Violence 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.

During a period of 30 years, many acts of violence were carried out by paramilitaries and the security forces. From street battles to car bombs, the evolution of these methods of violence greatly influenced the tactics and impact of the conflict.

Photo: The remains of an IRA car bomb outside the Old Bailey in London, 8 March 1973 (Getty Images)

Features in:

The Troubles
The Troubles

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (5)

More information about: Violence in the Troubles

Seamus Kelters: Assistant Editor TV News, BBC Northern Ireland

In the late 1960s, violence tumbled into the streets of Northern Ireland against a background of civil rights demonstrations, heavy-handed policing, confrontation over parades and mobs incited to disorder.

Only a handful of individuals on either side were initially involved in paramilitarism. Sticks, paving stones and bottles were the first weapons. These were followed by shotguns normally used for wildfowling and rabbits and rusted Second World War souvenirs. The only trained fire came from police.

First deaths

In all 19 people were killed in 1969, 14 of them civilians. They included a nine-year-old schoolboy, struck by a police bullet as he lay in his bedroom. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) member died in a car crash and a teenage member of the Fianna, the IRA’s junior wing, was shot by loyalists. A member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was killed by his own bomb - just one of many paramilitaries to die accidental deaths. The first Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer killed was shot on the Shankill Road by the UVF.

Each death was a terrible event for family, friends and neighbours. Within a short period, events would dictate a pattern of conflict spanning decades. There were phases to the bloodshed.

British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling declared that he would settle for an "acceptable level of violence" at the start of 1971, but within a year the introduction of internment (imprisonment without trial) and the events of Bloody Sunday served to recruit large numbers of young nationalists into republican paramilitary groups.

In 1969, the IRA had split into two factions known as the 'Provisionals' and 'Officials'. Although the latter continued to be involved in violence for several years it gradually drifted into the background and the 'Provisionals' came to be routinely referred to as "the IRA".

Paramilitary methods

As paramilitary groups became more organised and sophisticated, and embarked on offensives, the death toll steadily rose. New methods of violence, such as the car bomb and plastic explosives, supplemented the more established use of firearms. Bombs detonated with little or no warning produced high death tolls. In July 1972, nineteen IRA bombs across Belfast killed nine people on a day that became known as Bloody Friday.

March 1973 saw a concerted IRA bombing campaign in England begin in earnest. The following year, 21 people were killed and over 180 injured by explosions in two Birmingham bars. In total, around 250 people were killed in England and the Republic of Ireland during the Troubles. People died in Europe as well, as the IRA sought diplomatic and military targets.

Shootings became routine among paramilitaries from both sides and continued throughout the Troubles.

Targeting civilians

While the IRA struck regularly at those it considered "legitimate targets", such as the security forces, it also killed some 350 Protestant civilians. Particularly in the early years of the Troubles, a substantial number were specifically targeted because of their religion. Loyalist paramilitaries also repeatedly selected targets simply on the basis of their perceived religion, killing almost 720 Catholic civilians.

Bars were often frequented by people from just one community and became almost routine destinations for those intent on mayhem. The UVF killed 15 people when it bombed McGurk's Bar in Belfast in 1971. In 1978, the IRA bombed La Mon House on the outskirts of east Belfast, killing 12 people and injuring 30.

The period from 1976 to the mid-Eighties saw the Troubles settle into a deadly pattern. Loyalist paramilitaries killed as and when they could, while the security forces and the IRA were engaged in a cat-and-mouse battle with each other.

The number of deaths decreased after the British and Irish governments formulated the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, but the killing continued.

Death toll

Most of those killed in the Troubles were civilian, over 2000 in total. Of those the majority, some 1270, were Catholic. Almost 730 Protestant civilians died.

In all, over 300 full and part-time police officers as well as just over 200 members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) were killed. Many were targeted while off duty, killed going about their routine because of their uniform but not wearing it. Protestants made up the vast majority of local security force ranks and, therefore, their dead. Fewer than 40 of the RUC officers, reservists and UDR members killed were Catholic. Just over 500 members of the regular Army were killed.

Some 400 republican paramilitaries died, most of them members of the IRA, and almost 170 loyalist paramilitaries. A significant number of paramilitaries were killed by their own organisations as alleged informers, in premature explosions and by rival groups during feuds.

The violence was not confined to the paramilitary groups alone. The security forces were responsible for 367 deaths. The facts surrounding many of these killings are still disputed, and allegations of security force collusion with loyalists have led to persistent demands for investigation. The vast majority of these demands come from the nationalist and republican communities. Of almost 200 civilians killed by the security forces, all but 23 were Catholic. Of more than 150 paramilitaries killed by the security forces, fewer than 20 were loyalist.

Final years

In the final years of the Troubles the death toll dropped below a hundred annually, but that does not dim the anguish of the litany.

Nine police officers were killed by an IRA mortar bomb at Newry RUC station; eight IRA men were killed by the SAS at Loughgall; eleven died in the IRA bombing of the Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen; three IRA members were killed by the SAS in Gibraltar and three more people died in a loyalist attack at their graveside before two army corporals were killed at the funeral of one of those who had died in the cemetery; ten people, including the IRA bomber, were killed at a Shankill Road fish shop when the device exploded prematurely; a week later eight were killed when the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) opened fire at a pub on the north coast; two children were killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in England. Others continued to die in places unheard of, in a manner scarcely now remarked.

In 1994, ceasefires were declared by the IRA, the UVF and the UDA as political progress picked up pace. Still, there were more deaths as violence continued without claim or under different names. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998, with the political representatives of various paramilitary groups among the signatories. The release of paramilitary prisoners and the decommissioning of weapons eventually followed.


This political settlement did not entirely eradicate violence in Northern Ireland. Dissident elements emerged from both sides. Republican dissidents were behind the deadliest single bombing of the Troubles when 29 people were killed in Omagh on a Saturday afternoon in August 1998. Among the dead were Protestants and Catholics, babies and pensioners, natives of the town and visitors from elsewhere, nationalists and unionists.

Neither decommissioning nor elections have entirely removed paramilitaries or the gun. Scores are still being settled in a deadly fashion. Feuding has continued. Some paramilitaries have moved into dealing in drugs and other criminal activity while dissident republicans in particular have continued to target and kill members of the security forces.

Legacy of violence

Throughout the Troubles people were killed where they socialised, lived and worked. They were killed at sports events, in hospitals, in prison, leaving churches and even inside places of worship. The violence of the Troubles continues to impact upon communities. Beyond the dead it is estimated some 50,000 people were wounded. Tens of thousands served in the security forces, joined the paramilitaries and went to prison. More witnessed the horror of violent death.

In 1992, one young man was shot dead. Like so many others it could be said he was killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time - an entirely random victim. His mother subsequently died, it was said, of a broken heart. She features on no official list or statistics. Her husband said the bullets that killed his son "didn't just travel in distance, they travelled in time. Some of those bullets never stop travelling".

Seamus Kelters was writing in February 2013