Much of the marching season that has caused confrontation by unionists parading through nationalist areas, recalls and celebrates events of this war, with "King Billy" (William) seen as a defender of Ulster Protestantism. Much of the vocabulary and symbols of the present conflict have their origins in this period.

1800 to 1922: Unionism and Nationalism

The 1798 rebellion was a prime cause of the Act of Union, in 1801, which set up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to be ruled from London, with the abolition of all regional parliaments. It is to this union that the unionists proclaim their loyalty, as it is a guarantee of their Britishness. With the industrial revolution and the expansion of the Irish linen industry, Ulster prospered. The disastrous effects of the potato famine (1845-48) on a mainly Irish economy of small farms were less severe in the increasingly industrialized northern province of Ulster. With the start of the union of Great Britain and Ireland, Irish politics became increasingly polarized along politico-religious lines. Daniel O'Connell appealed to Catholic nationalism in his attempts at repealing the union; the Irish Republican Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, staged a rebellion in 1867, which was defeated.

The Act of Union was a polarizing factor in Irish politics, with a number of groups set up to oppose it, including the Home Rule League, which went on to became the Home Rule Party, led by Isaac Butt, and later by Charles Stewart Parnell. Home Rule would allow Ireland some autonomy within the British Empire. In 1886 Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons. Rioting broke out in Belfast (with fifty people being killed), a symbol that large groups of people in Ulster wanted little to do with Home Rule. The Irish unionists founded a group, the Irish Unionist Alliance, which gained support from the business community, and from the English Conservative Party, who felt that if Ireland broke away, then Scotland and Wales might wish to do the same. Randolph Churchill, playing what he called the "Orange Card," addressed unionists saying that "Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right," thus assuring them of Tory (conservative) support. From 1886 to 1892, the conservatives were in power, and Home Rule was not pursued. In the meantime, Irish nationalism was emerging, with the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, to promote Irish sports, while in 1893, the Gaelic League was founded to promote the Irish language. These tended to further differentiate the Ulster unionists, who were now dissimilar in religion, political aspiration, and cultural and linguistic practices.

It is from the Act of Union that "unionism" in Ireland derives its name, its ideology, and its history. The Britishness that is enshrined in the Act was very much part of their own British identity, and any schizophrenia which they may have felt, as Anglo-centric Protestants planted in Ireland, was now dissolved in the overall sense of union. The connections between unionism and conservative politics were also laid at this period.

In 1900 the Fenians began to re-form as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), while in 1905, Arthur Griffith set up a new political party, called Sinn Féin, which, as a republican party, was against Home Rule, instead supporting full independence for Ireland. In the 1909 general election, the conservatives and liberals won 272 seats each. The Home Rule Party, under John Redmond, won eighty-four seats, thereby holding the balance of power. In return for Redmond's support in curbing the power of the House of Lords, the liberals introduced the third Home Rule Bill in 1912. By now, unionism, aided by the conservatives, had become highly organized in its opposition to Home Rule. In 1905 (ironically the year of the founding of Sinn Féin), the Ulster Unionist Council had been founded as a body that would unite unionist tactics. Sir Edward Carson and Sir James Craig emerged as leaders, whose argument was that the Protestant population of the northeast of Ireland constituted a separate nation, and should therefore be treated differently than the rest of Ireland. Their case was strengthened by the Curragh incident (also called the Curragh mutiny) in which fifty-seven of the seventy officers at the Curragh, under the command of Major-General Sir Hubert Gough, stated that they would resign their commissions before enforcing Home Rule against the loyal subjects of Ulster.

The unionist reaction to a third Home Rule Bill was to organize a week of demonstrations. On September 28, 1912, the Solemn League and Covenant was introduced by Craig, which some 450,000 people signed to voice their opposition to the Home Rule Bill, swearing to use "all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule parliament in Ireland." One of the suggested options was that the four counties with a Protestant majority—An-trim, Down, Londonderry and Armagh—could be left out of the Home Rule Bill. To reinforce their position, in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was founded, organized along the lines of the British army, and claimed to have a membership of one hundred thousand. In late April 1914, twenty-five thousand rifles and three million bullets were illegally landed by the UVF from the Clydevalley at Larne, Bangor, and Donaghadee, under the direction of General Sir William Adair and Captain Wilfrid Spender. There was no police intervention, and the landings were successful.

The threat of violence to oppose political steps that were seen as threatening to the community in Ulster was first invoked in modern times with the formation of the UVF. The importation of guns, largely unopposed by the police, demonstrated the widespread sense of injustice that Ulster should become part of an Irish nation. This was also the first mention of the idea of partition, with a Catholic, Gaelic, southern Ireland partitioned from a Protestant, British, northern Ireland. The perceived connections between unionism and the British Army officer class would serve to contribute to nationalist fears throughout the conflict.

Stung by the success of this mobilization, nationalists founded the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) and in July 1914, they landed fifteen hundred rifles and forty-five thousand bullets at Howth, near Dublin. The police did intervene here, and four people were shot at Bachelor's Walk in Dublin. With two armed camps in the country, civil war was a very real possibility, and the liberal government suggested that each county hold a plebiscite to decide whether it wanted Home Rule or union with Britain. If a county voted no, it would remain outside the Home Rule for six years. However, the debate was brought to a halt by World War I, with the bill suggesting the plebiscite being postponed until the war was over. Both unionists and nationalists felt that by joining in the war on the side of the British, their bargaining positions would be all the stronger when the war ended, with Redmond urging nationalists to "serve wherever the firing line extends." Thousands of nationalists joined the British Army's 10th and 16th divisions, while large numbers of unionists joined the 36th Ulster Division, which suffered fifty-five hundred casualties at the Battle of the Somme in the first two days of July in 1916.

That year also saw a sea change in nationalism, as a small group of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood planned and executed a rebellion against the British in Easter week. Fifteen hundred men and women took part, and after five days of fighting, and 450 dead, the rebels surrendered. The rising was not popular at first, but the execution of seventeen of the leaders for treason was a watershed in terms of nationalist public opinion, with huge resultant gains for Sinn Féin, which established a policy of refusing to participate in the offices that they had been elected to in Westminster. The policy of abstention, or refusing to take the seats of office, was designed to show that the nationalists did not recognize the legitimacy of the government. Eamon de Valera, who had fought in the rising, ran in the Clare East election, on the platform of securing an independent Irish Republic. He was elected, but refused to take his seat. In terms of the situation of Ulster with respect to the rest of Ireland, he stated that, "if Ulster stands in the way of attainment of Irish freedom, Ulster should be coerced."

This split in the Irish Volunteers would mark a trend in republican politics with splinter groups having a large part to play in the politics of Ireland. The majority, who were in favor of the war with Britain, called themselves the National Volunteer Force (NVF) while the smaller group retained the original name. The year 1916 saw the beginning of republican violence, without any democratic mandate, a pattern that has since persisted in Northern Ireland. The threat of coercion, as voiced by de Valera, was an ongoing source of the unionist fear.

By the end of World War I, the Irish political scene had been "changed utterly," in the words of the poet W. B. Yeats. The British general election of 1918 saw Sinn Féin win seventy-three seats while the Home Rule Party had been reduced to six. The Irish Unionist Party won twenty-six seats, mostly in Ulster. All seventy-three Sinn Féin ministers of parliament (MPs) set up their own parliament in Dublin, called Dáil Eireann, on January 21, 1919. The Irish Volunteer Force renamed themselves the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and on the same day as the inaugural meeting of Dáil Eireann, two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed at Soloheadbeg, in County Tipperary, an action which began the Anglo-Irish war, or war of independence.

Despite the ongoing conflict, the British government decided to implement Home Rule, and accordingly passed the Government of Ireland Act in February 1920. This act partitioned Ireland into two states, of twenty-six and six counties respectively, with parliaments in Dublin and Belfast, which were subordinate to that of Westminster. Northern Ireland, as a state, was agreed to comprise of the following counties: Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Antrim, Down, and Armagh. Its first elections were held in May 1921, with the unionists winning forty seats, the nationalists and Sinn Féin six each. The unionist leader, Sir James Craig, became the first prime minister.

Elections were also held for the parliament in Dublin in 1921, with Sinn Féin taking 124 seats while the remaining four were taken by unionist candidates. The IRA, under the leadership of Michael Collins, continued the war against the British, making regular attacks on Northern Ireland. In July 1921, a truce was signed, which eventually resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December of that year. This gave greater measures of independence to the twenty-six counties, now called the Irish Free State, which was to remain in the Commonwealth. In terms of relationships with Northern Ireland, a Boundary Commission was to ensure that the border between the states would be fair to the allegiance of nationalist and unionist communities living close to the border. Also, a Council of Ireland was to be set up to ensure cordial relations between the two states, and to oversee the eventual unification of the country. This council never actually met, and the Boundary Commission report was shelved in 1925, with no changes made to the border. The period following the treaty was a turbulent one, with civil war between pro-and anti-treaty factions in the south, at the cost of four thousand to five thousand lives, and widespread violence in Northern Ireland with approximately 232 people killed and roughly one thousand injured. In 1932 Fianna Fáil, the anti-treaty patty in the civil war, joined the government, with Eamon de Valera as leader.

1922 to 1967: Unionism and Nationalism

In 1934 Lord Craigavon made a famous "Protestant Nation" speech, where he called Stormont (the parliament in Ulster) a "Protestant parliament for a Protestant people." In 1936 a Public Order Act was imposed on parades or marches that were thought to disrupt public order. In 1937 the Irish Free State changed its name to Eire in a newly-written constitution, which declared, in article 2, that Eire's boundary consisted of the whole island of Ireland, while article 3 claimed the right to pass laws for the whole island. Some northern nationalists founded the Anti-Partition League, in 1945, a group which gained a lot of support from the Irish Free State, which provided them with money in the 1949 Northern Irish election. De Valera's government stated that it would give unionists "reasonable constitutional guarantees" if they would agree to a united Ireland. Basil Brooke, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, responded by saying that "Ulster is not for sale," before looking for guarantees from the British regarding the permanence of Northern Ireland's United Kingdom status. The proclamation of Ireland as a republic (with another change in nomenclature from Eire to the Republic of Ireland) by Taoiseach John A. Costello, in 1949 was followed by the country's withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

The Ireland Act in 1949 guaranteed Northern Ireland's status within the United Kingdom while recognizing the status of the Republic of Ireland. The Anti-Partition League was disbanded in 1951. In 1956 the IRA began a border campaign with attacks on areas of Northern Ireland. As a result, internment of those suspected of IRA activity was introduced in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The border campaign ended in 1962 due to lack of support. In the 1950s, Northern Ireland prospered, and with the advent of British funding for the Northern Irish welfare state, economic conditions were better than those of the Republic of Ireland. Discrimination against Catholics was charged against the unionist regime, with Protestants holding nintey-five percent of the top civil service positions in the Northern Irish government.

In 1963 Captain Terence O'Neill became prime minister of Northern Ireland, and a year later, the Campaign for Social Justice was formed, to protest against what it saw as discrimination against Catholics. In 1965 O'Neill met the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Séan Lemass in Belfast, the first such meeting, which caused some disquiet among unionists, who felt that the power of the Catholic Church in the Republic (the 1937 constitution guaranteed its "special position," and it obliged Protestants who married Catholics to undertake that their children would be brought up as Catholics), represented a danger. In 1966 Ian Paisley, who had also founded the Free Presbyterian Church, set up the Protestant Unionist Party and began to oppose O'Neill's policy of rapprochement (lessening tensions). Nationalist celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rebellion caused rioting with loyalist counter demonstrations. The IRA blew up Nelson's Pillar in Dublin that same year, but had become largely irrelevant in the increasingly prosperous Republic of Ireland.

1967 to 2000: The Troubles

The 1947 Education Act had opened third-level (university) education to a generation of nationalists, and in keeping with the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in 1967, looking for voting rights for all in local elections (only rate payers—property owners—had the vote until then), as well as an end to gerrymandering of constituency boundaries (the action of manipulating the boundaries of a constituency so as to give an unfair advantage at an election to a particular party or class). They also highlighted the reform of housing allocations and public sector appointments, the repeal of the Special Powers act, and the disbandment of the all-Protestant, paramilitary-style, B-Special police force. Because the NICRA did not inform the police of the planned marches, their marches were declared illegal. In 1968 the first civil rights march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, was held in August 1968, and was peaceful.

However another march, on October 5, was stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with a baton charge, leaving a number of the marchers injured. The march had been banned by the police under the Public Order Act. Two days of rioting followed, and this incident is seen by many as the beginning of the present "troubles." The whole incident was filmed, and drew the attention of the world's media to Belfast. Four days later, People's Democracy, a radical student organization, was formed, and in November, Terence O'Neill announced a five-point reform plan in the areas of voting, housing, and formation of a complaints commission. In late November, a civil rights march in Armagh was stopped by the police due to the presence of a counter-demonstration, led by Ian Paisley and Ronald Bunting (both of whom were subsequently imprisoned for illegal assembly). In December, O'Neill made a televised speech, stating that Ulster stood at a crossroads; the speech gained O'Neill considerable support. The NICRA called off its campaign.

On January 1, 1969, People's Democracy began a four-day march from Belfast to Derry, a notion borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr.'s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On the fourth day, the march was attacked by loyalists, including some off duty B-Specials, at Burntollet Bridge. The police were ineffective in preventing this attack. Again it was filmed and again these pictures went around the world. O'Neill announced an inquiry into the incident. An election was called for February, with O'Neill's policies dividing unionists into official (twenty-seven seats) and unofficial (twelve seats) groups. In April, "one man, one vote" was introduced by the unionist parliamentary party (by a vote of twenty-eight to twenty-two). James Chichester-Clarke resigned in protest. O'Neill, feeling his position had become increasingly untenable, resigned to be replaced by Chichester-Clarke. It was agreed to allow the Apprentice Boys parade (commemorating the barring of the gates of the city against James the Second in 1688) to go ahead in Derry. As the parade passed close to the nationalist Bogside area, serious rioting erupted. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), using armored cars and water cannons, entered the Bogside, to end the rioting. What was to become known as the Battle of the Bogside lasted for two days, and rioting spread throughout the north. In Belfast, streets of houses were burned down by rioters and over thirty-five hundred families, mainly Catholics, were driven from their homes. Seven people were killed and one hundred wounded as the rioters began to use guns. The riots spread across Northern Ireland. The Irish Taoiseach, Jack Lynch made a television broadcast stating that the Irish government were setting up field hospitals along the border, and blamed the present situation on the "policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont governments." He went on to make the point that the Irish government could "no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse." So, on August 15, the U.K. prime minister Harold Wilson ordered the British Army into Belfast and Derry to support the RUC. Four days later he also ordered the Stormont government to introduce "one man one vote," disband the B-specials, and disarm and restructure the RUC.

In August 1970, a new nationalist party, the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) was formed, led by Gerry Fitt, with John Hume as deputy leader, to voice nationalist opinion. In March 1971, Brian Faulkner replaced James Chichester-Clark as prime minister. During these riots, the IRA demand for a united Ireland was rekindled; this resulted in a split of the organization into the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in December 1969. The more militant PIRA received arms and money from sympathizers in the Republic and in the United States. The PIRA targeted policemen and became increasingly involved in civilian demonstrations and riots. Twenty-five people were killed in 1970 and 174 in 1971. By mid-1970, the PIRA were believed to be around fifteen hundred strong, and there were 153 explosions in 1970, escalating to 304 explosions in the first six months of 1971. In September of 1971, a further splintering in the unionist community took place, with Ian Paisley and Desmond Boal founding the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The violence in Northern Ireland worsened in 1972, with 467 people killed. The British government entered into secret negotiations with the PIRA, who called a truce for the duration. The PIRA's demand for unity was unable to be met by the British and the negotiations broke down. The PIRA response was to detonate twenty-six no-warning car bombs in Belfast on July 21, 1972, killing eleven people and injuring 130. The day is now known as Bloody Friday. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) retaliated by killing five Catholics. Ten days later Operation Motorman, the dismantling of the nationalist "no go" areas, was implemented. Overall twenty-one thousand British troops, nine thousand UDR members, and six thousand RUC took part in province-wide operations.

Given that in 1969, the slogan IRA was equated with "I Ran Away" in street graffiti, the birth of the PIRA, as well as using the term 'Provo' from the English language, was a response to what was seen as official repression, and collusion from the RUC. Internment and Bloody Sunday swelled their numbers, and many nationalists saw the PIRA as continuing the war begun in 1916. However, their campaign of bombing and murder alienated many in the Republic of Ireland, though republican strategists thought that the PIRA could bomb the British into negotiations.

The Irish and British governments wanted the unrest to end, and attempted to establish an agreement whereby power would be shared between unionists and nationalists in a new assembly. The role of the Irish government in the administration of these powers was a major sticking point for Brian Faulkner, the Northern Irish prime minister. However an agreement was brokered at Sunningdale in England, allowing for the establishment of a Council of Ireland, which would give the Republic some influence over Northern Ireland. The executive took office on January 1, 1974, and was composed of eleven voting members (six Unionist Party, four SDLP, and one Alliance Party), and four non-voting members (two SDLP, one Union-ist Party, and one Alliance Party). However, in elections held in 1974, anti-Sunningdale candidates won twelve seats in Westminster to the pro-agreement side's eleven, and in May of that year, an umbrella group calling itself the Ulster Workers Council, organized a province-wide strike that effectively paralyzed communication, power, and industry in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) manned barricades, which, when removed by the British army, were instantly replaced. The province ground to a standstill, and to further add to the tension, loyalist car bombs in the Republic of Ireland, in Monaghan and Dublin, killed thirty-three people. When the British government refused to negotiate with the strikers, all unionist members of the executive resigned, and Northern Ireland was again under direct rule.

Perhaps the most important feature of the strike was the grass roots support given to the strikers by ordinary Protestants, who clearly felt that their politicians were not giving them the leadership they desired. It further fractured the unionist parties, and with the formation of Vanguard, another player was added to the political scene. Brian Faulkner resigned, and unionist control over the politics of Northern Ireland was superceded by direct rule from London.

During the 1970s, the PIRA campaign of terrorism and the loyalist responses continued, with 2,161 people being killed between 1970 and 1980. In 1976 the British Secretary for Northern Ireland, Merlin Rees, removed special category status from paramilitary prisoners, meaning that, in effect, they were being treated like ordinary criminals. Their five demands included the wearing civilian clothes, free association in the prison, access to educational facilities, restoration of lost remission of sentences, and the right not to do prison work. At the Maze prison, a number of republican prisoners undertook what they called the "dirty protest," in that they refused to wash, or clean their cells, or to wear prison clothes. In 1980 there was a brief hunger strike, which was called off in December. However, the issue remained unresolved and in March 1981, a new hunger strike began, with wide nationalist support. The conservative government, under British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, refused to negotiate, and ten hunger strikers died before the strike was terminated, in October 1981. Thatcher went on to say, "We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political." One of the strikers, Bobby Sands, was elected a member of Parliament during a election for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat, while two H-Block prisoners were also elected to Dáil Eireann in the 1981 general election. On Sands' death, Owen Carron, his election agent, won the subsequent election. On October 6, 1981 James Prior, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of measures which went a long way to meeting many aspects of the prisoners' five demands.

The main import of the hunger strikes was twofold. Firstly, the PIRA and INLA strikers became martyrs within their community, and created a wave of sympathy for their cause as they demonstrated an ability to suffer as well as to inflict suffering on others. Secondly, these strikes saw the political rise of Sinn Féin, who, by June 1983 had some 13.4 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland as opposed to the SDLP's 17.9 percent. This could well be seen as the beginning of the politicization of Sinn Féin under its current leadership, with Gerry Adams being elected an MP in 1983.

In the 1980s, the violence and counter-violence continued. In 1984 four people were killed as the PIRA planted a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where Margaret Thatcher was staying for the Conservative Party Conference. Political progress was also being attempted. The New Ireland Forum report, in 1984, was a debate on the future of Northern Ireland. Boycotted by the unionist parties, it was comprised of the Irish government and the SDLP (Sinn Féin's connection to PIRA violence precluded their presence), and it offered three possible political options: a united Ireland, a confederation of Northern Ireland and the Republic, and joint authority over Northern Ireland. In 1985 secret British-Irish negotiations resulted in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, wherein the British recognized the Irish Republic's right to make proposals concerning Northern Ireland, and the Irish government recognized the principle of unionist consent as a prerequisite to a united Ireland. Unionists were angered as they felt that a foreign government was being given a say in running their country. Sinn Féin was also aggrieved, as the agreement recognized the status of the Northern Irish state (something that Sinn Féin steadfastly refused to do). Unionists mounted an "Ulster Says No" campaign, but despite a petition with four hundred thousand signatures being sent to the Queen, the agreement remained in force.

The principle of unionist consent, and the de facto recognition of the right of the Republic of Ireland to have some say in Northern Irish affairs, signaled major shifts in the ground rules of the politics of Northern Ireland. The UVF and UDA began targeting RUC personnel, seeing them as traitors to the union by enforcing this agreement. It also demonstrated that the Irish and British governments were pursuing a long-term policy of diplomacy on Northern Ireland.

1987-88 was a particularly bleak time period for the Troubles, with eight PIRA men being shot dead by the SAS in Loughgall, County Armagh, and with an PIRA bomb exploding during Remembrance Day celebration in Enniskillen, killing eleven people. Three PIRA members were killed by undercover army agents in Gibraltar, in March 1988, and during their funeral, a loyalist gunman shot three of the mourners dead in Milltown cemetery. During the funeral of one of these people, two British army corporals drove into the cortege, and then were beaten and killed, presumably by the PIRA. In August of the same year, eight British soldiers were killed by a bomb attack on a bus at Ballygawley, County Tyrone. The need for some resolution was becoming all the greater. Between 1988 and 1992, attempts were made to initiate all-party talks in Northern Ireland. In an effort to make some progress, the talks were divided into three tracks: one dealing with internal relations, another with North-South relations, and the final one with Irish-British relations. The carrot was held out to Sinn Féin that it could be part of these talks if the PIRA called a cease-fire. This was the main sticking point, with the political parties reluctant to enter into talks with nationalist or unionist paramilitary organizations who still used terrorist methods. Of course, if some form of peace were ever to be found, then the people with guns would have to be part of the negotiations. The beginning of this process can be traced to a series of talks between John Hume and Gerry Adams, while the IRA was still pursuing its violent campaign, in 1988. A further significant development of this period was the inception of two new unionist political parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (representing the UVF), and the Ulster Democratic Party (representing the UDA). Now, paramilitaries of all sides had political adjuncts.

The significance of this period is the increasing randomness of the violence, led to support for negotiations. The gradual politicization of the paramilitaries proceeded, and all tracks of nationalist and unionist opinion were now being considered. Unlike Sunningdale, the necessity for inclusivity was very much at the core of this process.

In 1993 the Downing Street Declaration committed the British and Irish governments to setting up structures for talks, which would be inclusive. In 1994 the Declaration's perspective on arms was clarified: if a group "laid down their arms" they could be part of talks. After a visit to the United States, and at the urgings of U.S. President Bill Clinton, on August 31, 1994, the PIRA announced a "complete cessation" of military operations. On October 13, the UVF and the UDA followed suit. A debate began about the "permanence" of the cessation, and in 1995, the issue of loyalist parades in nationalist areas became important, with ensuing riots around the time of the marching season. The issue of decommissioning of arms prior to entry into talks was a sticking point, with the British prime minister, John Major, setting this as a prerequisite to Sinn Féin's entry into talks. U.S. senator George Mitchell's subsequent report brokered a compromise whereby phased decommissioning could take place during any talks. The PIRA felt that decommissioning should be the end of a process of negotiation, and not a prerequisite, and, on February 9, 1996, they ended the cease-fire. The same night, a one-ton bomb exploded in Canary Wharf, in London, killing two people and causing millions of pounds worth of damage. This was followed by another 1.5-ton bomb in Manchester. In July 1996, residents of the nationalist Garvaghy Road opposed an Orange Order march through their area from Drumcree church in Portadown. The RUC forced the demonstrators to allow the march to proceed, causing much nationalist anger. Earlier loyalist rioting and roadblocks were followed by a week's rioting by nationalists. In the Republic, on June 7, Detective Garda Jerry McCabe was shot dead during a post office raid in Adare, County Limerick, an action which was damaging to the PIRA in terms of support in the Republic, and subsequently a number of arms dumps were disclosed by disaffected supporters.

In 1997 a Parades Commission was set up to adjudicate on the routes of parades. Labour's Tony Blair became prime minister, with both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness becoming MPs at Westminster. Portadown again became a flash-point, with the march proceeding down the nationalist Garvaghy Road, and subsequent rioting involving more than six hundred petrol bombs thrown, two hundred car hijackings, and five hundred attacks on the security forces. Later that July, the PIRA announced a second cease-fire. Sinn Féin signed the Mitchell principles, though the PIRA did not. The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble courageously led his party into negotiations, and later into government, with Sinn Féin and the SDLP, thereby breaking a logjam that had been an issue for thirty years. From March to April, negotiations were intense, and then, on April 10, the Good Friday Agreement emerged. The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in referenda in both Northern Ireland (seventy-one percent in favor), and in the Republic of Ireland (94 percent in favor of constitutional change disavowing the Republic's claim to the whole island). The UDA's leader in the Maze prison went on record on the BBC saying, "the war is over."

The danger of regression into violence was clear throughout the peace process in the shape of the Drumcree standoff. The relative speed with which the agreement was reached was a sign that peace was clearly desired, but it also contained an indication that some items may have been rushed, and could still become a problem in the later stages of the process. The verbal ambiguities of the peace process, while allowing all sides to claim victory, would cause difficulty in the future.

In the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UUP got twenty-eight seats, the SDLP twenty-four, the DUP twenty, and SF eighteen, and on Wednesday, July 1, 1998, the first meeting of the Assembly took place, with all parties present. David Trimble, leader of the UUP, was elected First Minister Designate, with Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the SDLP, elected Deputy First Minister Designate. Despite the widespread popularity of the agreement, hard-line loyalists and nationalist groupings were very much against what they saw, from their different perspectives, as a compromise. A further split in PIRA saw the formation of Republican Sinn Féin, and their military arm the Continuity IRA (also known as the Real IRA). It was this latter group that planted the Omagh bomb, hoping to create dys-function within the peace process. However, the sheer pointlessness of the violence had the opposite effect, and the UUP and PUP entered into talks with Sinn Féin, who also made positive responses regarding decommissioning. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton visited Omagh, and the town's name became almost a rallying cry in the peace process. On September 10, 1998 David Trimble had his first meeting with Gerry Adams at Stormont. Decommissioning continued to be a stumbling block (PIRA seeing it as something to be negotiated, while the unionists saw it as a pre-condition for negotiation) and to the forming of an executive with Sinn Féin. Forming an executive is the term used in Northern Ireland to mean forming a government in parliament. On September 14, the Northern Assembly met for the first time since June 1998. However, differences over decommissioning caused a delay in the formation of an executive, and with the argument still raging, John Hume and David Trimble received their Nobel Peace Prizes on December 10. The decommissioning issue remained unresolved into 1999.

Recent History and the Future

Two important developments can be seen in the midst of the wrangling over decommissioning. The PIRA and Sinn Féin had clearly recognized the legitimacy of the Northern Irish state, a major development in republican thinking. The unionists, on the other hand, had clearly accepted the right of the government of the Republic of Ireland to have some input into the politics of Northern Ireland, a notion that had shattered the Sunning-dale Agreement, and brought about the UWC Strike.

On July 15, 1999 an attempt to kick-start the Northern Assembly failed when the UUP and David Trimble did not attend the inaugural session, citing decommissioning. Seamus Mallon, of the SDLP, resigned as Deputy First Minister. To break this deadlock, George Mitchell, who had succesfully brokered the Good Friday Agreement, began a review of the agreement with the specific aims of solving the decommissioning issue, and obtaining an executive. On November 16, the PIRA said it would appoint a representative to the arms commission, a move that paved the way for Sinn Féin's participation in the Assembly. On Dec 2, 1999, power was devolved from London to Belfast, and all parties agreed to participate in this government. Devolving power from Westminster to Stor-mont meant that the people of Northern Ireland would have a say in the governing of their own society for the first time since direct rule from London was introduced in 1972. Power sharing, as a guarantee that the nationalist tradition would have a voice in government, was a central plank in the inception of this devolved government. However, in January 2000, the arms commission reported no progress on PIRA disarmament, and the unionists threatened to pull out of the executive. With no agreement forthcoming, the Northern Irish secretary, Peter Mandleson, suspended the executive after seventy-two days in power, and restored direct rule on February 11. Talks continued between Sinn Féin and Unionist Party politicians. On May 6, after much British-Irish governmental maneuverings, the PIRA offered to "put their arms beyond use," meaning that they will be put in storage, and subject to inspection by international arbitrators to ensure that they have not been used. Power was restored to the Assembly on May 30, 2000.

The formula for putting the PIRA arms beyond use looks to be the best hope of continuing dialogue between the parties. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, with recent releases coming from the Maze prison on July 29, 2000. The constant collective decision-making that is a concomitant of parliamentary democracy may gradually encourage the parties to shed their mutual demonization of each other and begin the long and difficult process toward a more inclusive society. The Omagh bomb, if only as a catalyst in this process, has achieved a place in history that will be long remembered. It also remains as a signifier that there remain groups who refuse to follow the democratic wishes of the people of all communities in Ireland.


Bardon, Jonathan. A History of Ulster. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Blackstaff Press, 1992.

Bew, Paul, and Gordon Gillespie. Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan Publisher, 1993.

——. The Northern Ireland Peace Process, 1993-1996: A Chronology. London: Serif Publisher, 1996.

Elliott, Sydney and W. D. Flackes. Northern Ireland: A Political Directory 1968-1999. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Blackstaff Press, 1999.

Hennessey, Thomas. A History of Northern Ireland, 1920-1996. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and Macmillan Publisher, 1997.

Hoppen. Theodore K. Ireland Since 1800: Conflict and Conformity. Harlow, England: Longman, 1987.

Hughes, Eamonn, ed. Culture and Politics in Northern Ireland 1960-1990. Milton-Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1991.

Jackson, Alvin. Ireland 1798-1988. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publisher, 1999.

Miller, David, ed. Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism. London: Longman, 1999.

Stewart, A.T.Q. The Narrow Ground: The Roots of Conflict in Ulster. London: Faber Publisher, 1977.

Whyte, John. Interpreting Northern Ireland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Wichert, Sabine. Northern Ireland Since 1945. London: Longman, 1999.



1600s-1700s Encouraged by the English government, large numbers of Scottish Presbyterians settle in predominately Catholic Ireland. Much of the settlement is in the north.

1690 King James II of England is overthrown by his successor, and son-in-law, William of Orange. King James, a Catholic, retreats to Ireland to launch an effort to reclaim his kingdom. His army is defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, launching a violent retaliation against the Irish, who support James. Many of the Irish are forced off their land in favor of Protestant settlers.

1845-49 The Potato Famine devastates Irish crops, causing massive starvation and the deaths of 1.5 million Irish.

1905 Sinn Féin is founded.

1916 The Easter Rebellion, when Irish republicans fought for independence from Britain, is brutally suppressed and the leaders executed.

1921 Ireland is partitioned. The southern part of the island receives autonomy; the six northern provinces remain under British rule.

1922 The southern counties become the Free Irish State, later renamed Eire.

1968-69 Riots break out in Londonderry against British discrimination against Catholics.

1970-71 The Irish Republic Army takes up arms against the British. Protestant militias fight in retaliation. Over the next thirty years, hundreds die in sectarian violence.

1985 An Anglo-Irish Agreement provides Eire with a consultative voice in Northern Ireland's affairs.

1996 Peace talks begin.

1998 John Hume, a Catholic leader, and David Trimble, a Protestant leader, win the Noble Peace Prize for their efforts to end the violence in Northern Ireland.

1999 Issues over decommissioning arms remain, and tension continues, though peace accords were ratified in both Eire and Northern Ireland, including agreements about the claim of Eire on Northern Ireland and about requirements for Northern Ireland achieving independence.

Ian Paisley

1926- Ian Paisley is the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Seen as an archetype of primal unionism, Paisley has actually been one of the main figures responsible for fracturing the once seemingly monolithic façade of unionism, thereby being influential in destabilizing the positions of Terence O'Neill, James Chichester-Clarke, and Brian Faulkner.

Strongly influenced by evangelical Protestantism, Paisley founded his own church, the Free Presbyterians, in 1951, and his religious fundamentalism, enunciated through booming, apocalyptic, anti-Catholic oratory, found a receptive audience in the hectic climate of the 1960s. His ideology is clear from the title of his first political party, the Protestant Unionist Party, later to become the Democratic Unionist Party, and his appeal has long been strong in rural and urban working class areas. In European elections—he has been an MEP since 1979—Paisley has proven a formidable vote getter. While opposing the Good Friday Agreement in principle, his party took its place in the Northern Ireland Assembly and also in its ministerial appointments.

John Hume

1937- John Hume is leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The key figure in constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, he came to prominence in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Hume served as minister of parliament for Foyle since 1969, and a minister of the European parliament for Northern Ireland in 1979.

He was a founding member of the SDLP in 1970, and has been seen as the architect of the Hume-Adams document which "aimed at the creation of a peace process," a process which ultimately led to the increasing politicization of Sinn Féin and the PIRA cease-fires. Ironically, the involvement of Sinn Féin in politics has created a strong rival to the SDLP within the nationalist constituency.

Hume has been seen as someone who can gain the trust of more moderate unionists, and he has remained a hugely popular figure in the Republic of Ireland. His appearance with David Trimble on stage at a U2 concert on May 19, 1998, as they campaigned for a "yes" vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum heralded a sea change in the relationships between unionism and nationalism.

Gerry Adams

1948- Gerry Adams is president of the Provisional Sinn Féin (PIRA). He went from Belfast barman to reputed Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader between 1969 and 1973, although he has repeatedly denied IRA membership. In 1979 Adams spoke about the need for a political as well as a military dimension to the republican movement. He began talks with John Hume, of the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), in 1988 and in 1993, with a view to fashioning a pan-nationalist strategy. The resulting Hume-Adams document paved the way for IRA cease-fires in 1994 and 1997, with Adams being seen as a key architect of the PIRA cessation of violence.

Adams served as minister of parliament for West Belfast from 1983-92, and again since 1997. His claims to be a fully constitutional politician have been viewed with ambiguity by his detractors, notably referring to his "they haven't gone away, you know" remark about PIRA during the first cease-fire, and his carrying of the coffin of Shankill bomber Thomas Begley. His meeting with David Trimble on September 10, 1998, was the first such meeting between representatives of unionism and militant nationalism since that of Michael Collins and James Craig seventy-five years earlier. Gerry Adams has undoubtedly been responsible for the transformation of the republican armed struggle.

David Trimble

1944- David Trimble is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). When an Orange Order march was forced down the Garvaghy Road, in July 1995, and David Trimble led that march arm-in-arm with Ian Paisley, few would have thought that this man was to transform the nature of unionist politics within the next three years.

Trimble was elected leader of the UUP on September 8, 1995. He was originally viewed as a hard-line unionist, but has directed a transformational change in unionist politics, finding common ground with the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), and being able to work with Sinn Féin, despite clearly expressed reservations on the decommissioning issue, which would require the rebels to give up their arms.

In sitting in government with Sinn Féin, he has faced virulent opposition, both from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and from members of his own party. He has weathered internal criticism and is leading unionism toward a position of centrality in the development of inclusive political structures in Northern Ireland.

About this article

Northern Ireland: The Omagh Bomb, Nationalism, and Religion

Updated About content Print Article


Northern Ireland: The Omagh Bomb, Nationalism, and Religion