Written By: Clarence Sim (19-A6)

Contributor: Ernest Tan (19-E6)

Introduction to the Conflict

The Troubles, also widely known as the Northern Ireland conflict, was an ethno-nationalist (Coakley, 2004) and sectarian struggle waged between Irish nationalists against Britain and Loyalist Protestant paramilitaries in support of British rule (Hammer, 2019). This period of tumult has brought about severe collateral damage, resulting in more than 3,600 deaths and intractable quasi-tribal divisions apparent until now (Cowell, 2018).

Brief Irish History
The origins of conflict in Northern Ireland traces back to the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 (Schama, 2011) which started more than seven centuries of English rule over Ireland. For the first few centuries after the invasion, both England and Ireland were Catholic. However, in 1534, during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church, establishing the Anglican Church of England with himself as the Head of the Church (Nelson & Bainton, 2019), while the Church of Scotland was reformed into a Presbyterian Church in 1570. Ireland remained Catholic and these events acted as a catalyst for Irish dissent against English rule. In 1609, in an attempt to quell the rebellions in Ireland, King James I approved the Plantation of Ulster (Hull, 1970) where Scottish and English colonists settled in lands forfeited by the native Gaelic Irish in the northern Irish region of Ulster, which was the most resistant region to English rule at that time. It saw some success in quelling rebellions and parts of Ulster and resulted in parts of Ulster with a majority of Protestants. However, it also resulted in a divide between the Protestants in Ulster who were more affluent and the mostly peasant native Irish Catholics, which led to increasing dissent among the Irish. Ireland remained relatively impoverished and British mismanagement and neglect of Ireland, especially in the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1849, fuelled Irish nationalist sentiment eventually leading to the Easter Rising in 1916 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919-1921.

Partition of Ireland and the Troubles
Ireland was granted Independence in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, but Northern Ireland which comprised of two-thirds of Ulster opted to remain in the United Kingdom as the Protestant majority were still loyal to the British crown and identified themselves as British. This created a land border between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland. In the coming decades, segregation between British/Ulster Protestant ‘Unionists’ and Irish Catholic ‘Republicans’ was normalised in Northern Ireland as tensions were simmering between the two distinct groups. According to the 1961 Census in Northern Ireland, 65% were Protestant and 35% were Catholic. The mid-1960s saw a civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. The simmering tensions between the two groups would boil on the 12th of August 1969 in Derry when Protestant parade marched near the Catholic neighbourhood of Bogside, a confrontation erupted between Ulster loyalists and the residents of Bogside at the city wall which escalated to a three-day riot between Catholics and the Royal Ulster Constabulary resulting in more than 1,000 injured. In the same month, riots erupted across Ireland and British troops were brought into Northern Ireland as the police were unable to maintain law and order. Violence between Irish republican and Ulster unionist paramilitaries, as well as the British military, escalated into the 1970s as British troops arrested many paramilitary personnel most of which were Irish republican. By far the worst year of the ‘Troubles’ was 1972 when 480 people lost their lives that year. The year opened with ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry where 14 marchers against internment were shot dead by the British Army on January 30. This massacre gave massive impetus to militant republicans. This resulted in an insurgency of the now infamous Irish Republican Army. The struggles of the prisoners led to protests which culminated in the Hunger Strikes of 1981. The 1980s and most of the 1990s became known as the ‘Long War’, The United Kingdom fortified the Irish land border with walls and watchtowers where most of the violence occurred. This period from 1969 to 1998 was known colloquially as ‘the Troubles’ and more than 3,500 died from the conflict and more than 47,500 injured.

Peace Agreement
The peace process would culminate in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 signed on the 10th of April by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as well as the leaders of multiple political parties in Northern Ireland. While the agreement confirmed that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, it also stipulated that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be united if that was supported in a vote by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Irish residents the choice of British and/or Irish citizenship. The land border was opened with most of the walls and watchtowers removed, hence guaranteeing the freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This was an effective compromise for both unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland. Relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland flourished as close neighbours in the European Union until recently in 2016 when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

Relevance to Brexit

The issue of the Troubles has surfaced recently, given the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This is due, in large part, to the European Union’s crucial role in the formation of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought a formal end to the Troubles. The almost-entire dismantlement of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, in line with the EU’s permeable movement of goods, services and people among member nations (Cowell, 2018), is currently in jeopardy. This is because a new arrangement for such passage must be negotiated, as Ireland still remains a member of the EU (Castle, 2016). The historical animosities between Great Britain and Ireland have largely subsided due to their shared membership in the EU, but Brexit threatens to introduce new tensions and reduce the socio-cultural ties between Northern Ireland and Ireland (Castle, 2016). Some hence argue that Brexit threatens peace in Northern Ireland due to the loss of the EU as a conflict resolution mechanism and the building of the Irish Republican case for a referendum on Irish reunification (Stevenson, 2019).


For more in-depth reading about this issue, feel free to access the following links.

Coakley, J. (2004). Ethnic Conflict and the Two-State Solution: The Irish Experience of Partition. Retrieved from https://www.webcitation.org/66doFx4nE?url=http://www.passia.org/seminars/2004/John-Coakley-Ireland-Seminar.htm

Hammer, J. (2009). In Northern Ireland, Getting Past the Troubles. Smithsonian Magazine, Retrieved from


Schama, P. S. (2011, February 17). History – British History in depth: Invasions of Ireland from 1170 – 1320. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/ireland_invasion_01.shtml

Nelson, E. C., & Bainton, R. H. (2019, January 10). Protestantism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Protestantism/The-Reformation-in-England-and-Scotland

Hull, E. (1970, January 01). Home. Retrieved from https://www.libraryireland.com/HullHistory/Plantation1.php

Articles of Agreement for a Treaty Between Great Britain and Ireland (1921, December 6). Retrieved from http://treaty.nationalarchives.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Anglo-Irish-Treaty.pdf

1961 Census – Reports. (2018, January 18). Retrieved from https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/1961-census-reports

The Northern Ireland Conflict 1968-1998 – An Overview. (2018, December 13). Retrieved from http://www.theirishstory.com/2015/02/09/the-northern-ireland-conflict-1968-1998-an-overview/

The Northern Ireland Peace Process. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/northern-ireland-peace-process

Cowell, A. (2018). 50 Years Later, Troubles Still Cast ‘Huge Shadow’ Over Northern Ireland. The New York Times, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/04/world/europe/northern-ireland-troubles.html

Castle, S. (2016). A Question Lingers on the Irish Border: What’s Next? The New York Times, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/world/europe/a-question-lingers-on-the-irish-british-border-whats-next.html?module=inline

Stevenson, J. (2019). International Institute for Strategic Studies Survival Editor’s Blog: Brexit and the Troubles. Retrieved from https://www.iiss.org/blogs/survival-blog/2019/03/brexit-and-the-troubles


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