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The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101: Northern Ireland in Flames, 1969-1979


The Troubles in Northern Ireland represented 30 years of complex intercommunal, paramilitary and state violence that claimed the lives of thousands and saw entire generations born or raised into conflict. Yet many struggle to understand how and why such a conflict could occur so recently in such a small corner of Western Europe. This 101 series will give a broad overview of the origins and history of the Troubles, the conflicting ethno-national identities that fuelled them, and an analysis of the peace process that brought the violence to an end and what that means for Northern Ireland today.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101 is divided into seven different chapters:

  1. The Troubles 101: Origins and History

  2. The Troubles 101: Nationalism and Republicanism - "800 Years of Occupation"

  3. The Troubles 101: Unionism and Loyalism - "No Surrender"

  4. The Troubles 101: Northern Ireland in Flames, 1969 – 1979

  5. The Troubles 101: The Long Road to Peace

  6. The Troubles 101: The Good Friday Agreement

  7. The Troubles 101: Northern Ireland After Good Friday - An End to the Troubles?

The chapter will overview the main events and trajectory of the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969-1979, with this period witnessing the rapid descent of the conflict into one of open civil war and representing the most intense and bloody years of the thirty-year conflict. This analysis will be split into three broad periods. The first one, from 1969-1970, saw an explosion of intercommunal violence, the deployment of the British Army and the subsequent deterioration in relations with Catholic Nationalists. This paved the way for the second period from 1971-1972, representing the rapid escalation of the conflict into one of open civil war, with 1972 the bloodiest year of the Troubles. The third period, from 1973-1979, witnessed the failure of attempts to find a political solution to the conflict, meanwhile the violence took a darker and more brutally sectarian turn. This decade of violence eventually petered out as all of the factions began to settle in for a long conflict, with the war weary people of Northern Ireland bedded in for a new normal. In examining such timeframe and the competing interests within it, it will be shown how events were able to snowball into uncontrollable violence and the complete breakdown of order, and how this train, once in motion, was difficult to stop. The article will further illustrate the difficulty in trying to find peaceful solutions to the violence and help understand how the ground was set for thirty years of conflict. Finally, it will also explain the shifting dynamics and different battlegrounds that contributed to the complexity, brutality and lasting animosity generated by the spiralling situation.

Figure 1: De Torout, B. (Cerca 1970). Northern Ireland endured 30 years of violence over British rule until a peace deal in 1998. [Photograph]. AFP.

Battlelines Drawn: Deterioration and Intercommunal Violence in 1969-1970

As noted in the first instalment, intercommunal tensions had been fast rising throughout 1968 and 1969, as the growing Catholic Civil Rights movement was met by violent RUC policing and Loyalist counterdemonstrations. Loyalist paramilitary bombings had started in March 1969, attempting to destabilise the moderate Unionist leader Terrance O´Neil's government, and the first violent deaths occurred in July starting with a Catholic beaten over the head by the RUC (Sutton, 2017). However, it was a loyalist parade by the Apprentice Boys in Catholic-majority Derry on 12th August 1969 that is widely regarded as the start of the Troubles (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). As the Apprentice Boys under RUC escort marched past the Catholic Bogside estate, Loyalist marchers and Nationalist locals began exchanging missiles. This rapidly escalated as the RUC violently dispersed the Nationalists and destroyed their barricades allowing Loyalists to move into the Bogside attacking homes (Ibid.). Nationalist locals forming the Derry Citizen´s Defence Association (DCDA) responded in force with petrol bombs, with the RUC deploying CS gas for the first time in British policing history (Ibid.). The three days of intense violence that followed became known as the Battle of the Bogside.

This proved the spark that ignited Northern Ireland. In support of the Bogside residents, Nationalists held demonstrations across Northern Irish towns and cities on 13th August, which soon devolved into widespread intercommunal rioting, including shootings by Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries (Ibid.). By 17th August, 157 people had suffered gunshot wounds inflicted by the RUC and paramilitaries, 8 of whom died, with thousands more injured (Bosi, 2012). The clashes were particularly violent in Belfast, where 150 homes and 275 businesses were burned to the ground, 83% of them Catholic-owned, with barricades springing up around the city to mark out Nationalist and Loyalist communities (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). The Troubles had just begun in spectacular and explosive fashion. By September, over 1,820 families had been burned out or forced from their homes in Belfast, with some 1,505 (82%) of them Catholic, representing 5.3% of all Catholic households in the city, and the remaining 315 Protestant (Ibid.). This forced mass movement of people cemented the physical segregation of Nationalist and Loyalist communities, with refugee camps established in the Republic of Ireland.

Figure 2: Popperfoto (1969). British soldiers armed with machine guns keeping watch in the Falls Road during rioting, August 1969 [Photograph]. Getty Images.

On 14th August, just days after this explosion of sectarian violence, the British Army had been deployed to restore order, with the Protestant-dominated RUC proving incapable of stopping the orgy of violence, if not actively contributing to it (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). The British Army was initially welcomed by most Nationalists who saw it as a protection from Loyalist mobs and the RUC (Ibid.). Nevertheless, committed Republicans considered the Army as an occupying force from the outset and were disdainful of this positive Nationalist sentiment as a “pathetic love relationship”, with some IRA members already drawing up plans for an armed campaign (Ibid., p.135). This was a difficult tightrope for the Army to walk, as its stated aim of neutral policing had the ultimate goal of preventing the complete destabilisation and collapse of the Unionist Northern Irish state, against which the Nationalists were opposed. Within weeks the challenges of policing such an unfamiliar sectarian environment had caused tensions between Nationalists and the Army, especially amongst Catholic youths, who soon found their freedoms curtailed by curfews, with Army responses to frequent bouts of rioting seen as heavy-handed (Ibid.). After the Army in November 1969 put down Nationalist rioting sparked by Stormont’s decision to prosecute the prominent Catholic Civil Rights activist Bernadette Devlin, the view was reinforced amongst many Nationalists that the Army was not neutral at all, but simply another security arm enforcing Unionist-Stormont rule (Ibid.). The rotation of Army regiments at the end of the year, bringing in fresh soldiers who had not enjoyed the earlier positive interactions with Nationalists and viewed the community as hostile, exasperated the breakdown of relations (Ibid.).

Simultaneously, to address the problem of policing, the British government released the Hunt Report in October 1969 (HMSO, 1969) which aimed to reform the woefully inadequate RUC. The recommendations included disarming the RUC and withdrawing them from all militarised policing duties, the disbandment of the Loyalist-dominated B-Specials militia, and the establishment of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) consisting of Northern Irish recruits in the hopes of establishing a cross-community security force for militarized policing duties (Ibid.). Loyalist communities, who already viewed the Army as too soft on Nationalists, and feared the unchecked growth of the IRA, were fiercely opposed to these recommendations (Ibid.). This sparked intense Loyalist rioting on 11th October that saw the first RUC casualty of the Troubles, killed by the Loyalist UVF, and the first deaths at the hands of the Army as two Protestants were killed (Sutton, 2017). Thus, the end of 1969 saw periodic outbreaks of sectarian violence, the RUC thoroughly discredited, and the British Army increasingly taking on day-to-day policing duties.

Figure 3: Jackson, J. (1969). British soldiers stop a man trying to carry his baby through a barbed-wire barricade on the Falls Road area of Belfast [Photograph]. Getty Images.

The events of 1969 had stung the IRA, which was accused of failing to defend Nationalist communities from Loyalist violence, earning them the moniker “I Ran Away” (Ibid.). The IRA split in December 1969, into the PIRA “Provos” and OIRA “Stickies”, led to competition to gain support from Nationalist communities (Bosi, 2012). The PIRA especially hoped to draw the Army into targeting Nationalist districts to further alienate Catholics and galvanise support for armed Republicanism (Ibid.). Yet the Army was soon galvanising Nationalist opposition by itself, by assuming the RUC's prior role of escorting Orange Order marches past Nationalist communities (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). The Army´s heavy-handed policing of one such parade on 31st March 1970 in Belfast sparked three days of intense Nationalist rioting against the Army and was widely seen to end any honeymoon period that may once have existed between the Army and Nationalists (Ibid.). By 3rd April British Army General Ian Freeland had publicly announced a new “Get Tough” policy, including a warning that petrol bombers could be shot dead.

By the summer of 1970, the PIRA was actively provoking street riots to try and damage relations with the Army, with RUC officers also increasingly coming under attack (Bosi, 2012). The British Army in turn made good on its ´get tough´ policy on 3rd July 1970, when it entered the staunchly Nationalist and increasingly Republican Falls Road area of Belfast following gun attacks on the RUC. The resulting 36-hour curfew saw the Army make house-to-house raids in search of IRA weaponry, arrest 300 people, use CS gas extensively, shoot four civilians dead, and engage in extensive gun battles with both the OIRA and PIRA – with the curfew only broken by a Nationalist women’s march breaching Army barriers (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). The last vestiges of goodwill were well and truly over. The IRA until that point had mainly composed of people from traditional Republican families, some of whom could trace back multiple generations of IRA membership. However, recruitment and support now began to grow amongst young Nationalists who did not necessarily subscribe to traditional Republican beliefs but were increasingly disaffected by these oppressive policing measures (Bosi, 2012).

Figure 4: Unknown (1070). British troops enforcing a curfew, take up defensive positions on Falls Road, 4th July 1970 [Photograph]. The Telegraph.

As Nationalist attitudes hardened, so too did Unionist ones as their fears of growing Nationalist violence and the threat to the Northern Irish state seemed confirmed. Hard-line Loyalist Reverend Ian Paisley won the seat of moderate UUP leader Terrance O´Neil in the May 1970 Stormont elections, and the UUP lost further seats to hard-line Unionists in the June 1970 UK General election (Evans & Duffy, 1997). The formation of the Alliance Party in April 1970 to represent moderate non-sectarian Unionism, and the SDLP in August 1970 to represent moderate and non-violent Nationalism, sought to counter this growing polarisation and violence (Campbell, 2013). Yet, it was clear that the violence was only getting worse, with an increasing number of deaths through paramilitary and Army activity (Sutton, 2017). By October 1970 the PIRA began its offensive armed strategy, with 153 bomb attacks on Unionist businesses by the end of the year (Bosi, 2012). The Army by this stage had switched its tactics from policing to one of open Counterinsurgency with the IRA as the main target (O´Dochartaigh, 1997). Meanwhile, it was working-class Nationalist communities that bore the brunt of these Army actions, reinforcing their view of the Army as a hostile occupying force (Hearty, 2017).

As has been demonstrated, intercommunal violence fed mutual fear and animosity, particularly in the poorest and most polarised urban districts of Belfast. This shattered the ability of the Unionist-dominated Stormont to govern or maintain security, with the Protestant-dominated RUC exposed as unable to police. The subsequent deployment of the British Army, although necessary in initially quelling the violence, soon began to backfire as its increasingly aggressive attitude fed into Nationalist resentments. This allowed armed Republicanism, which had previously been marginalised, to take root amongst a new generation, with the Provisional IRA in particular seeking to benefit from further destabilisation. Simultaneously, Loyalist violence and instinctive opposition to all forms of compromise helped prevent policing measures that may have healed some of this animosity. The conflict by the end of 1970 was beginning to resemble more of a civil war than one of intercommunal strife, with security fast deteriorating, politics increasingly polarised, and communal attitudes ossifying. Yet considering the intensity of violence in 1969 and 1970 it is perhaps surprising that only 42 people had died by this point of the Troubles (Sutton, 2017). Instead, the bloodiest years of the Troubles were just around the corner, with the violence in Northern Ireland soon to reach shocking proportions.

Figure 5: McCullin, D., (1971). British soldiers charging Catholic youths in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1971 [Photograph]. Contact Press Images.

Northern Ireland in Flames: 1971-1972

The conflict at the beginning of 1971 continued much as it had at the end of 1970, with the IRA stepping up its offensive campaign. February 6th saw the first British soldier shot dead on active duty by the PIRA, with the first killings of off-duty British soldiers to follow on March 9th, after three Scottish soldiers were lured unsuspectingly from a Belfast pub and executed, shocking many in Britain and leading to Unionist demands for a policy of interning IRA suspects (Bosi, 2012). Simultaneously, violent feuding between PIRA and OIRA began to claim an increasing number of lives (Ibid.). This pattern of steady violence continued through the year, with even the moderate SDLP withdrawing from the Unionist-dominated Stormont in July, following the shooting of two Catholic civilians in Derry, reinforcing Nationalist feelings of political impotence (White, 1989).

However, it was with the August 1971 introduction of internment, in which suspected paramilitary members could be arrested and detained without trial, that the Troubles truly exploded, beginning with British Army Operation Demetrius on 9th August 1971 in which 342 people were interned (Bosi, 2012). The IRA's prior knowledge of the operation, coupled with poor Army intelligence, meant the majority of those detained had no paramilitary links (White, 1989). Furthermore, despite Loyalist paramilitary violence, no Loyalists were included in the arrests, emphasising the biased nature of the operation. Meanwhile, Loyalists were nevertheless convinced of widespread support for the IRA amongst Nationalists (Ibid.). Four days of intense sectarian, paramilitary and Army violence followed in which 20 civilians, 2 IRA members and 2 soldiers were killed (Sutton, 2017). Of these 20 civilians, 17 were killed by the Army, 11 of which were killed by the British Army Parachute Regiment´s 1st Battalion in Belfast´s Ballymurphy housing estate. Amid the surging violence, 7,000 people were forced from their homes in renewed sectarian house burnings, including 2,500 Catholics fleeing to refugee camps in Ireland, with Protestants fleeing Northern Belfast burning their own houses as they fled to deny them to Catholics (CAIN, 2017).

Figure 6: Lipchitz, M. (1972). Local children taunt a British soldier as he stands guard in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on April 13, 1972, after an explosion in the city center [Photograph]. Associated Press.

The policy of internment was disastrous. In openly criminalising Nationalists and confirming their resentment against British oppression, it acted as the perfect PIRA recruitment tool (Bosi, 2012). Detainees, the majority of whom had no prior paramilitary involvement, were dragged from their homes, imprisoned, and abused in interrogation sessions, with prisons quickly becoming hotbeds of IRA recruitment (Ibid.). IRA membership surged to unprecedented levels and completely changed the complexion of the conflict: by the end of 1971, the number of PIRA members in Belfast alone had grown to 1,200, from an initial membership of 50 at the start of 1970 (Ibid.) By the time internment policy was ended in December 1975, 1,981 people had been interned, 1,874 of whom were Nationalists, with just 107 Loyalists. The SDLP mobilised non-violent opposition in the form of a rent strike, but it became increasingly difficult to persuade young Nationalists against violence (White, 1989). Paramilitary violence exploded, with the PIRA publicly announcing in October that it was moving onto the Third Phase of its armed campaign, in the form of all-out resistance (Bosi, 2012).

Barricades were quickly re-established throughout Republican communities which became “No-Go” areas for the British Army and RUC, behind which paramilitaries maintained open control. Meanwhile, Loyalist fears of Republican violence seemed confirmed, with the Ulster Defence Association established in September 1971 to become the largest Loyalist paramilitary organisation (Sutton, 2017). When a PIRA bomb targeting a neighbouring RUC station went off in the Loyalist Red Lion pub, killing three Protestant civilians on 2nd November 1971, the UVF retaliated with the bombing of the Catholic McGurk´s Bar on 4th December, killing 15 Catholic civilians (Ibid.). This started off a pattern of sectarian tit-for-tat bombings, with an IRA bombing of a furniture showroom on the Loyalist Shankill Road on 11th December killing 4 Protestant civilians.

Figure 7:Unknown (1971). Devastation at a bomb damaged police station in Chichester Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland in November 1971, in which a police inspector died [Photograph]. Flashback.

The violence was spinning out of control going into 1972, making this the bloodiest year of the Troubles. It started with one of the most notorious and shocking incidents of the entire conflict on 30th January in Derry, when an unarmed and mostly peaceful 10,000-strong demonstration by NICRA against internment was fired upon by the Army Parachute Regiment´s 1st Battalion, the same unit responsible for the Ballymurphy killings months earlier (White, 1989). Within ten minutes of opening fire, 26 unarmed civilians had been shot, 14 of them fatally, including many in the back whilst trying to flee (Ibid.). “Bloody Sunday”, as it became known, shocked the world, with the British Embassy in Dublin burned to the ground by Irish protestors on 2nd February. Nationalist hostility to the Army escalated to unprecedented levels, with Bloody Sunday seemingly confirming peaceful resistance as futile (Bosi, 2012). The PIRA armed campaign went into overdrive with open guerrilla warfare waged against the Army, and the detonation of 1,300 bombs (White, 1989). The PIRA campaign in 1972 killed over 100 soldiers and wounded another 500 (Sutton, 2017).

The OIRA, trying to maintain relevancy, launched several unsuccessful attacks, including a March bombing in England that killed six civilians and a Catholic Army chaplain (Bosi, 2012). These unpopular attacks caused the OIRA to declare a permanent ceasefire on 30th May 1972, leaving the PIRA as the last big Republican faction committed to armed violence (Sutton, 2017). Such was the deteriorating security situation, Stormont was suspended by the British government on 30th March 1972, introducing direct Westminster rule over Northern Ireland for the first time since partition. The British Army even negotiated a short-lived ceasefire with the PIRA, in exchange for bestowing "Special Category Status" on paramilitary prisoners, which afforded them the status of political prisoners with special privileges, such as not having to wear prison uniforms and being housed with prisoners from the same paramilitary faction (White, 1989). “Bloody Friday” on 21st July, in which PIRA detonated 22 bombs in Belfast killing nine people, led to the largest British military operation since the 1956 Suez Crisis, with 22,000 soldiers mobilised to retake Republican “No-Go” areas on 31st July. Northern Ireland was in a state of open civil war, with 476 people killed in 1972 including 250 civilians (Sutton, 2017).

Figure 8: Unknown (1972). An injured protester is carried away during the Bloody Sunday disturbances [Photograph]. Daily Mail/Rex.

As can be seen, the steadily increasing violence in 1971 convinced the British Army of the need to take ever stronger measures, moving away from a policing role to one of Counter Insurgency. This culminated in the disastrous enforcement of the new policy of internment without trial. Contrary to preventing violence, this led to an explosion of support for armed Republicanism and paved the way for the PIRAs planned offensive campaign, whilst simultaneously fuelling ever more deadly sectarian animosity and violence. Bloody Sunday in 1972 saw the final belief amongst Nationalists that anything substantial could be achieved through peaceful protest literally shot dead, leading to the uncontrollable escalation of armed violence in the bloodiest year of the entire thirty-year conflict.

Sunningdale Failure, Sectarian Brutality and Grinding Stalemate: 1973-1979

Although the Troubles would never again see a year as bloody as 1972, a pattern of sustained, circular, and increasingly brutal violence had been established going into 1973. In March 1973 the British Government, desperate for a political settlement to the seemingly uncontrollable situation, drew plans for a new 78-member Northern Irish Assembly to replace Stormont. This was to be elected by Proportional Representation in the hopes of countering Stormont-style Unionist domination, in conjunction with a cross-community Power-Sharing Executive (Connolly & Doyle, 2018). Furthermore, a Council of Ireland was to be established, incorporating the executive of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to act as an advisory body. In return, the Republic of Ireland, which had the pursuit of a United Ireland built into its constitution, agreed that such an outcome could only be achieved with the consent of the majority of Northern Ireland – whilst the British government agreed it would not try to stop a United Ireland against the Northern Irish majorities wishes (Ibid.).

Figure 9: Unknown (1974). Ian Paisley during the 1974 loyalist strike [Photograph]. Belfast Telegraph.

On 28th June 1973, amid the backdrop of violence, elections were held for this new Northern Irish Assembly. The UUP, the SDLP and the Alliance Party all officially supported this new settlement, and these parties won a clear majority of seats in the election (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there was fierce opposition to this within the UUP and wider Unionist community, and especially amongst Loyalists. They feared the Council of Ireland would give the Republic of Ireland a significant role in Northern Irish affairs without Unionist consent, and thus be one step from the imposition of a United Ireland. Furthermore, such concessions to the Nationalist community out of desperation to end PIRA violence would also be an unconscionable legitimisation of armed Republicanism, that would only pave the way for more PIRA violence (Ibid.). This demonstrated the fundamental split within the Unionist community between moderates seeking working solutions to end the violence including concessions to Nationalists, and hardline Unionists who perceived a higher vulnerability of their own position within Ireland, particularly in regards to Republican violence, and hence maintained a more uncompromising outlook (Ibid.). Furthermore, in amongst the bitterness of the preceding years towards the British state, the majority of the Nationalist community did not participate in the election, and Sinn Fein was excluded completely with no attempt to invite in this face of Republicanism, with PIRA continuing its armed campaign throughout (Ibid.)

Clearly then, the foundations of this agreement were shaky. Nevertheless, negotiations began to hammer out a power-sharing agreement – resulting in the signing of the Sunningdale Agreement on 9th December 1973. The day after the Agreement, Loyalist paramilitaries formed a coalition under the umbrella of the Ulster Army Council. In January 1974, the UUP withdrew from the Agreement, with pro-Sunningdale UUP leader Brian Faulkner replaced (Ibid.). Meanwhile, Ian Paisley´s Loyalist DUP party led a coalition of anti-Agreement parties called the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), to stand a single anti-Sunningdale candidate in each constituency for the February 1974 UK General Election, whilst the pro-Sunningdale candidates continued to compete with each other (Ibid.). The UUUC took 11 out of 12 Northern Irish seats, declaring this an overwhelming democratic mandate against the Agreement. The Agreement finally collapsed when the Ulster Workers Council led a general Unionist strike, which lasted for two weeks from 15th to the 28th May 1974, with direct rule reimposed (Ibid.).

Figure 10: AP Photo (1974). British troops prepare to move an overturned and wrecked car, used as a barricade in Newtownwards Road in Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland in May 1974, during the strike called by members of the Ulster Workers Council [Photograph]. Associated Press.

The failure of the Sunningdale Agreement signalled the loss of hope of any quick political solution to the Troubles, and people settled themselves in for a long and grinding conflict. Throughout this time, the violence rumbled on in a bloody stalemate, with 253 people killed in 1973, and a further 294 dead in 1974 (Sutton, 2017). In 1973, the violence further extended as the PIRA bombing campaign began in England, the deadliest of which was the 21st November 1974 bombing of two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 civilians (Ibid.). Simultaneously, Loyalists escalated their bombing campaign in the Republic of Ireland, with a 17th May 1974 UVF bombing in Dublin and Monaghan the deadliest single attack of the Troubles, killing 33 civilians (Ibid.). Furthermore, the number of paramilitary organisations expanded in November 1974, as INLA split from OIRA, in opposition to the OIRA ceasefire. New Loyalist groups also emerged in 1975, including the “Shankill Butchers”, the Glenanne Gang, and the Red Hand Commando – some of whom were serving police officers or soldiers. Competition between competing Republican and Loyalist groups led to increasingly violent internecine feuds throughout 1975 and 1976.

Simultaneously, the Troubles took an even darker turn, as openly sectarian tit-for-tat massacres hit new levels of senseless brutality, beginning with the Loyalist slaying of the popular Irish music group “The Miami Showband” in July 1975 (Sutton, 2017). Bomb, gun, knife, and grenade attacks, kidnappings, and torture by competing paramilitaries on random Catholic and Protestant civilians on the streets, in pubs and in their own homes began in earnest throughout 1975 and 1976 (Moore & Sanders, 2002). The emerging Loyalist groups targeted almost exclusively Catholic civilians, seeing it as a legitimate response to Republican attacks on police, army or Protestant civilians, and in the hopes of terrorising the Catholic population out of supporting further PIRA actions (Ibid.). Meanwhile, the Kingsmill Massacre in January 1976, in which 11 Protestant civilian factory workers on their way home were lined up and shot by the PIRA, whilst their Catholic workmate was allowed to leave, encapsulated the unrelenting and ruthless sectarian violence (Ferguson et al, 2015). The British government, desperate to deescalate the violence, negotiated a ceasefire with the PIRA, which lasted from December 1974 to January 1976, albeit with continuing PIRA actions under cover names, and British security using this period to extensively infiltrate PIRA ranks (Jackson, 2005).

Figure 11: Independent News and Media (1975). The scene of the Miami Showband killings in County Down, Northern Ireland, on 31 July 1975. Three band members were shot dead by loyalist gunmen [Photograph]. Getty Images.

The British government sought to introduce a new three-pronged strategy of Ulsterisiation, normalisation and criminalisation to manage security in the medium-to-long term (Hearty, 2017). “Ulsterisation” sought to return the responsibility of security in Northern Ireland back to the Northern Irish people, in the hopes of easing Republican resentment towards the Army as an occupying force and limiting the costs of the conflict to Northern Ireland alone. Consequently, the British Army would begin to take a backseat to the RUC and UDR in security operations (Ibid.). The counter-effect was that it once again returned Nationalist sectarian resentment towards the Protestant-dominated security forces, who were accused of being more violent than the Army when raiding Catholic homes (Ibid.). “Normalisation” sought to remove the special security measures, including the end of the failed policy of internment in December 1975, and the renouncing of “Special Category Status” for paramilitary prisoners in March 1976, which prison wardens had long complained made prison discipline harder, and was also seen to give ideological legitimacy to paramilitary membership (Ibid.). This fed onto the final policy of “criminalisation”, by which the British government sought to alter public perceptions of the conflict by treating paramilitaries as normal criminals, requiring a policing response, rather than a political insurgency requiring a military response (Ibid.).

The PIRA, for its part, also realising the possibility of a quick victory was gone, turned instead to a strategy of the “Long War” (Jackson, 2005). This sought a transition towards more directed attacks on higher profile targets with larger propaganda value, such as politicians, Royalty, or Army bases. It furthermore sought to target the British Army more extensively, alongside high-value economic targets, in an anticipated war of attrition (Ibid.). In response to state security and intelligence infiltration of PIRA ranks with informants and double agents, the PIRA restructured into smaller self-sufficient cells, with less interaction between lower ranking members from different units, in the hopes this would make infiltration more difficult and less damaging (Ibid.). This combined with a greater focus on the policing of Republican communities to punish criminals, collaborators and informants, in an attempt to strengthen the PIRA's legitimacy and support base in the long term (Ibid.). Finally, it sought a greater public-facing role for Sinn Fein - realising the importance of expanding and legitimising the PIRA political wing. Because of these changing strategies, British security forces began to make up a higher proportion of casualties, meanwhile overall deaths began to peter out as the decade ended, with 111 killed in 1977, 80 in 1978 and 120 in 1979 (Sutton, 2017). The PIRAs military effectiveness was demonstrated with the 27th August 1979 Warrenpoint Ambush, which killed 18 British soldiers in the deadliest single incident for the British Army in the whole conflict, with the Queen's uncle Lord Mountbatten assassinated on the same day (Sutton, 2017).

Figure 12: AP Photo (1976). Shoppers in Belfast, Northern Ireland go about their business with almost total indifference to a British Army street patrol in 1976 [Photograph]. Associated Press.

As can be observed, the opportunity for a peaceful political settlement came and went with the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973 and 1974, which although supported by the moderate political majority, was brought down by Unionist fears and uncompromising Loyalism toward their minority position within the island of Ireland, particularly in relation to perceived concessions to the IRA. This failure to find a peaceful settlement was marked by a continual backdrop of Republican and Loyalist armed violence. The growth of competing paramilitary organisations that engaged in ever more shocking acts of sectarian brutality in 1975 and 1976 amongst a grinding military stalemate forced the realisation that the end to the violence was a long way off. This in turn led to a reassessment of strategy from the British government and the PIRA, who prepared to bed in for a long albeit less intense conflict.

Conclusions: A Decade of Violence

Hence, the combination of sectarian tension and violence, aggressive Army policing strategies, Nationalist resentments, uncompromising Loyalism, and Republican strategic commitment to armed violence, all ultimately led to the increasing marginalisation and impotence of moderate politics, and fed into the cycle of escalating conflict. As this decade of unrelenting violence ended, this small and picturesque region of 1.5 million people was left shattered, with thousands dead, tens of thousands more wounded, and daily life having been upturned completely. Importantly, there was no end in sight, with a war-weary population settling into this new normal in which they would have to continue their lives with the possibility of daily violence for many years to come. The bloodiest years were over, but they had left behind in many areas of Northern Ireland a deeply polarised society defined by intercommunal animosity, mistrust, fear, trauma, and cynicism. For some communities in particular, the pathway of the young into violence was well established. Nevertheless, as will be shown in the next chapter, most people in Northern Ireland continued to vie for peace, with the majority continuing to support more moderate political alternatives, whilst even Sinn Fein would come to see the value of engaging in democratic politics.

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Visual Sources

Figure 1: De Torout, B. (Cerca 1970). Northern Ireland endured 30 years of violence over British rule until a peace deal in 1998. [Photograph]. AFP. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Popperfoto. (1969). British soldiers armed with machine guns keeping watch in the Falls Road during rioting, August 1969 [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Jackson, J. (1969). British soldiers stop a man trying to carry his baby through a barbed-wire barricade on the Falls Road area of Belfast [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Unknown. (1070). British troops enforcing a curfew, take up defensive positions on Falls Road, 4th July 1970 [Photograph]. The Telegraph. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: McCullin, D. (1971). British soldiers charging Catholic youths in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1971 [Photograph]. Contact Press Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Lipchitz, M. (1972). Local children taunt a British soldier as he stands guard in Londonderry, Northern Ireland on April 13, 1972, after an explosion in the city center [Photograph]. Associated Press. Retrieved from:

Figure 7: Unknown. (1971). Devastation at a bomb damaged police station in Chichester Road, Belfast, Northern Ireland in November 1971, in which a police inspector died [Photograph]. Flashback. Retrieved from:

Figure 8: Unknown. (1972). An injured protester is carried away during the Bloody Sunday disturbances [Photograph]. Daily Mail/Rex. Retrieved from:

Figure 9: Unknown. (1974). Ian Paisley during the 1974 loyalist strike [Photograph]. Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved from:

Figure 10: AP Photo. (1974). British troops prepare to move an overturned and wrecked car, used as a barricade in Newtownwards Road in Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland in May 1974, during the strike called by members of the Ulster Workers Council [Photograph]. Associated Press. Retrieved from:

Figure 11: Independent News and Media. (1975). The scene of the Miami Showband killings in County Down, Northern Ireland, on 31 July 1975. Three band members were shot dead by loyalist gunmen [Photograph]. Getty Images. Retrieved from:

Figure 12: AP Photo. (1976). Shoppers in Belfast, Northern Ireland go about their business with almost total indifference to a British Army street patrol in 1976 [Photograph]. Associated Press. Retrieved from:


Roxana Bîrsanu
Roxana Bîrsanu
Jul 31, 2022

Finn's articles are always highly informative reads, with richness of details and explanations that help the reader get familiar with the topic and encourage them to continue researching it.


Great article! I appreciate how you offered a sound historical account of the events, actors and tactics marking this period of the Troubles, and how you explained both the missed opportunity for peace and the implications of the rising violence

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Finn Archer

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