Irish Northern Aid
Lt. Tom Williams Unit
Overall, the history of Ireland is essentially that of English subjugation of the people of Ireland and Irish resistance to being subjugated. While much of Ireland’s history (in the context of the present conflict) is Ireland-focused, it is more accurately described as peripheral to England, a by-product of internal English political intrigue, English ambitions and English apprehensions about external threats to England itself. The principal tool used to establish English control over Ireland was land usurpation, achieved through military adventures and legislative fiat. Land, of course, is extremely important because it is the wellspring of economic power, that which makes it possible to raise armies and to engage in other governmental and political exertions. A simple chart vividly demonstrates the flow of land ownership over a remarkably short period of time from Irish Catholics to Protestants from either England or Scotland:
The transfer of land ownership from Irish Catholics into the hand of Protestants loyal to England had numerous consequences. For England, it meant that foreign nations — like Spain or France — would not easily be able to establish bases at England’s back door from which they might launch attacks. It also meant that a great and rich resource base was secured from which could be drawn much of what England needed, such as agricultural products, timber, textiles and even people for pressing into military service. For the people of Ireland, it meant extensive and severe poverty, political disenfranchisement, religious harassment and all the societal ills naturally resulting from such conditions, including the inability to secure civil or human rights for themselves, wretched health and even starvation. For both, it ultimately meant war.
It has been said that “Irish history is something the Irish should forget and something that the English should always remember.” In practice, however, the reverse has predominated. The Irish have a very keen sense of their history and the English are often neglectful (or worse, selective and skewed) in their remembering. This paper seeks to help the reader achieve a closer understanding of just where matters are in Ireland and how they got there. It is not intended to be a thorough or even a detailed exposition of Ireland’s history, though some measure of close detail is unavoidable. Its object is to enable the reader to feel reasonably comfortable in general discussions about the present state of affairs in the north of Ireland.
History studies often separate a region’s history into a series of distinct periods, each being marked by specific, defining events. This paper will follow the same course. For purposes of understanding the present political circumstances in the north of Ireland, the most convenient starting place is 1169, when the English first invaded Ireland. Before entering the realm of history, though, it will be helpful to be familiar with the broad geographical make-up of Ireland.
Modern Ireland consists of thirty-two counties, twenty-six of which form the present-day Republic of Ireland. The other six were partitioned-off in 1922 and remain under British rule, given the name “Northern Ireland”. All six of the occupied counties are in Ulster. The other three counties of Ulster — Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan — are in the Republic.
The names applied to places in Ireland is often a matter of some sensitivity. The six counties yet under British rule are referred to by unionists/loyalists (those who advocate continued union with Great Britain) and by Great Britain as Northern Ireland and sometimes as Ulster. Republicans/nationalists (those who advocate re-unification of Ireland as a sovereign, thirty-two county republic) are quick to point out that the six counties do not comprise the whole of Ulster and that no part of the six counties is as far north as is the northern coast of County Donegal. Republicans generally refer to the area as simply “the Six Counties” or “the north of Ireland” and, conversely, refer to the Republic of Ireland as the Twenty-Six Counties or, simply, the Republic. The Republic of Ireland is sometimes derisively referred to among some republicans as the “Free State”, a reference to the designation appended to the twenty-six counties by Great Britain during the treaty negotiations of 1921 and an expression of contempt for the inheritors of those who accepted the partition of Ireland. When using the term “Ireland”, unionists invariably are referring to the Republic of Ireland. Republicans talk about “Derry” while unionists say “Londonderry”, the name appended to that city by the English Parliament in 1613 to help encourage English settlers to re-locate there (In 1984, the City Council there voted to change the name back to Derry).
As can be readily seen, then, even the simple matter of calling a place by a particular name in Ireland can have political implications.
A fledgling movement thereafter developed within the Irish Church that advocated adoption of the Roman system. Pro-Roman churchmen argued that the Irish were not true Christians, citing old Celtic customs such as marriage laws that allowed for divorce and allowed also for a man to marry his deceased brother’s wife, a practice that Rome regarded as incest. An increasing number of priests moved closer An increasing number of priests moved closer to the Roman model, building larger churches, denouncing various customs, adopting certain rituals and longing for a stronger connection with Rome. Opportunity presented itself a century after the Norman Conquest of England.
In 1168, the king of Leinster, Diarmaid Mac Murchada, became embroiled in a political struggle relating to who would be elevated to the high kingship of all of Ireland. He supported a losing contender and was forced to flee. He crossed over to Wales and enlisted the support of a Norman nobleman, Richard Fitzgilbert de Clare (also known as “Strongbow”) to assist him in regaining his kingdom. Strongbow agreed, married Diarmaid Mac Murchada’s daughter Aoife and settled in Ireland. In 1169, Strongbow proposed to other Norman adventurers, including the English king, Henry II, that Ireland could be conquered. Characterizing the invasion as a religious mission but equally anxious to extend his influence, Henry II successfully waged a war of conquest, receiving the blessings of Pope Alexander III in 1172. The Normans built thousands of castles from which they continued in their efforts to subdue the Irish, essentially a military occupation of Ireland.
The native Irish lost the battles on the field but nonetheless conquered the hearts of the invaders, in a manner of speaking. The Normans/English had not brought with them any great number of women and consequently took wives from among the Irish population. The Irish women raised the children and the heirs of the invaders soon were speaking the Irish language, wearing their clothes in the Irish manner, playing the Irish game of hurling, adopting the Irish manner of names and were generally integrated into Irish culture and society. The common phrase at the time was that they had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”
The integration of the Normans/English into Irish culture was so extensive that the English Parliament passed statutes in 1366 that forbade Englishmen from speaking Irish, marrying into Irish families, dressing like Irishmen, adopting Irish laws and playing hurling. These laws, known as the Statutes of Kilkenny, were dismal failures. Indeed, the assimilation into Irish culture was so extensive that by 1500, the English crown ruled only a small strip of land along the eastern coast, extending from Dundalk southwards to Dublin. This zone of English dominion was demarcated by a semi-circular fortification made of earth and wood and was known as “The Pale”, giving rise to the English term, “beyond The Pale”, meaning something that is outside of what is acceptable to civilized (i.e., “English”) society.
Henry VIII is well known for his having had six wives. The first was Catherine of Aragon, the youngest child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. In 1488, Henry’s father, King Henry VII, made an alliance with Spain by betrothing his two-year-old son Arthur to three-year-old Catherine, her dowry being Aragon, a region in northeastern Spain. The wedding was held in November 1501 but Arthur died only six months later. Reluctant to return the dowry, the king then betrothed Arthur’s ten-year-old brother Henry to Catherine. By the time Henry was old enough to wed, the king was less interested in the alliance with Spain and forced young Henry to repudiate the betrothal. When the king died in 1509, the son ascended to the throne, becoming Henry VIII. One of his earliest acts as king was to marry Catherine.
A male child who could succeed him to the throne of England was a leading concern for Henry. Catherine’s first child, a daughter, was stillborn. She then had two boys, but both died soon after their births. Their fourth child was a daughter, later to become Queen Mary, and two further pregnancies ended in miscarriages. In six pregancies, then, Henry was left with only one heir — a girl.
Throughout his marriage, Henry had kept mistresses and, in 1526, turned his eye towards Anne Boleyn, the sister of a former mistress, Mary Boleyn. Anne refused Henry’s entreaties, however, insisting that she would be only a queen, not a mistress. In 1527, Henry petitioned to the Pope for an annulment, his argument being based on the prohibition against marrying a deceased brother’s wife. Catherine’s nephew being Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, she was not without influence and argued that she had never been married to Arthur because the marriage had never been consummated. The legal and political arguments carried on for six years. Impatient with the delays, Henry had Parliament pass several Acts in 1532 that together diminished Papal authority in England and threatened ecclesiastical revenues.
By late 1532, Anne’s resistance to Henry had withered and by December she was pregnant. Certain that the child would be a boy, Henry was forced to act so as to assure the child’s legitimacy. In January 1533, he secretly married Anne, there being no impediment to the marriage since (in his mind) he had not ever been married to Catherine. He then rejected the power of the Pope in England and ordered Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, to grant the annulment. The Pope responded with excommunication and Parliamentary legislation enacting Henry's decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church soon followed. An Act in Restraint of Appeals forbade appeals to Rome, stating that England was an empire, governed by one supreme head and king who possessed 'whole and entire' authority within the realm, and that no judgments or excommunications from Rome were valid. An Act of Submission of the clergy and an Act of Succession followed, together with an Act of Supremacy (1534) which recognized that the king was “the only supreme head of the Church of England Anglicana Ecclesia.” The breach between the king and the Pope forced clergy, office-holders and others to choose their allegiance. The most famous was Sir Thomas More, who was executed for treason in 1535.
The baby was a girl — Elizabeth, born on September 7, 1533. Anne became pregnant two more times but she either miscarried or the child was stillborn. Henry still was without a male heir. An automatic and necessary consequence of the annulment of the marriage between Henry and Catherine was that Henry’s only child at the time, Mary, was declared illegitimate. She and her mother, Catherine, were thereafter much abused.
A year into her reign, Mary made an alliance with Spain by marrying its king, Phillip II. She died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn’s daughter. Elizabeth terminated the alliance with Spain and forever ended any official movement back to the Catholic Church. Indeed, Elizabeth’s promotion of Protestantism was nearly as vigorous as had been Mary’s persecution of Protestants.
Within a few years of becoming queen, Elizabeth authorized her navies to raid Spanish ships for their cargoes. She made alliances with countries that were opposed to Spain and encouraged various intrigues against Spain. Spain responded with a planned invasion of England in 1588, the ill-fated Spanish Armada. The crews of several destroyed Spanish vessels found their way to Ireland, a fact not lost on Elizabeth and her advisors.
England’s concerns about the possibility of Spain or another country establishing itself in Ireland as a base to launch attacks against England resulted in what later became known as the plantation system. The plan was to occupy Ireland with sufficient numbers of hard-working Protestants who would either drive shiftless, Catholic, Irish-speaking peasants off of valuable land and into the hills and bogs or to turn them into decent, hard-working, civilized people who would obey England. An added benefit would be the spread of Protestantism and the diminution of Catholicism in Ireland.
A significant measure of immigration to Ireland from Scotland and England occurred, though not in the numbers as had been hoped for. Many of those who did go to Ireland were merely profiteers who never actually settled there. They merely acquired huge forests, clearing the land and shipping the timber to England. The Irish families in Ulster were largely displaced, forced to live in the bogland and dispossessed of all their belongings. Many went to Munster, in the southwestern quadrant of Ireland. In response, a number of Irish noblemen organized for a war against England and allied themselves with Spain. Spain had managed to land troops in Ireland and a decisive battle occurred in 1601 at Kinsdale, with the English emerging victorious.
The Irish noblemen who had rebelled against England escaped and, in 1607, went into exile in continental Europe, which became known as the Flight of the Earls. The lands they had held — comprising much of Counties Armagh, Cavan, Coleraine (later called Derry, or Londonderry), Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone — being thus abandoned, England declared them escheated and thereby the property of the crown. The seizure of Irish land was the great springboard for the plantations of the 1600s.
England divided the land into lots of 1,000 acres, 1,500 acres, 2,000 acres and 3,000 acres, to be granted without cost to settlers, subject to several requirements. One such requirement was that no Irish tenant would be allowed on the land. Another was that the land had to actually be settled by English or Scottish Protestant families who would be additionally required to bear arms and build defenses. Pamphlets advertising the offers of land were widely distributed in Scotland and England and resulted in huge responses. Because of different understandings of how land was measured, the new settlers acquired acreages much larger than the plan had contemplated. Also, the size of the plantations made them unmanageable and thus made it necessary for the native Irish to be retained on the land, requiring them to pay rents.
A new king, Charles I, ascended to the English throne in 1625. In exchange for their financial support, Charles promised the Old English in Ireland that he would secure tolerance for their Catholicism and protect their property from seizure. This latter promise was rescinded when the English wars against France and Spain ended and Charles no longer needed their money. By 1641, the Old English feared that the English Parliament might join with evangelical Scots to suppress Catholicism in Ireland altogether and plans for a general, Ireland-wide rebellion were made. Though the plan was discovered via a betrayal, sporadic attacks throughout Ulster beginning in October 1641 resulted in approximately 2,000 Protestants being killed. Reports brought back to England doubled and quadrupled the casualty estimates and further exaggerated the ferocity of the attacks. The result was a general impression in England that the Irish were unruly, barbarous and savage.
The rebellion received the support of the Catholic Church in March 1642 and, two months later, a provisional government of both churchmen and laity was set up in Kilkenny for the purpose of putting plans in place for a long-term war. Called the Confederation of Kilkenny, its goal was to regain the initiative and ultimately take control of the uprising. Some in the Confederation advocated a completely Catholic source of authority while others sought an inclusive national identity. Although the Confederation supported Charles I, he nonetheless called upon the rebels to lay down their arms. Parliament took a stronger line, passing the Adventurers Act in 1642 that promised land to those who would lend money for a war in Ireland, the money to be secured by 2,500,000 acres of Irish land that Parliament anticipated would be forfeited. One noted subscriber was Oliver Cromwell, who invested £2,000 and thereby acquired the right to 5,000 acres in County Offaly.
The rebellion continued in varying intensities for seven years, waxing and waning in parallel to the civil wars between Charles I and the English Parliament, the first of which raged from August 1642 to April 1646 and the second of which occurred in mid-1848. Anxious to acquire the armies in Ireland to use against Parliament, Charles authorized negotiations with the Confederation, which dragged on for two years, during which several truces were declared. When Charles’ representative, the Earl of Ormond, would not yield on the Confederation’s demand for freedom of religion for Catholics, a new representative was appointed. A treaty was then organized in 1645 that offered complete freedom to Catholics and land and property rights to the Church; it also provided an army of 10,000 soldiers to Charles I.
When Parliament discovered the treaty, Charles pretended to not have known of it and restored Ormond to his position. Under the treaty Ormond made in March 1846, Catholics did not get complete freedom, receiving only various concessions; again, Charles I would get his army of 10,000 soldiers. However, the Pope’s representative in Ireland, Archbisop Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, denounced the treaty because it did not allow the Catholic Church full rights of freedom of worship and ownership of property. Anyone who accepted the new treaty would be excommunicated. The Confederation was thus riven in two.
Parliament’s hand grew ever stronger and the Irish rebellion weaker. Charles I was executed in January 1649 pursuant to a Parliamentary death warrant signed by fifty-nine Members. The third signature was that of Oliver Cromwell. In March, Parliament abolished the monarchy altogether and the war then became a struggle between Parliament and royalists, with the additional Catholic flavor in Ireland. The following August, Cromwell landed in Ireland. He laid siege to Drougheda and, upon prevailing, slaughtered the town’s entire resident population — men, women and children alike, numbering about 3,000 people. Of the soldiers who had defended Drougheda, only about 10% of were killed, the rest being sent to Barbados. Several towns thereafter surrendered and Cromwell then proceeded southward. Wexford refused to yield and its entire population of 1,500 was slaughtered. Cromwell continued west along the southern coastline to Waterford and Cork and then back eastward and north to Kilkenny, taking one town after another. In April 1650, Parliament began sending messages to Cromwell that he was needed in Scotland, where the son of the executed king Charles I — himself named Charles, later becoming Charles II — was assembling an army to fight against Parliament. Cromwell left in late May, never to return to Ireland. The army he left behind in Ireland finished the war within two years.
Under the Adventurers Act of 1642, Parliament had promised 2,500,000 acres of Ireland to investors. Parliament had also promised land to up to 35,000 soldiers in lieu of pay. Having expended all of its money fighting two civil wars against Charles I and then further warring against royalists, there was no money to pay the armies, so it was essential that Parliament deliver the land to the soldiers. Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1652 under which participants in the Irish rebellion could be tried for treason, the sentence being execution or land forfeiture or both. Several hundred people were executed; large tracts of land were seized.
The monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II was invited to return to England. He promised to re-introduce Catholicism to England but never did, though he did himself convert to the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed in 1685. His successor, James II, was Catholic and Catholics in Ireland anticipated that their circumstances would ease. Their hopes were put at risk when William of Orange, a Dutchman and a Protestant, raised a challenge to King James II for the throne of England at Parliament’s invitation. Irish Catholics felt bound to support James II, though they were not especially enthralled with him, often referring to him as Séamus á Chaca (“James the Shit”).
The forces of William of Orange engaged those of James II at the Boyne River, north of Dublin, on July 1, 1690. The Battle of the Boyne was won by the Protestants and is now a major element in the politics of the north of Ireland. In 1691, the Treaty of Limerick was made under which Catholics were promised the same degree of tolerance as had existed prior to the English civil wars. The treaty was the basis upon which the garrison at Limerick surrendered and the siege ended. Leaders of the Catholic army — called The Wild Geese — left Ireland altogether. William of Orange was reportedly prepared to honor the treaty but the Protestant-controlled Irish Parliament in Dublin refused to ratify several clauses, notably those that restored certain rights to Catholics. Instead of easing the situation for Catholics, ever more repressive measures were introduced.
In 1695, the first of the Penal Laws was passed, restricting the right of Catholics to education, to possess arms and to own a horse valued at more than £5. This last provision essentially granted expropriation rights to Protestants: all that was needed was to offer a Catholic £5 for his horse, thereby automatically establishing that the horse could fetch a price of at least £5 and thereby automatically requiring the sale. These statutes were augmented in 1704 by new legislation specifically enacted “to prevent further growth of popery.” The new law restricted landholding rights for Catholics and established tests for voting and for holding office. Not only were Catholics barred from voting, but so were Protestants who shared common beliefs with Catholics about rituals, Church structures and other religious issues. The object of the laws was principally to coerce Catholics to convert to Protestantism. The method of coercion was political disenfranchisement, forced poverty and land confiscation.
Though repealed in 1776, the Penal Laws have to be considered as part of the wave of English legislation that transferred ownership of property in Ireland from Catholics to Protestants who were loyal to England. In 1601, 95% of Ireland was owned by Catholics. After the Flight of the Earls and the forfeiture of their lands, the plantations were begun. The Adventurers Act was passed in 1642 and promised 2,500,000 acres of Irish land to English investors. At that time, 59% of Ireland was owned by Catholics. In 1652, the Act of Settlement was passed so as to pay soldiers in the English armies by giving them Irish land and, eight years later, only 20% of Ireland was owned by Catholics. By the time the Penal Laws were repealed, only 5% of Ireland was owned by Catholics. At that time, Catholics comprised 75% of the population.
Emigration to America became the sole means of escape for many Irish families in the eigteenth century and it is said that approximately one-half of the front-line soldiers during the American Revolution were Irish. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy and Thomas Russell founded the United Irishmen in 1791. Four years later, in 1795, a sectarian, Protestant organization calling itself the Orange Order (after William of Orange) was founded, the original purpose of which was to force the exclusion of Catholics from being employed in the linen industry.
Led by Wolfe Tone (a Dublin lawyer and the son of a Presbyterian minister), the United Irishmen undertook a rebellion against England, in 1798. Although supported by French warships and three thousand troops, the rebellion failed. Wolfe Tone was captured and, denied a soldier’s death, committed suicide in prison.
Insurgent trends nonetheless continued. Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell persuaded the French to once again lend their support and attempted a rising in 1803, failing miserably. Both were captured and hanged.
In about 1810, the Orange Order began organizing parades that would march through Catholic neighborhoods so as to remind them of the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism. New members of the Orange Order are required to take an oath in which they swear to never become a Catholic, to never marry a Catholic and to never baptize their children into the Catholic faith and to agree to various other anti-Catholic covenants. Orange Order parades through Belfast in 1812 resulted in the first recorded sectarian riots; the parades continue to be a regular source of tensions.
O’Connell spoke against the Act of Union in 1800 and subsequently joined the Catholic Committee, a pressure group that had been formed in 1789. He formed the Catholic Association of Ireland in 1823 for the purpose of leading the cause of Catholic emancipation. A measure of its support among the general Catholic population is seen in its financial structure. Members were required to pay dues of one penny per month, which came to be known as the “Catholic Rent”. In the first nine months of its existence, the penny-a-month dues generated over £20,000 and amounted to £22,700 in 1828. That same year, voters in County Clare elected O’Connell to Parliament, though he was unable to take his seat, being a Catholic.
The Catholic Association produced results. In 1829, the English Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, which allowed Catholics to enter Parliament and to hold civil and military offices. O’Connell’s success was ephemeral, however. At the very same time that Parliament passed the Catholic Emancipation Act, it also passed legislation revising voter qualification. Formerly, any man who held property having a value of at least 40 shillings per year — whether held as owner or under leasehold — was entitled to vote in an election. Under the new legislation, the minimum value was raised to £10, thereby reducing the number of eligible voters to only 92,000 men in all of Ireland, barely over 1% of the population. In essence, then, government in Ireland was elected by and managed for the benefit of the landed 1%.
A collateral consequence of the change in voter qualification was mass evictions of small tenant farmers. Under the prior structure, it was in a landlord’s interest to have as many tenants as he could. A landlord would divide his land up in numerous parcels, renting each out for 40 shillings a year, with each parcel thereby producing a vote. Because voting was not secret, the landlords could supervise their tenants’ votes. Under the new voter-qualification rules, the small tenants lost their political value. The landowners needed tenants with larger holdings. The 1841 census showed that 80% of the population in Connaught was designated as Class III families, that is, people “without capital, in either money, land or knowledge.”
Two-thirds of the Irish population was dependent upon agriculture to sustain them. Approximately ninety percent of the population was almost entirely dependent upon the potato crop because the end of the Napoleonic wars on continental Europe had resulted in massive unemployment in Ireland. The degree to which the people of Ireland were dependent upon the potato was revealed in the 1837 Report on the Poor of Ireland, which estimated that 2,385,000 people were in a state of semi-starvation every summer as they waited for the potato crop to be harvested. The report also reflected other indicia of the dire straits, stating that there were approximately 9,000 people in County Donegal with only 10 beds and 93 chairs among them.
It was in such circumstances that disaster struck. In the fall of 1845, a shipload of fungus-infested potatoes brought over from America infected the potato crops in Ireland, leaving the potatoes mushy, rotted and altogether inedible. The fungus causing the blight was an airborne disease, resulting in the blight being spread extremely fast. So fast, in fact, that an entire field could be ruined overnight.
Paradoxically, the potato blight occurred at a time when Ireland was otherwise among the most productive of all the agricultural economies in Europe. But, the food that was produced was the property of the landlords and was barred from Irish consumption. An average of seven ships of foodstuffs left Ireland every day for places elsewhere in the world. In 1847, for example, 9,992 Irish calves were exported to England, a 33% increase over the previous year. The British government was generally deaf and blind to Ireland’s plight. As one official stated in 1846, “It is not the intention at all to import food for the use of the people of Ireland.”
Nonetheless, some food was brought into the country. While virtually all of Ireland’s rich grain-stocks were exported, Indian maize corn from America was brought in to feed the poor. However, the volumes imported were less than one-tenth the amount needed and even that meager amount was then distributed only very slowly. Further compounding the problem was the fact that Indian maize corn is extremely hard, requiring double-milling before it can be reduced to an edible form. The official charged with protecting the British treasury, Charles Edward Trevelyan, refused to authorize expenditures for double-milling, saying, “I cannot believe it will be necessary to grind the Indian corn twice. Dependence on charity is not to be made an agreeable mode of life.” Protestant missionaries flocked to Ireland to feed soup to the starving population, but they required that the people lining up for a bowl of soup first convert from Catholicism to the Protestant faith. Many did and came to be called “soupers”, a mark of contempt by their staunch Catholic neighbors.
Census figures reflect that, in 1845, when the blight first struck, there were about 8,200,000 people in Ireland. A British army study of census methods revealed, however, that gross undercounts had occurred and that the population was more likely about 9,000,000 people. By 1851, when the blight was ended, the population had declined to 6,600,000 people. In those six years, more than 1½ million people had emigrated elsewhere, principally to America. An estimated 30-45% of the passengers died during the voyage because of massive overcrowding and very meager food rations. Among those who remained in Ireland, 775,000 people died, either directly by starvation or by malnutrition-related diseases such as dropsy, dysentery, scurvy and cholera. Some have referred to this period as the potato famine, but it is eloquently known in Ireland as An Gorta Mór, “The Great Hunger”. It was of little concern in England, its general attitude having been succinctly expressed when one Member of Parliament, speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, complained at the time that “the famine is all well and good but it isn’t killing Irishmen fast enough.”
Though not sufficiently devastating for that Member, the famine is otherwise generally recognized as the greatest catastrophe to hit Europe in the nineteenth century. Although the potato blight lasted for six years, its impact has lasted much longer. Economic conditions did not improve for the poor Catholic underclass and deaths and emigration continued, so much so that even though families tended to be very large, the population of Ireland had declined to only 4,400,000 people by 1911. The population still is nearly four million people smaller than when the potato blight started, there being now only 5,200,000 people in Ireland (3,600,000 in the Republic and 1,600,000 in the north).
Agitation by the Fenians and England’s harsh response spurred Irish politicians to seek a political resolution of the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain, just as the rising of 1798 had encouraged Daniel O’Connell’s work decades earlier. The policy advocated by the politicians was known as Home Rule, under which Ireland would become semi-autonomous and for the most part self-ruling, though still a part of the United Kingdom and ultimately subject to the British crown.
The Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain was founded on January 18, 1873 and the Home Rule League was founded at a conference held in Dublin ten months later. Irish politicians at the forefront of the Home Rule movement included Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond. Although supported at first by the IRB, its Supreme Council withdrew IRB support for Home Rule in August 1876. By deftly playing the Tories and Labour off one another, Parnell managed to persuade British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone in December 1885 to support Home Rule and the Irish hierarchy formally endorsed it two months later. A bill was then introduced into Parliament in 1886 but was defeated in June. On its way down, the bill caused a split in the Labour Party and Gladstone’s own defeat in the elections that year.
Despite Gladstone’s support, the failure of the Home Rule bill to pass Parliament did not surprise many. A year afterwards, Arthur James Balfour, then Chief Secretary for Ireland and later Prime Minister (1902-05), predicted that Home Rule was an eventual certainty, though it would likely break two or three Parliaments. “After all,” he said, “when it comes I shall not be sorry. Only let us have separation as well as Home Rule; England cannot afford to go on with Irishmen in her Parliament.” Home Rule bills were introduced again in Parliament in 1893, in 1912 and again in 1913, being defeated each time. A bill was finally passed in May 1914 but never effectuated.
In 1905, a new political party was founded, called Sinn Féin (Irish for “We Ourselves”). Led by Arthur Griffith, Sinn Féin opposed Home Rule, advocating instead complete liberty for Ireland. Sinn Féin’s view in this regard has never wavered. The same year that Sinn Féin was founded saw also the creation of the Ulster Unionist Council (predecessor of the present Ulster Unionist Party), a tightly organized party representing various unionist associations, the Orange Order and paramilitary groups.
Just as did Sinn Féin, the bulk of the Protestant population was equally opposed to Home Rule, though for diametrically opposite reasons. This segment of Irish society, called unionists because they supported continuance of the union with Great Britain, advocated maintaining the status quo. They reacted vigorously to the Home Rule movement and, led by Edward Carson, began arming themselves and organizing militias. At one point, the Carsonites actually planned a war against England to force it maintain the union and reject Home Rule. Ironically, it was Carson’s own cousin, Mary Butler, who came up with the name “Sinn Féin” as a designation for the policy of self-reliance that is the foundation of the party bearing that name. In September 1912, 250,000 unionists signed their names to a written declaration called the Solemn League and Covenant, which ominously stated:
Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire [we] do hereby pledge ourselves … to stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament.
The bold language was matched by action when, barely four months after the Solemn League and Covenant was made, on January 31, 1913, the UUC founded the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. The following year, in April 1914, the UVF imported 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition, adding to an already large stock of weaponry, and began drilling openly. By May, unionists boasted that they were able to mobilize 23,000 men in arms and a coup d’etat was briefly planned for September 1914, prevented only by the outbreak of war in Europe.
Alarmed at unionists arming themselves and organizing into militias and parading, the IRB responded in kind, conducting mini-exercises of its own. Despite Home Rule having begun as a peaceful and political response to the violent opposition to British rule of Ireland, it had come full circle and the prospect of violent conflict was once again appearing on the horizon.
In 1914, James Connolly, founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, organized the Irish Citizen Army. At about the same time, there were regular rumblings among IRB members and supporters about a rising, but little progress. For the most part, it was limited to faux marches and attacks. Unlike the UVF exercises, Irish Citizen Army and IRB drills were for the most part conducted with sticks.
The Commandant of the IRB, John MacNeill, adamantly opposed any rising unless there was a reasonable likelihood of success. Contrasting the ill-equipped, minuscule IRB/Irish Citizens Army with the huge British Army and Navy, MacNeill was convinced that success was impossible. MacNeill enjoyed the support of many, some because they agreed with him and others because of loyalty and discipline; he was, after all, their commander. The insurgent cabal held a different view. Pearse, especially, was more adamant and was willing to die for Ireland completely irrespective of the prospects for success. Clarke, though far more realistic, also understood the concept of martyrdom and its utility.
Roger Casement, an Irishman who at one time had been in Britain’s diplomatic service and who had been knighted by the crown, was assigned the task of enlisting support from the American support group, Clann na Gael. He was to then go to Germany to acquire guns and soldiers. That effort was a disastrous failure, though not through the fault of anything the Irish did. The English had accidentally acquired Germany's secret communication codes and Germany, arrogant in its belief that the codes had not been captured, that they were secure and that they could never be broken, continued to use them throughout all of World War I. Radio transmissions about Casement’s mission were broadcast almost daily and intercepted by Britain, who sent ships to track Casement.
Unaware of the failure of Casement's mission, the Clarke/Pearse/Plunkett cabal secretly pushed through the rising and, for a couple days, managed to persuade John MacNeill to support them. At the last minute, however, he backed out and actually published an advertisement in the Irish Times on Easter Saturday cancelling his orders. By a sleight of hand, the Clarke/Pearse/Plunkett group made people think that all MacNeill had done was cancel the date. Thus, the Easter Rising occurred a day later, on Monday. By then, these members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, together with the Irish Citizens Army, were referring to themselves (almost accidentally) as the "Irish Republican Army".
The rising began on Monday, April 24, 1916. Although it had been intended to occur all over Ireland, poor planning by inexperienced leaders, poor communications, contradictory orders and a severe lack of matériel resulted in its being limited to Dublin. Approximately 1,600 rebels seized several buildings, establishing their headquarters at the General Post Office. At four minutes past noon, Patrick Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and read the six-paragraph Proclamation of the Republic. Only a small crowd was present, some of whom cheered, some of whom sniggered a bit and others who simply shrugged their shoulders.
Afterwards, Pearse returned to join the other rebels inside the Post Office. The only weapons they had were rifles, shotguns, pistols, petrol bombs and small gunpowder bombs. They were soon engaged by several thousand troops of the British Army who had rifles, machine guns, mortars, hand grenades, artillery, two battleships in the harbor, and excellent communications. They also were led by very competent and skilled commanders.
The rebels surrendered on the sixth day of the Rising, on Saturday, April 29, 1916. A total of 1,351 people were killed, of which 116 were British Army soldiers. Property damages were estimated at £2,500,000, one third of the annual revenue of the entire country at the time. About 100,000 people needed government assistance afterwards to avoid starvation.
One of the participants in the Easter Rising was Michael Collins, who later assumed a pivotal role in struggle for independence. Born in County Cork, he had gone to London in search of work, getting a job in the British Post Office. He quit one day, telling his superiors that he was going to join the army. He didn’t explain that it was the Irish Republican Army that he meant. His superiors wished him well.
The Easter Rising failed but succeeded in securing martyrs for Ireland and crystallizing Irish support. British Army General John Maxwell was specially sent over from England to crush the rebellion, which he succeeded in doing. He conducted a series of trials of sixteen of the leaders, each trial lasting barely a few minutes. All sixteen were convicted and sentenced to be executed. However, the American ambassador interceded on behalf of Eamon de Valera, who had been born in America. Dev, as he was known, was then sentenced to life in prison. The only other person to escape the firing squad was Countess Constance Markievicz, an aristocratic Englishwoman who had long been active in the movement for Irish independence and who had joined the Irish Citizen Army just as soon as it was formed. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment solely because she was a woman.
All fourteen executions occurred at Kilmainham Jail. The first was only four days after the rebels surrendered, on May 3, 1916, and the fourteenth was just nine days later, on May 12, 1916. The last person shot was James Connolly, the trade union leader who had organized the Irish Citizen Army and who had joined with the rebels only three days before the rising began. He had been so badly wounded during the rebellion that he had to be carried into the execution yard on a stretcher and was tied onto a chair to hold him up as he was being shot.
There are numerous issues that Catholics and republicans in Ireland were concerned about, but the partitioning of Ireland quickly became the focal issue in disputes among republicans themselves and between republicans and unionists. It was not, however, a new issue that surfaced only during the treaty talks in 1921 but had instead been discussed for several years, principally as a result of the Home Rule debate.
When the idea of Partition was first floated, in August 1911, its advocates contemplated only four counties being separated: Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down. Carson countered with a proposal that the entire nine-county province of Ulster be separated but British politicians advocated a six-county unit. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his aide, Winston Churchill, presented the issue of exclusion from Home Rule status to the Cabinet in February 1912, but without any specifics.
Later that year, the principal advocate of Home Rule, John Redmond, finally acquiesced to a provision in the bill then before Parliament under which the Ulster counties would be permitted to opt out of Home Rule on an individual basis for a period of six years. The Home Rule bill failed to pass in 1912. It was tried again in 1913, the opt-out provision being included again. In May 1914, a Home Rule bill at last succeeded in passing, with the individual county opt-out provision again being included. When put before the House of Lords, however, it was amended to exclude all nine counties of Ulster permanently. A conference to resolve to conflict was convened in July but reached an impasse. It was then decided to place the Home Rule bill in the statute book with the exclusion amendment left in suspension. In August, the First World War was begun and the issue was set aside, though nonetheless firmly established in British politics.
A parade commemorating the Easter Rising was planned by the IRA parade in Belfast in 1942 but was confronted with laws banning such events. The solution was to stage a mock-attack against the RUC and then quickly withdraw, the intent being only to divert RUC officers away from the parade. Tom Williams, then a lieutenant in the IRA and only eighteen years of age, was placed in charge of the mission. The attack was conducted as planned, with no one being injured. However, an RUC sergeant charged after the attackers, who retreated into a nearby house. In the course of an exchange of gunfire, the sergeant was killed. The six IRA men were captured and, after a trial, were all sentenced to be executed. An international storm of protest resulted in the sentences for five of the men being commuted to imprisonment, but not for Tom Williams. Under the terms of his sentence, he was to be hanged and then buried in an unmarked grave on the Crumlin Road prison grounds. He remained there until February 2000 when a campaign led by the National Graves Association at last succeeded in Britain agreeing to allow him to be moved to the Milltown Cemetery, in west Belfast. Lt. Tom Williams was the last person ever executed by Great Britain as part of a judicial sentence.
An unsuccessful border campaign was conducted by the IRA in the 1950s and its support declined markedly afterwards. In the early 1960s, it sold virtually all of its armaments to a Welsh nationalist group. Thus, by 1968, the IRA was largely an unarmed and inactive organization.
The British Parliament passed legislation on May 22, 1922 called the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act for use in the partitioned north. Under this law, the police and the government were effectively given free rein to take any measures they deemed appropriate or useful under the circumstances so as to maintain order. That night, police authorities swooped and arrested over 300 men and then 400 more over the next two years. Of these 700 men, many were interned on Argenta, a ship that had been built in Orange, Texas as a freighter, bought by the British government and converted into a prison. Argenta was at first anchored in Belfast harbor but was later brought farther up the coast. The internees were held for up to three years under wretched conditions. The legislation remained in effect for approximately sixty years.
Discrimination against Catholics prevailed everywhere in the north of Ireland, but was perhaps most apparent in Derry (called “Londonderry” by the British and unionists). Although Catholics comprised approximately two-thirds of the population, careful manipulation of the electoral map (i.e., gerrymandering) produced a city council that was two-thirds Protestant. Who controls the reins of political power, of course, generally determines who is favored and who is not. Catholics having been excluded from political power, they suffered from discrimination in housing, jobs, health care and so forth.
In March 1968, the Derry Housing Action Committee was formed specifically for the purpose of calling attention to the discrimination against Catholics, self-consciously patterning its tactics after the civil rights movement in America. Martin Luther King Jr. was frequently quoted in speeches. In August 1968, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (founded in January 1967) organized a march from Dungannon to Coalisland, in County Tyrone. The march was in protest against the award of a two-bedroom apartment to the nineteen-year-old daughter of a city councilman, a Protestant, despite her being unmarried and without any children and despite her not having been on the waiting list when a long line of Catholic families had been on the list, some for as long as two years or more. Afterwards, the DHAC invited the Civil Rights Association to stage a second march in Derry on October 5, 1968. Although officially banned, the organizers decided to proceed with the march. As the marchers approached the bridge over the River Foyle leading into the old city, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the police force) and their infamous adjunct, the “B Specials”, attacked the protestors with batons. Several more baton charges occurred during the evening and, finally, rioting ensued.
Although not the first time that such confrontations had occurred, it was the first to receive international attention. October 5, 1968 is, accordingly, generally recognized as the beginning of what is sometimes referred to as “The Troubles” and Derry is seen as the cradle.
Other marches followed, as did the pattern of violent reaction against the protestors. On New Year’s Day 1969, a sizeable group comprised largely of students embarked upon a four-day protest march from Belfast to Derry. All along the way, the marchers were harassed but were nonetheless able to proceed. Near the Burntollet Bridge, a few miles outside of Derry, the marchers were met by a contingent of RUC officers, ostensibly to guide the marchers along a specified route into Derry. Once at the bridge, they were suddenly and viciously attacked by loyalists wielding pipes and bats studded with nails. Because of the role that the RUC played, it is generally believed by many that the RUC colluded with the loyalists in coordinating the attack. Badly wounded and bloodied, the marchers managed nonetheless to make it into the city and, as they related what had occurred, rioting broke out inside the city. At 2:00 o’clock the following morning, the RUC invaded the Bogside section of Derry, breaking into people’s homes and beating the residents indiscriminately. An investigation afterwards found that
A number of policemen were guilty of misconduct which involved assault and battery, malicious damage to property … and the use of provocative sectarian and political slogans.
The day after the RUC had attacked the Bogside residents, a slogan was painted on a wall there: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY. Intended to indicate that the RUC were not welcome, it later demarcated the “No-Go” area of the Bogside. The slogan has been vandalized and re-written on numerous occasions, but endures still.
Protestants in Belfast reacted vigorously to the Battle of the Bogside and, accompanied by the B Specials, attacked Catholic neighborhoods. With the British Army already on Irish soil, more were brought in to quell the rioting in Belfast. When it was all over, ten people had been killed, 1,600 others had been injured and property damages exceeding £8,000,000 had been caused.
Several months earlier, on August 9, 1971, the British government announced a policy of internment under which people could be arrested and held indefinitely without being charged with any offense. In practice, only Catholics and republicans were interned, despite many offenses having been conducted by Protestants and unionists. For example, on the day that internment began, on August 9, 1971, the arrest of 450 persons was authorized and 346 were rounded up, all of them Catholic. Conversely, the first person killed in the 1968-94 era, the first bombing and the first killing of an RUC officer were all committed by unionists. Skewing matters further, most of the persons interned had little or nothing to do with the IRA.
In protest against internment, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association planned a march through Derry, scheduling it for January 30, 1972. As with prior marches, this one was officially banned. And, as before, the organizers decided to proceed, despite the ban. The marchers followed their planned route and had turned back towards the Bogside area. As they came around one fateful turn in the roadway, they were met by a contingent of the elite 1ST Battalion of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment.
The soldiers opened fire and did not end the shooting altogether for half an hour, shooting twenty-seven men and boys. Thirteen people were killed, with a fourteenth to die from his wounds the next day. One of those killed was shot in the back as he lay on the ground, trying to crawl away. Another man was shot as he crawled towards his son, who had also been shot; the father did not die of his wounds, but the son did.
The British Army has denied any wrongdoing. They claimed to have been firing in self-defense after having been fired upon first, a claim that is hotly disputed. Every journalist who was present at the scene at the time has said that no shots were heard until the British soldiers began firing. Also, investigators did not find any shell casings other than those from the soldiers’ own guns. Traces of lead found on the hands of the victims prompted speculation by government investigators that the victims might have been handling bombs. A more thorough investigation, however, revealed that the substance was present on everyone. In the fall of 1999, a report was released that concluded that the traces of lead resulted simply from the pervasive smog in the air. Only one British soldier suffered any manner of injury during the attack, a young private who was shot in the foot. At the time, he reported that his gun had discharged accidentally as he was climbing a stairway but it was revealed in March 2000 that the gun had discharged while he was standing with a group of other soldiers and playing with the safety.
An inquiry into the incident was conducted by Lord Widgery, culminating in a report less than three months afterwards that exonerated the British Army. Widgery proclaimed that the soldiers had fired in self-defense and that they had been legitimately in fear for their lives. Vigorous and loud demands for further investigations have persisted ever since.
Immediately after the shootings, civil rights activists conducted interviews of a very large number of participants in the protest march. Although made available to the Widgery Tribunal, none were used. A quarter-century later, one of the marchers, Don Mullan, re-examined the interview statements and formed a belief that at least three of the victims had to have been shot by snipers perched up on the Derry Walls. Mullan published a book of his findings, entitled Eyewitness Bloody Sunday. The book attracted the support of the Irish government, which published its own critique of the Widgery Report and called for a new inquiry. The British government at last agreed, appointing Lord Saville to lead the new inquiry. It began by a fresh search for pertinent documents. One such document found was a damning report by a British Army general commanding the soldiers, written three days before the shootings. In it, the general stated that the civil rights protesters were getting unruly and needed to be taught a lesson. The lesson he advocated was that several of the leaders needed to be shot and killed. None of his superiors overruled his plan, nor did anyone in the British government. Actual hearings were begun on March 27, 2000. The new investigation is projected to issue a report in mid-year 2002.
Nearly eleven months after Bloody Sunday, Lord Diplock issued a report he had been commissioned to prepare. Based upon his report, the British Parliament passed the Emergency Provisions Bill in April 1973, tightening the conditions upon which bail could be granted, shifting the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused in “terrorism” cases and allowing for trial without a jury in such cases. Such proceedings are now termed “Diplock trials” and are a source of bitter anger.
In late 1968, a general attitudinal shift surfaced within the IRA and also within Sinn Féin. In December of that year, a meeting of the IRA Army Council occurred in which it was decided to put the non-recognition policy to a vote, a two-thirds majority being required for a change of the policy. Word spread quickly and the traditional crowd campaigned against the proposed change, gaining enough support to defeat the matter. The vote resulted in a split in the IRA, with the traditional, anti-recognition faction being tagged as the “Provisional IRA" and those who advocated change being called the "Official IRA" and also referred to as the “Stickies”, a reference to a paper, self-adhesive Easter lily label they wore.
A second dispute within the Official IRA over theoretical politics in 1974 led to the expulsion of a prominent member, Seamus Costello, resulting in the formal establishment of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). An internal feud ensued in which five men were killed and more than seventy were wounded. It was during that feud that a military wing was established, initially called the Irish People's Liberation Army. Its name was subsequently changed to the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Within the IRA, the IRSP and the INLA are sometimes referred to as “space cadets” and their stronghold in one Belfast neighborhood is called “Planet of the Irps”.
The “Provos” have attracted ever more members and the Stickies eventually withered into non-existence. Both the IRSP and the INLA continue to exist, albeit in significantly smaller numbers.
Later on in 1973, at a meeting between republicans and representatives of the British government, the republicans were told by the British that the losses resulting from IRA actions were, in their opinion, relatively minor. They said that Great Britain ordinarily had greater losses as the result of training accidents and that it could easily sustain such losses indefinitely, that it would take much greater losses before Great Britain would come to the bargaining table. In effect, the IRA was being told that, in order to get Great Britain’s attention, it would have to inflict greater casualties and that it would have to do so in a more horrific manner.
Direct attacks against military installations, ambushes of soldiers en route from place to place and so forth are the ordinary and usual transactions in a war. In the war in Ireland, there have been many attacks against civilian establishments as well, that being the manner of operation most frequently referred to when condemnations of the IRA are made. The explanation offered has generally been that the pubs attacked were ones frequented by RUC officers and British soldiers. Completely irrespective of the basis for the attacks, an analysis of the numbers is very telling
The very first time a pub was bombed by the IRA was on July 19, 1972; only one person was killed in that attack. During the nine months preceding that first IRA bombing, however, unionists paramilitary forces bombed five pubs frequented by Catholics and shot up one other, killing a total of twenty-two people. During the next two years, the IRA did not bomb any pubs but it did shoot up two pubs, killing two persons. During the same two-year period, unionist paramilitaries bombed twenty-five pubs, bombed & shot-up two and made shootings-only attacks against nine, with a cumulative death toll of sixty-nine persons.
Between 1969 and 1994, unionist/loyalist paramilitaries perpetrated forty-six bombing attacks against pubs, thirteen bombing/shooting attacks and thirty-seven shooting attacks, while IRA forces perpetrated thirteen bombing attacks, two bombing/shooting attacks and sixteen shooting attacks. Thus, of the total of 127 pub attacks, ninety-six of the attacks (76%) are attributable to loyalists. In all of those attacks, 1,058 persons were killed, 907 of which (86%) died in the loyalist attacks.
During the 1968-94 era, 3,514 people lost their lives. Approximately one-half of the deaths are attributed to attacks made by republican paramilitary organizations, including IRA and INLA. The other half were killed by unionist/loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force) and the British Army.
The prisoners have always formed an important aspect of support for the Republican Movement. Among republicans, it is a firm belief that there was a war underway, that the acts for which republicans were being imprisoned were acts of patriotism and that the imprisoned republicans were prisoners of war. People held in the prisons for matters unrelated to the Republican Movement — people who had been convicted of rapes, robberies, driving while intoxicated and so forth — were referred to by the republican prisoners as “ordinary decent criminals”.
The British government refused to acknowledge the republicans as POWs. Led by Billy McKee, forty prisoners embarked upon a hunger strike in 1972, demanding POW status. An erroneous rumor that McKee had died sparked rioting in Belfast and the hunger strike ended after thirty-seven days when the Government of Great Britain agreed to grant the prisoners what it termed “special category status”, essentially the same thing as POW status. In 1975, however, the Government decided to phase-out the “special status” designation, substituting a policy of “criminalization” under which it declared that the republican prisoners were simply people who had committed crimes, no different from the ordinary decent criminals. The stage was thus set for yet another contest.
On September 16, 1976, Ciaran Nugent was brought into the Long Kesh prison (referred to as the Maze Prison by Great Britain), having been convicted of a “terrorist” offense that occurred after March 1, 1976, the cut-off date for special category status. When offered a prison uniform, he refused to accept it, insisting upon being allowed to wear his own clothing as a prisoner of war. The prison officials refused and Nugent was forced to go naked, but for a blanket, thus starting the “blanket” protest. By late 1980, approximately 340 prisoners were “on the blanket”.
The blanket protest escalated a notch in 1978. Prisoners were allowed to go to the washroom as long as they covered themselves with a towel, but the prison officials refused to give the prisoners a second towel to use in washing themselves. The prisoners refused to bathe until given the second towel, thus starting the “no-wash” protest. Prison officials, seeking to apply greater pressure, responded at first by hosing down the prisoners and subsequently by refusing to remove the prisoners’ chamber pots. The prisoners’ protest thus entered a new phase known as the “dirty” protest.
The need for resolution of the POW issue weighed heavily among republicans and a hunger strike was viewed as the ultimate weapon. There is a long tradition of hunger strikes in Ireland. Terrence McSwiney died on October 25, 1921 after seventy-four days. It was he who said, “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.” Ten other Volunteers arrested along with McSwiney also went on hunger strike, one of whom preceded McSwiney in death while another died only hours afterwards. Some 8,000 anti-treaty prisoners went on hunger strike in 1923, with at least two deaths, while in that same year, 131 internees held on the prison ship Argenta went on hunger strike. Tom D’Arcy and Jack McNeela died in 1940, Sean McCaughey in 1946, Michael Gaughan in 1974 and Frank Stagg in 1976. Hunger strikes have occurred frequently enough that both the British government and republicans have acquired a substantial body of knowledge about it — about the medico-biological effects of starvation, about the politics of hunger strikes, about how the British authorities respond and the various devices used in attempts to end the strikes.
Agitation in favor of a hunger strike in connection with the POW-status issue began as early as mid-1978 but was vetoed by the IRA Army Council because of the conflict it would likely cause between necessary attention to the strike and the demands of other IRA activities. Finally, in October of 1980, the dispute over the prisoners’ status reached a point where a hunger strike was approved and seven began fasting on October 17, 1980, one IRA man from each of the six counties in the north of Ireland plus one man from INLA. The men striking in the Long Kesh were joined by three women in the Armagh jail; the women strikers were led by Mairéad Farrell, who would later (in 1988) be shot in the back in Gibralter by British Army SAS soldiers, along with two other IRA Volunteers, Séan Savage and Daniel McCann. Eventually, a total of thirty-three prisoners were on the hunger strike. Represented by the hunger strikers, the prisoners put forth five demands. Their demands were
The prisoners felt that they had been cheated and a new hunger strike began to be discussed almost immediately. The principal advocate for a second strike was Bobby Sands, IRA H-Block Officer Commanding. Sands had inherited the post in October when his predecessor, Brendan Hughes, had gone on strike. The first five men to start the second hunger strike were selected by Sands. The manner in which the first strike had ended necessarily meant that a second strike had to be different. It meant that it would likely have to be carried out to the death. When Sands nominated the first five men to start the second hunger strike (himself included), the IRA Army Council inquired about their dedication. Ray McCreesh’s reply was typical: “In answer to A/C comm [communication] of 25.1.81 as regards my position on the hunger strike. My answer is yes. I am prepared to see it through.” McCreesh was the third man to die, following his cellmate, Francis Hughes, who had answered the Army Council’s inquiry in much the same language.
On February 5, 1981, the second hunger strike was officially announced, scheduled to begin on March 1, 1981, the fifth anniversary of the date upon which the British Government had started phasing out the “special category status”.
Bobby Sands was the first prisoner to go on the hunger strike and the first to die, on May 5, 1981, having lasted sixty-six days. Outside support was so strong for the prisoners that Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament while he was on hunger strike. Nine other prisoners followed him to their deaths. Francis Hughes died on May 12 after 59 days. Ray McCreesh was the third man to die, on May 21 (61 days), followed only hours later by a member of the INLA, Patsy O’Hara, who had started his strike the same day as Ray McCreesh and thus also lasted 61 days. Joe McDonnell died on July 8 (61 days), Martin Hurson died on July 13 (46 days), INLA-man Kevin Lynch died on August 1 (71 days), Kieran Doherty died on August 22 (73 days), Thomas McElwee died on August 8 (62 days) and Michael Devine, another member of the INLA, died on August 20 (60 days).
The hunger strike lasted 217 days, being called off on October 3, 1981 after the mother of one of the strikers intervened when he slipped into a coma. Although Great Britain did not make any agreement with the prisoners in exchange for the hunger strike being called off, all five of the prisoners’ demands were quietly implemented afterwards.
The presidents of Sinn Féin and the Social Democrat Leadership Party — Gerry Adams and John Hume, respectively — met in 1988 to explore ways in which peace might be achieved,, but their discussions were inconclusive. Early in 1991, there began to be indications of London’s willingness to discuss the possibility of a peace settlement being made, but unionist politicians scuttled such talks by setting two pre-conditions: a suspension of the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement and the exclusion of Sinn Féin from the talks. Further rumblings occurred in 1992, but the unionist ploy used to avoid peace discussions was an insistence upon the repeal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, via which the republic of Ireland laid claim to the entire island of Ireland. Irish Americans elicited a promise from presidential candidate Bill Clinton that, if elected, he would appoint a peace envoy to Ireland, but that effort was blunted under pressure from London.
Gerry Adams and John Hume began meeting with one another again in April of 1993, receiving an endorsement from Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in Dublin. Barely three months later, however, a deal was struck between the unionist Members of Parliament and John Major, the British Prime Minister. Under the agreement, the unionist MPs would vote as a bloc in favor of the Maastricht Treaty, via which the European Union was created, and Major for his part would assure the unionists enhanced and unchallenged power in Northern Ireland, effectively breaching the obligations of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
John Major was the Prime Minister of Great Britain when the IRA announced its ceasefire. His political party, the Conservatives, did not enjoy strong support among the electorate at the time and he needed the votes of the unionist Members of Parliament in order to hold onto power. The unionists were adamantly opposed to sitting down with republicans and talking peace, and their support of John Major depended upon his support of them. Major handled this difficulty by declaring that he would not agree to sit down with republicans and talk about a peace treaty until he was convinced that the ceasefire was permanent. He declared that six months would be sufficient to prove that the ceasefire was genuine and permanent.
He hoped, of course, that the IRA would not be able to maintain its internal discipline and that an attack would occur, thereby relieving him of having to actually deal with the conundrum created for him by the republicans. After six months, he then stated that still more time was needed. After seventeen months, he was still claiming that more time was needed to show that the IRA was serious.
Tiring of no progress, the IRA ended its ceasefire and resumed military operations on February 9, 1996 by exploding a bomb at Canary Wharf, in the financial district of London. The bomb, timed to explode in the early morning hours when very few people were likely to be present, caused several million pounds’ worth of property damage but only two deaths. Another bomb was exploded in Manchester, England in July 1996, causing massive property damages but no deaths. In October 1996, the IRA attacked a British Army base, exploding two bombs that killed one British Army soldier.
In May 1997, there were general elections in Great Britain. The Labor Party won by a landslide and Tony Blair became the new Prime Minister. Tensions continued to rise as the Orange Order was granted a permit to march down Gavarghy Road, a Catholic enclave in Portadown. In nearby Lurgan, the IRA killed two RUC officers in June. The Orange Order parade, led by the RUC, was accompanied by massive violence. Many Catholic homes were burned, many people injured and many were jailed by the RUC. David Trimble, a member of the Orange Order and leader of the North’s largest unionist political party, the Ulster Unionist Party, was among the marchers down Gavarghy Road, a neighborhood that he represents as a Member of Parliament. He was joined by Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. At one point, Trimble and Paisley stopped and did a celebratory dance together.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, it was to be put before the public in both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland for a vote. The referendum took place on May 22, 1998. Approval required only a simple majority, i.e., 51% support. In the north of Ireland, 71.4% of the voters said yes and, in the Republic of Ireland, 94% of the voters said yes.
The Good Friday Agreement is a generally comprehensive document, setting forth numerous provisions. The creation of a cross-community government, with republicans holding half of all seats and unionists holding the other half. The creation of special cross-border institutions, with equal representation by both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The release of all of the prisoners taken during the war. The creation of a human rights commission and also an equality commission. An end to discrimination against the Irish language. Reformation of the RUC. Withdrawal of British troops from Irish soil. Work towards decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry. Reformation of the judiciary as part of an overall review of the criminal justice system in general. And a series of democratic votes on the subject of reunification of Ireland — an end to the partition.
Another splinter group, calling itself Continuity IRA and thought to have initially been comprised of about twenty-five people, has yet to declare any ceasefire. They exploded a bomb at a hotel in County Fermanagh in February 2000, but only after having called in an advance warning so that the hotel could be evacuated. The hotel was destroyed, but no one was injured.
At least two unionist paramilitary groups — the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defense Association — have also declared ceasefires, but most have not (e.g., Loyalist Volunteer Force; Ulster Freedom Fighters; Orange Volunteers; Red Hand Defenders).
The Real IRA and Continuity IRA have continued with attacks. Targets have included the BBC’s broadcasting offices and even the headquarters of MI-6 and MI-5 in London. The attacks generally have occurred at moments of crises or other important junctures. Other than one car-bomb explosion near a pub in London, none of the attacks has caused any significant amount of property damage and no one has been killed in any of the attacks.
Beginning shortly after approval of the Good Friday Agreement, loyalist attacks against Catholics and nationalists have continued unabated, numbering in the several hundreds — there have been nearly 200 bombing and shooting attacks between January 1, 2001and August 31, 2001 and several people have been killed. In March 2001, the RUC raided an empty apartment in the loyalist-controlled Shankill Road section of Belfast. Over 200 pipebombs were seized. A month later, another raid in the same area resulted in the seizure of about 170 pipebombs. No arrests have been made in connection with either of the raids.
The group that has primarily claimed responsibility for the bombing and shooting attacks is the Red Hand Defenders, the same group that claimed credit for the car-bomb murder of civil rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson on March 15, 1999. This same group shot and killed a nineteen-year-old man as stood on a corner waiting for a ride to work early one July 2001 morning, saying that the attack was in retaliation for Catholics having voted for Sinn Féin. A month later, they shot two men as they stood in front of a Gaelic Athletic Association hall, one of whom died. The dead man, as it turned out, was a Protestant. These two attacks are typical. Although the IRA had largely confined its attacks to military targets (police, British Army, significant members of government, transportation centers, financial institutions and so forth), the loyalist paramilitaries have generally targeted non-political Catholics in their homes.
The Red Hand Defenders have issued several public statements that their attacks will continue and will increase both in frequency and in ferocity. It is widely believed that “Red Hand Defenders” is a cover name used by members of the UDA, which is officially on ceasefire. There have been loud demands for acknowledgment that the UDA ceasefire has ended but the Northern Ireland Office has refusing, saying that such a declaration would be counter-productive.
On June 7, 2001, national elections were held. Sinn Féin eclipsed the SDLP as the nationalist party enjoying the greatest amount of support. It saw four members elected to Parliament (an increase from two) and SDLP saw its Parliamentary presence reduced from five members to three. On the unionist side, the UUP also lost support and the DUP gained. Since the DUP has consistently opposed the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin has consistently supported it, countenancing no diminution of its terms, the election has been viewed as evidence of further polarization within the population of the Six Counties.
David Trimble, the leader of the principal unionist political party, the Ulster Unionist Party, opposed implementation, insisting that the IRA must first decommission its weapons. The Good Friday agreement, however, does not require decommissioning. It operative language on the subjects states as follows:
All participants accordingly reaffirm their commitment to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations. They also confirm their intention to continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums North and South of the agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.
Stated in straightforward, simple language, everyone agreed to make a good faith attempt to try to persuade the various paramilitary groups to decommission, with a hope that it might be accomplished within two years of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Inasmuch as full implementation has not as yet occurred, republicans maintain that the two-year period has not as yet begun to accrue.
Unionists take a different view, of course. They have argued that the IRA was supposed to begun decommissioning its weapons long ago and is supposed to have completed the process totally and completely by May 22, 2000, which date is two years after the referendum.
The LVF is the only paramilitary group to decommission any weapons at all. On December 18, 1998, it surrendered a small amount of rifles. Barely seven weeks later, however, it issued a formal statement in which it announced that it had just received a new shipment of grenades, rocket launchers and rifles (thereby replacing those it had surrendered) and that it would be specifically targeting the homes of Catholics. It did not say “republicans” or “terrorists”. It specifically said “Catholics”.
In September 1999, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who had conducted the negotiations back in March and April of 1998, returned to Ireland for a review of the Good Friday Agreement. After intensive and lengthy negotiating sessions, an agreement was announced in mid-November 1999 under which implementation of the cross-community government and the cross-border institutions would be established. Under the terms of the agreement, implementation was to occur if the various paramilitary organizations would each appoint a representative to meet with the International Irish Commission on Decommissioning, chaired by retired Canadian General John de Chastelain (and thus referred to as the “de Chastelain Commission”). With two days, the IRA appointed an representative and several of the unionist paramilitaries followed within a week afterwards.
The agreement had been made subject to general approval by David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party. Campaigning for approval, he told his membership that he would resign from his post on February 1, 2000 if the IRA had not begun decommissioning by then. The UUP granted its approval by a comfortable margin and thus, on December 1, 1999, unionist David Trimble took his post as First Minister, republican Seamus Mallon took his post as Deputy Minister and the ten departmental ministries were distributed evenly, five to unionists and five to republicans.
On January 31, 2000, the de Chastelain Commission issued a report in which it stated that it had met with the IRA representative on three occasions and with unionist paramilitary representatives on other times, but that no weapons had been decommissioned and that a schedule, method or place for decommissioning of weapons had not been established. Trimble then made moves to resign, but extended his deadline so as to let the British Government act. On February 10, 2000, the British parliament passed special legislation authorizing suspension of the devolution legislation it had previously passed and under which the Good Friday Agreement had been implemented. Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State, suspended the fledgling government the next afternoon, on Friday, February 11, 2000.
The cross-community government was thereby collapsed. In mid-March 2000, while touring the United States, David Trimble said that he would be willing to agree to reinstatement of the cross-community government without any actual disarmament by the IRA, but he quickly retracted that statement upon returning to Ireland. On April 5, 2000, he said that the suspension of the cross-community government would endure for several years if it not ended quickly.
Numerous meetings occurred between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, as did meetings with the leaders of the various political parties. The meetings did not result in any discernable progress. Sinn Féin’s president, Gerry Adams, has consistently declared that the onus for change is upon the British Government. Although Blair maintained that “the Good Friday Agreement is the only game in town,” he appeared content to allow the Ulster Unionist Party to control the terms and the circumstances upon which the cross-community government might be resurrected.
Formerly, the UUP’s approach explicitly was “No Guns, No Government”. Some have argued that the IRA’s response was a simple, “No Government, No Guns”, but the plan tendered to the de Chastelain Commission about twelve hours before suspension of the cross-community government occurred indicates that the IRA’s view is more subtle and more complex. At least one commentator, Niall O’Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice newspaper, based in New York, has written his appreciation for the logistical difficulties involved in decommissioning, recognizing that it is not a simple matter, not easily nor quickly done. The UUP’s present attitude is that it must receive a guarantee from the IRA that the war is over and that there will not be any return to violence. There is never any mention of the huge arsenals held by the unionist paramilitary organizations nor of the 130,000 weapons legally held in the north of Ireland, nearly all being held by unionists. On April 28, 2000, Sinn Féin’s chairman, Mitchell McLaughlin, stated that “there are no guarantees for Sinn Féin. There are no guarantees for anybody else, but there is this certainty, that if we maintain the present approach on IRA disarmament, there will never be IRA disarmament.”
It has been felt by many that the continuing suspension of the cross-community government had resulted in a political vacuum, a fertile ground for rising tensions, inevitable hostilities and, eventually, renewed violence.
On May 5, 2000, after week-long meetings between the two prime ministers and the leaders of the political parties, a joint British-Irish statement was released that proposed to resurrect the government on May 22, 2000, the second anniversary of the referendum. All that was needed, said Tony Blair, was an encouraging statement from the IRA. The next day, the IRA issued a formal statement in which it said that it would “initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use.”
Within days, the results of a poll were released, reflecting that 66% of unionists in the north of Ireland favored resurrecting the cross-community government and sharing political power with republicans. The Ulster Unionist Council announced that it would meet on Saturday, May 20, 2000 to consider the newest developments and to vote on whether to approve resurrection of the cross-community government. But, a week in advance of the planned meeting, the UUP’s leaders expressed opposition, contending that the IRA’s statement wasn’t enough, demanding more details about the locations of IRA arms dumps, the methods of destruction, the amounts and so forth. David Trimble later announced that the UUC meeting would be postponed for a week so as to allow him sufficient time to analyze the IRA’s statement and to present the matter. The British Government had earlier stated that resurrection of the cross-community government would be put off until after the UUC vote. During the intervening time, a bill was offered in Parliament that would significantly dilute the changes to the RUC as set forth in the Patten Report.
On May 25, 2000, an article published simultaneously in the Irish Times and in the Guardian newspapers revealed that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had telephoned U.S. President Bill Clinton twice on May 10, 2000. In each conversation, Blair asked Clinton for assistance in persuading republicans to agree to changes in the Patten Report that unionists were seeking. In each conversation, Clinton rebuffed Blair, insisting that the changes in the RUC as set forth in the Patten Report should be implemented “in full, as written.”
The 862 members of the Ulster Unionist Council met on May 27, 2000 and voted on whether to re-enter government with republicans. The vote was 53.2% in favor and 47.8% against. As a result of the UUP’s approval vote, the Northern Ireland Assembly was re-established. However, in October 2000, David Trimble announced that he would suspend Sinn Féin’s two ministers — Martin McGuinness and Bairbre DeBrun — from participating in any cross-border meetings with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland’s government. Trimble’s new policy was contested in the courts, who ruled that Trimble did not have the power to stop the cross-border meetings and did not have the power to refuse to appoint ministers to attend. It added, however, that Trimble was not required to appoint the Sin Féin ministers, that he could appoint whomever he wished. Trimble announced that he would appeal the ruling, but has not. The cross-border meetings have resumed, but the ban on Sinn Féin continues.
Trimble next issued a letter of resignation as First Minister, effective July 1, 2001, retractable only if the IRA had begun decommissioning of its weapons, a move that was said by many to be nothing more than electioneering. The IRA did not disarm and Trimble’s resignation took effect, thereby plunging the fledgling government into a six-week interim during which the First Minister could re-take his chair. Near the end of the period, the de Chastelain Commission announced that the IRA had set forth a plan that would fully achieve the goal of actual decommissioning of weapons. It was also revealed that there IRA had met with members of the de Chastelain Commission on eight occasions between March 2001 and August 2001, that there had been three inspections of three IRA weapons dumps and that all of the weapons inspected were secure and unused. Although both governments and most independent observers welcomed the IRA plan and believed that it would finally achieve the peace, the UUP rejected it, complaining that the IRA had not set forth a schedule or a start date.
The Good Friday Agreement was suspended a second time, effective at midnight of the day immediately preceding the end of the six-week interim and then restored one day later. This maneuver effectively started the six-week clock all over again, thereby artificially creating more time for an agreement to be reached. In response, the IRA withdrew its offer.
At about the same time, three Irish men were arrested in Colombia and accused of being members of the IRA who were training militant Colombian revolutionaries. They also were accused of travelling on false passports. The British government said that they were prominent members of Sinn Féin, that there was a videotape of the men training the Colombians and that their clothing had traces of explosives and cocaine on them. However, all of these claims have failed. The Colombian government said there was no videotape and tests of seventeen articles of clothing have revealed nothing. Further, none of the men has any connection to Sinn Féin. Nonetheless, the arrests have hardened the position of unionists.
If the impasse is not resolved by September 22, 2001 (end of the second six-week interim), either new elections will have to be held or yet another suspension ordered. Both unionists and the British government are opposed to calling an election.
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