Ireland & Northern Ireland



In January 2020, the United Kingdom completed the first stages of its exit from the European Union. The deal, concluded after three and a half years of painstaking negoations between the UK and the EU, has implications for the lasting peace on the island of Ireland. This, combined with Sinn Fein’s recent surprise electoral victory, has raised uncertainites about the political future of Ireland. Join Active Minds as we discuss the current situation in Ireland and explore its cloudy future.

Key Lecture Points

  • English Normans came to Ireland in 1167 and even that early, the English and Irish had differences that became more marked during the reign of King Henry VIII when he split from the Roman Catholic Church, introducing religion into Irish politics for the first time.  King James I created the Plantation of Ulster in 1609, confiscating lands occupied by Irish landowners and distributing them to colonists from England, Scotland and Wales.  This created large Protestant English communities in Catholic Ireland.  Conflict between the planters and the Irish Catholics resulted in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when Catholic King James II was defeated by Protestant William of Orange, ensuring a Protestant supremacy.  Penal laws restricting political and property rights led to calls for independence.  In 1798 rebellion broke out, organized by republicans inspired by the American and French Revolutions, but ultimately failed.   The Act of Union created the United Kingdom in 1801 and made Ireland and England one state.  In 1920 the Irish War of Independence led to the partition of Ireland into a southern and northern part with the creation of the Free State of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom.
  • “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland started in the 1970s and pitted  the nationalist  republican minority (mostly Catholic) who wanted to join the independent Republic of Ireland against the historically dominant unionists (mostly Protestants) who wanted to stay part of the United Kingdom.  The bloody conflict lasted thirty years, claiming more than 3,500 lives and injuring 50,000.     The Good Friday Agreement (also called the Belfast Agreement) was signed on April 10, 1998, putting an end to the violence.   The peace accord was overwhelmingly endorsed by voters from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998, paving the way for the establishment of a lasting peace.
  • Most of the terms of the Good Friday agreement have been implemented.  A devolved national assembly is in place in Belfast.  Paramilitary groups on both sides have laid down their weapons and joined the political process.  Divisive issues related to sectarian and national identity, such as flags, parades, peace walls, paramilitary memorials, segregated education and housing, and a truth seeking process, are still unresolved and contribute to disruptions and outbursts of  violence.
  • The Brexit situation threatened to confuse the Irish peace process and make peace on the island more difficult. Eventually, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU negotiators agreed to deal that would prevent a hard border from being erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The prospect of the Good Friday Agreement being violated reopened uncertainty about the prospect of lasting peace on the island. Sinn Fein’s surprise strong performance in the 2020 parliamentary elections again raised the question of Irish unity.

Exploration Questions

  • What were the Troubles? What were the historical forces that brought about the conflict?
  • How was peace finally brought about?
  • What are the current issues impacting the ongoing fragile peace in Northern Ireland?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think the peace will hold in Northern Ireland?  Why?  Why not?
  • Do you think Northern Ireland will eventually unite with the Republic?   Why?  Why not?
  • What effect will Brexit have on the Irish situation? Will Sinn Fein’s victory complicate the peace process, or will it result in a new, united Ireland?

More to Explore

  • Guide to the Irish Peace Process Click here
  • Ongoing coverage of peace building in Northern Ireland Click here
  • Current events in Northern Ireland Click here
  • Up to date coverage of Ireland's election Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • White, Timothy J. (editor), Martin Mansergh (foreword).  Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace Process.  University of Wisconsin, 2013.  322 pages.  These essays explore the lessons learned from Northern Ireland’s peace process that include, for example,  the importance of community grassroots initiatives, the need for inclusiveness in negotiations, the role of third parties,  providing security to all parties during negotiations, and more.  There is also discussion as to how Ireland’s peace process can be applied to other regional conflicts.
    Click here to order
  • Cochrane, Feargal, Dr.  Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace. Yale University Press, 2013. 368 pages.  This book describes the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the present.  The author also explains why sectarian attitudes and violence continue to plague Northern Ireland and what needs to be done to advance the current uneasy peace.
    Click here to order
  • Hennessey, Thomas.  The First Northern Ireland Peace Process: Power-Sharing, Sunningdale and the IRA Ceasefires of 1972-1976. Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. 272 pages.  The author examines the efforts made to end the Troubles from 1972-1976 including attempts to build consensus between the British government, the Irish government and the principal Northern Ireland political parties.
    Click here to order