A Brief History of Northern Ireland

Shelves upon shelves of books have been written in attempt to unravel the complicated history and politics of Northern Ireland. Only a fool would expect to be able to do it clearly and concisely, in just a few short paragraphs. So here goes.

In 1921, after nearly a thousand years of occupation and more rebellions and civil wars than you could count, Ireland won its independence from the United Kingdom. At least, most of it did. The U.K. didn’t want to give it all up, nor did the Protestant, pro-British majority of the north. So a compromise was reached: The northern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone (known collectively as “Ulster”) were split off to form a new country called Northern Ireland. This, in turn, would stay part of the United Kingdom—a U.K. state, effectively. It was a messy deal, but at least they would stop killing each other. What could possibly go wrong?

Well . . . a lot. For a start, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland was treated appallingly, discriminated against in almost every aspect of life, from work and housing to elections and policing. Not unreasonably, they wondered if they would be better off in the Republic of Ireland too. Things came to a head in the late 1960s, when the Catholic population began an intense civil rights campaign. Their marches and demonstrations were crushed by the authorities, sometimes with brute violence—which spurred the reemergence of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary group that had first appeared early in the 20th century.

After the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1971, when the British army opened fire on a peaceful protest in Derry, the IRA launched a terror campaign aimed at civilians, both in Northern Ireland and the British mainland. Bombs were planted in bus stops, cafes, schools, pubs, and shopping malls, killing many innocent people. Politicians were assassinated. (In 1985 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was inches away from being killed by a bomb). The British army, meanwhile, patrolled Northern Irish streets and colluded with pro-U.K. terrorist groups. People were thrown in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. There were shootings and bombings almost weekly. Over 3,000 died, and tens of thousands were injured—mostly just ordinary folk who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The struggle continued for decades, until the so-called “Good Friday Agreement” was negotiated, with the help of U.S. President Bill Clinton, in 1997. While it didn’t end all political and religious violence, it did change the atmosphere considerably. A massive constitutional overhaul, the agreement ended institutional discrimination against the Catholic minority, installed power sharing, and devolved government. Paramilitary groups such as the IRA agreed to disarm. Mortal enemies agreed to share power together, peacefully.

Skip forward 20 years and the region is still at peace. Sporadic flare-ups of violence do happen, but nothing even remotely approaching what it was. Meanwhile, a new generation has grown up who weren’t even alive when the so-called “Troubles” came to an end.

Choosing Sides: Understanding Northern Ireland's Divisions

To understand Northern Ireland, you first must understand who is involved in the sectarian game, because the battle between Republicans (those who believe the North should become part of the Republic of Ireland; also called nationalists or "the Catholics," depending on who's talking), and the Loyalists (those who are loyal to the British crown and think the North should stay, as it is now, part of the United Kingdom; also called Unionists or "the Protestants") defines this region to this day. The problem is that both sides have splintered over the last decade, and so it's hard to keep up with who's who.

The Republicans are now divided among devotees of the IRA (the Irish Republican Army), the "Real" IRA (a splinter faction that branched off from the IRA), and Sinn Fein (also splintered from the IRA, and now its political face). Supporters for this side often have the green, white, and orange Irish flag hanging from their homes and businesses.

The Loyalists are divided among a variety of paramilitary groups, including the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), the UDF (Ulster Defence Force), and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force). Much of the violence in the last decade has been the result of turf wars between those Protestant groups. Supporters of that side often have the British Union Jack flag flying from their homes and businesses.

These days, many, though not all, of these groups are more involved in organized crime than political struggle, and all of them have been lumped together by pundits under the new term "Irish mafia." Massive bank robberies (all of Northern Ireland's currency was withdrawn and reissued within 1 week in 2005 after a gang suspected to be connected with the IRA stole £22 million in a bank heist), importation and sales of illegal weaponry, and drugs are all blamed on the same factions that once battled for political power here. Most Irish people will tell you that they're sick of the lot of them -- however, don't ask unless you know the person you're talking to. It's an extremely sensitive subject that should not be brought up casually. If you're really curious, take one of the Black Cab tours and you can ask your driver questions to your heart's content.

Red Hand of Ulster

Around Belfast and Northern Ireland, you’ll frequently come across representations of a red hand. It’s carved in doorframes, painted on walls and ceilings, and even planted in red flowers in gardens. Known as the Red Hand of Ulster, it is one of the symbols of the region. According to one version of the old tale, the hand can trace its history from a battle between two men competing to be king of Ulster. They held a race (some say by boat, others say it took place on horseback) and agreed that the first man to touch Ulster soil would win. As one man fell behind, he pulled his sword and cut off his right hand, then with his left, flung the bloody hand ahead of his competitor, winning the right to rule.

The Art of Conflict: Belfast's Street Murals

Painted by amateur artists—albeit very talented ones—the huge street murals in West Belfast tell tales of history, strife, anger, or peace. The densest concentration is around the Falls and Shankill roads—the epicenter of the conflict during the Troubles, from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s. The Falls Road is staunchly Catholic and Republican (largely those who want Ireland united as a single country). Shankill, just half a mile away, is resolutely Protestant and Loyalist (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom).

While all are deeply political, there is a noticeable difference between the tone of these murals. Those on the Falls Road tend to be about solidarity with the downtrodden (and not just in Ireland—you’ll see murals about war and oppression in other parts of the world too). By contrast, the Shankill murals are more strident, featuring more violent and threatening imagery, although some of the most offensive were removed a few years ago by the government.

Perhaps the most famous political mural in Ireland is on the corner of Falls Road and Sevastopol Street, at one end of the surprisingly small Sinn Fein headquarters: a mural of the late hunger striker Bobby Sands (1954–81). Locals in all districts are very proud of their murals and are fine with visitors taking photos. Still, you should exercise the usual caution you would in any rough city neighborhood. It’s best to avoid these parts of town on parade days—ostensibly celebratory events, these tend toward displays of nationalism, erupting into street violence. The biggest, and most controversial, is the Protestant “Orange Order” parade on July 12th. Any parades likely to cause trouble are well covered by the local media, so it’s easy to know when one is coming up.

The best, safest, and certainly the most informative way to see the murals is to take a Black Taxi Tour. The tours are a real Belfast highlight, and could hardly be more convenient—the drivers will pick you up at your hotel and drop you off anywhere you like in the city.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.