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History of Northern Ireland conflict UPSC NOTE

 What is the significance of the First Minister of Ireland being from the Sinn Fein?

  • Northern Ireland was the site of a 30-year civil war (1968-1998).

  • It known as ‘The Troubles’ between the Republicans and the Unionists, which killed over 3,500 people. 

  • It also had a religious aspect to it with the Republicans being mostly Catholic and the Unionists being largely Protestants.

  • Northern Ireland was formerly part of the Ulster province, which lies to the north of modern-day Ireland

  • Conflict between the Protestants and the Irish Catholics goes all the way back to 1609, when King James I started an official policy of migration wherein people from England and Scotland were encouraged to move to Ulster to work in his various plantations there

  • The religious war that was being waged in much of Europe at the time, between the Protestants and the Catholics, made its presence felt in Ulster as well. 

  • However, a much stronger resistance was brewing. 

  • Ireland at the time was under the rule of England. 

  • The growing resistance against the colonial English rule, especially after the Potato Famine of 1845 where over 1 million Irish people died due to disease and starvation, cemented these sectarian and religious differences. 

  • Finally, in 1916, in the middle of the First World War, during Easter week, Ireland rose up in arms against colonial rule under the leadership of the Irish Republican Army.

  • After a bloody war, it was able to gain independence from England with the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921.

  • However, Ireland was split into two territories. As there was a protestant majority in Ulster, out of the 32 counties in Ireland, six remained with the U.K, forming the region of Northern Ireland.

How did the two-year long political deadlock come to an end?

  • Northern Ireland is governed by a power-sharing agreement known as consociationalism as laid down in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998

  • This system believes that power should be shared equally between the various sectarian groups in a state, in this case, between the

pro-Irish unity faction, called the Nationalists or Republicans, and the pro-U.K. faction, which are the Loyalists or the Unionists. 

  • Sinn Fein is the largest Nationalist political party (also left-wing), while the DUP is of the latter.

  • The party that wins the largest vote-share will hold the First Minister position while the party with the second largest vote share will keep the post of Deputy First Minister

  • Of these two posts, one must be a Unionist and the other a Nationalist. 

  • Both positions hold equal weight and one cannot exist without the other.

  • In the 2022 elections, Sinn Fein finished first with a 29% vote share, while the DUP secured the second position with a 21.3% vote share.

  • However, a government was not formed as the DUP exited Stormont (Northern Ireland’s Parliament) because it objected to the new border controls between Britain and the Island of Ireland, which came in the aftermath of Brexit

  • When the U.K. exited the EU, Northern Ireland became the only province to share a land border with an EU country (Republic of Ireland).

  • The U.K. and the EU then came up with the Northern Ireland Protocol, which stipulated that the trade border, where goods are checked for compliance, would be shifted to the Irish ports, essentially making it a sea border

  • However, this was rejected by the DUP, which held that this was against the Good Friday agreement which sanctioned free movement of goods and people across borders. 

  • In protest, they exited the government and the political deadlock set in.

  • The U.K. and the EU then drew up fresh rules, called the Windsor Framework, which stated that on arrival at the border of Northern Ireland, goods will be demarcated into two

  • The ones which were entering the region would go into the ‘green lane’ with no inspections while those entering the Republic of Ireland (EU territory) would go to the ‘red lane’ for compliance checks. 

  • After assurance from the U.K. of Northern Ireland’s place in its internal market, the DUP has agreed to return to government.

What were ‘The Troubles’?

  • Northern Ireland was the site of a 30-year civil war (1968-1998) known as ‘The Troubles’ between the Republicans and the Unionists, which killed over 3,500 people

  • It also had a religious aspect to it with the Republicans being mostly Catholic and the Unionists being largely Protestants.

What were the main provisions of the Good Friday Agreement?

  • The Good Friday Agreement is a unique peace treaty in that it conceded to most of the demands from both sides of the conflict. 

  • The treaty had three main aspects — that the Northern Ireland government would be formed on the sovereign wishes of both Republicans and the Unionists and that they would share governance equally.

  • That the people of Northern Ireland could seek reunification with Ireland any time subject to a referendum.

  • That the citizens of Northern Ireland can seek Irish or British nationality or both

  • It also abolished border checks and encouraged the freedom of movement of people across the U.K. and Ireland.

  • However, tensions of the conflict still linger in the region. 

  • The power sharing system has not been smooth.

  • Stormont has fallen multiple times before the completion of a term.

  • The Assembly was suspended in 2000, in 2001, from 2002-2007 when Unionists withdrew from the executive and from 2017-2020.

  • In February 2022, the government again collapsed as Unionists withdrew over border controls between the U.K. and Northern Ireland.


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