Northern Ireland - History of a Conflict and the Peace Process


The island of Ireland is divided into two parts. Northern Ireland, in the northeast, is a part of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is an independent country.

A conflict between the two main religious groups, the Protestants and the Catholics, has been going on for over four hundred years. In the second half of the 20th century violent clashes between the two groups killed over 3,000 people. Towards the end of the century a new peace agreement was signed that was expected to bring peace to Northern Ireland.


Land and Climate

Northern Ireland covers an area of about 14 000 square kilometres, about one-sixth of the island’s total area.

The land is hilly, with low mountains, plains and valleys. It has many lakes, or loughs, embedded in the landscape. The climate is influenced by the sea. Summers are cool and windy, winters are mild. Rain falls throughout the year.



Northern Ireland’s population consists of two main groups. Half of the people are Protestants. They are descendants of Scottish and English settlers who came to the area in the 17th century. About 40% are Irish Catholics. The two groups live separately in their own neighbourhoods.

Northern Ireland's capital is Belfast, a city of about 500,000. Londonderry in the northwest is Northern Ireland’s second largest city.



Northern Ireland’s economy is closely connected with Great Britain. Unemployment is higher than in other areas of Britain. In former times the production of linen and shipbuilding were the two traditional industries. In the past decades manufacturing has decreased mostly because companies feel they are not safe on the island.

Farming still plays a major role in Northern Ireland. Pigs and chicken are raised for meat and eggs. Dairy farms produce milk and fish are caught in the waters around Northern Ireland.


Early history

In about 300 B.C. Celtic tribes invaded Ireland. They founded 5 kingdoms on the island . The northernmost kingdom, today’s Northern Ireland, was called Ulster.

Although the Romans did not take control of Ireland their influence was very strong. The Irish probably used Roman coins and the language spoken in parts of Ireland may have been influenced by Latin.

In about 400 A.D. Saint Patrick brought Christianity to the Irish population. He set up churches and other missionaries. Between 800 and 1000 A.D. Vikings raided Ireland. When the Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century the island was divided into many smaller kingdoms. As time went on English kings started to take control the island.



Beginning of the conflict


When Henry VIII turned England into a Protestant country in the 16th century most Irish people remained Roman Catholic. The following English monarchs sent soldiers to Ireland to make them protestant as well.

In the course of time the landowners in the northern part of Ireland fled their land and left it to the English king. James I sent thousands of protestant colonists to settle on the land that belonged to the Catholic people. These settlements were called plantations.

The Catholics rebelled against this policy but by the middle of the 17th century they had been finally defeated . the Catholics were left without land and power.

By the beginning of the 19th century Britain had gained control of the whole island. Ireland joined Wales England and Scotland to become the United Kingdom.



The division of Ireland

Throughout the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century more and more Irish groups began fighting for their independence. But the Protestants who lived in the northern part of the island wanted to stay with Great Britain.

in 1922 the island was divided. Six, mostly protestant, counties in the north stayed a part of the UK. The rest of the island , mostly Catholic, became the Irish Free State and an independent republic in 1949.

Up to 1972 Northern Ireland was allowed to rule itself . During this time the Catholics, who lived in the Protestant province had no easy life. They did not have the same rights and opportunities that the Protestants had. They were discriminated against in all aspects of life. They barely found jobs, got less money from the government and were often harassed by the police.


The Troubles

In the late 1960s riots broke out between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and Londonderry. The violent decades that followed became known as “the Troubles”.

At the beginning of the 1970s The British government sent soldiers to Northern Ireland to restore peace and decided to rule Northern Ireland directly from London.

Events escalated when 13 unarmed demonstrators were shot during a protest march in the streets of Londonderry on January 31, 1972. The incident became known as “Bloody Sunday”.


Both religious groups started to build up paramilitary organizations. On the Catholic side the Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out attacks on Protestants in the North. It wanted to force the British out of Northern Ireland and create a single Catholic state on the island. On the Protestant side the Ulster Defence Association and others terrorized the Catholic population living in Ulster.

In the 1980s the IRA started attacking the British in England. They planted bombs in London, kidnapped and killed high-ranking officials. Activists were arrested and thrown into prison. During the 80s some of them died during hunger strikes.

In the 1990s the British government started working on a peaceful solution to end the Troubles. In over 30 years of violence over 3,000 people were killed in the conflict.



The peace process


As time went on both sides realized that violence could not lead to a solution in the conflict. The British and Irish governments tried to get political and paramilitary sides to the conference table. In addition, the IRA promised to end all violent activities. Finally, talks ended in a historic agreement signed on Good Friday 1998.

The main points are:

  • The future of Northern Ireland should be determined by the people.
  • All political groups must share power in Northern Ireland
  • the creation of a northern Irish Assembly with law-making powers
  • Britain and the Republic of Ireland agree to a council that discuss the problems in Northern Ireland
  • All prisoners are to be released.
  • All weapons of paramilitary groups must be given up within two years.
  • The Republic of Ireland will not seek reunification with Northern Ireland.


In a referendum the people of Northern Ireland agreed to accept the treaty and in June 1998 the new assembly was elected. However not everything went according to plan in the following years. The paramilitary groups didn’t trust each other and when the IRA refused to give up its weapons the British government reimposed direct rule.

Finally, after years of quarrel and disagreement, the IRA announced in 2005 that it would give up all of its weapons.

In 2007 the leaders of the Catholic party, Sinn Fein and the protestant Democratic Unions Party came to a historic agreement to share power in the Northern Irish government. The assembly got together again.

In July 2007 the British government ended its military presence in Northern Ireland. The cooperation between the two groups is a sign that a lasting peace may finally have come to Northern Ireland.



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Related Topics



  • A.D. = after the birth of Christ
  • according to plan = as it should
  • activist = here: active member of the IRA
  • agree = to have the same opinion
  • agreement = when two or more parties promise to do something
  • although = while
  • announce = to say officially
  • area = the space that an object covers
  • arrest = to take someone to a police station because they have done something wrong
  • aspect = field, area
  • assembly = a group of people who are elected and get together to make laws
  • attack = violence against someone
  • carry out = to do something that has to be planned and organized
  • Celtic = people who lived in Western Europe and Great Britain before the Romans came
  • century = a hundred years
  • clash = fight
  • closely = very much
  • coin = a round flat piece of metal used as money
  • conference table = here: to get all parties to talk to each other
  • connect = link with
  • consist of = is made up of
  • cooperation = to work together
  • council = meeting with two or more parties
  • county = region, district
  • dairy farm = a farm that has cows and produces and sells milk
  • decade = ten years
  • decrease = to go down
  • defeat = to win against someone
  • descendant = someone who is a member of a family that lived a long time ago
  • determine = decide
  • disagreement = differences , arguments you have
  • discriminate against = to treat a person or a group of people in an unfair way
  • economy = the system by which a country’s money and goods are produced
  • elect = choose by the people
  • embed = to put into something else
  • escalate = to get worse
  • flee– fled = to run away from because you are followed
  • force = to make someone do something
  • former = in the past
  • found = create
  • gain control of = to be in power
  • Good Friday = the Friday before Easter Sunday
  • harass = to trouble or someone or make them afraid
  • high-ranking official = high member of a state or government
  • in addition = also
  • incident = event, happening
  • independent = free ; it governs itself
  • influence = to affect the way something develops or grows
  • invade = to take control of a country with an army
  • kingdom = a country ruled by a king or queen
  • lasting = permanent , long term
  • lough = a lake in Ireland
  • main = most important
  • manufacturing = the production of goods and products in a factory
  • missionary = someone who goes to another country and teaches people about Christianity
  • monarch = king or queen
  • opportunity = chance to do something
  • paramilitary = an illegal group that is organized like an army
  • peace agreement = two or more parties promise not to fight with each other any more
  • plain = a large area of flat land
  • plant = place, put
  • policy = plan, strategy
  • population = the people of a country
  • promise = to say that you will do something
  • quarrel =argue, fight
  • raid = to go to a place and steal things
  • raise = to look after and feed animals so that they can be sold as food
  • realize = understand, find out
  • rebel = rise up against
  • referendum = people vote and make a decision on a special topic
  • refuse = to say no
  • reimpose = here: to bring back again
  • release = to set free
  • remain = stay
  • restore = bring back
  • reunification = to bring two parts of a country together again
  • riot = violent demonstration , rebellion
  • rule = govern , control
  • seek = ask for; try to get
  • separately = apart from each other
  • settle = to go and live in a place where not many people have before
  • settlement = a new town or village
  • settler = someone who goes to live in a place where not many people have lived before
  • share = to have something with others
  • sign = to put your name on a document
  • single = only one
  • solution = answer; the way of solving a problem
  • throughout = in all of, the whole
  • towards = near
  • tribe = group of people of the same race , who have the same language and traditions
  • trust = to believe that someone is honest and you can depend on them
  • unarmed = without guns
  • unemployment = people who do not have a job
  • United Kingdom = England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • violence = when you hurt people physically
  • violent = aggressive , brutal
  • weapon = something you use to fight with in a war; like a knife , gun or bombs