Troubles in Northern Ireland: A Seemingly Never-Ending Conflict

The latter half of the 20th century in Northern Ireland was a time of sectarian violence and religious animosity known as The Troubles.

Jun 10, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
northern ireland never ending conflicts belfast mural
Much of The Troubles in Northern Ireland was captured in striking murals that still adorn many buildings in and around Belfast.


For three decades, the people of Northern Ireland navigated their way through their lives while under the threat of guns and bombs all around them that could change their lives at any moment, taking away loved ones, causing grievous injuries, or death.


From the 1960s to the late 1990s, The Troubles gripped the region. Paramilitaries labeled as terrorists by one side and freedom fighters by the other fought for control and pulled Northern Ireland down into a state of permanent low-level conflict that, on occasion, spilled over into the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.


For many, it seemed The Troubles would last forever.


Background for The Troubles

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A map of Ireland showing the separation of Ireland into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, via Maps World


The Troubles were the end result of centuries of oppressive rule over Ireland by England and, later, the United Kingdom. Resentment on both sides was fuelled by the fact that the Irish were predominantly Catholic, while the English were predominantly Protestant.


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Years of violent uprisings and rebellions eventually led to the United Kingdom granting Ireland independence in 1921, but not without the UK holding on to Northern Ireland, which was predominantly Protestant. While the Republic of Ireland remained fully independent, Northern Ireland was completely under British rule.


In the decades that followed, Catholics in Northern Ireland were discriminated against, and two factions began to emerge. On one side were the Catholic “republicans,” who largely wanted a dissolution of the British-controlled state of Northern Ireland and to have it fully integrated into the Republic of Ireland, while the Protestant “loyalists or unionists” fought for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.


Peaceful Protests Turn Violent

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An injured protestor being led away after the violent clash on Duke Street, Derry, in 1968, via Irish Times


The discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland was clear. Protestants enjoyed preferential treatment when applying for jobs, and Catholic-majority areas were gerrymandered so that they ended up under unionist/loyalist (pro-British) control. Housing policies were drawn up as well that clearly separated Catholics and Protestants.


Inspired by the peaceful marches of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Catholic republicans marched and protested against the discrimination that was happening to them. On October 5, 1968, the protests turned violent. A banned march went ahead and was met by police who charged the protestors, using excessive force, and beating the protestors with batons. The Troubles are considered to have officially begun on Duke Street in Derry (Londonderry) on October 5, 1968.


The following year at Burntollet Bridge, a protest march was met by police who stood by and did nothing as protestors were ambushed by a group of 300 loyalists who pelted them with rocks.


Later that year, a loyalist march was planned to take them past a predominantly Catholic part of Derry called “Bogside.” Seeing this as a provocation, the Catholics set up barricades and prepared Molotov cocktails. For three days, “The Battle of Bogside” raged as rioting gripped the streets of Derry. The unrest spread to other parts of Northern Ireland, and in Belfast, loyalists burnt down 1,500 homes belonging to Catholics.


The police lost all control, and the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland asked the British government to deploy troops in Northern Ireland to regain control. This was the beginning of three decades of British soldiers deployed all over Northern Ireland. The rioting died down, but the passion and rage of the sectarian groups continued, and it would boil over again. The Troubles were just beginning.


Bloody Sunday

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“Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, via the New York Times


On January 30, 1972, Catholics in Derry marched to oppose an “internment without trial” law, which resulted in hundreds of Irish Republican Army (IRA) suspects to be rounded up and held without due process. Very few of those detained were actually members of the IRA, but many of them became radicalized as a result of their mistreatment. The military deployed to deal with the protestors who refused to disperse. Rubber bullets and then live rounds were used.


Thirteen people were killed and 17 wounded in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”  The rest of the year would see violence and death skyrocket as many would be drawn to the cause of the IRA and the “Provisional” IRA, which split from the IRA in 1969 over ideologies on how to deal with Irish independence. The “Provos” proved to be more militant in their outlook and became the dominant paramilitary group fighting against the loyalist militias.


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A standoff between police and protestors on Bloody Sunday, via the New York Times


In 1972 alone, the Provisional IRA carried out 1,300 bombings, mainly against commercial targets. Those unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time often paid with their lives. It wasn’t, however. Just the Provisional IRA carrying out bombings. The Official IRA (OIRA) did so, too, with many innocent lives being lost in poorly planned operations. Loyalist paramilitaries responded in kind. In all, the conflict in Northern Ireland claimed the lives of 480 people in 1972, 100 of whom were British soldiers. Having largely failed to destroy their intended targets and having killed innocent people with whom they actually sympathized, the OIRA suspended its bombing campaign in May 1972.


Throughout the 1970s, The Troubles got much worse as paramilitary groups on both sides grew in size and scale of their operations. Notable loyalist paramilitary groups included the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). “Ulster” is the name of the Irish province that encompasses all of Northern Ireland, and it was and still is used to describe loyalists/unionists.


Attempt at a Compromise

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A British soldier taking cover in a garden while a woman goes about her daily business, from Philip Jones Griffiths | Magnum Photos, via


In 1973, the British government attempted to end The Troubles and formed the Northern Ireland Assembly. Unionists and republicans were voted into this parliament. The British government also negotiated with Ireland the Sunningdale Agreement, which proposed a power-sharing aspect to rule in Northern Ireland.


The Sunningdale Agreement was violently opposed by unionists, and a wave of strikes brought the agreement to an end, and to show their indignation for what they saw as a move that brought them dangerously close to being ruled by Ireland, unionists detonated bombs in the center of Dublin and the town of Monaghan, killing 33 people and wounding hundreds more. The Troubles were set to continue for many more years.


Escalation of the Conflict Throughout the ‘70s & the Death of Mountbatten

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A member of the IRA in the early 1970s, via Rare Historical Photos


Throughout the decades that followed, The Troubles continued. The paramilitaries, outlawed in Britain and Ireland, continued their assault on the populace of Northern Ireland and occasionally targeted the people in England. In 1974, the Provisional IRA detonated bombs in Birmingham and Yorkshire, killing dozens of English people.


Meanwhile, back in Northern Ireland, sectarian violence focused on causing as much chaos and terror as possible. Not only did unionist and republican paramilitaries compete against each other, but there was also infighting between paramilitaries on the same side. Most victims were just civilians going about their daily business who were chosen to die based on whether they were Protestant or Catholic.


In July 1975, the Miami Showband, a famous Irish cabaret band, was returning to Dublin after a gig in Northern Ireland. They were ambushed by the UVF. Three of the band members were shot dead. Two were Catholic, and one was Protestant.


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The Washington Post on Lord Mountbatten’s death, via The Washington Post


Prominent members of society were also targeted. In 1979, while on board his yacht, the famed Lord Mountbatten was assassinated by a bomb blast that also claimed the lives of other people on the boat, including two children. The outpouring of grief and support for Britain’s loss highlighted glaring hypocrisy.


Long associated with the IRA, the Irish republican party Sinn Fein’s leader Gerry Adams stated,


“The IRA gave clear reasons for the execution. I think it is unfortunate that anyone has to be killed, but the furor created by Mountbatten’s death showed up the hypocritical attitude of the media establishment. As a member of the House of Lords, Mountbatten was an emotional figure in both British and Irish politics. What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people; and with his war record I don’t think he could have objected to dying in what was clearly a war situation. He knew the danger involved in coming to this country. In my opinion, the IRA achieved its objective: people started paying attention to what was happening in Ireland.”


The War Continues

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British soldiers on the streets of Belfast, 1992, via National Army Museum, London


The violence of The Troubles was not without opposition. Movements promoting peace sprung up and tried to gain traction. The Peace People, founded in the 1970s, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about change.


The war, however, continued. Paramilitaries were supported and armed by the Irish diaspora, while the Libyan government openly armed the IRA, and the South African government provided arms to the loyalist paramilitaries.


The bombings and attacks continued throughout the 80s in a tit-for-tat fashion, claiming the lives of hundreds of people and injuring thousands more, scarring Northern Ireland with deep trauma. Political prisoners also used hunger strikes as a form of protest.


In the early 90s, the conflict took on a new aspect in South Armagh as republican paramilitaries developed the means to expand their military capabilities. Several British army helicopters were shot out of the sky.


High-profile assassinations were also attempted. In 1984, a bombing attack left five people dead in a failed attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In 1991, a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street failed to assassinate the subsequent British Prime Minister, John Major.


Attempts at Peace & an End to The Troubles

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The front page of The Independent after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, via the British Library


Throughout the 90s, attempts were made to bring about an end to The Troubles. Paramilitaries and political parties announced ceasefires and tried to sit down together and discuss ways through the conflict.


In 1998, after several ceasefires and attempts to reach an agreement, the people of Northern Ireland voted in a referendum on whether to accept a power-sharing deal known as the Good Friday Agreement. The deal was accepted with 71.1% of the vote, which saw political prisoners released and a demilitarization of Northern Ireland.


Although sporadic bombings continued until 2001, the Good Friday Agreement, for the most part, has brought about a peace that has lasted for over two decades.


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Although times are far more peaceful now, the unresolved causes of The Troubles still exist, from DW/M. Hallam, via Deutsche Welle


The Troubles were a time in Northern Ireland that tore communities and families apart along ideological, political, and religious lines. Thousands met their end, while tens of thousands ended up with injuries to remind them of the misery of the conflict.


Diplomacy, however, gave Northern Ireland a chance to move past the violence and allowed people on both sides of the divide to collaborate and treat each other with respect as equals and as human beings.


Issues and emotions, however, persist, but they are dealt with in ways that are far more peaceful than those of the past.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.