For 30 years, Northern Ireland has been marked by a period of deadly sectarian violence known as the “Troubles”. This explosive era was strewn with car bombings, riots and revenge killings that unfolded from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. The unrest was rooted in centuries of conflict between predominantly Catholic Ireland and predominantly Protestant England. Tensions escalated into violence in the late 1960s, leaving some 3,600 dead and over 30,000 injured.
Tensions leading to unrest
The origins of the unrest can be traced back to centuries of war in which the predominantly Catholic Irish people attempted to free themselves from British (predominantly Protestant) rule. In 1921 the Irish fought successfully for independence and Ireland was divided into two countries: the Irish Free State, which was almost entirely Catholic, and the smaller Republic of Northern Ireland, who was predominantly Protestant with a Catholic minority.
While Ireland was fully independent, Northern Ireland remained under British rule and Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry (legally known as Londonderry) complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the government and citizens. Protestant-controlled police forces. Over time, two opposing forces merged in Northern Ireland largely along sectarian lines: Catholic “nationalists” versus Protestant “loyalists”.
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A 1960s civil rights movement modeled on the United States
In the 1960s, a new generation of politically and socially aware young Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland began to view the civil rights movement in America as a model for ending what they saw as anti-Catholic discrimination. cheeky in their home country.
“There was systematic discrimination in housing and employment,” says James Smyth, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame who grew up in Belfast. “Belfast’s biggest employer was the shipyard, but it was 95% Protestant. In the city of Derry, which had a two-thirds Catholic majority, the constituencies had been so gerrymandered that they were 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 in segregation and to Jim Crow.
“They were inspired by the American civil rights movement in that one of the songs sung in Northern Ireland was ‘We Shall Overcome’,” says Smyth, who edited a 2017 book titled Remembering the Troubles: Challenging the Recent Past in Northern Ireland.
1968: police indict demonstrators in Derry
On October 5, 1968, a protest march was planned along Duke Street in Derry. 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 government of Northern Ireland, but protesters defied the order and rallied on October 5 with signs reading “One man, one voice!” and “Bigotry Smash!”
The crowd started to move, but were barricaded by a line of police from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) wielding batons. The police charged the demonstrators and simultaneously interrupted their retreat. Television cameras captured disturbing footage of RUC officers hitting protesters with batons and chaos in the streets.
“October 5, 1968 was the start of the unrest,” says Smyth, “and these television images are etched in people’s memories. ”
1969: Violence at Burntollet Bridge
The police crackdown on October 5, 1968 intensified tensions between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists and paved the way for more violent clashes.
On New Years 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 road led them through known Loyalist strongholds, where the threat of violence was palpable.
The RUC provided a police escort for Nationalist protesters throughout the multi-day march until they reached Burntollet Bridge outside Derry. At this point, the protesters recall, the police put on their helmets and shields as if they expected trouble. It was then that a loyalist mob began to rain stones at the protesters.
The attackers, estimated at 300 loyalists, invaded the bridge brandishing clubs and iron bars. Some of them wore the white armbands of the B-Specials, an auxiliary police unit of the RUC. As the bloodied protesters fled into the frozen river for protection, RUC officers stood aside and did nothing to protect them, Smyth said.
The ambush at Burntollet Bridge eerily resembled the events of March 7, 1965, when peaceful protesters from Selma crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were violently repelled by a line of white-helmeted Alabama state soldiers armed with tear gas, night sticks and whips. .
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1969: Battle of the Bogside
Some historians link the real start of the Troubles to the events of August 1969, when a loyalist parade through Derry sparked three days of riots and violent retaliation.
Across Northern Ireland, Smyth says, organizations regularly held parades to commemorate Protestant military victories dating back to the 17th century. In Derry, the local was known as the Apprentice Boys and they planned a patriotic loyalist parade on August 12 that passed directly past a predominantly Catholic part of the town called Bogside.
The Bogsiders saw the Apprentice Boys parade as a direct provocation and prepared for a violent confrontation, barricading the streets and brewing Molotov cocktails. As expected, the nationalist Bogsiders clashed with the marching Apprentice Boys and RUC officers rushed to quell the riots. They met with violent resistance from the Bogsiders, who threw stones and Molotov cocktails.
The ‘Battle of the Bogside’, as it is called, raged for three days, but some of the worst damage was inflicted on Belfast, where loyalist mobs aided by the B-Specials invaded Catholic quarters and burned 1,500 houses.
On August 14, the overwhelmed Prime Minister of Northern Ireland called on the British government to send troops to restore order. It was the start of a decades-long deployment to Northern Ireland by the British Army.
“Basically the whole state of Northern Ireland collapsed over a period of three or four days,” says Smyth. “They couldn’t keep order, so the British had to come in.”
“Bloody Sunday” and 30 years of sectarian violence
British troops were initially greeted by Catholic nationalists as potential protectors, but the military quickly instituted a controversial “internment without trial” policy, after which hundreds of suspected IRA members were arrested and imprisoned without due process.
On January 30, 1972, Catholic Nationalists in Derry staged a march to protest the British internment policy, but the military was called in to shut it down. When the demonstrators did not disperse, the troops opened fire with rubber bullets, then with live ammunition. Thirteen protesters were killed and 17 injured in a tragedy known as “Bloody Sunday”.
“It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed,” said Smyth, who was among the protesters that day in Derry.
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Northern Ireland suffered dozens of car bombs and sectarian attacks by paramilitary groups on both sides such as the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. . Hundreds of civilians were among the dead.
The unrest ended, at least officially, with the signing of the Good Friday Accord in 1998, which created a framework for the sharing of political power and ended decades of violence.