Northern Ireland's relatively distinct history began in the early 17th cent., when, after the suppression of an Irish rebellion, much land was confiscated by the British crown and "planted" with Scottish and English settlers. Ulster took on a Protestant character as compared with the rest of Ireland; but there was no question of political separation until the late 19th cent. when William Gladstone presented (1886) his first proposal for Home Rule for Ireland. The largely Protestant population of the north feared domination under Home Rule by the Catholic majority in the south. In addition, industrial Ulster was bound economically more to England than to the rest of Ireland.
Successive schemes for Home Rule widened the rift, so that by the outbreak of World War I civil war in Ireland was an immediate danger. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 attempted to solve the problem by enacting Home Rule separately for the two parts of Ireland, thus creating the province of Northern Ireland. However, the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland (see Ireland, Republic of), which was established in 1922, refused to recognize the finality of the partition; and violence erupted frequently on both sides of the border.
The late 1960s marked a new stage in the region's troubled history. The Catholic minority, which suffered economic and political discrimination, had grown steadily through immigration from the Republic. In 1968 civil-rights protests by Catholics led to widespread violence. Prime Minister Terence O'Neill had sought to end anti-Catholic bias as part of his policy of fostering closer ties between Ulster and the Irish Republic, but opponents within his ruling Unionist party forced his resignation in Apr., 1969. His successor, James Chichester-Clark, was unable to restrain the growing unrest and in August called in British troops to help restore order.
At the end of 1969 a split occurred in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which is the illegal military arm of the Sinn Fein party; the new "provisional" wing of the IRA was made up of radical nationalists. Brian Faulkner became leader of the Unionist party and prime minister of Northern Ireland in Mar., 1971, and began a policy of imprisoning IRA and other militants. However, the IRA and the Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant terrorist group, continued and even intensified their activities.
On Mar. 30, 1972, the British prime minister, Edward Heath, suspended the government and appointed William Whitelaw secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Westminster's direct rule over the province was renewed in Mar., 1973. An assembly was formed in June, 1972, with the Unionist party, a moderate pro-British group, in the majority. In November the Unionist party formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Labor party (SDLP), the major Catholic group, and the nonsectarian Alliance party. A Northern Ireland Executive was formed to exercise day-to-day administration.
In late 1973, the British prime minister, the head of the Executive, and the Irish Republic's prime minister agreed to form a Council of Ireland to promote closer cooperation between Ulster and the Republic. However, both the IRA and Protestant extremists sought to destroy the Executive and the Council, as they found power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics unacceptable. In 1974, hard-line Ulster Protestants won 11 of the province's 12 seats in the British House of Commons and pledged to renegotiate Ulster's constitution in order to end the Protestant-Catholic coalition and progress toward a Council of Ireland.
In May, 1974, militant Protestants sponsored a general strike in the province, and the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed on May 28. The British government then took direct control of the province with the passage of the Northern Ireland Act of 1974. Meanwhile, bombings and other terrorist activities had spread to Dublin and London. In 1979 Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, and in 1981 protests broke out in Belfast over the death by hunger strike of Bobby Sands, an IRA member of Parliament.
Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s terrorist violence by the IRA and other groups remained a problem. An assembly formed in 1982 to propose plans for strengthening legislative and executive autonomy in Northern Ireland was dissolved in 1986 for its lack of progress. In 1985, an Anglo-Irish accord sought to lay the groundwork for talks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Dublin agreed not to contest Northern Ireland's allegiance to Great Britain in exchange for British acknowledgment of the Republic's interest in how Northern Ireland is run. A 1993 Anglo-Irish declaration offered to open negotiations to all parties willing to renounce violence, and in 1994 the IRA and, later, Protestant paramilitary groups declared a cease-fire. Formal talks began in 1995. A resumption of violence (1996) by the IRA threatened to derail the peace process, but negotiations to seek a political settlement went ahead.
In July, 1997, the IRA declared a new cease-fire, and talks begun in September of that year included Sinn Féin. The result was an accord reached in 1998 that provided for a new Northern Ireland Assembly as well as a North-South Ministerial Council to deal with issues of joint interest to the province and the Irish Republic. The Republic of Ireland also agreed to give up territorial claims on Northern Ireland. The formation of a new government was slowed, however, by disagreement over the disarmament of paramilitary groups, but in Dec., 1999, a multiparty government was formed after further negotiations, and Britain ended direct rule of the province. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble became leader of the Northern Irish government.
In Feb., 2000, however, Britain suspended self-government after the IRA refused to agree to disarm, but subsequent concessions by the IRA led to the resumption of self-government in May. Continued resistance by the IRA to disarming has threatened self-government and led Trimble to resign on July 1, 2001. Subsequently, Britain twice suspended the Northern Irish government in an attempt to avoid its complete collapse. Negotiations on disarming the IRA and other paramilitary groups, however, were relatively fruitless until late 2001, when the IRA began disarming; Trimble subsequently returned to office.
The arrests in 2002 of Sinn Féin government members for intelligence gathering for the IRA threatened the power-sharing government once again, leading Britain to suspend home rule once more, but in 2005 charges against the alleged spies, one of whom was a long-time government informant, were dropped, raising questions about the entire affair. The May, 2003, elections that would have reestablished the assembly were suspended by the British government. The ostensible reason was the insufficient specificity of the IRA's commitment to the peace process, but Trimble and the moderate Unionists also seem likely to suffer losses if the elections were held. Disagreements over the way the IRA's disarming was being handled continued.
When the elections were held in Nov., 2003, the more extreme Protestant and Catholic parties, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and the Sinn Féin, outpolled their more moderate counterparts. Home rule remained suspended, but in early 2004 Britain, the Irish Republic, and Northern Irish political parties began a "review" of the 1998 agreement in hopes of reestablishing a Northern Irish government. Subsequent accusations that the IRA was involved in criminal activities threatened any future participation of Sinn Féin in a government. In Apr., 2005, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams called on the IRA to abandon the use of arms and restrict its activities to politics, and an independent report affirmed in September that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons.
In Apr., 2006 the British and Irish governments called for the Northern Irish assembly to begin formation of an executive in May and complete the work before the end of November; if they failed to do so, the members of the assembly would no longer receive their salaries. The assembly reconvened in May, but there was no quick progress in forming an executive. However, talks in October produced some progress, and the November deadline was pushed back to Mar., 2007. In Jan., 2007, Sinn Féin agreed to back the Protestant-dominated Northern Irish police force.
In March, elections for the assembly led to strong showings by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, and later in the month the two parties agreed to form a power-sharing government in May. Ian Paisley became first minister. Also in May the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the oldest Protestant paramilitary group, announced that it was renouncing violence; it did not plan then, however, to decommission its weapons, but by June, 2009, it had decommissioned its weapons. British troops ended their military mission in Northern Ireland, which began in 1969, in July, 2007.
UDA factional clashes during the summer of 2007 led to a demand that they decommission their arms or lose funding for a loyalist project associated with the UDA; the social development minister's insistence on the deadline and cutoff of funds led to tensions in the North Irish executive in Oct., 2007, with the DUP and Sinn Féin supporting a more lenient approach to the UDA. In November the UDA announced that its fighters' weapons were being put beyond use (but not decommissioned), and in Jan., 2010, it announced that it had decommissioned its weapons. Violence by republican and unionist splinter groups, some of them operating as criminal gangs, remains a problem.
Paisley retired as first minister and was succeeded by Peter Robinson, the new DUP leader, in June, 2008. A dispute over the devolution of justice and policing powers subsequently deadlocked the executive, and it continued until early 2010, when negotiations resulted in an agreement that led (Mar., 2010) to an assembly vote in favor of assuming those responsibilities, passing a significant home-rule milestone. Peter Robinson's tenure as first minister was threatened in late 2009 by a personal and political scandal involving his wife, who was reported to have obtained money from property developers for her lover. The 2011 elections again saw the DUP and Sinn Féin finish strongly ahead in first and second. In late 2012 and early 2013 there were riots and demonstrations by Protestant loyalists in Belfast after the city council voted to greatly reduce the number of days the British flag was flown over city hall.