100 Years of Northern Ireland

“I tell you, this early morning I signed my death warrant.” Irish revolutionary and politician Michael Collins made that remark hours after signing the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. The agreement brought the bitter Anglo-Irish War to an end and gave the southern and northwestern part of the island limited self-government within the framework of the British Empire, as the Irish Free State. Yet, the Free State would not encompass the six northeastern counties siphoned off into Northern Ireland by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. This clause, allowing Northern Ireland to opt-out of the Free State, was promptly exercised in December 1922 and Northern Ireland was formally separated from its southern neighbours, a border slashing through the island.

Only a matter of years before the conclusion of the Treaty negotiations, republican poet and activist Pádraig Pearse had stood on the steps of the General Post Office (GPO) and shouted the contents of the Proclamation of the Republic to bemused passersby in central Dublin, 1916. Pearse’s rhetoric of “ownership of Ireland” and “unfettered control of Irish destinies” made no distinction between the northern region and the rest of the island, in spite of their demographic and political differences. The Plantation of Ulster saw thousands of predominantly Scottish settlers arrive in northeastern Ireland from 1609 onwards, in a concerted effort by the English monarchy to disrupt the native Catholic Gaelic hegemony in the region through settler colonisation. The significance of this was to create a substantial population within Ulster, later Northern Ireland, that adhered to Protestantism and had close ties to England and English rule.

Pádraig Pearse, who shouted the contents of the Proclamation of the Republic from the steps of the General Post Office.
Pádraig Pearse (Wikimedia Commons).

This Protestant unionist community in Ulster retained its political significance and dominance. Its influence during the crucial opening decades of the 20th century was sealed with the election of James Craig, of British aristocratic background, as the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act. Thus, Pearse’s talk of “…the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State” was fundamentally disagreeable to Craig and the demographic group he came from and represented. Yet Collins’ treaty that implicitly accepted the separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the country was equally unacceptable to the strand of nationalism that Pearse and his eloquent words on Easter Monday 1916 represented. The formerly formidable nationalist cause that Collins belonged to was blown open by the treaty he helped to negotiate, precipitating the Irish Civil War between pro- and anti-treaty factions over the shortcomings of the agreement, including (but significantly not limited to) the loss of Northern Ireland.

Whilst Civil War raged in the young Irish Free State, Northern Ireland was itself engulfed in political and sectarian violence, which pitted majority-Catholic nationalists against mostly Protestant unionists. Religious and ethnic divisions intersected with political ones, producing a tense and multifaceted conflict in Ulster. After dying down into sporadic localised violence and rioting during the middle of the 20th century, this Ulster-based discord would evolve into one of the most devastating conflicts of modern history. The ‘Troubles’ saw over 3,000 die, over half of whom were civilians. The resilient nationalist spirit clashed with staunch unionist sentiments in a sectarian war that was played out on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The Troubles were about more than the republican and unionist political divisions and involved important ethno-cultural tensions, as Catholic communities struggled for civil rights and to protect their Gaelic and religious culture. As republicans in Northern Ireland celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising and Pearse’s proclamation outside the GPO, civil rights struggles moved centre stage. This agenda focused on an end to discrimination against Catholics, reform of the Protestant-dominated police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and adjustments to constituency boundaries and electoral qualifications. Most recently, campaigns have revolved around protecting the Irish language, which was only given official status in Northern Ireland in 2020. Historic Catholic concerns were, however, usually met with little empathy by the successive unionist governments, which were partially a result of gerrymandered constituency boundaries. The massacre of 14 unarmed men marching for Catholic civil rights in Derry 1972 by British soldiers, known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, was one of the most brutal chapters in this long civil rights struggle. The killings, conducted by the state in full view of the media, were regarded as one of the most important events of ‘The Troubles’, publicly highlighting the sheer brutality of the conflict.

Commemoration of Bloody Sunday - almost 100 years of Northern Ireland.
Commemoration of Bloody Sunday in 2007 (CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising also saw the resurgence of armed paramilitary groups, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Provisional IRA formed to fight for Catholic republican interests as well as their unionist counterpart, the Ulster Voluntary Force (UVF). These groups would go onto become the main actors in the Troubles, carrying out bombings, assassinations and attacks on civilians. Violence occurred mainly in Northern Ireland, but spread to the Irish Republic, mainland Britain and Europe on occasion. War took on an increasingly retaliatory character; an attack on a Catholic community would result in reprisal killings of the other community. The line between the two communities became increasingly defined and was mapped onto the Northern Irish landscape. So-called peace walls were erected from the 1969 onwards, drawing a physical boundary between majority Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. As of 2016, there were 109 peace walls remaining in Belfast.  

Given the scale and brutality of ‘The Troubles’ it surely makes it somewhat remarkable that peace – albeit a breakable and delicate peace – was ultimately achieved in Northern Ireland. The 1998 Good Friday agreement brought together the loyalist and republican political communities in Northern Ireland, in an agreement supported by the Irish, British and American governments. Government within the Northern Irish devolved assembly, Stormont, and its executive would contain members of both groups. The fragile peace and political order that the Good Friday Agreement created has been tested on several occasions. This includes a five-year period between 2002 and 2007 when Northern Ireland was governed from London, after a rupture in the executive and recently in 2016 over the Renewable Heat Incentive. And yet, looking back on the over twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, it is quite astonishing what it has achieved. Figures like Ian Paisely, a loyalist Protestant minister, shared power with Provisional IRA commander and republican politician, Martin McGuinness. Gerry Adams, a nationalist, was also incorporated into a largely peaceful political structure, serving in the Northern Ireland Assembly. After decades of devastation, the UVF and IRA finally called off their armed campaigns, bringing the paramilitary violence that characterised The Troubles to an official close (though sectarian violence continues to be an issue in Northern Ireland). The Good Friday Agreement has been tested and has faltered on many occasions. However, it has also had considerable successes and remains the key framework of politics and constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Yet it seems likely that the biggest challenges for the Good Friday lie in the future. Brexit has re-opened old wounds, with tensions over the Irish border and status of Northern Ireland growing significantly since the UK voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Overall, Northern Ireland backed remaining in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44%, a vote that then-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said “strengthened” the case for a poll on Irish reunification. Indeed, in the years before a deal was struck between the EU and UK, there were fears as to whether trading and political regulations would mean that a ‘hard’ border would be imposed on the isle of Ireland, replacing the relatively free movement between the north and the Irish Republic that had existed since the implementation of the Treaty in 1922. This issue was most recently thrust into the spotlight in January when the EU threatened to impose a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland during the row over the EU’s vaccine supply. Though this threat was swiftly withdrawn, it highlighted that despite the deal between the EU and UK, the open Irish border remains vulnerable to political circumstance and diplomatic calculation.

A Brexit protest at Stormont, 2015 (Sinn Féin, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In a survey conducted in Northern Ireland in January 2021, 51% of respondents supported a poll on question of reunification whilst 48% of those surveyed believed there would be a united Ireland within 10 years. In spite of the protests of loyalists, the prospect of Irish reunification seems very real. During the Dáil debates over the 1921 Treaty, Michael Collins himself explained that he did not see the partitioned Ireland set out in the agreement as the final result, but merely as a ‘stepping stone’. As he explained, the Treaty gave Ireland “not the ultimate freedom… but the freedom to achieve it”. This “ultimate freedom” to be achieved in a future age, or even by a future generation, no doubt included freedom from the British Empire completely through the establishment of an Irish Republic (achieved in 1937) and “freedom” to Northern Ireland, creating the unified republic that Pearse had asserted and that Collins ultimately desired. The partition of Ireland, then, seems to have been intended as a short or medium-term arrangement for Collins in the longer struggle for an independent republic. With support growing for a vote on reunification, one hundred years after the Treaty was signed the moment that Michael Collins had envisioned in 1921 may have arrived.

After signing the Treaty back in 1921, Michael Collins, perhaps jokingly, predicted his death. The treaty was his “death warrant” he quipped. Less than a year later, he would be dead, assassinated in his home county by anti-Treaty republicans who could not accept the partition of Ireland, amongst other things. One thing Collins doubtless would not have predicted was the ongoing controversy and dispute over the Treaty and the border it consolidated, a century later. Northern Ireland’s journey over the past one hundred years has been one of devastation and pain, but also one of cooperation and hope. One hundred years on from the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the future of Northern Ireland seems more uncertain than ever, and it seems impossible to predict what the next one hundred years will hold.



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Online Archival Sources

‘Government of Ireland Act, 1920’, legislation.gov.uk, (The National Archives)

‘Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act, 1922’, Irish Statute Book

‘Dáil Éireann debate- Monday, 19 Dec 1921’, House of the Oireachtas


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