For 30 years, Northern Ireland was scarred by a period of deadly sectarian violence known as “the Troubles.” This explosive era was fraught with car bombings, riots and revenge killings that ran from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. The Troubles were seeded by centuries of conflict between predominantly Catholic Ireland and predominantly Protestant England. Tensions flared into violence in the late 1960s, leaving some 3,600 people dead and more than 30,000 injured.
Tensions Leading to the Troubles
The origins of the Troubles date back to centuries of warfare in which the predominantly Catholic people of Ireland attempted to break free of British (overwhelmingly Protestant) rule. In 1921, the Irish successfully fought for independence and Ireland was partitioned into two countries: the Irish Free State, which was almost entirely Catholic, and the smaller Northern Ireland, which was mostly Protestant with a Catholic minority.
While Ireland was fully independent, Northern Ireland remained under British rule, and the Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry (legally called Londonderry) complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. In time, two opposing forces coalesced in Northern Ireland largely along sectarian lines: the Catholic “nationalists” versus the Protestant “loyalists.”
A 1960s Civil Rights Movement Modeled on the US
In the 1960s, a new generation of politically and socially conscious young Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland started looking to the civil rights movement in America as a model for ending what they saw as brazen anti-Catholic discrimination in their home country.
“There was systematic discrimination in housing and jobs,” says James Smyth, an emeritus history professor at the University of Notre Dame who grew up in Belfast. “The biggest employer in Belfast was the shipyard, but it had a 95 percent Protestant workforce. In the city of Derry, which had a two-thirds Catholic majority, the voting districts had been gerrymandered so badly that it was controlled politically by [Protestant] loyalists for 50 years.”
Young nationalist leaders like John Hume, Austin Currie and Bernadette Devlin refused to accept the status quo. They saw what was happening in the United States and how peaceful mass protests had drawn attention to the plight of Black Americans living under segregation and Jim Crow.
“They modeled themselves on the American civil rights movement to the extent that one of the songs sung in Northern Ireland was ‘We Shall Overcome,’” says Smyth, who edited a 2017 book titled Remembering the Troubles: Contesting the Recent Past in Northern Ireland.
1968: Police Charge Protestors in Derry
On October 5, 1968, a protest march was planned along Duke Street in Derry. The nationalist activists wanted to draw attention to discriminatory housing policies that resulted in de facto segregation along sectarian and religious lines.
The march was banned by the Northern Ireland government, but protestors defied the order and gathered on October 5 with signs reading “One man, one vote!” and “Smash sectarianism!”
The crowd started to move, but was barricaded by a line of police from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) brandishing batons. The police charged the protestors and simultaneously cut off their retreat. TV cameras captured disturbing footage of RUC officers beating marchers with batons and chaos in the streets.
“October 5, 1968 was when the Troubles began,” argues Smyth, “and those TV images are etched in the people’s memory.”
1969: Violence at Burntollet Bridge
The police crackdown on October 5, 1968 ratcheted up tensions between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists and set the stage for more violent clashes.
On New Year's Day, 1969, nationalist activists took a page from Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Selma and organized a march from Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, to Derry, “the capital of injustice,” as Bernadette Devlin called it. The route took them through known loyalist strongholds, where the threat of violence was palpable.
The RUC provided a police escort for the nationalist protestors throughout the multi-day march until they reached Burntollet Bridge outside of Derry. At that point, protestors recall, the police put on their helmets and shields as if expecting trouble. That’s when a loyalist mob started raining rocks down on the protestors.
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The attackers, estimated at 300 loyalists, swarmed the bridge wielding clubs and iron bars. Some of them wore the white armbands of the B-Specials, an auxiliary police unit of the RUC. While bloodied protestors fled into the freezing river for protection, the RUC officers stood aside and did nothing to protect them, says Smyth.
The ambush at Burntollet Bridge was eerily similar to the events of March 7, 1965, when peaceful Selma marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were violently beaten back by a line of white-helmeted Alabama state troopers armed with tear gas, night sticks and whips.
1969: Battle of the Bogside
Some historians peg the real beginning of the Troubles to the events of August 1969, when a loyalist parade in Derry sparked three days of rioting and violent reprisals.
Across Northern Ireland, says Smyth, loyalists groups regularly organized parades to commemorate Protestant military victories dating back to the 17th century. In Derry, the local chapter was known as the Apprentice Boys and they planned a patriotic loyalist parade on August 12 that ran directly past a predominantly Catholic part of town called the Bogside.
The Bogsiders saw the Apprentice Boys parade as a direct provocation and prepared for a violent confrontation, barricading streets and readying Molotov cocktails. As expected, nationalist Bogsiders clashed with the parading Apprentice Boys and RUC officers rushed in to quell the rioting. They were met with violent resistance by the Bogsiders, who hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The “Battle of the Bogside,” as it’s known, raged for three days, but some of the worst damage was inflicted in Belfast, where loyalist mobs aided by the B-Specials swarmed Catholic neighborhoods and burned 1,500 homes to the ground.
On August 14, the overwhelmed prime minister of Northern Ireland called on the British government to send in troops to restore order. It was the beginning of a decades-long deployment in Northern Ireland by the British military.
“Basically the entire Northern Ireland state collapsed over a period of three or four days,” says Smyth. “They couldn’t maintain order, so the British had to come in.”
'Bloody Sunday' and 30 Years of Sectarian Violence
The British troops were initially welcomed by the Catholic nationalists as potential protectors, but the military soon instituted a controversial policy of “internment without trial,” after which hundreds of suspected IRA members were rounded up and imprisoned without due process.
On January 30, 1972, Catholic nationalists in Derry organized a march to protest the British internment policy, but the military was called in to shut it down. When protestors didn’t disperse, the troops opened fire with rubber bullets and then live rounds. Thirteen protestors were killed and 17 wounded in a tragedy known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed,” says Smyth, who was among the protestors that day in Derry.
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Northern Ireland suffered dozens of car bombings and sectarian attacks perpetrated by paramilitary groups on both sides like the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Hundreds of civilians were among the dead.
The Troubles came to an end, at least officially, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which created a framework for political power-sharing and an end to decades of violence.