Defining sectarian violence during the Troubles of Northern Ireland

The Troubles were a guerilla conflict waged between the governments of Northern Ireland and Britain against a group called the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) from 1969 until 1998. The IRA believed that only a violent uprising could reunite the North with the Republican South and therefore end the social inequality between Catholics and Protestants. Today the physical aggression of the Troubles fails to be remembered with the same significance alongside contemporary tragedies such as the Munich Olympic massacre.
In fact, there has been a failure by IRA figureheads to offer any apologies for the Troubles and thus the communities of Northern Ireland have been unable to heal. Gerry Adams, longtime supporter of the IRA in 2005 stated, “We know that breaking the law is a crime. But we refuse to criminalise those who break the law in pursuit of legitimate political objectives.” During this period, crime rose by 150% from 1968 till 1978 and more people were killed in Northern Ireland as a result of political violence than anywhere else in Europe between the years 1969 and 1990.
During the 1960s, civil rights movements such as those spearheaded by NICRA had failed to gain support from the Protestant working class and an estimated 250,000 Catholics were marginalized by election rules that gave extra voting powers to businessmen. Even in 1969, Belfast and Dublin were little more than villages in the sense that Irish society was under-urbanized, conservative, religious and extremely rural. In Derry and Belfast economic growth had especially stagnated, as only limited employment and investment opportunities were available. By 1970 unemployment had skyrocketed to more than 10% of the male population of Northern Ireland

By the summer of 1969 peaceful marches had become violent riots. The most notable of these was the Protestant Apprentice Boys march, now remembered as the Battle of the Bogside after the British army were forced to intervene to stop the conflict. In finding their voice younger Catholics sought to hold true to the past where a history of opposition to law enforcement and English influences was common, such as the Easter rising of 1918. With memories of the past so firmly infused in the present conflict, any evil was seen as legitimate to destroy British presence in Northern Ireland.
Thus the Provisional Irish Republican Army was formed in December 1969. These young men and women sought to create a revolution by attacking the military, economic and social infrastructure of Ulster Ireland. This attack on military personnel would mean that British soldiers put in place purely as peacekeepers suddenly found their lives in peril. In 1971 they were officially announced as targets of the IRA, usually being attacked off duty. Economic targets meant that Northern Irish businessmen were now at risk, becoming vulnerable to ransom kidnappings or shootings. An example of this was the killing of Jeremy Agate in 1976, a prominent investor and employer in Derry. Ignoring the high levels of unemployment, the IRA justified his death because he had served the British economy.
The attack on the home front soon took the form of community policing efforts by the IRA. This was necessary in certain strong republican areas, where it had become impossible for law enforcement to enter these neighbourhoods safely by 1970. However, Historians such as Richard English note that these policing attempts soon became based on little more that power struggles in republican factions. One choice method was knee capping, with perpetrators of anti-social activities (such as theft or drug dealing) punished by being shot through the knees. The severity of the shot depended on the severity of the crime, and aimed to incapacitate the wrongdoer from committing any further crime.
The hunger strikes of 1981 and death of Bobby Sands saw the game change for the IRA and led to worldwide recognition of their plight as legitimate political fighters. Support for the IRA’s political party Sinn Fein skyrocketed and they were elected to the Westminster Government in 1983 with 13.4% of the votes. Sinn Fein and the IRA were on its way to political domination and the continuation of physical attempts to gain territory through guerilla warfare was no longer necessary.
However, it is baffling that despite recognition and popularity soaring the IRA continued using violent and criminal means, especially the ransoming of wealthy citizens. With IRA members promising that Northern Ireland would become a republic with “a ballot box in one hand and an armalite in the other,” Sinn Fein’s support dropped dramatically to just 4.9% by 1984.
In closing, the Troubles can be attributed to a combination of social and historical factors. Firstly, a history of sectarian violence and inequality gave rise to high tension that finally exploded in the economic crisis of the 1970s. Secondly, an inability to abandon the IRA’s campaign of aggression after the success of the Hunger Strikes indicate that the violence was not just motivated by political reasons. Instead, it can be concluded that that the violence was driven by a desire for retribution against Britain and not just the creation of a united Ireland.

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One comment on “Defining sectarian violence during the Troubles of Northern Ireland

  1. merrynlynch says:

    Hi Hannah,

    This is a fascinating post.

    You make an interesting link between sectarian violence in the ‘Troubles’ and the Easter Uprising, suggesting a tradition, or culture, of violent confrontation in Ireland. Perhaps this could be extended even further back to the 1790s. Similarly, the connection you make between the Civil Rights movement and the formation of PIRA is very important.

    I appreciated your discussion of the socio-economic disadvantage faced by Irish Catholics in the North. It helped contextualise your discussion and highlight some of the underlying grievances. It also helped you present a nuanced analysis of the ‘Troubles’, not reducing the conflict to a mere sectarian spat between Catholics and Protestants.

    I was particularly interested by your discussion of ‘community policing’. It would be interesting to examine how effective ‘community policing’ was in deterring crime. And whether crime has since increased following the decline of such methods.

    I appreciate the difficultly of your topic. The history of Irish Republicanism is complex and, at times, confusing- often made so by the use of various acronyms (IRA, OIRA, PIRA, RIRA)!

    Your research is so topical. Following 9/11 the line between ‘terrorist’ and ‘freedom fighter’ has been once again brought into the public eye. The conflict in Ireland is of particular interest, especially following the formation of the Real IRA in response to the ceasefire and the persistence of dissident violence today.

    I am interested about what you think about the ceasefire and the resurgence of violence in light of your research.

    Merryn

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