This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

On the 14th of August 1969, British troops arrived in Northern Ireland in what would come to be their longest deployment in modern history. Though heralded as the day the Troubles began, the origins of this thirty-year conflict are rooted in the conception of Northern Ireland as a state: a tale of British colonialism, sectarian oppression, and nationalistic pride. Due to its complicated backstory, a fierce debate exists over the semantics of the Troubles: finding a label for such a complicated period has proved difficult. Was it a war of decolonisation? A Civil Rights Movement? A clash of terrorist campaigns? A sectarian feud? A counterinsurgency operation? Each categorisation for the conflict can be legitimately argued, and the reality is that the Troubles cannot be boiled down to any one simple explanation. In order to understand this great period of social upheaval, we must acknowledge that each of these categories provide useful analytical frameworks for analysing the troubles, but on their own, none are sufficient. This article will analyse the justifications for understanding the Troubles as a sectarian feud, a civil rights movement and an insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign. 

Northern Ireland’s history of conflict began as early as the 17th Century with the colonisation movement, the Plantation of Ireland, under King James VI/I. This saw the migration of hundreds of Protestants from across Britain, particularly Scotland, to the island of Ireland, with large numbers settling in Ulster. The settlement was an unwelcome development for the largely Catholic population already living in Ireland as it involved the redistribution of land to the new settlers. Between the Plantation of Ireland and the official beginning of the troubles in August 1969, the Protestant community grew in political and economic stature. By 1921 the imbalance in power and economic position between the settlers and the native population had become overwhelmingly clear. The solution was the Partition of Ireland which saw the British and Irish governments dividing the island of Ireland into two states – the Republic in the south and Northern Ireland in the north, the latter of which was absorbed into the United Kingdom. Though the aim was to eradicate the possibility of sectarian conflict, it only exacerbated the problem as the boundaries were drawn deliberately to maintain a Protestant majority in the North. Both the Plantation and Partition of Ireland were therefore two events that exaggerated historical animosities between religious groups and began the long line of events that resulted in the Troubles.

This narrative naturally lends itself to understanding of the Troubles as the conflict of a civil rights movement. The migration of protestant settlers, their economic and social position, and the partition of the island of Ireland resulted in a hierarchical system beneficial to the Protestants in Northern Ireland was born. The Global ’68 took Northern Ireland by storm and saw the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association take to the streets to protest corruption and discriminatory practices against Catholics in employment, housing, voting, criminality and profiling. These protests and the heavy handed response from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and subsequently the British Army, are clearly grounds for a civil rights reading of the Troubles. The Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (PIRA) later adoption of the role of protector to the Catholic people further supports this analysis. 

The readings of the Troubles as a sectarian conflict and as the expression of a civil rights movement are complementary as they both stem from the understanding of the system of oppression suffered by northern Catholics and Republicans. Understanding the Troubles as an insurgency/counterinsurgency campaign stems more from an understanding of the politics of the nationalist movement and requires the historian to legitimise (to some extent) the behaviours of the PIRA, and other paramilitary groups, as political forces. This is because the paramilitary group was closely attached to a political faction, with the collective end goal of uniting the island of Ireland, thus making them a politically motivated group rather than a terrorist or sectarian organisation. Their goal was to overthrow a foreign imperial power, and restore Ireland to its original people. Understood in this way, the nationalist movement was a political and anti-colonial campaign which went beyond terror, pursuing other strategic policy such as the armalite and using the ballot box. This interpretation validity to the violence used by the PIRA as part of a legitimate, political war forged by the Irish Republicans. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that the British Army’s strategy in the region was heavy influenced by Britain’s colonial campaigns in Palestine, Aden, Kenya and Malaya. In this sense, the Troubles can be seen as simply another British attempt to hold onto past colonial conquests, and the conflict seen as a straight forward insurgency against a colonial force.

Altogether, it is clear the Troubles, with all its multiple players, influences and events are difficult to understand through only one limiting lens. As with most divided nations, the Northern Irish Troubles are better understood as the product of a complex and fraught set of circumstances, with a number of key events catalysing conflict. In this sense, the semantics of history hinders rather than progresses the historiography of the Troubles, proving that sometimes categorising history and using simplifying analytical frameworks to understand events obscures the reality, instead of enlightening it.