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The Troubles in Northern Ireland 101: Origins and History


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 Troubles” in Northern Ireland spanned for a period of thirty years, from 1968 until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This intercommunal conflict was marked by sectarian rioting, paramilitary and state security violence, guerrilla warfare, assassinations, tit-for-tat killings, bombings, and massacres of civilians. The violence also reached England and the Republic of Ireland, and even Gibraltar. In a region of just over 1.5 million people, The Troubles led to the deaths of around 3,500, with a further 50,000 more injured, and many thousands more bearing the emotional trauma of violence and bereavement. The memory and impact of this conflict continue to shape politics and society within Northern Ireland to this day

In its most basic sense, the Troubles stemmed from the divisions between the predominantly Protestant Unionist community, who wish for Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, and the predominantly Catholic Nationalists, who wish for Northern Ireland to separate from the UK and become part of a unified and independent Irish state. Although the two groups are dominated by their respective Catholic and Protestant religious identities, with the conflict taking on sectarian language and undertones, the division is fuelled primarily by these political and ethno-national differences, rather than theological. There are minorities of Catholics who support the Unionist viewpoint, and minorities of Protestants that support the Nationalist viewpoint – and indeed others who support neither position.

Figure 1 : Nineteenth Century Map of Great Britain and Ireland [Illustration].

Since the formation of Northern Ireland, the Catholic population has constituted a minority, with the Northern Ireland state apparatus before The Troubles dominated by the Protestant Unionist majority. The emergence of the 1960´s Civil Rights movement seeking to end discrimination against Catholics and challenging the Protestant-dominated state led to a period of heightened intercommunal tensions. This soon exploded into violence, with the British Army deployed in August 1969 to try and keep the peace. It would be thirty more years before peace arrived - the Troubles had begun. To explore how these political divisions could reach the stage of such violence, this article will seek to give a brief history of Northern Ireland leading up to the Troubles, to serve as a basis for the remainder of this 101 series.

From the ´Protestant Ascendency´ to the Home Rule Crisis

Although the history and origins of conflict between Britain, Ireland, Catholics, and Protestants can be dated back many hundreds of years and could fill countless articles, to assess the Troubles this article will limit the overview to the foundations of modern Irish Nationalism, British Unionism, and the Northern Irish state.

Since 1691, following the defeat of Catholic King James by Protestant King William in the Williamite War, Protestant rule in Ireland had been secured by a small number of mainly Anglican Anglo-Irish Landlords who ruled over the Catholic Irish population (Cullen, 1986). This ´Protestant Ascendency´ was enforced through outwardly sectarian ´penal laws´, that formally barred Catholics, as well as some non-conformist Protestants, from holding public office, inter-marrying with Protestants and inheriting land (Cullen, 1986). The 1798 Irish Rebellion began when the repressed Catholic Irish population, most reduced to poor tenant farmers and alongside many non-conformist Protestants, sought to violently overthrow the ruling landowners (Brophy, 2016).

The British Parliament, fearing a wider French-style Revolution, voted in 1801 for the Kingdom of Ireland to be formally unified with the Kingdom of Great Britain, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (Brophy, 2016). For the first time, Ireland had been incorporated as a constituent Home Nation of the UK, with it henceforth electing representatives to sit in the British Parliament in London. Meanwhile, since 1788 the UK had been slowly repealing the penal laws in a process of “Catholic Emancipation” (Cullen, 1986). This culminated in the ´1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act´, when a growing number of predominantly Catholic Irish Nationalist MPs emerged in the British Parliament as the 19th Century progressed (Cullen, 1986).

The “Irish Potato Famine” from 1845-1850, exasperated by the grossly unequal economic system imposed by ruling Anglo-Irish Landlords, led to 1 million people in Ireland starving to death and a further 1.5 million forced to emigrate (Brophy, 2016). This negligent and catastrophic British handling of the crisis led to growing calls for “Home Rule” from Irish Nationalist MPs in conjunction with their British Liberal Party allies. The idea of Home Rule was that Ireland should have its own Parliament in Dublin as part of the United Kingdom, separate from the British Parliament in London, to make its own decisions on issues affecting Ireland. In opposition to this were the British Conservative and Unionist Party, supported by much of the Irish Protestant population who feared a Catholic-dominated Irish parliament (Boyce, 1970).

Figure 2 : Inspection of the Ulster Volunteers [Photo].

The tensions over the movement culminated in the 1912 “Home Rule Crisis”, in which 500,000 mainly Irish Protestant Unionists signed the “Ulster Covenant”, vowing to oppose Home Rule by all means necessary (Morris, 2011). The formation of the “Ulster Volunteers”, a Unionist militia based in the North to oppose Home Rule and whose ranks swelled to 100,000 by 1913, was matched by Nationalist “Irish Volunteers” who sought to defend Home Rule and whose ranks by 1914 had swelled to 200,000 (Brophy, 2016). The looming prospect of civil war in Ireland was averted by the start of the First World War, with the respective militias joining the British Army in the hopes of proving their loyalty to secure British state support for their respective constitutional positions (Bowman, 2013).

While the First World War was raging, hard-line Irish Republicans seeking not just Home Rule, but full independence from the UK, launched a bloody five-day insurrection known as the “Easter Rising” in 1916. Initially opposed by much of the Irish population who remained wedded to the idea of Home Rule, the British Army was supported in quelling this rebellion (Dháibhéid, 2012). However, the subsequent repressive British state response seeking to punish the rebels, with thousands detained and the ringleaders executed, was seen as heavy-handed, and led to popular Nationalist Irish opinion rapidly turning against British rule and in favour of full Irish independence (Dháibhéid, 2012).

Irish War of Independence

The first post-war British election of December 1918 saw a collapse in support for the Home Rule-supporting Irish Parliamentary Party. In its place, Sinn Feín gained a landslide victory winning the vast majority of Irish seats, with a manifesto vowing to form an independent Irish Republic (Dháibhéid, 2012). Simultaneously, the British Conservative and Unionist Party dominated the Irish seats in the North containing the bulk of the Protestant population. Sinn Feín quickly established a breakaway Irish Parliament in Dublin, the Dáil Éireann (“Irish Assembly”), and formally declared Irish Independence as a republic on 21st January 1919 (Dháibhéid, 2012). This sparked the Irish War of Independence, in which the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched a successful guerrilla campaign against British state security forces, alongside wider civil disobedience from the Irish population (Dundon, 2021). While the IRA campaign was successful in most of the country, the Protestant population in the North-East of Ireland continued in support of the British state. Consequently, in 1920 Britain formally divided Ireland into two self-governing territories – Northern Ireland, governed from Belfast and covering the Six Protestant-majority Counties in the North, and the remaining Catholic-majority Twenty-Six Counties governed from Dublin (Boyce, 1970).

Although Protestants were a majority in Northern Ireland, they constituted a significant minority within the whole of Ireland and saw themselves as under siege by violent Irish Nationalists (Boyce, 1970). The war sparked an orgy of intercommunal violence in Northern Ireland, including sectarian rioting, killings, destruction of homes, and militia and police violence, resulting in 557 deaths between July 1920 and July 1922, with 10,000 more, predominantly Catholics, made homeless. Simultaneously, between 1911 and 1926, over 100,000 Southern Protestants, around one third of the population, fled their homes further stratifying the Protestant and Catholic populations (Bielenberg, 2013).

Figure 3 : Unionists and Nationalists fight during Belfast Riots of 1920 [Photo].

The successes of the IRA campaign in Ireland and the rising costs of maintaining control convinced the British government to enter negotiations with the separatists. The War of Independence ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, which was formally ratified by the Dáil Éireann and British Parliaments in January 1922, signalling the birth of the independent Irish Free State. However, it contained some significant concessions to the United Kingdom, the most important of which allowed Northern Ireland to opt out of the treaty and remain part of the United Kingdom, thus partitioning Ireland (Boyce, 1970). The opposition to these concessions within Ireland was so fierce that it led to the Irish Civil War from June 1922 to May 1923, in which the IRA members who were opposed to the concessions of the Treaty unsuccessfully went to war with the newly formed Irish Free State (Dundon, 2021).

The Formation of Northern Ireland and Protestant Rule : 1922 – 1960s

Upon its formation, Northern Ireland contained a two-thirds Protestant majority, the vast bulk of whom were Unionists, with the remaining Catholic population overwhelmingly opposed to Irish partition and the formation of the Northern Irish state. This allowed the “Unionist Party” to continuously dominate elections to the Northern Irish Parliament for the next fifty years (Boyce, 1970). Furthermore, Unionist Party members dominated the Northern Irish judiciary, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was over 80% Protestant. The Unionist government and some local administrations also were accused of ´gerrymandering´ electoral boundaries, to ensure Protestant majorities in constituencies even in majority Catholic areas (Murray, 2004). The domination of the state-apparatus by Protestant Unionists in turn led to accusations of discrimination against Catholics in public housing, public sector employment, and policing, in favour of Protestants (Hearty, 2017).

Figure 4 : Official opening in1932 of the new Northern Ireland Parliament building at Stormont, Belfast [Photo].

By contrast, the Catholic population largely supported the Nationalist Party, who considered Northern Ireland illegitimate and often protested against the Unionist rule by abstaining from their seats in the Northern Irish Parliament. For similar reasons, many Catholics abstained from voting altogether (Murray, 2004). All of this combined to create a majoritarian Protestant Unionist rule, with many people living in segregated communities and going to segregated religious schools (Hearty, 2017). The feeling in the Catholic community was of being poorer, with lower levels of employment, less engagement in Northern Irish civil society, and almost completely excluded from national politics (Hearty, 2017). Meanwhile, Protestant Unionists continued to view their position in a small corner of Ireland as vulnerable to the possibility of Irish unification and Catholic domination.

The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland

Inspired by the US Black Civil Rights Movement and other international civil rights movements of the 1960s, increasing calls emerged in Northern Ireland to address perceived inequalities against the minority Catholic population (Munck, 1992). This culminated in the 1967 formation of the “Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association” (NICRA) to protest against discrimination in elections, housing, politics, policing and law, drawing support from a broad cross-section of the Catholic community as well as some moderate Unionists. Simultaneously, the IRA and hard-line Republicans, recovering from an unsuccessful and unpopular paramilitary campaign launched from 1956-1962, sought to regain respectability within the Nationalist community by backing the new civil rights movement (Hearty, 2017).

For many in the Unionist community, this signified an attack on their institutions and the wider Northern Irish state that would pave the way to a resumption of IRA activities, leading to heightened intercommunal tensions (Munck, 1992). These tensions came to a head at a NICRA civil-rights march on 5th October 1968 supporting the “Derry Housing Association Committee” in protesting social housing shortages and housing discrimination. The initially peaceful march was violently dispersed by the RUC, resulting in running street battles (Hearty, 2017). The shocking images of violence were quickly broadcasted across Northern Ireland and internationally.

Figure 5 : Civil Rights march confronted by police in Derry, 5th October 1968 [Photo].

NICRA marches in 1969 continued to be met by police violence, and increasingly by violent Unionist counterdemonstrations (Hearty 2017). One incident in January 1969 resulted in 87 NICRA activists being hospitalised, followed by the RUC attacking people and ransacking houses in the majority Catholic "Bogside" area of Derry (Munck, 1992). Both communities soon formed vigilante organisations to “protect” their respective neighbourhoods, with sectarian rioting breaking out in cities across Northern Ireland (Hearty, 2017). By this stage, intercommunal fear and mistrust were rife, with Northern Ireland as a powder keg waiting to explode.

Bibliographical References

Bielenberg, A. (2013). Exodus : The Emigration of Southern Irish Protestants During the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, Past & Present, 218, 199-233. Bowman, T. (2013). The North Began´…But When? The Formation of the ulster Volunteer Force. History Ireland, 21(2), 28-31.

Boyce, D. G. (1970). British Conservative Opinion, the Ulster Question, and the Partition of Ireland, 1912-21. Irish Historical Studies, 17 (65), 89-112. Brophy, S. (2016). Ireland's Decade of Conflict 1913-23 (I). Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 105 (419), 373-380. Cullen, L. (1986). Catholics under the Penal Laws. Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 1, 23-36. Dháibhéid, C. (2012). The Irish National Aid Association and the Radicalization of Public Opinion in Ireland, 1916-1918. The Historical Journal, 55 (3), 705-729. Dundon, J. (2021). The War of Independence and the Civil War. The Past: The Organ of the Uí Cinsealaigh Historical Society, 35, 60-73. Hearty, K. (2017). Critical Engagement: Irish republicanism, memory politics and policing. Liverpool University Press. Morris, N. (2011). Traitors to Their Faith? Protestant Clergy and the Ulster Covenant of 1912. New Hibernia Review, 15 (3), 16-35. Munck, R. (1992). The Making of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Journal of Contemporary History, 27 (2), 211-229. Murray, P. (2004). Partition and the Irish Boundary Commission: A Northern Nationalist Perspective. Clogher Record, 18 (2), 181-217.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: Testa, A. (2019). The corner of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, where the “Bloody Sunday” killings of demonstrators were carried out. [Photo]. Retrieved from: Figure 1: Unknown. (2018). Original 19th Century Map of Great Britain and Ireland - British Isles - Europe. [Map]. Retrieved from: Figure 2: Unknown. (1914). Edward Carson inspects a parade of armed Ulster Volunteers. [Photo]. Retrieved from : Figure 3: Unknown. (1920). Belfast Riots. [Photo]. Retrieved from: Figure 4: Unknown. (1932). National Library of Ireland on the Commons: Official opening of the new Parliament Building at Stormont. [Photo]. Retrieved from: Figure 5: Unknown. (1968). Civil rights marchers are confronted by a strong force of police in Duke Street, Derry on October 5 1968. [Photo]. Retrieved from:, Last visited 13/05/2022.


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Finn Archer

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