Neolithic villages and architecture: from 5th millennium BC

In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to Neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.

In most of Europe Neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes passage graves and megaliths.

The massive Neolithic architecture of western Europe begins, in the late 5th millennium BC, with passage graves. The name reflects the design. A stone passage leads into the centre of a great mound of turf, where a tomb chamber - first of wood but later of stone - contains the dead of the surrounding community.

A famous early example of a stone passage grave, from about 4000 BC on the Île Longue off the southern coast of Brittany, has a magnificent dome formed by corbelling (each ring of stone juts slightly inwards from the one below). It is the same principle as the beehive tombs of Mycenae, but they are more than 2000 years later.

Over the centuries increasingly large slabs of stone, or megaliths (from Greek megas huge and lithos stone), are used for the passage graves. And an astronomical theme is added. The graves begin to be aligned in relation to the annual cycle of the sun.

An outstanding example is the passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, dating from about 2500 BC. Huge slabs of stone, carved in intricate spiral patterns, form the walls of the chamber. At sunrise on the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, when the sun itself seems in danger of dying) the rays penetrate the length of the passage to illuminate the innermost recess.

One of the best-known examples in Spain is the walled settlement of Los Millares. Dating from about 2000 BC, the village has a nearby cemetery of about 100 beehive tombs. The dome of each is constructed on the corbel principle, pioneered on the Atlantic coast some two millennia earlier on the Île Longue, in Brittany.

In a later stage of this deeply mysterious Neolithic tradition the megaliths, previously hidden beneath the mounds of the tombs, emerge in their own right as great standing stones, often arranged in circles. The ritual purpose of such circles is not known. They too, in many cases, have a solar alignment, usually now relating to sunrise at the summer solstice.

The most striking of these circles is Stonehenge, in England. The site is in ritual use over a very long period, from about 3000 to 1100 BC. The largest stones, with their enormous lintels, are now thought to have been erected in about 2500 BC. By this time stone architecture is being used also at a domestic level in parts of the British isles, as in the famous Stone Age village of Skara Brae.

Beaker people: 2000 BC

In spite of the obstacle of the Channel, Britain is much influenced by successive waves of immigrants or invaders from continental Europe. In about 2000 BC a newly dominant group has a custom of placing bell-shaped drinking vessels (or beakers) and bronze daggers in the tombs of warriors. Known variously as the Beaker or Bell-Beaker people, these newcomers introduce the Bronze age to Britain together with horses and alcohol (hence the beakers).

The Iron age in Britain begins some time after 500 BC and is mainly associated with another gradual infiltration from mainland Europe - that of the Celts.

Romans in Celtic Britain

Celtic tribes and Caesar: 55-54 BC

It is not known precisely when the Celts first enter Britain in their steady expansion outwards from central Europe. But Caesar states, in his own account of his campaigns, that they have been migrating across the Channel since at least the 2nd century BC.

Caesar makes his first tentative excursion to Britain in August of 55 BC. He lands on the coast of Kent, meeting considerable opposition from the cavalry and war chariots of the neighbouring Celtic chieftains. After staying long enough to demonstrate to the British the strength of a Roman legion, he returns in September to Gaul.

During the winter Caesar builds 600 new ships. He sails again, in July of 54 BC, with five legions and 2000 cavalry. They are sufficient to bring him north of the Thames into the territory of Cassivellaunus, the tribal chieftain chosen to lead the British forces. Caesar easily captures the Celtic leader's primitive stronghold, and removes from it a large herd of cattle. But by the time he sails away again, in September, little has been achieved - except that Cassivellaunus has agreed to a treaty and has promised an annual tribute. It is unlikely that any tribute is paid.

The Celtic chieftains of Britain have almost exactly a century before they are again disturbed by the Romans.

Caesar's campaigns into Germany and Britain suggest that he considers Gaul itself secure. The year 52 BC proves him wrong. The Celts find an inspiring leader in Vercingetorix, a young chieftain of the Averni. His early successes against Roman contingents are in the absence of Caesar, who has been wintering south of the Alps. But the great general's arrival does not make quite the difference to which he has become accustomed.

Caesar is besieging the town of Gergovia when Vercingetorix attacks and routs the Roman forces, killing 700. This is Caesar's first defeat in all his years in Gaul. It prompts many more tribes to come out in support of the rebels.

The next siege in the campaign reverses the situation. Vercingetorix holds the fortress of Alesia. Caesar and his troops, attempting to blockade the garrison, are themselves threatened by a large army of Gauls. But when the Romans win the first major battle between the two sides, the Gauls melt away. To save further lives, Vercingetorix rides out of the town and surrenders - in a dramatic gesture of Celtic chivalry.

He is kept in captivity for six years, until Caesar finds the right moment to lead him through the streets of Rome in a Triumphal parade.

Celtic Britain: 1st century BC - 1st century AD

The Celtic kings of southern Britain make good use of the years following Caesar's incursions. His failure to do more than come and see, without conquering, convinces them that the Channel is a safe defence. The natural extremity of the Roman empire is the coast of Gaul.

Even Gaul is hard for the Romans to hold. After Caesar's conquest of Gaul there are several uprisings by local chieftains. They are encouraged in this by the Celtic chieftains of Britain, their kinsmen and - against Rome at least - their natural allies. Yet increasing contact with Roman civilization is at the same time bringing wealth and sophistication to Britain.

The Celts of Britain benefit, through Trade, from the proximity of Roman Gaul. It is a familiar pattern of international commerce that raw materials move inwards from the primitive extremities of a region, in return for manufactured goods sent back from the centre.

Across the Channel from Britain go gold, silver, iron, grain, wool, hides and cattle (a list to which a contemporary author, Strabo, adds hunting dogs and slaves). Back from Rome come glass, jewellery and other luxuries.

The rulers of the Celtic tribes of Britain become, during this period, more prosperous and more powerful - but, in most cases, no more friendly to Rome. The tendency is personified in a chieftain regarded by the Romans, during the reign of Augustus, as the king of Britain.

The Romans call him Cunobelinus; his Celtic name is Cunobelin; he is famous in English as Cymbeline. He may be either the grandson or great grandson of Cassivellaunus, who faced Caesar's invasion. In a reign of about thirty-five years Cymbeline cunningly avoids provoking the Romans, while offering them no concessions. The man is clearly dangerous. The conquest of his large offshore island is increasingly seen in Rome as a necessary task.

The event which finally precipitates the invasion is the death of Cymbeline soon after AD 40. One of his sons, Amminius, known to be pro-Roman, has recently been exiled by the stronger anti-Roman faction at Cymbeline's court. Amminius goes to Rome for help, during the reign of the emperor Caligula. When Cymbeline dies, two other sons - known to be anti-Roman - inherit his power. They are Caractacus and Togodumnus.

By the time the Romans are ready to invade, in AD 43, Claudius has recently been chosen as emperor. With a reputation for feebleness, he needs a striking success of some kind. He takes a personal interest in the campaign against Britain.

The Roman conquest of Britain: AD 43-51

Four Roman legions land in Kent in AD 43. The two sons of Cymbeline attempt to hold them at the Medway but are defeated (an engagement in which Togodumnus is killed, leaving Caractacus in sole command of the British forces). The Britons then retreat beyond the Thames, at which point the Romans call a halt in their pursuit. They are waiting for the public-relations part of the exercise.

A few weeks later the emperor Claudius reaches the southern bank of the Thames, in the region of what is now London, with fresh troops and even a few elephants. He is here to lead the advance on Caractacus' capital at Camulodunum, or Colchester.

There is little further opposition, for the Celtic troops - without breastplates or helmets - are no match for the solid weight of a Roman legion, advancing like a human tank. The emperor enters Colchester in triumph, cheered by his army. Later a temple is erected here to Claudius as a god; its site is now Colchester Castle.

After the rapid defeat of Caractacus, chieftain of the Belgae in southeast Britain, other Celtic tribes quickly come to terms with the Romans. Some are accepting defeat. But others, such as the Iceni in East Anglia, already have friendly relations with the Romans - preferring them to the Belgae. Rome leaves such chieftains in power, as allies.

The result is that in the short space of four years the whole of southern Britain is safely under Roman control. In AD 47 Roman troops are able to build a raised road, with a ditch on either side, defining the northern edge of this safe territory. Known as the Fosse Way, it stretches from Lincoln to south Devon.

But beyond the Fosse Way there is trouble for the Romans in the shape, once again, of Caractacus. He has escaped alive from his defeats. Now he is organizing resistance among the Welsh tribes. Caractacus himself is captured in AD 51, but the Romans are unable to subdue the Welsh for another thirty years.

Like all barbarian kings captured by the Romans in war, Caractacus - accompanied by his wife and daughter - is taken back to Rome. The family is to be displayed before the Roman crowd in the triumphal celebration of the conquest of Britain.

Normally, as with Vercingetorix a century earlier, the captive king would then be executed. But the noble bearing of Caractacus, and his powerful speech to the assembled crowd, so impress the emperor that Claudius spares his life and that of his family. He provides them with a villa in Rome, where they live a guarded but honourable existence.

Boudicca and the Iceni: AD 60-61

The only major threat to Roman dominance of southern Britain derives from their own heavy-handedness.

The Iceni, a tribe of Celts occupying what is now Norfolk, have been allies of the Romans. Their king, Prasutagus, has no male heir. In an attempt to ensure a good relationship between his family and the Romans, he leaves a will dividing his wealth between his two daughters and the emperor Nero. It does not have the desired effect. On his death, in AD 60, his kingdom is annexed by the Romans; his family is humiliated; and the lands of the tribe are plundered. But the Romans have not taken account of his widow. In Latin they spell her Boadicea. Her Celtic name is Boudicca.

Boudicca launches an uprising in which she is soon joined by other Celtic tribes. All have good cause for resentment at the behaviour of Roman soldiers and Roman settlers in their territories. Together they attack Colchester, destroying the Roman garrison which attempts to defend itself in the newly completed Temple to claudius. They plunder many other rich settlements before moving on to ravage Verulamium (now St Albans) and London. According to Tacitus, 70,000 are killed.

Eventually the Romans gather together an army of about 10,000 men to confront the tribes - now busy in another cause, the quest for loot.

Tacitus paints a touching picture of the Celtic tribesmen milling about in confusion as they face the solid Roman formation on the battlefield. Their families have arrived in carts to watch the encounter. Boudicca dashes among her people in a chariot, accompanied by her two daughters - whose rape by Roman soldiers, according to Tacitus, has sparked off the crisis. The harangue to the troops which Tacitus puts into the mouth of the queen begins: 'We British are used to woman commanders in war'.

But she cannot prevail. Tacitus claims that after a crushing defeat she takes poison. Hers is the last serious uprising in southern Britain. The attention of the Romans can be turned to Wales.

The campaigns of Agricola: AD 77-84

Little progress is made in pacifying Wales until the arrival in Britain of Agricola. More is known of Agricola than of any other Roman general of comparable stature, because he takes the wise precaution of having a historian as a son-in-law. Agricola's appointment as governor of Britain and the marriage of his daughter to Tacitus occur in the same year - AD 77.

Agricola rapidly succeeds in conquering the Welsh tribes, even in Anglesey. To consolidate his gains he stations the 20th legion in an encampment on the river Dee. Castra Devana ('camp on the Dee') becomes one of the most important Roman strongholds in Britain. Its modern name, deriving from 'Castra', is Chester.

In AD 78-9 Agricola brings the north of England under Roman control. In 80 he establishes a line of defensive outposts across Scotland's narrowest point, between the Clyde and the Forth. In the following three years he presses steadily further north into the wilds of Caledonia (the Roman word for Scotland, from the name of its leading tribe). Finally, in AD 83, he wins a major victory over the Caledonii at an unidentified place called Mons Graupius - probably almost as far north as Aberdeen.

Meanwhile Agricola has also very effectively governed the rest of Britain. It has been an impressive seven years. It is lucky indeed that there is a Historian in the family to record them.

Tacitus explains that his father-in-law has to deal in Britain with people 'living in isolation and ignorance' who are therefore 'prone to fight'. As a distraction Agricola introduces the Celts to the trappings of Roman luxury. Yet baths and sumptuous banquets, the historian candidly admits, are merely another aspect of Britain's enslavement.

In the same vein, the son-in-law reveals that Agricola dreams of conquering Ireland. He believes that it could be controlled by a single legion, and that it would be 'easier to hold Britain if it were completely surrounded by Roman armies, so that liberty was banished from its sight'. It never happens. Ireland (or Hibernia), alone in western Europe, remains free of the Romans.

Emperors building walls: AD 122-142

Water has until now provided the natural boundaries of the Roman empire in Europe - the Atlantic, the Rhine and the danube. With the invasion of Britain, followed by the failure to conquer the whole island, another form of frontier against northern barbarians becomes essential.

It is provided by the emperor Hadrian, who visits Britain in 122. Deciding that the advances made by Agricola far into Caledonia are untenable, he orders the construction of a defensive barrier stretching seventy-five miles from coast to coast across the north of what is now England. Hadrian's Wall remains even today a massively impressive structure. It takes the Romans only about eight years to complete it.

In subsequent years the Romans again push north of the wall, encouraging Hadrian's successor Antoninus pius to order the construction of another barrier further into Caledonia. The Antonine Wall, built from about 142, is an earthwork on stone foundations across the narrowest part of Britain - the forty miles between the Clyde and the Forth.

This further line proves impossible to hold, so Hadrian's Wall becomes the northern frontier of Roman civilization. Its existence, and the Roman presence south of it, has a profound influence on the histories of England and Scotland - though the border between them is eventually established a little to the north.

Britannia: 2nd - 4th century AD

Hadrian's Wall, established from the 2nd century AD as the frontier of Roman rule in the British isles, enables England and Wales (as they will later become) to settle down together as Britannia, the most northerly Roman province.

On the whole the Celtic chieftains of Britain adapt willingly to Roman customs and comforts. They learn to live in villas, they speak Latin, they benefit from trading links with the empire (British wheat and wool are much in demand), and they become Roman citizens. The tribal centres develop into thriving Roman towns, around the forum (market place) and basilica (town hall).

Towns of this kind, serving as the capitals of British tribal rulers enjoying Roman support, include Winchester, Dorchester, Cirencester and Canterbury. London develops at the same period, but as a centre of trade at the focal point of the network of Roman roads. Bath, with its hot springs, becomes Britain's first resort.

Different in kind are the essentially Roman headquarters of Chester, Caerleon and York (where Constantine is proclaimed emperor in 306). These are the permanent bases of the Roman legions in Britain. Other modern cities, including Lincoln, Colchester and St Albans, derive from Roman municipalities - founded for new settlers, such as men retiring from the legions.

Roman Britain never achieves the prosperity or sophistication of Gaul, and it has the disadvantage of being cut off from the centre whenever Gaul is controlled by rebellious Roman armies or invading barbarians. Even so, Britannia has much in common with other provinces of the empire.

It has its great villas, and it is significant that one of the grandest - a palace at Fishbourne with superb mosaic floors, discovered in 1960 - is believed to have belonged not to a Roman governor but to a Celtic chieftain. It was probably the headquarters of Cogidubnus, ruler of a tribe in southern England in the late 1st century AD.

Roman Britain never achieves the prosperity or sophistication of Roman gaul, and it has the disadvantage of being cut off from the centre whenever Gaul is controlled by rebellious Roman armies or invading barbarians. Even so, Britain has much in common with other provinces of the empire. It has its great villas (a palace at Fishbourne, discovered in 1960, is one of the grandest, with superb mosaic floors). And it has its choice of the empire's rival religions.

By the late 3rd century Mithras and jesus Christ compete for attention. In 314 the winning side, the Christians, are sufficiently well organized to send three bishops from Britain to a Council in gaul.

Britannia in decline: 5th - 6th century AD

The decline of Roman Britain is like the withering of a limb at the extremity of an ailing body. In unsettled times, in the late 4th century, western emperors withdraw legions from Britain for their own local purposes. Once Gaul is in the hands of Barbarian rulers in the 5th century, blocking the route from Rome, no new replacements arrive.

The Roman British find themselves extremely vulnerable. They have defences in the north, but none in the southeast - the direction of Rome, and supposedly secure. It is from this undefended side that danger comes. German tribes moving south and west into Gaul have Britain in their sights.

The main threat is from two tribal groups pressing southwest from the Baltic coast. They are the Angles and the Saxons. The subsequent Anglo-Saxon basis of England, and of the English language, speaks for their success.

The Romanized Celts, deprived of their Roman legions, prove unable to resist these more primitive and ferocious intruders - though their struggle is personified in a legendary hero, King arthur. By the 6th century the Celtic chieftains are confined to mountainous Wales. The fertile plains of England are occupied now by Angles, Saxons and other German tribes from roughly the same area, such as Jutes and Frisians. Their chieftains set about establishing themselves as regional kings.

Christian kingdoms

Rival kings and bishops: 5th - 11th century AD

In all parts of the British Isles, in the centuries after the Roman departure from England and wales, tribal chieftains struggle to control wider areas and thus to enjoy higher prestige than any of their rivals.

Ireland is the first in which any family makes significant progress. In the 5th century the descendants of Niall of the Nine Hostages (who dies in about 405) are already called kings of Ireland, though their real power does not extend beyond Ulster. Anglo-Saxon kings in regions of England confront Celtic chieftains in Wales, along a line which becomes stablized in the 8th century as Offa's Dyke. In Scotland the Picts and Scots acknowledge a joint king by the 9th century.

Meanwhile a less violent struggle has emerged between Celtic and roman christianity, the two forms differing only in minor details - the Celtic variety, deriving from Ireland, and Roman Catholicism, reintroduced to Britain by missionaries from Rome. Once the differences are resolved, British christian missionaries move energetically into pagan northern Europe.

But by the 9th century pagans from Scandinavia pose a new threat to the British Isles. Vikings plunder the rich monasteries of Scotland and Ireland. Danes invade eastern England. And in the 11th century descendants of the Vikings, by now Christian and more civilized as Normans, achieve the conquest which introduces a new era of English history.

Norman-French ambitions: 11th - 14th century AD

The abiding theme within the British Isles, after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, is the continuing effort of the kings of England to dominate the neighbouring regions of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

The kings crowned in Westminster are French in both origin and culture (Henry v, who comes to the throne in 1413, is the first to be fully at ease in spoken and written English). By contrast the chieftains in the other parts of the British Isles are Celtic, for these are regions which the Anglo-saxons have not penetrated.

The first Celtic region in which the Normans achieve any semblance of dominance is Ireland, where the visit of Henry II in 1171 results in an ostensibly English administration in Dublin. Wales keeps the aggressive neighbours at bay for a little longer, but is then more thoroughly suppressed; Edward I brings the principality firmly under English control in the late 13th century.

Scotland, by contrast, remains entirely beyond the grasp of the English. Edward I's attempts to interfere are followed by successful wars of Scottish independence. By the late 14th century the Stewart dynasty is securely on the throne.

The process of union

Towards a united kingdom: AD 1536-1800

The accession to the English throne of the Tudor dynasty, with its Welsh origins, transforms Wales from a conquered territory to an integral part of the English kingdom. The change is acknowledged in an act of parliament passed in 1536, with modifications added in 1543.

The practical purpose of these acts is to give Wales an adminstrative system, based on counties, which is compatible with that of England. It replaces the earlier feudal territories, granted to Marcher lords for the purpose of subduing the hostile Welsh. Wales becomes, as a result of these changes, a principality within the English kingdom. From the Reformation onwards, its political story merges with that of England.

The incorporation of Wales within England in 1536 is part of a broader tendency in Europe in the 16th century towards centralized nation states under strong rulers.

Scotland is following this pattern of strong rule until the death of James IV at Flodden in 1513. Thereafter the kingdom is harmed by three successive monarchs inheriting the crown at the age of two or less. Even so, when the Scottish royal family succeeds to the English throne, in 1603, the Union is limited to the crowns of two independent nations which retain their own parliaments. Scotland is not as yet merged within the much larger England, as has previously happened with Wales.

A century later, by the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland is joined to England and Wales within a single kingdom. Ireland, by contrast, remains in the original position of Wales - as a region which England controls virtually as an occupying power. This ends when the island becomes part of a United Kingdom with the Act of Union of 1800 (though some would argue that the act continues English suppression by other means).

The stabilizing in the 16th century of these three major political units within the British Isles means that the individual stories of England, Scotland and Ireland are now best followed separately until the evolution of Great britain (in 1707) and the United Kingdom (in 1801).

Act of Union: AD 1707

Given the centuries of hostility between Scotland and England, with warfare even in the 17th century under a shared Stuart king, the union of the two kingdoms seems to come with surprising suddeness. It has been under discussion for a considerable time, for James VI and I tries to achieve it after inheriting the English throne in 1603. But the idea meets with little favour (although imposed during the Commonwealth) until the early 18th century.

The motivation in 1707 is largely economic for the Scots and political for the English.

Scotland has recently suffered a disastrous failure in setting up a colony in 1698 in Darien, on the isthmus of Panama. By the time the experiment is abandoned, in 1700, it is estimated to have cost £200,000 and some 2000 lives. Tariff-free access to all English markets, both in Britain and in the developing colonies, seems commercially a rather more attractive option.

For England, engaged in lengthy wars with the French (who are sympathetic to the Exiled stuart dynasty), it is attractive to remove the danger of any threat from the country's only land border. The union of the kingdoms creates an island realm.

The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

There is unrest and warfare in Scotland during much of the 18th century because a strong faction, particularly in the Highlands, supports the Jacobite cause (the claim to the throne of the exiled Stuarts). This discontent erupts twice, in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. But the majority of Scots are content with a new role in a kingdom united under the title Great Britain. A renewal of Scottish nationalism must await the 20th century.

The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

With Scotland and Wales both now governed from Westminster, the history of England becomes - at any rate for the next three centuries - the central thread of the history of Great britain.

Ireland uneasy

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland: AD 1801-1921

For many reasons it is a much more difficult problem to unite Ireland with England than it has been in the case of Wales or Scotland. There is no royal link to ease the transition. The English Plantations have been imposed forcibly upon the Irish, leaving a poisoned heritage of hardship and grievance. And religion remains a divisive issue, with a minority of Protestant settlers dominating the indigenous Catholics.

But in 1800, against considerable opposition, the prime minister, William Pitt, pushes through a new Act of union. From 1 January 1801 the entire British Isles is to be a single political entity, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Pitt hopes that the change will improve the lot of Catholics in Ireland, but he underrates Anglican opposition to any such measure. Catholic emancipation becomes the great Irish issue of the 1820s, culminating in the Emancipation Act of 1829.

During the 1830s, when the entire United Kingdom is concentrating on political Reform at westminster, the situation with regard to Ireland is uncharacteristically calm. And the dominant issue of the 1840s is economic rather than political, with the potato Blight and famine leading to massive emigration.

From the 1850s, however, the focus is increasingly on Irish attempts to break the union with Britain. The Fenians are founded in 1858 as a secret military organization; the Home rule association is established in 1870 by an Irish member of parliament. Thus on the two fronts, paramilitary and legitimate, the long fight for Irish independence begins in earnest.

It ends, after much violence and bloodshed, with the establishment in 1921 of the Irish free state. But this covers only the southern twenty-six of Ireland's counties. The struggle shifts, for radicals in the south, to reclaiming the six counties of northern Ireland - where the Protestant majority has absolutely no intention of becoming a minority region in a united Catholic island.

Devolution and direct rule: AD 1921-1999

The first fifty years of northern Ireland's existence as a separate province, from the establishment of a parliament at Stormont in 1921, are mainly peaceful. But towards the end of the period, from 1968, violence returns to Ulster politics. As a result the British government closes Stormont and assumes Direct rule in 1972. Paramilitary terrorism, by both Catholics and Protestants, becomes endemic for the rest of the century.

There are strenuous efforts to achieve a peace settlement by a succession of British and Irish prime ministers - resulting in the Anglo-irish agreement of 1985, the Downing street declaration of 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Each makes valuable progress in developing a shared stance by the two nations against the forces of anarchy. And the Downing street declaration leads to a paramilitary ceasefire which holds for seventeen months from September 1984.

The Good friday accord does even better. It is signed in April 1998 after a nine-month ceasefire, which then continues during the next agreed stage - the preparation of a new devolved power-sharing parliament at Stormont which will include Sinn fein provided the IRA (the military wing of the party) decommission their weapons. The agreement is accepted in a referendum in May 1998. Elections follow in June. The various Unionist groups win 55 seats, the nationalists 42.

Almost Stormont: AD 1998-1999

In July 1998 the Northern Ireland Assembly meets for the first time at Stormont. David Trimble (Ulster Unionist) is elected First Minister.

For nearly a year desultory business continues, without Trimble being able to form a cabinet and begin the proper process of governing. The reason is the long-standing problem of the Decommissioning of arms. The timetable has been left deliberately vague in the Good Friday Agreement. Now the Unionists insist that Sinn Fein cannot be part of government until Decommissioning has begun. The IRA is equally adamant that it will not give up any weapons until Sinn Fein is in the government. In desperation Blair attempts another deadline. Unless there is agreement by the end of June 1999, there will be no Stormont parliament.

Long nights of intense bargaining up to the end of June, and through the first two days of July, end with an ultimatum from the British and Irish prime ministers. They propose now that Sinn Fein should be allowed to take part in the proposed executive on the mere promise of IRA arms Decommissioning, which must begin within a short period and be complete by May 2000. A strict monitoring system for Decommissioning is to be set in place. Stormont will be suspended if the IRA fail to meet stipulated deadlines.

If all parties accept these terms, and meet together in Stormont on July 15 to select the members of the executive, then devolved powers will be transferred to northern Ireland on July 18.

Intense discussion continues over the next two weeks, particularly between David Trimble, on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, and Tony Blair. Trimble complains that no clear evidence has been provided that the IRA does intend to hand in its arms, and no strict timetable for them to do so has yet been agreed. Without better guarantees on this front he refuses to recommend to his party the proposed arrangements for immediate power-sharing.

On July 15 northern Ireland's elected politicians assemble in Stormont. The business of the day is the nomination by each party of their representatives on the power-sharing executive. But the Ulster Unionist seats are empty.

The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland.

The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland. Meanwhile it has been achieved elsewhere, in both Scotland and Wales - some twenty years after first being on offer.


Devolution in Scotland and Wales: AD 1978-1999

After much debate a Scotland Act and a Wales Act are passed in 1978, arranging for a referendum in each region. The acts state that regional assemblies will be established if two conditions are met: a simple majority in favour, but also a minimum turnout of 40% of the electorate.

The referenda are held in March 1979. In Scotland there is a small majority in favour, but only 32% of the electorate vote. In Wales there is a large majority (4:1) against the proposed assembly. Later in 1979 a Conservative government wins a general election, beginning a spell in power which lasts for eighteen years. Conservative policy is anti-devolution (though as a gesture the Stone of Scone is returned to Scotland in 1996). So the issue hangs fire - until 1997.

'Decentralization of power to Scotland and Wales' is in the party manifesto with which Labour wins an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1997. The pledge is quickly delivered. Within weeks of the election a bill is passed, arranging for referenda to be held. The Scots are to be asked two questions: Do they want a Scottish parliament? Do they want it to have tax-raising powers? The Welsh are only to vote on a single issue, whether they want a Welsh assemby with devolved powers which do not include tax raising.

In a 60.4% turnout the Scots vote 74.3% for a parliament and 63.5% for tax-raising powers. In a 50.3% turnout the Welsh vote by a tiny majority (0.6%) in favour of an assembly.

Elections for both assemblies are held in May 1999, on a system of proportional representation. About two thirds of the candidates are returned on a first-past-the-post basis, with the other third added from party lists to achieve the required balance.

In both regions Labour wins the greatest number of seats, while falling short of an absolute majority in either. The second largest vote is in each case for nationalism, with the SNP winning 35 seats in Scotland and Plaid Cymru 17 seats in Wales. The Conservatives come third in both regions, and the Liberal Democrats fourth. But the Liberal Democrats, the most natural allies for Labour, have enough seats to provide a coalition majority in both Scotland and Wales.

It takes Donald Dewar, the Labour leader in Scotland, a few days to persuade the Liberal Democrats to join his administration. The sticking point is the £1000 tuition fee for university students, introduced by the Labour government in Westminster and strongly opposed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. A compromise is reached, and two cabinet places are allocated to the Liberal Democrats. Their 16 seats, combined with the 56 for Labour, give a comfortable majority in the 128-seat assembly. Thus the Scottish parliament resumes business in Edinburgh (though with powers limited to internal affairs) after an Interval of 292 years. The assembly is formally opened by the Queen on 1 July 1999.

In a tragic development for the new institution, Donald Dewar dies suddenly within little more than a year (in October 2000). He is succeeded as first minister by Henry McLeish, who resigns in November 2001, and then by Jack McConnell.

The strength of the Plaid Cymru vote surprises and impresses many, though it is also argued that Labour may have lost support by the centralizing manner in which Alun Michael has been virtually imposed by Tony Blair upon the Welsh Labour party as their leader in the run-up to the election.

With 28 seats in the 60-seat assembly, Alun Michael forms a minority government. The assembly is officially opened on 26 May 1999 in Crickhowell House in Cardiff. A new building for the assembly in Cardiff is meanwhile under construction.

However, within nine months the arrangement stitched up by Tony Blair comes apart. In February 2000 the assembly passes a vote of no confidence in Alun Michael. He is succeeded as leader of the Wales Labour Party, and as First Secretary of the assembly, by Rhodri Morgan - the very man kept out of the job the first time round by the vigorous efforts of Labour party headquarters in London.

Fits and starts at Stormont: from AD 1999

The Northern Irish peace process remains in limbo until the US negotiator George Mitchell returns to try and find common ground between the Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist leaders, Gerry Adams and David Trimble. Their joint efforts end in a breakthrough when both men issue agreed and conciliatory statements on 16 November 1999.

The Ulster Unionists have always said that they will not cooperate with Sinn Fein until the IRA at least begins to hand in its weapons. The next hurdle is for David Trimble to persuade the Ulster Unionist Council that the party should share government with Sinn Fein on the mere promise of this happening. On November 27 he wins this agreement, with the proviso that the party will pull out of government if the IRA fails to hand in any arms by February.

On a historic day, 2 December 1999, both sides convene at Stormont and a ten-strong cabinet is selected with David Trimble, leader of the largest party, as First Minister. But the next crisis looms all to soon. By February the IRA has shown no sign of decommissioning any weapons. Well aware of the harm to the peace process if the Unionists withdraw, the British government preempts the issue early in the month by reimposing direct rule from Westminster - while emphasizing that the Stormont executive is being temporarily suspended rather than dismantled.

After quiet diplomacy there is sudden progress again in May, when the IRA put out their most unequivocal statement to date, offering to put their arms 'completely and verifiably beyond use'.

Their proposed method is the opening of their arms stores to full and regular inspection by independent observers. The question is whether David Trimble can sell this as significant progress to an increasingly sceptical Ulster Unionist Council. In late May he narrowly succeeds in doing so (by 459 to 403 votes, a closer margin than six months earlier), winning the party's agreement to share power again with Sinn Fein on this new basis. Power is once again transferred from Westminster to Stormont. The Ulster executive at Stormont resumes its devolved work early in June 2000.

There is a similar crisis in 2001, involving even the temporary resignation of David Trimble. Once again, at the last moment, the IRA make new promises just in time. Almost against the odds, political life resumes.

Yet another crisis erupts in the autumn of 2002, when there is apparent evidence that a spy working for Sinn Fein or the IRA has been copying top-secret documents from the files of the Stormont administration. David Trimble threatens to take the Unionists out of the government unless Sinn Fein are excluded. Once again the British government decides that the suspension of Stormont is the likeliest way of allowing tempers to cool. Direct rule from Westminster is reimposed.

In spite of this setback both Sinn Fein and the Unionists say that they remain committed to implementing the Good Friday Agreement. There is therefore some hope that the peace process itself remains alive, even if there is silence once again in the corridors of power at Stormont.

Hope for the future?

From 1993 the Irish peace process has lurched forward in fits and starts, but real progress has been made. There will be further crises, but the Protestant and Catholic communities have unmistakably expressed a wish for a normal political situation. At the start of the new millennium the mood is more hopeful than at any time since 1969.

But one underlying cause for concern, in the perspective of Irish history, is the tendency of the Irish republican movement to spawn splinter groups which carry on the murderous work of terrorism each time the leaders of the movement decide to enter mainstream politics.

This happens in the Civil war of 1922; it happens during the time of De valera, when the IRA continues after its former leader becomes taoiseach; and it happens in 1969 with the emergence of the Civil war of 1922 from an IRA by then inclined to renounce terrorism.

In 1999 the pattern seems in danger of repeating itself in the form of the Real IRA, a minority group responsible for placing a bomb in Omagh in August 1998 which causes twenty-nine deaths - within weeks of the Northern Ireland Assembly meeting for the first time at Stormont. Subsequent terrorist acts on the UK mainland suggest that the Real IRA remains a considerable danger.

It is also an alarming fact that violence continues to disrupt normal existence in the province. A ferocious feud breaks out in 2000 between rival groups of Protestant paramilitaries (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters) in the Shankhill Road district of Belfast. The level of violence becomes such that troops are brought back on to the streets of the city, in a move welcomed by most of the inhabitants of the Shankhill Road.

And in 2001 Belfast suffers a shocking new outbreak of sectarian violence, with Protestant bigots threatening Catholic children on their route to the Holy Cross school. In 2002 a repeat of this confrontation is followed by riots between sectarian mobs and the temporary closing of the school.
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