Northern Ireland and the Troubles

northern ireland

A map of Northern Ireland, which sits on the north-east tip of the Irish landmass

Northern Ireland is a place of natural beauty, mystery and Celtic charm. The recent history of Northern Ireland, however, has been marred by political tension, sectarian feuding and paramilitary thuggery. In the last three decades of the 20th century, the world watched in despair as Northern Ireland collapsed into unrest and violence. The Troubles, as this period is euphemistically known, began in 1968. But trouble had in fact been brewing in Northern Ireland for generations. Created by the partition of Ireland in 1920, Northern Ireland was a state plagued by division. On one side of this divide were Unionists: staunchly Protestant, loyal to their British heritage and determined to remain part of the United Kingdom. On the other side were Northern Ireland’s Catholics, a minority which for decades had endured political and economic marginalisation. Caught between them was the British government, desperate to achieve reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland but unsure how to facilitate it. Outside the law, paramilitary groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) used violence and terrorism to impose their political will. For three decades these groups struggled against each other for ascendancy in Northern Ireland. Their actions ended more than 3,500 lives, including many civilians and innocent children caught in the crossfire.

To really understand the Troubles, one must first understand Ireland’s deeper history and its political and religious divisions. While most Irish were and are Catholic, English invasions, victories and land claims in the 16th and 17th centuries left Ireland with a sizeable Protestant population. By the late 1600s the majority of land was owned by the Protestant Anglo-Irish, who became Ireland’s ruling class. Most of the nation’s Catholics remained as poor tenant-farmers. Repressive and discriminatory Penal Laws kept Catholics out of education, prestigious professions and government. In the late 1700s rising Irish nationalism called for greater autonomy for the Irish parliament. It also triggered uprisings like the Wolfe Tone rebellion, an unsuccessful attempt to drive the English from Ireland. London responded by crushing these rebellions and passing the 1800 Act of Union, which formed the United Kingdom and placed Ireland under British control. In the 19th century Irish Catholics fought to regain their rights, demanding emancipation and participation in their own government, a goal they achieved in 1829. Impoverished Irish Catholics suffered tremendously during the Great Famine of the 1840s; around one million starved to death and an even greater number fled the country in search of a better life.

northern ireland

Impoverished Irish Catholic farmers during the 1800s

Ireland’s political divisions hardened in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Irish Republican Brotherhood, the country’s first significant independence movement, was formed in 1858. Other more moderate Irish political parties also embraced nationalism. By the 1880s many Irish parliamentarians were lobbying for Home Rule, or Irish self government. But Home Rule was bitterly opposed by Anglo-Irish Protestants, most of whom were clustered in the north-east in what they called Ulster. Through trade and connections with Britain, Ulster’s Protestants had built up large and successful industries around Belfast. Home Rule, they argued, would place them under the heel of a Catholic parliament in Dublin and jeopardise their economic livelihood and political and religious freedom. But the push for Home Rule continued, regardless of Unionist opposition. Two late 19th century attempts to legislate Home Rule were defeated in the British parliament. A third Home Rule bill was introduced in 1912, this time with the support of the government. It triggered a crisis in the north-east, where Unionists formed a paramilitary group (the Ulster Volunteers) and threatened to take up arms to resist Home Rule. In early 1914 the Ulster Volunteers took delivery of a large cache of arms, purchased illegally from Germany. The implementation of Home Rule, it seemed, would trigger a civil war in Ireland.

partition of ireland

A cartoon of British prime minister David Lloyd George and the partition of Ireland

The Home Rule legislation was passed in September 1914 but was immediately deferred, due to the outbreak of World War I. Most of Ireland’s Unionists and Nationalists set aside their domestic concerns to concentrate on the war against Germany. But radical Republicans, impatient with the lack of political reform in Ireland, decided to act. In April 1916 they launched the famous Easter Rising, capturing the post office in Dublin and proclaiming an independent Irish republic. British troops quickly crushed the uprising but it proved a turning point in Irish republicanism. The years following saw an surge in support for Sinn Fein, a fringe Republican party, and the newly formed IRA. In 1919 they formed an alternative government, declared an independent Irish republic and vowed to fight until the British were driven from Ireland. Meanwhile, in late 1920, the British government attempted to implement Home Rule by partitioning Ireland, separating six Protestant counties in Ulster from the rest of the country. Both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were given their own parliament, executive government and judiciary. Partition was intended to be a temporary measure but became permanent in 1922, when Northern Ireland severed all political ties with Dublin. Thus began the development of Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour as separate states. By 1948 the Free State had evolved into an independent republic, free of any obligations to London, while Northern Ireland remained an autonomous but loyal dominion of the United Kingdom.

Separation from Dublin did not end Northern Ireland’s sectarian problems. The lack of connection and common ground between Protestant and Catholic populations in Northern Ireland continued to cause problems. Decades of discriminatory and segregationist policies produced a society where Protestants and Catholics lived in separate areas, were educated in different schools, employed in different workplaces and drank in different pubs. Even in crowded cities like Belfast and Derry, most Protestants and Catholics lived their lives without significant interaction. This segregation, however, only deferred contact and sectarian conflict. The flashpoint for confrontation between Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics came in the mid to late 1960s. In Western countries like the United States, South Africa and Australia, racial and religious minorities were mobilising and crying out for rights and equality. Inspired by these movements, Northern Ireland’s Catholics initiated their own struggle for civil rights, protesting against discriminatory housing allocations, unfair employment conditions, voting restrictions and electoral gerrymandering. The formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967 gave this movement organisation and leadership. On the other side of the line, Unionists interpreted the civil rights movement as a threat to their heritage, privileged position and political dominance.

“The Northern Ireland conflict, more familiarly called the Troubles, is one of the longest and most entangled confrontations in recent history. For nearly four decades now it has embittered relations between and within the communities living there and spoiled relations between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, while also causing severe strains within the latter. For three decades it escalated, punctuated by periodic bloody clashes followed by somewhat calmer periods of tension, during which violence of all sorts, robberies, kidnappings, serious injuries and deaths were all too common.
Gordon Gillespie, historian

The first significant violence of the Troubles erupted in Bogside, Derry in 1969. In August rioting in Derry exploded into a fully fledged street war – the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ – between Nationalists, Loyalists and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). This fighting left eight dead and almost 800 injured. Violence continued across Northern Ireland for the next two years, leading to the rise of paramilitary groups and the deployment of British soldiers. On January 30th 1972 British paratroopers opened fire on civilian protesters in Derry, killing 14 civilians. Bloody Sunday, as it became known, caused outrage across Ireland and indeed the world. With Northern Ireland descending into anarchy, London dissolved the government in Belfast and introduced Direct Rule. Meanwhile the IRA, now split into two, continued to grow, equip and mobilise. Loyalists too formed paramilitary groups to protect their communities and suppress Catholic and Nationalist discontent. In 1971 the secretive and well drilled Provisional IRA declared war on British soldiers and RUC officers, doing its best to drive out the British and make Northern Ireland ungovernable. In the mid 1970s the IRA exported its fight against the British to Britain itself, where volunteers bombed military facilities, infrastructure, financial areas and even shopping districts.

For outsiders, the Troubles in Northern Ireland was a horrific media parade of bombings, civilian casualties, bloodthirsty assassinations and destructive riots. But the story of the Troubles is also the story of how to find peace in what seemed an endless and irresolvable conflict. While thugs and radicals wanted to shape Ireland’s future at the point of a gun, others strived to find resolution and peace, an infinitely more difficult battle. There were many failed attempts at peace: temporary ceasefires, disastrous peace talks, broken promises and shattered agreements. In the end it took the involvement of Sinn Fein, the IRA and moderate Unionists, as well as several world leaders, to craft a productive and optimistic peace process. The culmination of this process was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a commitment to a more collaborative, more inclusive and more democratic Northern Ireland. But there were too many compromises in the Good Friday Agreement for it to please everyone. Even as the ink was drying on this historic document, some vowed to destroy it.

northern ireland

A Belfast mural highlighting the fragile peace that exists in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland today seems to have travelled well down the road to peace. Derry, once an anarchic place wracked by violent riots, is now a UK City of Culture. Belfast, where once only the bravest traveller might have ventured, now hums and bustles with tourists. Yet reminders of the Troubles still scar the majestic landscape and busy urban areas of Northern Ireland. Visitors walking the small streets of Belfast and Derry encounter memorial gardens to the victims of paramilitary violence. Buildings and walls are bedecked with colourful murals painted by talented local artists. Some of these murals recall significant events of the Troubles, like the civil rights marches and Bloody Sunday. Some are markers of political allegiance; some are tributes to dead paramilitary fighters; some are heartbreaking memorials to murdered children. Just a few feet from where British soldiers gunned down civilians in 1972, the Museum of Free Derry houses images and artefacts of the early years of the Troubles. In English cities too, plaques and memorials remember IRA bombings and their victims, many of them children. All of these symbols contribute to the peace process by serving as a constant reminder of the real cost of war. They also remind the people of Northern Ireland that peace is not an achievement of the past, but an ongoing struggle for the future.

Learning about Northern Ireland and the Troubles requires understanding of many important historical and political concepts. Study of this important 20th century conflict also provides a solid foundation for understanding other conflicts around the world. This Alpha History section provides detailed overviews of significant topics, primary sources such as images and documents, and useful reference material like timelines, glossary, who’s who and online activities. With regard to terminology, this site uses Derry rather than Londonderry, a reflection of the Catholic majority in that city, while Ulster is used in its modern rather than traditional context. Non-English terms such as taoiseach are italicised.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole & J. Llewellyn, “Northern Ireland and the Troubles”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],