ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland (AP) – Queen Elizabeth II’s two-day visit to Northern Island, where she will meet Wednesday with a key figure in the IRA-aligned Sinn Fein party, is seen by many as a watershed event in the building of a lasting peace.
Northern Ireland was created in 1921 as a predominantly British Protestant corner of the United Kingdom months before the Irish Catholic rest of Ireland won independence. But Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority never accepted partition and opposed its Protestant government.
In the mid-1960s, Catholics organized civil rights protests against discrimination in housing, jobs and political power. Protestant police and militant civilians suppressed many of the demonstrations. Britain deployed troops as peacekeepers amid 1969 riots.
Irish Catholic hard-liners soon formed the Provisional IRA to try to force Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and into the Republic of Ireland. The group pioneered the use of car bombs as a terror tactic. Its violence did force Britain to abolish Northern Ireland’s Protestant government and take direct charge of Northern Ireland in 1972, the worst year of decades of bloodshed. Britain slowly imposed reforms that met most of the Catholic rights demands.
IRA violence encouraged vengeful attacks by Protestant paramilitary groups, chiefly the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. They killed more than 1,050 people, chiefly Catholic civilians often picked at random.
In all, several IRA factions killed more than 2,150 people, including about 125 in attacks in England. British troops and police killed 370 people. The Provisional IRA, the UDA and the UVF all ceased fire in the mid-1990s to support peace talks. But other small IRA groups still mount occasional shootings and bombings.
All five major parties participate in Northern Ireland’s 5-year-old unity government, the cornerstone of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord reached in 1998. That landmark pact proposed police reform, paroles for convicted militants, paramilitary disarmament and British military reductions. It reaffirmed that Northern Ireland will remain in the U.K. as long as most residents want that.