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Northern Ireland: History since 1920

Northern Ireland: History since 1920

The state of Northern Ireland was created in 1920 under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, and comprised the northeastern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone. This area was the heartland of Protestant unionist opposition to Irish nationalism, although it also contained a substantial number of Catholics—in 1926 there were 420,000 Catholics in a total Northern population of 1,257,000. This religious demography, allied to the bitter circumstances of the state's creation, would leave lasting political scars. Northern Ireland was launched in the context of the Anglo-Irish war, and the insurgents of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were deeply opposed both to the partition of Ireland and to the creation of a unionist state in the northeast. They sustained operations against the new state from its inception, and in 1922 (after the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British was signed) they launched an offensive designed to overturn its government. This campaign was not only unsuccessful but also counterproductive insofar as it helped to stimulate repressive official measures and attitudes that long outlasted the "Troubles" of the early 1920s.

Nationalists in Northern Ireland, 1920–1960

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 had made provision for the amendment of the border between Northern Ireland and the new Irish Free State, and nationalists throughout the island trusted that this promise of possible revision would truncate and destabilize the North. Ulster nationalists, believing in the transience of partition, generally boycotted the evolving institutions of the new state, including its parliament and its committees of inquiry into local government and educational reform. This, together with the unfriendly attitudes of the unionist elite, meant that the Northern minority was effectively denied a say at a crucial stage in the evolution of the North. A review of the North-South boundary was undertaken by a commission in 1924 and 1925, but it failed to deliver the radical revisions that had been expected. Northern nationalists were forced to accept that partition would survive and that they would have to coexist with the unionist regime. But the unionist governors of Northern Ireland, led by James Craig, the first prime minister of the new state, saw themselves as the political and military victors of the struggles of the early and mid-1920s; and they showed little magnanimity to the nationalist minority either at this time or later.

Nationalists emerged as a permanently alienated section of Northern society. They constituted a small minority in the devolved parliament and thus were never in government. They were underrepresented in most areas of the workplace, including the police force, and were dramatically underrepresented in the elite cadres of the public sector. The relationship between nationalists and the police was often antagonistic; the Royal Ulster Constabulary was unpopular but won some grudging acceptance, while the part-time policemen of the Ulster Special Constabulary were viewed as heavy-handed and oppressive. Local-government electoral boundaries favored the unionists, in some cases—Omagh, Derry city—so blatantly that they effectively disfranchised clear nationalist majorities. Proportional representation was abolished by unionist ministers for local-government elections in September 1922—a move that decisively weakened nationalist representation. The retention of a property qualification for the local-government (though not the parliamentary) franchise excluded many socially disadvantaged people from the vote, and though both the unionist and nationalist poor were affected, nationalists suffered disproportionately. Nationalists, who were concentrated in the west of Northern Ireland, believed that the unionist government actively favored the eastern counties in terms of industrial investment and social improvements.

Until the 1960s Northern nationalists expressed these resentments through a tacit disengagement from the state. There were occasional electoral mobilizations, as in the early and mid-1950s, when several republicans were elected to the Northern Ireland parliament (Stormont) and Westminster. The militant separatist tradition also provided an avenue for the disenchanted, although this survived only on a very small scale in West Belfast and other nationalist enclaves. The IRA launched campaigns against the Northern government in 1939 and again in 1956, but while some lives were lost and the unionist regime was unsettled, these were relatively unimportant affairs that were suppressed with comparative ease.

The Unionist Government and Its Difficulties, 1920–1960

The unionist governors of Northern Ireland faced other profound challenges. The foundation charter of their state, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, was a problem in that it defined political and economic relationships that were speedily outmoded. In particular, the act burdened the new regime in Belfast with financial constraints which, if they had been sustained, would have ensured its collapse, and the economic relationship between the Belfast and London governments had to be repeatedly overhauled in 1924 to 1925 and later. The act partitioned the island and created separate Home Rule administrations in Belfast and Dublin. The measure also envisaged the ultimate unity of the island, and much of its political engineering was designed to facilitate this end. But Irish revolutionaries wanted more than Home Rule by 1920 or 1921, and the unionists, while accepting a Home Rule administration in Belfast, emphatically did not want Irish unity. Only in 1925 were some of the legislative inducements for unity effectively dismantled. Still, the unionist government remained burdened with what was effectively a unitary constitution until the demise of Stormont in 1972.

But the core problem for the governors and people of Northern Ireland was the collapse of the regional economy in the interwar years. The staples of Northern industry were shipbuilding and linen, and both of these enterprises were in crisis. Unionist ministers sought to bolster shipbuilding and other existing businesses through loans guarantees and tried to tempt new enterprises into Northern Ireland with subventions and other inducements. Neither venture was successful, and the level of unemployment remained appallingly high throughout the interwar years. In 1938, 92,000 Northern citizens were on the dole, reflecting an unemployment rate of 29.5 percent (compared with 12.8 percent for the rest of the United Kingdom). High levels of unemployment meant much personal misery, sustained pressure on welfare resources, and a high degree of political instability—the poor of both communities, Protestant and Catholic, rioted in October 1932. High levels of unemployment also threatened to disrupt the social alliance of Ulster Protestants upon which the Northern state rested, and in this context unemployment tended to reinforce the sectarian defensiveness of the unionist government.

The Second World War brought German air attacks and (in the raids of April and May 1941) some 1,100 civilian casualties. But in other senses the war brought a form of grim relief to many of the relentless problems confronting the unionist regime. The war created a heightened demand for the industrial goods of the region, and it therefore temporarily ameliorated (but by no means cured) the contagion of joblessness. The war also brought ultimately a greater degree of political security to the governing party: Northern Ireland was heavily involved in the support of the Allied war effort, and unionism was clearly bolstered by the victory of May 1945. The neutrality of the Dublin government, on the other hand, simultaneously focused and reinforced Irish patriotism and undermined the antipartitionist cause in the United States and Britain in the immediate postwar years. When the Irish government declared in 1948 that the twenty-six counties were to become a republic, the British government responded with its Ireland Act (1949), a measure that affirmed that Northern Ireland would cease to be a part of the United Kingdom only if the Stormont parliament so decided. This was the most solid legislative endorsement that the unionist regime had yet been or ever would be given.

Other, sometimes indirect results of the war had more ambiguous implications. The war was associated with an expansion of the British state, and in particular with the elaboration of social-welfare reform. This affected Northern Ireland, where the civil service grew rapidly in the postwar years, as did the provision of welfare relief (social services were now on a par with Britain and were largely subsidized by the British state). There were some short-term political benefits from this to the extent that the regime was able, through jobs and welfare, to bolster the Protestant social alliance upon which it was founded. But it was also the case that Catholic nationalist resentment was becoming more of a challenge, for the Catholic community now had greater educational opportunities than before and yet was still largely excluded from both political power and public employment.

Nor had the scourge of unemployment disappeared. Agriculture was a significant feature of the regional economy, but—with the onset of mechanization—was growing more efficient and employing fewer people. Shipbuilding and linen continued on their downward trajectory in the 1950s despite government subventions. By the early 1960s there were massive layoffs in the shipyards, and 10,000 jobs were lost in the linen industry between 1956 and 1961. This economic collapse recreated some of the political volatility that had been evident in the early 1930s, with massive protest demonstrations and the redirection of working-class Protestant votes away from unionism toward the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

O'Neillism and the Prelude to Violence, 1960–1970

In 1963, against the backdrop of this crisis, Viscount Brookeborough, the prime minister of Northern Ireland and unionist leader, resigned. His replacement, Terence O'Neill, saw industrial modernization and the reform and consolidation of unionism as his key tasks, and he embarked upon a series of inclusivist gestures and economic improvements that were designed to attain these ends. O'Neill believed that the economic problems of Northern Ireland were susceptible to rational management, and he also argued that the "irrationality" of much of Northern politics would be undermined by enhanced prosperity. He maintained that it was possible to recast community relations within Northern Ireland and between the North and Dublin on the basis of well-publicized friendly political gestures, such as inviting the Southern taoiseach Seán Lemass to visit Belfast in January 1965.

But in fact the relationship between economic and political modernization was more complex than O'Neill understood, and the result of many of his actions was to inflame rather than ameliorate resentments, divisions, and expectations. The new industries that succumbed to O'Neill's blandishments tended to establish themselves in the east of the region. Nationalists, concentrated in the impoverished west, saw this as economic discrimination. Improvements in transport, particularly the closure of railways and the construction of motorways, also provoked criticisms concerning the neglect of the west. Any benefits accruing from other initiatives—a new university or a new town, for example—tended to be obscured by allegations concerning their location. The drive to build new homes also helped to inflame long-standing Catholic resentments concerning the unfair allocation of public housing.

Catholic anger on housing led to the creation of the Campaign for Social Justice in January 1964; this in turn fed into a wider protest organization, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), created in April 1967. Following the example of civil-rights protest in the United States, NICRA and its radical offshoot, the People's Democracy, organized a series of political marches in 1968 and 1969 that resulted in confrontations with the police and with ultraconservative Protestant counterdemonstrators. O'Neill, pressed by Harold Wilson's Labour government in London, hastily sought to enact a five-point reform program in November 1968, but this only alienated many unionists (who saw it as a surrender to militant pressure) without in any way defusing civil-rights anger. O'Neill sought an electoral mandate for his reformism in February 1969, but he only succeeded in entrenching the divisions within his own party. He had hoped to win the votes of substantial numbers of moderate Catholics but was disappointed. The election, combined with O'Neill's resignation in April 1969, signaled the extent to which the traditional governing elite was weakened and disoriented, and it helped to generate a radical realignment within Northern constitutional politics. In 1969 to 1971 the party structure of the North was completely reinvented with the establishment of a centrist Alliance Party in April 1970; a new constitutional nationalist grouping, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, in August 1970; and the hardline Democratic Unionists, led by Dr. Ian Paisley, in September 1971.

The apparent weakness of the governing elite also helped to stimulate civil unrest: Intercommunal rioting in Belfast and Derry marred the summer of 1969, and in August British troops were deployed on the streets in an effort to quell the disturbances. Some nationalists were for a brief time inclined to welcome these outside forces, believing that their traditional defenders, the IRA, had failed to offer adequate protection. But by January 1970, with the launch of a more aggressive republican force, the Provisional IRA (PIRA or "Provisionals"), many Northern Catholics believed that they had found a credible new focus for their loyalties.

The Provisional IRA, 1970–1994

Born in the Catholic-Protestant interface areas of Belfast and armed by Southern sympathizers, the Provisionals were strong enough by 1972 to launch an offensive designed to overturn the Northern Irish state and remove the British presence from Ireland. Recruits were plentiful, particularly after August 1971 when in a last, desperate initiative on security the Stormont government presided over the heavy-handed and mismanaged application of internment without trial. The PIRA also received a grim boost on 30 January 1972 ("Bloody Sunday") when the British army opened fire on a demonstration in Derry, killing thirteen protestors. The Provisionals sustained their war, with only minor interruptions, until the cease-fire of August 1994. Their strategies shifted somewhat over this period, with an initial emphasis on bombing economic targets—eleven people died in a series of PIRA bombs in central Belfast on "Bloody Friday," 21 July 1972—and the assassination of policemen and soldiers. In the later 1970s there was a shift toward the targeting of high-profile victims, such as Earl Mountbatten, an uncle of Prince Philip, who was killed on 27 August 1979. There was a plan to assassinate the Prince and Princess of Wales in July 1983, and Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservative cabinet narrowly missed death when a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984. Bombing political and economic targets in England was a long-term strategy of the Provisionals.

In 1980 and 1981 the republican movement also returned to a highly emotive form of protest used in the Anglo-Irish War: hunger strikes. Between May and August 1981 eleven republican prisoners in the Maze Gaol near Belfast starved themselves to death in order to highlight a demand for "political" (as distinct from "criminal") status. Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisionals, was able to mobilize popular nationalist anger and to achieve a degree of electoral momentum on this basis. The party contested elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly (October 1982), for Westminster (June 1983), and for local councils (May 1985). The degree of success that was sustained (the party won 13.4% of the vote at the 1983 Westminster general election) was sufficient to encourage further political action and to unsettle the Thatcher government.

British Strategies, 1972–1990

The British response to the insurgency of the 1970s and 1980s was seemingly inconsistent. In March 1972 Edward Heath's Tory government suspended the devolved government at Stormont and thereby ended more than 50 years of uninterrupted unionist executive power. In July 1972 the British minister responsible for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, met leaders of PIRA in an apparent effort to explore the possibilities of agreement. Later British ministers (notably Merlyn Rees, secretary of state from 1974 to 1976) nurtured a similar hope that both loyalist and republican paramilitaries might be brought into the constitutional process, and also (briefly) pursued conciliationist strategies.

But the main pattern of British policy involved periodic efforts to reach an agreement between the main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, followed by exasperation and military offensives. The Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973 was struck between the Northern constitutional parties (excluding the Democratic Unionist Party) along with the British and Irish governments, and involved an effort to create a power-sharing devolved administration in Belfast that would be linked by strong cross-border authorities with the administration in Dublin. But the plan was overthrown by popular Protestant protest action in May 1974. The balance of political influence on the whole shifted in the unionists' favor after this debacle, but no internal settlement was forthcoming. The failure of a conciliationist initiative by Rees in 1974 to 1975 was followed by a hardline stand on security taken by his successor, Roy Mason.

In the early 1980s, mindful of this political failure and of the rising support for Sinn Féin, the British government sought to re-engage the Irish government, and effectively excluded the unionists from a lengthy negotiation that concluded in November 1985 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Irish saw this document as a stepping stone to a form of joint authority within Northern Ireland, whereas the British (who were more divided in their counsels) appear to have viewed it as a means of inculpating the Irish in the problems of governing the North without granting them any formal authority. The British also fervently hoped that the agreement would improve cross-border security arrangements. Both governments believed that the agreement would help to bolster constitutional nationalism and subvert the electoral progress of Sinn Féin.

The Peace Process, 1990–1998

Judged by its own apparent goals, the agreement might well be interpreted as a failure, for it undermined constitutional unionist politics while pushing the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) toward a form of rapprochement with Sinn Féin. Indeed, it is arguable that future political progress stemmed not so much from the agreement's achievements as from initiatives that ran contrary to its underlying principles. The starting points for the negotiations that culminated in the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 were the dialogue between SDLP leader John Hume and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and overtures toward Irish republicanism that were made by Peter Brooke (British secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 1989 to 1992) and continued for a time under his successor, Patrick Mayhew (secretary of state from 1992 to 1997). Gerry Adams had cautiously hinted in 1987 that he would be prepared to consider a constitutional means of securing the end of the British presence in Ireland, and this was seized upon by John Hume as a means of opening up dialogue with the republican movement. Brooke had an independent line of communication with Adams, and he also publicly declared in November 1990 in a message directed toward republicans that the British had "no selfish or strategic interest" in Northern Ireland. This mild overture was complemented by the launching of a talks process in March 1991 involving the constitutional parties and framed within three "strands": the proposed political structures of Northern Ireland, cross-border institutions and relationships, and the British-Irish connection. These talks collapsed in July 1991, but they were resurrected under Mayhew between April and November 1992.

Neither this diplomacy nor the resumed dialogue between Hume and Adams (1992–1993) was immediately successful. But the British and Irish governments led by John Major and Albert Reynolds were anxious to seize the initiative from Hume-Adams, and on 15 December 1993 they published the "Downing Street Declaration," a joint statement of shared principles for any future settlement in the North. The declaration emphasized again the lack of any "selfish strategic or economic [British] interest" in Northern Ireland, highlighted the need for "full respect" for all traditions, and affirmed the principle of political consent in the North. It fell far short of republican ideals, but on the other hand, it appeared to provide an opportunity for republicans, who were threatened at this time by a ferocious loyalist assault on the nationalist population, to explore the potentialities of constitutional action. After some hesitation, therefore, the Provisionals declared a cease-fire on 31 August 1994. This decision was apparently rewarded when in February 1995 the two governments published the "Frameworks Documents," a paper that raised the possibility of cross-border bodies with "executive" functions and that hinted at the possibility of joint British-Irish authority within Northern Ireland.

The key difficulty in the "Peace Process" (at this stage and later) arose from the issue of paramilitary weapons. The British envisaged that Sinn Féin would be admitted to negotiations on the constitutional future of the North once they had decommissioned their arms. But republicans saw this as tantamount to surrender, and with the peace process apparently stalled, in February 1996 the Provisionals detonated a bomb in London that killed two people. By the early summer of 1997 there were changes of administration in London and Dublin, with the demise of John Major and John Bruton, the Fine Gael taoiseach, both of whom were disliked by republicans. The return of a Labour government under Tony Blair and a Fianna Fáil-led coalition with Bertie Ahern as taoiseach, together with the earlier reelection of Bill Clinton to the U.S. presidency, all appeared to augur well for republican political fortunes. In these contexts the Provisionals called a second ceasefire on 20 July 1997. The British government by now had substantially retreated from its earlier line on decommissioning, and the restoration of the cease-fire was sufficient for Sinn Féin to be admitted in September 1997 to constitutional talks. These negotiations, chaired by Senator George Mitchell and including the two governments, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, and a range of smaller parties, eventually produced the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday, 10 April 1998.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998

The Belfast Agreement restored a devolved executive and legislative assembly to Northern Ireland after an absence of twenty-four years. But the new institutions were very different from the Stormont government and Parliament. The new Assembly was twice the size of the old House of Commons, the better to represent the political diversity of Northern Ireland, and it was elected through a proportional-representation franchise and multimember constituencies. The executive was also larger, with ministers drawn from all the major parties represented in the Assembly. In addition, there was to be a North-South Ministerial Council, which (it was intended) would "take decisions by agreement on policies and action at an all-island and cross-border level." A complementary British-Irish Council was designed to bring together ministers from all the devolved and sovereign governments in the archipelago. As part of a constitutional swap, the Irish undertook to amend Articles Two and Three of the Republic's 1937 Constitution (which unionists found offensive), and the British agreed to repeal the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, for long a focus of republican hatred. Provision was also made for a review of policing and criminal justice. And the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was mooted, albeit in highly aspirational and ambiguous language.

It is impossible to judge with certainty the intentions of the Belfast Agreement's signatories. It is still arguable that the agreement marks a radical new departure in the political history of modern Ireland. Militant republicans silenced their weapons, at least temporarily, and entered a "partition legislature." For their part, unionists shared power with historic adversaries and were involved in the operation of cross-border political institutions. It will be for long unclear whether the Belfast Agreement represents a secure settlement of the historic divisions within Northern Ireland. While a deal on institutions is a major advance and may conceivably reflect some fundamental changes within Northern Irish politics, the effects of twenty-five years of peculiarly intimate violence may well linger. Indeed, it can scarcely be hoped that the deeply rooted traditions of sectarian animosity within Ireland can be put to rest by any single document, however bold and imaginative.

SEE ALSO Bloody Sunday; Economic Relations between North and South since 1922; Economic Relations between Northern Ireland and Britain; Northern Ireland: Constitutional Settlement from Sunningdale to Good Friday; Northern Ireland: Discrimination and the Campaign for Civil Rights; Northern Ireland: Policy of the Dublin Government from 1922 to 1969; Northern Ireland: The United States in Northern Ireland since 1970; Proportional Representation; Primary Documents: On "A Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State" (24 April 1934); On Community Relations in Northern Ireland (28 April 1967); "Ulster at the Crossroads" (9 December 1968); Statement by the Taoiseach (13 August 1969); Irish Republican Army (IRA) Cease-Fire Statement (31 August 1994); Text of the IRA Cease-Fire Statement (19 July 1997); The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (10 April 1998)


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Alvin Jackson

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