Irish Republicanism in Northern Ireland

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In 1921, Ireland was partitioned. Most of the country became part of the independent Irish Free State. However, six out of the nine counties of Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. In the 1921 elections in Northern Ireland,

  • Antrim, Down and the borough of Belfast had Unionist majorities of around 60%.
  • In County Londonderry, the breakdown in that election was 56.2% Unionist / 43.8% Nationalist.
  • In Armagh, the ratio was 55.3% Unionist / 44.7% Nationalist.
  • In FermanaghTyrone (which was a single constituency), the ratio 54.7% Nationalist / 45.3% Unionist. (Tyrone was 55.4% Catholic in the 1911 census and 55.5% in the 1926 census, though of course only adults had votes on the other hand religious and national affiliations while closely linked are not as absolute as commonly assumed.) Within most of these counties there were large pockets which predominantly nationalist or Unionist (South Armagh, West Tyrone, West and South Londonderry and parts of North Antrim were largely nationalist whereas much of North Armagh, East Londonderry, East Tyrone and most of Antrim were/are largely Unionist)

This territory of Northern Ireland, as established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, had its own provincial government which was controlled for 50 years until 1972 by the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The tendency to vote on sectarian lines and the proportions of each religious denomination ensured that there would never be a change of government. In local government, constituency boundaries were drawn to divide nationalist communities into two or even three constituencies and so weaken their effect (see Gerrymandering).

The Catholic (mainly Nationalist) population in Northern Ireland, besides feeling politically alienated, was also economically alienated, often with worse living standards compared to their Protestant (mainly Unionist) neighbours, with fewer job opportunities in Belfast, Derry, Armagh and other places.[citation needed] Many Catholics considered the Unionist government to be undemocratic, bigoted and that it favoured Protestants. Emigration for economic reasons kept the nationalist population from growing, despite its higher birth rate. Although poverty, (e)migration and Unemployment were fairly widespread (albeit not to the same extent) among Protestants as well on the other hand the economic situation in Northern Ireland (even for Catholics) was for a long time arguably still better than in the Republic of Ireland.

During the 1930s the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched minor attacks against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British army in Northern Ireland. The IRA began another armed campaign in Britain in 1939. During World War II the IRA leadership hoped for support from Germany, and chief of staff Seán Russell travelled there in 1940; he died later that year after falling ill on a U-boat that was bringing him back to Ireland (possibly with a view to starting a German sponsored revolution in Ireland). Suspected republicans were interned on both sides of the border, for different reasons.

The Border Campaign in the mid-50s was the last attempt at traditional military action and was an abject failure. The Movement needed to reconsider its strategy.


In the late 1960s, Irish political activists groups saw parallels with what they viewed as their struggle against religious discrimination in the civil rights campaign of African-Americans in the United States against racial discrimination. Student leaders such as Bernadette Devlin and Nationalist politicians such as Austin Currie tried to use non-violent direct action to draw attention to discrimination. By 1968, Europe as a whole was engulfed in a struggle between radicalism and conservativism. In Sinn Féin, the same debate raged. The dominant analysis was that Protestant Irishmen and women would never be bombed into a united Ireland. The only way forward was to have both sides embrace socialism and forget their sectarian hatreds. They resolved no longer to be drawn into inter-communal violence.

As a response to the civil rights campaign militant loyalist paramilitary groups started to emerge in the Protestant community. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was the first. It was launched in 1966 by militant loyalists, including Gusty Spence, to combat the perceived threat from republicans, and shot dead three people in the summer of 1966, none of them active republicans.[1]

In mid-1969 the violence in Northern Ireland exploded. Consistent with their new political ideology, the IRA declined to intervene. By late August, the British government had declared a state of emergency, sending a large number of troops into Northern Ireland to stop the intercommunal violence. Initially welcomed by some Catholics as protectors, later events such as Bloody Sunday and the Falls Road curfew turned many against the British Army.


Divisions began to emerge in the Republican movement between leftists and conservatives. The leader of the IRA, Cathal Goulding believed that the IRA could not beat the British with military tactics and should turn into a workers' revolutionary movement that would overthrow both governments to achieve a 32-county socialist republic through the will of the people (after World War II, the IRA no longer engaged in any actions against the Republic). Goulding also drove the IRA into an ideologically Marxist-Leninist direction which attracted idealistic young supporters in the Republic, but alienated and angered many of the IRA's core supporters in the North. In particular, his decision to regard the UVF as deluded rather than as the enemy, was anathema to traditionalists and those who were its potential victims.

The argument led to a split in January 1970, between the Official IRA (supporters of Goulding's Marxist line) and the Provisional IRA (also called Provos, traditional nationalist republicans). The Provos were led by Seán Mac Stiofáin and immediately began a large scale campaign against British state forces and economic targets in Northern Ireland. The Official IRA were also initially drawn into an armed campaign by the escalating communal violence. In 1972, the Official IRA declared a cease-fire, which, apart from feuds with other republican groups, has been maintained to date. Nowadays the term 'Irish Republican Army' almost always denotes the Provisional IRA.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the conflict continued claiming thousands of lives, with the UVF (and other loyalist groups) extending attacks into the Republic of Ireland and the IRA launching attacks on targets in England. However some things slowly began to change. In the 1980s Provisional Sinn Féin (the Provisional IRA's political wing) began contesting elections and by the mid 1990s was representing the republican position at peace negotiations. In the loyalist movement splits occurred, the Ulster Unionist Party made tentative attempts to reform itself and attract Catholics into supporting the union with Britain, while the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Rev. Ian Paisley began attracting working class Protestant loyalists who felt alienated by the UUP's overtures towards Catholics.


At the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, a motion declaring the end of the policy of abstentionism (refusing to take seats in the Republic of Ireland's parliament), was passed.[2] This motion caused a split in the movement creating Republican Sinn Féin, a party committed to the 1970s "provisional" Sinn Féin vision of a 32 County federal republic. It was led by former Sinn Féin President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (who had previously led "provisional" Sinn Féin to split from Official Sinn Féin). The policy of participation in Dáil elections became known as "the Armalite and the ballot box".

In 1994 the leaders of Northern Ireland's two largest nationalist parties, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin and John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) entered into peace negotiations with Unionist leaders like David Trimble of the UUP and the British government. At the table most of the paramilitary groups (including the IRA and UVF) had representatives. In 1998 when the IRA endorsed the Good Friday Agreement between nationalist and unionist parties and both governments, another small group split from the IRA to form the Real IRA (RIRA). The Continuity and Real IRA have both engaged in attacks not only against the British and loyalists, but even against their fellow nationalists (members of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and IRA).

Since 1998, the IRA and UVF have adhered to a ceasefire. However, on the loyalist side the UDA and radical splinter groups that left the UVF after it endorsed the Good Friday Agreement (like the Loyalist Volunteer Force) have continued attacking Catholics and each other.

Today the republican movement can be divided into moderates who wish to reunite with the Republic through peaceful means and radicals who wish to continue an armed campaign.

In late July 2005, the IRA announced that the conflict was over and that their weapons were to be put out of use. A large stock of weapons was decommissioned later that year but whether that represents the entire stock of IRA weaponry or not is disputed by some Unionists.

Republicans in the power-sharing government since 2007[edit]

Sinn Féin delegates voted at their Ard Fheis in January 2007 to recognise and fully support the Police Service of Northern Ireland,[3] a move which was seen as opening the door to power-sharing with Unionists. In Northern Ireland's Assembly elections of 2007, Sinn Féin, which is the largest Irish nationalist political party in the north, made significant gains and remained the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. While the hardline Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP remained the largest.

In a move that surprised the entire world, DUP leader Reverend Ian Paisley announced that he would accept appointment as First Minister of Northern Ireland and form a power-sharing government with his arch rivals Sinn Féin as was set out in the St. Andrews Agreement. He had long refused to do so since Sinn Féin was linked to the Provisional IRA, an organisation which before 2005 had been engaged in illegal activity. For his entire career as a hardline Protestant cleric known for his Anti-Catholicism and as a Unionist politician, he had opposed any form of political power-sharing with Irish nationalist politicians, co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or the efforts of moderate unionist governments in Northern Ireland to bolster the interests of the north's Irish Catholic and Nationalist minority.

However, with the compromises made by Irish nationalists since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Rev. Paisley was left with little choice but to co-operate with the political representatives of the nationalist community. If he had delayed further on forming a power-sharing government with Sinn Féin it would have been left to the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to govern the north directly without the involvement of northern politicians, this was something that Unionists in the north did not want to happen.

Sinn Féin members were given four cabinet positions in the Northern Ireland Executive. The position of Deputy First Minister went to Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin members were also given charge over the departments of regional development, education and agriculture giving their party a significant amount of influence in Northern Ireland's new government. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party was given charge of a single department, social development based on their representation in the Assembly.


  1. ^ Richard English, Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA, Pan Macmillan, 2008, p. 99. Retrieved 10 October 2013
  2. ^ CAIN:Abstentionism
  3. ^ Journal of Politics and Law