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Page 2 - The Northern Ireland Conflict

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Text: Martin Melaugh   [last update: 10 Jun 2024]
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The Northern Ireland Conflict

Why is the conflict referred to as 'the Troubles'?
'The Troubles' is a euphemism that is commonly used in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, to refer to the most recent period of civil and political unrest, and violent political conflict (from 1968 to 2007). The term has been used in the past to refer to other periods of conflict particularly the Anglo-Irish War (or the War of Independence; 1919 - 1921). The term 'Troubles' was frequently used in a social context at 'wakes' or funerals where people who wanted to express condolence would often say "sorry for your troubles" to the relatives and friends of the deceased. It may be that the use of the term was extended from this context to cover wider social and political conflict.

When did the conflict begin?
CAIN marks the start of the conflict as 5 October 1968.
There is no absolute agreement on the date of the start of the recent violent conflict in Northern Ireland. A number of dates have been used by different writers: the Civil Rights March in Derry - 5 October 1968; the beginning of the 'Battle of the Bogside' - 12 August 1969; the Deployment of British Troops - 14 August 1969; or the re-emergence of the UVF in 1966. (Non-violent conflict - political conflict, economic conflict, cultural conflict, etc., - has been a feature of society in the region since the early part of the 17th century. On numerous occasions this conflict has resulted in periods of serious and sustained violence.)

What is the main cause of all the trouble in Northern Ireland? Is religion a big part of it?
The conflict in Northern Ireland is usually explained in terms of the different constitutional aspirations of the two main sections of the community in the region. Many Catholics consider themselves to be Irish and are Nationalist in political outlook, that is, they would like to see the whole (nation) island of Ireland reunited (and independent of Britain). Most Protestants consider themselves to be British and are Unionist in political outlook, that is, they want Northern Ireland to remain part of the (union of the) United Kingdom (UK) of Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland.

The correspondence between religion, culture, and political outlook is the result of a historical accident. During the 'plantation of Ulster' in the early 17th century the Scottish and English settlers, who moved to the north-east of Ireland to take ownership of confiscated lands, were Protestant and had strong cultural ties with England and Scotland. The native Irish who were forced from their land were Catholic and culturally Irish. Although religion was not the determining factor in the conflict between the people living in the region, it has a special significance as it was used as a marker to distinguish and discriminate between sections of the community. As a consequence of the plantation Protestants acquired land and wealth. Various pieces of legislation were introduced to reduce the status of Catholics. The inequalities between the two sections of the population persisted to the late 1960s and were the main cause of the civil rights movement that eventually led to the re-emergence of violent conflict.

For a more detail explanation see: Articles on the background to the conflict

Is the conflict over?
Most people believe that the recent period of violent conflict, 'the Troubles', in Northern Ireland has ended. In the years after the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland experienced continuing violence not only from those paramilitary organisations which are 'active' (that is, did not declare a ceasefire - rIRA; CIRA), but also from some organisations which are supposed to be on ceasefire (UDA, UFF, LVF, IRA). So the period of 'peace' following the first ceasefires (which were broken and renewed by some organisations) was an imperfect one. On the 28 July 2005 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued a statement announcing the end of its 'armed campaign'. On 26 September 2005 the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) issued a report stating that the IRA had decommissioned its weapons.

Conflict (in the form of political conflict, economic conflict, etc.) between the two main communities has a long history, almost 400 years. There have been many bouts of violent conflict in the past and there is no guarantee that people will not resort to violence in the future. Simply on the basis of previous experience one would have to say that another period of violence is a possibility. It will require a fundamental shift in the nature of the relationship between unionists and nationalists in the region for violence to be avoided in the future.

When did the current violent conflict end?
CAIN marks the end of the conflict as 8 May 2007.
It has proven as difficult to agree on a date for the end of 'the Troubles' as it is to agree on the date of beginning of the violent conflict. There have been a number of significant events and developments: the second IRA ceasefire - 20 July 1997; the Good Friday Agreement - 10 April 1998; the Omagh Bomb - Saturday 15 August 1998; the beginning of the new Devolved Government - Thursday 2 December 1999; the announcement of end of the IRA's 'armed campaign' - 28 July 2005; the completion of IRA decommisioning - 26 September 2005; and the return of an agreed devolved government on 8 May 2007.

Why did the conflict end when it did?
The main reason was probably war weariness on the part of civilians, supporters of paramilitary groups, and the paramilitaries themselves. Those who decided to engage with the Republican movement were probably able to convince enough members that their political objectives could more readily be achieved by constitutional means than by violence.

Is the future to be based on equality?
Protestants are still the majority of the Northern Ireland population; estimates based on the 2001 Census put the Protestant population at 56 per cent with 44 per cent Catholic (based on revised figures). The Catholic population is continuing to grow although there is uncertainty about when Catholics will form a majority of the population. There is evidence that among the current (2002) under-16 school population 50.66 per cent of children are Catholic (Department of Education Northern Ireland).

While 'majority rule' appeals to some in the Protestant community it has certain drawbacks as the size of the two communities draw closer to 50 per cent. The most important disadvantage is that a community that holds all the power on one day could find itself with none following a small change in voting patterns. For this and other reasons many people argue for the sharing of power. In the case of Northern Ireland there is a strong case for that sharing to be done on an equal basis regardless of the size of the respective communities. Just recently there have been some interesting examples of equality of treatment. More as a result of voting patterns than by design the Executive which was appointed on 29 November 1999 had six Unionists and six Nationalist members (First Minister, Deputy First Minister, and ten Department Ministers). The Patten Commission on the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) recommended that recruitment should be on a 50 per cent Catholic and 50 per cent Protestant basis.

Do you have a simple guide to the political parties?
A diagram listing the political parties, which has links to additional text on each party, is to be found at:

Do you have a simple guide to the various paramilitary groups?
A diagram listing the paramilitary groups, which has links to additional text on each group, is to be found at:

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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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