Course Module: 
Reporting Conflict


Northern Ireland: “The Troubles”



Divided Ulster: from Plantation to Partition


Wars of religion


English Tudor armies, use a razed-earth policy to “break the hearts” of the indigenous Catholic, Gaelic population of Ireland.


In 1606 the British “planted” Protestant Scottish settlers in Ulster to act as a garrison guarding against native resistance.


In 1689, year of the Glorious Revolution, the Catholic King James II was chased from the throne of England by the Dutch William of Orange. As James retreated to Catholic Ireland to rally his forces, Ulster became a battlefield. Londonderry city sheltered much of Ulster’s Protestant population from James’s forces in 1689.


James was ultimately defeated but Ireland’s Protestant parliament passed penal laws to destroy the power of Catholicism in Ireland. The legislation stripped wealthy Catholics of many political and social rights. 


Civil war in the 1790s


The Protestant-led United Irishmen organisation rebelled across Ireland in 1797. They hoped they would be able to sever Ireland’s connection with Britain. The revolt was unsuccessful. 


Ulster modernizes and stays the same


In Ulster, Protestants settled comfortably into support of the Union with Britain, sharing in the benefits of industrialization. 


Confrontations between Protestant Orangemen and Catholic groups occurred throughout the nineteenth century. Such disorder, and illegal “Twelfth of July” demonstrations (commemorating William’s victory over James) prompted the state to end provocative Orange expressions of political expression. 


Home Rule 


Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone aimed to pacify Ireland by introducing Home Rule. Ulster’s Protestants opposed his first Bill and there was fierce rioting in Belfast in 1886.   A second Home Rule Bill was also defeated, in 1893.


The Ulster Crisis


There was mass resistance from all classes of the Ulster Protestant community, including the formation of the armed Ulster Volunteer Force. 


By the outbreak of the first world war, both sides reluctantly agreed to exclude the northern counties from home rule. 


Rise of republicanism


In Easter 1916 a brief republican attempt at coup d’etat devastated the centre of Dublin and, following the execution of sixteen of its leaders, added to the succession of Irish martyrs at the hands of British oppression. 


In the post-armistice 1918 election, Irish nationalism swung massively behind the Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) party which wanted the British out of Ireland.


Catholic Ireland now repudiated further negotiation within the British political system and in effect also gave up on conciliating Irish unionist opinion.




Partition was a huge boon to Ulster Unionism, a fact clear to Catholic opinion in Ulster. Ulster Unionism sat pretty and its steadfast war service contrasted favourably with the outright subversion of Republican rebels. 


In 1920 six northern counties were awarded to a parliament which was to sit in Belfast under a United Kingdom parliament and which would be virtually severed from Dublin. The border was carefully drawn to achieve a Protestant majority. 


Negotiations between Irish nationalist leaders and the British government resulted in a treaty creating the 'Irish Free State', which had 'dominion status' within the British Commonwealth, but fell short of full independence.

The treaty split Irish nationalists. Despite great pains being taken in the Dail to resolve the dispute peaceably, a split in the IRA between pro-treaty and anti-treaty members led rapidly to armed conflict and then all-out civil war. 


Collins led the pro-treaty government forces, while de Valera leant his support to the anti-treaty 'Irregulars'.


The bloody and bitter internecine civil war that followed would ultimately claim the lives of Collins and many other talented Irish leaders, but nonetheless result in a victory for the Irish Free State government. De Valera would subsequently rejoin the political process and help steer southern Ireland to full independence in 1949.


In Northern Ireland, the IRA had begun a campaign of violence even before partition became a reality in 1921. In response, the Ulster Volunteer Force was revived and thus the new nation experienced sectarian bloodshed from its very inception.


Troubles of the early 1920s


1920 - 1922 Hundreds of Catholics, Protestants and members of the security forces die in Ulster following partition.


1922 Catholics made up the majority of 232 killed in sectarian violence in the North following the treaty between Britain and elements of the Sinn Fein leadership. 11,000 Catholics were made jobless, 23,000 homeless. Over 4,500 Catholic-owned shops and businesses were burned, looted or wrecked. Property worth £3m was destroyed. 


Ulster Unionism consolidates


The UVF was reborn with state backing as a Protestant paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Special Constabulary. Catholic resistance collapsed as its southern Irish sponsors dissolved into feuding factions of civil war. 


The unionist state in Ulster was confronted from the outset with a rebellious, intransigent Catholic minority. 


The Boundary Commission finally decided in 1926 to leave the border where it was, leaving Ulster Protestants with the suspicion that partition was merely a compromise solution, perhaps temporary, of a knotty problem.


Home rule in Ulster: Stormont’s record


Northern Ireland’s purpose-built parliament building at Stormont, near Belfast, was opened in 1932. Its neoclassical grandeur was overblown for the limited powers and importance of the statelet it represented. 


It reflected the desire of the Unionist establishment to present a solid confidence to the world. The reality was very different. There was a concern within the Ulster Unionist party that if it lost power temporarily in Northern Ireland, a replacement government might negotiate an all-Ireland settlement. It is possible that Unionists might have lost control of Northern Ireland as they had a surprisingly small number of absolutely secure seats in Stormont.


Electoral and economic discrimination


The Unionists’ priority was to keep the Union as the one burning issue. Elections, held at the Prime Minister’s discretion, always occurred at times when the Union seemed most at risk. 


When the rate-payer's franchise was abolished in Great Britain after the second world war, Stormont elected to retain it. This locked in the principle that those who paid the most rates -- in Ulster, disproportionately Protestants -- were entitled to the biggest say in local government.


Unionist fears that home rule in Ireland would mean Rome rule appeared amply justified by an extraordinary identification in the South of state and society with a strident Roman Catholicism. The Irish premier, de Valera, blithely declared in 1953 that Ireland was a “Catholic nation”. 


Unionist leaders did what they could to limit the recruitment of Catholics into public sector jobs. 


For their part, Catholics barely recognised the state and waited sourly for the day when they would be reunited with their southern brethren.



Derry City


In Derry/Londonderry, gerrymandering was stark. A nationalist majority of 5,000 resulted in a Unionist council of 12 Unionists to eight nationalists. 


Catholic public housing, when built, was packed into Nationalist wards.


The civil rights movement


A Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march on 5 October 1968, manipulated by radicals to cause a confrontation, was violently dispersed by Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers. TV pictures carried dramatic pictures of police brutality and caused riots in the Catholic Bogside area. 


In the 50 day “revolution” that followed, civil rights demonstrations spread across the Province. 


Prime Minister Terence O’Neill put forward reforms, including fairer allocation of housing and replacing the gerrymandered Londonderry council. 


Violence develops


Off-duty members of the “B Specials” police auxiliary were among a Protestant mob that attacked a radicals’ march at Burntollet on 1 January 1969.


O’Neill called a general election for 24 February, but notably failed to win the support of Catholics for his reforms. His attempt to win sections of the minority to a rebranded Unionism had failed.  



Life cheapens: the descent into war


The strategy of tension


In 1966, a paramilitary group with connections to mainstream Unionists (named the Ulster Volunteer Force after the 1912 UVF) murdered two people in attempted sectarian assassinations designed to sabotage O’Neil’s reforms. The UVF was banned. 


Loyalist violence


Loyalists attacked Catholic areas. Republican marches superseded civil rights marches and people in Catholic areas turned to the hard-men of violence. 


August ’69


A Loyalist Apprentice Boys parade sparked a three day siege of the Bogside and Catholics battled to keep out the RUC and B Specials, seen by Catholics as sectarian forces in uniform. On 14 August the British Army was deployed to replace exhausted RUC officers. 


Catholic rioting in sympathy in Belfast led Protestants to fear a republican rising was underway. Four Catholics were killed and Catholic houses burnt by Protestants. 


The British army


The army received a temporary and partial welcome from Catholics, as did the abolition of the B Specials. But devolved government remained and the Army was there to defend the status quo. 


In the period to February 1973, over 8,000 families were forced from their homes by intimidation. 80 per cent were Catholics, forced out by Protestants. 


The provisional IRA


Pressure on Catholic areas created anew the IRA, which in 1969 split into the militant Provisional and Marxist Official wings. 




The IRA had fought a new-style “asymmetrical” guerilla-terrorist war in 1920-1921 against British forces in Ireland, and then after the 1921 peace treaty with Britain against pro-treaty republicans. It was the IRA’s status as victors in the war of independence that allowed it to persist as a feature of national life.




From 1971, the British Army undertook high profile, intrusive mass searches of houses and vehicles. Catholics saw these as the actions of an occupation army.


The British Army believed riots in Ballymurphy in 1971 were engineered by the IRA and threatened to shoot petrol bombers, a major escalation. In a big search and curfew operation in July 1970 in the Lower Falls area, five civilians were killed as the IRA resisted disarming of the area. 


Perceived by many as community defenders, the IRA was free to enforce an increasingly brutal martial law. Alleged spies and informers were executed. Criminals and those who “fraternized with the enemy” were punished, often by tarring and feathering. 


The IRA shoot the first British Army soldier in 1971. 




On 9 August 1971, “Internment” -- imprisonment of suspects without trial -- was introduced. 341 people were arrested and taken to makeshift camps. Only republicans are targeted and 14 people are subject to torture. 


There was an immediate upsurge in violence. Catholic areas in Belfast and Derry were surrounded by barricades and IRA men openly patrolled the perimeters. IRA detainees form a paramilitary organisation behind the barbed wire.


On Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, British paratroops shot dead 13 unarmed protestors. This led to the almost complete collapse of nationalist opposition to political violence and a mass influx into the Derry IRA.


Provo politics


The IRA had fought an effective war in 1919-21 because it could plausibly claim to represent a democratically valid entity, Dail Eireann. Catholics were not in a majority in Ulster and the crisis in the North failed to ignite the island of Ireland. Above all, the Provos were insufficiently politically mature to hold back their military activities to the degree necessary to establish a quasi-state capable of challenging the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. The IRA slipped back into the fantasy of militarism being sufficient to weary Britain of its commitment to Ulster’s unionists. 


The southern elite joined forces with the political representatives of Northern Ireland’s Catholics, the SDLP, to demand the abolition of Stormont and the renegotiation of Partition.


Northern Ireland appeared to be on the edge of civil war in March 1972, as the Conservative government suspended Northern Ireland’s devolved government. The fall of Stormont was a major victory in the Provo’s campaign to delegitimize the Northern Ireland state. A secretary of state for Northern Ireland now sat in the United Kingdom cabinet and acted as a semi-colonial governor. 


A brief truce in June to July 1972 broke down and the IRA reverted to a car bomb campaign of increasing ruthlessness. On 21 July 1972, in the space of an hour, 22 bombs detonated in Belfast, killing nine. In Operation Motorman, the government sent the army back into no-go areas, notably the Bogside in Derry, on 31 July. 




Vanguard, an organisation led by former Stormont home affairs minister Bill Craig, held rallies that attracted tens of thousands. Craig threatened to liquidate selected men and women who are “a menace to this country”. 


The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was mainly responsible for the killing of 80 Catholic civilians in 1972.


Since there were legal military forces for Ulster Protestants to join to defend the Union, Loyalist paramilitaries were unable to fill the role of legitimizers of communal identity and pride. 


Hundreds of members of the RUC and in particular the UDR were convicted of collusion between legal and illegal forces throughout the Troubles. But the loyalist paramilitaries were not simply government-run death squads. The security forces had a much higher rate of arrests against loyalists than nationalists and sentences were not noticeably lighter.


Loyalist paramilitaries hoped to terrorize the IRA civilian “support base” and torture murders were not uncommon. One gang, the Shankill butchers, killed at least 19 people in the 1970s. These were not the actions of a few psychotics: nearly 700 Catholic civilians died at loyalist hands, the largest single category of victim. 



The long war


Constitutional politics


Catholics were confident that their higher birth rate would eventually ensure communal Catholic victory. By far the largest Nationalist political vehicle was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which was formed in 1970 and stood for eventual Irish unity by agreement, emphasizing social and economic questions. The IRA was not seen as a credible political force by Catholics, though there was widespread sympathy for the armed struggle. 




Voters in Northern Ireland elected in 1973 an assembly made up of the three parties which accepted the state of Northern Ireland as the basis of self determination. The parties met at Sunningdale, a civil-service training centre in Britain, and formed a Council of Ireland. This was made up of equal numbers of Northern Irish Assembly members and Irish MPs from the Dail.


Anti-agreement Unionist parties united behind a general strike, backed by the UDA. Intimidation ensured the success of the strike in the first few days but Protestant workers in the power and fuel sectors rallied to the cause and forced pro-Agreement Unionists to resign, sparking the collapse of the Assembly.  


Direct rule


Quasi-colonial direct rule was resumed. Legislation in 1974 abolished jury trials for terrorist offences, making convictions easier to secure. Increasing evidence was laid on covert security operations. In 1972 the Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) was created to combine “intelligence gathering” with “aggressive patrolling” of republican areas. 


The use of undercover operatives gave rise to allegations that the British state was behind bombs in Dublin in 1972, as the Dublin parliament was deliberating anti-terrorist legislation; and bombs which killed 33 civilians and were exploded by Loyalist paramilitaries in the South during the UWC strike. 


As the security drive against the IRA succeeded, they began to attack targets in Britain. A pub bombing in Guilford in October 1974 killed five people and injured 44, and on the following month in Birmingham in which 19 died and 182 were injured.       


These atrocities might have harmed the republican movement if innocent Irishmen (the Guilford Four and Birmingham Six) who had been picked up, brutalized and unjustly imprisoned -- had not become causes celebres. They only won their release in the Nineties.




The IRA became convinced that the British government was considering withdrawal. A 1974 Christmas truce became open-ended in February 1975. 




Loyalists escalated their sectarian murder campaign, killing a peak of 110 civilians in 1976, up from 96 in 1975. The IRA carried out “retaliatory” sectarian murders. This created ideal conditions for the government to “criminalize” the conflict. The RUC was now to take the lead in law-and-order over the army and special legislation would be phased out.


The hunger strikes


As part of the strategy to recast the conflict as primarily a law and order crisis, in 1975 the government opted to phase out the “special status” designation for IRA prisoners under which they were de facto treated as POWs. 


In 1976 a new IRA prisoner refused to wear prison uniform and wrapped himself in his prison bedding. By late 1980, 340 prisoners were “on the blanket”, followed by the “no wash protest” and the “dirty protest”, where excrement was smeared on the walls in preference to following rules on toilet facilities.


The struggle was between the prisoners’ self-perception as a legitimate army and the intention of Mrs Thatcher that they be treated as criminals. There was a great deal of support among the Catholic population for the prisoners’ demands.


Electoral politics


On 9 April 1981, Hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected Sinn Fein MP for the seat of Fermanagh/South Tyrone and died weeks later. There was rioting in Belfast on a scale not seen since the early 70s and an estimated 100,000 people attended his funeral. By 20 August, Sands' campaign manager was elected for the same seat. 


Sinn Fein had previously been wary of getting involved in electoral politics for fear that unless it swept the board of nationalist Ireland, it would be risk the IRA being seen as the armed wing of a minority political party, rather than the “army of the people”. But it now announced it would contest all subsequent elections. Danny Morrison characterized the new approach in 1981 as “a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in another”.


Constitutional politics


The British government was increasingly concerned at the lack of political change in Northern Ireland. Many mainstream Unionists were prepared to put up with direct rule as the price to pay for not having to share power. And having come so close to an institutional recognition of their Irishness with Sunningdale, the Catholic population were unwilling to accept Britain’s insistence that they settle for anything the Ulster Unionists, now led by veterans of the anti-Sunningdale movement, were likely to offer. 


As early as 1980 Thatcher and Charles Haughey, Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, established an Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council to examine security and economic co-operation. Haughey had wider constitutional ambitions. He introduced the phrase “the totality of relationships between these islands” to summarize the dynamic he hoped to see develop. 


The Southern government was terrified that the northern Catholic population, for which it claimed to act as sponsor, might swing decisively behind Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the hunger strikes. This did happen in the North in 1982 when trial elections to a power sharing assembly were held. Garret Fitzgerald’s new government in the South set up the “New Ireland Forum” to discuss ways ahead. The three main southern political parties and the SDLP attended. Unionist parties from the North were invited by declined to attend. Sinn Fein, wedded to violence, was excluded. 


The forum suggested options ranging from a united Ireland to a federal or confederal state or joint authority. Mrs Thatcher shocked nationalist Ireland when she ruled all these options out. Along with her cabinet, she had recently been lucky to escape alive from the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, and possibly her hard-line response can best be understood as a refusal to be intimidated by this bombing.


The Anglo-Irish agreement


On 15 November 1985 British and Irish made public common ground they had agreed upon. The UK recognised the right of the Irish Republic to be consulted and make proposals concerning Northern Ireland. For its part, the Irish republic reiterated its acknowledgement that a united Ireland could only come about by the consent of the majority of the six-county population.


Nationalists were not at first united on the agreement. For them to accept that the majority in the North overrode in principle the all-Ireland majority for a united Ireland was a major step. 


But Britain had never before stated in an international treaty, registered at the United Nations, that it would not stand in the way of a united Ireland should consent be mustered in Northern Ireland. 


Mrs Thatcher’s government stood firm in the face of a massive Unionist campaign against the Anglo-Irish agreement, which was conceived specifically as a means to force unionists to accept a settlement acceptable to Catholic opinion and a strengthened Irish dimension. 


For the first time, Nationalists had been given a veto of sorts of their own. Passive unionist reliance on British obligations to the province came unstuck with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. 


All Unionist MPs resigned, forcing new elections all over Northern Ireland as a referendum on the agreement. The unionist vote went up, though they lost one seat to the SDLP. “Ulster says no” banners appeared on local government buildings all over Northern Ireland, including a huge one on Belfast City Hall. 


Argument raged within the Unionist party on the best way to secure Northern Ireland’s position. This ranged from complete integration with the United Kingdom, through administrative devolution on the model of the former Greater London Council, to calls for outright Ulster independence.


The “equal citizenship” position was greeted coolly by senior members of the party, as it implied mainland UK parties would contest elections against UUP candidates.


Long-term demographics were moving against the Unionists. Working-class Protestants were leaving West and North Belfast and the city side of Derry. Middle-class Protestants, particularly those of student age, increasingly left for England and Scotland. By the 1980s, net migration to those countries was running at 9,000 per year. As Protestant emigration climbed and Catholics stayed at home, the old ratio of two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic gave way to nearly 45 per cent of the population being Catholic. 


The long “peace”


Attritional war


British policy moved to that of limiting conflict to an “acceptable level of violence”. The IRA likewise geared itself towards a long war of attrition. 


Republican terrorists were pursued relentlessly. Between 11 November and 1982 six men were shot dead by the RUC in County Armagh. Five of the dead were members of republican paramilitary organisations, raising questions of a “shoot to kill” policy.


Three major “supergrass” trials, in which the state offered lavish inducements to informers to secure not merely intelligence, but convictions, resulted in the conviction of 36 people. (Most were later overturned as unreliable.) 


Military confrontations with the IRA returned to the domain of the army: between December 1983 and February 1985 another ten men were shot dead by SAS undercover squads. 


The IRA, fortified by 35 tons of weapons and explosives from Libya in 1985-6, attempted to create liberated zones in border areas where troops already moved by helicopter. However, this essentially manoeuvred IRA volunteers in concentrations prone to military counter strikes. For example, on 8 May 1987 the SAS ambushed an eight strong IRA active service unit seeking to destroy the Loughgall RUC station. All the IRA men were killed.


Understanding that British public opinion looked with horror, but relative indifference, upon the violence in Northern Ireland, the IRA preferred to concentrate on “spectacular” operations on the British mainland. 


In July 1982, for example the IRA  bombed Hyde Park and Regents Park in London, killing a total of eight soldiers. 


The 1990s saw a devastating attack on the heart of the British economy. On 10 April 1992 the IRA exploded two bombs at the Baltic Exchange in London. Three people were killed and the insurance bill was £800m, compared to the estimated figure for the whole of Northern Ireland of £615m since the start of the Troubles.


Within Northern Ireland, the IRA fought an increasingly demoralizing war of attrition. The bombing of a Remembrance Day service on 6 November 1987, in which 11 Protestant civilians died, was a public-relations disaster for the IRA and Gerry Adams pressed its leadership for greater efforts not to kill “innocent civilians”. 


But even the killing of “legitimate targets” could strain the tolerance of the republican support base. On 6 March 1988 three IRA members were shot dead in Gibralter by members of the SAS. A few days later, a loyalist gunman named Michael Stone killed three mourners at their funerals. Two British soldiers in plain clothes who accidentally approached the cortege were mobbed and dragged from their car. Given fears of another attack, this was perhaps understandable. That they were then murdered in cold blood by the IRA on the spot could however hardly be defended as “war”.   


The re-escalation of loyalist violence after the Anglo-Irish Agreement also put the IRA under pressure. Efficient targeting aided by collusion between members of the security forces and perhaps elements in British Intelligence, meant that Republican activists, as well as Catholic civilians, were being hit with disturbing regularity in the later 1980s. 


IRA efforts counter loyalist terrorism selectively were unsuccessful. An attempt in October 1993 to wipe out the leadership of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, meeting in an office over a chip shop on the Shankill Road in Belfast, failed when the bomb went off prematurely, killing one bomber and nine civilians. Outrage was universal. 


The IRA’s inability to stop the tide of loyalist killing was a factor in its decision to de-escalate its campaign of violence and direct its violence almost exclusively against the security forces.


The peace process


The Gerry Adams-Martin McGuinness leadership of Sinn Fein considered a new departure in nationalist politics and hoped that a broad nationalist alliance could be constructed of which the IRA would be an unacknowledged but active part. In republican thinking this is what had happened in the broad unionist family. 


Both the British government and the SDLP held separate exploratory talks with the IRA.


On 28 August 1993 John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and Sinn Fein called for a solution based on “the right of the Irish people as a whole to national self-determination”. The qualifier, that “the exercise of this right is . . . a matter for agreement between all the people of Ireland”, suggested that the people of Northern Ireland would have the right to defy a simple all-Ireland numerical majority.


The British and Irish governments, in a joint declaration issued from Downing Street on 15 December 1993, agreed to “foster agreement and reconciliation, leading to a new political framework . . . within Northern Ireland, for the whole Island and between these islands” but did not attempt to persuade Protestants to accept Irish unity. A secret IRA briefing document on the political environment in 1994 stated the IRA looked towards the “strongest possible consensus between the Dublin government, Sinn Fein and the SDLP” and it admitted that “an agreed Ireland needs the allegiance of varied traditions to be viable”.


On this basis the IRA called a “complete and unequivocal” ceasefire on 31 August 1994. Six weeks later, loyalist paramilitaries declared a reciprocal ceasefire from 13 October.


The political process


The UUP warmed somewhat to power sharing and some form of north-south cooperation, if only to regain some control of a situation now dictated, they believed, over their heads by the Anglo-Irish agreement. By the mid-Nineties, “responsibility sharing” was operating in almost half of the 26 Northern Irish local councils, including some with an infamous reputation for sectarianism.


Unionists insisted on an explicitly permanent ceasefire and the “decommissioning” of terrorist weapons before entering into negotiations with Sinn Fein. 


A joint British-Irish communique of November 1995 proposed a twin-track process in which talks on decommissioning would take place alongside exploratory talks with all parties including Sinn Fein and loyalist fringe parties associated with Protestant paramilitaries. 


To avoid the impression that the IRA were being asked to surrender at the request of Britain, an international body chaired by US Senator George Mitchell would advise on arrangements to decommission paramilitary arms. The involvement of America was particularly calculated to appeal to republicans and Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland shortly after the communique to demonstrate his approval.  


On 9 February 1996 a huge IRA bomb devastated the Docklands area in London, killing two and injuring 100. On 15 June 1996, massive bomb devastated a busy shopping area in central Manchester. Two hundred people were injured in that attack. These bombs  TV reflected the IRA’s dawning realization that unionists were not going to be strong-armed into a settlement transitioning to a united Ireland. 


An IRA campaign -- by previous standards of a relatively low level of violence -- attracted condemnation from all parties and international opinion.  


The election to the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation gave Sinn Fein its best ever showing, reflecting the insistence of the republican electorate that it not return to violence. 


The IRA stayed its hand when the RUC reversed a decision to reroute a loyalist march in Drumcree, Portadown away from a Catholic area, sparking rioting in Catholic areas and a forceful response from the security services. More than anything else this demonstrated the continuing ascendency of Adams’s and McGunness’s peace strategy within the republican movement.


The newly elected Labour government of Tony Blair was not dependent on Unionists and compartmentalized decommissioning to a sub committee. The IRA resumed its ceasefire and after six weeks Sinn Fein was admitted to the talks. 


The DUP walked out, protesting that the IRA had not been required to give up even one bullet. David Trimble of the UUP kept his team in. Trimble was an enthusiastic devolutionist, not merely defensive in his unionism, and envisaged a form of Ulster citizenship that would reach out to at least a section of Catholics. 


Belfast Good Friday Agreement


Substantive negotiations were dominated by Trimble’s UUP and Hume’s SDLP, and Sinn Fein had little influence. The SDLP presented proposals designed to maximize the all-Ireland dimension and Dublin involvement as guarantor for the Catholic minority’s Irish identity. But they did not strive for a dynamic that would progressively integrate the island at the cost of British influence. Recognizing this, the Ulster Unionists were content to stay in the game to moderate the all-Ireland dimension. 


When the talks faltered, Senator George Mitchell unexpectedly moved forward the final date and the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement was signed at around 5pm on Good Friday, 10 April, 1998.


A power sharing agreement gave representatives from each community a veto over the other and ministers were not required to agree with each other in cabinet, the norm in a representative democracy. 


The British Secretary of State was to remain responsible for non-devolved matters -- significantly, law and order and to represent Northern Ireland in the UK. 


North-South bodies were given competence to discuss transport, agriculture, education and other issues. Delegations to these bodies would be responsible to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Dail. 


Though the IRA had no hand in negotiating these institutions, it succeeded in greening the culture of Northern Ireland to some extent. Prisoners associated with paramilitary groups on ceasefire were to be released within two years. The status of the Irish language (and Ulster Scots, a newly promoted dialect) would be raised. And existing measures to guarantee fair employment were to be strengthened. 


Unionists made significant steps in fortifying the Union and they now had a devolved Northern Ireland government enjoying a veto over the north-south bodies. The DUP rejected the agreement while the UUP stood by their leader. The SDLP were delighted. The IRA saw it as the terrain for conducting a new, probably non-military, struggle. 

In a referendum, the agreement was endorsed by 71 per cent of the voters in the north and 95 per cent in the south.

In elections to the Assembly the UUP won 22 per cent of the vote, compared to the SDLP’s 21 per cent. The Unionists were no longer the single largest party by votes. Unionists were deeply unhappy with the early release of prisoners and the IRA refused to placate unionist fears by decommissioning weapons. 

Most Unionists hoped the Northern Ireland Assembly would eclipse the north-south bodies and British-Irish axis. Nationalists, by contrast, hoped to involve as many players as possible in London, Dublin and Washington.

Loyalist assassinations, sometimes drug-related, sometimes political, continued. The IRA suffered splintering, with the Continuity IRA and the “Real” IRA continuing a campaign of violence. On 15 August 1998, following a misleading warning, a car bomb in Omagh killed 29, the largest single atrocity of the Troubles. 

Such horror reinforced a fundamental change in the popular mindset: murderous violence for political ends had returned to the realms of the unacceptable. 

The IRA pledged in May 2000 to put its weaponry “beyond use”  at some unspecified time and in the meantime open some of its dumps to international monitors. 

Trimble’s UUP was badly mauled in the UK general election in 2001, while the DUP increased their support by more than 50 per cent. Sinn Fein for the first time outstripped the SDLP.

But implementation of the agreement has been tortuous. The assembly was suspended in 2002 amid a row over alleged activities of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.


In a bid to restart the political process and after consultations with Dublin, London passed emergency legislation in spring 2006 enabling the recall of the assembly in May of that year.


But assembly leaders missed a November 2006 deadline to form a power-sharing executive. Assembly elections in the following March led to the eventual swearing-in of the leaders of the power-sharing government on 8 May 2007, ending five years of direct rule from London.


Hopes of a permanent end to violence were raised in summer 2005 when the IRA formally announced an end to its armed campaign. Soon afterwards the arms decommissioning body said it was satisfied that the IRA had put its weapons beyond use.


However, dissident republican groups such as the Real IRA and Continuity IRA still represent a threat to the peace process. The killings of two soldiers and a policeman by dissident republican factions in March 2009 raised fears that such paramilitary groups still had the capacity to undermine the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement.


Recent developments:

tober 2012

October 2012 A mortar bomb is found at a house in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast on 4 October.


September 2012 Police in Dublin investigating dissident republican activity arrest two men after surveillance equipment is found in a hotel room overlooking a garda station.


August 2012 On 31 August, two men appear in court charged with firearms offences in relation to dissident republican activity in Newtownabbey.


July 2012 On 26 July, some dissident republican paramilitary groups issue a statement saying they are to come together under the banner of the IRA. According to The Guardian, the Real IRA has been joined by Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a coalition of independent armed republican groups and individuals.


June 2012 Republican Action Against Drugs says it was behind a bomb attack on a police vehicle in Londonderry on 2 June.


April 2012 Five men fled Londonderry over the course of a week after being threatened by the vigilante group, Republican Action Against Drugs. A paramilitary-style shooting in Londonderry was deliberately timed ahead of a rally against a dissident republican group, one of its organisers has claimed. A man was shot in both legs.





Current political structure of Northern Ireland



Secretary of state for Northern Ireland: Theresa Villiers


First minister of NI Assembly: Peter Robinson


Deputy first minister of NI Assembly: Martin McGuinness


The Good Friday Agreement provides for the administration of Northern Ireland by an elected assembly and executive with ministerial posts distributed according to party strength.


The British government's Northern Ireland Office, headed by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, oversees constitutional and security matters. It deals with economic and social affairs when the Northern Ireland Executive is not operating.


Northern Ireland returns 18 members to the British parliament.


Since 2007 power in the Northern Ireland Executive has been shared between two parties traditionally considered it be on the more extreme wings of Unionism and Republicanism - the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein - while the hitherto more dominant and more moderate Ulster Unionists and SDLP have been marginalised at the polls.


The DUP's Peter Robinson succeeded veteran leader Ian Paisley as first minister, with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness serving as deputy first minister and de facto co-leader of the Executive.


The Rev Paisley, a firebrand Protestant minister, and Mr McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, developed a surprising rapport. Mr Robinson, a long-time party worker rather than street campaigner, has continued to work with Mr McGuinness, although tensions remain in this unlikely marriage of convenience.


Mr Robinson had to step down as first minister briefly in 2010 during an investigation into a financial scandal involving his wife Iris, who was also a member of the Assembly and the British Parliament.


He was cleared of wrongdoing, and went on to complete the delicate process of devolving police and justice powers to the Executive. The DUP and Sinn Fein both saw their positions improve at the expense of other parties at the 2011 Assembly elections, and the coalition seems set to continue.










Other useful resources:

The conclusion of each chapter is a brief political analysis of the periods covered by these module notes.


Brief guides to the political parties and paramilitaries of Northern Ireland from the BBC. 


People of Northern Ireland and beyond speak of the impact violence had on their lives (BBC).





The human cost of the Northern Irish conflict


More than 3,600 people died, approximately 90 per cent  at the hands of illegal paramilitaries. 


The remainder were killed by the British army and the RUC. 


The IRA killed more than half the total, including 465 British Army soldiers, 190 members of the locally recruited Ulster Defence regiment, and 272 members of the RUC. Various republican factions killed another 231 people. The IRA expressly targeted 133 Protestant civilians. The Irish National Liberation Army added another 21. The victims of Protestant paramilitaries were far more likely to be Catholic civilians than republican fighters. 


Over 1,500 of all victims were in Belfast and nearly 500 in County Armagh, which was known as “bandit country”. 


More than 40,000 people were injured, almost three per cent of the population. 


If one extrapolates these figures to Britain, some 111,000 people would have died, with 1.4 million people injured, equivalent to just under half of British deaths during the Second World War. 







Picture research: Sunthai Constantini

Research mainly drawn from Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction by Marc Mulholland. Oxford University Press; and the BBC.



Student Access: 
Year 3

Northern Ireland timeline