Northern Ireland conflict 50 years on: will a no-deal Brexit threaten the peace?

Northern Ireland conflict 50 years on: will a no-deal Brexit threaten the peace?
Copyright AP
By Sinead Barry
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It's 50 years since a three-decade-long sectarian conflict was sparked in Northern Ireland, which killed around 3,600 people.


It's 50 years since a three-decade-long sectarian conflict was sparked in Northern Ireland, which killed around 3,600 people.

Known as The Troubles, it pitted the majority Protestant population, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, against the Catholic minority, who believed the region should be part of the Republic of Ireland.

A peace agreement was signed in 1998, but, two decades later, democracy has stalled and Brexit threatens to open old wounds.

“Northern Ireland, as it’s called, is a failed entity," said James Toye, an eyewitness to some of the key events of the conflict over the last half a century.

"Nothing works here, nothing," he continued. "There is peace here ... but there is a long way to go for reconciliation.”

There is little agreement over when The Troubles began, but one of the sparks was by fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Derry/Londonderry on August 12, 1969.

Two days later, British troops were called in to restore order. It was one of the first major confrontations of the conflict.

Half-a-century on, we take a look at the origins of the conflict and what impact Brexit could have on reigniting the violence.

How did Northern Ireland come about?

Ireland’s historical relationship with England is complex and dates back several centuries.

The first invasion by English forces happened as early as the 12th century but London did not assert control until 1541 when Henry VIII was given the title of King of Ireland.

Over the 16th and 17th centuries, British royalty sought to firm their grip on the country and engaged in a series of plantations to settle loyal British citizens in the area.

One of them, in Ulster, was hugely successful. British Protestants settled from then on in the northernmost province.

The victory of William of Orange — British monarch from 1689 to 1702 — over James II in the Battle of Boyne helped cement Protestant ascendency in the region.

It is Protestants' marches in Northern Ireland to celebrate this triumph that is often the source of trouble even to this day.

A growing independence movement in the early 20th century led to an Anglo-Irish war and the splitting of the island into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland was made up of six of the nine counties in Ulster, Ireland's northernmost province and had a majority Protestant, pro-London population.

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UlsterNations Online

Unionists, nationalists and identity

Typically, the Protestant population in the north were loyal to the British empire and saw themselves as British, not Irish. On the other hand, the Catholic Nationalist community, who comprised approximately one-third of the population in 1921 identified as Irish. By and large, the Catholic community opposed the partition.

"It's not really about religion, it’s about identity. If you identify as British or if you identify as Irish. To the outside world, it looks like two different tribes fighting but it’s just about identity,” explained Julieann Campbell, heritage and programmes coordinator at the Bloody Sunday Museum.


Since then, the Catholic population has grown significantly and is expected to reach a majority (51%) by 2021.

Civil Rights and lead up to the Troubles

In the decades following the creation of the state, the Catholic minority felt as though it was being excluded from power in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had held power from 1921 until 1972 and were said to have adopted policies of systematic discrimination against Irish nationalists.

"We had been living as they say in a regime where you couldn’t vote unless you owned property. If you had a business you had X amount of votes. If you were living in social housing you had no votes," said James Toye, who lived in the Bogside, a working-class, Catholic area of Derry/Londonderry from 1953 until the 1990s.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) formed in 1967 calling for reforms including "one man one vote", the abolition of gerrymandering, equal allocation of public housing and the disbandment of the 'B-Specials,' an all-Protestant paramilitary-style police reserve that was perceived as biased against Catholics.


A civil rights march in Derry/Londonderry in October 1968 was broken up by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) by batons. Several MPs along with many civilians were injured and the incident was broadcasted on television globally.

The episode outraged the Catholic population in Northern Ireland and two days of rioting ensued in Derry/Londonderry.

Further clashes occurred between the police and civil rights activists in 1968 and 1969. One particular incident that is said to have ignited the nationalist population is the killing of Samuel Devenny in April 1969. The RUC entered Devenny's family home due to his involvement in recent NICRA clashes and beat him and his teenage daughters. Devenny died some months later as a result of his injuries.


Battle of the Bogside, 1969

Anger at discrimination and attacks on civil rights campaigners came to a head in August 1969, leading to the deployment of British troops and the beginning of The Troubles as we know them today.

As part of the annual marches, the Apprentice Boys paraded along the walls above the Bogside in Derry on August 12, 1969. These parades remain frequent with unionist organisations like the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry seeing them as the primary celebration of their Protestant culture.


Historically, the events have been contentious, with many nationalists seeing marching season as an overt display of supremacy over the Catholic population.

Verbal insults were exchanged between the two sides on the day and unionists threw coins down onto the living area of the Catholics below "not as missiles, but as insulting symbols of Bogside’s poverty,” said historian Russell Stetler.

Note: Euronews contacted the Apprentice Boys of Derry requesting an account of the events but none were available to be interviewed.

Local youths responded by throwing stones at the marchers leading to a riot between the inhabitants and police forces that lasted three days, ending with the deployment of British troops to Northern Ireland.

James Toye was 15 during the so-called Battle of the Bogside and spoke to Euronews about what happened:


“There would have been local youths, there’d have been a bit of stone-throwing but the RUC and their followers forced people back into the Bogside. This would have been these local youths and that, allowing the march to go through."

"When you’re young it was exciting. I mean, we had got off our knees, literally, metaphorically. And we decided enough’s enough"

"And people decided to take a stand and the RUC were pushing them back into the Bogside. But the RUC had followers who were known as Paisleyites... Well, they were followers of his so they were prepared to get in. And that’s when the people of the Bogside said 'enough’s enough, they’re not getting in'. And that’s when the barricades started going up,” he recalled.

"Well, I was working in the shop, the store that we had. Which was only a matter of a few hundred yards from where the main activity was. So I was there as much as possible, giving support to the people who were fighting there, the stone-throwers.

"To be honest, looking back, it was exciting. When you’re young it was exciting. I mean, we had got off our knees, literally, metaphorically. And we decided enough’s enough"

Locals including Bernadette Devlin gather during Battle of the Bogside, 1969Reuters

Fifty years ago, in 1969, Toye and his community had no idea the riots would lead to the thirty-year sectarian conflict that became known as The Troubles.


"There was no Irish Republican Army (IRA) involvement," added Toye. "There was none of that Republicanism. It was the people against the state. But I have to say, the years after, after that battle. We didn’t see what was coming down the line. At that time, we didn’t see the terrible things that were going to happen."

British troops were deployed to Northern Ireland on August 14 in what London said was a "limited operation" to restore law and order.

"And originally when the British army came in on the 14th of August at around 6 o’clock at night... they were welcomed by the Derry community because we thought wow they’re here to help… People made them tea and brought them buns. But then they did the job they came here to do which was [to] side with the police and control the masses and so then they became the oppressors too,” said Campbell.

The rioting spread to Belfast, leading to the death of six young men at the hands of the RUC, Republican and Loyalist forces. The exact beginning of The Troubles is blurred, however, many cite these riots and the deployment as troops as the beginning of the conflict, while others believe they began earlier, during the civil rights marches in October 1968.

The Troubles

The conflict continued for 30 years, resulting in approximately 3,600 deaths and 36,000 injuries. Military checkpoints dotted the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and there was frequent violence.


Many residents of Northern Ireland and the Republic stopped making short journeys to the other side because of the length of time it took to pass.

"Closest village to me as the crow flies I wasn't in until I was 26," said Catherine who grew up south of the border in the shadow of the Troubles. (Currently, a 5-minute drive away)

"We were very conscious of how difficult and how kind of permanent the Troubles seemed because I had known nothing else," she added.

After a long peace process, the conflict ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Paramilitary groups agreed to disband and a power-sharing deal was reached between unionists and nationalists.


European Union

"I suppose what membership of the European community did is it created a structure whereby the British government, the Irish government were meeting on equal terms in a European partnership.

Many people in Northern Ireland and south of the border believe that membership in the European Union played a crucial part in repairing the state's tensions.


Toye believes the EU is to thank for the end to job discrimination in Northern Ireland. When he was a teenager, signs would be placed on windows of small businesses reading "Job Vacancy: No Catholics."

"But now today that has totally changed and I have to say all thanks to Europe. Because there is a European Union. You know, we’re proud to be Irish citizens. At the moment, we’re living under British jurisdiction but we’re Irish citizens and we’re Europeans.”

Currently, residents of Northern Ireland are entitled to choose between British or Irish citizenship or both if they prefer. Many living in Northern Ireland are currently anxious that Brexit will strip them of their right to choose their nationality.

Read more: Are Irish citizens in Northern Ireland really being reclassified as British? | #TheCube

Catherine, a teacher from Co. Monaghan also pointed out that Europe was a uniting force.


"I suppose what membership of the European community did is it created a structure whereby the British government, the Irish government were meeting on equal terms in a European partnership. They were part of a bigger enterprise. It normalised relationships between the UK and Ireland," she expressed.

Hard Brexit 'sparking risk of conflict'

If the Irish backstop is dumped and a hard border is reintroduced in Ireland, many fear that a repeated sectarian conflict will ensue.

It has brought up old enemies, things that we were putting to bed, this has all surfaced again

Campbell said that the potential for a repeated conflict is real.

“I see that the potential is there if we don’t try to work with it and stop it now. But I think the potential is always there. But I think Brexit is making it more of a reality.”

From those interviewed by Euronews, the hard border that could emerge from a no-deal Brexit arose again and again as a real fear for igniting conflict.


Catherine, who lives in the border town of Clones, expressed her concern.

"Once you have a visible difference between the two areas it’s very difficult to have that constructive ambiguity about what people’s actual identity is. It polarises positions very very quickly and there is obviously a danger that when those positions are polarised violence can break out again," she said.

Clones, Co. Monaghan is one of the towns dotted along the invisible border that pre-dates the partition by centuries. Services, roads, and property weave across the line so frequently that inhabitants don't realise when they have crossed into British jurisdiction.

Map data © 2019 Google
Clones and the BorderMap data © 2019 GoogleBarry, Sinead

Toye, an eyewitness to the many of the key events of the Troubles including Bloody Sunday, echoed the others' fears but did not believe the scale of mass violence would repeat itself again.

"Brexit has increased tensions definitely... The majority, the vast majority of people here want to remain in the European Union... And it has brought up old enemies, things that we were putting to bed, this has all surfaced again."


"If it meant a hard border and installations, yes I would be worried, but it wouldn’t be the violence that we had before,” he said.

Read more: Brexit: what is the Irish backstop and why does Boris Johnson want it ditched?

Violence in 2019

As Brexit looms, tensions in Northern Ireland have attained a new potency. In January 2019, a group calling themselves the "IRA" claimed responsibility for placing a car bomb under a police car. The bomb detonated but no one was injured.

The killing of journalist Lyra Mckee in April confirmed many fears of a new age of sectarian groups emerging. The 29-year-old was shot dead in Derry while reporting on a riot which followed police raids. At least 50 petrol bombs were thrown and two cars set on fire estimate police.

Another bomb was placed under a policeman's car in east Belfast in early June but did not detonate. In July, a suspected bomb detonated in the town of Craigavon, with police believing dissident Republicans to be the cause.


Recently, during the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry marches last weekend, band members were criticised for wearing 'Parachute Regiment' badges. The elite British army regiment is most closely associated in Northern Ireland as the group behind the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings, where 13 civilians were shot and killed by British troops during a civil rights protest.

One anonymous soldier was charged with murder in March of this year. Several loyalist groups expressed support for the so-called "Soldier F" following the conviction, with many seeing the Apprentice Boy's sporting of the Parachute Regiment badges as a sign of alliance.

Riots took place in Derry the following week causing "unwanted disorder and destruction" according to Superintendent Gordon McCalmont. A total of 24 petrol bombs were thrown on Monday night alone said police.

On Monday, August 19, police narrowly escaped an explosion when a device detonated near Wattle Bridge in Co. Fermanagh. Two days previously, a suspect device was discovered nearby which did not detonate. Police believe the first device was a decoy to lure police and ATO personal "into the area to murder them."

Read more: Brexit Guide: where are we now?


Note: The article was updated on 19/08/2019 to include the detonation of a device in Co. Fermanagh.


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