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Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland: Conflict profile

Northern Ireland was the location for an extended armed conflict, known locally as ‘the Troubles’, which lasted from 1969 until 1998 and led to the deaths of over 3,500 people.

The violence in Northern Ireland has been driven by conflict over the political status of the region and the competing claims and aspirations of the two main communities living there. The Protestant community generally favours continuing political union with the United Kingdom. They regard themselves as British citizens and define themselves politically as Unionists. Hardline Unionists are known as Loyalists since they proclaim loyalty to the British monarchy. The Catholic community, on the other hand, are more likely to regard themselves as Irish and favour closer links with the Republic of Ireland and in some cases favour the creation of a single, united Irish state. They regard themselves as Irish and define themselves politically as Nationalists. Hardline Nationalists are known as Republicans since they strive for a United Irish Republic. While Loyalists and Republicans are integral parts of their wider Unionist and Nationalist communities respectively, the terms 'Loyalist' and 'Republican' have generally become applicable to more hardline members of the Unionist and Nationalist communities.

The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty established self-government in Ireland but also the Partition of Ireland, with Northern Ireland - six, predominantly Protestant counties - remaining part of the United Kingdom. Tensions between Northern Ireland’s Protestant, Unionist majority and its Catholic, Nationalist minority simmered and grew as institutionalised discrimination against Catholics continued. In the 1960s, a civil rights movement developed to fight for equal rights and against discrimination in areas such as housing and employment. Ultimately, the Royal Ulster Constabulary's violent suppression of a civil rights march in Derry, in 1968, triggered a chain reaction of events that saw Northern Ireland explode into violent conflict. 'The Troubles' had begun, and would continue for the next three decades. The British Army deployed to Northern Ireland in 1969 whilst the Provisional IRA (PIRA or IRA) emerged as the largest Republican paramilitary organisation fighting for a united Ireland. Loyalist paramilitary groups, including the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) also formed to resist Irish unification and Republican paramilitaries. 1972 was the bloodiest year of the Troubles, but every year after this included terrible acts of violence as the conflict continued without any apparent resolution.

In the late 1990s, a protracted multi-party ‘peace process’ resulted in a peace agreement, signed on Good Friday 1998. This led to the creation of a range of new political and human rights institutions and eventually to the formation of a devolved government in 2007, which included representation for the province's four main political parties, straddling the sectarian divide. The transition of society from being enmeshed in a long-running violent conflict to being largely peaceful, has ensured that the Northern Ireland peace process is regarded as one of the major successes of recent peacebuilding activity and a model for other conflict transformation work around the world.


Last updated: July 2009

Northern Ireland peacebuilding resources