The Troubles

Unionists in the Northern counties firmly resisted Irish Home Rule during 1912-1916. Protestants were concerned their religious freedoms would be restricted under a Catholic Free State, and unionists enjoyed economic prosperity as part of Great Britain. Many Catholics who lived in the North, however, desired a united Ireland and independence from Britain.

Northern Ireland was partitioned in 1921 by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Northern Ireland had the option to remain part of Great Britain under the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. On December 7, 1922, the Houses of the Parliament of Northern Ireland resolved to opt out of the Irish Free State. Northern Ireland comprises the counties of: Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry (or Derry), and Tyrone. Its capital and largest city is Belfast.

Between 1968 and 1994, over 3,600 people died and over 30,000 were injured. Fighting, bombings, assassinations, harassment, and terror tactics defined nearly three decades of violent ethno-politico-religious conflict between the (Irish, typically Catholic) nationalist minority in Northern Ireland and the (British, typically Protestant) unionists.

Long-held prejudices were reinforced by segregation of the Catholic and Protestant populations. Discrimination against the Catholic population in Northern Ireland extended to disenfranchisement, availability of social services, unemployment, and educational opportunities. Civil rights campaigns began in the late 1960s. Sectarian violence erupted at marches and on the streets. The Irish Republican Army (not to be confused with the IRA of the War for Independence, referred to as the “old” or Provisional IRA) was the main republican paramilitary group that attacked the Northern Irish and British forces. The IRA especially attracted young men and women who saw little hope of progress in Northern Ireland; its goals were to end British rule and reunify Ireland. The IRA also campaigned for prison reform with hunger strikes in the late 1970s-early 1980s, the most famous being Bobby Sands’s strike in 1981. Elected a Member of Parliament during his internment, Sands’s death made him a martyr for the IRA and republican cause.  Two major events in the civil rights campaign during The Troubles were the Derry March in 1968 and Bloody Sunday 1972, when British soldiers fired into a crowd of protesters.

The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was revitalized in the 1960s. IRA bombings became a daily occurrence. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) formed from several paramilitary groups, using the name Ulster Freedom Fighters to claim responsibility for killing Catholics. The Loyalist paramilitary groups justified assassination of Catholics and targeting of Catholic pubs by claiming direct involvement with the IRA; these claims were frequently unsubstantiated.

The peace process began in the early 1990s when the IRA and British Army agreed that the war could not be won militarily; legal and social infrastructures were developed to assist and support Catholics; and international assistance came from the United States and South Africa. Ceasefires were declared in 1994.

The Troubles “officially” ended with the Belfast Agreement (also called the Good Friday Agreement) of 1998 with the Republic of Ireland constitutionally releasing its territorial claim to Northern Ireland and a government that shared power among unionists and nationalists.