The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Continued

Posted on
Nov 13, 2012

If you are just popping into my blog, welcome! I am currently in the midst of trying to recap Irish history from, oh, about the 1600s until modern day. It is making my head spin (seriously. I feel like the kid from The Exorcist, but with worse hair). I understand if you’d like to come back next week, when I talk Milwaukee beers and the Green Bay Packers. If you are inclined to stay (thanks, by the way) I suggest you read my posts about Irish history and how the country came to be and how the Troubles first began.

Political murals in Belfast.

Can I tell you something about myself? I need to admit it, because I think it’s significant, especially as it pertains to the topic of Irish history.

When I was a teenager, in the mid to late 90s, I was petrified of the IRA.

Looking back, this fear seems kind of irrational. After all – Ireland was a long way off from Seattle. (Incidentally, I also had a huge fear of cholera. Just in general.)

Plus, it’s kind of an odd perspective to have as an American. The IRA had a lot of support here in the states, up until just a few years ago.

I suspect my fear had something to do with seeing The Crying Game twice at the tender age of 12, and being scared out of my wits by Miranda Richardson’s character. (For those of you wondering why I saw it as a middle schooler: my mom was writing a term paper on it, and she refused to leave me home alone because she thought that was more dangerous than exposing me to a violent psychological thriller TWICE. Sigh. She meant well.)

So the IRA scared the hell out of me.

Having disclosed that, it’s time to continue talking about the Troubles. As usual, please forgive my biases, errors, oversights, and sheer cluelessness, and feel free to correct me in the comments. Here we go, once more …

From the late seventies up until the 1990s, there was a great deal of fighting back and forth between the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. The main groups were the IRA on one side, and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) on the other. Bombs were a common method of attack, as were shootings. Neighborhoods segregated themselves by religion (there were Catholic areas and Protestant ones) so it was easy to target victims.

Violent encounters were escalating, and would shape the political and cultural landscape of the country for the next few decades. During this time, the internal political structure of Northern Ireland also went through a lot of upheaval.

As I mentioned yesterday, after Bloody Sunday, the Irish Parliament was first suspended, then abolished. Rule of Northern Ireland was now the responsibility of Britain, but that arrangement was temporary (I think that the British Parliament realized that Northern Ireland would always want its own devolved government, and trying to legislate from Westminster would not work).

In 1972, Bloody Friday occurred. The IRA set off 20 bombs throughout Belfast. Nine people died.

In 1973, the Northern Irish Assembly was formed as a means of returning rule over to Northern Ireland, with the intent of having power more evenly divided among Unionists and Nationalists. (This would be practically impossible, though, without serious intervention; Unionists were the vast majority in Northern Ireland.)

Certain international issues would be handled by Westminster, but the Irish Assembly would be in charge of local issues. The eventual arrangement they had reminds me a little bit of the division between state and federal jurisdiction here in the U.S.

The Assembly lasted about a year before collapsing. Hard-liners on both sides made having any sort of local governing body impossible. Britain once again took over the reins in 1974. Northern Ireland still had MPs (a.k.a., representatives), but they would meet as part of the British Parliament at Westminster.

A Protestant neighborhood in Belfast. Notice the British flags.

Around the same time (during the 70s and early 80s), a number of a large number of individuals from the IRA and other Republican/Nationalist organizations were imprisoned (as were a number of Loyalists/Unionists, but what I’m about to discuss doesn’t really pertain to them). They were in jail for a myriad of offenses ranging from minor to serious – everything from weapons possession to murder. Up until 1976, they enjoyed Special Category status; they were considered prisoners of war. Consequently, they had privileges such as wearing their own clothing instead of prison uniforms, and being able to socialize with other prisoners.

When that status was withdrawn by the British government, the prisoners launched a variety of protests (there is some fascinating historical BBC video on the topic, if you have some spare time).

The first was the Blanket Protest, during which prisoners had refused to wear the uniforms they issued, or went naked, wearing only the blankets. This is my favorite of the protests because no one died. And because I love blankets.

This was followed by the Dirty Protest, during which prisoners refused to wash, and smeared feces on the walls of their cells and their furniture. (My feelings about this protest can best be expressed by me washing my hands furiously, a la Lady Mac Beth.)

Lastly, there was the 1981 Hunger Strike. This last protest was the most significant and the most tragic.

Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, refused to give in to the prisoners’ demands (“Crime is crime is crime; it is not political,” she was famously quoted as saying.) Without her knowledge, several government officials were trying to work out some sort of compromise with the strikers, but it was fruitless. It was not until 10 prisoners had died of starvation, and the families of the surviving prisoners intervened, that the protest finally came to an end. Though they were never recognized as political prisoners of war, eventually all of the strikers’ demands were met through a series of reforms.

The victory came at a price for Thatcher, though she did not yet realize it. Shortly after the strike began, one of the protesters, Bobby Sands, had been elected to British Parliament. Consequently, his plight and his death (he was the first of the ten hunger strikers to succumb to starvation) received worldwide attention.

Belfast mural depicting Bobby Sands. (Incidentally, I discovered his widow is named Geraldine.)

Bobby Sands and his compatriots were now considered martyrs. Recruitment for the IRA and their political branch, Sinn Féin, skyrocketed.

In many parts of Northern Ireland, Thatcher was loathed. Sinn Féin member Danny Morrison called her “the biggest bastard we have ever known.

On the other side of the issue, the Ulster Freedom Fighters were also recruiting. Like the Nationalists, they too had a political branch – the Ulster Defense Association.

The Troubles continued.

In 1982, Northern Ireland had another go at having a local Irish Assembly. This time, it lasted for a few years.

In 1984, an assassination attempt was made on Margaret Thatcher. The IRA took responsibility, and their statement to the Prime Minister was haunting:

Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always. Give Ireland peace and there will be no more war

She narrowly escaped, and the next day gave a speech with such composure and calm that it earned her worldwide admiration and support.

In 1985, the Prime Ministers of the Republic of Ireland and Britain (Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher, respectively) signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The agreement stated that the Republic of Ireland would have a consultative role in Northern Irish affairs. This was the first time in its existence that the Republic had any voice in what was happening in the north.

Parenthetically, Dublin is gorgeous.

The gesture was largely symbolic; the Irish Assembly was still in place, and the Republic could make no laws. It was simply an attempt to bring balance to the Northern Irish government, and give the minority Nationalists/Republicans more of a presence.

It went over well with them – 65% of Catholics in Northern Ireland supported the agreement. The Unionists, however, were incensed. They had been elected to office democratically, and felt that they were now being usurped by the losing party. 75% of the Protestant population agreed with them.

I feel like it would be the equivalent of say, the federal government forcing a blue state like Washington to have a GOP advisory counsel present in the legislature, in the name of bipartisanship (also, the GOP advisory council would be, I don’t know, from Northern Canada or something). Needless to say, it caused quite a bit of uproar. Several members of Thatcher’s cabinet resigned over the issue.

In 1986, the Irish Assembly dissolved in protest over the Agreement. Once again, Northern Ireland would be ruled by Westminster. One good thing did happen as a result of the Agreement, though: the Republic of Ireland and Britain were making now talking; the relationship between the two nations was improving, and the foundation was being laid for what would become the Good Friday Agreement.

At the end of 1990, Margaret Thatcher resigned.

The Troubles continued. One attack would spur a retaliation attack, in a vicious cycle. Forgive my bluntness, but during this time the provisional IRA and the UFF killed a hell of a lot of people. There was a temporary ceasefire in 1994 which didn’t quite take, but it did allow for Sinn Féin representatives to meet with British officials (prior to that, Britain had refused unless they agreed to put down their weapons).  In 1996, the IRA ended the ceasefire with an explosion in London’s Docklands.

1997 brought another ceasefire.

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 as part of the Northern Irish Peace Process. It is not terribly long, but it is rather involved. Parts of the agreement that pertained to Northern Ireland needed to be signed by the parties there (and indeed, it was. Only one Unionist group did not sign), and parts of it needed to be signed by officials in Britain and Ireland (again, it was). Here is some of what the Agreement stated:

  •  It acknowledged that the majority of people in Northern Ireland wished to remain part of the U.K. And that a substantial number of people wanted to be part of Ireland (this was just a declarative statement. Kind of a, “Dude, I hear you,” clause.)
  • If the majority of people in Northern Ireland decided that they wanted to be part of Ireland, the U.K. and the Republic would allow for that to happen.
  • In the meantime, those in Northern Ireland could choose whether they considered themselves Irish or British. Dual citizenship would also be recognized.
  • A number of institutions and councils were put in place to increase communication between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as between the Republic and the U.K.
  • Northern Ireland would once again have a devolved government – that is, it would have its own Parliament at Stormont.
  • On larger issues, the majority of both prominent communities in Northern Ireland (both Catholics and Protestants) would have to agree before measures could be passed.
  • Cupcakes for all! (I’m kidding. Just seeing if you were still paying attention. If you are, kudos. I’m friggin’ exhausted.)
  • It called for respect and tolerance for everyone in the community, regardless of religion, as well as a commitment to preserving civil rights and religious liberties. (I like this one.)
  • It called for a total disarmament of all paramilitary groups by the year 2000. (It would take the IRA until 2005.)
  • It called for the release of all paramilitary prisoners (in Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland), provided everyone agreed to maintain a ceasefire. (This was somewhat controversial. It meant a large number of convicted murderers were released, including Patrick Magee, who was responsible for the bombing that nearly killed Thatcher, and did kill five other people).

You’d think that by now everything would be fine, right?


It wasn’t. Though there was less violence now, it still continued. The failure of paramilitary groups to disarm led meant that the Northern Irish Assembly was once again suspended. Direct rule from U.K. was reinstated around the start of the new millennium. Bombings continued throughout Northern Ireland, and a series of attacks took place in London as well.

Some advances were made, though. The largely-Protestant RUC police force was now replaced with one that was half Catholic and half Protestant.

Interestingly, there is an argument to be made that the tragedies of September 11th helped to advance the peace process in Northern Ireland. One reason given was that the IRA, which had enjoyed support in the states, lost it once we had experienced terrorism on our own shores. Another was that people suddenly became acutely aware of the futility of all the fighting and put down their weapons (though this seems to be a rather idealistic viewpoint).

In 2005, the IRA put down their weapons. As did the Loyalist Volunteer force (a Unionist paramilitary group).

In 2007, the Irish Assembly was reinstated.

Now? There is a fragile peace, occasionally disrupted by riots and bombings. A militant group calling itself the Real IRA has emerged (though their agenda seems more Marxist than anything else).

Some buildings still have barbed wire, and look like military compounds.

But you know what? We met people of different religions and political views in Ireland, and we all had a fantastic time together. And now that I’ve covered all the history and ugliness, I can’t wait to tell you about the good stuff.

Pictured: good stuff.

But first I need a wee break. Over the past two days I’ve done more reading, researching, and writing than I probably ever did in college. Screw whiskey. I’ve gone and earned myself a sticky toffee pudding.

And also a whiskey.

Leave a Comment

  • Kyla

    While I absolutely love Ireland and am enthralled by history and this post was very interesting, I truly cannot wait for your Milwaukee tales. As a born and bred Wisconsinite now living in a suburb of Milwaukee I am very interested to hear your thoughts on this state I love and our beloved Pack. 🙂

  • Colleen

    I thought all the fighting had ended with the Good Friday signing in 1998. I love Ireland (both North and the Republic), and have ancestors that came from County Ulster (who were Catholic). I definitely want to visit both places in the future.

    • Everywhereist

      Sadly, no. The Good Friday Agreement did improve a lot of things, but there’s still conflict.

    • aaron

      Ulster isn’t a county

  • a

    Google David Black and tell me the IRA have been disbanded!

    • Everywhereist

      Hi, A.

      I never said that the IRA had disbanded. I noted that weapons were put down in 2005, but in recent years paramilitary groups have started up again, including one calling itself the “Real IRA” (which is one of the groups that merged with another one to create the “New IRA”, which took credit for Black’s murder).

      And if you’ll excuse me, I need to hitch up my pants and roam around the house feeling smart.

  • a

    I’m very sorry I re read ur article. It is actually a really impressive piece (coupled with the previous entries) you are one hell of a researcher 🙂 I hope you enjoyed the trip.

    • Everywhereist

      Thanks, A! 🙂 My piece isn’t all that impressive – but Irish history is. I was fascinated by it.

  • Sammi

    Massive kudos to you for putting all this together. One of my closest friends is from a dodgy area in Belfast and grew up with constant bomb scares and threats to themselves and their home. Also, another friend who is in the army has just finished his station in Northern Ireland, he tells me that there is still riots and bomb scares on a pretty regular basis but because it’s rarely covered in the international news it makes it easier to deal with. I would love to visit one day but not yet! X

  • You did a great job recounting Ireland’s history and I’ve enjoyed reading the series. I like the regular posts but maybe you could consider also doing a few history posts like these for some of the other places you visit?

  • Interesting article. I had a few relatives that were part of paramilitary groups in the IRA. When they came to the U.S. they would never talk about it and would always respond “That is in the past and we are away from it and we must forget about it.” I wish one day the people of both sides in Northern Ireland could move on and put it in the past too. But, my family left so I can’t judge those that still remain, because I don’t know the lives they live.

  • Damien

    A history of the troubles in 2 posts, wow! And you haven’t managed to get overly bogged down in politics which is some feat. Normally these things are full of bias and I think that sometimes it takes someone not from here to give a more rounded review.
    One thing that for me was missing for me was internment. It had a massive effect on public opinion and support for the IRA and for me its use and abuse had the opposite affect that it was intended for.

  • Emily


    This was really interesting – thank you. I would like to know a bit more about the view of things from the USA. Growing up in the 80s and 90s in England we were scared of the IRA and I found it a bit odd how supportive the US was to them as a group. I’d be interested to know how much news you got about it and what the general view was?


  • I grew up terrified of the IRA and I didn’t live in Ireland either. In Birmingham in the English midlands, the IRA were the source of greatest fear and insecurity from the time when I was conscious of news to the time they allegedly (and the UVF) put down their weapons – and they have now to a great extent been replaced by Al Quaida.

    When I was 2, a bomb went off in central Birmingham killing 19 people. When I went to High School my train went within 100 yards of the bomb site. The insecurity of the conviction of the people who were alleged to have carried out the bombing didn’t really help to make us feel safe, either (the Serious Crime Squad and confidence in the police is a WHOLE other blog).

    When I was 21, two bombs went off in Warrington – further away but I was older and we thought things were calming down. Apparently not.

    3 years later when I was living in London a bomb blew up on the strand a week before I had theatre tickets (it was a good show – I still went – what safer time to go, after all). Suddenly there were police officers with machine guns at the entrance to Heathrow Airport, near where I worked.

    It was all damn scary and I can’t imagine what it was like to live in the thick of it.

    Thanks for the summary!

  • This was an amazing series! I learned so much, and now I’m off to find additional reading!
    I remember the first time I ever heard of The Troubles was during an episode of Touched by an Angel, think I was a freshman/sophmore and living in the DC area. Prior to that I heard bits and pieces from evesdropping on my parents, but for the most part they tried to keep us from hearing about it.

  • Gina

    When I was growing up, there was a program that invited teenagers to live in the US for a couple of months. It would be one Catholic and one Protestant per house. When my mom interviewed some, they said the hardest thing about it was going home, where they knew, KNEW, they would never see their new friend again. There was no neutral ground back home.
    I hope some of them managed to reconnect when things began to cool off.

    Such a great post.

  • I think that granting Irish (Republic) passport to UK citizens residing in Northern Ireland, regardless of religion, political views, or descent, is a very good thing.
    It’s like saying “no problem if you are protestant, if you feel British inside; you can be Irish too, if you want to; for us it is OK”.
    It means friendship.

  • yay cupcakes!!

    Wow, this was great. Thanks for taking the time to do it, and also for making it interesting to read. =)

  • Andi

    Really interesting and makes me want to read more about it. I remember when we were young, my sister had a penpal through school who lived in Northern Ireland, this was about 1995 probably. I vaguely remember reading the letters and the accounts of some violence where she lived, though being only 8 at the time, I don’t think I fully realized what was going on. Now I want to see if my sister still has these letters so I can get a more adult perspective.

  • Good work.
    Here is your next assignment for the coming week:

    1. Palestine – Israel
    2. Hutu – Tutsi
    3. India – Kashmir – Pakistan

  • Jin

    Such an interesting read! It made me went on Wikipedia and Youtube to read more about it, and I came across this moving interview in Belfast after the riot.

  • Charamei

    Geraldine, thank you so much for this. I am English, but was born in 1987, and I’ve always had trouble getting a reasonably unbiased view of what happened. I was in Northern Ireland a couple of weeks before you and found it quite weird and almost cult-like with all the Union Flags everywhere – I can’t imagine what it’s like living there as a Catholic.

    One minor nitpick, though – Thatcher didn’t exactly resign. She was just as unpopular in the rest of Britain as in Ireland: her Cabinet turned on her and she was more or less forced out of office.

    • Everywhereist

      Thanks for the clarification on Thatcher – I just read one account where she was described as “resigning” and realized that didn’t really give much of a backstory.

  • Now that really is a well-researched piece. (Coming from someone from the south of Ireland who actually learned quite a bit just now) 🙂

  • I’m from the UK, born in 1985, and remember growing up with reports of bombings in NI (and in cities across the UK) on the news on an at least weekly basis. I was terrified of the IRA, and despite how close the country is, going to either Ireland or NI for a holiday (something I’ve done a few times now) was not something anyone ever considered.

    When in 1997 the ceasefire agreement was put in place it was a monumental occasion; I was 12 and although I may not have completely understood the situation at the time, I knew how important it was. In 2005 when the IRA relinquished their weapons, no one seriously thought it would last – but, so far, this agreement seems to be holding. Belfast and Dublin are gorgeous cities to visit, the people are so friendly and it saddens me to think that in recent times, new militant groups have formed.

    I hope the peace (of sorts) lasts. I hope to still be able to visit friends in 10 years time and not have to worry about safety – both mine and theirs.

    Incidentally, did you do any research into the Omagh Bombing? It was possibly the biggest Real IRA attack throughout the previous 30 year history, and brought about an extreme sense of fear across the UK in the months following the attack.

  • nicola

    I am a protestant who has lived in Northern Ireland all my life. People need to know that we are just ordinary people with an extraordinary history- one which continues to impact on our daily lives as the issues that divide us are as current as when first disputed 300 yrs ago. Whilst a clear majority of us want peace and to move on this will be extremely difficult to achieve . This conflict is about identity, culture and heritage- if you forfeit these what is left of a person??? My hope is that we all find more common ground to help unite us in non political ways. We [and the rest of the world] need to concede that our religious differences may never be amalgamated but surely we can respect that and make a better, PEACEFUL future for our children. Lots of wrongs on both sides-AMEN!!!!

  • Jojo

    Hi 🙂
    I myself live in Northern Ireland and love history
    Your blog has made me adore Irish History! It’s just amazing and just WOW!!!
    So much effort has been put in this and some people who live here (aka myself) wouldn’t even know that much about our own history.
    You make it so interesting and I think I learnt more here than several years of studying it!

    I’ll be back for more! Jojo

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