In the 1960s the province of Northern Ireland had one of the lowest crime rates in the United Kingdom. The modern day sectarianism that would come to plague that land had not yet erupted and the communities lived side by side, separate but largely at peace. In 1972 alone, 500 people died in the province as the result of sectarian violence. By 1975, tit-for-tat killings by Provos and Loyalists continued unabated. In 1988, Michael Stone launched a one man grenade attack at a funeral for IRA members. The violence was never confined to Northern Ireland. In 1974, Loyalists bombed Dublin and Monagagh. In 1991, the IRA attempted a mortar assassination of the British Prime Minister. In 1996, both London and Manchester were bombed.
In this series the goal is not to answer the question of how Northern Ireland became such a bloody battle ground. The goal is to examine the evolution and tactics of the conflict. Three factions will be studied: the Republicans, the Loyalists, the British State. The evolution of tactics in the conflict by each faction and the behavior of the groups that make up those factions are of most interest. Where possible, we will look at men of influence as well. There are no judgments to be passed on the validity of the causes, each side committed heinous acts of murder and barbarism. We need not waste time condemning what has happened.
The historical conflict dates far beyond the modern ‘Troubles’ beginning in the late 1960s. Rooted in religious differences, we can safely observe that the conflict’s core battle was a relatively simple one. It was violence between two ethnic groups over political outcomes, fueled by a religious identity that became inseparable from the ethnic.
The legitimacy of Irish nationalism is an argument for another writer but the model established by the Irish Nationalist early on was one of violence. I term it the direct violence route. We can look back to the emergence of this violent action to the Irish War of Independence. In the North, the violence of this attempt to unite Ireland brought about the establishment of the Ulster Special Constabulary in 1920. This unit was effectively a paramilitary reserve of loyal Ulster Protestants – known widely as the B-Specials. In direct response to the Nationalist violence, we see the mobilization of Loyalist men at this stage into an organized and sanctioned reserve police force. This is a critical moment.
The IRA’s path of direct violence continued throughout the Troubles. The IRA stand out in this conflict – they had the most visible and obvious targets of all the sides and their evolution of targets threads an interesting path. During their Border Campaign stage (1956-1962), they explicitly targeted elements of the British State. Army barracks, RUC constabulary and B-Special posts were all bombed, and soldiers and police attacked. Contrast this to the late stages of the fractured Republican campaign when in Omagh in 1998 Republican bombs killed 29 civilians, including a pregnant woman. It’s important to understand how the direct violence approach of the IRA in the 1920s through to the start of the Troubles contributed to the activation of Loyalist men into, for now, State organized militias. This history of direct violence against the State was seen by the Loyalist community as attacks on them. The effective segregation of the Police force (RUC) as a Protestant organization shaped this perception – faith and loyalty to the State became intrinsically bound up. The terror attacks against the RUC and the Army contributed in large part to the mobilization and escalation in tactics from the Loyalist community.
The Civil Rights Movement was perhaps a natural evolution for the Republican and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. There remains debate concerning how much Republican figures drove this forward but the perception from the Loyalist, Protestant community was that this upsurge in civic activism was a prelude to their Government selling them out and allowing the creation of a United Ireland. The Civil Rights Movement led to mass Catholic confrontation with the largely Protestant State. Yet it also had the unusual side effect of creating distrust of the State by the Protestant community.
Loyalist communities at this time continued in the established tradition of organizing for their own defense. In 1966, this brought about the emergence of the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, founded by Gusty Spence. The UVF started off immediately with indiscriminate violence targeting Catholic civilians. These events alongside the continued civil unrest in Catholic communities escalated the conflict. But perhaps most interestingly one of the stated goals of the wider Loyalist community at the time was to remove the current Prime Minister. Ian Paisely led the charge from the political, respectable side – he gave voice to the anger from the Protestant community at what was seen to be weak governance from the O’Neil government. Clearly the men of the UVF felt more could be done and they arranged false flag bombings in 1969 targeting Belfast’s water and power supply. These were blamed on the IRA and used as a way to put pressure on O’Neil. Accusing him and the Government of being weak towards the threat posed by Irish Nationalists. It worked and O’Neil resigned.
In some ways, this is a remarkable tactical choice that the UVF made. Clearly we can’t make the mistake of thinking this choice was the one all Loyalists would have made but as the violent vanguard they were the ones who did act. In a more limited information age where fear of the IRA was rife, they clearly capitalized upon the use of violence to escalate the conflict towards their goals. The resignation of O’Neil and the rioting in Protestant areas of Belfast show how in this early stage of the conflict the British State was deeply unpopular to Loyalist and Republican communities.
The State then made the situation more fragile – widespread rioting in Derry by Republican communities that had been dealt with by volunteers, the RUC and the B-Specials, had spiraled dangerously out of control. The British Army was deployed to restore order. This marked an escalation in tactics by the State. The Police force was seen as now ineffective in its ability to both protect and police Catholic communities from Loyalist violence. The deployment of the wartime army as peacekeepers ultimately ended in the Bloody Sunday incident – a clear failing of the army to act as civilian police. The State then, again, made the situation worse, as part of an attempt to provide solutions the B Specials were disbanded.
The disbandment of the B-Specials was met by widespread horror in the Loyalist communities they came from. Many founding members of the UDA, UVF, Red Hand Commando all speak of their concern at that one specific act. To the Loyalist this was another betrayal by a State that could not be trusted to protect them and their community. The stage was now set for the sharp uptick in violence that was to come.
Where do we stand at this point in the conflict? We see clearly the birth of the three factions. We see how a State tradition of maintaining an ethnic Police reserve created fertile grounds for the birth of community defense groups that would quickly turn to violent terror. We see how the IRA’s path of direct violence created and instilled a deep-seated fear within Loyalist communities even during a time when most attacks were still directed against the State. We see how the Civil Rights movement galvanized the Catholic communities as both it and the States heavy handed response created more Republican sympathies. We see a State attempting to make concessions and take actions that alienate it from both warring factions.
In the next installment we’ll examine the escalation of violence with special focus on the tactical choices made and how they fed into the continuation of conflict.