On the 5th of October 1968, a conflict known as the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland, resulting in 30 years of violence between Irish Republicans, Ulster Loyalists and state security forces. 3532 people were killed in Northern Ireland as well as in incidents affecting the Republic of Ireland and England. At the heart of this conflict was the constitutional status of 6 Ulster counties that were under United Kingdom sovereignty, but in the early days of sectarian violence, civil rights and an end to discrimination against the Catholic minority of the North were more prominent issues.

Fifty Years of the Northern Ireland Troubles

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND – APRIL 10: Former US President Bill Clinton holds (R) hands with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as they attend an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement at Queens university on April 10, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s present devolved system of government is based on this agreement and was a major part of the 1990’s peace process. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The 1960s were a decade of great social upheaval in the western world: most notably, Martin Luther King led a civil rights movement in the USA, aimed at ensuring equal rights for black people. Inspired by these events, Catholic-Nationalist groups in Northern Ireland began planning marches to improve their political representation and access to social services. Under the banner of the NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association), in August 1968, Catholics led a protest in Dungannon to oppose discrimination, gerrymandering and a housing system in County Tyrone that was unfair (famously, a single Protestant woman was allocated a house ahead of multiple Catholic families).

Two months later, the same group focussed its attentions on the unionist-sympathising Londonderry Company that developed housing policy. Though the Northern Irish government had banned their march, it went ahead in defiance on the 5th of October 1968 in the city of Derry. As their route passed through the Protestant area of Waterside, RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officers began to use batons and water cannons to disperse the protestors. A riot broke out and images of the violence were broadcast by media worldwide.

The fallout from this incident greatly destabilised the North: Prime Minister Terence O’Neill called a snap-election to fight his critics, but this caused the ruling UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) to cede ground to their rivals, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party – a party alleged to collude with the UVF and UDA loyalist paramilitary groups in later years). Eventually, O’Neill was forced to resign the following year.

Subsequent civil rights marches were met with Protestant counter-protests, leading to more riots and the first deaths of the Troubles. In 1969, the Catholic Bogside area of Derry became overrun with violence with the police unable to contain it, eventually causing Stormont to request assistance from the British Army – Operation Banner had begun and would only end in 2007, making it the longest campaign in British military history.

At first welcomed by Catholics, the Army soon came to be seen as biased towards Protestant Loyalists, and soldiers became victims of attacks by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army). Tit-for-tat violence between Republicans (the IRA, INLA and IPLO) and Loyalists (the UVF, UDA, RHC, UR and LVF) consisted of assassinations, bombings and ambushes; this was further complicated by violent incidents between groups of the same ideology. Bloody Sunday, January 1972, was perhaps the most famous event in the Troubles: 14 unarmed civilians were killed by the British Army and IRA recruitment surged.

No ceasefire between the paramilitaries held until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which involved the British, Irish and Northern Ireland governments as well as the paramilitary groups. Referendums were held on a constitutional basis for the North across the island of Ireland and, excepting the DUP, every major political party was in favour of the terms.

Since 1998, dissident paramilitaries have continued to operate, though the Good Friday Agreement is widely considered to be a success of Tony Blair’s government. 1841 civilians had died before a compromise was agreed, and a violence-weary island seemed ready to decommission their weapons in favour of political negotiation.

In relation to today, the issue of the Irish border is a major obstacle to Brexit negotiations as, under the terms of the GFA, cross-border cooperation and a lack of border checks was implemented. With one country in and the other out of the EU, this arrangement is more difficult to apply though, for the purposes of peace and pragmatism, a sensible solution to this problem should be agreed.

By Matthew Audcent