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This page was last updated on 09/06/2007








On March 26, 2007 Catholic and Protestant leaders met in Northern Ireland bringing hopes for peace after three decades of violence.

On April 4th, Protestant leader Ian Paisley also shook hands with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, after decades of refusing to accept any role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland.


Ian Paisley -- Protestant cleric and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) -- Largest Unionist party in Ireland.

Gerry Adams-- Catholic godfather of IRA terrorism. President of Sinn Fein

IRA (Irish Republican Army) -- Founded in 1969, the IRA is the militant wing of the political movement Sinn Fein dedicated to removing British forces from Northern Ireland and unifying Ireland. 

Sinn Fein - Political arm of IRA. Wanted to destroy the union of Northern Ireland with the British.


Ian Paisley                                                         Gerry Adams
Predominantly Protestant Unionists  vs.  
   Predominantly Catholic Nationalists
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)                  Sinn Fein and military wing,  IRA


In 1921, Ireland was divided into Northern Ireland governed by the Protestant British and the southern, predominantly Catholic, Republic of Ireland.

For the last thirty years, the Protestants of Northern Ireland, represented by the Unionists, have been fighting with the Catholic community backed by Sinn Fein and its political wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

For the most part, the Protestants of Northern Ireland feel a kinship with the British while the Catholics, who suffered years of discrimination, have called for unification with what they consider their brethren in the Republic of Ireland.


Until the 16th century, most of western Ireland was independent while the east coast was made up of self-governed territories controlled by Norman lords loyal to the king of England.

The English controlled a 20 mile radius around Dublin called the Pale but lost control in the 15th century white the country was embroiled in a civil war (the War of the Roses).

English Reformation

In 1532, England's King Henry VIII decided to break with the Catholic Pope of Rome -- in part in order to get an annulment from his wife (which Catholicism discourages).

As a result of the break with the Roman Catholic Church, the English, Welsh and Scottish populations converted to Protestantism and joined the newly established Church of England.  

The Irish remained Catholic.

England Conquers Ireland

In 1536, the English decided to bring Ireland under its control and engaged in military campaigns against the island for the next hundred years.

Along with the military conquest, the English also enacted a policy of "plantation" -- moving 1000s of English and Scottish Protestants into Catholic Ireland.

The minority Protestants were also granted greater political and economic privileges than the majority Catholics sparking sectarian conflicts that would continue until the 20th century.

In 1801, Ireland officially became part of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union.


In 1905, Arthur Griffith,  founder of the Sinn Fein movement, declared the 1801 Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland illegal.

To the southern, nationalist Sinn Fein followers, the status of Ireland as part of the British Empire was unacceptable and they aimed to reestablish the country's independence.

While Sinn Fein was pursuing a political solution, a militant named Michael Collins organized a paramilitary force to do the job. The force, known as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) engaged in terrorist activity in order to provoke the English.

Hundreds of men lost their lives In the course of the subsequent Anglo-Irish War (or Irish War of Independence) that lasted from 1918-1921.

The War ended in 1921 with negotiations between Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins and England's Prime Minister Lloyd George.

Split of Ireland

According to the terms of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, twenty-six counties seceded from the United Kingdom to become the independent Irish Free State and eventually (in 1948) the Republic of Ireland.

The rest of the island, the northern province of Ulster became Northern Ireland and remained part of the United Kingdom. 

But not everyone was happy with the arrangement.

While the Irish Parliament endorsed the treaty, the Nationalists argued that they had fought for a completely independent Ireland, not one that was split in two. The dispute turned into a two-year civil war from 1921 to 1923. 

The violence of civil war so horrified the Unionists (those who favor union with the British) in Northern Ireland that they turned even more determinedly towards the United Kingdom. 

Battle between Protestants and Catholics

The conflict continued between the Irish Republican Army (which refused to accept Northern Ireland's status) and the Unionists of Northern Ireland until the 1990s. 

After years of discrimination and inequality, frustrated, young, unemployed Catholics took to the streets engaging in peaceful demonstrations and civil rights marches.

The militant IRA, meanwhile, targeted British military troops that patrolled the streets of Northern Ireland.

On January 30, 1972, a group of demonstrators protesting the unlawful detention of their countrymen without trial provoked a particularly violent response from British paramilitary troops ending in the death of 15 unarmed civilians.

The event, called Bloody Sunday (commemorated by U2 in the song "Sunday, Bloody, Sunday"), was followed by the suspension of Northern Ireland's parliament and the imposition of direct rule from Britain.

For the next thirty years, the IRA became the police and defense force for northern Ireland's Catholics. The Unionist paramilitaries protected the Protestants. And if one or the other committed destructive acts against members of the other sect, the incident would be avenged causing a cycle of violence dubbed the Troubles.


The British and Irish governments began to seek a political solution to the violence in 1986 through the Anglo-Irish Agreement which stated that any changes in Northern Ireland would be subject to the will of the majority of the people. The Republic of Ireland was also given a consulting role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The treaty was rejected both by the Unionists because it gave the Republic of Ireland a role in the governance of Northern Ireland, and by the IRA since it confirmed Northern Ireland's status as a part of the United Kingdom.

In 1994, the IRA decided to declare a ceasefire. The Unionists paramilitaries followed their lead two months later. Representatives from the United Kingdom and Ireland tried again to map out a peaceful settlement to the conflict. The resulting treaty deemed Northern Ireland a part of the United Kingdom but only as long as the majority wanted it. Northern Ireland would return to a form of independent government and a north-south body would be created to strengthen ties between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The treaty was again condemned.

In 1997, the victory of the political party Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland's parliament and the election of Tony Blair as England's prime minister altered the landscape of Irish-British relations enough to push for another treaty. The Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) signed in April 1998 proposed home rule for Northern Ireland with power sharing between the Catholics and Protestants. The IRA and Unionists again agreed to a cease-fire. Political prisoners were released and the Republic of Ireland changed its constitution to remove territorial claims to Northern Ireland until the people agreed to rejoin its southern neighbors. More than 94% of voters in the Republic of Ireland supported the agreement as did 71% of people in Northern Ireland. 


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