The history of Northern Ireland and the IRA

In October a bomb exploded at a hotel in Brighton, England. The bomb was intended to wipe out the entire British Cabinet, which was staying there for a conference. The explosion, which killed four people but no major government leaders, was the work of the illegal Irish Republican Army, or IRA for short.

The IRA has nothing whatever to do with the Irish Army.

The IRA is a group of people who use bombs and guns and terrorism to try to get what they want. They are outlawed in the Republic of Ireland (an independent country that takes up nearly four-fifths of the island called Ireland) as well as in Northern Ireland (which is part of the ''United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'').

The Irish Army, on the other hand, is the official, legal Army of the Republic of Ireland.

The IRA and its supporters have made terrorist attacks on shopping centers, farms, and businesses in Northern Ireland in the hope that they can force Britain to leave the province. They want all of Ireland to be united in a single country, instead of the northern part being separate and linked with the rest of Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) in the ''United Kingdom.''

But increasingly the IRA's attacks have spread to Britain itself in an effort to have greater impact on the British government. That blast in Brighton was the latest, and worst, of several such attacks.

The IRA says it is paying Britain back for centuries of oppression when Ireland was ruled by Britain. Conor Cruise O'Brien, a well-known Irishman and vigorous opponent of the IRA, says that because Britain is associated with oppression in the minds of IRA members, in their view ''any blow against England , however terrible it may seem, is a blow for righteousness and liberty.''

Today's IRA is using the same name as the Irish Republican Army that fought to gain Irish independence from Britain. Critics of today's IRA, however, say that it bears no resemblance to that previous group, which helped the Republic of Ireland achieve its freedom back in 1922.

But the old dream of a united Ireland remains. Back in the 1920s, the defiance of northern Ireland's Protestant ''loyalists'' (loyal to Britain) prevented the then British government from carrying out its original plan to give independence to the whole island. Instead, Ireland's northern six counties became the British province of Northern Ireland (or Ulster), and the rest became the Irish Republic.

The partition or division of Ireland created many problems then, and still does.

Many people in the south will never be satisfied until the north is incorporated into the Republic of Ireland - even though they reject the IRA's use of terrorism to try to achieve this. The majority of people in Northern Ireland, however, don't want that.

Part of the problem is that most people in the republic are Roman Catholic ( 96 percent of the population). Most people in Northern Ireland, on the other hand, are Protestants. The Protestants feel like a threatened minority in the whole island; but in Northern Ireland it's the Catholics who feel like a threatened minority.

In addition, the northern Protestants are historically very different from the southern Irish. What built up the Protestant community in the north was the decision back in the reign of James I in the early 17th century to settle Ulster with Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans. The initial Ulster settlement , or ''plantation,'' took place at roughly the same time as the Jamestown colonization in the United States.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the Protestant descendants of these early Scottish and English colonists of Ireland have often felt they had more in common with Britain than with their Irish neighbors. The trouble is that while most Ulster Protestants want to keep their ties to Britain, many of the Catholics of Northern Ireland (more than one-third of the province's population) identify more closely with people in the south.

In particular, many Catholics over the years came to resent what they saw as the Protestants' greater wealth, their privileged positions, and the largely exclusive power they exercised by dominating the local Ulster Parliament. Northern Catholics complained with increasing bitterness of discrimination. Resentment bred unrest.

Under pressure from the central government in London, local reforms were made. But the mounting discontent spilled over into clashes between civil rights demonstrators and the local Ulster police. Faced with this worsening situation in 1969, the London government sent in British troops to reestablish order and, notably, to protect the Catholic minority.

The troops are still there. But soon after they moved in, to a warm welcome in Catholic areas, a new ''Provisional'' IRA was hastily put together. In the following months and years, the IRA ''provos'' - helped by some heavy-handed troop actions - turned much of the Catholic population against the British military presence.

Since then, IRA violence and Protestant extremist counterviolence have severely disrupted Ulster's economy, further poisoned relations between the two communities in the north, undermined local political cooperation, and made it harder for the governments of Ireland and Britain to work together. Some 2,400 people have lost their lives in the past 15 years.

Both the Irish government in Dublin and the British government in London have put forward suggestions for reaching a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The problem is that whatever appeals to one Ulster community is almost instantly rejected with suspicion by the other.

The tremendous challenge under these difficult circumstances is to try to build trust, since there are both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland who want to see an end to the cycles of violence and tension.

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