At the time of the Easter Rising in 1916, the British government had more or less decided to grant Ireland Home Rule, but was hoping to get the little matter of the First World War out of the way first. The Ulster Volunteers, the first loyalist paramilitary group, was established under the leadership of Edward Carson. It evolved into the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913, receiving a large arms cache from Germany in April 1914. The unionists promised civil war if Home Rule became a reality: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.
Irish rebels did not win independence for the whole island. The boundaries of the north and east were gerrymandered so that the six counties which formed the statelet of Northern Ireland would have an inbuilt protestant loyalist majority. Since then, who ruled Northern Ireland saw to it that Protestant loyalists got the best education and the best jobs; the Catholic minority suffered severe discrimination. In Derry, Catholics were in a majority but Protestants ran the city council. The boundaries were drawn to ensure that 14,000 Catholic voters ended up with eight councillors, while 9,000 Protestants had twelve.
By the 1960s, Northern Ireland Catholics were emulating the Civil Rights movement in the USA. The IRA was a spent force. That did not prevent unionists from regarding the NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement) as an IRA front. The IRA had given up arms and been taken over by Marxists under the leadership of Cathal Goulding, who admitted that he didn’t have the human resource to obtain a united Ireland by force. The IRA did not drive the Civil Rights movement. Its members acted as stewards on many marches but to prevent rather than promote violence.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary and its notorious auxiliaries, the B Specials, were almost exclusively Protestant and Loyalist. Demands for civil rights were seen as sedition. In the summer of 1969, the powder keg was ignited in Derry, the conflagration spread to Belfast and engulfed the whole province. The ferocious rioting that lasted for three days in Derry became known as the Battle of the Bogside. One of the young men involved was Martin McGuinness. London’s attention was captured; troops were sent in.
The first RUC officer to be killed was Constable Victor Arbuckle, shot by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force that was ironically protesting the disarming of the RUC. The bizarre twists and turns of the 30-year conflict are captured in three books by Peter Taylor – Loyalists, Brits, and Provos.
The civil rights movement rejuvenated the IRA. After a so-called “pogrom” in Belfast in August 1969, the graffito “IRA – I Ran Away” began appearing on walls. The Catholic population believed that Goulding’s IRA had deserted them. A group of dissidents emerged which evolved into the Provisional IRA. Initially, the group’s primary objective was to make sure that they would be trained and equipped to defend the Catholic areas of Belfast if loyalists were to attack them. It is ironic now to remember that the British army regarded the IRA as allies rather than enemies. To the IRA, the loyalists were the enemy not the British.
The loyalists insisted on their civil right to stage frequent triumphalist marches through Catholic areas. Both sides became inflamed with sectarian hatreds which the British could not cope with. The Brits became the enemy for loyalists as well as nationalist, victims of the history of plantation and partition.
Even when Ireland became a republic, the IRA continued to “fight” for a united Ireland. Ireland remains divided, though, raising the question, were those deaths worthwhile?
One can appreciate why intelligent young men like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness joined the IRA in 1969 in order to defend the Catholic population. Although initially welcomed by Catholics, the British Army soon alienated them by their actions. The IRA moved from defending Catholics to fighting for a united Ireland, but “fighting” meant setting off bombs that killed babies and other innocent parties.
When Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in 1981, the situation in Northern Ireland was that Catholics had suffered severe discrimination. This was being addressed in the face of recalcitrance from loyalists. However, Bobby Sands was not fighting for an end to discrimination but for a united Ireland. What peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland has come because both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both members of the EU and much of the Good Friday Agreement was about setting up institutions which covered all Ireland. Although most Irish people are grateful for peace, Bobby Sands’s sister and her husband feel they have the right to interpret his ‘legacy’ by leading the Real IRA in killing innocent people. Some freedom fighters!