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The Troubles

In 1969 civil rights demonstrations by the Catholic minority in Ulster led to the outbreak of hostilities between Catholics and Protestants. This period is commonly referred to as 'The Troubles'.  It was characterised by an IRA campaign of urban guerrilla warfare against British forces, the bombing of economic centers in northern cities and towns, and terrorist attacks in Britain. The resistance continued at varying levels of intensity for the next three decades.


Protestant groups of Ulstermen were formed ostensibly to counter the attacks of the IRA, but many of them, particularly anti-Catholic organisations led by radicals such as the Reverend Ian Paisley, were worse terrorists and provocateurs than any IRA group. Their attitude is epitomised by the slogan "Home Rule is Rome Rule", a leftover from the turn of the century arguments over whether Ireland should have home rule. The willingness of both sides to use violence created a vicious circle, with one bombing or murder being revenged by the other side until the whole population of Ulster was polarised along religious lines.

On 31 August 1994 the IRA decided to halt all its military operations, although no real understanding had been reached between the two sides. The Irish Peace Initiative proposed by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was supported in both Dublin and London. Peace negotiations began, but the British and the IRA remained at loggerheads on key points. The IRA was not prepared to lay down its arms until the British troops departed from Ulster, and the British were not prepared to withdraw troops unil the IRA disarmed.

On 9 February 1996, the IRA announced the renewal of military operations. A limited bombing campaign resumed against targets in Northern Ireland, but caused few casualties and only minor damage. On 20 July 1997 the IRA called another temporary ceasefire in an attempt to restart the peace negotiations, which resumed on 15 September 1997.

On 10 April 1998, Good Friday, a dramatic breakthrough took place. For the first time, the major political factions accepted an agreement that held out the possibility for an end to the sectarian violence which had taken over 3000 lives. The Good Friday agreement was confirmed in a referendum on 22 May.

Despite loud opposition from hard line Protestant Unionists like the Reverend Ian Paisley, and the distrust of a handful of extremists in the pro-Nationalist Irish Republican Army, the peace plan won the overwhelming approval of voters in both parts of Ireland. In the North, just over 70 per cent of the voters said “Yes” to peace, while the vote in the Republic was over 94 per cent in favour.

In the words of Belfast political scientist Sydney Elliott, the vote “signalled a sea change in the way Irish politics are conducted. What the people are saying is that, after 30 years of living with violence, they want something new. Now, it’s up to the politicians to provide it.






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