Politics in the Troubles

The conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century is known as the Troubles. Over 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

The politics of this period were complex. Local parties representing different shades of unionism and nationalism embraced and rejected several attempts at power sharing, with both the British and Irish governments closely involved.

Photo: Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Associated Press)

Features in:

The Troubles
The Troubles

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (6)

More information about: Politics in the Troubles

Mark Devenport: Political Editor, BBC Northern Ireland


During the Troubles, Northern Ireland politics revolved around four main parties. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), also known as the Official Unionists, had been the ruling party of Northern Ireland since the foundation of the state in 1922. The UUP maintained strong links with the Protestant Orange Order, whilst its first prime minister, Sir James Craig, referred to Stormont as "a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state".

When the conflict began in the late 1960s, the UUP still ran Northern Ireland from Stormont. But in 1972, as violence escalated, the UK government suspended self-government and London-based politicians took charge under what became known as "direct rule".

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was founded in 1971 by a Protestant preacher called Ian Paisley. In general, the DUP adopted a more militant tone than the UUP. In the 1970s, the DUP was heavily involved in loyalist street protests against a short-lived attempt to share power between unionists and nationalists. In the 1980s, both unionist parties joined together to campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, an initiative from London and Dublin which they feared might dilute Northern Ireland's position in the UK.


The main Irish nationalist party was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) founded by John Hume and other supporters of the civil rights movement. The SDLP campaigned against anti-Catholic discrimination in housing and employment. The party supported a united Ireland, but opposed the campaign of violence by republican paramilitaries.

The SDLP played a leading role in the Sunningdale Agreement, which gave rise to a short-lived power sharing experiment in the 1970s. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, of which Hume is widely acknowledged as one of the principal architects, has been dubbed "Sunningdale for slow learners".


Although Sinn Féin (Irish for "We Ourselves") has a history going back to 1905, modern Sinn Féin dates back to 1970 and a split in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Official IRA faded into the background while the Provisional IRA carried on a campaign of violence. Throughout the Troubles, Sinn Féin was regarded as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Its leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, frequently defended the right of the IRA to resort to "armed struggle".

In 1981, before his death on hunger strike, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands secured election as member of the UK parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Irish republicans seized on this breakthrough and expanded their involvement in elections, under a strategy that became known as "the armalite and ballot box" (although they refused to take their parliamentary seats in London). While the IRA continued its violent campaign, Sinn Féin's political strategy assumed greater importance as IRA leaders prepared to call their ceasefire in 1994.

UK government

Throughout the Troubles, successive UK governments tried to plug Northern Ireland's "democratic deficit" by restoring authority to local politicians. These efforts generally failed because of continuing paramilitary violence, unionist suspicion regarding the involvement of the Irish government, or differences between unionists and nationalists over how power-sharing might work.

During the 1970s and 1980s the government’s Northern Ireland Office concentrated its efforts on trying to bridge the gap between the UUP and the SDLP. Sinn Féin were seen as potential "wreckers" who stood outside the political process. The Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to concede "political status" to republican hunger strikers in the early 1980s and ten prisoners died. The IRA retaliated by trying to kill Thatcher at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. Four years later, in response to further IRA attacks, the prime minister banned Sinn Féin and some loyalists from the broadcast airwaves.

After Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street in 1990, efforts to broker a compromise in Northern Ireland gained more momentum. The British government re-opened secret contacts with the IRA leadership that were first established in 1972. There were behind-the-scenes talks between the SDLP leader John Hume and the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. Both the IRA and pro-British loyalist paramilitaries eventually called ceasefires in 1994.

Moves toward peace

The Irish and British governments worked together to broker the deal that would become the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Two new prime ministers, Britain's Tony Blair and Ireland's Bertie Ahern, devoted unprecedented amounts of their time to overcoming the many obstacles to peace. President of the United States Bill Clinton also played an active role, appointing as his envoy US senator George Mitchell. Senator Mitchell went on to chair cross-party talks at Stormont.

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists walked out of the talks when Sinn Féin joined. The DUP criticised the proposed deal as a "sell out" to terrorists. Prisoner releases - agreed during early negotiations - proved especially controversial among unionists.


But the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble persuaded the majority of his party to back the agreement. Trimble pointed out that the Irish government had agreed to drop its territorial claim to Northern Ireland, previously described in articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland. The deal also enshrined "the principle of consent", ensuring the future of Northern Ireland would be determined by the will of the majority of its people.

The agreement also received backing from smaller parties such as the cross community Alliance party, which had played a role in the short lived Sunningdale power sharing administration in the 1970s. A new group called the Women's Coalition also played an enthusiastic supportive role during the long running negotiations. Two small or "fringe" unionist parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), also played a crucial role representing the interests of the loyalist paramilitaries.

In May 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in two separate referendums held on either side of the border. In Northern Ireland, 71% of those who voted backed the deal. In the Irish Republic more than 94% voted "yes". David Trimble and John Hume were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.


Politicians took their seats at the Stormont Assembly in December 1999 as self-government returned to Northern Ireland. Subsequent crises over continued IRA activity and the paramilitaries' failure to disarm led to frequent suspensions of the power sharing executive and contributed to growing unionist disenchantment with the peace deal.

By the time the Good Friday Agreement was amended at St Andrews in Scotland in 2006, the DUP had replaced the UUP as Northern Ireland's largest party, while Sinn Féin had eclipsed the SDLP's share of the vote. In 2007, the First and Deputy First Ministers' positions in a restored power-sharing executive were held by the DUP's Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness respectively. Both had travelled a long way from their political positions in 1968.

Mark Devenport was writing in February 2013

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.