07.05.98 The Irish Question
Moscow State Pedagogical University
1. The position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom
2. British policy towards Northern Ireland
3. Theories of political violence in the Northern Ireland conflict
I The Position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom
The inhabitants of Ireland are mainly Celtic by origin, and the majority never accepted the Reformation. In 1801 a new law added Ireland to the United Kingdom. By this time much of the land belonged to Protestant English landlords, and the Act of Union followed the period in which rebellions peasants were brutally suppressed. But in the six Northern Counties the Protestants were not a dominant minority: they were the majority of the population. Most of them were descendants of Scottish and English settlers who had moved into Ireland several generations before. They considered themselves to be Irish but remained as a distinct community, and there was not much intermarriage. There had been conflicts and battles between the two communities, still remembered along with their heroes and martyrs.
In 1912, when the liberals were in power, with the support of the main group of Irish MPs (for Ireland had seats in the UK parliament). The House of Commons passed a Home Rule Bill, but the House of Lords delayed it. It was bitterly opposed by the Protestant majority of the people in the six northern counties and by the M Ps they had elected. They did not want to be included in a self-governing Ireland dominated by Catholics.
Eventually, the island was partitioned. In 1922 the greater part became an independent state, and (in 1949) a republic outside the Commonwealth. Its laws, on divorce and other matters, reflect the influence of the Catholic Church. The six northern counties remained within the United Kingdom, with seats in Prime Minister and government responsible for internal affairs. In the politics of Northern Ireland the main factor has always been the hostility between Protestants and Catholics
Until 1972 the Northern Irish Parliament (called Stormont) always had a Protestant majority. By 1960s Catholics produced serious riots. The police were mainly Protestants. They used their guns. Several people were killed. The UK Labour government of the time had sympathy with the Catholics grievances. The Protestant parties regularly supported the Conservatives, while some MPs elected for Catholic parties took little or no part in the work of the Parliament.
In 1969 the UK Labour Government sent troops to Northern Ireland, with others to help impartially to keep order. But to most Catholics UK troops have become identified with the Union of Northern Ireland with the UK. Many Catholics don’t like the idea of the division of the island, but recognize that the union of the North with the Republic could only be imposed against the wishes of the majority in the North, and would probably lead to a civil war. Less moderate Catholics have some sympathy with their own extremists, the Irish Republican Army [IRA], who are prepared to use any means, including violence, in support of the demand to be united with the Republic of Ireland.
In 1969-72 the UK governments, first Labour, then Conservative, tried to persuade the Protestant politicians to agree to changes which might be acceptable to the Catholics, but made little progress. In 1972 the UK government decided that the independent regime could not solve its problems, and put an end to it. Since then the internal administration has been run under the responsibility of the UK cabinet. In political terms this decision of Mr. Heath’s government was an act of self- sacrifice. Until 1972 the Irish [Protestant] Unionist MPs had regularly supported the Conservative in the UK Parliament, but since then they have become an independent group not linked to any UK party. Most of them, like the Northern Irish Catholic MPs, have taken little part in UK affair except those involving Northern Ireland.
From 1972 onwards successive UK governments have tried to find a « political solution» to the Northern Irish problems, that is, a solution acceptable to most Catholics and most Protestants. Several devices have been tried with little or no success. Protestant politicians are elected on programs, which involve refusal to accept compromise.
Meanwhile, the IRA continues its terrorist campaign. It receives both moral and financial support from some descendants of Irish people who emigrated to the US. Although so many innocent victims have been killed, many of them by chance or through mistakes, it does not seem likely that any different British government policy would have succeed in preventing the violence that goes on.
Northern Ireland’s economy, based partly on farming, party on the heavy industries of Belfast, has brought its people to a standard of living well above that of the Republic, but lower than Great Britain’s. With the decline of shipbuilding there is no serious unemployment, and vast seems have been spent by UK governments in attempts to improve the situation.