Ireland and Northern Ireland: a Brief History


Following the coverage and commemorations  of the 1916 Easter Rising, I thought it worth going back and re-reading exactly what went on in Ireland at the start of the 20th century, a period whose effects are still in effect today. It’s worth sharing.

I haven’t included everything, for that would take far too long, but hopefully what I have included gives you a good idea. I haven’t included much on the Troubles because I don’t want to dwell too long on that period for personal reasons, and the Easter Rising has been well documented recently so I won’t include too much on that. I have tried to be as neutral as possible.

Ireland become part of the United Kingdom in 1801. Following the potato famine (and mass emigration that followed), living conditions in Ireland became difficult, and many found that British rule was not working out for them, preferring instead that Ireland should have control over its own affairs (while still being part of the UK). During the 19th century, the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by Charles Stewart Parnell sought to obtain Home Rule through parliament: one bill was defeated by the House of Commons, the second by the House of Lords. Parliament’s response was to end the House of Lords’ veto on legislation. The Bill was passed in 1914, but never came into effect.

In early 1914, the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force smuggled guns and ammunition from the German Empire into the province with a view to starting an armed resistance to Home Rule if it was implemented.

The start of the First World War in August of that year meant that Home Rule was shelved while the country went to war (and the smuggled guns were put to use in the war effort), but the atmosphere surrounding the conflict only served to enhance strong nationalist beliefs, and the British government’s heavy-handed response to the Easter Rising meant that the desire in the South swung towards full independence rather than devolution. The election in 1918 saw most seats in the North-East go to the Unionists, while Sinn Fein won by a landslide in the South. The Sinn Fein MPs did not take their seats in the UK parliament, instead forming the first Dáil (assembly) and declaring independence. On the first day the Dáil met, the IRA shot dead two police officers, thus starting the Irish War of Independence.

In the hostile atmosphere of guerrilla warfare, plans were afoot to solve the Irish crisis: Parliament passed the Government of Ireland act, 1920, which allowed for a double Home Rule situation. The six counties in the North-East, with a Unionist majority, would be governed by a parliament sitting in Belfast and called Northern Ireland, while the remaining 26 counties would be governed from Dublin and called Southern Ireland. Such a partition was an inelegant solution and not many people’s first choice: but it would have kept the whole of Ireland within the UK, and allay Unionist fears (justified or otherwise) that they might be discriminated against by a Dublin administration. Southern Ireland never took off, in part due to the war, and in part due to only 4 members of parliament taking seats in its only election: the remaining elected MPs (all Sinn Fein) formed the second Dáil.

So, in 1922, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed. This essentially allowed what was Southern Ireland to become independent, as the Irish Free State, though still under the British Crown (similar to Australia or Canada today). Northern Ireland was given the opportunity to opt out and remain in the UK and they did so as soon as they possibly could, and so the modern borders were born.

Many Irish did not take to the treaty, seeing the partition and retention of the monarchy as a betrayal of Ireland, and predictably, an armed struggling took place (the Irish civil war) which the pro-treaty side won. Partition caused particular strife in County Donegal in the North-West, which took a major economic hit when an international border suddenly appeared between it and the largest city and major port in the region (Derry-Londonderry). Even up to the 80s the roads there were in a shocking state of disrepair.

In 1937, a new constitution in the Free State effectively transformed it into a Republic, with a President ratifying laws instead of the King, though this was not officially formalised until 1948. The constitution still claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, a state of affairs that changed in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

For its part, the Parliament of Northern Ireland continued in buildings a stone’s throw from my old school until 1973 , shortly after the start of the Troubles. It was dominated by Unionists its whole term, and abolished when it refused to return power over law and order to the UK government following Bloody Sunday. Northern Ireland remained governed by the UK until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, when it would be governed by a mandatory coalition of Unionists and Nationalists with an elected Assembly- this arrangement lasted until 2003 when it was suspended due to suspicions of an IRA spy ring. The charges brought were dropped, but the suspension carried on until the St Andrew’s agreement in 2006. The Assembly was restored following elections in March the following year.

And that is where we find ourselves today.

In the book of Daniel, God shows the prophet several visions which shows that He is watching over history and that he, ultimately, is in charge. He saw empires, rulers, and the difficulty the people of God would face, but ultimately he sees a message of hope, of a Son of Man and an Ancient of Days, and an inheritance that would not fade. The people of God in Ireland have the same promise, and though we do not understand everything, we know that God is behind all things.

Then I said, “O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. […] But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”

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