The Troubles, 1963 to 1985

By BBC History
How did Northern Ireland descend into the cycle of violence that marked the period known as the 'Troubles', and what was done to find a solution?
Civil rights march, Londonderry, 5 October 1968 


In 1963, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, Viscount Brookeborough, stepped down after 20 years in office.

His extraordinarily long tenure was a product of the Ulster Unionist domination of politics in the north since partition in 1921.

'There was little indication in 1963 of the turmoil that was about to engulf Northern Ireland.'

By contrast, the Catholic minority had been politically marginalised. This was largely a product of Northern Ireland's two-thirds Protestant majority, but was exacerbated by the drawing of local government electoral boundaries to favour unionist candidates, even in predominantly Catholic areas like Derry.

Additionally, the right to vote in local government elections was restricted to ratepayers - again favouring Protestants - with those holding or renting properties in more than one ward receiving more than one vote, up to a maximum of six.

This bias was preserved by unequal allocation of council houses to Protestant families. Catholic areas also received less government investment than their Protestant neighbours.

Police harassment, exclusion from public service appointments and other forms of discrimination were factors of daily life, and the refusal of Catholic political representatives in parliament to recognise partition only increased the community's sense of alienation.

But there had been improvements. Post-war Britain's new Labour government had introduced the Welfare State to the north, and it was implemented with few, if any, concessions to old sectarian divisions.

As a result, Catholic children in the 1950s could reap the benefits of further and higher education for the first time. It would, in time, expose them to a world of new ideas and create a generation unwilling to tolerate the status quo.

But for now, anti-partition forces had been neutralised and the unionists were firmly in control. There was little indication in 1963 of the turmoil that was about to engulf Northern Ireland.

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.

Civil Rights

Despite O'Neill's initiatives, many Catholics were impatient with the pace of reform and remained unconvinced of the prime minister's sincerity. The result was the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Nicra) in 1967.

Nicra did not challenge partition - probably in an attempt to draw as much cross-community support as possible - although the membership remained predominantly Catholic. Instead, it called for the end to seven 'injustices', ranging from council house allocations to the 'weighted' voting system.

Initially peaceful civil rights marches descended into violence in October 1968 when marchers in Derry defied the Royal Ulster Constabulary and were dispersed with heavy-handed tactics.

The British government summoned O'Neill to London to explain the situation. Pressure was brought to bear, and shortly afterwards a package of reforms was announced by the Northern Ireland government, including the fairer allocation of council houses and an ombudsman for complaints.

'The reforms failed to deliver one-man-one-vote and the repeal of the repressive Special Powers Act.'

But the reforms failed to deliver fully on Nicra's programme, including one-man-one-vote and the repeal of the repressive Special Powers Act.

After a brief cessation, the civil rights marches continued, organised at first by a group called People's Democracy and later by Nicra. Once again, the RUC response was heavy-handed and would only serve to inflame the Catholic community further.

Increasingly embattled by dissent in the UUP, O'Neill gambled everything on a general election - which he dubbed the 'crossroads election' - to try and win a mandate for change from the public.

The gamble failed amid poor electoral support and desertions from O'Neill's camp. Nonetheless, he hung on grimly for another two months before resigning in April 1969.

The Provisional IRA

'The Battle of the Bogside', Londonderry, 13 August 1969
'The Battle of the Bogside', Londonderry, 13 August 1969
Against a backdrop of rising violence, O'Neill's replacement, James Chichester-Clark, opted to continue with his predecessor's reforms.

Paramilitary groups had now begun to operate on both sides of the sectarian divide, while civil rights marches became increasingly prone to confrontation.

More problematic still, the Orange Order's marching season had begun. Following the annual Apprentice Boys' march in August 1969, civil unrest in Belfast became a three-day explosion of nationalist rioting in Derry.

The so-called 'Battle of Bogside' only ended with the arrival of a small body of British troops at the request of Chichester Clark - a significant acknowledgement that the government of Northern Ireland was fast losing its grip on security.

'The more militant 'Provisional' IRA demanded the unification of Ireland in defiance of Britain and was prepared to use violence to achieve it.'

A political response came in the shape of the joint 'Downing Street Declaration' by Chichester-Clark and the British prime minister Harold Wilson. Once again, the British government had intervened to force the pace of reform.

The declaration sought to placate both communities by stating its support for equality and freedom from discrimination, while reasserting that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK as long as that was the will of the majority of its people.

A blizzard of reforms then followed, including the setting up of a variety of bodies to allocate council housing, investigate the recent cycle of violence and review policing. The latter recommended the disbanding of the hated 'B Specials' auxiliaries, the disarming of the police and the setting up of the Ulster Defence Regiment under the control of the British Army.

Outraged loyalists responded with yet more civil unrest and violence. Attacks on Catholic areas escalated, and many homes were burned.

The IRA - one of whose stated aims was the defence of the Catholic minority - had remained largely inactive during this period. It had abandoned its last campaign of violence in 1962, having been successfully contained by internment and other counter-measures.

In late 1969, the more militant 'Provisional' IRA (PIRA) broke away from the 'Official' IRA. Like the Official IRA, the PIRA supported civil rights, the defence of the Catholic community and the unification of Ireland. But in contrast it was prepared to pursue unification in defiance of Britain and would use violence to achieve its aims.

At the same time, loyalist paramilitaries were also organising. The UVF was joined by the Ulster Defence Association, created in 1971, which rapidly expanded to a membership of tens of thousands, but somehow avoided being banned.

In the middle was the British Army. Its various attempts to control the PIRA, such as house-to-house searches and the imposition of a limited curfew, only served to drive more recruits into the ranks of the paramilitaries.

Direct Rule

In March 1971, Chichester-Clark resigned and was replaced by Brian Faulkner. Unrest in the province had achieved a new level, prompting the new prime minister to reintroduce internment - detention of suspects without trial - on 9 August 1971.

It was a disaster, both in its failure to capture any significant members of the PIRA and in its focus on nationalist - rather than loyalist - suspects.

'The events surrounding 'Bloody Sunday' remain the subject of intense controversy. '

The reaction was predictable, even if the ferocity and extent of the violence wasn't. Deaths in the final months of 1971 exceeded 150. It was sadly still far from the bloodiest year of the Troubles.

Policing the province was fast becoming an impossible task, and as a result the British Army had adopted increasingly aggressive policies on the ground.

Then on 30 January 1972, the army deployed the Parachute Regiment to suppress rioting at a civil rights march in Derry. Thirteen demonstrators were shot and killed by troops, with another dying later of wounds.

The events surrounding 'Bloody Sunday' remain the subject of intense controversy. But as a result of the killings, new recruits swelled the ranks of the IRA and yet more British troops were deployed to the province to try and contain the ever-rising tide of violence.

Protestants also expressed their growing discontent with the formation of the Ulster Vanguard, an umbrella organisation for loyalist groups that was able to attract tens of thousands to public meetings.

The British government, led by Prime Minister Edward Heath, decided to act, removing control of security from the government of Northern Ireland and appointing a secretary of state for the province.

The Stormont government resigned en masse in protest at this perceived assault on their powers. Heath responded by immediately introducing what would become known as 'direct rule' - government of Northern Ireland from Westminster.


Soldiers dive for cover as Provisional IRA gunmen open fire in the Lenadoon estate
Soldiers dive for cover as Provisional IRA gunmen open fire in the Lenadoon estate
Amid outpourings of unionist anger following the end of government at Stormont (its last meeting was on 28 March 1972) the province descended into an abyss of sectarian bloodshed that would claim 496 lives by the end of 1972 - the highest annual death toll of the Troubles.

One of the worst crimes in a year full of atrocities was 'Bloody Friday' - the simultaneous detonation of more than 20 PIRA bombs in Belfast - which claimed nine lives.

By March 1973, a new political initiative was being tabled by the British government. It outlined plans for a new Northern Ireland assembly, elected by proportional representation, and a government for the region in which Protestants and Catholics would share power

It also proposed the creation of a 'council of Ireland' that would give the Republic a role in Northern Ireland's affairs - directly confronting one of the unionists' greatest fears.

Remarkably, the new assembly elections in June 1973 produced a majority of pro-power sharing representatives, but they were set against a large minority of implacably anti-power sharing unionists.

Nonetheless, the 11 ministry power-sharing executive started work in January 1974. Of its many inherent weaknesses, perhaps the greatest was the exclusion of anti-power sharing representatives from the executive and from the negotiations for the Council of Ireland.

The Sunningdale Agreement (named after the town in Berkshire where the negotiations took place) had agreed a 14-member Council of Ireland. It terms were vague, but the agreement raised the possibility that the Republic could one day gain some decision-making powers in Northern Ireland.

Unionists were split by the agreement, and the forthcoming British general election of February 1974 gave the anti-Sunningdale bloc an ideal opportunity to derail the process.

'The agreement raised the possibility that the Republic could gain decision-making powers in Northern Ireland.'

Representing the election as a referendum on Sunningdale, anti-agreement unionist candidates won 11 of Northern Ireland's 12 parliamentary seats. It was a disaster for the pro-Sunningdale assembly, since it could no longer claim to represent public opinion.

Nonetheless, the British government refused to call new assembly elections, and on 14 May 1974, the assembly, perhaps rashly, restated its support for Sunningdale. As a result, the Ulster Workers' Council - a coalition of Protestant trade unionists - called a general strike in the province later that same day.

Then on 17 May, loyalist bombs exploded in Dublin and Monaghan, ultimately claiming the lives of 32 people in the worst single outrage of the Troubles.

Within two weeks the shutdown had become total, with roadblocks, power-outages and a near-complete cessation of industry. The British government, now led by Harold Wilson, seemed unwilling to engage in this new and potentially crippling confrontation.

Indeed, Wilson's accusation that the strikers were 'sponging off Westminster' only helped galvanise support for the UWC.

On 28 May, the pro-Sunningdale unionist members of the power-sharing executive took the matter out of Wilson's hands. They resigned and direct rule was immediately reintroduced. It would last for another 25 years.

Hunger Strikes

Mural commemorating the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike
Mural commemorating the 20th anniversary of the hunger strike
Over the next decade, a variety of peace initiatives were suggested, tested and ultimately defeated.

New security policies were also introduced. These included increasing the size of the RUC and UDR while shrinking the army presence, thereby placing the emphasis on the people of Northern Ireland policing themselves.

In 1976, the British government also removed the 'special category' status of paramilitary prisoners. Since 1972, paramilitary prisoners had held some of the rights of prisoners of war. Now classified as ordinary criminals, they were to be confined in the new Maze Prison near Belfast, in its distinctively-shaped 'H-Blocks'.

Viewing themselves as freedom fighters rather than criminals, PIRA prisoners embarked on a series of protests, including refusing to wear prison-issue clothing during the so-called 'blanket protest'. This was followed in 1978 by prisoners smearing their cell walls with excrement as a 'dirty protest' against having to 'slop out'.

'Sinn Fein adopted a policy of contesting elections while supporting the use of violence to achieve its ends.'

The protest escalated to a hunger strike in 1980, which was called off when the prisoners mistakenly believed they had been granted concessions.

A second hunger strike began in 1981, led by Bobby Sands. During his strike, he was put forward for the vacant Westminster seat of Fermanagh - South Tyrone - and won.

It was a clear demonstration of the level of popular support for the strikers, but the British government led by Margaret Thatcher refused to make any concessions. Sands died on 5 May 1981. Another nine prisoners would die before the strike was called off in October.

As a result of the strikes, a new strain of bitterness had entered the turmoil of Northern Ireland politics. But at the same time, Sands' by-election victory had shown the potential power of political engagement.

In late 1981, Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, formally adopted a policy of contesting elections while also supporting the continued use of violence to achieve its ends.

Sinn Fein won the by-election following Sands' death, and in June 1983, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams defeated Gerry Fitt, former leader of the centre-ground nationalist SDLP (and now an Independent Socialist) to win the Westminster seat for West Belfast.

These electoral successes raised the very real possibility that Sinn Fein could replace the more moderate SDLP as the political voice of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement
Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement
Relations between the Republic of Ireland and Britain had reached a new low during the hunger strikes.

And Republic-backed proposals for the future of Northern Ireland had also received a sharp rebuff by Thatcher, who was not in conciliatory mood having narrowly escaped an IRA bomb attack at the Conservative party conference in Brighton in October 1984.

Nonetheless, the rising political effectiveness of Sinn Fein and the danger of interminable violence if the issue of Northern Ireland remained unresolved led Thatcher and her Irish counterpart Garret FitzGerald to reach an agreement.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in November 1985, confirmed that Northern Ireland would remain independent of the Republic as long as that was the will of the majority in the north.

But it also gave the Republic a say in the running of the province for the first time, with the setting up of the Intergovernmental Conference to discuss security and political issues.

'Unionist opinion was uniformly horrified, believing that the first steps had been taken towards abandoning the province to a united Ireland.'

The agreement also stated that power could not be devolved back to Northern Ireland unless it enshrined the principle of power sharing.

Reaction was diverse. Sinn Fein and the Republic's opposition party Fianna Fail condemned the agreement for acknowledging that Britain had a legitimate role in Northern Ireland.

Centre-ground nationalists like the SDLP welcomed what they saw as a new and constructive development.

Unionist opinion was uniformly horrified, believing that the first steps had been taken towards abandoning the province to a united Ireland. Huge demonstrations, strikes and marches were held, and all 15 unionist Westminster MPs resigned their seats.

The resulting by-elections actually saw Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist support fall, with the latter losing a seat to the SDLP. If the intention of the agreement had been to lessen the polarisation of Northern Ireland politics and bolster the constitutional and non-violent SDLP, these were tentative indications that it might be working.

By 1987, unionists had tacitly conceded that their campaign to derail the agreement had failed, and once again began to cooperate with government ministers.

The violence of Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups still had more than a decade to run and the sectarian divide remained as wide as it had ever been.

But the agreement constituted an important staging post on the road to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the eventual cessation of the cycle of internecine murder and reprisals in the province.

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Published on BBC History: 2007-02-01
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