Irish republicanism (Irish: Poblachtánachas Éireannach) is an ideology based on the belief that all of Ireland should be an independent republic. The development of nationalist and democratic sentiment throughout Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was reflected in Ireland in the emergence of republicanism, in opposition to British rule. This followed hundreds of years of British conquest and Irish resistance through rebellion, and union of the crowns of both countries since 1542. Discrimination against Catholics, attempts by a subjugating power to create an impression of inferiority and subdue or eliminate cultural identity, and a feeling that Ireland was economically disadvantaged and subservient within the United Kingdom were among the specific factors leading to such opposition.
The Society of United Irishmen, formed in the 1780s and led primarily by liberal Protestants, evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation, inspired by the American Revolution and allied with Revolutionary France. It launched the 1798 Rebellion with the help of French troops. The rebellion had some success, especially in County Wexford, before it was suppressed. A second rising in 1803, led by Robert Emmet, was quickly put down, and Emmet was hanged. The Young Ireland movement, formed in the 1830s, was initially a part of the Repeal Association of Daniel O'Connell, but broke with O'Connell on the issue of the legitimacy of the use of violence. Primarily a political and cultural organisation, some members of Young Ireland staged an abortive rising, the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. Its leaders were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Some of these escaped to the United States, where they linked up with other Irish exiles to form the Fenian Brotherhood. Together with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, founded in Ireland by James Stephens and others in 1858, they made up a movement commonly known as "fenians" which was dedicated to the overthrow of British imperial rule in Ireland. They staged another rising, the Fenian Rising, in 1867, and a dynamite campaign in Great Britain in the 1880s.
In the early 20th century IRB members, in particular Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott, began planning another rising. The Easter Rising took place from 24 to 30 April 1916, when members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army seized the centre of Dublin, proclaimed a republic and held off British forces for almost a week. The execution of the Rising's leaders, including Clarke, MacDermott, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, led to a surge of support for republicanism in Ireland. In 1917 the Sinn Féin party stated as its aim the "securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish Republic", and in the general election of 1918 Sinn Féin took 73 of the 105 Irish seats in the British House of Commons. The elected members did not take their seats but instead set up the First Dáil. Between 1919 and 1921 the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who were loyal to the Dáil, fought the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in the Irish War of Independence. Talks between the British and Irish in late 1921 led to a treaty by which the British conceded, not a 32-county Irish Republic, but a 26-county Irish Free State with dominion status.
The Free State formally became a republic with the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948. That same year, the republican movement took the decision to focus on Northern Ireland thereafter. The Border Campaign, which lasted from 1956 to 1962, involved bombings and attacks on Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks. The failure of this campaign led the republican leadership to concentrate on political action, and to move to the left. Following the outbreak of The Troubles in 1968-9, the movement split between Officials (leftists) and Provisionals (traditionalists) at the beginning of 1970. Both sides were initially involved in an armed campaign against the British state, but the Officials gradually moved into mainstream politics after the Official IRA ceasefire of 1972; the associated "Official Sinn Féin" eventually renamed itself the Workers' Party. The Provisional IRA, except during brief ceasefires in 1972 and 1975, kept up a campaign of violence for nearly thirty years, directed against security forces and civilian targets (especially businesses). While the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) represented the nationalists of Northern Ireland in initiatives such as the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, republicans took no part in these, believing that a withdrawal of British troops and a commitment to a United Ireland was a necessary precondition of any settlement. This began to change with a landmark speech by Danny Morrison in 1981, advocating what became known as the armalite and ballot box strategy. Under the leadership of Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin began to focus on the search for a political settlement. When the party voted in 1986 to take seats in legislative bodies within Ireland, there was a walk-out of die-hard republicans, who set up Republican Sinn Féin and the Continuity IRA. Following the Hume–Adams dialogue, Sinn Féin took part in the Northern Ireland peace process which led to the IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1997 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. After elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, republicans sat in government in Northern Ireland for the first time when Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún were elected to the Northern Ireland Executive. However, another split occurred, with anti-Agreement republicans setting up the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the Real IRA. Today, Irish republicanism is divided between those who support the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement and the later St Andrews Agreement, and those who oppose them. The latter are often referred to as "dissident" republicans.
Background of English rule in Ireland
Following the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century, Ireland, or parts of it, had experienced alternating degrees of rule from England. While some of the native Gaelic population attempted to resist this occupation, a single, unified political goal did not exist amongst the independent lordships that existed throughout the island. The Tudor conquest of Ireland took place in the 16th century. This included the Plantations of Ireland, in which the lands held by Gaelic Irish clans and Hiberno-Norman dynasties were confiscated and given to Protestant settlers ("Planters") from England and Scotland. The Plantation of Ulster began in 1609, and the province was heavily colonised with English and Scottish settlers.
Campaigns against English presence on the island had occurred prior to the emergence of the Irish republican ideology. In the 1590s, resistance was led by Hugh O'Neill (see the Nine Years' War). The Irish chieftains were ultimately defeated, leading to their exile (the 'Flight of the Earls') and the aforementioned Plantation of Ulster in 1609.
Three decades later, the Irish Rebellion of 1641 began. This consisted of a coalition between the Irish and the Old English (descendents of the English/Norman settlers who settled during the Norman Invasion) rebelling against the English rulers. Beginning as a coup d'état with the aim restoring lost lands in the north of Ireland and defending Catholic religious and property rights, (which had been suppressed by the Puritan Parliament of England) it evolved into the Irish Confederate Wars. In the summer of 1642, the Catholic upper classes formed the Catholic Confederation, which essentially became the de facto government of Ireland for a brief period until 1649, when the forces of the English Parliament carried out the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and the old Catholic landowners were permanently dispossessed of their lands.
Society of United Irishmen and the Irish Rebellion of 1798
Irish republicanism has its origins in Irish political movements founded in the 18th century. The movement is often seen as beginning with the Society of United Irishmen. In 18th century Ireland, Dissenters and Catholics experienced discrimination as a result of the Penal Laws, a series of laws imposed by the British ruling class that removed power from those outside of the established Church of Ireland. In 1791, a group which became known as the United Irishmen was formed with the intention of bringing about Parliamentary reform. The group evolved into a revolutionary republican organisation, influenced by the revolutions in America and France that had taken place earlier.
The United Irishmen opposed British rule in Ireland, and believed that Ireland ought to govern itself, free from external control. The group also sought to remove the religious discrimination that existed in government and law at the time. At the group's first meeting, the following three resolutions were passed:
- That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce.
- That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament.
- That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.
"We have no national Government – we are ruled by Englishmen, and the servants of Englishmen whose object is the interest of another country, whose instrument is corruption, and whose strength is the weakness of Ireland ... Such an extreme power, acting with uniform force, in a direction too frequently opposite to the true line of our obvious interests, can be resisted with effect solely by unanimity, decision and spirit in the people."—Theobald Wolfe Tone, Declaration of the United Irishmen
At this stage, the movement was led primarily by liberal Protestants, particularly Presbyterians from the province of Ulster. Founding members of the United Irishmen, along with Tone, included Thomas Russell, Henry Joy McCracken, James Napper Tandy, and Samuel Neilson. By 1797, the Society of United Irishmen had around 100,000 members. Crossing the religious divide in Ireland, it had a mixed membership of Catholics, Presbyterians, and even Anglicans from the Protestant Ascendancy. It also attracted support and membership from Catholic agrarian resistance groups, such as the Defenders, who were eventually incorporated into the Society.
The Irish Rebellion of 1798 began on 23 May, with the first clashes taking place in County Kildare on 24 May, before spreading throughout Leinster and other areas of the country thereafter. French soldiers landed in Ireland and participated in the rebellion also, landing in Killala on 22 August. General Napper Tandy, a leader of the uprising, authored a proclamation entitled 'Liberty or Death':
"Can you think of entering into a treaty with a British Minister? A Minister too, who has left you at the mercy of an English soldiery, who has laid your cities waste, and massacred inhumanely your best Citizens ... Horrid crimes have been perpetrated in your country, your friends have fallen a sacrifice to their devotion to your cause, and their shadows are around you and call for vengeance ... wage a war of extermination against your oppressors, the war of Liberty against tyranny, and Liberty shall Triumph."—James Napper Tandy, Liberty or Death
Although the Rebellion of 1798 was unsuccessful in that it failed to bring about independence from Great Britain and establish a republic in Ireland, it is significant in that the conflict and its leaders impacted Irish history to an enormous extent. The Society of United Irishmen was the first republican organisation in Ireland, and thus essentially founded Irish republicanism as a political ideology, setting the course for later independence movements in the country. Likewise, Wolfe Tone is regarded as the “father of Irish republicanism”, and the principles of the United Irishmen have greatly influenced Irish nationalist and republican philosophies.
Acts of Union
Though the Rebellion of 1798 was eventually crushed, small republican guerrilla campaigns against the British Army in the Wicklow Mountains under the leadership of Michael Dwyer and Joseph Holt continued for a short time after, conducting attacks on small parties of yeomen. These activities were perceived by some to be merely “the dying echoes of an old convulsion”, but others feared further large-scale uprisings, due to the United Irishmen continuing to attract large numbers of Catholics in rural areas of the country and arms raids being carried out on a nightly basis. It was also feared that rebels would again seek military aid from French troops, and another rising was expected take place by 10 April.
This perceived threat of further rebellion resulted in the Parliamentary Union between the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After some uncertainty, the Irish Parliament voted to abolish itself in the Acts of Union 1800, forming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, by a vote of 158 to 115. A number of tactics were used to achieve this end. Lord Castlereagh and Charles Cornwallis were known to use bribery extensively. In all, a total of sixteen Irish borough-owners were granted British peerages. A further twenty-eight new Irish peerages were created, while twenty existing Irish peerages increased in rank.
Furthermore, the government of Great Britain sought to replace Irish politicians in the Irish parliament with pro-Union politicians, and rewards were granted to those that vacated their seats, with the result being that in the eighteen months prior to the decision in 1800, one-fifth of the Irish House of Commons changed its representation due to these activities and other factors such as death. It was also promised by Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger that he would bring about Catholic Emancipation, though after the Acts of Union were successfully voted through, King George III saw that this pledge was never realised, and as such Catholics were not granted the rights that had been promised prior to the Acts.
A second attempt at forming an independent Irish republic occurred under Robert Emmet in 1803. Emmet had previously been expelled from Trinity College, Dublin for his political views. Like those who had led the 1798 rebellion, Emmet was a member of the United Irishmen, as was his brother Thomas Addis Emmet, who had been imprisoned for membership in the organisation.
Emmet and his followers had planned to seize Dublin Castle by force, manufacturing weaponry and explosives at a number of locations in Dublin. Unlike those of 1798, preparations for the uprising were successfully concealed from the government and law enforcement, and though a premature explosion at an arms depot attracted the attention of police, they were unaware of the United Irishmen activities at the time and did not have any information regarding the planned rebellion. Emmet had hoped to avoid the complications of the previous rebellion and chose not to organise the county outside of Dublin to a large extent. It was expected that the areas surrounding Dublin were sufficiently prepared for an uprising should one be announced, and Thomas Russell had been sent to northern areas of the country to prepare republicans there.
A proclamation of independence, addressed from 'The Provisional Government' to 'The People of Ireland' was produced by Emmet, echoing the republican sentiments expressed during the previous rebellion:
“You are now called on to show to the world that you are competent to take your place among nations, that you have a right to claim their recognisance of you, as an independent country ... We therefore solemnly declare, that our object is to establish a free and independent republic in Ireland: that the pursuit of this object we will relinquish only with our lives ... We war against no religious sect ... We war against English dominion.” —Robert Emmet, Proclamation of the Provisional Government
However, failed communications and arrangements produced a considerably smaller force than had been anticipated. Nonetheless, the rebellion began in Dublin on the evening of 23 July. Emmet's forces were unable to take Dublin Castle, and the rising broke down into rioting, which ensued sporadically throughout the night. Emmet escaped and hid for some time in the Wicklow Mountains and Harold's Cross, but was captured on 25 August and hanged on 20 September 1803, at which point the Society of United Irishmen was effectively finished.
Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation
The Young Ireland movement began in the late 1830s. The term 'Young Ireland' was originally a derogatory one, coined by the press in Britain to describe members of the Repeal Association (a group campaigning for the repeal of the Acts of Union 1800 which joined the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain) who were involved with the Irish nationalist newspaper The Nation. Encouraging the repeal of the Acts of Union, members of the Young Ireland movement advocated the removal of British authority from Ireland and the re-establishment of the Irish Parliament in Dublin. The group had cultural aims also, and encouraged the study of Irish history and the revival of the Irish language. Influential Young Irelanders included Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon, the three founders of The Nation.
The Young Irelanders eventually seceded from the Repeal Association. The leader of the Repeal Association, Daniel O'Connell, opposed the use of physical force to enact repeal, and passed 'peace resolutions' declaring that violence and force were not to be employed. Though the Young Irelanders did not support the use of violence, the writers of The Nation maintained that the introduction of these peace resolutions was poorly timed, and that to declare outright that physical force would never be used was 'to deliver themselves bound hand and foot to the Whigs.'William Smith O'Brien, who had previously worked to achieve compromise between O'Connell and The Nation group, was also concerned, and claimed that he feared these resolutions were an attempt to exclude the Young Irelanders from the Association altogether. At an Association meeting held in July 1846 at Conciliation Hall, the meeting place of the Association, Thomas Francis Meagher, a Young Irelander, addressing the peace resolutions, delivered his 'Sword Speech', in which he stated, "I do not abhor the use of arms in the vindication of national rights ... Be it for the defence, or be it for the assertion of a nation's liberty, I look upon the sword as a sacred weapon."John O'Connell, Daniel O'Connell's son, was present at the proceedings and interrupted Meagher's speech, claiming that Meagher could no longer be part of the same association as O'Connell and his supporters. After some protest, the Young Irelanders left Conciliation Hall and the Repeal Association forever, founding the Irish Confederation 13 January 1847 after negotiations for a reunion had failed.
The Young Ireland movement culminated in a failed uprising (see Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848), which, influenced by the French Revolution of 1848 and further provoked by government inaction during the Great Famine and the suspension of habeas corpus, which allowed the government to imprison Young Irelanders and other political opponents without trial, was hastily planned and quickly suppressed. Following the abortive uprising, several rebel leaders were arrested and convicted of sedition. Originally sentenced to death, Smith O'Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation were transported to Van Diemen's Land.
The Fenian movement
The Fenian movement consisted of the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), fraternal organisations founded in the United States and Ireland respectively with the aim of establishing an independent republic in Ireland.
The IRB was founded on Saint Patrick's Day 1858 in Dublin. Members present at the first meeting were James Stephens, Thomas Clarke Luby, Peter Langan, Joseph Denieffe, Garrett O'Shaughnessy, and Charles Kickham. Stephens had previously spent time exiled in Paris, along with John O'Mahony, having taken part in the uprising of 1848 and fleeing to avoid capture. O'Mahony left France for America in the mid-1850s and founded the Emmet Monument Association with Michael Doheny. Stephens returned to Ireland in 1856.
The original oath of the society, drawn up by Luby under Stephens' direction, read:
I, AB., do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will do my utmost, at every risk, while life lasts, to make [other versions, according to Luby, establish in'] Ireland an independent Democratic Republic; that I will yield implicit obedience, in all things not contrary to the law of God [ 'laws of morality'] to the commands of my superior officers; and that I shall preserve inviolable secrecy regarding all the transactions [ 'affairs'] of this secret society that may be confided in me. So help me God! Amen.
The Fenian Brotherhood was the IRB's counterpart organisation, formed in the same year in the United States by O'Mahony and Doheny. The Fenian Brotherhood's main purpose was to supply weapons and funds for its Irish counterpart and raise support for the Irish republican movement in the United States. The term "Fenian" was coined by O'Mahony, who named the American wing of the movement after the Fianna — a class of warriors that existed in Gaelic Ireland. The term became popular and is still in use, especially in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where it has expanded to refer to all Irish nationalists and republicans, as well as being a pejorative term for Irish Catholics.
Public support for the Fenian movement in Ireland grew in November 1861 with the funeral of Terence MacManus, a member of the Irish Confederation, which Stephens and the Fenians had organised and which was attended by between twenty thousand and thirty thousand people. Following this, Stephens (accompanied by Luby) undertook a series of organisational tours throughout the island.
In 1865 the Fenian Brotherhood in America had split into two factions. One was led by O'Mahony with Stephens' support. The other, which was more powerful, was led by William R. Roberts. The Fenians had always planned an armed rebellion, but there was now disagreement as to how and where this rebellion might be carried out. Roberts' faction preferred focusing all military efforts on British Canada (Roberts and his supporters theorised that victory for the American Fenians in nearby Canada would propel the Irish republican movement as a whole to success). The other, headed by O'Mahony, proposed that a rising in Ireland be planned for 1866. In spite of this, the O'Mahony wing of the movement itself tried and failed to capture New Brunswick's Campobello Island in April 1866. Following this failure, the Roberts faction of the Fenian Brotherhood carried out its own, occupying the village of Fort Erie on 31 May 1866 and engaging Canadian troops at the battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie on 2 June. It was in reference to Fenians fighting in this battle that the name "Irish Republican Army" was first used. These attacks (and those that followed) in Canada are collectively known as the "Fenian raids".
Nineteenth century onward
After the Act of Union in 1801 merging Ireland with Britain into the United Kingdom, Irish independence movements were suppressed by the British. Nationalist rebellions against British rule in 1803, by Robert Emmet, 1848 (by the Young Irelanders) and 1865 and 1867 (by the Fenians) were followed by harsh reprisals by British forces.
In 1916 the Easter Rising organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood was launched in Dublin and the Irish Republic was proclaimed. The Rising was suppressed after six days, and most of its leaders were executed by the British. This was a turning point in Irish history, leading to the end of British rule in most of Ireland.
From 1919–1921 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was organised as a guerilla army, led by Michael Collins and fought against British forces. During the Anglo-Irish War (or Irish War of Independence) the British sent paramilitary police, the "Black and Tans" and the Auxiliary Division, to help the British Army and Royal Irish Constabulary. These groups committed atrocities which included killing captured POWs and Irish civilians viewed as being sympathetic to the IRA. The most infamous of all their actions was the burning of half the city of Cork in 1920 and the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1920. These atrocities, together with the popularity of the republican ideal, and British repression of republican political expression, led to widespread support across Ireland for the Irish rebels.
In 1921 the British government led by David Lloyd George negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins, and the other republican leaders all of whom acted as plenipotentiaries on behalf of the provisional Irish government, thus ending the conflict.
Irish Free State and Republic of Ireland
Though many across the country were unhappy with the Anglo-Irish Treaty (since, during the war, the IRA had fought for independence for all Ireland and for a republic, not a partitioned dominion under the British crown), some republicans were satisfied that the Treaty was the best that could be achieved at the time. However, a substantial number opposed it. Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, voted by 64 votes to 57 to ratify it, the majority believing that the treaty created a new base from which to move forward. Éamon de Valera, who had served as President of the Irish Republic during the war, refused to accept the decision of the Dáil and led the opponents of the treaty out of the House. The pro-Treaty republicans organised themselves into the Cumann na nGaedheal party, while the anti-Treaty republicans retained the Sinn Féin name. The IRA itself split between pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty elements, with the former forming the nucleus of the new Irish National Army.
Michael Collins became Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. Shortly afterwards, some dissidents, apparently without the authorisation of the anti-Treaty IRA Army Executive, occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and kidnapped a pro-Treaty general. The government, responding to this provocation and to intensified British pressure following the assassination by an IRA unit in London of Sir Henry Wilson, ordered the regular army to take the Four Courts, thereby beginning the Irish Civil War.
It is believed that Collins continued to fund and supply the IRA in Northern Ireland throughout the civil war but, after his death, W. T. Cosgrave (the new President of the Executive Council, or prime minister) discontinued this support.
By May 1923, the war (which had claimed more lives than the War of Independence) had ended in the call by the IRA to dump arms. However, the harsh measures adopted by both sides, including assassinations of politicians by the Republicans and executions and atrocities by the Free State side, left a bitter legacy in Irish politics for decades to come.
De Valera, who had strongly supported the Republican side in the Civil War, reconsidered his views while in jail, and came to accept the ideas of political activity under the terms of the Free State constitution. Rather than abstaining from Free State politics entirely, he now sought to republicanise it from within. However, he and his supporters—which included most Sinn Féin TDs—failed to convince a majority of the anti-treaty Sinn Féin of these views and the movement split again. In 1926, he formed a new party called Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), taking most of Sinn Féin's TDs with him. In 1932 he was elected President of the Executive Council of the Free State and began a slow process of turning the country from a constitutional monarchy to a constitutional republic, thus fulfilling Collins's prediction of "the freedom to achieve freedom".
By then, the IRA was engaged in confrontations with the Blueshirts, a quasi-fascist group led by a former War of Independence and pro-Treaty leader, Eoin O'Duffy. O'Duffy looked to Fascist Italy as an example for Ireland to follow. Several hundred supporters of O'Duffy briefly went to Spain to volunteer on the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War, and a smaller number of IRA members, communists and others participated on the Republican side.
In 1937 the Constitution of Ireland was written by the de Valera government and approved by the people of the southern 26 counties voting in a referendum. The Constitution changed the name of the state to Éire in the Irish language (Ireland in English) and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland. The new state was headed by a President of Ireland elected by universal manhood suffrage. The role of the King of Ireland diminished to ceremonial functions in relation to diplomatic affairs. He is believed to have been left with those residual functions as a concession to Unionist opinion. The new state had the objective characteristics of a republic, and was referred to as such by de Valera himself, but it remained within the British Commonwealth and was regarded by the British as a "dominion" like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Furthermore, the claim to the whole of the island did not reflect practical reality and inflamed anti-Dublin sentiment among northern Protestants.
In 1948 Fianna Fáil went out of office for the first time in sixteen years. John A. Costello, leader of the coalition government, announced his intention to declare Ireland a republic. The Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which created the Republic of Ireland, led the British government to pass the Ireland Act 1949, which declared that all of Northern Ireland would continue as part of the United Kingdom unless the Parliament of Northern Ireland consented to leave. As a result of this—and also because continuing struggle against the Dublin government was futile—the republican movement took the decision to focus on Northern Ireland from then on. The decision was announced by the IRA in its Easter statement of 1949.
Republicanism in Northern Ireland
1921 - 1966
In 1921, Ireland was partitioned. Most of the country became part of the independent Irish Free State. However, six out of the nine counties of Ulster remained part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. In the 1921 elections  in Northern Ireland,
- Antrim, Down and the borough of Belfast had Unionist majorities of over 25%.
- In County Londonderry, the breakdown in that election was 56.2% Unionist / 43.8% Nationalist.
- In Armagh, the ratio was 55.3% Unionist / 44.7% Nationalist.
- In Fermanagh–Tyrone (which was a single constituency), the ratio 54.7% Nationalist / 45.3% Unionist. (Tyrone was 55.4% Catholic in the 1911 census and 55.5% in the 1926 census, though of course only adults had votes on the other hand religious and national affiliations while closely linked are not as absolute as commonly assumed.) Within most of these counties there were large pockets which predominantly nationalist or Unionist (South Armagh, West Tyrone West Derry and parts of North Antrim were largely nationalist whereas much of North Armagh, East Londonderry, East Tyrone and most of Antrim were/are largely Unionist).
This territory of Northern Ireland, as established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, had its own provincial government which was controlled for 50 years until 1972 by the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The tendency to vote on sectarian lines and the proportions of each religious denomination ensured that there would never be a change of government. In local government, constituency boundaries were drawn to divide nationalist communities into two or even three constituencies and so weaken their effect (see Gerrymandering).
The (mainly Catholic) Nationalist population in Northern Ireland, besides feeling politically alienated, was also economically alienated, often with worse living standards compared to their Protestant (mainly Unionist) neighbours, with fewer job opportunities, and living in ghettos in Belfast, Derry, Armagh and other places. Many Catholics considered the Unionist government was undemocratic, bigoted and favoured Protestants. Emigration for economic reasons kept the nationalist population from growing, despite its higher birth rate. Although poverty, (e)migration and unemployment were fairly widespread (albeit not to the same extent) among Protestants as well, on the other hand the economic situation in Northern Ireland (even for Catholics) was for a long time arguably stil better than in the Republic of Ireland.
During the 1930s the IRA launched minor attacks against the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British army in Northern Ireland. The IRA began another armed campaign in Britain in 1939. During World War II the IRA leadership hoped for support from Germany, and chief of staff Seán Russell travelled there in 1940; he died later that year after falling ill on a U-boat that was bringing him back to Ireland (possibly with a view to starting a German sponsored revolution in Ireland). Suspected republicans were interned on both sides of the border, for different reasons.
The Border Campaign in the mid-50s was the last attempt at traditional military action and was an abject failure. The Movement needed to reconsider its strategy.
1966 - 1969
In the late 1960s, Irish political activists groups found parallels with their struggle against religious discrimination in the civil rights campaign of Afro-Americans the U.S. against racial discrimination. Student leaders such a Bernadette Devlin and Nationalist politicians such as Austin Currie tried to use non-violent direct action to draw attention to the blatant discrimination. By 1968, Europe as a whole was engulfed in a struggle between radicalism and conservativism. In Sinn Féin, the same debate raged. The dominant analysis was that Protestant Irishmen and women would never be bombed into a united Ireland. The only way forward was to have both sides embrace socialism and forget their sectarian hatreds. They resolved to no longer to be drawn into inter-communal violence.
As a response to the civil rights campaign militant loyalist paramilitary groups started to emerge in the Protestant community. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was the first. The UVF had originally existed among loyalist Ulster Protestants before World War I to oppose Home Rule. In the 1960s it was relaunched by militant loyalists, encouraged by certain politicians, to oppose any attempt to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, which is how they saw any change in their status vis-a-vis Catholics.
By mid-1969 the violence in Northern Ireland exploded. Consistent with their new political ideology, the IRA declined to intervene. By late August, the British government had to intervene and declare a state of emergency, sending a large number of troops into Northern Ireland to stop the intercommunal violence. Initially welcomed by some Catholics as protectors, later events such as Bloody Sunday and the Falls Road curfew turned many against the British Army.
1970 - 1985
Divisions began to emerge in the Republican movement between leftists and conservatives. The leader of the IRA, Cathal Goulding believed that the IRA could not beat the British with military tactics and should turn into a workers' revolutionary movement that would overthrow both governments to achieve a 32-county socialist republic through the will of the people (after WWII the IRA no longer engaged in any actions against the Republic). Goulding also drove the IRA into an ideologically Marxist-Leninist direction which attracted idealistic young supporters in the Republic, but alienated and angered many of the IRA's core supporters in the North. In particular, his decision to regard the UVF as deluded rather than as the enemy, was anathema to traditionalists and those who were its potential victims.
The argument led to a split in 1970, between the Official IRA (supporters of Goulding's Marxist line) and the Provisional IRA (also called Provos, traditional nationalist republicans). The Provos were led by Seán Mac Stiofáin and immediately began a large scale campaign against British state forces and economic targets in Northern Ireland. The Official IRA were also initially drawn into an armed campaign by the escalating communal violence. In 1972, the Official IRA declared a cease-fire, which, apart from feuds with other republican groups, has been maintained to date. Nowadays the term 'Irish Republican Army' almost always denotes the Provisional IRA.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the conflict continued claiming thousands of lives, with the UVF (and other loyalist groups) extending attacks into the Republic of Ireland and the IRA launching attacks on targets in England. However some things slowly began to change. In the 1980s Provisional Sinn Féin (the Provisional IRA's political wing) began contesting elections and by the mid-1990s was representing the republican position at peace negotiations. In the loyalist movement splits occurred, the Ulster Unionist Party made tentative attempts to reform itself and attract Catholics into supporting the union with Britain, while the radical Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Rev. Ian Paisley began attracting working class Protestant loyalists who felt alienated by the UUP's overtures towards Catholics.
1986 - present
At the 1986 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, a motion declaring the end of the policy of abstentionism (refusing to take seats in the Republic of Ireland's parliament), was passed. This motion caused a split in the movement creating Republican Sinn Fein, a party committed to the 1970s "provisional" Sinn Fein vision of a 32 County federal republic. It was led by former Sinn Féin President Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (who had previously led "provisonal" Sinn Féin to split from Official Sinn Féin). The policy of participation in Dáil elections became known as "the Armalite and the ballot box".
In 1994 the leaders of Northern Ireland's two largest nationalist parties, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin and John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) entered into peace negotiations with Unionist leaders like David Trimble of the UUP and the British government. At the table most of the paramilitary groups (including the IRA and UVF) had representatives. In 1998 when the IRA endorsed the Good Friday Agreement between nationalist and unionist parties and both governments, another small group split from the IRA to form the Real IRA (RIRA). The Continuity and Real IRA have both engaged in attacks not only against the British and loyalists, but even against their fellow nationalists (members of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and IRA).
Since 1998, the IRA and UVF have adhered to a ceasefire.
Today the republican movement can be divided into moderates who wish to reunite with the Republic through peaceful means and radicals who wish to continue an armed campaign.
In late July 2005, the IRA announced that the armed conflict was over and that their weapons were to be put out of use. A large stock of weapons was reportedly "decommisioned" later that year. Some Unionists disputed the claim that this represented the entire stock of IRA weaponry.
The following are active republican parties in Ireland.
- Sinn Féin is the largest republican party in Ireland. Throughout the Northern Ireland troubles it was closely allied with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, publicly arguing for the validity of its armed campaign. Its policy platform combines civic nationalism with socialist views on economic and social issues. It is led by Gerry Adams, and organises in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Party was also known as "Provisional" Sinn Féin by the media and commentators, having split from what later became known as the "Official" Sinn Féin (later the Workers' Party) in 1970, because the latter had voted to enter a 'partitionist parliament'. In 1986 it reversed its original policy of not taking seats in Dáil Éireann, prompting another split, when Republican Sinn Féin was formed. By the early 21st century it had replaced the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as Northern Ireland's largest nationalist party. As of 2012, it holds five seats in the British parliament, fourteen seats in the Dáil, three in the Seanad and 29 in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Féin members contest elections to the British parliament on an abstentionist basis, that is, they refuse to take their seats in that parliament as they refuse to accept the right of that body to rule in any part of Ireland.
- Republican Sinn Féin was formed in 1986 by former Sinn Féin leader Ruairí Ó Brádaigh who led traditional republicans in a break with Sinn Féin over the ending of the policy of abstention in relation to elections to Dáil Éireann. The party continues to operate on an abstentionist basis: it would not take seats in the assemblies of either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland because it views neither as legitimate. It is linked to the Continuity IRA, whose goals are the overthrow of British rule in Northern Ireland and the unification of the island to form an independent country. In November 2009, Des Dalton replaced Ó Brádaigh as leader of Republican Sinn Féin.
- Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) was founded in 1974 by former Official IRA militant Seamus Costello, who possibly had an eye towards James Connolly's Irish Socialist Republican Party of the late 19th/early 20th century when coining the party's name. Costello led other former Official IRA members dissatisfied with Cathal Goulding's policies and tactics. The party quickly organised a paramilitary wing called the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) which has decommissioned recently. It claims to follow the principles of republican socialism as set out by the 1916 rebellion leader Connolly and radical 20th-century trade unionist James Larkin.
- Éirígí was formed by a small group of former Sinn Féin activists in Dublin in April 2006 as a political campaigns group, and became a full-fledged political party at the party's first Ardfheis (conference) in May 2007. An Independent Monitoring Commission report said the group was "a small political grouping based on revolutionary socialist principles". While it continues to be a political association, albeit with aggressive protest activities, it was not seen as paramilitary in nature.
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