Northern Ireland became independent from the remainder of Ireland after years of fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Ireland was partitioned in 1921 under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 between six of the nine Ulster counties in the northeast (forming Northern Ireland) and the remaining twenty-six counties of the south and west (forming the Irish Free State in
1922). When the latter achieved dominion status, the six Northern Ireland counties, under the procedures laid out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 opted out, and so remain as part of the United Kingdom.
The conflict in Northern Ireland stems from a history of British rule, historical animosity between Catholics and Protestants, and the various armed and political attempts to unite Northern Ireland with the rest of the island. "Nationalist" and “republican” groups seek a united Ireland, while “unionists” and “loyalists” want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. After decades
of violence by both republican and unionist paramilitaries, most notably the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the British and Irish governments negotiated an IRA ceasefire in 1994, which was followed by the landmark U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.
Instability in Northern Ireland began to reveal itself in the 1960s and when a peaceful civil rights march in 1968 was violently broken up by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the troubles were under way. British troops were sent to Derry and Belfast in August 1969; the Catholics initially welcomed them, but it soon became clear that they were the tools of the Protestant majority. Peaceful
measures had clearly failed and the Irish Republican Army, which had fought the British during the Anglo-Irish war, re-surfaced. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 gave independence to 26 Irish counties, and allowed six, largely Protestant, Ulster counties the choice of opting out. The Northern Ireland parliament came into being, with James Craig as its first prime minister.
A plebiscite within Northern Ireland on whether it should remain in the United Kingdom, or join the Republic, was held in 1973. The vote went heavily in favour of maintaining the status quo with approximatley 57% of the total electorate voting in support, but most nationalists boycotted the poll. Though legal provision remains for holding another plebiscite, and former Ulster Unionist Party
leader David Trimble some years ago advocated the holding of such a vote, no plans for such a vote have been adopted as of 2005.
Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the "the troubles." Protests, often
violent, still occur in Northern Ireland as the Catholics want to unite all of Ireland into one country and the Protestants (including the English Administration) want to keep Northern Ireland as a part of the Commonwealth.
The GFA established a power-sharing legislative assembly to serve as the autonomous local government of Northern Ireland. The 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly is led by a first minister and deputy first minister, one from each of the two communities, and a 10-minister executive. The GFA also provided for changes in both the British and Irish constitutions. Ireland ceded territorial claim
to Northern Ireland, and the U.K. agreed that Northern Ireland could become part of Ireland if a majority (north and south) so voted in the future. Finally, the GFA provides the blueprint for “normalization,” to include the eventual removal of British forces, devolution of police and justice functions, and guarantees of human rights and equal opportunity for all individuals. The agreement was
approved in a referendum by 71% of Northern Ireland voters and 95% of Irish voters.
The major political parties in Northern Ireland are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP). The UUP and SDLP are centrist unionist and republican parties, respectively, while Sinn Fein is strongly republican and the DUP is strongly unionist. From the time the Assembly was created in 1998 until 2003, the
UUP and SDLP were the governing parties.
In October 2002, the British Government suspended (for the fourth time) the Assembly, following a breakdown in trust between unionists and republicans. The British and Irish Governments began discussions with the parties to try to resolve longstanding unresolved differences between the communities, and to secure a commitment from Sinn Fein that republicans would divest themselves of all
paramilitary activities and capabilities.
Efforts to restore the political process in time to stage new elections to the Assembly in May 2003 broke down when the two governments concluded they did not have sufficient assurances from the republicans. However, the governments proceeded to publish a joint declaration, mapping out the timetable to full implementation of the GFA. The governments also created an International Monitoring
Commission to serve as a forum to hear complaints of alleged breaches of GFA commitments by the political parties and/or by British authorities. The four-member commission includes a representative from the United States. It issued its first report in April 2004, in which it criticized republican and loyalist paramilitary groups for illegal activities.
The British and Irish Governments attempted again in October 2003 to conclude a deal with the parties to restore government, but failed to reach agreement. However, elections to the suspended Assembly went forward in November 2003; these elections turned the more moderate UUP and SDLP out of power and installed the strongly unionist DUP and strongly republican Sinn Fein. The Assembly remains
suspended, as the DUP refuses to enter into dialogue or government with Sinn Fein until the IRA ends all paramilitary activities and decommissions its weapons. The British and Irish Governments are engaged in ongoing efforts with the parties to restore the political process and restore devolved government.