The Troubles at 50

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the riots that sparked the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The working-class communities which bore the brunt of the violence have benefitted least from the peace.

The confrontation between the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association and the Royal Ulster Constabulary from August 12–14, 1969, became one of the most well-known episodes of the Troubles. (Photo by Meagher/Getty Images.)

It is now fifty years since the north of Ireland erupted into armed and bloody conflict, ushering in the thirty-year period known euphemistically as ‘the Troubles’.

There is a lack of agreement over where and at what precise moment the Troubles began. The messy prehistory to 1969 includes the reformation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and its killing of two Catholic men and a Protestant pensioner in 1966, the rise to prominence of Protestant firebrand Ian Paisley and his incitement of working-class Unionist fears, the ‘tricolour riots’ in 1964, and the preceding decades of inequality, repression, and inter-communal strife which had marked the character of Northern Ireland from its foundation.

But in retrospect we can now see that tensions had been rising from the emergence of the civil rights campaign as a mass movement in 1968, which generated a deep crisis of the Unionist state and produced a violent reaction among the authorities and hard-line loyalists. This pivotal year is remembered above all for the fateful civil rights march at Duke Street, Derry, on 5 October, where the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) baton-charged 400 demonstrators in full view of TV cameras from across the world. Rather than spelling an end to the campaign, the impact of the RUC’s actions was to internationalise the demands of the civil rights movement, bring thousands more people onto the streets, and ultimately split the governing Unionist Party.

The next year began as the previous one had ended, with an attack on a civil rights march organised by the People’s Democracy, a left-wing student grouping that counted Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann among its early members. Their intended route from Belfast to Derry was based on the Selma to Montgomery protests organised by Martin Luther King Jr., but the march was derailed by an ambush of loyalists and B Specials, the notorious and almost exclusively Protestant paramilitary police force, on 4 January as it passed Burntollet Bridge in County Derry.

This led to a spiral of increasingly bitter clashes between civil rights protesters and sections of the nationalist population, on the one hand, and the RUC on the other. Derry in particular was radicalised by months of rioting and the death of Samuel Devenney, a 42-year-old taxi driver, as a result of internal injuries sustained from a police beating he had received in his own home. At the same time, opposition to Terence O’Neill’s modest reforms intensified in the shape of fierce criticism from hard-line Unionists and UVF bombs, eventually resulting in his resignation as Northern Ireland prime minister.

From Civil Unrest to Armed Conflict

The events of August 1969 can be viewed as the point at which Northern Ireland slid irreversibly from civil unrest into armed conflict. Given the climate, it was widely predicted that there would be trouble if the loyal order of Apprentice Boys proceeded with their annual 12 August parade along Derry’s city walls and past the Bogside, a working-class nationalist area with a population of around 25,000.

These fears were realised when rioting broke out and swiftly developed into the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ as the police, followed by a crowd of local loyalists, launched a series of baton charges and attempted to advance into the area. Over the course of the next 48 hours the RUC, newly equipped with CS gas and more than willing to use it, was successfully repelled by a mass resistance of barricades, bricks, and petrol bombs hurled by youths strategically positioned on top of a block of high-rise flats. Children tore up paving stones and brought them to the front line for ammunition, women made petrol bombs from the 43,000 milk bottles which had been appropriated from local dairies.

With the community now at war with the state, first aid stations were established to treat casualties and newsletters circulated to report on the ongoing battle as well as to inform citizens of effective tactics for confronting ‘the enemy’. TV footage broadcast after two days of confrontation showed buildings ablaze and dishevelled policemen huddled in alleys and doorways, giving the appearance of a violent struggle that had been lost by the authorities. By this time, ‘Free Derry’ had effectively seceded.

Meanwhile, activists from the civil rights and republican movements launched protests across the north, most notably in Belfast where sectarian tensions had been building during the month of July. On 13 August, in the west of the city, 1,000 people marched to local police stations, where rioting ensued and the RUC opened fire on young republicans, wounding two.

What began as a confrontation between nationalists and the RUC soon developed into sectarian rioting along the streets that linked the Falls and Shankill Roads. Events took a lethal turn on the night of 14/15 August as the RUC and B Specials pushed down the Falls, followed by loyalist mobs who petrol-bombed Catholic houses as they proceeded. A similar pattern emerged in the Ardoyne district of north Belfast, where street fighting had occurred since April and brought back powerful memories of the 1920–22 pogroms for an older generation. As in Derry, citizens’ defence committees emerged and barricades were erected to defend the threatened areas, leading to the creation of several autonomous ‘no-go’ zones and a pirate radio station named Radio Free Belfast.

The IRA was poorly armed, ill-prepared, and had little control over events. The Belfast leadership of Billy McMillen and Jim Sullivan did respond, however, by ordering all members onto defensive duties. One small unit of former and current volunteers took up position on the roof of St. Comgall’s school, located at the epicentre of the violence, while others exchanged fire with the more heavily-armed B Specials and RUC on the ground in an attempt to prevent further incursions.

The IRA was unable to prevent a large-scale loyalist assault on the small enclave of Clonard near the Shankill Road, during which a young member of the Fianna (the IRA’s youth wing), 15-year-old Gerard McAuley, was shot dead and the whole of Bombay Street — thirty-six houses in all — was razed to the ground. Recent scholarship by the historian Brian Hanley has determined that these events contributed to the disenchantment of new and returning IRA members over what they ‘perceived to be a failure caused by a concentration on “politics”’. Incidents like the burning of Bombay Street would become part of the foundational myth of the Provisional IRA, in which it was argued that the old leadership now residing in the Marxist-leaning Official IRA had shown no interest in defence.

By the morning of 16 August the violence in Belfast had left seven dead and over 400 injured, the fatalities including loyalist Herbert Roy, shot by the IRA unit at St. Comgall’s, and 9-year-old Catholic boy Patrick Rooney, who was killed by an RUC tracer bullet as he slept in his bedroom at Divis flats. Judge Scarman’s investigation into the disturbances found that nearly 2,000 people had been forced out of their homes, the majority of them Catholics. These events helped to set in train the cycle of forced and violent displacement of almost 60,000 people in Belfast alone — primarily Catholic or Protestant minorities living in mixed housing estates — between 1969 and 1974.

British troops were sent to the streets of Belfast and Derry for the first time since 1935, deployed by the Labour government at the request of Stormont. The army presence was widely welcomed as it provided some respite from the violence, facilitating the disarmament of the B Specials and RUC’s withdrawal from the affected areas. British officers in charge sometimes acted as advocates of reform and worked closely with the citizens’ defence committees — in many cases, the local command of the IRA — to secure the negotiated removal of barricades. The existing community barricades would, however, be replaced by a new type of security infrastructure. Today we know these as the ‘peace walls’, more than eighty of which still separate working-class Catholic and Protestant communities.

General Ian Freeland, the man in charge of operations in the north, had warned during an early press conference that ‘the honeymoon period between the troops and local people is likely to be short-lived’. This honeymoon was gradually eroded as the army became embedded in policing and controlling the community at a time when nationalist opinion was radicalising and there seemed no prospect of a political resolution. Increasingly, the army became involved in heavy-handed operations instigated by the RUC and was drawn into gunfights with both factions of the IRA.

The perception that the newly elected Heath government was pro-Unionist appeared to be confirmed by the introduction of the Falls Road curfew on 3–5 July 1970, during which the army sealed off the whole of the Lower Falls in order to raid houses and round up republicans. A deterioration in relations followed, and was mirrored on the Unionist side as the government sought to introduce the so-called Hunt reforms of policing. Local vigilante groups such as the Shankill Defence Association and tartan gangs were beginning to assert themselves in Protestant areas, and by 1971 had merged into the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Whither Organised Labour?

The role of labour and class in this period has been confined to a footnote in general histories of the Troubles. However, the worst sectarian violence since the 1930s did prompt a response among sections of the trade union movement. At the Harland & Wolff shipyard, for instance, trade unionists led by senior shop steward Sandy Scott convened a mass meeting of the 8,000 strong workforce on 15 August 1969, amid reports that Catholic workers had not showed up to work for fear they would be the target of sectarian attacks.

The meeting unanimously passed a resolution for an end to the violence, appealing ‘to all responsible people to join with us in giving a lead to break the cycle of mutual recrimination arising from day to day incidents’. Stewart was then joined by Jimmy McFall, shop steward with the Boilermakers’ Union, as he crossed the barricades on the Falls and other parts of Belfast to assure Catholic shipwrights of their safety should they return to work. This ‘quiet conciliation work of the shop stewards who have their hearts in the right place’, as it was described by Billy Blease, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU)’s Northern Ireland Officer, was repeated in workplaces and communities across the north.

Trade unionists and political representatives from the labour tradition were also central to the formation of peace committees in the four corners of Belfast, which acted as mediators in local conflicts and organised vigilante patrols to protect minority populations under threat. For its part, the Belfast Trades Council launched a distress fund for working-class families affected by the violence. The appeal raised a total of £6,737 in donations, mainly from British-based unions, and was distributed in the form of grants and hampers.

But, as Matt Collins has noted recently, ‘these efforts were never generalised across the trade union movement as a whole’. For many on the left of the movement, the ICTU’s response failed to match the severity of the situation. In August 1969 the ICTU distributed 30,000 copies of its Programme for Peace and Progress, a short document which endorsed the principle of consent and argued for the restoration of order through gradual reforms and economic development. This practice of publishing manifestos would become a key feature of the ICTU’s cautious approach in the early phase of the Troubles — an approach designed to leave politics at the factory gates, discourage loyalist trade unionism and prevent the type of division on ethnic or religious grounds that was typical in many other European countries. Only in later years, after a number of hard-learned lessons, would this escalate to campaigns and mass mobilisation.

When Scarman delivered his final report, he praised the work of trade unionists in averting a repeat of the 1920–22 workplace expulsions and the efforts of peace committees to prevent an escalation of tit-for-tat pogroms. However, the actions of individual trade unionists may have misled observers into believing that they had more of a moderating influence over their members and wider communities than was the case. By the close of 1971 the situation had been transformed by a Provisional IRA offensive, the Ballymurphy massacre of ten civilians by the Parachute Regiment, and the introduction of internment without trial, a decision that came about partly as a result of 6,000 shipyard workers marching through Belfast to demand that such a policy be implemented. Far from curbing republican violence, internment led to mass round-up of Catholic civilians and acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA.

The year that followed, 1972, was one of atrocities: Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, and 496 fatalities. As the death toll mounted the communist trade unionist Andy Barr, who had been one of many to lose friends over his efforts to maintain working-class cooperation in August ’69, told delegates at an ICTU conference that the north had now descended into ‘sectarian war’. And although the British government had prorogued Stormont and instituted direct rule from London, by then the British presence in the north had become as much an object of hostility as the Unionist government had before.

Over the next thirty years the Troubles would cost approximately 3,700 lives, with many more injured or suffering the trauma of having lost loved ones. The impact of the violence fell heaviest on working-class communities in terms of stunted economic development, widening divisions, and most significantly, human costs. Working-class districts were the main Troubles battlegrounds, the sites of some of the worst atrocities and the areas where armed groups were most active. One study determined that 90 per cent of those charged with politically-motivated offences were unemployed or engaged in semi-skilled or unskilled labour. For many the 1969 People’s Democracy poster, ‘The Falls Road burns, Malone Road fiddles’, a reference to Belfast’s working-class and affluent districts, still holds as a descriptor of the immediate and long-term effects of the conflict.


The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 succeeded in curtailing the Troubles by removing the main non-state armed actors from the theatre of war and instituting a widely endorsed system of devolution and political power-sharing. Yet the wounds of the conflict remain raw and to a large degree the sectarian divisions which prefigured the GFA continue to be reflected in the segregation of communities and polarisation of political life. There is an absence of substantive political agreement on how to address the legacy of the past, while issues of identity and cultural expression have given rise to political instability and discontent at a community level.

The class question also continues to haunt Northern Ireland. There is little evidence that the people living in socially deprived, segregated areas that bore the brunt of the Troubles have gained substantially from the peace process. Rather the impact of neoliberal peacebuilding and austerity have combined with the legacy of the conflict to produce a toxic environment of low educational attainment, unemployment, child and adult poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, high levels of crime, and acute mental health problems caused in part by the transmission of trans-generational trauma. The police are struggling to maintain legitimacy in these areas and ‘dissident’ paramilitaries are moving into the vacuum to recruit among the marginalised youth, pledging an escalation of violence if the national question is not resolved in their favour.

These are the rocky foundations upon which the GFA was established and, more than twenty years on, is struggling to deliver a transformed conflict and positive peace. Although Brexit has contributed to the crisis, its roots run far deeper. The ancien régime of the Orange state is gone, making a return to the violence of 1969 unlikely, but it has yet to be replaced with a transformative economic and political system. We are in between worlds.