Irish History Live

Northern Ireland 1963-1998


I. Terence O’Neill 1963-1969

 

Although the early 1960s saw a decline in sectarian confrontation in Northern Ireland underlying political and sectarian tensions remained. Tensions had eased somewhat in Belfast but this was less the case in rural areas where the IRA campaign of 1956-62 had helped maintain already polarised communities. This in turn created some tension between unionists in the greater Belfast area and those around the border who believed they were still under threat from nationalists and republicans. One of those who capitalised on this division was Stormont Unionist MP Brian Faulkner who played to the populist wing of unionism. However, it was not Faulkner but the aloof old Etonian and former Irish Guards officer, Terence O’Neill, who succeeded Lord Brookeborough as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in March 1963.

 

The first years of O’Neill’s premiership were characterised by an emphasis on greater economic planning. Social and economic reform, O’Neill believed, would modernise Northern Ireland in such a way that it would consign sectarian disputes to the past and win over Catholic support to the state. His more immediate concern, however, was in winning support lost to the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the Belfast area back to the UUP. O’Neill believed that he would need solid unionist support in the eastern part of Northern Ireland when working with Fermanagh, Tyrone and Londonderry on the issue of reform. However, some of the seeds of O’Neill’s eventual failure were already contained in plans for economic growth areas. While the planners believed that growth areas had to be in the east, where attracting industry was a more viable option, Nationalists believed that this was a deliberate attempt by unionists to starve the more Catholic west of its share of jobs. The decision to site a new university near the largely Protestant town of Coleraine rather than in mainly Catholic Derry added to the general feeling of grievance that nationalist areas were being deprived of jobs. Another decision, to name a proposed new city ‘Craigavon’ after the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was also unlikely to encourage cross-community support.

 

O’Neill also had a tendency to alienate his own party colleagues through his practice of using a small policy making group, rather than the cabinet, to make decisions. In July 1964, for example, he by-passed potential opposition to the centralisation of planning powers by carrying out a cabinet reshuffle at a time when most of the members were on holiday. On top of this, when O’Neill met Irish Taoiseach Sean Lemass in Belfast in January 1965, in an attempt to ease tensions between the North and the South as well as placate London, he did so without telling his party colleagues. Thus, although the Unionists improved their position against the NILP in the 1965 Stormont election (winning back two Belfast seats) this was achieved partly at the expense of opening up divisions within O’Neill’s own party.
 

 

II. Civil Rights

 

By the mid-1960s pressure was beginning to build on the O’Neill government from another source.  The post-war expansion of educational opportunities, along with the growth of new employment opportunities in what remained a segregated school and hospital system, as well as in the expanding number of non-Northern Irish firms operating in the province, had led to an expansion of the Catholic middle class. The political climate of the post-war years encouraged new expectations of equal treatment and of continually improving living conditions, while the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States provided a model for an effective form of peaceful but confrontational protest.  These influences combined to produce a new form of Catholic political self-assertion, focussing not on the traditional grievance of partition but on abuses of power within Northern Ireland.  The first moves in this direction came in protests during 1963 over blatant abuses in the allocation of council housing in Dungannon Urban District Council.

In July 1964 the recently formed and Dungannon-based Campaign for Social Justice, which aimed to highlight instances of discrimination in Northern Ireland, turned to the British Labour party and its leader, Harold Wilson, for support. Unionists, in turn, had come to see Northern Ireland almost as a semi-independent state and many resented the prospect of British government ‘interference’ in their affairs. Wilson was initially disposed to allow O’Neill to move forward at his own pace on the issue of reform - partly because of fears that the delicate balance within Northern Ireland would be upset and partly because Labour’s narrow majority at Westminster meant that he had little time to waste on Northern Ireland matters. After the March 1966 Westminster general election, when Labour was returned with a comfortable majority, on the other hand Wilson  began to take a tougher line, threatening cuts in financial support to Northern Ireland. In this he was partly influenced by a new Westminster parliamentary grouping ‘the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster’ (formed in 1965), as well as by the return of Gerry Fitt as Republican Labour MP for West Belfast.  British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins also warned that if reform did not continue the result could be the abolition of the Northern Ireland government and direct rule from London. In practice, however, although the unionists made little progress on reform, the Labour government was unwilling to risk destroying O’Neill if the result was greater direct involvement in Northern Ireland affairs.

 

Attitudes were also changing in Northern Ireland. The fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising in 1966 increased sectarian tensions.  The same year saw the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group that recommenced the loyalist murders of Catholics. Opposition to the O’Neill government took a new form with the creation in February 1967 of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. NICRA provided a framework for a coalition of interests, including the left-wing radicals, nationalists and republicans who were prepared to challenge the existence of the Northern Ireland state, as well as those merely interested in reform for its own sake. The issue of civil rights initially provided a unifying framework for these many different views. In August 1968, however, a Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon highlighted the danger of slippage from civil rights to constitutional issues or even sectarian confrontation. The Civil Rights march was accompanied by bands playing republican and nationalist tunes, while police stopped the march outside Dungannon town centre to prevent it meeting a counter demonstration led by local unionists and the firebrand preacher and O’Neill critic, the Revd Ian Paisley.

In the wake of the Coalisland-Dungannon march, the Derry Housing Action Committee, led by left-wing radical Eamonn McCann, called for a march in Derry. Controversially it was proposed that the march begin in the predominantly Protestant Waterside part of the city and end in the city centre where previous nationalist marches had been banned. The Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, banned both this march and another by the (Orange) Apprentice Boys of Derry which was planned for the same day. The civil rights march went ahead on 5 October and was blocked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. However, subsequent skirmishes between the RUC and protesters, and particularly television footage showing protesters being hit by police batons, did much to sour relations within Northern Ireland. The dramatic television coverage also made the politics of Northern Ireland an issue that went far beyond the six counties and conveyed the image of a repressive government unwilling to accept reform. Where approximately 400 protesters took part in the 5 October demonstration 15,000 took part in a demonstration in Derry on 16 October. In Belfast a civil rights march by students from Queen’s University was prevented from reaching the city centre by police.  The episode  was followed by the creation of the radical left wing People’s Democracy, whose aim was explicitly the overthrow of the Northern Irish state.

 

These developments heightened pressures within the Unionist government. O’Neill aimed to replace the restricted local government franchise in favour of one based on universal suffrage but faced opposition from Craig and from Faulkner. Under the existing system only householders had the right to vote in council elections so that many adults did not have a vote. Unionists argued that those who paid for local services had a greater right to say how they were used. Across Northern Ireland as a whole this system excluded more Protestant adults than Catholics but tended to favour Unionists in areas where there was a close numerical balance. In addition those owning companies had an extra vote, which again tended to favour unionists. A five- point reform package was introduced in November but because of internal unionist party disagreement did not include the most controversial issue – that of local government franchise reform. In December 1968 O’Neill made a direct appeal to the public for support. In a television broadcast in which he noted that ‘Ulster stands at the crossroads’, he attacked his unionist critics and called on the civil rights movement to take the heat out of the situation. The initial response was encouraging: public opinion appeared to be behind O’Neill and NICRA called off further marches until mid-January. O’Neill also sacked Craig after he made an outspoken speech vowing to resist British ‘interference’ in Northern Ireland.

It was at this point, at the start of 1969, that the People’s Democracy decided to undertake a protest march from Belfast to Derry. On the final day of this march, protesters were attacked by loyalists (including off-duty members of the B Specials, a part-time police reserve force) at Burntollet Bridge just outside Derry city and received little protection from the RUC officers who were accompanying the march. The arrival of the marchers in Derry later that day sparked serious rioting and the beginning of a spiral towards open sectarian conflict.

In February 1969 O’Neill called a Northern Ireland general election in an effort to see off his opponents. However his party was so divided that in some areas unofficial unionists supporting O’Neill stood against official Unionists who opposed the Prime Minister. Significantly, unionist opposition to O’Neill was strongest in border counties and in working -class Belfast constituencies. With a turnout of just under 72 percent the election returned 39 unionists (24 official Unionists and three unofficial unionists supporting O’Neill, 10 official Unionists from constituency associations which opposed O’Neill, and two undecided), six members of the Nationalist Party, three civil rights candidates, two Republican Labour and two members of the NILP.

 

Although O’Neill and his supporters won an overall majority of seats he had failed to disarm his critics; instead the election served mainly to demonstrate the divisions within the unionist bloc. Official Unionist supporters of O’Neill won 31.1 percent of the poll and unofficial unionist supporters a further 12.9 percent. However, anti-O’Neill official Unionists won 17.1 percent of the poll. In an indication of future developments there was also a shift in voting in the nationalist bloc away from the Nationalist Party towards individuals connected with the civil rights movement.

 

The election saw the emergence of a number of figures who were to dominate Northern Ireland politics for the next three decades, not least John Hume (who was elected for the Foyle constituency) and the Rev. Ian Paisley (who provided a strong challenge to O’Neill, but lost, in Bannside). O’Neill pushed through the electoral franchise reform in April but only after the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture, James Chichester-Clark, in protest at the timing of the reform. In addition, a series of bomb attacks on Belfast’s water supply (conducted by loyalists opposed to O’Neill) succeeded in putting further pressure on the Prime Minister. By the time O’Neill resigned, on 28 April, the situation was deteriorating further. On 19 April rioting broke out in Derry during the course of which RUC officers broke into the house of Samuel Devenney and assaulted him. Devenney subsequently died from his injuries  and is often seen as the first victim of the Troubles.

 

III. The outbreak of the Troubles and the collapse of Stormont, 1969-1972

 

The February 1969 Northern Ireland ‘crossroads’ election demonstrated the extent of division within unionism. Not only did O‘Neill face opposition to his policies from within his own party (Faulkner and another Minister had resigned from the government in January and Chichester-Clark in April) but also from outside the Unionist party in the shape of firebrand preacher Ian Paisley. Paisley linked his fundamentalist Protestantism with attacks on O‘Neill‘s policies of reform, which he believed undermined Northern Ireland‘s position within the United Kingdom and brought a united Ireland closer. In the same way Paisley believed that moves towards reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic Churches worked to undermine the very purpose of Protestantism. But what had initially begun as an intra-unionist dispute over the degree of reform which was required in Northern Ireland gradually began to deteriorate into an overtly sectarian confrontation. In August 1969 an Apprentice Boys march in Derry led to riots. The ‘Battle of the Bogside’ between nationalists and the RUC spread to Belfast, where it became a direct communal conflict between Catholics and Protestants. With the police exhausted, James Chichester-Clark, who had succeeded O’Neill as UUP leader and Prime Minister n May 1969, asked for soldiers to be brought onto the streets to help maintain order. Although, at the time, this was seen as a temporary measure, soldiers would still be patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland thirty years later.  Catholics initially welcomed the soldiers as protectors of their community from Protestant attacks. However there was a gradual deterioration in relations, most significantly after the Falls Road in Belfast was put under a curfew for two days in July 1970.

 

With the outbreak of the Troubles paramilitary groups on both  sides grew in size and in strength. During the 1960s sections of the IRA had drifted away from traditional republicanism into various forms of social activism, and the movement was widely seen as having failed to protect Catholic areas from attack during 1968-9. In late 1969 it split between the more Southern based, and more left wing, Official IRA and the more Northern based Provisionals. Each had its own political wing – Official Sinn Fein and Provisional Sinn Fein - though the Officials became increasingly politicised and in the 1980s developed into the Workers’ Party. On the unionist side, loyalist paramilitaries, self-proclaimed defenders of Ulster, were arguably more overtly sectarian in their approach. While long-time Ulster Defence Association leader Andy Tyrie might have described his organisation’s approach as ‘terrorising the terrorists’, the actuality was often simply to kill Catholics indiscriminately in a ruthless attempt to terrorise the community as a whole into withdrawing support from the IRA.

 

In March 1971 Chichester-Clark resigned over lack of support from the British government on security, and was succeeded as UUP leader and Prime Minister by Brian Faulkner. But the security situation continued to deteriorate with the IRA beginning a bombing campaign aimed at destroying Northern Ireland’s economy. In a last throw of the dice internment without trial was introduced in August 1971. The ineffective and one-sided manner in which it was applied led to a massive increase in violence. Eventually more than three thousand people would be killed as a result of the Troubles. Internment heralded the start of the worst period of the Troubles, which continued until the end of 1975 when the number of deaths began to decrease significantly. After that, even when violence increased at subsequent moments of political crisis, such as the 1981 hunger strike campaign or the violent unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement after 1985, it never reached the sustained level that obtained between 1971 and 1975.

 

After the events of Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry during an anti-internment protest, the British Government’s patience was exhausted. The Stormont Government refused to yield full control of security to Westminster and resigned in protest.  This brought about the introduction of direct rule from London through a newly established Northern Ireland Office, headed by a Northern Ireland Secretary of State, who was a member of the United Kingdom cabinet. The first Secretary of State was William Whitelaw, later Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister under Margaret Thatcher.

 

In July 1972 IRA leaders, including Gerry Adams, had met Secretary of State Whitelaw for talks in London but this led nowhere. From the end of 1974, when republicans believed the British were thinking of withdrawing from Northern Ireland, there was a truce during which British officials conducted renewed talks with ‘the republican movement’ but failed to reach agreement. ‘The Truce’ finally broke down in September 1975. It was at this point that the IRA leadership committed itself to new tactics.  Instead of a short campaign aimed at forcing an early withdrawal, it now envisaged ,  a ‘long war’ aimed at gradually wearing down the British government’s commitment to remaining in Northern Ireland.

 

IV. Political initiatives, 1974-1985

 

One of the recurrent themes of the period after 1972 was the search for a stable political solution.

 

In January 1974 a power-sharing Executive was established which contained unionist, nationalist and cross-community party representatives. Significantly the initiative, based on talks which had taken place at Stormont Castle and later at Sunningdale in England, had a ‘three-strand’ approach similar to the later Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement of 1998 – a power-sharing administration for Northern Ireland, an Irish dimension linking North and South, and a British-Irish dimension, although this last, in the Sunningdale formula, was quite weak. In 1974, however, the conditions for a successful political settlement simply did not exist. The level of violence was still high (in effect, a low level civil war was taking place), a bare majority of unionists at large were only grudgingly prepared to accept nationalists into the executive, and most were strongly opposed to any North-South institutions. The failure of the Irish government to remove the territorial claim to Northern Ireland was also an important factor in undermining unionist confidence in Sunningdale although in the circumstances which prevailed in 1974 it is unlikely that even quick movement on this issue would have saved the deal. Nationalists, by now represented by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which had grown out of a coalition of civil rights campaigners and labour orientated politicians in Belfast, were much more in favour of a deal generally but they saw strong North-South institutions as an integral part of this deal. The release of internees was also a central part of the package as far as nationalists were concerned, and there was only slow movement on this issue at a time when the high level of violence was continuing.

The political instability of the Sunningdale deal was demonstrated by the outcome of the February 1974 Westminster election when anti-agreement unionists won 11 of the 12 Northern Ireland seats and took more than 50 per cent of the vote. In May an industrial stoppage, organised by loyalist workers and paramilitaries under the name of the Ulster Workers’ Council, brought road blocks, power cuts and eventually the prospect of sewage flooding the streets of Belfast.  The crisis brought about the resignation of unionist members from the Executive and the collapse of the Sunningdale initiative, though this outcome disguised the central flaw of the original strategy, the lack of sufficient unionist support.

In the following years a number of other political initiatives were attempted without success. In 1975 elections to a Constitutional Convention produced an overall unionist/loyalist majority and eventually a report which proved unacceptable to the government and nationalists because there was no Irish dimension.  In addition unionists were unwilling to accept a role for nationalists in any new Northern Ireland Executive.   In 1979 Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s first NI Secretary of State, Humphrey Atkins, held talks with local parties but again failed to reconcile conflicting unionist and nationalist demands.

 

In 1981, however, events changed dramatically when Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in the Maze prison (or Long Kesh) launched hunger strikes in protest at the removal of special category status and associated privileges which in many ways gave them the status of political prisoners. From the mid-1970s the British government had attempted to end special category status and treat paramilitary prisoners in the same way as others. In response republican prisoners had gradually escalated their opposition. A ‘blanket’ protest, where new prisoners refused to wear official prison uniform and accepted only a blanket instead, gave way to the ‘no wash’ or ‘dirty’ protest, with prisoners refusing to wash and, in some instances, smearing excreta on their cells, and then to a hunger strike in 1980. This ended in somewhat confused circumstances and, when it became clear to republican prisoners that their demands had not been met, a new hunger strike was launched in 1981.

 

By the end of the 1981 protest ten republican prisoners, including the IRA leader in the Maze Bobby Sands, had died and much of what the prisoners sought had been conceded by the government. Perhaps more significant in the long term was Sands’s victory in a Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster by-election. This had at least two major outcomes. On the one hand, it led to a further deterioration in Protestant-Catholic relations but, on the other, it began a long process in which the Provisional’s political wing, Sinn Fein, would come to take greater prominence than the military wing.

 

In 1982 the British government made another attempt to establish a Northern Ireland Assembly. The novel idea behind this plan was that of ‘rolling devolution’. Assembly committees would scrutinise the work of government departments but if cross community agreement could be reached then the individual committees could assume responsibility of the work for the appropriate department. However, the entry of Sinn Fein into party politics pressurised the nationalist SDLP into boycotting the Assembly and the new institution never progressed beyond the level of scrutinising the work of local government departments. The fears of the SDLP were shared in British and Irish government circles. They were concerned about the impact Sinn Fein would have on politics, both in Northern Ireland and further afield, and particularly what would happen if Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP to become the largest nationalist party. In retrospect these fears were somewhat exaggerated but they  need to be seen in the context of a period when the IRA was still fully engaged in the armed struggle. Whatever the reality of the situation, a perceived urgent need to bolster the SDLP was a significant factor in the thinking which led to the signing of Anglo-Irish Agreement by the British and Irish governments in  November 1985.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Irish government a formal right to be consulted on a wide range of issues relating to Northern Ireland. This was met on one hand by nationalist euphoria and on the other by unionist fury – the latter being demonstrated most visibly in two 200,000 strong rallies held to protest against the Agreement. In broader terms, the Agreement represented an attempt to establish North-South relations and clearer British-Irish relations with regard to Northern Ireland before leading on to a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland itself. However, unionist opposition was so strong that, in the short-term at least, the Agreement essentially became another part of the problem, as its removal became a key unionist objective in subsequent negotiations. Somewhat ironically the Anglo-Irish Agreement encouraged some unionists to campaign for greater political, legal and administrative integration of Northern Ireland into Great Britain as the best means of safeguarding its constitutional position.

 

The republican movement – the IRA and Sinn Fein as well as a number of smaller republican groups - were opposed to the Anglo-Irish Agreement on the grounds that ‘it copper-fastened partition’. At this time there was little sign that mainstream republicans would settle for less than British withdrawal in the short or, at least medium, term. Their campaign was helped by the acquisition of an estimated 250 tons of arms and explosives from Libya between 1985 and 1987.

 

V. The Peace Process, 1988-1998

From 1981, however, republicans began to take party politics more seriously and in October of that year leading Sinn Fein member Danny Morrison made a speech in which he urged republicans to take power in Ireland using both the ballot box and the armalite. Sinn Fein subsequently contested the 1982 NI Assembly elections, winning 10 per cent of the vote and five of the 78 seats.  In the following years the party made steady, if un-dramatic, progress in electoral terms. They received 13.4 per cent of the Northern Ireland vote in the 1983 Westminster election and 13.3 per cent in the 1984 European parliamentary election. In an important symbolic victory, Gerry Adams captured the Westminster seat for  West Belfast in June 1983. In November of the same year he was elected President of Sinn Fein, highlighting a significant swing in the balance of power between Northern and Southern republicans. Subsequently, in November 1986, the party voted to end its policy of abstention from the Dail with those opposing the move forming a new group, Republican Sinn Fein.

By this stage, however, it was becoming clear that Sinn Fein’s political ambitions were being hindered by the IRA’s military campaign. This was most evident in the reaction to the November 1987 IRA ‘Poppy Day’ bomb in Enniskillen, which killed 11 people, but also in a number of other less high profile incidents. Although the IRA continued its ‘long war’, feelers from various sources were being put out to try to bring republicans into mainstream politics. In January 1988 a series of talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams began with the aim of finding common ground on the conditions for an all-Ireland settlement. In November 1990 Secretary of State Peter Brooke said Britain had no ‘strategic or economic’ interest in Northern Ireland and would accept the unification of Ireland if consent existed for it. Hume and Adams recommenced their political discussions in April 1993, and as the year progressed different political strands began to coalesce. A series of proposals were presented by Hume and Adams to the Irish government. These, combined with other ideas that had emerged during talks between parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish governments, formed the basis for the British-Irish document of December 1993 known as the Downing Street Declaration.

One of the most significant elements of the Downing Street Declaration was that it added to elements from the Hume-Adams proposals the principle of consent: that is, that it was for the people of Ireland North and South separately to decide their political future. Though this was described by republicans as ‘a unionist veto’, they did not reject the document out of hand but instead asked for clarification. This was a significant step because it signalled that the mainstream republican leadership was entering into a process of negotiation. In support of this peace process, in August 1994, the IRA announced a ceasefire. Even though this ceasefire was broken in February 1996 by the London Docklands bombing, the underlying rationale behind this attack was that republicans were trying to exert pressure to bring about negotiations on a more favourable basis to themselves, rather than to end the negotiation process. Almost inevitably, following a change in government in London, the IRA reinstated its ceasefire in July 1997 and negotiations began once again.

            Unionists were also slowly moving towards acceptance of a political agreement and in October 1994 loyalist paramilitaries had declared their own ceasefire based on the understanding that, as they saw it, the Union with Britain was safe. However, just as for nationalists and republicans, there were some developments which proved unpleasant for unionists and loyalists. In February 1995 the British government’s ‘Frameworks for the Future’ document was too ‘green’ for unionists to accept and was quietly dropped. However, on the ground, Orange parades seeking to pass through nationalist areas began to find themselves in conflict not just with residents but with the police and army. The most high profile of these disputed parade routes was at Drumcree near Portadown where a confrontation of one sort or another became an annual event for most of the late 1990s.

            This period also saw changes in significant personnel. In September 1995 David Trimble became UUP leader and in May 1997 Tony Blair became Prime Minister with Margery (Mo) Mowlam as his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. A prolonged period of political negotiation subsequently led to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement being signed in April 1998. The Good Friday Agreement contained two essential elements – first, the ‘political’ settlement, relating to the political institutions and the three strand approach to relations within Northern Ireland, between the North and the South and between Britain and Ireland, and second, the ‘peace’ settlement, relating to the early release of prisoners and touching on areas such as policing, equality and human rights. There was, however, a strong difference in how the Good Friday Agreement was perceived. While most nationalists saw the Agreement was progress towards a more fair and even-handed political dispensation, most unionists saw it as overwhelmingly benefitting their opponents. A referendum on the Agreement in May 1998 was supported by 71 per cent of those who voted in Northern Ireland – although worryingly Protestant support, at about 55 per cent, was significantly lower than the roughly 90 per cent of Catholics who voted in favour. When elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly were held in June 1998 elections Unionists were almost evenly split between pro and anti-Agreement Members of the Assembly.

            Conflicting perceptions of the Agreement continued to dominate politics in the years that followed.  In particular unionists resented the early release of prisoners, the replacement of the RUC with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the increase in violent and other non-political crimes that followed the end of ‘the Troubles’, the perceived inefficiency of the police force in dealing with these crimes, and the belief that continued paramilitary activities were ignored in order not to upset the peace process. Most important of all, the long delay in bringing about the promised  decommissioning of paramilitary weapons was  to be a central factor in the stop-start nature of devolution in the first Assembly after 1998.

As with many historical events no single factor was responsible for the Troubles. Debate continues as to how far the descent into violence should be attributed to the feebleness of O’Neill’s reform initiatives, or to the excessive demands of sections of the civil rights movement.  The ferocity of the violence directed at the early civil rights movement might suggest that the main problem lay with Protestant refusal to contemplate even modest moves towards equality.  Yet the speed with which the nationalists after 1969 returned to the traditional demand for an end to partition, and in many cases to at least passive support for physical force republicanism, must cast doubt on claims that the civil rights movement had concerned only with reform within the boundaries of Northern Ireland. The reasons why the conflict continued for so long are arguably clearer. Once the major loyalist and republican paramilitary groups became established and won the support of, or gained control of, local communities, it became almost impossible for the British and Irish governments to defeat them militarily by using methods which would be considered acceptable by international democratic norms. Instead the conflict continued until the major paramilitary organisations were drawn into the realm of politics, with the inevitable compromises which that required.

Gordon Gillespie October 2009


See also:

Podcast on 'The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement' by Dr Stuart Aveyard.

Podcast on 'The Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement', by Dr Stuart Aveyard.

Short Cuts