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The Northern Ireland Troubles:
INCORE background paper

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Text: Prof. Mari Fitzduff and Liam O’Hagan ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna


There is now a revised version (2009) of this paper at this link:


The Northern Ireland Troubles:
INCORE background paper

Prof. Mari Fitzduff and Liam O’Hagan, INCORE[1]




On Good Friday, 10 April 1998, after thirty years of a bloody civil war in which over 3,600 hundred people had been killed, and over 30,000 injured, and after almost two long final and weary years of political talks, the negotiations that resulted in the Belfast Agreement were finally concluded. The Agreement was approved by Northern Ireland’s main nationalist political parties and most of the unionist parties[2]. At the same time the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland signed an international agreement. The Belfast Agreement involved constitutional change in the Republic of Ireland resulting in the ending of its territorial claim to Northern Ireland; cross-border bodies with executive powers set up by the two governments; the establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly based on power-sharing; and the early release of paramilitary prisoners. The Agreement was subsequently endorsed by referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on Friday 22 May 1998. In December 1999 a legislative Assembly of both unionist and nationalist politicians was finally set up to share power in Northern Ireland, with Ministers and committee members drawn from both sides of the political divide.

Key Dates in Northern Ireland History

What are the roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland? And when did they start? The following are a list of key dates in the history of Northern Ireland[3]:

  • 1170 Settlers from Britain arrive in Ireland

  • 1608 Plantation of Ulster began

  • 1641 The Catholic-Gaelic rising in response to the Plantation and the confiscation of land by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland

  • 1690 The Battle of the Boyne and the victory of Protestant William III over Catholic James II - this victory is still celebrated in many parades in Northern Ireland

  • 1801 Act of Union which abolished the Irish Parliament and bound Ireland and Britain together as parts of the United Kingdom

  • 1912 Ulster Solemn League and Covenant signed by over 400, 000 Protestants who wanted to remain in the Union

  • 1916 The Easter Rising in Dublin against British rule

  • 1921 A treaty leading to the establishment of an Irish Free State of 26 counties, with the 6 counties of Northern Ireland remaining British

  • 1968 The starting point of the present ‘Troubles’ arising, in part, out of the campaign by Catholics in Northern Ireland for civil rights

  • 1998 The Belfast Agreement (sometimes called the Good Friday Agreement)

  • 1999 The setting up of a power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland

The Creation of Northern Ireland[4]

The partition of Ireland that took place in 1921 was a logical outcome of the British attempts since the 12th century to achieve dominance in Ireland. One key feature of these attempts was the use of 'plantations' of settlers on the island as a means of control. Large tracts of Irish land were confiscated and then given to British soldiers who had fought in Ireland, or to groups of people who wished to improve their lot, economically or religiously, by relocating to Ireland. Many of these people and their families, especially those who arrived during the earlier plantations, eventually integrated their lives with the lives of the native Irish. Others, however, mostly those who came to settle in the north of the island in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from Scotland (including some from England) retained both their religious and political distinctiveness. These were Protestant planters, whose religion was the result of the recent Reformation, which had split Christendom, and in particular the British Isles, where only the island of Ireland remained loyal to Roman Christianity / Catholicism.

Throughout the centuries, insurrections and rebellions by the native Irish against British rule had been common. Pressure on the British government to grant independence to the island continued to increase and after the great war of 1914-1918 Britain agreed to limited independence. The pressure for 'Home Rule' in Ireland had been firmly resisted by Protestants in the north who wanted to maintain the union with Britain. They feared their absorption into a united, mainly Catholic Ireland, where they believed their religious freedom would be restricted. Protestants also feared the poorer economic state of the rest of the island, compared to their own relatively prosperous region. Most Catholics, living in the northern region, who were the descendants of the indigenous people who had been displaced by the settlers through the plantations, wanted independence from Britain and a united Ireland.

The unionists threatened to use force if they were coerced into a united Ireland and began to mobilise private armies against such an eventuality. In an effort at compromise, the then Prime Minister of Britain, Lloyd George, insisted that the island be partitioned into two sections, the six counties in the north-east would remain part of the United Kingdom while the other 26 counties would gain independence. Each state would have its own parliament. Irish nationalist leaders were divided over this suggestion, but the offer was eventually accepted by those leaders who were sent to conduct treaty negotiations with the British, as they were anxious to avoid a return to an increasingly bloody conflict in Ireland. It was also accepted by the unionists, although reluctantly, as their first wish was for the whole of the island to remain within the United Kingdom.

The decision to partition the island led to bitter civil conflict between those nationalists who accepted partition and those who rejected it. Eventually, in 1923, those who accepted partition achieved a bloody victory, and with the consent of Dublin and Westminster the Irish Free State was formally created. The Irish Constitution of 1937 adopted the title Eire (the Irish word for Ireland) for the state. The state then declared itself a Republic on Easter Monday (April 18) 1949; the official title is therefore the 'Republic of Ireland'.

Green and Orange States

The majority of the citizens in the newly formed Republic of Ireland were Catholics, a fact that has been consistently reflected in the laws of the state since independence. For example, contraception only became legally available in the 1980s, divorce only became available in 1995 and abortion is still illegal. At the time of partition 10 per cent of the population of the new Free State was Protestant. This number dwindled to a current figure of 4 per cent partly due to the Catholic church's insistence on the children of mixed marriages being brought up as Catholics. The Catholic ethos of the state has, however, been eroded to some extent in recent years.

Northern Ireland has a population of about one and a half million people. At the time of partition in 1921 Protestants / unionists had a two-thirds majority in the region. The first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir James Craig, described the state as having ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.’ The state effectively discriminated against Catholics in housing, jobs, and political representation. Membership of the Orange Order, a wholly Protestant society, which was often essential for progress in politics and business, was forbidden to Catholics. Most local councils were dominated by unionists. Many unionists believe that such discrimination arose because many Catholics did not want to co-operate with the new state, and because unionists felt that the very existence of their state was threatened by what they saw as a subversive minority.

Such distrust was reinforced by the fact that it was possible for many people from one side of the religious / political divide to live, study, pray, work, and socialise, almost completely apart from people of the other side of the divide. Almost all children are educated separately[5]. Even where contact happened - more commonly among the middle classes, who have greater access to shared work and leisure facilities - such contact was usually notable for its often polite, but calculated, avoidance of any acknowledgement or discussion of differences, in the belief that such discussion is bound to be contentious. In the words of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning local poet, the key priority for most such conversations was `Whatever you say, say nothing.' Such separation, with parallel discrimination, inevitably led to significant distrust and prejudice between the communities.

Civil Conflict, 1969

Eventually, the existence of such ghettoisation and discrimination provided the main focus for the civil rights campaigns of the late 1960s. These campaigns, which drew massive support from Catholics in Northern Ireland, were inspired by a worldwide non-violent movement for civil rights to secure rights to votes, jobs, and services. The civil rights movement drew a hostile response from the Protestant state, which saw them as a threat to its existence.

Copyright Eamon Melaugh The eruption of violence on the streets, and the wholescale movement of populations in urban areas into separate Protestant and Catholic communities led to the formation of local vigilantes that in turn led to the resurgence of paramilitaries in local communities. The intensity of sectarian violence resulted in the deployment of the British Army on the Streets in Northern Ireland, where they have remained to this day. When it became obvious that those unionists who were in power were not willing, or able, to address quickly enough the demands of Catholics for civil rights, the campaign gradually developed on the part of some people into a violent campaign which claimed that equality was impossible within the existing state structures. This campaign of violence and counter violence by the Loyalist paramilitaries, with attempts at containment by both the police and army, lasted until the cease-fires of 1994. There were several attempts at political agreements notably in 1974 where there was a power-sharing executive but this was destroyed by the actions of Loyalist paramilitaries.



The main political parties in Northern Ireland are[6]:

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
David Trimble’s party could be described as a ‘broad church’ unionist party and carries the support of a majority representing mainstream unionism.

Copyright CAIN

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
John Hume’s constitutional nationalists represent the middle ground in nationalist thinking. Although they want a united Ireland, they are committed to constitutional politics and non-violence.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
Ian Paisley’s party who have refused to 'negotiate with terrorists' but have strategically remained involved in the process. They are critical of any perceived compromise by Trimble and the UUP.

Sinn Fein (SF)
The political wing of Republicanism and the IRA. Crucially brought on board to negotiations by leader Gerry Adams.

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI)
A mainstream party which attempts to appeal to both sides of the community.

Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC)
A newly emerged party, formed in 1996, which has provided an important middle ground for dialogue among women, and other political parties.

Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and Ulster Democratic Party (UDP)
These parties represent the two main Loyalist paramilitary groupings who were developed as political parties in the mid-nineties, and were involved in the peace negotiations as they brought a new perspective to unionism.



The use of force by paramilitary groups (illegal armies) has been a consistent factor in politics in Northern Ireland. Throughout the state's history the actions of both Republican and Loyalist[7] paramilitaries have provided most of the horrific headlines in Northern Ireland through their use of bombings, shootings, racketeering, and community intimidation, in order to secure political leverage for their cause. There are believed to be about 500 active Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, although they have thousands of supporters who assist them with safe houses, etc.

Copyright Eamon Melaugh The Irish Republican Army (the IRA) is the descendant of the most forceful military group that had fought for independence for the whole of the island of Ireland in 1921. By the end of 1969, following the resistance by the unionist government to the civil rights campaign, the IRA had begun to regroup, and by early 1970 its members were confronting British troops who had arrived on the island to assist with riot control. The violence of the IRA grew into extensive bombing campaigns directed against civilian, public utility, and military targets. Support for the IRA was increased in August 1971 when, in an attempt to curb the escalating violence, Internment (imprisonment) without trial was introduced. Hundreds of Catholics were wrongly imprisoned (Bardon 1992) and Internment helped to increase significantly Catholic support for the Republican paramilitaries.

In January 1972 support for the IRA was further increased when British soldiers opened fire on a demonstration by nationalists in Derry killing thirteen men; an event that was to become known as 'Bloody Sunday'. The official inquiry concluded that the shooting had ‘bordered on the reckless’ and a new enquiry into this incident is presently taking place in the city of Derry / Londonderry[8].

By the end of the 1970s the Republican movement realised that it needed to build up a mass political base if its campaign was to succeed, and a new strategy was devised involving `a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other'. This strategy meant that the movement would combine both political and paramilitary pressure to achieve its aims. Although the political wing, Sinn Fein, obtained only 2 per cent support in elections at that time, its success in politics in Northern Ireland has continued to increase to approximately 16 per cent of the total vote. This has enabled it to increasingly use politics, rather than violence, to make its political case for a united Ireland.

The threat of the use of force by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a Loyalist paramilitary group, in the early 1900s was a consistent factor in the opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. In the 1960s a modern version of the UVF was formed. Loyalists were worried by the tentative civil rights reforms for Catholics suggested by the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and recruitment to the ranks of the Loyalist paramilitaries was substantially increased when violence erupted onto the streets in 1969. There was rioting between Catholic and Protestant areas of working-class Belfast almost every night. In the early 1970s bombings by the IRA became a feature of daily life as businesses in the city centre were targeted. There was frequent sniper fire from Protestant areas into Catholic areas and vice versa. In almost all the working class areas of Belfast the men, both Catholic and Protestant, formed themselves into vigilante groups in order to protect their streets; many of these vigilantes subsequently joined the paramilitaries.

Angered at the imposition of 'direct rule' from Westminster in March 1972, when Stormont was prorogued in favour of direct political control from London by the British Government, many of the Protestant groups merged to form the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UDA was the largest of the Loyalist paramilitary groups and it used the covername the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) to claim killings of Catholics. Loyalist paramilitary tactics mainly consisted of bombing Catholic pubs and targeting Catholics for murder and they often justified their killings on the basis that their targets were actively involved in the IRA, although these claims were rarely substantiated. However, in the 1990s Loyalist paramilitary groups too began to develop their own political wings - the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). These were eventually to play a significant and positive role in the discussions leading up to the Belfast Agreement.



It is generally agreed that the peace process was developed from a combination of factors:

  • A realisation by both the IRA and the British Army that the war could not be won militarily, and the decision by the IRA to develop politics, through its political party Sinn Fein, as an alternative way to fight for its political goals.

  • The willingness of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) party to engage with Sinn Fein in pursuing common nationalist political goals by peaceful means.

  • A changing social and economic context in which many of the discriminations against Catholics were addressed, and in which a legal and social infrastructure to address issues of inequality, equality, and respect for diversity, began to be developed.

  • An increased willingness by many within civic society, for example among business, trade union, and community groups, to actively engage in process of contact, and political leverage for peace.[9]

  • The development of some new (albeit small) political parties by the Loyalists, and by the Women's Coalition, which enabled some new thinking on the political landscape.

  • A changing international context, including proactive involvement from the United States government, and many US businessmen and politicians, as well as assistance with developing peace processes from South Africa.

Copyright CAIN The above eventually led to the ceasefires of 1994 when the IRA announced ‘a complete cessation of military operations’ followed by the announcement of a Loyalist ceasefire by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC). Such ceasefires were developed through a combination of political dialogue processes which included British government secret contacts with the IRA; SDLP dialogue with Sinn Fein to see if common nationalist goals could be pursued together peacefully; and Sinn Fein and Loyalist contacts with the Dublin Government. Particularly important was the continuous (although often contentious) dialogue between the British and Irish Governments. The latter dialogue was significantly helped by the fact that the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 afforded the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland for the first time. It was also helped by the Framework Document of 1995 that committed both governments to addressing the internal relationship between the Northern Irish parties, a new all-Ireland relationship, and a review of the relationship between Britain and Ireland.



A striking reality of the conflict is provided by the work of the Cost of the Troubles Study.[10] In total there were over 3,600 deaths as a result of the conflict most of which occurred in the early and mid 1970s. Civilians accounted for more than half of the fatalities. Most of those killed, 91 per cent, were male and a majority of deaths, 53 per cent, were of people under 30 years of age. Catholics were the majority of those killed, that is 43 per cent as opposed to approximately 30 per cent who were Protestant. Most of the fatalities, 59 per cent, were inflicted by Republican paramilitaries, 28 per cent were killed by Loyalist paramilitaries, and 11 per cent by the security forces. In the majority of these killings, no one was convicted. Given the population of Northern Ireland - one and a half million people - it has been estimated that the number of people closely associated to those who were killed or injured is about half the population. It has been a huge price to pay for the inability of the people of Northern Ireland to resolve their differences peacefully.



A number of issues remain crucial to the future of Northern Ireland; six of these are briefly outlined below.

Perhaps the biggest single stumbling block to further progress. Unionists demand (to different degrees) the ‘tangible’ decommissioning of Republican paramilitary weapons before wholeheartedly engaging in government. Republicans have resisted such moves to date, not wishing to be seen to surrender and citing various international examples to claim that unionist demands are unreasonable. Recent developments include the arrival of external observers (South African Cyril Ramaphosa and Finn Martti Ahtisaari) to inspect arms dumps and ensure that they 'remain secure'.

Equality and Justice
Significant advances have been made in housing, employment and other areas but much remains to be achieved. There is a problem of long-term unemployment, particularly among Catholics, and in ensuring Catholic equality at the most senior levels of the civil service.[11] The danger is that advances for the Catholic community can be perceived as deficits for the Protestant community in a ‘zero-sum’ game, which does little to foster co-operation.

Parades have been an important feature in Northern Ireland society since the eighteenth century, as a means of commemorating and celebrating key historical events particularly in the Protestant community. For many, they fulfil a social, political, and religious role. The actual number of annual parades has been increasing steadily and substantially over the past 10 years, with 1995 seeing a total of 3,500 parades throughout Northern Ireland (an increase of 43 per cent from 1986). Of this total, 2,581 parades and marches were Loyalist and 302 were Nationalist. The cost of policing these Parades is large, with the policing bill in 1995 having exceeded 2 million pounds, and estimates for 1996 being in excess of 20 million pounds. Opposition to Loyalist parades from Catholic residents groups has also increased and the ‘Drumcree’ parade has been a focal point for varying degrees of civil unrest in recent years.[12]

From the time of its creation in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police force has been seen as not only consolidating the divisions, but as largely representing and supporting the unionist, Protestant, majority. The figure for Catholic participation in 1994 was 7 per cent. The Patten Report acknowledges the need for more Catholics to join the police force so that all communities can see it as representative. Some unionists, however, see proposed changes, such as the changing of the RUC’s name, as a betrayal of its past. In addition a new independent Police Ombudsman has been appointed to oversee complaints about policing.

Paramilitary Prisoners
As part of the Good Friday Agreement paramilitary prisoners were to be given early release on licence. The issue has proved contentious and there was resistance to this policy in some quarters.

The Cost of the Troubles statistics, cited earlier, highlight the very real human cost of violence. Steps are being taken to address these needs but the road ahead is filled with difficulties. The very question of who is, or is not, a victim can be contested.


Recommended web sites for further information

The CAIN site is an authoritative content-based site on Northern Ireland. It is organised thematically with background to the conflict, key events and key issues. The site contains large amounts of text from a variety of sources:

Newshound is an independent 'news sifting' service which carries links to web versions of a variety of newspapers. Usefully, these links are updated daily. Newshound also carries the text of many of the recent Reports and Agreements in Northern Ireland: {external_link}

The INCORE Conflict Data Service: Country Guide for Northern Ireland. Our own site provides information and links to local newspapers, academic articles, community organisations, government departments and more: {external_link}




INCORE (Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity) is a United Nations University institution, set up within the University of Ulster. Its function is to address conflict resolution through a combination of research, training and policy development. The authors would like to thank Dr Martin Melaugh for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, and Republicans want to relocate Northern Ireland within the Republic of Ireland. Most unionists are Protestant, and most nationalists are Catholics.


These dates are based on the book 'Scorpions in a Bottle - Conflicting Cultures in Northern Ireland' by John Darby (London: Minority Rights Publications, 1997).


The sections, The Creation of Northern Ireland, Green and Orange States, Civil Conflict 1969, and Paramilitaries are almost exclusively taken from Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Processes in Northern Ireland (Tokyo: United Nations University, 1996).


This is now beginning to change slowly, as integrated schools are developed. These however still only cater for 4 per cent of school children.


With the exception of the DUP the parties listed approved the Belfast Agreement. Some of the parties have only been in existence for a few years.


Called 'Loyalists' because of their profession of loyalty to the Queen, who is monarch of Britain


Protestants call the city Londonderry, Catholics call it Derry.


See Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Processes in Northern Ireland (Tokyo: United Nations University, 1996).


Cost of the Troubles Study: Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs (London: Pluto Press, 1999). See also, Marie-Therese Fay, Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth, Mapping Troubles Related Deaths (Derry Londonderry: INCORE, 1998).


Catholics males are still twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants males.


Figures from the CAIN web site section on Parades:


Photographs courtesy of the CAIN web site:


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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