The Troubles is the name Irish people give to the violent and conflict filled period of history in Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. While we have now thankfully moved on and reached what has so far been a lasting peace, the legacy of the Troubles lives on and its shadow is still very much felt by the people who lived through those years.
The origins and events of the Troubles are complicated, involving various sectarian groups, diplomatic negotiations, and cultural and societal factors. Most people who have only heard of the Troubles from books, movies or history lessons have some difficulty understanding what happened and why, and some visitors to Ireland have never even heard about it until they get here. Here, we outline the key events of this dark time and look at how Ireland has managed to move past it and achieve peace.
Historical Context of the Troubles
At its most basic level, the Troubles can be thought of as a struggle for identity. Northern Ireland, where the vast majority of the events occurred, was torn between two communities; those who wanted to be a part of Britain and those who wanted to be part of the Republic of Ireland. There is a number of important differences between these two communities that still exist today – the most important one being that the 'loyalists', or pro-British community, were largely of the Protestant faith while the 'republicans' or pro-Irish community were mostly Catholic.
But how did these two communities end up in the one area in the first place, since they were so different? To answer that question, we'll have to rewind all the way back to the year 1609. At this time Gaelic chiefs, descendants from the Celts, ruled throughout Ireland. They had their own language, laws, customs and culture that was entirely separate from Britain, the land across the water. However, due to a series of political events in the previous decade or so, many of the chieftains in the northern part of the island had fled.
Under the rule of King James I, settlers from England and Scotland began arriving in trickles, making lives and taking land for themselves in a few areas around the north. In 1609, the Plantation of Ulster was made official by the government and instead of trickles, settlers began pouring in, claiming the land of the Gaelic chieftains as their own with little or no thought given to the Gaelic natives they were displacing.
The new settlers' position was strengthened by the Penal Laws, which restricted the rights in almost every area of society of anyone who did not conform to the Anglican Church of Ireland (which just so happened to be most of the population that had existed there before the settlers came). The result was two polarised groups - the settlers who were legally claiming a right to the land and the displaced natives who had nowhere else to go. The differing languages, traditions and histories of the two groups widened the gulf between them even further and caused resentment on both sides.
Sporadic conflict was par for the course as the years and decades wore on, but since the settlers were protected by laws and the natives were soon in the minority, little could be done to solve the tension. The restrictions of the Penal Laws were eventually relaxed to a certain extent, giving small amounts of power to the Catholics. This only served to further ignite their resentment, culminating in a rebellion in 1798. The rebel forces were thwarted, and in 1801 the Irish parliament was abolished and Ireland officially became part of Britain with the Act of Union.
For then next century the Irish people struggled to regain their right to rule themselves. It came to a head in 1916 during the Easter Rising, and the Irish War of Independence from 1920 – 1922. In 1920 it seemed that the only option was to 'agree to disagree' – the whole island being part of either Britain or an Irish republic was not a viable option for either community, so the only thing left to do was to partition the island in two. Northern Ireland, since it was more strongly in favour of being a part of Britain, became just that, while the rest of the island became autonomous (although still a part of the United Kingdom). While this dimmed the tensions somewhat, they did not go away completely. The War of Independence had created the Irish Republican Army (IRA), who pledged to gain a fully independent Ireland by any means necessary, including force. The fighting was not going to end any time soon.
The Beginnings of the Troubles
By the 1960s 26 counties of the island of Ireland had been a fully independent Republic for over a decade, while the 6 northern counties remained part of the United Kingdom (although they had their own government). There was still ever mounting tension between the Protestant and Catholic communities however, as well as intimidation from the IRA. Catholics were in a very slight minority, but laws, politics and various other elements favoured Protestants.
Catholics faced discrimination during job interviews, housing allocation, gerrymandering (strategic placing of electoral boundaries to include the most amount of loyalists in a certain jurisdiction), when dealing with the almost 100% Protestant police force (the Royal Ulster Constabulary), and most significantly with the Special Powers Act – allowing police to search without warrants, imprison people without charge or trial, ban assemblies and so on. In response a civil rights movement emerged, largely focused around the city of Derry's Catholic community.
At the same time the loyalist community was moving towards the concept of fighting fire with fire, and formed the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966 as a counter attack to the increasingly aggressive IRA activities. In 1968 the first civil rights march was held. Over the following years more and more of these peaceful protests were held. Soon they were regularly the cause of violence when loyalists attacked the protestors; or if not physically attacking them, they would stage counter protests in order to get the marches banned. When the civil rights activists defied the bans anyway, the RUC would arrive and use force to stop them.
On one such occasion when this occurred in Derry, it resulted in two days of rioting between Catholics and the police force. Known as the Battle of the Bogside, RUC officers used armoured cars, water cannons and eventually fire arms to disperse the rioters – this is largely considered to be the 'real' beginning of the Troubles.
Key Events of the Troubles
From 1969 until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, news stories of killings, bombs, riots and violence in Northern Ireland was an almost daily occurrence. In total over 3,500 people were killed, almost 2,000 of them innocent civilians. Ireland was making headlines all over the world for the atrocities that were occurring.
The Bogside area of Derry was a no-go zone for security forces, with residents blockading all entrances and declaring the area as 'Free Derry'. For every IRA attack the UVF responded, and the police became more and more heavy handed with each death that occurred. The IRA also spread their attacks to the UK and even mainland Europe.
Eventually they split in two; the 'Official IRA', who took a step back as the violence hit its peak and declared a ceasefire in 1972, and the more extreme 'Provisional IRA' who's only aim was to win a 32-county Irish republic by force. The Northern Ireland government was dissolved in 1972 also and Westminster assumed direct rule in an attempt to control the situation.
In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. It gave the Irish government an advisory role in a Northern Ireland government. Both options were unsuccessful and only seemed to spur on the violence. While there are enough significant events to fill an entire book during the years of the Troubles, the following are some of the most often remembered, and also some of the most harrowing events of the story.
Operation Demetrius: Interment began on 9th August 1971 when armed soldiers launched dawn raids all over the North, arresting 342 people. Most of them were Catholics with no proven connections to the IRA or other republican organisations, and many of them were beaten and threatened. It sparked four days of violence in which 24 people were killed and 7,000 people (again mostly Catholics) were forced to flee their homes.
Bloody Sunday: On 30th January 1972 during a peaceful civil rights march in Derry the British Army opened fire on marchers and shot dead 14 unarmed civilians. This was the highest death toll from a single shooting incident during the entirety of the Troubles. Bloody Friday: In July of the same year the Provisional IRA exploded 22 bombs around Belfast city in the space of 75 minutes. 130 people were injured and 8 people killed, including civilians, soldiers and volunteers.
Dublin and Monaghan bombings: In 1974 the Ulster Volunteer Force set off 3 bombs in the Republic of Ireland; three in Dublin and one in Monaghan. The bombs killed 33 civilians wounded a further 300 – the highest number of casualties in a single incident during the Troubles. Allegedly, members of the British security forces gave a helping hand in planning the bombings.
Peace Rallies: In 1976 a Provisional IRA member was shot dead by the British Army while driving his car. After the shot his car spun out of control and killed three children. It started a series of 'Peace Rallies' – the first rallies since the conflict began and the first to see both Protestants and Catholics joined together to campaign for peace. Warrenpoint Ambush: In 1979 the Provisional IRA bombed a British convoy, killing 18 soldiers. In the crossfire one civilian also died. On the same day they also bombed a boat off the coast of county Sligo, which happened to have the Queen's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten on board.
Hunger Strikers: In March 1981 a number of inmates in the Maze prison went on hunger strike to protest against the ending of Special Category status (essentially Prisoner of War status, meaning the inmates did not have to wear uniforms and were permitted to have extra visits, etc.). After 66 days one prisoner, Bobby Sands, died. Nine more would die in the next 3 months before the hunger strike came to an end.
Omagh: In 1998, the same year a tentative peace was finally achieved, a new faction of the IRA known as the Real IRA exploded a bomb in Omagh, county Tyrone. 29 civilians died from the impact. It was the worst single bombing of the Troubles, made all the worse by the fact that peace agreement had been signed just four months earlier.
Peace in Northern Ireland
By the early 1990s both sides were sick of violence, and had finally realised that it would not bring about any resolution one way or another. Political leaders from both sides began to meet with one another for the first time, and the first steps towards peace talks were taken.
In 1994 the Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire and the following year the United States sent over their Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, George Mitchell, with the aim of helping both sides reach a disarmament agreement. The initial ceasefire was revoked in 1996 and the IRA bombed Canary Wharf in London and Manchester city. It was reinstated in 1997 however, and peace talks began in earnest.
In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was reached. Army forces were withdrawn, a power sharing government was set up, and for the first time since the 1960s the violence finally declined. The North spent the next decade dealing with the trauma from the events, both physical, economical and emotional. Thankfully the peace has lasted and both communities have learned to leave peacefully alongside one another, with a few occasional exceptions.
Northern Ireland is now thriving and receives waves of visitors every year, who come to learn about its turbulent history as well as enjoy its vibrant culture and sense of energy and rejuvenation. Although the peace process is still an ongoing effort today, it is now clear to everyone that things will only get better and the atrocities of the past will never be repeated.