Examining The Troubles in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland

The Troubles in Northern Ireland represent an era of political and ethnic conflict that has involved England and the Republic of Ireland. Though the origin of the Troubles date to religious and social conflict that pervaded the island during the 17 the century and violent conflict during the early part of the 20th century, it is widely considered to have lasted from the late 1960s until the restoration of peaceful self-government in the 1990s

They have their basis in the political and economic independence of Northern Ireland and the religious differences between the union-seeking Protestants and Catholic nationalists

Violence was the primary characteristic of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Deliberate campaigns were organized by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) with the aim of eliminating British presence in Northern Ireland and reuniting Ireland as a discreet, independent nation. On the other hand, the Ulster Volunteer Force had the intention of bolstering the sentiment of maintaining unity under the United Kingdom. They were primarily Protestant, and were formed in response to the perception of the general erosion of British identity and character in the northern counties of Ireland. Though they drew the sympathy of the British government, they acted independently and the focus of their enmity was IRA.

For their part, British officials were merely interested in the maintenance of lawfulness in Northern Ireland, and the perpetuation of the opportunity for self-government by Northern Irish citizens. However, the IRA construed this perspective as tantamount to occupation of their sovereign land. The Irish Constitution failed to recognize Northern Ireland as an independent state. Therefore, British intrusion into their sovereign land, in the name of Union in the United Kingdom and bearing a clearly anti-Catholic religious posture, was considered an act of violence by IRA members. Their response, and that of the Ulster forces in turn, resulted in bloodshed for much of the 30 years during which the Troubles spanned.

The Ulster Volunteers are a patently illegal military and terrorist organization. They formed in 1966 in response to the growing perception in Northern Ireland that the IRA was gaining momentum and fears that Irish reunion was on the horizon. Their formation coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, an ill-fated skirmish in Dublin that had the lasting effect of bringing the need for Irish independence to the forefront of public policy in the United Kingdom. This is considered by most historians to be the beginning of the Troubles. The Ulster Volunteer Force initiated a prolonged campaign of intimidation against Catholic leaders and Catholic-owned businesses in Northern Ireland. This campaign began with graffiti and vandalism and devolved into homicides of prominent Catholics. Ulster leaders summarily took responsibility for the acts of violence, and declared IRA members to be enemies. Executions of Catholic business leaders, minor bomb explosions and subterfuge directed toward infrastructure elements, such as electrical stations and water pipelines, continued throughout the late 1960s. Ulster objectives included the hope that the acts of public sabotage would be blamed on the IRA, undermining their political power throughout Northern Ireland.

The opposing forces of the IRA had long fought for Irish independence and had generations of loyal contributors. They were also an illegal paramilitary organization, though their goals for Irish freedom and role in past conflicts against British interests made them a substantial part of Irish culture. They were instrumental in the Easter Rising and declared themselves a legitimate army in its aftermath. The IRA also initiated a well-organized guerrilla warfare campaign against the British army during the Irish War of Independence. The IRA was strictly pro-Catholic and had the long-standing tradition of violent opposition to British and Protestant presence in Ireland. The IRA opposed British interests and pro-Union sentiments in the Irish counties to the north leading up to the Troubles. However, a general economic prosperity followed World War II. This combined with political interests to mitigate the violent interests of the IRA until the turbulent decade of the 1960s.

This turbulence began when the long-time prime minister of Northern Ireland stepped down in 1963. This ended a period of Unionist domination of Irish politics in Northern Ireland since the island was partitioned into two distinct regions in 1921

. This Unionist domination reflected the interests of the Protestant majority. However, it was also a product of obvious gerrymandering of political districts in Catholic-dominated counties to ensure the election of Protestant/Unionist candidates. Voting rights were also limited to taxpayers above a certain level of income; a limit which excluded far more Catholic citizens than it did Protestants. These inequalities contributed to long-standing police interference in Catholic counties and exclusion from public and business opportunities. They also led to the sense of discrimination that many Catholic Northern Irish felt in the decades leading up to the Troubles, and represent a significant backdrop to the violence that occurred

An economic downturn in the early 1960s and the departure of Northern Ireland’s prime minister led to drastic changes in relations between the diametrically opposed segments and the emergence of violent factions within each group. Northern Ireland’s new prime minister met with Irish government officials regarding the potential for reunification of the island in an effort to strengthen the financial fortunes of each party. It was then believed that both sides of the partition would benefit from economic unity and the mutually beneficial resources of the North and South. However, this quickly drew the antagonism of the Unionist majority in the North, insofar as the Irish constitution continued to claim the entire island under the name of the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, the Catholic minority — long the victims of widespread bias and discrimination — grew hopeful of Irish reunion. This is the powderkeg that resulted in the growth of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the re-emergence of the IRA. Though political officials from the Republic and Northern Ireland denounced the acts of both groups as contrary to interests of the people, the bloodshed began in earnest. The initial victims of the Troubles signaled the political and social unrest that would continue in the following decades.

Despite moderate reforms aimed to appease both sides, time and political developments served only to corroborate Unionist fears and undermine Catholic hopes. Catholics grew skeptical of the new prime minister’s sincerity regarding political and social reform in Nothern Ireland, and began to accuse the administration of dragging their feet. In response, Catholics founded the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), with the purpose of uniting the entirety of Northern Ireland and ending the injustices perpetrated by the government. They stopped short of proposing reunification of Ireland so that they may benefit from the support of all Irish citizens. NICRA engaged in peaceful civil rights marches that coincided with the aims of the civil rights movement in the United States. However, the simultaneous and equally fervent presence of Unionist forces, in the form of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, helped to turn the demonstrations violent.

The sense grew during this time that coexistence was impossible, and the prime minister’s efforts toward reform were widely questioned. New reforms were implemented with the support and heavy attention of the British government (whose interest was the mere maintenance of lawfulness). However, these redoubled efforts also represented failure to both interests. NICRA’s hopes were dashed when the reforms failed to include equal voting rights to all citizens in Northern Ireland and the repeal of the highly controversial and oppressive Special Powers Act. The Special Powers Act entitled the government of Northern Ireland to act in the interest of public security by granting powers that would be considered excessive by any current standard, such as the confiscation of property or the imprisonment of anti-government sympathizers

. On the other hand, Ulster fears were increasingly aroused by the continued effort toward reform. This was widely considered to be unnecessary appeasement, since Northern Ireland had existed peacefully in the decades since partition.

The result was violence at multiple civil rights marches organized by NICRA and opposed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Violence at these marches represented the initial notion of a continuing conflict, and many historians consider this to be the platform for all future uprisings during the Troubles. The Royal Ulster Constabulary initially was perceived to be allowing violence by local hoodlums. However, when a civil rights march in Derry was initiated by NICRA members in direct violation of a ban by the Protestant government of Northern Ireland, Ulster members attacked. This led to rioting that lasted for four days. In addition, marches between Belfast and Derry that were designed with the purpose of crossing over Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in the hope of uniting citizens were violently thwarted by loyalist citizens. Police made no effort to protect the demonstrators at this and other marches. As a result, demonstrating NICRA members erected barricades in Belfast so that they could peacefully show support for civil rights. At each turn, the stakes were raised, so that geographic and social lines were drawn throughout Northern Ireland, making neutrality basically impossible.

Rioting throughout Belfast and Derry became regular, and culminated in 1969 with the Battle of the Bogside. The confrontation resulted from peaceful marching by Bogside residents that was disrupted by police officers and citizens loyal to the Union. Rioting grew for three days until the British Army was dispatched to renew peace and disperse the crowds that had quickly grown in response. However, the riot was incendiary throughout Northern Ireland, and it quickly grew apparent that the government was losing its ability to restore peace. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands lost their homes to widespread fire and vandalism

. Riots around Northern Ireland were begun in support of Bogside residents.

However, in several cases they escalated into anti-police demonstrations. In many instances, the pro-Union or pro-Catholic sentiment was superseded by random violence against authority. Specific violent acts were captured and memorialized by both sides as symbols of oppression. The Royal Ulster Constabulary drove tanks into otherwise quiet neighborhoods, at one point killing a ten-year-old boy as he slept in his apartment. On the other hand, Unionist sympathizers criticized NICRA members for continuing to demonstrate amid a climate of violence.

The political response by the British and Northern Irish governments took the form of the “Downing Street Declaration.” It was designed to appease all sides. It showed reform-minded support for civil rights activists by decrying discrimination. This included examinations of policies and the re-allocation of housing across districts. It also restated the directive of the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland would remain in British hands. However, its primary significance was the reassertion of British hegemony on the Irish island. The British Army continued to assert its will in Northern Ireland, and grew increasingly aggressive as violent unrest became commonplace. British Army officers interrogated suspected reunification demonstrators and imposed curfews in Catholic neighborhoods. As stated, their sole interest was the return of lawfulness. However, they were misinterpreted by both sides as sympathizing with the opposition and perpetuating the conflict.

During this time, the IRA was criticized for not coming to the aid of Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland. The uprisings during the summer of 1969 saw eight people murdered and more than 1,500 families lose their homes due to destruction and protest

. The IRA had long been established as a paramilitary arm with the intention of defending the interest of Catholic people throughout the island. However, IRA leadership was mindful of failed acts of violence in the past and false imprisonment under the Special Forces Act. In the wake of the perception of inactivity and paralysis by IRA leaders, the Provisional IRA was formed with purpose of achieving IRA aims with militant means. Irish government officials, who had previously denounced the illegal actions of the IRA, were conspicuously quiet on the development of the Provisional IRA. Additionally, the Irish prime minister spoke out against the violence to the north, and even proposed intervention in defense of Catholic citizens if the riots persisted. Triage centers were set up along the border with Northern Ireland, led by IRA officials. These had the purpose of offering medical aid to people injured during violence. However, they had the added effect of lending active support to reunification interests and drawing the battle lines further throughout the United Kingdom.

Each of these trends continued into the early 1970s, with increasingly fatal results. The replacement of the prime minister in 1971 and the renewal of violence led to the reintroduction of home inspections and internment without grounds — the hallmarks of the Special Forces Act. As before, these had incendiary results throughout the North, leading to the rapid growth of Provisional IRA members and the growing perspective that government officials were targeting Catholic nationalists exclusively. Confrontations continued throughout the year, directly leading to the deaths of more than 200 people. Under the direction of British government officials, the British Army grew more aggressive, drawing the anger of all Irish citizens.

The seminal battle during the Troubles was “Bloody Sunday,” during which 14 people were killed following the dispatch of the Parachute Regiment in response to rioting at another demonstration in Derry. The primary results of “Bloody Sunday” were the growing tide of enlisters in the Provisional IRA and the formation of the Ulster Vanguard — an organization representing violent and non-violent Unionist interests that united much of Northern Ireland in the form of mass demonstrations and meetings. A massive influx of British Army troops flooded Northern Ireland, as the British government grew inexorably closer to direct rule and the disposal of the Northern Irish government.

More than 400 people were killed during 1972 in rioting and demonstrations

. The most devastating act was “Bloody Friday,” during which more than 20 bombs were simultaneously detonated by the Provisional IRA throughout Unionist Belfast neighborhoods and killing nine people. As a result, the Northern Irish Stormont government was dissolved and a British Secretary of State was appointed by the British prime minister, with the purpose of removing control from the Northern Ireland government.

Direct rule had the intention of offering a short-term resolution. Among its proposals was implementation of Republic of Ireland interests in decisions regarding the future of Northern Ireland. This represented the potential realization of the fears of pro-Union activists and threatened to further rouse the violent activity of the Ulster vanguard. Surprisingly, this proposal led to the Sunningdale Agreement, which instituted a power-sharing executive body in charge of Northern Ireland’s government. This happened in spite of rampant opposition to the sharing of power in the form of the executive body. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Sunningdale Agreement is that it served to divide the pro-Union side, many of whom sought the terminus of bloodshed that had terrorized the North and invited the aggressive British Army across the water.

Elections were held as a transition from the power-sharing executive, putting the fate of Northern Ireland in the hands of the people once again. However, pro-Union sympathizers were almost unanimously elected to the government, undermining all authority and advancements made by the Sunningdale Agreement. When the British government restated its support of the power-sharing framework, violence erupted throughout the countryside. The Ulster Workers’ Council initiated a multilateral strike, shutting down much of the infrastructure. Bombs were detonated in Dublin, killing more than 30 civilians and establishing a new low in the saga of the Troubles. Northern Ireland was crippled in the wake of the Sunningdale Agreement and the British government appeared disinterested in supporting Home Rule. Instead, direct rule was reinstituted and lasted into the 1980s. It was ended with the Anglo-Irish Agreement which avowed that Northern Ireland stay independent and ensured a governmental voice to Catholic reunification sympathizers. However, the Agreement also handed Ireland a role in the government of Northern Ireland. Though neither side was fully placated, the Agreement laid the foundation for the peaceful coexistence of the two sides that persists to this day.

The violent legacy of the Troubles has been most profound on the young people of Belfast, many of whom have suffered displacement, loss of family members and post-traumatic stress

. The youth of Northern Ireland were born into the conflict of their parents and ancestors. This conflict affected every person born in Northern Ireland in the thirty years. For those not directly affected by violence and loss, the residual damage associated with long-term exposure to aggression, intimidation, unemployment and poverty has restricted emotional and psychological growth. The quality of life in Northern Ireland suffered dramatically during the Troubles, such that the standards for happiness and success have been severely diminished. To this day, alcoholism, suicide and depression are ongoing trends affecting the way of life in Northern Ireland. The hope for the people following the restoration of peace is the equal restoration of normalcy in the context of everyday life. This can only happen with open-mindedness of the people and a decisive break from the tragic history of Northern Ireland.


1. Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles: 1968-1999 (Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 1999), 14.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 56.

4. Fay, Marie-Therese, Michael Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1999), 112.

5. Ed Cairns, et al., “Intergroup Contact, Forgiveness and Experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland” Journal of Social Issues 62, no. 1 (2006): 103.

6. Ibid., 105.

7. Orla T. Muldoon, Children of the Troubles: The Impact of Political Violence in Northern Ireland” Journal of Social Issues 60, no.3 (2004): 456.

8. Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles: 1968-1999 (Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 1999), 54.

9. D. O’Reilly, “Mental Health in Northern Ireland: Have the Troubles Made it Worse?” Journal of Epidemiological Community Health no 57. (2003): 489.


Bew, Paul, and Gordon Gillespie. Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles:

1968-1999. Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press. 1999.

Cairns, Ed, et al. “Intergroup Contact, Forgiveness and Experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.” Journal of Social Issues 62, no. 1 (2006): 99-120.

Fay, Marie-Therese, Michael Morrissey and Marie Smyth. Northern Ireland’s Troubles:

The Human Costs. Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 1999.

Hennessey, Thomas. The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Muldoon, Orla T. Children of the Troubles: The Impact of Political Violence in Northern

Ireland.” Journal of Social Issues 60, no.3 (2004): 453-468.

O’Reilly, D. “Mental Health in Northern Ireland: Have the Troubles Made it Worse?.”

Journal of Epidemiological Community Health no 57. (2003): 488-492.

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