I can't seem to find a comprehensive WU about the Troubles in Northern Ireland that exploded in the late 1960s, so I decided to node this. I don't deal with more recent development, but I just seek to explain why the Ulster troubles of the late 1960s and the 70s, proved almost impossible to solve:


The politics of Northern Ireland especially in the 1960s and ‘70s (or the Troubles as they are more commonly known) stands out for the extent of violence and distrust that characterised both sides in the conflict. Any analysis of why the Ulster troubles proved intractable must first examine what led to the Troubles in the first place. The two broad themes that characterise the pre 1960 phase (and continue to manifest themselves later on) are the differing perceptions between the Catholics and the Protestants and the inequality and discrimination that were prevalent. These provided a powerful cocktail that exploded in the 1960s and a spiral of violence and distrust meant that any solution to the Troubles would be blocked by one side or the other, or usually both. This cycle of violence continued right upto the 1990s but the brutality of the earlier period was diminished. It is useful to analyse the Troubles in terms of three broad themes- the lack of contact and trust between the two communities, the inequality and discrimination that led to this lack of trust and also exacerbated it and finally, post-1968 the increasing militarism, which because of previous two factors remained unstoppable.

A Brief History

Northern Ireland’s population is about 55% Protestant and 45% Catholic, and the two communities do not see eye to eye even on the issue of what constitutes their core differences. Protestants are more inclined to see the troubles in constitutional and security terms whereas Catholics either view it as a struggle for national self determination or as a problem of corrupt and unfair practices by successive Unionist governments. Interwoven into these two themes are questions of politics, violence, community relations and inequality. The partition of Ireland in 1921 did little to ease the sectarian distrust and feelings of separateness that both communities felt and this was particularly acute in the six counties of Ulster devolved to Unionist rule.

Deepening dis-trust

This mistrust has been buttressed by physical segregation of the two communities. This has manifested itself in various ways. For instance, as most schooling is conducted by religious denomination, most Protestant and Catholic families find housing closer to their schools. Further, Church attendance is high and the church provides an important arena for social interaction. Even marriages tend to take place with people from the same area, creating family structures that are isolationist and segregated. This feeling of separateness also means that there is not much contact between the two communities and while the hostility does not always hamper day to day relations, specific events and incidents tend to reopen all wounds and confirm stereotypes.

This lack of contact, and empathy is also underlined by the differential access to power between the two communities. The inequality and discrimination that was prevalent in Northern Ireland manifested itself not just in politics, but also in the economic and the social sphere. At the time of Partition, Stormont, the Parliament of Northern Ireland, was given control over its own affairs with the exception of the right to mint money, conduct foreign affairs and raise money. However, in the early years of the establishment of Northern Ireland, many felt that unless the Ulster Protestants were regimented a united front could not be maintained. There was genuine fear among any Ulster Unionists that any downplaying of nationalism would have serious political consequences for them. It would then enable Protestants to turn to sectional interests rather then remain mobilized for the Union. It was also feared that class interests would make a section of the Protestant workers vote for Labour. This fear of losing power was the worst case scenario for the Ulster Unionists but it was one they could not afford to ignore. They resorted to a number of tactics, that would now be considered highly improper, but were deemed necessary for the survival of Northern Ireland. The first of these was the practice of gerrymandering or the altering of boundaries of constituencies to ensure that the Catholics were always at a disadvantage. The othe tactic was that of holding elections at a time when the Union seemed most at risk which would then maintain the Unionist alliance on an eternal war footing. Proportional representation was abolished as that would have helped fringe parties. But, the most controversial measure was the decision by Stormont to retain an electorate based on a rate payer’s franchise. There were now two categories of voters- ratepayers and those who owned commercial property valued at more than 10 pounds a year. Both these categories favoured Protestant voters and disfranchised Catholics.

Even the judicial system was highly divisive. In 1968, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 68 to 6 and 15 out of the 28 appointees to the high court of Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972 were either current or former members of the Unionist party thus strengthening links between political power and judicial control.

Other areas of Protestant domination included public sector employment, housing allocation and educational revenues where discrimination was usually the rule rather than the exception. Moreover, various electoral reasons made it essential to ensure a certain economic status for the Catholics. There was pressure to maintain the relative wealth disparities of Catholic and Protestant districts or else the entire delicate framework would collapse. There were structural factors that suppressed overall Catholic wealth and employment relative to Protestant; large Catholic family size, their concentration in peripheral areas west of the River Bann, and relatively poor standards of education in Catholic run schools that enjoyed lower levels of state subsidy. This discrimination continued in the field of economic opportunities. Unionist minister Basil Brookes in 1933 acknowledged argued that the Catholics in Northern Ireland were increasing in number and he advised employers: “Do not employ Roman Catholics where they could get good Protestants to take their place.” Fear of Catholic infiltration limited the recruitment of Catholics to the higher echelons of the state, and little was done to encourage a conciliatory policy on the part of the political representatives. Throughout the Stormont era there was consistent and largely successful pressure from the Unionist grassroots to keep Catholics out of senior public employment positions. This anxiety continued into the 60s as well when it was believed that if the Protestants did not apply themselves to education, opportunities in the civil service would be lost to them. Even in the sphere of housing extraordinary care was taken to ensure that constituencies were not upset.

By the 1980s Northern Ireland had the most substantial health and education provisions in the UK, while also having the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of income. Catholics, perhaps due to their historic concentration in areas of high unemployment and low grades within jobs, were disproportionately affected. Protestants enjoyed almost all the economic advantages of 20,000 well paid jobs connected to the security forces.

There are thus two broad trends that stand out in the murky politics of Northern Ireland prior to the Troubles and the two are inextricably linked. Much of the suspicion and misunderstanding between the two communities did indeed have historical roots, but the inequality that was often an institutionalised nature, certainly exacerbated these feelings. If we look at the precise reason why the Troubles broke out and why they were so difficult to resolve, we see that these two themes of distrust and economic disparity are an integral part of later events. It also means that any attempt to solve the Ulster Troubles would have meant addressing these questions. However, we see that while measures were taken to control the more obvious manifestations of the Troubles, such as the violence, the deep-seated reasons for the violence remained. The spiral of violence that developed from 1968 onwards was fostered by these very reasons and the inability to tackle them, meant that the spiral acquired a logic and a momentum of its own.

Spiral of violence- and reactions to it

Along with the nature of the violence that broke out, we must also look at how the violence was sought to be tackled. Here we see that the methods and forces used only served to intensify the sense of suspicion and distrust that the Catholics felt. The RUC or the Royal Ulster Constabulary which was seen as a principal instrument for tackling the violence was seen by many Catholics as a partisan force that bowed to political pressure as a result of discriminatory hiring practices. Another element in this smoldering cauldron was the presence of the B Specials. Part of the Special Ulster Constabulary that had been created in the 1920s they were given the task of combating potential subversion of the state, and were recruited as an exclusively Protestant paramilitary force. There were often open ties between the B Specials, the Orange Order and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The B Specials gained notoriety for their use of violence in the execution of their duties; offences included beatings, harassment, and body searches of Catholics at checkpoints. In an already charged atmosphere, such actions could only deepen divisions. Thus, we see that prior to 1968 there was atmosphere of inequality, discrimination, suspicion but no overt violence on a mass scale. The spark that caused this violence was provided by the civil rights movement and the introduction of internment as a response to it.

Civil Rights Movement

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) managed to exert huge pressure on the Unionist government not merely as a huge media spectacle but also through the sheer force of numbers on the streets. That pressure operated on the ground as well and via media coverage through Westminster and Dublin. The central success of the campaign was its ability to bring outside pressure on the Northern Ireland government. It was also an outburst of Catholic grievances, long suppressed that had finally found an outlet. But the use of internment as a policy to counter the marches and demonstration of NICRA was a fatal mistake. The tactic was used largely against the IRA and the Catholic community and although Loyalist paramilitaries too were responsible for the violence, few Protestants were arrested. The level of civil unrest and the level of IRA violence surged.

Hunger strikers

These developments would have probably been enough to hurtle Northern Ireland into the endless cycle of violence that followed. But a poignant and moral dimension was added to it by the hunger strikers. Now republican prisoners appeared in the rather unusual role of accepting suffering for their cause rather than inflicting it. The level of popular support at their funerals and the impressive Sinn Fein electoral performances were testimony to the popular support that the hunger strikers enjoyed. The hunger strike of 1981 is seen a huge turning point in the Troubles, not least because it was a propaganda victory for the republican movement. Active and tacit support for the IRA increased considerably and political support for the Sinn Fein was demonstrated in two by elections and it led to the emergence of the Sinn Fein as a significant political force in Northern Ireland.

The violence continues

The violence that engulfed Northern Ireland in the late 60s and early 70s and continued well into the 80s had an inexorable logic of their own. Violence by the IRA (by now the Provos) would provoke Loyalist paramilitaries into violence of their own. This only served to increase mistrust and meant that any attempts at peace were doomed to failure. The fact that those who were meant to maintain law and order, the police forces were seen as being partisan, meant that the Catholics felt more than ever, that they were under siege. The forcible eviction of Catholic families from various parts of Belfast and the increasing migration of Catholics into pockets of safety, meant that they felt they were surrounded by the enemy. In such circumstances, they felt they had little choice but to turn to the IRA as their saviour. The IRA was not unified on the course of action that had to be taken. But following the split, the Provisional IRA was dominated by those who felt that sheer brute force was the way forward, and thus the endless cycle of violence was perpetuated.

If the pre-1968 period is characterised by inequality and suspicion, then the post-’68 period is noticeable for the sheer intensity of the violence. And given the inequality and distrust, it meant that this violence was almost unstoppable. Attempts by O’Neill to bring about reconciliation were misinterpreted by many Protestants and Catholics too did not trust O’Neill as civil rights had not been granted. On the other hand, most Unionists saw civil rights not as a demand for equal citizenship rights but as an anti state activity. There fundamental differences in perception meant that there was no force that could put a halt to the violence.

The Protestant backlash

The violence did not emanate from the IRA alone. The civil rights movement also provoked a Protestant backlash. While the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been banned after a series of miscalculated acts of terror, a Protestant Volunteer Force developed under Reverend Ian Paisley and Major Roy Bunting. They organised themselves such that they would block all civil rights marches. Some of these began to turn violent and the RUC began to fear civil war. At this stage, the loyalists change tactics. They organised a series of terrorist acts (including cutting off Belfast’s water supply), which they hoped would be blamed on IRA. Loyalist aggression continued including the tactic of ‘pub rioting’. There was destruction of Catholic homes and many Catholics began to move to safer areas. The result of this was that nationalism in the Catholic community now began to acquire more militant undertones. IRA flyers asking for more new recruits appeared. This militarization then provided further ammunition for the Protestants who perceived the reorganization of militant republicanism as a threat and readied themselves for an insurrection.

Like the IRA, the Loyalists violence too seemed to glory in their barbarity. Torture-murders were not unusual. Over the Troubles, almost 700 Catholic civilians died at the hands of the Loyalists. The aim of such violence was to impress upon British and Irish nationalism that political appeasement of republicanism was not a violence free option. There was always an underlying method of the madness. First, they hoped to terrorise the IRA civilian support base. But more importantly, they hoped to drive home the point that the Protestant militants would go to any length in case of a British withdrawal- it would lead to a bloodbath.

Battle of the Bogside

There were certain key moments in this long saga of bloodshed that further pushed away any chance of peace. One of these was the Battle of the Bogside where it was soon clear that the response of the RUC was wholly inappropriate. It resulted in a final loss of faith of the Catholics in the RUC. Following the Bogside battle, the loyalists were successful in squeezing the Catholics out of their districts. Around 60,000 people in Belfast were forced to leave their home. In their strategy of trying to isolate and provoke the Catholics the loyalists had admirably succeeded. Moreover, Unionist politicians had lost all credibility with the Catholic population as neutral arbiters and armed self defence seemed a wholly natural response. It was also a key moment for the IRA which was rejuvenated by the Troubles. Although there was a split within the ranks of the IRA, the events of August 1969 and later of Bloody Sunday marked a further closing of ranks by both parties in the conflicts.

What were the British doing?

A final feature of this violence was the British response to it and Catholic perceptions of that response. There is no doubt that the IRA was very skilful in exploiting Catholic sentiments. But without the repression of the British army, it is doubtful if it would have received the mass sympathy that it did. The British army, once on the streets of Ulster, seemed to fuel the desire of the Ulster Catholic community to ensure that their martial prowess was represented. The armed struggle was a source of national pride- a militant refusal to be assimilated or subordinated. House searches by the British army especially between 1972-74 was seen by Catholic civilians as the actions of an occupation army and viewed as intrusive. So Republican violence increased as moral barriers to political violence eroded. For many Catholics the actions of the British army re-vindicated their belief in the IRA as authentic community defenders. The British army now believed that their aim of winning Catholic ‘hearts and minds’ would be doomed to failure.


It might seem perhaps that the Troubles of Northern Ireland had a social and economic basis and was given militaristic undertones by the events after 1969. However there was a political dimension to it as well and the Troubles had a significant impact on British politics of the period. The Sinn Fein, on the other hand, feared that Catholics would vote for the SDLP and were afraid that if they joined politics the IRA would be seen as little more than the armed wing of a minority political party. But the hunger strike, and the success of Bobby Sands resulted in a reworking of existing strategies. The primary ambition of the Sinn Fein was to dislodge the SDLP as the primary political expression of nationalism in the north as well as build a substantial presence in the south by appealing to leftist radical inclinations of the working class.

The politics of Northern Ireland was characterised by a constitutional deadlock. The Catholics were hostile to a purely ‘internal’ solution to the problem. Having come so tantalisingly close to a constitutional recognition of their Irishness in 1974 with Sunningdale’s Council of Ireland, they were in no mood to accept British insistence that they settle for anything the Ulster Unionists, now led by veterans of the anti-Sunningdale movement, were likely to offer. Unionists too saw little need to negotiate. Direct rule was a small price to pay for avoiding power sharing. The Anglo Irish agreement of 1985 led to huge protests in Ulster with the Unionists fearing that the British had let them down. Impressive mass demonstrations mobilized the bulk of the province’s Protestant population. Loyalist violence resumed with both Catholics and the RUC as targets- an indication of Protestant alienation. Thus, even political developments of the region saw the two underlying features that were an integral part of this conflict- distrust leading to violence and further distrust.

Northern Ireland has a bloody history and even today with disagreements over the decommissioning process, that history has not been laid to rest. While there can be no magic formula that will wipe away years of conflict, death and terrorism, it is clear that Northern Ireland was a victim of its own diversity and differences. It is this diversity that caused rifts, and these were heightened by injustices both perceived and real. Once this resentment had turned to violence, there was perhaps a final chance to stop further bloodshed. But the use of repressive measures by the government of Northern Ireland meant that the chance was lost. Northern Ireland just plunged deeper into chaos and turmoil.