Conflict in Europe: the Troubles of Ireland

Everything seems green and idyllic in Ireland when someone tells us about the beautiful places on the Emerald Isle. Yet it has been divisive for over a hundred years and since 1968 it has been one of the most violent places in Western Europe.

May 2021 will mark the 1st centenary of the partition between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Read this post in Spanish HERE

England and Ireland

The origin of problems in Ireland dates back centuries, beyond the Middle Ages. However, to narrow the dates a bit, we will only go back to the beginning of the 17th century. The population of the island of Ireland, converted to Christianity in the late medieval period by monks such as Saint Patrick, Saint Columba, Saint Columbanus or Saint Bridget, maintained their cultural idiosyncrasy despite numerous invasions. Such firmness in its traditions and the remoteness of the continent, allowed it not to suffer the religious division that occurred in Europe in the first half of the 16th century.

Henry VIII

Around the year 1520, Luther, with the help of the German princes, formally separated from Rome. Also at that time Henry VIII consummated his split, who became head of the Church of England. Calvin would also move away in the Netherlands. Christianity, the spiritual unity of Europe, was fragmented, often due to political differences between monarchs, princes and lords. Europeans had to obey the Latin phrase cuius regio eius religio that imposed the religion of their ruler on the entire population of a region. Ireland, however, remained largely faithful to Rome.

In 1536 Henry VIII, two years after establishing the Church of England, decided to invade the Emerald Isle, then still divided by internal conflicts, and subdue it. He was proclaimed King of Ireland and during his reign and the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, England made a great effort to keep the island under control, both politically and spiritually.


Faced with the inability to reach the local population, England changed the strategy. At the beginning of the 17th century the so-called Plantations were carried out. Scottish and English faithful to the crown and of Protestant denomination settled in Ireland, in many cases taking the lands of Catholic landlords. Above all, the area of ​​Ulster was occupied, the northern region, where the land was much more fertile and where the Celtic-Catholic resistance was strongest. This process was carried out under the Penal Laws, which would separate Catholics and Protestants not faithful to the Church of England (such as Baptists, Presbyterians or Quakers) from the administration and forced them to pay high taxes. Thus, Ireland, with a Catholic majority, began to be ruled by Protestant lords.

Thus was the distribution of land after the conquest of Cromwell. The Catholic Irish only owned the lands colored greenish brown.

However, one of the weaknesses of this plan was the greed of the intermediaries who carried it out: no British wanted the mountainous and swampy lands, so, although it was forbidden, they leased them to the native Catholics. Resistance groups were forming and the reaction was immediate: in 1641 the Irish took up arms. The Catholic Confederation was then formed, which would rule a large part of the island until between 1649-1652 Oliver Cromwell faced them and regained control of Ireland. Many Irishmen were forced to abandon their lands, hand them over to faithful Protestants in England, and march to the west of the island.

Battle of the Boyne

In 1685 a Catholic monarch acceded to the English throne: James II Stuart became king in kingdoms with a Protestant majority (except Ireland). If the Irish landlords with a Catholic majority rebelled in 1641 against their Protestant rulers, this time it was the other way around, the Protestant English, supported by the Dutch, rebelled against their king. William of Orange, stadtholder of Holland, invaded England and expelled James II, who fled to France. The dethroned king did not surrender and, supported by the French monarch, Louis XIV, and the Irish Catholics, he tried to regain his throne by confronting the usurper. Orange came to the island to confront him, placing Ireland at the center of the conflict between the two monarchs. William and James faced each other in the Battle of the Boyne, and the orangists were victorious.

Mural in one of the Loyalist (Protestant) quarters of Belfast commemorating the victory of William III of Orange on the River Boyne against James II Stuart in 1690.

Rebellion, war and independence

In the following centuries the Irish will remain faithful to their Catholic tradition and sporadic insurrections will arise against the English impositions. Being Irish and Catholic meant having no social rights. In the mid-nineteenth century a Great Famine ravaged the island and due to the inaction of the British government, more than a million Irish people died of hunger, while others emigrated to America. Despite strong oppositional sentiment, the British remained in control and no major uprisings took place until 1912, when the rise of nationalism swept across the continent. Towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century in Europe, there was a strong nationalist movement spread thanks to the rise of romanticism on the continent, a philosophical and cultural movement that gave priority to feelings, including national sentiments.

The rulers of Ireland, with a Protestant majority, decided to take the path of self-government, but because the island’s situation, two groups emerged: on the one hand, the Irish nationalists, much more numerous and with a Catholic majority, who defended the total independence from the United Kingdom; on the other, the loyalists or unionists, of Protestant religion, who sought self-government but were favorable to the crown and controlled the instances of power on the island. The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), controlled by the loyalists, played an important role of repression in the face of the revolts. Compared to the police in Great Britain, they were much more numerous and were heavily armed .

Mural commemorating the anniversary of the creation of the Ulster Volunteers.

Paramilitary groups also emerged on both sides, threatening Ireland with civil war. On the side of the nationalists came the Irish Volunteers who evolved into the well-known Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA would suffer internal splits in the 20th century, part of it would become the armed forces of Ireland, while others continued the armed struggle independently. On the loyalist side, the Ulster Volunteers stood out, many integrated into the RIC and later, already in the 20th century, the Ulster Voluntary Force (UVF), an independent paramilitary group, was created.

Despite the fact that religion had an important weight at the beginning of the problem and that even today the words «Catholics» and «Protestants» are still used to distinguish both groups, we must point out that from the 19th century it will be more a socio-political conflict and not so much religious. The religious factor is another historical characteristic that reinforces the national sentiment of each group. For this reason it is more convenient to use the terms «republican» or «nationalist» for the defenders of the independence of Ireland and «loyalists» or «unionists» for the faithful to the British crown.

Proclamation of the Republic 1916

In 1916 a small group of Irish nationalists rebelled in Dublin in what became known as the Easter Rising (Éirí Amach na Cásca), however they were curtailed and their leaders executed, which only increased sympathy for the movement. The 1918 elections to the British Parliament gave the nationalist Sinn Féin party 73 deputies of the 105 corresponding to Ireland, but these refused to march to London and met in Dublin, proclaiming the Republic of Ireland. Both sides, nationalists and unionists, waged a violent civil war. In 1921 a ceasefire was agreed and the island was divided, based on several treaties: Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom and represented in the English Parliament, and the Irish Free State, which would suffer several internal conflicts until it reached the which we know today as the Republic of Ireland, officially constituted in 1949.

One of the walls that separate Catholic from Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast. This, on the Catholic side, commemorates the Easter Rising.


We can see in this brief review of the history of the island, how violence and social, political and religious tensions have been present for a long time. In Northern Ireland, Catholics had limited rights even though they were in the majority in many cities. For this reason, movements and activists emerged that protested against this discrimination and in favor of civil rights. For this reason, in 1969 a march was organized from Belfast to Derry / Londonderry. During their trip they were harassed by the loyalists, which caused that, upon reaching Derry, they barricaded themselves in the Bogside neighborhood, creating the famous mural where they wrote: «You are now entering Free Derry

On August 12, Londonderry loyalists, the Apprentice Boys, decided to carry out their traditional march over the ramparts into the Catholic quarter, sparking a pitched battle that became known as the Battle of Bogside. The conflict spread throughout the region until it reached Belfast, where nationalists and loyalists clashed. The violence and disorder were such that the British government had to deploy army troops in the area, initiating a series of years of intense violence between both sides, to the point that in many cities they had to erect walls that separated the nationalist neighborhoods from the loyalists.

Another event that only aggravated the conflict was the well-known Bloody Sunday in 1972 when the British army fired indiscriminately in a peaceful march, killing 26 civilians, many of them young people in their early 20s. These events inspired the famous song Sunday, Bloody Sunday of the group U2, which they wrote as a form of protest and in which they mention the victims. We leave the song at the end of the article.

During the 1970s and 1980s, paramilitary groups on both sides, which in many cases included the loyalist soldiers and police themselves, provoked violent actions that resulted in many deaths. Also noteworthy is the force with which the nationalist groups derived from the former IRA carried out a large number of attacks. One of the most notorious was in 1987 in Enniskillen, when a bomb killed 12 civilians who were enjoying a military parade commemorating the fallen soldiers of WWI and WWII. Another of the most serious attacks was a bomb planted in Omagh, where 29 people died, including a woman pregnant with twins.

Number of deaths in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The number of civilians stands out especially.

The hard way to the peace

The process that led to peace was long and hard, since the years of violence and revenge that they generated were not easy to manage. In 1994, a first ceasefire was held to start talks between the two parts, which managed to last for almost two years until a new IRA attack. British and Irish unionists tried to remove representatives of Irish republicanism from the negotiations, leading the IRA to revoke its ceasefire and attack in London in February 1996, where they exploded a bomb that killed two people. and caused 39 injuries in the so-called Docklands bombing. This, followed by a change of government in England the following year, led to an inclusive negotiation. The US began to become involved in the conflict as a mediator, highlighting in particular the role of President Bill Clinton. In 1997 another ceasefire was agreed and negotiations intensified.

Damage caused by the Docklands bombing on February 9, 1996.

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed, by which Northern Ireland was constituted as a region of shared government between the Nationalists and the Loyalists. British troops were withdrawn, paramilitary groups were disarmed and the right of the people of Northern Ireland to dual citizenship was established, among other agreements. Despite reaching this consensus, some paramilitary groups continued to carry out sporadic attacks until 2006.

Relationship between the IRA and ETA

From their origins, Irish nationalism and Basque nationalism have had close relations due to their Catholic base and because of the historical origins in the 19th century. The terrorist gang ETA learned the modus operandi and had the support of the Irish nationalists paramilitary groups to carry out its attacks in Spain. Basque nationalism has always wanted to compare the Irish problem with the Basque one, but between the two lies great historical differences. The Irish suffered throughout their history the abuses of the English and were considered inferior in many respects, having been banned from public positions due to their Catholic status. We can also verify this racial superiority very typical of the Anglo-Saxon world in the US, where the Irish-Catholic community also suffered some discrimination (as we can see in many films and series set there), they were considered white-trash.

The Basques, however, played a fundamental role in the construction of Spain and its Empire in America, as evidenced by the numerous conquerors, soldiers, ministers, scientists, philosophers and positions of responsibility of Basque origin that Spain had. Basque nationalism has its origin in Carlism (spanish traditionalist movement, similar to the Jacobitism), which evolved during the 19th century thanks to the ideas of Herder and German nationalism based on the Volksgeist (the spirit of the people that crosses time, strongly linked to race). Therefore, the contemporary conflict cannot be compared, since in the Irish case there was tension and violence accumulated over centuries, while in the Basque case there was no tension or violence until ETA appeared. Some rely on the Franco dictatorship and the repression that it entailed, but that affected all of Spain. In addition, the violence continued during democracy and despite the autonomic freedoms that were granted (much higher than the rest of Spain).

Current situation

There is currently no armed conflict, but the tension between the two communities can be seen in some areas such as Belfast. In the capital of Northern Ireland, where tension was especially high during the most violent years, the walls that separate nationalist neighborhoods from loyalists (Catholic from Protestant) are still preserved to prevent violence. Even today you can smell this tension, especially in Derry, where the Troubles broke out, and in Belfast whose «walls of peace» still stand and every night the great doors that still stand are closed and separate two communities that continue to walk towards meeting and peace.

This process has been intensified by Brexit. The Republic of Ireland was in favor of remaining in the European Union, as were the results of the referendum in Northern Ireland. However, in the overall result the United Kingdom decided to leave from the European community, which leaves the Emerald Island in a difficult situation.

The next month of May 2021 will commemorate the 100 years of the division and in the year 2022 are the next elections to the Parliament of Northern Ireland. The nationalist Sinn Féin party, favorable to the unity of the island under the Republic of Ireland, has gained a lot of strength in recent years and its possible victory may perhaps lead to a new referendum on Northern Ireland‘s membership in the United Kingdom.

Scroll al inicio