What were The Troubles? – Origins, Major Sides, Death Toll, & Outcome

From 1969 to the early 2000s, Northern Ireland was overwhelmed by immense sectarian violence and unrest that came to be known as The Troubles.

In the late 1960s, what started as decades-long demand for equality in north-eastern Ireland soon developed into bloody rivalries between British Protestants and Irish Catholics. Terrorism, paramilitaries and civil right movements became the order of the day, destabilizing the whole of Northern Ireland in the three decades that followed. The civil unrest not only haunted the north-east but also the southern Irish Free State (today’s Republic of Ireland) and even England.

By close of the late 1990s, over 3,500 people had been killed and nearly 5,000 wounded in several gory bombings and shootings across Ireland.

So what really were the Troubles? How did it all begin, and who were the major sides in the conflict? And how long did it last for?

In the article below, World History Edu presents a simplified explanation of the causes and effects of the Troubles, a bloody conflict in and around Northern Ireland.

Background to the Troubles: Causes

Origin of the disturbances dates as far back as the 12th century when Ireland witnessed the influx of Anglo-Norman settlers. They began to own lands and control most of Ireland’s political, economic and social affairs by the 17th century especially in north-eastern Ulster. The cordiality between Irish indigenes, who were mainly Catholics, and the British was soon disturbed as the latter openly embraced Protestantism and discriminated against the Catholics.

Irish leaders and English monarchs have always had a strained relationship, considering the fact that the Catholics in Ireland found themselves on the losing side in two major events of the 17th century – the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. In the latter event, deposed Catholic English monarch James II even tried to use Irish troops to forge his way back to his throne. It was for this and many other reasons why Protestant English and Scottish were encouraged to settle in Ireland as a means of colonizing Ireland. This scheme worked in the north of Ireland, i.e. the Ulster region that predominantly became Protestant.

Further worsening the tensions between Ireland and the British were the Penal laws introduced by the Protestant English and Scottish parliaments in the mid-1660s. Those laws heavily discriminated against the Catholics in the United Kingdom, hence James II’s hard-fought efforts to remove them.

During the early 1800s, as the whole of Europe had to contend with Napoleon and his French empire, the British took the decision to make Ireland a core part of the UK. This decision increased Westminster’s control over Ireland. And as a result, nationalist movements in Ireland increased.

There was also the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s that rocked the island to the core, killing more than one million people. Although beginning as a natural disaster due to a fungus-like phytophthora infestans (also known as the potato blight) that plagued potato fields in 1845, the Irish came to bemoan the British for their mismanagement of the disaster. As such many Irish came to resent British rule, with some calling for full Irish independence.

During the Easter Uprising in April 1916, Irish Republicans occupied Dublin and declared it an Irish Republic. British forces suppressed the uprising, which caused the destruction of many buildings and the deaths of about 200 people. The bloody uprising also caused over 2,000 people to sustain varying levels of injuries. Considered the biggest uprising in Ireland since the 1798 Irish rebellion, the Easter Uprising was dealt with by the British by the execution of sixteen of the leaders of the Rising in May 1916. Those executions had the opposite effect, as Britain now had to contend with a greater outrage from the public who considered the rebels martyrs.

The manner in which the British handled the Easter Uprisings caused the support of Irish independence to increase among the Irish. Image: A street barricade put up by the rebels in Dublin during the Easter Rising

Britain’s heavy handed approach in crushing the Easter Uprising caused greater support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which, in 1919, began a campaign against the British forces and their loyalists. Conflicts between the two continued until the Government of Ireland Act of 1921 partitioned Ireland into the Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland).

The Republic of Ireland was larger, predominantly Catholic and was not under the sovereignty of Britain. On the other hand, Northern Ireland which comprised six counties in the north-eastern part was occupied by a populace divided into Protestant and Catholic factions. In the course of time, the Catholics of Northern Ireland became more nationalistic in the agitation to unify with the Republic of Ireland while the Protestants became loyal to British rule.

Northern Ireland’s Catholics felt they were on the bad side of segregation in that the Protestant majority wielded more political power and enjoyed better job opportunities in the shipbuilding and linen companies. The peacekeeping forces of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) molested the Catholics on the least provocation. Also, electoral policies were structured to disenfranchise most Catholics.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland: History, Causes and Effects

Government of Ireland Act of 1921 partitioned Ireland into the Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (which later became the Republic of Ireland)

Animosity grew so worse in the north that it was illegal to mount or fly the Irish flag, and schools were forbidden to teach the Gaelic language and Irish history in schools. Segregation became the norm of the day, with divisions seen in all facets of the country, including in hiring, health, housing, and education.

Several civil rights protests in the streets were geared towards correcting the inequality. But the Protestants feared merging with the Republic of Ireland or losing their grounds in Ireland altogether, hence their support for British loyalist groups. Issues took the wrong turn as the British Protestant police forces began to crush the protests with violence.

The Troubles Unleashed

As demonstrations for equal rights became rampant, British forces occupied Northern Ireland to curtail any insurrection against British rule.

·         Rise of Paramilitaries and Major Events

For the Catholics who had access to education upon the roll out of the Education Act of 1947, there was still more to be done to ensure equality in Northern Ireland. The success stories of activisms such as those against racial segregation in America invariably motivated the Irish elites to form several civil right movements. One of such groups was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), which many point as the primary trigger of the troubles.

On October 5, 1968, NICRA marched in Derry to demonstrate against the prevailing sectarian segregation and gerrymandering. Attempt by the RUC to disperse the protesters fanned the flames of violent riots.

The British loyalists organized a march in the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside, Londonderry (also Derry) on August 12, 1969, sparking a three-day conflict between the loyalists and the local Catholics. That conflict became known as the Battle of Bogside. At first, the RUC served as buffer, but as the bombings and stoning continued between the opposing groups, the RUC revamped their intervention by dispersing the nationalist mob with CS gas and water cannons.

Several nationalists in Belfast invaded RUC centers, while the loyalists retaliated by burning down residences and businesses of nationalists. British forces occupied Belfast and Derry in an intervention called Operation Banner which ended the brawl by August 15; damages included some ten deaths, 745 injuries, and destruction of several buildings.

Calm was restored for a while. But Britain, upon the recommendation of the Joint Security Committee of Northern Ireland, built peace walls immediately between Falls and Shankill. In the course of the disturbances, many of such walls and barricades were erected to separate Protestant suburbs from the Catholics.

In October 1969, RUC was to operate without arms and its affiliate Ulster Special Constabulary (B Special) was to be dissolved after the Hunt Committee assessed the Bogside events. The loyalists protested against the move. The nationalist Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF) reacted, killing one RUC police.

Less aggressive bombings and attacks ensued in both loyalist and nationalist streets until July 1970, when British soldiers rolled out the Falls Curfew, an operation to seize weapons of the nationalists in the Belfast community. Irish youths in the province hurled stones and petrol bombs at the soldiers who countered with CS gas. A 3-day curfew was imposed on Falls after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) collided with the British soldiers. When the weapon search resumed in structures within the curfew zone, some properties were destroyed and residents accused the soldiers of abusing their privacy.

Major disturbances in the 1970S began on August 9, 1971 when the British unionists enforced Operation Demetrius (also known as “internment without trial”) to arrest and imprison people linked to the IRA. About 342 Irish nationalists were arrested within 48 hours, and the subsequent collision which followed killed two members each on the sides of the IRA and British forces. In the same month, the 1st Battalion of the British’s Parachute Regiment (1-Para) gunned down about ten civilians in a massacre at Ballymurphy, Belfast.

The worst years

The Troubles refer to a 30-year period of bloody sectarian violence and unrest in Northern Ireland. The period witnessed the deaths of over 3500 people. Image: Loyalist banner and graffiti on a building in the Shankill area of Belfast, 1970

By mid-1970, the Operation had imprisoned and tortured over 1,800 Catholics and about a hundred Protestants. Within this period the Provisional IRA (PIRA) resorted to outrageous attacks on British loyalists and forces. More than thousand public bombings and hundreds of deaths and injuries were recorded among the opposing groups and even nonpartisan civilians.

Again on December 4, the UVF attacked the McGurk’s Bar with a time bomb. The bar exploded, killing fifteen Irish Catholics and injuring seventeen more.  Meanwhile the IRA had split into the unarmed Official IRA and armed Provisional IRA (PIRA). The latter sought to employ arms and riots to defend Catholics from the British, and a number of future violent clashes were ascribed to the PIRA.

In late January 1972, NICRA staged another street march in Derry against the Operation Demetrius where the 1-Para violently intervened, killing at least fifteen men and injuring more people. This mass shooting became known as the Bloody Sunday; it garnered increased nationalist support for the PIRA and rekindled OIRA armed attacks on British forces. The OIRA bombed 1-Para barracks at Aldershot leaving six housekeepers and a chaplain dead.

Ceasefires in this period were only temporal, as nationalist paramilitary groups continued to rally against British sovereignty.

·         More Paramilitary Groups

Between 1970 and 1980, more nationalist and loyalist paramilitary groups sprang up. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), operating under the cover name People’s Liberation Army (PLA), engaged in several shootings ad bombing such as the Central Bar bombing in December 1975.

Members who broke away from INLA formed The Irish People’s Liberation Organization (IPLO) which was linked to some killings in the Orange Cross and Donegall Arms shootings.

In 1986, the Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA) was formed by members who split from the PIRA; they began rallying against British forces and the RUC from 1994. The group existed beyond 1998 though it has been classified as terrorist.

Groups which emerged from the loyalist side include the Ulster Loyalist Central Co-Ordinating Committee (ULCCC), The Red Hand Commando (RHC) of UVF, the Ulster Freedom Fighters of Ulster Defense Association (UFF UDF) and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

·         Peace Pacts and More Troubles

As the paramilitary groups and British forces failed to restore peace in Northern Ireland, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Temporary Provisions Act on March 30, 1972 to rule the north directly from Britain. Both nationalists and loyalists seemed to accept the act, but the violence continued.

Moreover, the UK government formed the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 1973 and, with the Irish government, proceeded to sign the Sunningdale Agreement in October 1973. The agreement allowed loyalists and nationalists to collaborate and share executive powers in Northern Ireland. Key members from either faction backed the new administration, but others opposed; the IRA typically insisted on detaching Northern Ireland from Britain, while some loyalists despised sharing power with rebellious nationalists.

Some loyalists united to form the Ulster Workers Council purposely to embark on a general strike which successfully suspended essential social services in Northern Island. Amidst the strike, bombings in Dublin and Monaghan killed about thirty and injured some 300 people. Many business activities were distracted, and the administration established by the Sunningdale Agreement was dissolved following the resignation of its executives.

The IRA unleashed attacks on the British in late 1970; LA Mon Hotel in County Down was bombed in February 1978. In August 1979, the Warrenpoint bombing killed some eighteen British soldiers while Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated in a boat bombing together with his grandson and some three others.

·         Ammunition Aid and More IRA Attacks

In the 1980’s, the government of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi supplied the IRA with ammunitions to enable them continue attacks on the British.  More aid came from the Americas and Irish enthusiasts who yearned to see an end to British dominance.

As attacks on British officials increased, the Republic of Ireland signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with Britain in a bid to reunify Ireland and also to restore peace in Northern Ireland. But, like earlier attempts to bring calm, sections of both opposing groups kicked against the move and perpetrated violence.

The decade recorded several IRA bomb attacks on popular places including Royal Marine Depot, Hyde Park and the Grand Brighton Hotel.  They killed several British soldiers and top officers like Anthony Berry.

At the funeral of three IRA members killed during the Operation Flavius in March 1988, Michael Stone of the UDA intruded to kill at least three people. British corporals David Howes and Derek Wood also became victims of the Corporals Killing orchestrated by the IRA during the funeral.

Attacks in the 1990s: Events Leading to Ceasefire

In the early 1990’s, the IRA re-strategized their attack; their sniper squad restricted operations of British forces especially in South Armagh and killed a number of them. They also shot down British air force choppers such as during the Battle of Newry Road and on the Tyrone-Monaghan border.

Britain became eager for peace talks as paramilitary groups continued to endanger civilians in Irish and British communities. A peace talk scheduled in 1993 by British Prime Minister John Mayor (who had earlier escaped IRA assassination attempt at the Downing Street Mortar attack) persuaded the paramilitaries to ceasefire. The IRA initially calmed down but when Britain required them to disarm before participating in the impending negotiations for peace, they were infuriated, and bombed a dockyard in London, injuring some hundred civilians.

Britain feared the IRA would not yield to disarmament just to negotiate peace and so (Britain) rescinded their order. The British and Republic of Ireland governments, the Sinn Fien as well as the various paramilitary groups including the IRA became signatories to the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998 which officially ended the troubles. In effect, the agreement established a devolution in Northern Ireland, disarmed paramilitaries and, for the first time in decades, an all-inclusive northern Irish referendum was held in June 1998 to approve the new power-sharing administration.


Back in 1997, some IRA members objected to the ceasefire and left to form the Real IRA (RIRA). Barely four months after the Good Friday Agreement, the RIRA killed over thirty and injured some hundreds of people by bombing vehicles in Omagh.

The RUC was renamed Police Service of Northern Ireland, Catholics were given equal job opportunities and the Justice and Security Act of 2007 exited the Diplock courts.

Nevertheless, the Good Friday Agreement could not nip any future grudges in the bud. In fact, occasional reports of violence threatened the new power-sharing assembly such that it was suspended in 2002 and restored in 2007.

People had to deal with the unemployment and homelessness which the prolonged troubles left, interaction between Protestant and Catholics was still minimal as peace walls continued to separate communities.

To many, the troubles ended on paper, but it would take years to heal the psychological trauma and fully resolve the hostilities between the Irish and the British, especially in Northern Ireland.

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