To understand Northern Irish politics, it’s imperative to first understand the history of the country.
In the 1600s, beginning in 1609, British Protestants were incentivised (by the promise of guaranteed arable land) to move to Ulster and colonise. Although this was common all over Ireland (which was still one country under British rule), it was most effective in the North.
3,000 years later, in the 1920s, the Protestant community in the North was sizable. The vast majority of Protestants supported the union between Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, and the majority of Catholics supported a United Ireland and rejoining the Free State/ Republic; This lead to the increasing politicisation of religion, and to tensions between the two communities (although this considerably worsened during The Troubles). After the end of the War of Independence in Ireland in 1921, it was partitioned; there are 4 provinces on the island (Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster), and the majority of Ulster became Northern Ireland (6 counties became part of Northern Ireland and 3 remained in the newly formed Irish Free State).
Northern Ireland was gerrymandered in 1921, so that there would be a Protestant (or Unionist) majority in government for the foreseeable future. This meant that the way electoral boundaries were set favoured Protestant communities and weakened the Catholic vote. In time, this meant that Catholics faced considerable discrimination in housing, particularly in the majority Catholic area of Derry. Several civil rights groups were founded, and protests began in order to push to government for reform; Some of the most prominent civil rights leaders were women and young people, like Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (leader of Queen’s University Belfast group People’s Democracy) and Eamonn McCann (a leading member of Derry Housing Action Committee). The peaceful protests soon began to gather momentum and were gaining significant attention.
In 1969, violence broke out between the protesters, Protestant loyalists and the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary – controversial for their excessive use of force and brutality). The vast majority of the government (all 6 Northern Irish Prime Ministers were members of the Protestant Orange Order) and police force were Protestant, so Catholics could do little more than protest (the result of gerrymandering was that a Catholic vote was worth less than a Protestant vote); after the August 1969 violence (later known as the Battle of the Bogside), the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, it became clear to Catholic communities that protesting had become too unsafe and their vote was useless.
In 1969, the British Army were ordered into Northern Ireland (and Direct Rule introduced) and they were initially welcomed by Protestant and Catholic communities, as they believed that the army would protect them; both groups of people had faced displacement due the violence, but Catholic communities were disproportionately effected and around 1,500 families were forced to leave their areas. However, opinion on the soldiers soon changed after it became clear that they would not protect Nationalist communities; in the Ballymurphy Massacre and Bloody Sunday, British soldiers in the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment shot and killed innocent people in Catholic areas.
Soon after, the IRA (Irish Republican Army), UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) made a resurgence; these paramilitaries had last been active in the 1920s, during the debate over Home Rule (the idea of self governance in Ireland, and later Northern Ireland), and the IRA was active in the Free State’s War of Independence and Civil War. The IRA is split into three main eras – the Old IRA (1916 – 1923), the Provisional IRA (1970 – 2000) and the Dissident groups (2000 onwards); the latter claim to be legacy groups of the Old and Provisional IRA but are mainly focused on punishing drug dealers and gangs with vigilante attacks (e.g. ‘kneecappings’), and include the ‘Real IRA’, ‘New IRA’, and ‘Republican Action Against Drugs’. The Loyalist paramilitaries include the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando; similarly to the dissident IRA groups, the modern version of the UVF deals with drug dealing and gang crime.
In the 1970s, Protestant and Catholic communities turned to paramilitaries to defend them. For Catholic communities, the IRA were protectors and a way to show defiance to the regime that had oppressed them; many Republicans, especially young men, turned to the IRA. This lead to many families being broken up as young men were rounded up and interned (‘internment’ had been introduced to seemingly isolate Republican sentiment, by imprisoning people suspected of paramilitary association, but instead made it stronger – communities rallied around prisoners and the men inside the prisons could network and share political ideas).
Soon, the whole country had become embroiled in violence as the IRA attacked the RUC and the British soldiers, and the UVF attacked Catholic communities in retaliation. It took over 30 years for the violence to be resolved, and tensions still remain high – although Northern Ireland is considerably safer and more peaceful.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrew’s Agreement paved the way for peace in Northern Ireland, and the system of government which would continue successfully until 2016. ‘Power-sharing’ was a system used to make the two main Nationalist and Unionist parties work together; each party (or independent MLA) must register their affiliation as Nationalist, Unionist or Other – this is a system that has been criticized by some parties (including Alliance, a non-affiliated party, and the DUP) for encouraging sectarian divides. In the 1996 and 1998 Assembly Elections, the SDLP (Socialist Democratic and Labour Party) and UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) were the two biggest parties (Nationalist and Unionist respectively), so were able to engage in power sharing negotiations; David Trimble became First Minister, with Mark Durkan as his Deputy. In 2003, Sinn Féin (an Irish language phrase, meaning ‘We Ourselves’) and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) became the two biggest parties – however, the 2nd Assembly never met due to the reintroduction of Direct Rule, the St Andrew’s Agreement and an attack on the Stormont Assembly buildings by infamous Loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone.
The 3rd Assembly was the first to run to completion (from 2007 to 2011), and was lead by First Ministers Ian Paisley (until 2008) and Peter Robinson from the DUP, and Deputy Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin. In December 2007, on a visit to the US, McGuinness famously told President George W Bush ‘up until the 26 March this year, Ian Paisley and I never had a conversation about anything – not even about the weather – and now we have worked very closely together over the last seven months and there’s been no angry words between us’. The role of the devolved assembly is to lead on law and policing, health and social welfare policy, and culture – similar to the role of Holyrood, in Scotland, and the Welsh Government (except Stormont has largely more power on devolved matters).
The Assembly continued working successfully until 2017 – when Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the controversial RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) scheme. The RHI Scheme aimed to incentivise users to use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels by providing long term financial support. The RHI became a scandal when it emerged that the fuel cost far less than the subsidy being given, so the more fuel was used then the more money would be recieved. First Minister Arlene Foster had been the Enterprise Minister when the scheme was first set up; this lead to McGuinness’ resignation because he wanted to protest Foster’s, and the DUP’s, handling of the situation.
McGuinness’ resignation made an election inevitable, but also raised issues that ultimately prevented power-sharing from resuming; Sinn Féin (lead now by Mary Lou McDonald as leader – after the retirement of long time leader Gerry Adams, and Michelle O’Neill as deputy and leader in the North) protested over several key issues (including the RHI scheme) such as an Irish Language Act (talked about in the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2005), the DUP’s refusal to fund inquests into killings during The Troubles, and later gay marriage and abortion rights. The DUP has refused to compromise on these issues, so Northern Ireland has remained without a functioning Executive for the last 540+ days. The death of Martin McGuinness soon after his resignation meant that would be no return to the status quo, and that the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement would be left in the hands of the new generation.
– Nationalist/Republican: Someone who believes in a United Ireland and/or Irish Independence. They normally identify as Irish. (There is a difference between the two, but in most situations they are used interchangeably)
– Loyalist/Unionist: Someone who wants Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. They usually identify as British.
– Catholic: Someone who follows the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope. In Northern Ireland, Catholics usually associate with being Irish.
– Protestant: Someone who follows Protestantism (and usually the Church of England or the Church of Ireland). Protestantism is a branch of Christianity that came from England when Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church during the Reformation. Protestants in Northern Ireland identify more with being British.
– DUP: Democratic Unionist Party. Currently the biggest Unionist party and the biggest party in the Assembly. Lead by Arlene Foster, and formerly the Reverend Ian Paisley Snr. Very conservative, and strongly oppose gay marriage, abortion and an Irish Language Act.
– UUP: Ulster Unionist Party. Formerly the biggest Unionist party, now the fourth biggest overall. Lead by Mike Nesbitt.
– Sinn Féin: Biggest Republican party in the Assembly and the second biggest overall. Quite left wing and rights based. Lead by Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.
– SDLP: Socialist Democratic and Labour Party. Second largest Nationalist Party and the third biggest overall. Left wing. Lead by Colum Eastwood.
– Alliance: A non-affiliated party. The fifth biggest party in the Assembly. Lead by Naomi Long.