The Troubles: Later Stages

The 1970s Belfast — people trying to live normal lives in the middle of a civil war.
Newspaper report on dead British soldiers, a common occurrence during the civil war in Northern Ireland.

With British troops deployed in the streets, bombings carried out on a regular basis and civilians caught in the middle, Northern Ireland indeed looked like a war zone in the 1970s. The warring unionist and nationalist paramilitaries were now at the beginnings of a conflict that was to last for several decades.

A religious divide

The divide between unionists and nationalists was mainly caused by the unionists favoring Britain and the nationalists favoring Ireland. Still, this was not all that set the two groups apart. The unionists, in addition to favoring Britain, were predominately Christian Protestants, and the nationalists were mostly Christian Catholics, creating fertile grounds for both political and religious sectarianism.

The British peacekeeping soldiers, who came from the United Kingdom, underscored their intent to treat both sides fairly, but since they were from the country favored by the Northern Irish unionists and mostly Protestants, they were seen as unionist sympathizers. Moreover, the fact that the peacekeepers were tasked with subduing a nationalist uprising against the state and often detained nationalist terror-suspects without a trial reinforced the perception that the troops were partial and siding with the unionists.

Attacks on British troops

As a consequence of their perceived allegiances, in nationalist areas, the British troops had a target on their backs. This led to the peacekeepers often being attacked, and altogether in the conflict, hundreds of British soldiers were killed by the IRA, the main nationalist paramilitary organization.

After one of the deadly paramilitary attacks, in 1981, when five soldiers had been blown up by an IRA landmine, a group of local boys began singing. In front of the British soldiers who had just picked up the remains they sang “Another one bites the dust”, intentionally using the popular Queen hit song of the time to provoke the peacekeepers. This incident, as unusual in itself as it may have been, illustrates quite well how badly many pro-Irish civilians felt about the British troops’ presence.

Looking for peace

British peacekeepers as well as militiamen and civilians continued to die in conflict after 1981 as the civil war dragged on. No clear winner was being produced, however, despite decades of fighting, and in the mid-1990s, the long war had eventually worn all sides out. Though hostility remained, both unionists and nationalists now began casting about for a peaceful settlement, and finally, in 1998, some thirty years after “the Troublescommenced, a peace agreement was signed. This agreement mandated that Northern Ireland remain in the United Kingdom, but required power-sharing and a type of consensus decisions between unionist and nationalist political parties.