22 March to 29 September 2024
The Troubles engulfed Northern Ireland in conflict for nearly 30 years. It was – and remains – a contentious period, with roots going back centuries.
A fragile cease fire was signed in 1998, yet many aspects of the conflict remain unresolved to this day and are highly contested by those who experienced and participated in the conflict.
This exhibition invites you to consider the Troubles through the multiple perspectives of those affected by the conflict.
Explore the Troubles through four key sections, hearing from people with a range of differing perspectives and encountering objects that illuminate their experiences:
- The Night of the 27-28 June 1970
- The Descent into Violence
- 'Hell in a Wee Place'
- Today and the Future
The voices you hear will emphasise that there is no single agreed narrative on the conflict for those who lived through it.
An exhibition glossary is available explaining the key terms and abbreviations which feature, to help visitors get to grips with the complexities of this multi-faceted conflict.
© Crown copyright: IWM (9202-03)
© A W Martin (IWM HU 41951)
© IWM (CT 521) Ciaran Mac Gowan collection
© IWM CT 502 Ciaran Mac Gowan collection
© Crown copyright: IWM (HU 98382)
The Omagh Bombing
Devastation caused by a car bomb in Omagh on 15 August 1998. This was the single worst atrocity carried out in Northern Ireland during the Troubles with 29 people killed and over 300 injured. The attack was carried out by the Real IRA, a group who had split with the Provisional IRA over the Good Friday Agreement.
The Troubles Video Series
Voice over: On the afternoon of the 30th of January 1972, a civil rights march passed through the streets of Derry/Londonderry. The protestors, around 50,000 strong, tried to move towards the city centre, but were blocked by the British Army. Though most of the crowd moved on to the Bogside, a no-go area for British forces, others began to throw stones at the soldiers. Soon afterwards troops of the Parachute Regiment were then ordered to move into the Bogside and begin arresting the crowd.
Craig Murray: Over the next half an hour One Para would open fire on the demonstrators leaving 26 injured and killing 13. A 14th man would die several months later. This Humber Pig here at IWM London was on strength with One Para at the time of Bloody Sunday. We don't actually know if it was actually there on the day, but it certainly was one of their vehicles. Bloody Sunday was probably one of the most famous or infamous incidents of the Troubles. However it was just one of many terrible incidents and what became the bloodiest year of the Troubles.
Voice over: In the first episode of our Troubles series, we explored the origins of the conflict. Now, with the British Army deployed, a deadly multi-sided war began to be waged on Northern Irish streets. The violence would cost thousands of lives, mostly civilian. But within the violence, all the sides were beginning to change. By the 1980s, they would adopt new strategies that would shape the future of Northern Ireland.
The events of Bloody Sunday were a source of outrage around the world. Three days later the British embassy in Dublin was burnt to the ground by protestors, incensed by the killings. As the violence grew, the British Prime Minister Edward Heath felt he had no choice but to suspend the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont and impose direct rule from Westminster. This was intended as a short-term measure. But for the Provisional IRA, it was exactly what they wanted.
Craig Murray: "The IRA felt quite triumphant at the time they wanted Britain drawn further into the conflict they could then frame the narrative more as they wished to see it. The IRA in 1972 were operating using the car bomb, a relatively indiscriminate form of weaponry as well as open confrontation with the army. However, how the way the IRA operated would change in a matter of a few years and they were reorganise themselves and settle themselves in for what they knew would be a much longer struggle."
The violence continued to intensify throughout the rest of 1972. In response to Bloody Sunday, the Official IRA bombed the HQ of the Parachute Regiment in Aldershot, but only killed civilians. The backlash from this, and other elements of their campaign, led them to declare a ceasefire soon afterwards.
From that point forwards, the Provisional IRA became the majority faction in the republican movement. In July, they enacted their own reprisal for Bloody Sunday, denoting 22 bombs across Belfast in what became known as Bloody Friday. 9 people were killed and around 130 injured in the space of just 75 minutes. In response, the British Army began Operation Motorman, their biggest operation since Suez. Over 30,000 troops, assisted by tanks, went in to clear ‘no-go’ areas controlled by republican paramilitaries.
Craig Murray: "During Operation Motorman British troops would crash through these impromptu barriers in vehicles like the Humber Pig. For soldiers it was highly protective, but to civilians it would have seemed an oppressive and frightening tool. As far as trying to catch the people involved largely the Republican paramilitaries had got away. However, the British were laying down a marker they were prepared to use force to clear these areas and there was no place they felt they couldn't go. On top of this, in an attempt to clamp down on the violence, the British also sought to introduce a method that would get around the intimidation of jurors and witnesses through what were known as diplock courts. Where a sole judge would sit and would try the accused without any witnesses and without any jury. This was seen as an effective method to get round any form of intimidation."
Voice over: The republican anger at this latest British intervention was palpable. And as 1972 came to an end, the Provisional IRA were set to attack the UK mainland for the first time.
On Thursday 8th of March 1973, Provisional IRA Bombs exploded at the old Bailey and in Whitehall in London. The attacks claimed one life and injured over 240. It was the beginning of a new phase of the Troubles. On May 17th 1974, the UVF detonated four car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland. 33 people and one unborn child were killed in deadliest attack of the Troubles.
But at the same time, diplomatic efforts were beginning to emerge. A new Northern Irish assembly was founded in 1973, made up of moderate parties from all sides. They approved the Sunningdale Agreement – a power sharing executive, with involvement from the Republic of Ireland. At the time it truly seemed like the beginnings of peace in the conflict, but it was not to be. In May, the Ulster Workers Council called a general strike and forced the Loyalist leader of the executive to resign, soon after the agreement collapsed. The pattern of violence had been set, and extremists on both sides now held enough sway to derail any peace attempt.
For the British government, the failure of Sunningdale left some in doubt over Britain’s future in Northern Ireland. But peace attempts continued nonetheless. Back door negotiations had begun in 1972, but towards the end of 1974 they began to bear fruit. The ban on the IRA’s political wing Sinn Féin was lifted and plans for a cease-fire were agreed. In September 1975, the Provisional IRA declared an indefinite truce.
Craig Murray: "The Provisional IRA had hoped for Britain to actually lay out a sort of map of when they intended to withdraw and also at some point declare a date. This never happened. They all suspected and actually were quite correct that the British government had been using the lapse in the violence to basically gather intelligence and also spread dissent and split them. With this in effect, the ceasefire pretty much petered out long before it was officially declared over."
Voice over: As violence returned, there were fears on the loyalist side that the negotiations were merely a precursor to a full British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries therefore attempted to draw the Provisional IRA away from the ceasefire and back into the fight. What transpired were a series of sectarian tit-for-tat killings. Loyalists targeting catholics and, in revenge, republicans targeting protestants. It was some of the most sickening violence of the conflict.
Craig Murray: "This is a Sterling submachine gun it's a British Army issue that has been around since the end of the Second World War period. It was sold to armies all around the world and was a reliable weapon. This weapon itself was taken by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1980 as we can see from the tab, it was captured from Loyalist paramilitaries. Loyalist paramilitaries would also have seen the fall of Stormont and direct rule coming from London and perhaps the future in Northern Ireland as they saw it being in doubt. In this period of early 1970s both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries engaged in bloody tit-for-tart struggles, revenge attacks, in which very often civilians were caught up in the middle of."
Voice over: By 1976 the ceasefire had broken down completely. Political peace had failed, and back-channel negotiations had led to nothing. Now all sides settled into new strategies which, in the coming years, would change the shape of the conflict.
After the failed ceasefire, the Provisional movement came under new leadership from younger members like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. To them it was clear that the British would not be leaving Northern Ireland any time soon and so they set out a new strategy for what they called a ‘long war’. Receiving new arms and supplies from Libya and the USA, they planned a war of attrition against the British army, centralising command and using smaller cells known as Active Service Units.
Craig Murray: "This is the ArmaLite AR-18 rifle. It's American made by the ArmaLite company in California. Interestingly they were never ever used by any of the world's armies although they were used by police forces. But they were also significantly in this case used by Provisional IRA and a number of these were received in from the United States and it became a symbol of IRA resistance. Indeed Sinn Féin, in their 1981 conference, talked about taking power with the ArmaLite in one hand and the ballot box in the other. And the ArmaLite is this particular weapon here the AR-18."
Voice over: But the British Government was changing strategy too. Having failed to end the violence for coming up for decade, they now aimed to limit the conflict and its effects to Northern Ireland - launching a three-part strategy termed, Ulsteristation, Criminalisation and Normalisation. The British Army began to hand over control to the local forces of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment.
Craig Murray: "The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Roy Mason took a much harder line with paramilitaries. They started to talk of the IRA as mafia-style gangs headed up by godfathers. They reframed them as being criminals rather than revolutionaries or political activists. One of the biggest changes they made was the end of Special Category Status for prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses after the 1st of March 1976. No longer now would prisoners be able to fraternise their own colleagues, wear their own clothes, or not take part in prison work as what Newman would have called an ordinary decent criminal. This important decision would have ramifications inside the prisons in years to come."
Voice over: The decision led to a series protests by paramilitary prisoners inside the Maze Prison. In 1976 they began the blanket protests, refusing to wear prison uniforms. Then in 1978, they began the dirty protests or no wash protests, smearing their excrement on the walls of their cells. But things escalated further when, in March of 1980, Special Category Status was ended for all prisoners regardless of when their crimes were committed. Now, Maze prisoners began a hunger strike. The first attempt was controversially called off when it seemed that the British government was about to give in. But when they didn’t, IRA man Bobby Sands lead a second hunger strike in March of 1981. A decision which would change the course of the Troubles.
Craig Murray: "The 1981 hunger strike had a massive impact on the public, particularly in Northern Ireland, but also around the world as well. What was seen was men being allowed to die within the prison and it appeared the British government was unwilling to do anything to stop it. Such was the fame of people like Bobby Sands at the time. The idea was put forward to stand him as an MP for the vacant Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat and to the surprise of many Bobby Sands won the election. This sent a message really to Sinn Féin that they could be more active within the political field and they could certainly be successful if they stood candidates even if they didn't choose to take the seats that they'd actually won. And certainly from 1981 through to an 1984/85, Sinn Féin were relatively successful in elections both in Northern Ireland and also down in the Republic of Ireland."
Voice over: When sands died after 66 days without food, he became a martyr for the republican cause, 100,000 people attended his funeral in Belfast. New members and money now poured into the Provisional IRA. And although the strikes came to an end in October, their impacts were already being felt.
In 1982, Sinn Féin finally became a political force in their own right, winning 5 seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly – though they did not take their seats. Meanwhile, the republican armed struggle continued. In 1984 they mounted their most audacious attack so far – an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. They set of a 100-pound bomb at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, killing 5. But Thatcher and her husband just escaped injury.
Instead, her biggest worry was Sinn Féin’s political success. And so, in November of 1985, the British and Irish governments came together to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement – stating that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the agreement of a majority of its citizens. They also gave the Republic of Ireland’s government an advisory role in the north. This was a major blow to loyalists who saw it as a stepping stone towards the united Ireland that they always feared. In response, loyalist protests toppled the Northern Ireland Assembly, while loyalist paramilitary violence began to grow once again.
Craig Murray: "Apart from the unionist anger towards the agreement of what it might mean for them it also made the IRA stop and take stock of what they were doing at this point. They saw how Britain had now moved from being this immovable colonial force to a country who actually could be negotiated with and who could actually change its position. So in 1986 they abandoned the long-held tenant of abstentionism. From now on any who were elected to power within Sinn Féin would actually take their seats within the Dáil, the southern Irish Parliament. This is a major break in republican tradition and shows in many ways how far the Provisional IRA have come since the early 1970s."
Voice over: By the end of 1986, the shape of the Troubles had changed entirely. Sinn Féin had gone from side show to genuine political force, loyalist paramilitaries were on the rise and the British government was attempting to step away. And yet, after nearly two decades, civilians were still bearing the brunt of the fighting and the streets of Northern Ireland were no closer to peace. The question was, how much more could the Northern Irish people take?
This four-part series examines the entire history of the Troubles, from the causes of the conflict to the long and difficult peace negotiations:
- Episode one: Origins
- Episode two: Escalation
- Episode three: Division
- Episode four: Peace
Header Image Credit: © Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images