Northern Ireland in the 1980s

A Decade of Failed Attempts and Hardened Fronts

Term Paper, 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 How the Troubles Began
2.1 The Northern Irish Conflict
2.2 The Troubles 1968-1980
2.3 Hunger Strike 1980/ 81

3 A Decade of Hardened Fronts
3.1 The Intern Approach: Constitutional Conference and Assembly
3.2. The Intergovernmental Approach
3.2.1 The New Ireland Forum
3.2.2 The Anglo-Irish Agreement

4 Towards the Peace Process

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

At the beginning of the 1970s, a region called the world’s attention which had not been noticed very much before. Ireland, the partition of the island in 1922 and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the Northern Irish province were widely considered as a British affair. At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, however, Northern Ireland turned into a powder keg. The Civil Rights Movement which stirred people throughout the world, leading them to fight against discrimination and injustice, also caused people in Northern Ireland to stand up against social and political inequity, but soon the demonstrations resulted in bloody clashes between the Civil Right marchers (mostly Catholics) and their opponents, and finally the situation of disorder and tension culminated into riots, shootings, terrorist attacks and a political situation characterized by irreconcilable extremes, which could not be overcome. For 30 years, in the midst of a peaceful Western Europe, Northern Ireland remained a crisis region.

The British government, which was forced to suspend the Northern Irish administration and rule the Province directly from London, took several approaches to solve the conflict, but most of these attempts were not successful at all. Especially the political approaches taken in the 1980s failed as a result of the unwillingness of either party or the other to accept any compromise.

The objective of this term paper is an analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, focusing especially on the historical and political dimensions of the Northern Irish conflict. It sets outtoshow the 1980s in Northern Ireland as a decade of failed attempts to bring peace to the region, analyzing the reasons for the failures and sketching out the reactions of the political parties towards these attempts. Furthermore it represents an attempt to show the historical, social and political background of the Northern Ireland conflict, which arose out of the conflict between the two communities living in the region, a conflict which is not only a religious one, but rather the result of differences in social situation, ethnical and cultural identityand political expectations and wishes of the people of Ireland, all of which is the result of the Irish historywhich began many centuries ago.

With the analysis of the political situation during the 1980s, this essay also attempts to show the antagonism in Northern Ireland, which is not genuinely motivated by religion but rather results out of different political ambitions than out of different beliefs.

2 How the Troubles Began

2.1 The Northern Irish Conflict

The Northern Irish Conflict is not a conflict of the 20th century. Its origin lies in history and can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when Ireland was occupied by Anglo-Norman troops. This was the beginning of foreign rule over the island which was to last for over 700 years. During the 16th and 17th century, British and Scottish settlers came to Ireland. Most of them settled down in the north-eastern part of the island, in the historical province of Ulster (therefore this settlement is also known as ‘Ulster Plantation’). The social and economic differences between the well-off British and Scottish plantation owners and the Irish peasants, who were constantly losing their economic independency, soon led to conflicts between the two groups. Over the next 200 years, there were several rebellions raised by the Irishmen against the British, whereas the English settlers and their descendants, although being in the minority, managed to stay in power. With the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, Britain re-conquered Ireland and made clear that it would not give up its supremacy. But it was not able to obtain the supremacy over the Irishmen’s beliefs. While Britain and the British settlers in Ireland attended the Anglican Church or were Presbyterians, the Irishmen remained Catholics – a fact which added to the tensions between the two groups.

In 1800, with the ‘Act of Union’, Ireland lost even the little political power it had and from now on was ruled directly by the Westminster Parliament. During the 19th century, both the Irish Nationalists as well as the Loyalists founded several institutions and associations which were to promote the objectives of the corresponding communities, a development which clearly shows the antagonism dividing the population. This antagonism is neither exclusively a political nor a religious one but also has ethnical, social and economic dimensions (see also Breuer 1994:75ff.). The British government tried to alleviate the contrast between the Protestant and Catholic population, but, according to Breuer (1994:10), these attempts taken in the 19th century were “entweder halbherzig oder scheiterten am Parlament” or, if they were successful, lacked a strategy amounting to a real integration of the two groups and therefore did not show any positive long-term effect.

In the last decades of the 19th century, the Irish demands for ‘Home Rule’ increased, which means the establishment of an Irish Parliament and the devolvement of powers to a local Irish administration. The Home Rule League, a political party which had grown out of the Home Government Association that had been founded in 1870, represented these demands and was supported by the Labour Party in Westminster. However, the first two attempts (in 1886 and in 1894) by the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone of carrying through a Home Rule Bill for Ireland failed in consequence of the Conservative Parties’ resistance, which supported the Protestant Loyalists in Ulster. The third attempt (1914) was successful, but was never put into action. While the Protestants in Ireland put up strong resistance against the Home Rule Debate and with the Ulster Covenant in 1912 showed clearly their firm intention to reject all efforts to give power to the Irish Nationalists, the radical wing of the Nationalist movement gained more and more influence. In 1905 the Sinn Féin party was founded. The positions of Unionists and Nationalists hardened and between 1913 and 1921 paramilitary groups were formed on both sides. The rising in 1916 by the Nationalists (also known as Easter Rising) and the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921) that followed forced the British government to find a solution which would restore peace to Ireland and could be supported by both parts of the population. In respect to that, the division of the island was the easiest alternative with the least expected resistance (see Breuer 1994:11).

The ‘Government of Ireland Act’, which was passed in 1920 and was to end the Anglo-Irish War in 1921, decided upon dividing the island into the province of Northern Ireland, which was to remain a part of the United Kingdom and consisted of the six counties Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry, Down, Tyrone and Fermanagh, and the Irish Free State, consisting of the remaining 26 counties. The decision about how to divide the island was not merely made in consideration of the ethnical or religious situation (which would have meant that Northern Ireland consisted only of the four counties Antrim, Armagh, Londonderry and Down where the majority of the population was Protestant), but rather resulted out of economical and political reasons:

“A four-country province would have included the great majority of the Protestants, and would have been the most acceptable to nationalists; but it might have been economically unviable. A nine-country province would have contained only a small and precarious Protestant majority. It was the six-country province which contained the largest area with a save majority.” (Kenny 1986:16)

As a result, the problem of the two communities continued in the North, but this time with the Catholics being the minority, in addition to the fact that they were still a socially and economically underprivileged group. Until the end of the 1960s, however, the conflict appeared to be solved, but then it broke out again in the Northern Province, and this time with more violence than ever.

2.2 The Troubles 1968-1980

While the Irish Free State gradually delivered itself from its dependency on the United Kingdom (in 1937 all references to the king in the constitution were deleted and Ireland became the Republic of Ireland; in 1948 it left the Commonwealth), in Northern Ireland the Protestants maintained their superiority and used their power to fasten the connection to the British ‘mainland’. In 1949 the Unionist-dominated Northern Irish Parliament even was affirmed by the British government that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the Northern Irish Parliament does not desire a change.

The political power in Northern Ireland definitely was in the hands of the Protestants, which was not only the natural consequence of them forming the majority of the province’s population but also resulted out of active discrimination of the Catholic population with the help of a strategically advantageous arrangement of the election districts and other electoral laws which placed the Catholics at a clear disadvantage. In addition to that, the Catholics had to experience discrimination in their everyday life as well, for example on the labour market or in respect to the allocation of social housing. While most of the Protestants had good jobs, nice homes and lived in relative prosperity, the Catholics were practically bound to believe “that discrimination was an everyday, and permanent feature of their life” (Cronin 2001:229).

In the light of this situation, it should not be a surprise that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s also gained a foothold in Northern Ireland. Several associations for Civil Rights were founded (in 1964 the ‘Campaign for Social Justice’, CSJ and in 1967 the ‘Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’, NICRA) and their demands made the Unionists fear for the continued existence of their supremacy. They reacted strongly against the Civil Rights protest marches and the second NICRA demonstration in 1967 already ended with bloody clashes between the Human Rights marchers and Protestant extremists. The Northern Irish Police (Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC), which basically consisted of Protestants and therefore could not really be considered as a neutral force, acted with unnecessary cruelty and attacked the marchers. This event was the beginning of a series of civil disorder, inter-communal violence and the fights between the paramilitaries, which among other things resulted in the dispatch of British troops to Northern Ireland in August 1969 and also finally led to the suspension of the Northern Irish Parliament (Stormont) in 1972 and the establishment of a direct rule from Westminster.

However, these measures were not able to pacify the region immediately. During the following 25 years, bomb attacks, shootings and political tensions characterized the situation in Northern Ireland. Particularly the 1970s were a decade of violence. At the end of the 1960s, Loyalist paramilitary groups had been formed with the “aim […] to protect the union” (Cronin 2001:234) and to accomplish this aim, attacked the Catholics and their property. In answer to these attacks, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which had been existing since 1919, was revived. The part of the IRA which was active in Northern Ireland was called the Provisional IRA (PIRA). First their only objective had been to protect the Catholic population, but gradually their activities turned into a means for promoting the political aims of the radical Nationalists. In the struggle against terrorism and violence, the British government established internment camps and allowed ‘detention without trial’ for people suspected of being involved in terrorist activity, later also took measures like the abolishment of the Special Category Status for prisoners, which led to the ‘Blanket Protest’ and the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 (see Chapter 2.3). Nevertheless, the number of members in the paramilitaries grew rapidly and any violent action taken by one side was answered immediately by violence from the other side. And the presence of the British army was not able to change anything about it either, for neither side trusted the troops and especially the Nationalists considered the soldiers as enemies who were the representatives of the British usurpation of Ireland. Unfortunately, this perception was confirmed by events like the ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972, when during a NICRA protest march 13 people were killed and many more hurt by soldiers who fired into the crowd.

According to Morrow, the British policy during the Troubles consisted of “security measures accompanied by repeated attempts at breaking the political log-jam” (1996:21). The first of these attempts was the establishment of an Assembly in 1973, which was to form a Power Sharing Executive with members of the Unionist parties as well as the SDLP and the Alliance Party. In 1973, there was a first meeting between the representatives of these three parties together with British and Irish government representatives, known as Sunningdale Conference. The Sunningdale Agreement proposed power-sharing between the majority and the minority in Northern Ireland, which would have met with a number of the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, and the establishment of an institution for the communication between Northern Ireland, Britain and Ireland, the Council of Ireland. But the strong opposition of Unionist hardliners under the leadership of Ian Paisley (DUP), a general strike in May 1974 triggered by the Unionists which paralyzed the whole province and finally the resignation of all Unionist members of the Executive finally led to a breakup of the Executive in 1974 and the suspension of the Assembly. The second attempt of solving the problem politically, the establishment of a Constitutional Convention in 1975, again ended in a break-up in 1976 without any result, as the Unionist hardliners, being the majority, rejected the proposals of power-sharing and therefore blocked all further proceedings. (see Breuer 1994:53f.)

There were also non-governmental attempts taken to restore the peace, like the peace movement initiated by two Belfast women (one Catholic, the other Protestant, which were to receive the Nobel Prize of Peace in 1977), called the “Peace People”. The movement, however, soon fell apart because of internal disagreements (Breuer 2003:186) and “the difficulty of translating a general revulsion against political violence into a coherent political programme” (Morrow 1996:24).

2.3 Hunger Strike

After the escalation of violence in 1972 and the increasing number of terrorist attacks by the IRA, which did not only take place in Northern Ireland but also on the ‘British mainland’, the British government took several measures with the objective of restoring peace and fighting terrorism. From 1972 on, people suspected of being terrorists could be interned. In 1974, the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ was introduced which allowed an arrest without trial and deportation for people suspected of terrorist activities and gave the security forces more freedom in the pursuit of terrorists. In 1976, however, internment was ended and all prisoners who were convicted because of terrorism lost their status as political convicts (also called ‘Special Category Status’). This caused a huge protest among all Nationalists and triggered off the ‘Blanket Protest’ of the prisoners at the Maze Prison near Belfast. The protest started with the prisoners refusing to wear prison issue clothes. Instead, they covered themselves with their blankets. In 1978, the protest was carried further as ‘Dirty Protest’, when the prisoners refused to use sanitary facilities, destroyed furniture and windows and smeared the walls of their cells with their excrement. The British government, however, did not give in and in 1980 the prisoners intensified their protest by beginning a hunger strike.


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Northern Ireland in the 1980s
A Decade of Failed Attempts and Hardened Fronts
University of Leipzig
Hauptseminar "Northern Irish Women's Writing"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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northern, ireland, decade, failed, attempts, hardened, fronts
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Annerose Baumann (Author), 2008, Northern Ireland in the 1980s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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