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Romans in Celtic Britain
Christian kingdoms
The process of union
Ireland uneasy
     United Kingdom?
     Northern Ireland
     Brief return to Stormont


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United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: 1801-1921

For many reasons it is a much more difficult problem to unite Ireland with England than it has been in the case of Wales or Scotland. There is no royal link to ease the transition. The English plantations have been imposed forcibly upon the Irish, leaving a poisoned heritage of hardship and grievance. And religion remains a divisive issue, with a minority of Protestant settlers dominating the indigenous Catholics.

But in 1800, against considerable opposition, the prime minister, William Pitt, pushes through a new Act of Union. From 1 January 1801 the entire British Isles is to be a single political entity, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


Pitt hopes that the change will improve the lot of Catholics in Ireland, but he underrates Anglican opposition to any such measure. Catholic Emancipation becomes the great Irish issue of the 1820s, culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1829.

During the 1830s, when the entire United Kingdom is concentrating on political reform at Westminster, the situation with regard to Ireland is uncharacteristically calm. And the dominant issue of the 1840s is economic rather than political, with the potato blight and famine leading to massive emigration.


From the 1850s, however, the focus is increasingly on Irish attempts to break the union with Britain. The Fenians are founded in 1858 as a secret military organization; the Home Rule association is established in 1870 by an Irish member of parliament. Thus on the two fronts, paramilitary and legitimate, the long fight for Irish independence begins in earnest.

It ends, after much violence and bloodshed, with the establishment in 1921 of the Irish Free State. But this covers only the southern twenty-six of Ireland's counties. The struggle shifts, for radicals in the south, to reclaiming the six counties of northern Ireland - where the Protestant majority has absolutely no intention of becoming a minority region in a united Catholic island.


Devolution and direct rule: 1921-1999

The first fifty years of northern Ireland's existence as a separate province, from the establishment of a parliament at Stormont in 1921, are mainly peaceful. But towards the end of the period, from 1968, violence returns to Ulster politics. As a result the British government closes Stormont and assumes direct rule in 1972. Paramilitary terrorism, by both Catholics and Protestants, becomes endemic for the rest of the century.

There are strenuous efforts to achieve a peace settlement by a succession of British and Irish prime ministers - resulting in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.


Each makes valuable progress in developing a shared stance by the two nations against the forces of anarchy. And the Downing Street Declaration leads to a paramilitary ceasefire which holds for seventeen months from September 1984.

The Good Friday accord does even better. It is signed in April 1998 after a nine-month ceasefire, which then continues during the next agreed stage - the preparation of a new devolved power-sharing parliament at Stormont which will include Sinn Fein provided the IRA (the military wing of the party) decommission their weapons. The agreement is accepted in a referendum in May 1998. Elections follow in June. The various Unionist groups win 55 seats, the nationalists 42.


Almost Stormont: 1998-1999

In July 1998 the Northern Ireland Assembly meets for the first time at Stormont. David Trimble (Ulster Unionist) is elected First Minister.

For nearly a year desultory business continues, without Trimble being able to form a cabinet and begin the proper process of governing. The reason is the long-standing problem of the decommissioning of arms. The timetable has been left deliberately vague in the Good Friday Agreement. Now the Unionists insist that Sinn Fein cannot be part of government until decommissioning has begun. The IRA is equally adamant that it will not give up any weapons until Sinn Fein is in the government. In desperation Blair attempts another deadline. Unless there is agreement by the end of June 1999, there will be no Stormont parliament.


Long nights of intense bargaining up to the end of June, and through the first two days of July, end with an ultimatum from the British and Irish prime ministers. They propose now that Sinn Fein should be allowed to take part in the proposed executive on the mere promise of IRA arms decommissioning, which must begin within a short period and be complete by May 2000. A strict monitoring system for decommissioning is to be set in place. Stormont will be suspended if the IRA fail to meet stipulated deadlines.

If all parties accept these terms, and meet together in Stormont on July 15 to select the members of the executive, then devolved powers will be transferred to northern Ireland on July 18.


Intense discussion continues over the next two weeks, particularly between David Trimble, on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, and Tony Blair. Trimble complains that no clear evidence has been provided that the IRA does intend to hand in its arms, and no strict timetable for them to do so has yet been agreed. Without better guarantees on this front he refuses to recommend to his party the proposed arrangements for immediate power-sharing.

On July 15 northern Ireland's elected politicians assemble in Stormont. The business of the day is the nomination by each party of their representatives on the power-sharing executive. But the Ulster Unionist seats are empty.


The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland. Meanwhile it has been achieved elsewhere, in both Scotland and Wales - some twenty years after first being on offer.


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