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The Story Behind The Troubles (AKA The Northern Ireland Conflict)

The Story Behind The Troubles (AKA The Northern Ireland Conflict)

The Troubles in Northern Ireland is a complex topic that we’ve tried our best to simplify.

Hundreds of years worth of tension, conflict and political turmoil led to an infamous period in Ireland’s past.

In this guide, you’ll discover what happened in the many years leading to The Troubles, what took place during the turbulent period and what happened in its wake.

Some quick need-to-knows about The Troubles in Northern Ireland

The northern Ireland conflict

Photo by Fribbler on Wiki (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Understanding the Northern Ireland Troubles can be tricky. It’s worth taking 20 seconds to read the points below, first, as it’ll get you up-to-speed on the key points quickly:

1. Two Sides

The Troubles were essentially a political and cultural conflict between two communities in Northern Ireland. On one side was a largely-Protestant Unionist and Loyalist group who wanted Northern Ireland to remain as a part of the United Kingdom. On the other side was a largely-Catholic Irish Nationalist and Republic group who wanted Northern Ireland to no longer be a part of the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.

2. A 30-year conflict

While there was no official ‘start date’, the conflict roughly lasted a 30-year period from the end of the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There were incidents on either side of these dates but, in general terms, those 30 years would be the time scale most people would refer to when discussing The Troubles. 

3. The Good Friday Agreement

The historic Good Friday Agreement signed in April 1998 was a pivotal moment in the conflict and, to a great extent, signalled the end of the violence of The Troubles. For the first time, the British and Irish governments, along with parties from across the divide, agreed on a new political framework for Northern Ireland. Both sides committed themselves to working together to sustain the peace.

4. A Tragic Legacy

3,532 people lost their lives during The Troubles, with over half of them civilians. Needless to say, the story is one of tragedy and trauma. But Northern Ireland these days is a welcoming place with both communities committed to maintaining peace and learning from the past. However, there are still many differences between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The story behind the Northern Ireland Troubles

British troops in South Belfast

British troops in South Belfast, 1981 (photo by Jeanne Boleyn in the Public Domain)

Our intention with the information below is to give you a quick insight into the key moments that led up to the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Please keep in mind that this doesn’t tell the story of the Northern Ireland Conflict in-depth.

The early days of the Northern Ireland Conflict

settlers in Ireland

An Irish family evicted from their home in Clare, c.1879 (photo in the Public Domain)

For a conflict that’s relatively recent, you need to go back over 400 years to see how the situation evolved and eventually escalated into what we have today. 

From 1609 onwards, Great Britain under King James I embarked on what became known as the Plantation of Ulster in Ireland’s northernmost province.

The arrival of settlers

Largely Protestant settlers into Ulster from Scotland and northern England were given land taken from the native Irish, bringing with them their own culture and religion, resulting in inevitable wars and conflicts.

Essentially a form of colonisation, it led to centuries of ethnic and sectarian animosity, to which the Troubles can be directly traced.

The partition

Fast forward to the 20th century, and although Ireland finally achieves independence from Great Britain in 1922, the six counties of Northern Ireland decided to stay within the United Kingdom. 

While there were occasional incidents of sectarian conflict over the next 40 years, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the situation took a turn for the worse.

The Troubles

The formation of the loyalist paramilitary UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) in 1965 and the dynamiting of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin in 1966 were key flashpoints but the Northern Ireland Riots of 1969 are generally seen as the beginning of The Troubles. 

From the 12th to the 16th of August 1969, political and sectarian violence erupted throughout Northern Ireland and particularly in the city of Derry, over the discrimination of Catholics in society.

The Battle of the Bogside saw three days of rioting and clashes between the largely Protestant police force and thousands of Catholic nationalist residents.

The clashes saw eight people killed and over 750 injured, but it was only the beginning.

Bloody Sunday

While there were isolated incidents following the August Riots, it wasn’t until 1972 that the situation in Northern Ireland truly descended into a dark place, and the sectarian violence started making headlines beyond Irish shores. 

Three years after the Bogside area of Derry had been mired in unrest, it was once again the scene of bloodshed in an incident that became known as Bloody Sunday.

Taking place during a protest march against internment without trial on the afternoon of January 30th, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians, with 14 eventually succumbing to their wounds.

All of those shot and killed were Catholic, while all of the soldiers were from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment, part of the Special Forces Support Group.

Many of the victims were shot while trying to flee from the soldiers, and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. Other protesters were injured by shrapnel, rubber bullets, or batons, and two were run down by British Army vehicles.

Not only was it the worst mass shooting in Northern Irish history, its after-effects were also seismic and helped to shape the next 25 years. Bloody Sunday drove Catholic and Irish nationalist hostility towards the British Army and worsened relations between the communities of Northern Ireland. 

Additionally, support for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) swelled in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday and there was a surge of recruitment into the organisation.

The 1970s in Northern Ireland

hunger strikers

A mural of Bobby Sands in Belfast by Hajotthu (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Following the actions of the British soldiers on Bloody Sunday, the IRA turned their attention across the Irish Sea and towards the United Kingdom. 

The M62 coach bombing in Yorkshire in February 1974 killed 12 people, while the infamous Birmingham pub bombings of November that same year killed 21 (it should be pointed out that the IRA has never officially admitted responsibility for the Birmingham pub bombings, although a former senior officer of the organisation confessed to their involvement in 2014).

More conflict

Between October 1974 and December 1975, the Balcombe Street Gang – a unit of the IRA based in southern England – carried out approximately 40 bomb and gun attacks in and around London, sometimes attacking the same targets twice.

Back in Northern Ireland, the Miami Showband Killings dealt one of the most traumatic blows to hopes of peace anytime soon. One of Ireland’s most popular cabaret bands, their van was ambushed by loyalist gunmen at a bogus military checkpoint on its way home to Dublin on July 31st 1975. 

Not only did five people die in the incident, the massacre also dealt a huge blow to Northern Ireland’s live music scene, which was one of the few areas of life that had brought young Catholics and Protestants together.

While organisations such as Peace People (who won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize) had tried to bring about change and called for an end to paramilitary violence, the situation was still too volatile. 

The decade ended with the assassination of Royal Family member Lord Louis Mountbatten in August 1979 near Classiebawn Castle at the hands of the IRA, an incident that was major news in Britain and a shock for new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

1981 Hunger Strike

It’s likely that if you have any interest in Northern Ireland’s history or politics, you’ll probably have seen Bobby Sands’ smiling face before. Whether on TV, in photographs or as part of the colourful mural on Belfast’s Falls Road, Sands’ image has become iconic and the hunger strike he was a part of brought international media attention during 1981.  

It started in 1976 when Britain’s withdrawal of Special Category Status (SCS) for political prisoners reduced them to the same category as normal criminals.

It was an attempt by Britain to ‘normalise’ Northern Ireland but political prisoners saw it as a serious threat to the authority which the paramilitary leadership inside the prison had been able to exercise over their own men, as well as being a propaganda blow. 

Various protests against this took place, including a blanket protest and a dirty protest, but things escalated when a number of prisoners decided to go on hunger strike during the spring and summer of 1981. 

It was clear that the British government were not going to change their stance on political prisoners so one by one at staggered intervals (to garner maximum media attention) 10 republican prisoners went on hunger strike, beginning with Sands on March 1st 1981.

Sands eventually died on May 5th and more than 100,000 people lined the route of his funeral. The strike was called off after 10 prisoners died, though little had changed for the prisoners demands during that time and the British press hailed it as a victory and a triumph for Thatcher. 

However, Sands had been elevated to the status of martyr for the republican cause and IRA recruitment saw a significant boost, resulting in a new surge of paramilitary activity.

The 1980s

That new activity saw the IRA once again focusing its attention on the United Kingdom, as Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was becoming a figure of hate for the republican cause. 

July 1982 saw the IRA bomb military ceremonies in London’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, killing four soldiers, seven bandsmen and seven horses. 18 months later, in December 1983, the IRA attacked the famous London department store Harrods using a car bomb, which ended up killing six people.

Perhaps the most high-profile incident of this period came a year later in the British seaside resort town of Brighton in October 1984. With the Conservative Party hosting its annual conference at the Grand Brighton Hotel, IRA member Patrick Magee placed a 100-pound time bomb in the hotel with the hopes of assassinating Thatcher and her cabinet. 

Although Thatcher narrowly escaped the blast, when the bomb exploded in the early hours of the morning, it killed five people connected with the party, including Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, and injured 34 others.

Various incidents continued to take place towards the end of the 1980s (the Enniskillen Remembrance Day Bombing killed 11 people and actions were condemned on all sides) but this time period also saw the rise to prominence of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. 

As the 1990s dawned, there were talks of an end to the violence as the various political parties in North Ireland held secretive talks. However, nobody knew how long it would take. 

Ceasefires and the Peace Process

‘Ceasefire’ was a word bandied about with much frequency during the 1990s in regards to Northern Ireland, whether it was in newspapers or TV news broadcasts. Though violent incidents had taken place throughout the early 1990s on both sides of the conflict, the first ceasefire finally took place in 1994. 

On 31 August 1994, the IRA declared a ceasefire with loyalist paramilitaries reciprocating six weeks later. Though they didn’t last, this marked an end to major political violence and arguably paved the way towards a lasting ceasefire.

The IRA attacked Britain again with bombs in London and Manchester in 1996, with Sinn Féin blaming the failure of the ceasefire on the British Government’s refusal to begin all-party negotiations until the IRA decommissioned its weapons.

The IRA eventually reinstated their ceasefire in July 1997, as negotiations for the document that became known as the Good Friday Agreement began. 

1998 would be a pivotal year in a peace process that had been building for the best part of a decade. 

The Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement

Photos via Shutterstock

The vast majority of the violence in Northern Ireland, and thus, The Troubles, was brought to an end with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998

Agreed and signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam and Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs David Andrews, it was a pivotal moment in Northern Irish history. 

At its heart was the status of Northern Ireland itself. 

The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that while the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom, a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people on the island of Ireland, wished to one day bring about a united Ireland.

And essentially, Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom until a majority of the people both of Northern Ireland and of the Republic of Ireland, wished otherwise. Should that happen, then the British and Irish governments are under a ‘binding obligation’ to implement that choice.

It also put into process plans to open up and demilitarise the border with the Republic of Ireland, as well as the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary groups.

Since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, there have been sporadic moments of unrest, but ultimately it put an end to the long 30 years of The Troubles. 

FAQs about the Northern Ireland Conflict

We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from ‘What happened during the Northern Ireland Conflict?’ to ‘How did The Troubles end?’.

In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.

What was the main cause of the Troubles?

The Troubles were essentially a political and cultural conflict between two communities in Northern Ireland. On one side was a largely-Protestant Unionist and Loyalist group. On the other side was a largely-Catholic Irish Nationalist and Republic group.

When did the Northern Ireland Troubles start and end?

While there was no official ‘start date’, the conflict roughly lasted a 30-year period from the end of the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There were incidents on either side of these dates but, in general terms, those 30 years would be the time scale most people would refer to when discussing The Troubles. 

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David Moran

Thursday 31st of August 2023

thanks much for this, given the new documentary series !

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