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:
The Troubles 101: Nationalism and Republicanism - "800 Years of Occupation"
The Troubles 101: The Good Friday Agreement
The Troubles 101: Northern Ireland After Good Friday - An End to the Troubles?
Irish Nationalism is the basic belief that there should be a united and independent Irish nation-state covering the whole of the island. This is backed by a longer-term view of the Irish as a distinct national group united by geographical, historical, linguistic, religious, or cultural ties, with Ireland as a historically oppressed nation by the United Kingdom (Coakley, 1983). Yet, the term Nationalist encompasses a broad range of opinions, from moderate views seeking gradual and strictly peaceful changes with the ultimate goal of Irish unity, to more hard-line views (English, 2011). In Northern Ireland, this broad umbrella of Irish Nationalism spanned the width and breadth of the Catholic community, and even extended to a small minority of Protestants (White, 1989).
Republicanism, however, is a hard-line ideology within Nationalism, which opposes as inherently illegitimate all forms of ´foreign´ overseas British rule in Ireland and which can encompass the belief in a violent national struggle directed at forcing Irish unity (Hearty, 2017). Traditional Republicanism views Ireland as Britain’s first and last remaining colony, with Northern Ireland, known to Republicans as “the Occupied Six Counties”, representing the final part of Ireland destined to be liberated from Britain (O'Leary, 2005). Consequently, Republicanism has become associated with a tradition of armed resistance to the British state dating back centuries, known colloquially as “the Struggle” or “the Cause” (Garvin, 2013). Republicanism in Northern Ireland had its core support in poorer Catholic inner-city neighbourhoods, particularly West Belfast and Derry, as well as the rural border regions of Armagh and Tyrone, with these communities forming the bedrock of recruitment for paramilitary organisations (O'Leary, 2005). To understand the Republican violence of the Troubles, it is vital to understand underlying Republican historiography and ideology. Yet simultaneously, it is important to understand that not all Irish Nationalists supported violence or Republican beliefs – indeed Republicanism remained a minority position within the Catholic Nationalist community for the duration of the Troubles.
This article will thus examine Irish Nationalism and Republicanism in the run-up to the Troubles, with a particular focus on Republican justifications for violent ´armed struggle´. There will first be an illustration of Republican historiography, ideology, and the foundations of modern Northern Irish Republicanism - to illustrate how Republicans have traditionally justified "armed struggle" over democratic methods. The article will then outline the main Republican paramilitary and political organisations that played a key role in the violence of the Troubles. Republicanism will then be placed in its international context, to help understand how Republicans had the resources to wage a thirty-year armed campaign. It will conclude by highlighting the more moderate positions held in the Troubles by most of the Nationalist community, particularly the role of the Social Democratic Labour Party.
Historiography of Irish Nationalism and Republicanism
For Irish Nationalists and Republicans alike, continuous foreign British influence in Ireland started with the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, triggering what Republicans called “800 years of occupation” (Duffy, 2019). Two historical events in particular illustrate the heinousness of British rule in Nationalist Irish memory: the first is the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland from 1649-1653, which killed 40% of the population through war-related disease and famine, and the other is the Potato Famine from 1845-1850, that resulted in 25% of the Irish population dying of starvation and disease, or else emigrating (Covington, 2013; Brophy, 2016). According to some Irish Nationalists, and Republicans in particular, these historical events represented active British attempts to ethnically cleanse or commit genocide against the Irish population – the worst and most unforgivable crimes, which left an indelible stain undermining any form of legitimacy of British rule in Ireland (Donnelly, 1993).
Within this historical narrative of foreign oppression, the modern tradition of Irish Republicanism drew its foundations from the ideals and aftermath of the American War of Independence and French Revolutions (Garvin, 2013). This directly inspired a continuous line of secret Irish Nationalist fraternal organisations who plotted attempts to violently overthrow British Rule in Ireland in favour of an Irish Republic, starting with the 1798 Irish Rebellion up until the 1916 Easter Rising (Ibid.). This long view of history and folk memory plays a crucial role in Republican symbolism, including murals and ´Rebel songs´ that tell stories of British oppression, Republican victories, or else an imagined rural idyll free of British rule (Pratt, 2017). Yet Republicanism throughout this time remained a largely underground movement, drawing bases of support from Ireland's educated middle classes, the rural poor, and large emigrant communities abroad (McCartney, 1979). Republicans often found themselves at direct odds with Ireland's more moderate Nationalist political elite seeking Home Rule, as well as with the Catholic Church hierarchy and with the wider Irish public opinion – only finding more widespread popular support after the 1916 Easter Rising (McCartney, 1979).
More central to modern Northern Irish Republicanism was the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which caused a monumental rift within Irish Republicanism (McCartney, 1979). The Treaty not only partitioned Ireland, but also retained the Irish Free State as a British Empire Dominion with the Monarch as Head of State, and British Royal Navy ports remaining in the country - concessions considered an ultimate betrayal of Republican ideals (Regan, 2007). The split directly led to the bitter Irish Civil War, as anti-Treaty IRA members turned on their former pro-Treaty IRA comrades in the Irish National Army (Garvin, 2013). Pro-Treaty forces won the war in the Free State by 1923, with many Southern Irish Republicans subsequently integrating into this new political reality. This left Northern Republicans isolated in their opposition to both Britain and the Free State, considering themselves the true successors and ultimate inheritors of the Republican banner (Regan, 2007).
Republican abstentionism and Northern Irish sectarianism
The extent of Republicanism's uncompromising views in achieving a united Ireland is illustrated in their traditional policy of abstentionism, by which Republican politicians refused to take elected seats of government in institutions deemed to be playing a role in the continued ´occupation´ of Ireland, and hence illegitimate (Murray, 2004). It is perhaps unsurprising that Republicans refused to take seats in the British Parliament in Westminster, and likewise refused to take seats in the Northern Irish Stormont assembly – which was seen as an extension of British rule purposefully designed to keep Irish unity at bay (Hearty, 2017). Indeed, more moderate Nationalists, including the pre-Troubles Nationalist Party, also went through intermittent periods of abstentionism with regard to these institutions (Murray, 2004). However, Republicans took this behaviour a step further, by refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the Irish Free States ´Dáil Éireann´ even after it officially became the Republic of Ireland in 1937, due to their belief that this would legitimise partition (Hearty, 2017). Abstentionism also sought to emphasise the Republican view of non-democratic methods, and in particular violence, as legitimate or even favourable strategies to achieve the objectives of “The Struggle” (Hanley, 2013). According to Republicans these methods, often unpopular with Nationalist majority opinion, were justified by their fervent belief in them flying the true banner for the “Irish cause” (Garvin, 2013).
Despite the Troubles taking the form of an ethnonational conflict fuelled by religious identity, within Republican ideology the core of traditional struggle was not Catholic against Protestant, but rather Irish against British rule – with Republicanism never officially embracing sectarianism (Bosi, 2012). Indeed, key historical Irish Republican figures such as Wolfe Tone, who founded the Society of United Irishmen leading the 1798 Irish Rebellion, were Protestant (English, 2011). Nevertheless, unlike Southern Ireland, within the Northern Irish context it was impossible to disentangle Republican ideology from the intercommunal sectarian reality - with Republican recruits drawn from Catholic communities experiencing direct animosity with neighbouring Protestant communities (Nutt & Gray, 1994). Ultimately it was Republicanism's goal to force Irish unity, which in Northern Ireland meant doing so without the consent of the Protestant Unionist population that supported British rule, to which Republicans believed Irish unity should not be held prisoner (Coakley, 1983).
Republican paramilitarism and political parties
For Republicans, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) traditionally held an almost mythical status after its armed victory against Britain in the Irish War of Independence (Hanley, 2013). Yet since the IRA split in the Irish Civil War, its name has been used by various factions and splinter groups claiming to be the true heirs of the Republican armed struggle (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the political wings of these IRA factions have attached their names to Sinn Féin as their public face – although abstentionism meant these political parties often took on largely symbolic roles (O'Leary, 2005). Between 1922 and 1968 there were several limited, unsuccessful, and unpopular armed campaigns in Northern Ireland by the remnants of the anti-Treaty IRA, the last of them ending in 1962 – which left hard-line Republicans largely marginalised within the Nationalist community (Ibid.). The IRA's recognition of their unpopularity and irrelevance led them to seek alternative strategies, ending in the adoption of an openly Marxist-Leninist strategy that sought to broach sectarian barriers to unify Catholic and Protestant working classes, to ultimately join the Southern Irish working class in forging a unified 32 County Socialist Republic (Ibid.). Yet no sooner had the Troubles started, in December 1969 Sinn Féin and the IRA again split into two factions following a vote to overturn the Republican policy of abstentionism (Ibid.).
The first and initially largest of these factions was the Official IRA (OIRA), which between 1969 and 1972 had 1,500-2,000 members who sought to continue the Marxist-Leninist strategy and to reject abstentionism (O'Leary, 2005). OIRA initially limited their armed campaign to the defence of Nationalist areas, fearing an offensive campaign would make a unified working class ´popular front´ more unlikely (Hanley, 2009). Consequently, OIRA only sporadically engaged the British Army when they entered Nationalist areas to arrest suspected Republicans. By 1972, the OIRA had declared a “ceasefire”, with their paramilitary actions severely limited for the remainder of the conflict, outside of feuds with rival Republican paramilitaries (Hanley, 2009). In 1975 OIRA itself split, with the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) emerging from their ranks to pursue an offensive armed campaign towards their Marxist-Leninist goals.
The second, and by far most prominent, faction was the Provisional IRA (PIRA), composed of more traditional Republicans who supported continued abstentionism and thought the Marxist-Leninist focus to be a distraction from a more simplified “Brits Out” strategy (Jackson, 2005). Nevertheless, PIRA themselves adopted a Democratic Socialist goal for a united Ireland (Ibid.). PIRA saw OIRA's limited armed campaign as a dereliction of duty in the face of Unionist violence, embarking instead on a vigorous ´defence´ of Catholic Nationalist areas (O'Leary, 2005). This increased their credibility, whilst simultaneously tying the faction to the intercommunal sectarian violence (White, 1989). By 1971 they had switched to a high-intensity offensive armed campaign that actively engaged British state security forces, coupled with an extensive bombing campaign (Jackson, 2005). Although initially smaller than OIRA, they quickly became the dominant Republican paramilitary and ultimately recruited over 10,000 members during the Troubles (O'Leary, 2005). Similarly, PIRA's political wing became the main Republican political party and continued the name of “Sinn Féin” (O'Leary, 2005). Other IRA splinter groups broke from PIRA as The Troubles progressed, with armed IRA dissident factions continuing to operate to this day (Jackson, 2005).
Ultimately, Republican Paramilitaries were responsible for 60% of deaths in The Troubles, numbering 2,057 people – with PIRA alone responsible for 1,750 deaths (48%) (O'Leary, 2005). Of these, around 1080 (52%) were serving or ex-members of British state security forces and a further 721 (35%) were civilians (Sutton, 2017). Republican paramilitaries at various times engaged in guerrilla warfare, terrorist bombings, tit-for-tat sectarian massacres and murders, internecine conflicts with rival Republican paramilitaries, murders of off-duty and retired police and military personnel, executions of suspected informants and assassinations of politicians (O'Leary, 2005). Furthermore, Republican Paramilitaries engaged in criminal enterprises such as extortion and armed robbery to gain funding, with some also taking the form of organised crime (Ibid.). Finally, Republican paramilitaries took responsibility for ´policing´ Nationalist communities amongst mistrust of the RUC, including kneecappings, punishment beatings and even murders of drug dealers, law breakers and suspected ´collaborators´ (Ibid.).
Republicanism's international support
Republicanism in Northern Ireland did not operate in a vacuum, with Northern Irish Republicans dependent on cross-border ideological and practical support to maintain weaponry, funding, and morale to help them wage their thirty-year armed campaign. The first and most obvious base of support was in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), whose population mainly shared the desire for Irish unity and whose state constitution even formalised this desire (Harris, 2018). Consequently, many peopel among the ROI public were supportive of Republican aims, and yet maintained a complex relationship with Republican paramilitary violence. Republican paramilitarism was romanticised as the foundational myth of the Irish Free State, while at the same time the violent reality of The Troubles was proving too shocking for most to support, especially combined with a Northern sectarian context unfamiliar to most in the Republic (Kennedy, 2021).
Nevertheless, Sinn Féin maintained a symbolic presence in the ROI and from 1986 even contested ROI elections, eventually securing an important source of political support (O'Leary, 2005). Furthermore, some Republicans in the ROI provided sources of funding and even paramilitary recruitment, with the ROI-Northern Irish border providing important safehouses for fleeing paramilitary suspects, hidden arms shipments, and secret paramilitary training camps (O'Leary, 2005). Despite such support, many Northern Republicans continued to oppose the ROI State on abstentionist principles, and indeed Irish State Security actively collaborated with British State security to apprehend paramilitary suspects and arms shipments, with the ROI State also working with the British government to bring peaceful solutions to the Troubles (Harris, 2018).
Furthermore, the United States and its significant Irish diaspora played another key role. This diaspora ensured the United States government maintained a continual interest in The Troubles, and actively worked with the British and ROI governments to seek solutions to the violence (Williamson, 2007). Yet simultaneously, some sections of the Irish American community, which had been active sources of Irish Republicanism as far back as the mid-Nineteenth Century, raised funds for PIRA through the Irish Northern Aid Committee (NORAID), which by 1985 was estimated to have raised at least $2-3 million dollars for PIRA, with accusations that it even directly arranged weapon shipments (Dumbrell, 1995).
Yet outside of this international Irish context, Republicanism also sought to appeal to what it saw as other ideologically anti-colonial and revolutionary struggles. PIRA militants actively cross-trained and shared tactics and equipment with the militant organisations of ETA in Spain´s Basque Country and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and they furthermore associated themselves with other peaceful movements like the anti-apartheid and Catalan independence ones (Jackson, 2005). Although the practical effects of these alliances were limited, they provided important sources of Republican propaganda and symbolism (Jackson, 2005). On the other hand, Colonel Gadaffi´s Libyan regime provided concrete support with multiple arms shipments for PIRA from the early 1970s until 1987, including RPGs, heavy machine guns, surface-to-air missiles, and multiple tonnes of explosives (Jackson, 2005).
Moderate Nationalism and the SDLP
Whilst Republicanism fuelled violent paramilitarism and dominated the public image of the Troubles, most of the Nationalist community outside of the ´traditional´ Republican areas remained broadly opposed to paramilitary violence and supportive of more moderate politics (Campbell, 2013). In the lead-up to The Troubles, Nationalists rallied around the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, fighting not for Irish Unity, but for equal rights and against perceived injustices towards Catholics within Northern Irish society (Munck, 1992). This social-justice face of Nationalism led in 1970 to the formation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which rejected abstentionism and sought to unify the disparate wings of the Nationalist community by combining socialist and nationalist aims, even hoping to win over Protestant support by pursuing a strictly non-violent and forcibly anti-sectarian policy (Campbell, 2013).
Their ultimate stated objectives were economic equality, rural development, protection of democratic and civil rights, cultural development, the introduction of a Proportional Representation voting system to counter gerrymandering, and greater North-South Ireland cooperation, with a view toward eventual unification (White, 1970). Importantly, they did not support unification without the express consent of the majority in Northern Ireland (Ibid.). Although ultimately failing to win significant Protestant support, the SDLP formed the dominant Nationalist political party throughout the Troubles – with its main support base among Catholic middle classes, white-collar workers and the educated (White, 1989). From 1972 until 1997, the SDLP consistently won the majority of the Nationalist vote, only being challenged by Sinn Féin in the early 1980s (Connolly & Doyle, 2018) However, the SDLP simultaneously drew accusations from Republicans of wanting to maintain their middle-class economic interests by siding with the British state (White, 1989). Ultimately, not even this peaceful face of Nationalism was able to escape the violent quagmire of The Troubles, with the SDLP becoming a target of intimidation and even violence by both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries (Ibid.).
Conclusions: legitimacy of violence in the Republican minority
As can be noticed, Irish Nationalism and Republicanism's long-term view of Irish history and folk memory as a centuries-long fight against British oppression has led to Republicanism considering itself the true face of Irish struggle, even in front of an unfavourable majority in Irish Nationalist opinion. This is reflected in its firm ideological stance against British and even Irish democratic state institutions, which in turn has led to the justification of armed struggle as a legitimate and even favourable strategy. The successes of the IRA in the Irish War of Independence in particular have reinforced a romanticised view of violence as the way to achieve Republican political goals. This, in turn, has inspired a culture of paramilitarism, which directly contributed to extensive violence in the Troubles – with Republican paramilitaries ultimately causing 60% of deaths. Furthermore, despite its minority position with the Northern Irish Nationalist community, Republicanism was nevertheless able to draw on international support and funding to help it wage its thirty-year armed campaign. Despite this, the majority of Nationalists throughout the Troubles continued to seek less ideologically motivated aims of social justice and democracy through peaceful political outlets, in particular the SDLP, reinforcing violence as a minority Nationalist position, yet one that was impossible to escape from.
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Cover Photo: Unknown. (1987). An IRA member squats on patrol in West Belfast as women and children approach. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://allthatsinteresting.com/the-troubles
Figure 1: Caffrey, F. (2005). A memorial depicting the struggles during the IRA armed operations in Northern Ireland is seen, painted in the nationalist areas of Belfast. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://jakartaglobe.id/news/ireland-britain-set-northern-irish-crisis-talks-next-week/
Figure 2: Unknown (2007). Whiterock Road, Belfast, An Gorta Mor. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_gorta_Mor.jpg
Figure 3: Unknown. (2021). The civil war lasted for nearly a year and killed more than 1,000 people. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/stop-saying-irregulars-urges-td-in-civil-war-of-words-x879tws9p
Figure 4: Unknown. (1978). Armed PIRA members openly display weapons at a Bloody Sunday demonstration in Derry in 1978. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-49299060
Figure 5: Unknown. (1976). An RPG-7 rocket launcher similar to the one used by the IRA to shoot down a Wessex helicopter in April 1976 [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/republic-of-ireland/psni-say-ira-army-council-exists-but-gardai-say-not-on-their-side-of-the-border-34126376.html
Figure 6: Unknown (1980s). An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army receiving arms training at a mountain camp in Co. Donegal, Ireland, c.1980s. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://ansionnachfionn.com/2011/06/06/the-irish-republican-army-way-and-the-taliban-way/
Figure 7: Unknown (1970). A Social Democratic and Labour Party press conference at the Tribine offices in Smithfield. (l-r) Austin Currie MP, Gerry Fitt MP, John Hume MP, Ivan Cooper MP and Paddy O'Hanlon. Behind them is Edward McGrady (left) and Paddy Devlin MP. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.derryjournal.com/news/people/50-years-ago-today-johnhume-andgerry-fitt-established-sdlp-2948871