What you need to know about The Troubles
© IWM TR 32970-1

The Troubles is a term used to describe a period of conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted about 30 years, from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

However, the origins of the Troubles can be traced back hundreds of years. The Plantation of Ulster at the beginning of the 17th century settled Protestants from lowland Scotland and the North of England causing a sectarian split in the population of the province; something that still resonates today and fed into the Troubles. 

Catholics predominantly consider themselves Irish and hold nationalist views - they want an independent Ireland free from British control. Protestants identify largely as British and unionist, meaning they wish to remain linked to the United Kingdom.

Open at IWM North from 22 March to 29 September 2024, Northern Ireland: Living with the Troubles explores the multiple perspectives of those affected by the conflict.

You can also watch our four-part Troubles in Northern Ireland video series, which examines the entire history of the conflict. 


Key moments in the history of the Troubles

Discover more about the Troubles and a few highlights from our collection. 


The Easter Rising

During the First World War, on 24 April, 1916, Irish republicans seized notable buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic in what became known as the Easter Rising. The British Army clashed with rebels in the streets of Dublin and buildings in the city centre, including the General Post Office, were all but destroyed by British artillery. Within a week, the uprising had been quashed. More than 2,000 people, including civilians, were killed or wounded. 

The British response to the uprising, which included the execution of 15 of its leaders and a protracted period of martial law, fueled support for the republican cause in Ireland.   


The partition of Ireland

In 1919, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched a guerrilla campaign against the British Army and loyalist forces. After more than two years of conflict, in May 1921, the Government of Ireland Act was passed, which divided Ireland in two. A ceasefire followed in July. The Act brought together 6 counties to form the self-governing region of Northern Ireland, whose population was majority loyalist and Protestant. 

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 brought the Irish War of Independence formally to a close. The treaty also provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State in southern Ireland. The Irish Free State was to exist as a dominion within the British Empire but this changed in 1949, when Eire officially became a Republic.


The arrival of the British Army

The Catholic population often found itself at greater disadvantage economically and politically that the Protestant community. However, social and economic conditions were often very similar for working class Protestants.  

Tensions spilled over in August 1969 during the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march. The route of the march passed through the predominantly Catholic Bogside area of Derry. Attempts by the Royal Ulster Constabulary to separate residents from the marchers resulted in three days of rioting. The event became known as the Battle of Bogside and it caused unrest across Northern Ireland. The British Army was brought in to restore order. 


A growth in paramilitaries

Over the course of the 1960s and early 1970s, there was a rise in membership of paramilitary organisations. A group broke away from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to form the Provisional IRA. Loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), also grew in numbers. 

As violent attacks and bombings increased in frequency, the British Army built 'peace walls' to separate both communities.


Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972. Members of the Support Company, 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment pictured in action in the Bogside, Londonderry on Bloody Sunday.
© IWM MH 30538

About 15,000 people gathered in Derry on 30 January 1972 to participate in a march against the policy of internment without trial that had been in Northern Ireland. The march was banned and the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment was deployed to prevent it from completing its route. The march was diverted but some groups of marchers clashed with soldiers at a barricade and were fired on with rubber bullets and teargas. The soldiers moved out from the barricade to make arrests and opened fire on the marchers with live rounds. Fourteen people were killed – 13 on the day with John Johnston dying in June from his injuries. 


Acts of Terrorism

The latter half of the 1970s and the 1980s were characterised by assassinations and acts of terrorism carried out by loyalist and republican paramilitary groups.

Loyalist action was focussed largely in Ireland. The Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association carried out shootings of Catholic civilians and bombed bars and pubs in Belfast. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings of May 1974, in which three car bombs were detonated in Dublin and one in Monaghan, killed 33 civilians - the largest death toll of any single action of The Troubles. The UVF did not admit responsibility for the act until 1993.

The Provisional IRA also carried out the majority of their attacks in Northern Ireland. In 1972, 9 people were killed in a series of bombings in Belfast. The attacks were carried out in response to Bloody Sunday and became known as Bloody Friday. The Provisional IRA also carried out several high profile attacks in England. The Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 killed 21 civilians, the highest death toll in England during The Troubles. Targets included London department stores such as Selfridges and Harrods, as well as public buildings including the Old Bailey (1973) and the Houses of Parliament (1974). In 1982, 11 soldiers and 7 horses were killed when bombs were detonated in Hyde Park, during the Changing of the Guard, and Regents Park during a concert. In 1984, a bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton targeted the Conservative Party Conference, killing five people. 

One of the most high-profile victims of IRA attacks was Lord Louis Mountbatten, a cousin of the Queen. In August 1979, Mountbatten was among those killed in County Sligo, Ireland when a bomb was placed on his fishing boat.


Peace talks and ceasefires

Despite ongoing violence, by the early 1990s negotiations had begun between political parties in Northern Ireland and between the British and Irish governments. The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 was signed by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. The declaration set out key principles, including that any unification of Ireland could only take place with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and that only Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland had the right to solve their disputes. The declaration was approved by the Republican party Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA. 

By 1997, both the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries had called ceasefires and the majority of the main parties in Northern Ireland were at the negotiating table. 


The Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April, 1998. It was the culmination of talks between unionist parties, the political wings of both the UVF and UDA, Sinn Fein and the British Government. The agreement created a plan for a power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly and outlined plans for future relationships between Ireland and Britain. It was approved the following month by a referendum in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Elections took place in June and it formally took power in December 1999. 

The Good Friday Agreement can be viewed as marking the end of The Troubles. 


The Omagh Bombing

The 1997 ceasefire led to a split in the IRA. Those who opposed the ceasefire broke away and created The Real IRA.

In August 1998, four months after the Good Friday Agreement, The Real IRA carried out the most deadly attack since the start of The Troubles. At least 29 people were killed and several hundred injured in a car bomb in Omagh, an event condemned by Sinn Fein and the IRA. 

Artist Anthony Davies

Anthony Davies studied at The Royal College of Art and the British School at Rome before moving to Northern Ireland in 1984 to teach at the University of Ulster. In 1987 he became Artist in Residence at the Foyle Arts Centre in Derry. During his time in Northern Ireland, Davies produced striking works reflecting the events of The Troubles, most notably the Wasteland series. 

Explore the collection

Listen to an interview

Barry Williamson grew up in a Protestant family in Belfast and Londonderry. He spoke to IWM in 2005 about his experiences of The Troubles, including during his time as a hotel manager with Cliffe and Europa Hotels in Belfast between 1974-1980.

Listen to the full interview

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