A six county province, partitioned after opting out of the Irish Free State in 1920, Northern Ireland’s community was always deeply divided, with, roughly speaking, a two-thirds majority Protestant population espousing the union with the British Crown, and the remainder of Catholic nationalists, whose national identity aligned itself with Ireland. A legacy of King James I ’s expulsion of Ireland’s Celtic aristocracy as English and Scottish farmers, the planters, inherited fertile land while those displaced sought a meagre living from the less fertile uplands; it makes for crude census that nonetheless traces the division in Northern Irish society. Catholic frustration at social depravation met with a unionist movement paranoid that Britain may cede their sovereignty to Irish Nationalism.
This tension gave rise to paramilitary violence that tore the province apart. Mrs Gould’s murder was a ‘mistake’, the Catholic owned off-license next door was the target. This would become a familiar tale in a war where civilians accounted for some 1847 of total of 3524 deaths attributed to the Troubles. Her murder came at a time of escalating tension in Ulster. The unionists were paranoid that the Irish Republican Army were still a force. With unionist fears that the IRA would reassert itself on a rudderless and underprivileged Catholic community, the UVF declared war on IRA men, positing itself as the armed protectors of the unionist community. It would not be the last time that a paramilitary organisation in the province would choose such a ‘worthy’ role for itself. Protecting the community became a mandate for murder.
But in 1966, from whom were the UVF protecting their community? The IRA in Belfast were almost wholly dormant, numbering a few relics from the failed border campaign of 1956, and certainly did not have the support of the nationalist community. Republicanism was very much a secondary thought to a nascent civil rights movement that sought to bring some sort of equality to Ulster. The Catholic community, for so long starved of leadership and a political voice, were beginning to challenge their living conditions, their secondary citizenship in many instances, denied them equal employment rights. Housing was run by the unionist council, and had been for decades. The Catholic areas of Belfast, such as the cramped Falls Road, endured slum conditions. Social housing was skewed in favour of Protestants. So too voting. Gerrymandering had divided Catholics among a number of electoral wards, securing a unionist status quo. With votes for rent payers and homeowners, Protestants with more than one property could have a maximum of six votes in an election. Things had to change.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in January 1967. Their aims were outlined in a constitution that demanded equality and the rights of the individual, including freedom of speech and assembly. To a predominantly Catholic working class, this was crucial; if the community was to challenge the status quo it would need to be mobilised. NICRA organised a series of marches in 1968 to campaign against corruption in the housing association. Marching in Ulster poked at the intolerance of the Reverend Ian Paisley , and his fundamentalist views on unionism and the Catholic’s place in Ulster society. Counter marches and protests were arranged.
As 1968 wore on, the marches became more of a flashpoint. Fringe republican elements within the NICRA exerted an influence. In such a charged atmosphere, wherein an atrophied IRA sought to advance the republican issue under the umbrella aims of social justice for Catholics and nationalists, the propensity for violence was palpable. By October 1968, the familiar sight of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) hitting protesters with batons to quell marches banned by the authorities made their first appearance on the news. But when the RUC failed to protect the NICRA’s march at Burntollet Bridge, near Derry , where marchers were attacked by loyalist mobs, Northern Ireland’s simmering discontent went nuclear.
Rioting engulfed Derry city. The nationalist Bogside area erupted with fury. The RUC had few Catholics among their ranks and were seen as the authoritarian weight to maintain this uncomfortable, unionist dominated status quo. The Battle Of Bogside declared which way the wind was blowing. Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill ushered in reforms that enraged unionists. Bombing reservoirs and power stations, the UVF made O’Neill’s position untenable. He resigned. Northern Ireland was becoming under the mercy of the gunman once again. Republicans would not have failed to notice the UVF’s success in making political gains through violence.
IRA activism escalated, mobs were mobilised. Rioting between the two communities saw homes burned and people killed. The sound of gunfire made its voice heard. But as both communities woke up to derelict, burned out houses, cars ablaze and barbed wire marking their territory, their frustrations were the exact environment from which paramilitary sympathies prospered. But it was not the IRA the Catholic community were turning to, it was the British Army. In August 1969 , British troops arrived from the mainland as the province became an increasing security threat. Nationalist communities, whose homes had been repeatedly attack by loyalist mobs, welcomed them. The IRA had been powerless to protect the community, with its Dublin leadership failing to understand the deteriorating situation in Belfast.
Long ignored, Northern Ireland was now a pressing concern for prime minister Harold Wilson ’s government. As Britain sought measures to calm the violence, the IRA were reorganising themselves, splitting into Official and Provisional factions. Of the two, it is the latter’s who would cast the longest shadow over Ulster, seeking the undiluted aim of a united Ireland achieved through force. The Provisionals sought guns, and quickly. Operation Banner was encountering its first difficulty; the army is ill-equipped to police a nation. Soon the army was viewed as an extension of the RUC. The summer marching season of 1970 cemented this attitude. A combination of curfews, arms finds and the failure to ban an Orange march drove bored and disaffected youths to the Provisional IRA. It was a trend that would grow exponentially. The British government’s policy of internment created a groundswell of discontent and naked hatred. Almost all interred between 1970 and 1975 were Catholic. It was a rallying cry, confirming to republicans that their struggle was indeed against the British state. From the anti-internment marches arranged by the NICRA came one of the bleakest days of the Troubles, a day that would swell the IRA’s numbers like never before.
On 30th January 1972 , a civil rights march in Derry ended with soldiers from 1st Parachute Regiment shooting dead thirteen unarmed protesters, with another dying of his wounds some months later in hospital. The march, which was banned in the wake of the deteriorating security situation, had passed off relatively peacefully until soldiers opened fire without warning. Seven of the protesters were just teenagers. The army argued self-defence, insisting they were fired on by the IRA. In the immediate aftermath, Lord Chief Justice Widgery chaired an enquiry which endorsed the army’s view whilst omitting eye-witness statements and evidence which would have challenged the Army’s official line. In 1997, prime minister Tony Blair called for a second enquiry, chaired by Lord Saville it came at a cost of £200 million, becoming the most expensive legal case in British history. In the months and years that followed Bloody Sunday, Northern Ireland’s embattled citizens paid a heavier price.
The Provisionals’ campaign against the security forces was stepped up. Security officials of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and RUC were now targeted in their homes. The car bomb claimed its first lives in springtime of 1972. Again, civilians invariably suffered, blown to pieces in carnage that reduced Derry and Belfast to rubble. 1972 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles, 479 people lost their lives. Nationalist and unionist areas had long been blockaded to prevent the Army patrols, the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the IRA secured no-go areas where the security services could not reach. Belfast and Derry were ghost towns after dark. The seventies may be remembered for recession and economic strife, but in Ulster such economic problems were drowned out by the roar of helicopters and the sound of another shop front exploding.
With Northern Ireland rapidly becoming derelict, the IRA turned the focus of the campaign to the British mainland. It would not be the first time that the Troubles would spill over the border. In 1972, the UDA bombed a soft drinks factory in Donegal , and devastated Dublin with four bombs detonating during the evening rush hour of 17th May 1974. With 33 dead, it was the bloodiest day of the Troubles. The IRA had bombed the Old Bailey in 1973, but the Guildford and Birmingham bombings were altogether more damaging. On 5th October 1974 , the IRA bombed the Horse And Groom pub on North Street, Guildford , and the nearby Seven Stars. Five people were killed and 65 injured, with four innocent Irish men, the Guildford Four serving time for the atrocity. Birmingham’s The Talk Of The Town and The Mulberry Street were packed when the Provisionals’ bombs went off on 21st November 1974 . 21 were killed, 182 injured, and six Irishmen living in Birmingham were wrongly convicted, serving over sixteen years in prison before their release in 1991.
Both bombings were gruesome testimonies to the direction of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both ended in miscarriages of justice, typical of the desperation of the security forces to get a conviction. For the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the war was changing as both began to be infiltrated by MI5, in particular. The Twilight War was only just beginning, and would be expanded in the eighties. But it wasn’t just the new tactics being used by the security forces that began to sow doubt in the minds of republican leadership; their assumption that the Protestant population of Northern Ireland would agree to a united Ireland once the British forces had been driven out was utter fancy.
The bomb alone was not going to achieve republicanism’s holy grail. Such knuckleheaded rhetoric had bedded Northern Ireland down for a gruelling immediate future of futile bombings, murders and destroyed families. But the tide began to turn when the campaign for special category status began; republican prisoners demanded to be recognised as political prisoners. While the hungerstrikes of 1981, led by Bobby Sands , failed to shift prime minister Margaret Thatcher ’s thinking that the criminalisation of the IRA’s activity was the answer to the security issue, it did seduce Sinn Fein with the possibility of electoral success. The political arm of the Provisional IRA was hardly hardened in electioneering. That Bobby Sands was elected to parliament while leading ten hungerstrikers to their deaths was remarkable; the era of the ‘bullet and the ballet box’ was born. In hindsight, senior figures in the republican movement must have had a moment of clarity, realising that their constitutional entreaties were not going to be heard with gunfire alone.
A moment of clarity is all that it was. The rhetoric was no different. The killings fell, but that was due to the number of informers, or ‘touts’, that created an intelligence network that allowed MI5 to stop IRA activity at the source. Throughout the Troubles and in the reconciliation since 1998’s Good Friday Peace Agreement , there has been allegations that the British security forces colluded with loyalist paramilitary groups in organising assassinations of IRA members. The Provisional IRA changed its strategy, morphing into a loosely coordinated network of cells of just four operatives. The IRA maintained its armed campaign, with ordnance arriving from the PLO and Colonel Gadaffi. On 26th September 1983 , 21 republican prisoners of Belfast’s Maze prison, the most secure prison in Europe, escaped after hijacking a meals lorry. Such propaganda coups for the Provisionals were few and far between in what was a moribund period for the organisation. Not that they had lost their ruthless streak; when the Grand Hotel in Brighton was bombed on 24th October 1984 , during the Conservative party conference, the IRA came close to destroying the cabinet.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 brought the Irish government back into what peace process existed, but it would take the influence of the United States to make a cross party progress. Unionists were still wholly distrusting of any concessions to the IRA – the feeling was mutual. Meanwhile, the UDA’s campaign of sectarian killings, under the invented banner of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, ensured that no section of Northern Ireland’s community could lead a normal life. As the eighties drew to a close, Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams , formerly a senior figure in the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, had entered in clandestine talks with the nationalist SDLP leader John Hume , concerning the possibility of peace. As ever, progress was incremental, and by the early nineties, when there was talk of ceasefires, the shootings continued. In typical Ulster fashion, it was still eye for an eye, with sectarianism as significant a motive as any coherent political objective.
In August 1994, the IRA declared a ceasefire, followed weeks later by the loyalist paramilitaries. But while the path to peace was found, there was a hugely recalcitrant presence in the IRA that found the prospect of decommissioning to be unedifying. ‘Not one ounce, not one bullet’ was the sort of slogan that made it quite clear that many within the republican movement equated a surrender of arms as surrender. Two years later, the IRA broke its ceasefire, devastating London’s Canary Wharf with the largest bomb to have been detonated in Britain since World War II .
This made the Belfast Agreement of 1998, or Good Friday Peace Agreement, all the more remarkable. Reinstating their ceasefire in 1997, Sinn Fein rejoined the talks which verged closer to brinkmanship than diplomacy, with president Bill Clinton of the United States exerting his influence on all parties. While the schismatic nature of republicanism and loyalism meant that splits would occur, with only a handful of dissidents and radicals needed to destroy a fragile peace (like that of the Real IRA, responsible for the Omagh bombing of August 1998, in which 29 innocent people died), the Troubles were brought to an awkward conclusion with the Belfast Agreement. Home rule, suspended in the seventies and ill-functioning whenever it was mooted again, was reinstated to Stormont. Cross party talks were open again. The die-hard fundamentalism of men like Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness seeming anachronistic even to themselves. But such feelings will take generations to die out. Northern Ireland’s peace may be uneasy, but it has time on its side.
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