Loyalist Ian Paisley and Republican Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, 2008.
The first Northern Ireland Executive (regional government) did not get up and running until 1999 and again collapsed in February 2000 as Unionist leader David Trimble refused to operate it while IRA weapons had not been decommissioned. It was re-established in May of that year but remained fragile and collapsed again in 2002.
Trimble’s position deteriorated as his Party lost electoral support to the DUP. At the same time Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the nationalist party with the largest vote.
The IRA did not destroy most of its weapons until 2005, when a large quantity of guns, explosives and ammunition were destroyedunder international supervision. It also announced the definitive end of its armed campaign. In response the British Army began dismantling its fortified bases across Northern Ireland and withdrawing from active deployment there.
There followed more talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP which finally produced a deal whereby those two parties would form a new Northern Ireland Executive in 2007 with a DUP First Minister, Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, IRA veteran Martin McGuinness.
By early 2010 all the paramilitary groups had undertaken some decommissioning. Currently Sinn Fein and the DUP share power in a restored Northern Ireland Authority.
The violence of the ‘Troubles’ is still open to partisan interpretation. Republican paramilitaries killed significantly more people than any other actor (some 2,000 of the 3,500 deaths). State forces were responsible for 368 deaths (including 6 by Irish state forces) and loyalists for over 1,000. (See here) Even if, as many republicans argue, state forces and loyalists had a high degree of cooperation, republican groups still killed more.
The ‘Troubles’ were less bloody than the previous conflict (1916-23) in 20th century Ireland but much bloodier than any other internal conflict in Western Europe since 1945.
This leads unionists to argue that the conflict consisted in the main of republican terrorism combated by a state constrained by the rule of law. They point out that by 1998 there were nearly equal numbers of loyalists as republicans imprisoned – 194 to 241. Statistics are hard to come by but estimates of the total number of republicans imprisoned over the conflict amounts to 15,000 and estimates of loyalists imprisoned range from 5 to 12,000.
However, Catholic civilians were significantly more likely to be killed than Protestant civilians, leading republicans to argue that their violence was legitimate warfare (as the majority of victims were state forces) whereas the loyalist campaign was simply sectarian murder.
Whether the conflict was a ‘war’ or a period of sustained ‘terrorism’ remains bitterly disputed.
Compared to the earlier conflict in 20thcentury Ireland (1916-1923) the violence was somewhat less intense. In the earlier period roughly 4-5,000 died over an 8 year period and almost all but the 500 who died in Easter week 1916, died between 1920 and 1923, Moreover in the earlier period British state forces killed significantly more civilians than non-state forces, a pattern that was reversed in the Northern Ireland conflict. However compared to comparable low intensity conflicts in Western Europe in the late twentieth century, such as the Basque Conflict, the Northern Ireland conflict was much bloodier.
It is widely considered that nationalists gained more from the peace process than unionists, as the unionist character of Northern Ireland was undermined, strict majority rule abolished and discrimination against Catholics reversed by quotas. However it is also true that republicans ended up putting aside their demand for united Ireland and working within a ‘partitionist’ settlement.
The old unionist dominated Northern Ireland has been swept away but it is far from clear what the long term future of the region will be.
The conflict caused a deepening of sectarianism, especially in working class urban areas where fortified ‘peace walls’ still separate Catholic and Protestant areas.
Paramilitary prisoners (about 450 people) who were affiliated to political parties which had signed up the Good Friday Agreement were all released in 1998. However a small number of ‘dissident’ republican prisoners (about 70) are still held under anti-terrorism legislation for acts committed since then. Moreover, as evidenced by the 2014 arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams for the murder of Jean McConville in 1972, there has been no amnesty for acts committed prior to the agreement.
Rioting in Belfast in December 2012. Loyalist protest about the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.
Northern Ireland’s future remains ambiguous. Catholics now form an almost equal proportion of the population to Protestants. This has led many to predict a nationalist majority in the future with a consequent end to partition.
However the latest polls indicate that support for a united Ireland is not unanimous among Catholics, with 20% preferring to stay in the United Kingdom, 35% in favour of unity in 20 years and only 7% in favour of unification now. Support for Irish unity among Protestants is very low – at about 4%.
While these preferences may change, Northern Ireland remains closely tied to the United Kingdom economically. The conflict period damaged its economy greatly and also coincided with de-industrialisation in Western Europe which decimated its ship-building and linen industries. Over 30% of the workforce is directly employed in the public sector, compared with under 20% in Britain or the Republic. The Northern regional government is also heavily subsidised from London – raising £14 billion in taxes in 2011-12, for example but spending £23 billion.
Until the Republic (now heavily indebted) is able to make up this shortfall unification of Ireland would be extremely difficult. Thus the status quo appeared likely to remain for the forseeable future.
However, when, in 2016, the United Kingdom voted by referendum to leave the European Union, but Northern Ireland voted to stay, the status of the area was again thrown into doubt. The prospect of a resurrected ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic, as well as the near parity in votes between nationalists and unionists in the 2017 Assembly elections, led to renewed calls by nationalists for a referendum on Irish unity.
Northern Ireland’s future remains uncertain.
 In which ‘Both the Official and Provisional wings of the Irish Republican Army (OIRA and PIRA) fought the security forces in more-or-less formed bodies. Both had a structure of companies, battalions and brigades, with a recognisable structure and headquarters staff. Protracted firefights were common. ‘
 In 1919-21 the IRA was responsible for 281 of the 898 civilian fatalities, with British forces being responsible for 381. A further 236 deaths could not be confidently attributed to any party (the IRA, loyalist, rioters, undercover Crown forces). [See Terror in Ireland, p153-154]
 The Basque conflict caused the deaths of about 1,000 people from 1968 to 2010, roughly 800 killed by the separatist organisation ETA and roughly 2-300 by Spanish state forces, in an area with a comparable population to Northern Ireland