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The Troubles, 1963 to 1985

By BBC History
The 'Troubles' begin

Northern Ireland had been left relatively prosperous by World War Two. War production had favoured its heavy industries, with the boom continuing into the 1950s. But by the 1960s, as elsewhere in Britain, these were in decline.

It was as a result of Viscount Brookeborough’s failure to address the worsening economic malaise that he had been forced out in 1963 by members of his own party.

He was replaced by a former army officer, Terence O'Neill, who immediately introduced a variety of bold measures to improve the economy.

'The cycle of sectarian bloodletting that would become known as 'the Troubles' had begun.'

But O'Neill realised that for his programme of modernisation to succeed, he would also have to address Northern Ireland's simmering social and political issues.

In a series of radical moves, he met with the Republic of Ireland's prime minister Sean Lemass - the first such meeting between Irish heads of government for 40 years - and put out feelers to the nationalist community in the north.

This represented a serious threat to many unionists, since the Republic's constitution still laid claim to the whole island of Ireland. O'Neill's policies provoked outspoken attacks from within unionism, not least from the Reverend Ian Paisley who rose to prominence at this time.

With Catholic hopes raised on one side and unionist fears on the other, the situation quickly threatened to boil over. Violence finally erupted in 1966 following the twin 50th anniversaries of the Battle of the Somme and the Easter Rising - touchstones for Protestant and Catholic communities respectively.

Rioting and disorder was followed in May and June by the murders of two Catholics and a Protestant by a 'loyalist' terror group called the Ulster Volunteer Force.

O'Neill immediately banned the UVF, but it was too late. The cycle of sectarian bloodletting that would become known as 'the Troubles' had already claimed its first victims.

Published: 2007-02-01



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