Northern Ireland

Sep 7, 2018 |

1690: The Battle of Boyne

On July 12th, 1690, a key battle took place in the struggle for control and religious domination of Europe that pitted Catholics against Protestants. This battle took place in Ireland’s Boyne Valley, in what is now the eastern part of the Republic of Ireland.

The battle, which resulted in a victory for William of Orange, who would take control of England, Ireland, and Scotland and unite them under Protestant control, is still commemorated today by unionists in Northern Ireland. The battle is seen as a key event that ties Ireland culturally with England and Scotland, despite the fact that this date is not especially significant elsewhere in the United Kingdom compared to in Northern Ireland.

Generally, the Orange Order, a fraternal order composed primarily of Ulster unionists and Protestants, commemorates the event with a series of parades and other ceremonies. However, others in Northern Ireland commemorate the event on the night before the anniversary by lighting large bonfires and throwing street parties.

These events are controversial because they are often associated with displays of hatred towards the republican community. They have also been known to end in violence. It is not uncommon to see Irish flags and other republican symbols burned atop the bonfires, nor is it uncommon for Catholics and republicans to be harassed and otherwise intimidated in the days leading up to July 12th. In the past, there have been reports of burning projectiles being thrown over the walls that divide the two communities in Belfast.

More recently, symbols of Poland, such as Polish flags, have also been burned alongside Irish flags on these bonfires, sparking claims that these celebrations are less about celebrating heritage than they are about inciting hatred.


What Now:

This year, there have already been several controversies surrounding the Eleventh Night and Battle of the Boyne celebrations.

The Orange Order has complained already about “unnecessary restrictions” being placed on where and how parades may be held.3 On the other hand, the Belfast city government has given the green light to a parade that intends to march through a mixed (neither predominantly Catholic nor Protestant) neighborhood in North Belfast. This has never been done before, and it has some residents concerned about the possibility of violence.

Additionally, the President of Sinn Féin (the party that represents republicans in the Stormont Assembly and Westminster), Mary Lou McDonald, has expressed interest in attending some of the commemorative events in order to represent the republican community and the history it shares surrounding July 12th. However, the Orange Order has rejected this possibility and argued that doing so would be an insult to the memory of murdered unionists.

Going forward more generally, it appears that July 12th and the surrounding days will be an important space to watch in the years to come. As tensions rise surrounding Brexit, this time of year—which already presents an increased likelihood of violence—may see more paramilitary-related activity.

In many ways, Eleventh Night and July 12th are similar to many other commemorative activities that take place to mark various important dates in other conflicts around the world. They raise the difficult question of how to draw a line between heritage and hatred; commemoration and intimidation. However, because of their unique circumstances, these dates ought to be considered with a unique sense of urgency.

1960s-1990s: an overview

In 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice was formed. This is considered to be a major precursor to the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. At this time, Catholics in Northern Ireland faced extensive housing and employment discrimination, as well as police brutality stemming from the fact that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, responsible for policing in Northern Ireland, was comprised of a Protestant majority.

From 1964 to 1969, this would be a major social issue in Northern Irish politics. The civil rights movement was characterized by a series of civil rights marches through Belfast and other large towns. It also stoked the anger of unionists who viewed this movement as a threat to the unity of the United Kingdom and a threat to the status they and Ulster Protestants enjoyed at the time. Unionists and Protestants responded to the civil rights movement by organizing movements and counter-demonstrations of their own. It was during this era, and in response to the civil rights movement, that many unionist paramilitary groups formed. A major source of unionist anger was a student group called People’s Democracy, which was formed in 1968 by students of Queen’s University Belfast. 1968 also saw a march for fair housing in Derry broken up by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and demonstrators brutalized. This is considered the event that started the conflict. While organized terrorist activity did not become a major issue until the early 1970s, isolated paramilitary violence was seen during this period. 

Between 1971 and 1975, Northern Ireland was rocked by a series of police raids that saw hundreds of people arrested and placed in makeshift camps. This period also saw many Catholics and republicans in Northern Ireland flee to the Republic—many of whom never returned to their homes. On January 30, 1972, thirteen civilians were shot dead by the RUC during a march against internment. Following the events of “Bloody Sunday,” as this date is commonly known, riots broke out across the North, particularly in the cities of Belfast and Derry. Although an inquiry into this incident was launched, it was regarded as a farce because those chosen to lead it all had close ties to prominent

Beginning in 1973, the British government arranged for studies to be undertaken and possible long-term solutions proposed as to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and potential arrangements to reduce the likelihood of future violence. In December of this year, talks were held between the British Prime Minister, the Irish Taoiseach, and the Northern Ireland Executive—the first of their kind in history. What resulted was the Sunningdale Agreement. The main goal of this activity was to settle “the Irish dimension” of the future of Northern Ireland—that is, to what extent the Republic of Ireland would play a role in the government of the territory and what links could or would be established between the Republic of Ireland and those in the North who identified more with it than with the United Kingdom.

The Council of Ireland was the solution arrived at during the Sunningdale talks. It was intended to provide a means of cooperation between the Republic and the North. However, Ulster unionists were resistant to this and quickly mobilized against it.

During this same time period, a power-sharing agreement was drafted to ensure both communities in the North would be represented in government at all times. 1 This was met with resistance from unionists, as well as republicans who felt it did not go far enough. In 1974, a general election was held and the forces in favor of the Sunningdale agreement faced defeat. 4 This also put an end to the proposed power-sharing agreement. The 1970s were characterized by a series of bombings in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland that would see the European Community, and the broader international community take notice of the conflict. 

In 1976, the British government announced that, from that point on, those convicted of terrorism-related offenses would no longer receive special status to differentiate them from ordinary criminals. This provoked outrage in Northern Ireland, particularly among republicans. The move sparked mass protests across the territory and was seen as the British government attempting to criminalize the
IRA rather than reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. 

Notably, this event was the beginning of a series of prison protests. The first of which involved prisoners wearing just blankets, refusing to wear ordinary prison uniforms as the new change would have required. In 1980, it was announced that this end to special category status would apply to all prisoners, regardless of when the crime was committed or when the offender was convicted. 1980 would also see prisoners take part in a hunger strike in protest of the end to this status. 

In 1981, republican prisoner Bobby Sands would start the most famous hunger strike of the entire conflict. Later that year, he would be elected to Westminster, to which the British government would respond by changing the law to prevent prisoners from serving in Parliament. 1981 would also see British MPs and Irish TDs (teachtaí Dáil, or members of the lower house of parliament in the
Republic of Ireland) meet for the first time to discuss the hunger strike. 

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was met with mixed reactions when she announced this meeting but refused to reconsider this policy change. She was confronted about it at a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during which she famously declared that she refused to entertain a political solution to the conflict because she saw it as an ordinary crime. 

1981 would also see the European Court of Human Rights become involved with the conflict for the first time. An application was brought by Bobby Sands’ sister, but Bobby refused to meet with commissioners to discuss the case. Eventually the Court would declare that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. Sands died on 5 May 1981, and his death sparked riots across both Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland. The hunger strike he started would continue for months as new prisoners joined to replace those who were dying, and would see the Red Cross get involved to try to mitigate the situation (to no avail).

Also in 1981, Sinn Féin announced that it would contest all constituencies for elections in Northern Ireland and would take the seats it won. Previously, the party had contested elections but maintained an abstentionist policy (by which it refused to actually send people to parliament) for its entire history, which precedes the formation of the Republic of Ireland. 

On 3 October 1981, the hunger strike begun by Bobby Sands ended after the families of the remaining prisoners began asking for medical intervention and the prisoners collectively decided to end it. This hunger strike had far reaching consequences; it sparked extensive violence across the British isles for its entire duration, it helped the republican community to obtain crucial support and
sympathy from abroad, and it helped to radicalize and further convince republican sympathizers like never before. It also dramatically increased electoral support for Sinn Féin in predominantly Catholic areas, sparking fears in the British government that it would overtake the Labour and Social Democratic parties in Parliament. This fear is seen as a key precursor to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. 

From this point forward, the British and Irish governments looked to establish standing links and ways to maintain constant coordination to deal with the conflict. Throughout early 1985, both governments would entertain the possibility of negotiations. This year saw both sides explore the possibility of forming new links. Unionists began organizing in resistance to the agreement that was clearly on the path to being signed. 

On 15 November 1985, the Republic of Ireland and the UK signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Importantly, the Agreement stipulates that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will only happen via a majority vote among the residents of the territory. 

The late 1980s were characterized by political gridlock in Northern Ireland, but relatively sporadic violence compared with the decade prior. Home rule in Northern Ireland remained suspended, and inter-community cooperation was lacking. Rumors circulated that unionist communities were open to discussion about future governance of Northern Ireland, although these were not entirely true.

This pattern continued into the early 1990s. A major issue during this timec period was the fact that the Irish constitution asserts a territorial claim to the entire island, which is not recognized in practice and created a major obstacle to securing a lasting agreement. 

A series of talks, the Brooke-Mayhew talks, were held beginning in 1990, in an attempt to arrive at a long term solution. Unionists insisted that Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, which asserted the territorial claim, be repealed before talks could commence. On 9 November 1990, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, sparked outrage among unionists by saying in a speech in London that Britain did not have any material or strategic interest in Northern Ireland and would permit the unification of Ireland by electoral consent. 

By 1991, all sides had agreed to arrange talks. A ceasefire was declared and talks began. However, a stalemate was reached by July and the talks were adjourned so as not to undo the progress made. This was followed by an end to the ceasefire. A general election followed and Peter Brooke was replaced as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. By the end of 1992, unionists withdrew totally from formal negotiations. 

In 1993, secret talks between Sinn Féin leadership and a number of British political parties became public knowledge. An initiative was propsed but proved to be unpopular. On 23 October 1993, a bombing at Enniskellen sparked condemnation from a wide variety of parties. On 15 December 1993, the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach issued the Downing Street Declaration, the result of private talks that had taken place, in which both parties committed to finding a lasting solution and respecting the will of the people. 

Beginning in 1994, the Republic of Ireland allowed Sinn Féin access to national broadcasting. Also in 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton granted Gerry Adams a visa to enter the United States, which he had previously been denied. This year would also see a series of ceasefires and the reopening of ten border roads connecting the Republic and the North. 

By 1996, paramilitary groups had begun to entertain the idea of decommissioning their arms as part of a peace settlement. There was a series of bombings throughout the British isles, reflecting an end to a ceasefire that some had anticipated to be permanent. Throughout 1996 and 1997, there would be consternation surrounding the Royal Ulster Constabulary closing roads to allow for Orange Order marches through predominantly Catholic areas. Intermittent violence in 1996, 1997, and 1998 would routinely hold up the peace process. 

Finally, on 10 April 1998, all parties would sign the Good Friday Agreement, which would formally end the conflict. 

What now/What next:

The events of these decades should be seen as informing the present debacle as to the status of Northern Ireland. The concern is that a hard border, which would seal off the two territories, isolating republicans from what they see as their ethnic homeland, could cause some to return to the violence of these decades.

A key space to watch is the question of whether to arrange some sort of special status for Northern Ireland. According to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and affirmed in the Good Friday Agreement, any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only take place with an electoral mandate by simple majority. A key question is exactly what triggers the need for a referendum, and how the result of such a referendum will be handled by the respective governments.

Researched and Written by: 

Michaela Downey

Regional Editor of europe

Contributing Author

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