Northern Ireland’s existence was confirmed under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, that ended the Irish War of Independence. In 1925, a boundary commission that had been expected to cede large parts of Northern Ireland to the Irish Free State proposed no major changes. Even its limited modifications were never implemented and the border stayed as it was.
From 1922 until 1972, Northern Ireland functioned as a self-governing region of the United Kingdom. The Unionist Party formed the government, located at Stormont, outside Belfast, for all of these years. Its power was buttressed by a close association with the Protestant fraternal organisations such as the Orange Order.
Northern Ireland was created in 1920 for unionists who did not want to be part of a self-ruled Ireland, but contained a substantial minority of Catholic nationalists.
Catholics complained of systematic discrimination in Northern Ireland. Their voting strength was diluted by ‘gerrymandering’ –where Catholics were grouped in one constituency so they would elect a smaller number of representatives in proportion to their numbers. Additionally, in local government, only rate payers, who were more often Protestants than Catholics, had a vote.
Catholics also complained of discrimination in employment and the allocation of social housing, and also protested that their community was the main target of the Special Powers Act which allowed for detention without trial. The armed police forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and especially the Ulster Special Constabulary or ‘B Specials’, were almost wholly Protestant and unionist in ethos.
The unionists buttressed their political power with systematic discrimination against Catholics.
There was also a lack of official recognition of Irish nationality in Northern Ireland. The Irish language and Irish history were not taught in state schools. The tricolour flag of the Irish Republic was illegal, as was the Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein (from 1956 until 1974), though it organised in Northern Ireland under the names ‘Republican’ or ‘Republican Clubs’. However most nationalists in the North traditionally voted for the moderate Nationalist Party.
There was an ineffective, mostly southern-based IRA guerrilla campaign against Northern Ireland from 1956 to 1962, but with little nationalist support within the North and faced with internment on both sides of the border, it achieved little.
There were signs of a thaw in relations between north and south and between nationalists and unionists in the 1960s with reciprocal visits by Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill and Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass, the first since 1922. O’Neill also proposed reforms within Northern Ireland. However O’Neill came under fierce criticism from unionist hardliners such as charismatic Presbyterian preacher Ian Paisley.
Civil Rights to armed conflict
In 1966 elements of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, radical left groups and the Republican Clubs founded the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Their aim was to end the discrimination against Catholics within Northern Ireland.