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18 September 2014
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Recent History - Northern Ireland: The

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The Troubles, 1963 to 1985

By BBC History
Civil rights march, Londonderry, 5 October 1968
Civil rights march, Londonderry, 5 October 1968 ©

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?


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.

Published: 2007-02-01

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