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The Northern Irish Conflict 30 years of ordeal

Northern Ireland resulted of the partition of a formerly British colonial territory in 1920
and it is constitutionally a part of the United Kingdom, although from a geographical point of
view it is located on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland consists of six counties and has a
population of a just over 1.5 million people. Since partition, a conflict has existed between one
section of Northern Irelands population, which has sought the restoration of a united Ireland,
and another section aiming to secure the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United
Kingdom. This conflict about fundamentally different political aspirations has been exacerbated
by inequalities between the two communities, by the wounds inflicted through violence, but also
by increasing intra-communal diversity.
Nationalist and Unionist are terms that refer very broadly to the political divide in
Northern Ireland. This political divide, to some extent, coincides with the religious divide into
Catholic and Protestant congregations.
The Troubles, as they are called, did not erupt at a certain time, but came after several
years of escalating clashes between Catholics and Protestants. To understand the historical
enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to understand past
conflicts between the two groups and discuss why they have remained separate throughout their
history. Catholic Ireland was ruled by Britain for a considerable part of its history, from the
twelfth century to 1920. Meanwhile, there have been many uprisings by Catholics against their
Protestants landlords. Historical province of Ulster, a bastion of Gaelic culture in Northern
Ireland, successfully resisted British violations until 1609. The first wave of colonization has
replaced Irish nobility by British Protestant owners leaving most of the population Irish Catholic.
The settlement of Ulster in 1609, however, was of utmost importance and led to the intrusion of
the Protestant culture that was completely foreign to Catholic population. Massacres of both
Catholics and Protestants took place during the 1600s, as the two sides battled for supremacy and
the right to occupy the land both sides called now home. One of the most important of these
battles was the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which marked a massive victory of Protestants over
Catholics.

The partition of Ireland led to civil war in the Free State between those accepting the
settlement and those believing that it was a betrayal. The pro-treaty group, which would become
Fine Gael, won. Sinn Fein, their opponents, eventually split, the majority following de Valera
into official opposition and becoming Fianna Fail. The rump remained as Sinn Fein, committed
to achieving Irish unification militarily and boycotting the Dail because of its oath of allegiance
to the British Crown. Towards this end the Irish Republican Army mounted a series of campaigns
in the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s despite being declared illegal by the Irish Free State in 1936.
The Nationalist population of Northern Ireland boycotted the new state. The twelve antipartition Members of Parliament elected in the 1921 elections refused to take their seats and
twenty-one Nationalist controlled local authorities out of sixty-eight refused to acknowledge the
Government and pledged allegiance to Dublin. Sectarian violence escalated as rival mobs of
Catholics and Protestants attacked each other. Between June 1920 and June 1922 428 people
were killed and 1,766 were wounded. 8,750 Catholics were driven from their employment and
23,000 were driven from their homes (Buckland, P 1981: 46-50). Violence declined as
internment against Nationalists was introduced and the Irish Republican Army became occupied
by the civil war and its aftermath in the Irish Free State.
To counter ongoing Irish Republican Army campaigns, emergency legislation was
introduced, enforced by an almost exclusively Protestant police force. Government electoral
boundaries were manipulated to maintain a Protestant majority. Council housing allocation was
used to maintain political control. Only those loyal to the State were employed in public
positions. The two communities grew further apart, segregation increased and mixed marriages
were few and isolated. The two communities pursued separate cultures and maintained opposed
political aspirations. Their children were educated separately, taught different histories and
played different sports. From the States inception Nationalists felt like second-class citizens
within a state they could not and would not identify with. Unionists feared the Nationalist desire
for Irish unification. While Nationalists did not initially seek to involve themselves in the
functions of the State, Unionists did little to win their allegiance or encourage their inclusion and
the State actively discriminated against them. This two-fold process of exclusion and refusal to
participate combined with State discrimination copper fastened an apartheid mentality between
Protestants and Catholics.
In 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association commenced protest marches under
a one man one vote banner and clashes with the police began. In response Prime Minister
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Terence O Neill proposed an Ombudsman and a points system for housing allocation, and an
end to Special Powers and the property vote. But it was too late. The situation was spiralling out
of control. His reforms did not go far enough for Nationalists and went too far for Unionists who
were suspicious that the civil rights campaign was just a cover for an assault upon the State.
Loyalists launched organised attacks on a three-day civil rights march from Derry/Londonderry
to Belfast and the marchers received no protection from the police. Nationalist rioting began in
Belfast and the Battle of the Bogside started in Derry/Londonderry. The Northern Ireland
Government was unable to contain the increasing sectarian conflict. As a consequence Britain
sent troops in 1969 to restore order. While initially welcomed as protectors by the Catholic
population their use of military methods in response to Irish Republican Army attacks and to
quell civil disorder rapidly soured the relationship. The presence of these troops, and a desire to
protect Catholic communities from attack by elements within neighbouring Protestant
communities, prompted a revived Irish Republican Army campaign that was mirrored by
increasingly active Loyalist paramilitaries.
In 1969-1970 the Provisional Irish Republican Army split from the left-leaning
republican movement, which had been moving towards political campaigning on social issues. A
cycle of sectarian murder exploded throughout the Province while the ethnic cleansing of
Catholic and Protestant areas led to 21,500 people being driven from their homes. At the time
this was the largest forced population movement in Western Europe since World War Two.
In 1971 the British Government imposed internment of suspected terrorists without trial.
While this was intended for suspects of all factions in practice most of those interned were
Catholic. Strategically this was a disaster for the government because its oppressive and unjust
application generated a wave of support across the Catholic community for the Provisional Irish
Republican Army serving to swell their ranks. In January 1972, fourteen demonstrators at a civil
rights rally in Derry/Londonderry were killed by the British Army, further alienating the
Nationalist population.
In 1972 as the conflict continued to escalate the Northern Ireland Government was
suspended and direct rule from Britain imposed. This was intended to be a temporary
arrangement whilst a new system of governance, generally acceptable to the whole population,
was agreed. In practice direct rule has now lasted for over thirty years, excepting brief interludes
of devolved power sharing in 1974 and following the Belfast Agreement.
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Bloody Sunday was one of the most infamous acts of violence during the Troubles. On
the afternoon of Sunday 30 January 1972 a "civil rights" march made its way from the Creggan
Estate in Derry en route to the city centre. The march was taking place in breach of an Order
prohibiting such marches. A political decision was taken to stop the march in the Bogside before
it reached the city centre. The task of stopping the march fell to the British Army. The
operational plan for achieving this result envisaged that violence was likely once the march
reached the army barricades at the edge of the Bogside. The plan included provision for a "scoop
up" operation to arrest as many rioters as possible. Three companies of the 1 Parachute Regiment
were given the task of conducting the arrest operation should it become necessary. In the event
two companies went in through the army barricades at about 16.10. Shortly after that, shooting
broke out. In the space of about 10 minutes, 13 civilians were shot dead and 15 were wounded.
All of the dead were shot by soldiers as were all of the wounded, with one possible exception.
All of the deaths and injuries occurred in the general area of Rossville Street, Rossville Flats and
Glenfada/Abbey Park, although some Army shots were fired outside that immediate area.
Altogether, the soldiers fired a total of 108 bullets. They claimed that they fired at gunmen and
bombers. No guns were recovered from any of the victims and the only bombs recovered were
four nail bombs which were allegedly found on the body of Gerald Donaghy in disputed
circumstances. No photographic evidence was produced showing a gunman or bomber despite
the fact that there many photographers operating in the area, including at least two army
photographers. There was some civilian evidence to the effect that the occasional gunman was
spotted. Some civilians also reported seeing and hearing gunfire which did not come from the
Army. However, no civilian or journalist reported seeing anyone throw a bomb at the Army.
Forensic tests on all of the deceased (with the exception of Gerald Donaghy, on which see later)
proved negative for handling bombs. They also proved negative for the handling of weapons for
5 of the deceased, and were inconclusive with respect to the rest. There was a huge body of
civilian and journalist evidence that soldiers fired at unarmed civilians in circumstances where
there was no real threat to the lives of the soldiers.
Another violent event during the Troubles was Bloody Friday. 'Bloody Friday' is the
name given to the events that occurred in Belfast on Friday 21 July 1972. During the afternoon
of 'Bloody Friday' the Irish Republican Army (IRA) planted and exploded 22 bombs which, in
the space of 75 minutes, killed 9 people and seriously injured approximately 130 others. In
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addition to the bombs there were numerous hoax warnings about other explosive devices which
added to the chaos in the streets that afternoon. Many people believe these hoax warnings were
deliberately used to reduce the effectiveness of the security forces in dealing with the real bombs.
As the quotes above make clear, the killing and maiming had a profound impact on most
people in Northern Ireland. 'Bloody Friday' also led to the decision by the British Government to
implement 'Operation Motorman' when, in the biggest British military operation since the 1956
Suez crisis, the British Army entered and ended the 'no-go' areas of Belfast and Derry.
The La Mon Hotel Bombing. In 1978, the La Mon was a hotel/restaurant near Belfast. On
the night of 17th February, 1978, there were 450 people in the hotel/restaurant, including hotel
guests and staff. The Irish Collie Club and the NI Junior Motorcycle Club were holding their
annual dinner dances in the Peacock and Gransha Rooms respectively. The Provisional IRA
(Provos,) planted an incendiary bomb, attached to petrol-filled canisters on meat hooks, outside
the window of the Peacock Room. This type of device had already been used by the IRA in more
than 100 attacks on commercial buildings before the La Mon attack, according to a published
account by a retired RUC (Police) Detective Superintendent. The bombers tried to send a
warning about the bomb but, according to them, the telephone box had been vandalised. The
explosion created a fireball 40 feet high and 60 feet wide. Twelve people were killed (seven of
them women) and 30 were injured, many critically. It took almost two hours for firemen to put
out the blaze. Eleven Protestant civilians and one Police Officer died that night. Most of the dead
and injured were members of the Irish Collie Club and the NI Junior Motorcycle Club. During
the Police hunt for the bombers, a poster was circulated by the Police to shock people into
coming forward with information. The poster was heartbreaking and terrifying because it showed
the charred remains of one of the victims and it contained these words, This is what the
bombers did to a human being.