In last week’s local elections, Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, gained the government majority for the first time in the region’s 101 years of existence. In achieving this, Sinn Fein earned the right to nominate one of their own politicians for the position Northern Ireland’s First Minister. However, under the power-sharing system under which Northern Ireland is governed, this role, in addition to that of the deputy first minister must be shared between the largest unionist and nationalist parties in government. Therefore, the role of deputy first minister falls on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who in this same election experienced political defeat despite the system being designed to keep nationalists politically subjugated and unionists politically dominant. Before the government can be formed, the DUP must first agree to take up this position – a decision, the party’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, decided against and justified with reference to the region’s unstable Brexit deal, the Northern Ireland Protocol. Designed to prevent the return of a hard land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in addition to safeguarding the peace achieved since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, this protocol since its proposal has remained a point of contention. While its existence creates constitutional and political significance for Northern Ireland it evokes opposing sentiments. Similar political fragilities in the past have caused Stormont to breakdown, and the role of governance return to Westminster. But what lead to this situation? Why does the DUP refuse to enter government with Sinn Fein? What has made the region’s politics so fragile? The answer to these question lies in Northern Ireland’s history, one stained red with the blood of unionists and nationalists, both guilty and innocent.
In 1921, following the Irish War of Independence and signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the island was partitioned into two under the Government of Ireland Act. One region consisted of twenty-six counties (the Irish Free State) and the other consisted of six counties (Northern Ireland). Both maintained a parliament subordinate to Westminster. After the Act was implemented, the parliament of Northern Ireland, headed by the Ulster Unionist Party carefully divided up the region’s existing electoral areas to ensure that Catholic nationalists were always in minority to Protestants unionists. This instance of gerrymandering was reinforced by the reinstatement of the first-past-post rule into all of Northern Ireland’s elections which created a political fortress that took 50 years for nationalists to penetrate.
The division of Ireland in itself sparked controversy, and ultimately was only accepted due to an agreement that at a later stage, a Boundary Commission would be elected to determine the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland in accordance with the latter region’s inhabitants. The Free State was misled to believe that this commission would reduce Northern Ireland to a size and scale where it’s own sustainability would be futile and therefore the region would ultimately be absorbed into their own region. However, in 1925, the publication of the Boundary Commission’s decisions revealed the opposite, rather than greatly reducing the size of Northern Ireland, it recommended minor adjustments to the border. The negotiations that ensued quickly created a political disaster for the Free-State and rather than getting any closer to a united Ireland, the prospects faded. At the same time, the nationalist Catholics living in Northern Ireland, having believed the situation to be temporary, felt betrayed and abandoned by Free State. A sentiment that the Irish Republican Army, who were already dissatisfied with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the unionists’ gains, could build on.
These questionable ‘terms and conditions’ under which Northern Ireland was created, birthed the region in violence. In the first two years, in Belfast alone, 455 people were killed in the ‘Border War’, the first of many bouts of sectarian violence. The political subjugation of nationalist Catholics through their treatment as second-class citizens and police property was not easily accepted nor did the Unionist government expect it to be. To control them, the Ulster Special Constabulary, an exclusively Protestant armed militia, modelled on an earlier unionist terrorist group, the old UVF, was formed as Northern Ireland’s state security apparatus in 1920. Shortly after, in 1922, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, an armed police force, was established that also consisted of a Protestant majority. Both these organisations from their formation were perceived as oppressive tools of the British establishment by northern Catholics and nationalists. Unionist hegemony continued through the decades that followed, with nationalist resistance as well as demands for Catholic civil rights growing but it would not be until the 1960s when developments would happen.
The 1960s saw the growth of the Catholic Civil Rights movement and the fragmentation of the unionist party. Both of which were eclipsed by the tensions that grew towards the end of the decade, most notably in August 1969, the start of ‘The Troubles’. Extreme tensions and disturbances over unionist celebrations in August saw the mobilisation of the Ulster Special Constabulary ahead of an Apprentice Boys, a protestant fraternity, march in Derry on August 12th . The permittance of this march in Derry, a city with strong nationalist communities, provoked rioting that would be remembered as ‘the Battle of the Bogside’. Rioting soon erupted in Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast. As riots escalated, military aid was requested by the region’s government and the British Army were deployed in Belfast and Derry as peacekeepers. The construction of ‘peace-walls’, barriers to separate nationalist Catholic communities from unionist Protestant regions, followed shortly after. Security in Northern Ireland rapidly deteriorated as sectarian riots and attacks continued with nationalist paramilitaries like the IRA emerging to defend Catholic areas from ‘British injustice’. A move, mirrored by unionist paramilitaries.
Whilst operating outside the confines of the law, both side’s paramilitaries were well connected to legitimate political fronts representing their ideologies. This only blurred the lines between right and wrong, good, and bad. Political groups like Sinn Fein were quickly held accountable for the actions of the IRA due to their affiliations with the group. Similarly, the DUP, who were founded in the midst of the Troubles in 1971 quickly became closely associated with the bombing campaigns and other acts of violence perpetrated by the UVF. Therefore, while both Sinn Fein and the DUP, held contrasting ideologies, the violence perpetuated by their paramilitary counterparts only served to deepen divisions. Paramilitary violence eventually declined as both sides realised there was enormous power available that did not need to come from the barrel of a gun. However, while Sinn Fein and the DUP distanced themselves from the gun, its use in the past remains a common reason both sides use to justify their refusal to accept each other’s governance.
As a result of this history, and the influence it exerts on the present, Northern Ireland’s future remains unclear. Despite the DUP refusing to enter government with their rival, Sinn Fein has drawn a symbolic victory from being entitled to appoint the First Minister, a position held exclusively by unionist politicians since 1998. This victory for many of Sinn Fein’s supporters and other nationalists, has relit the flame of patriotism and brought closer the prospects of a United Ireland, but, in the eyes of the unionists it spells certain doom and threatens the region’s peace, as British public figures like Piers Morgan fear the “impending…and inevitable collapse of the United Kingdom”.