Northern Ireland Feature
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Northern Ireland's historic conflict between Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, had its roots in the first Norman incursions in the 12th century, when the English endeavored to subdue the potential enemy they saw as Ireland. The northern province of Ulster proved the hardest to conquer, but in 1607, its Irish nobility fled, their lands then given by the English to "the Planters"—staunch Protestants from England and Scotland.
Fast-forward through three centuries of smoldering tensions and religious strife to the overwhelming 1918 Nationalist vote across Ireland for Sinn Féin ("Ourselves Alone"), the party that believed in independence for all of Ireland. In Ulster, however, 22 (out of 29) seats went to the Unionists, who believed in maintaining British rule. After 50 years of living with a Unionist majority, students in Belfast's Queen's University launched a civil rights protest in 1968, claiming equal rights in jobs, housing, and opportunity. They were met by brutal British suppression, which, in turn, awoke the Irish Republican Army (IRA), dormant for decades. Britain then imposed Direct Rule. This struggle tragically came to a head on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, when British paratroopers opened fire on people participating in a nonviolent protest in Derry against the British policy of internment without trial. When the smoke cleared, 13 people, all Catholic and unarmed, had been killed.
Decades of guerrilla conflict ensued between the IRA, the UDA/UVF (Protestant/Loyalist paramilitaries), and the British government and continued until 1998's Good Friday Agreement, which finally gave the province its own parliament. But a mere two months later, the province's fragile peace was shattered when a massive car bomb exploded in the quiet market town of Omagh on August 15. A minority of dissident Republicans had succeeded in killing 31 people. Despite this appalling act, the peace process continued and Unionists eventually entered government proceedings with Sinn Féin at the end of 1999.
Today, despite ongoing assembly battles between pro- and anti-agreement camps, Northern Ireland is enjoying the longest period of peace in its history. In September 2005, the IRA decommissioned all its weapons. In 2009, the Loyalist paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force and its splinter group, the Red Hand Commando, destroyed their weapons. By early 2010, the biggest Loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association, decommissioned all weapons. Two Irish Republican terror groups—the extreme Irish National Liberation Army and the Official IRA—also announced they had put weapons beyond use. In February 2010, the endorsement of a final political deal culminated in the Hillsborough Castle Agreement, securing the stability of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For many nationalists, the icing on the political cake came with the announcement in June 2010 by the British government apologizing for Bloody Sunday and saying it "had been unjustified and unjustifiable." For the people of Derry this has been liberating and has brought about a wind of change that has had a positive impact on the city.
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