For the citizens of Ireland and Great Britain, the second half of the twentieth century represents a period of great political struggle. The historical debate concerns the constitutional status of Northern Ireland; that is, whether the six northeastern most counties on the emerald isle belong to Ireland or to the United Kingdom. The late 1960s through the early 1990s is referred to commonly as “The Troubles,” a time rife with political struggle, violence, and reactionary laws aimed at restricting civil liberties in the name of security. One topic of contention during this era relates to the political status of prisoners convicted of terrorism. These men and women—mostly suspected members of a nationalist paramilitary, the provisional Irish Republican Army—claimed a right to special treatment as prisoners of war. The British rejected the notion that an international war existed in fact, and insisted on treating the prisoners as ordinary criminals under domestic law.

The conflict in Northern Ireland is too often and too easily dismissed as a purely internal matter, regarded a domestic civil rights movement. Consequently, any potential consideration of the conflict as an international armed conflict has been disregarded. This paper will reexamine the classification of The Troubles in light of current, applicable international law to make two determinations: first, to ascertain whether the armed conflict may be classified as one of an international, rather than a non-international, character. Based on this classification, this paper will then discern whether IRA prisoners should have been entitled to prisoner of war or some other discrete legal status, separate from that of ordinary criminals.

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