Sunningdale and the Ulster Workers Council strike

Loyalist paramilitaries march against Sunningdale, 1974.

Loyalist paramilitaries march against Sunningdale, 1974.

In 1973 a major effort was made by the British government to find a political solution to the conflict. In November of that year an agreement was signed between the major political parties (nationalist SDLP and the Unionist Party) in Northern Ireland, known as the Sunningdale Agreement.

It contained provision for power sharing between nationalists and unionists in a new regional assembly as well as a ‘Council of Ireland’ with the aim of developing all-Ireland cooperation.

The Agreement was brought down by massive grassroots unionist opposition. After the Unionist Party voted to ratify power sharing with nationalists in May 1974, mass protest rallies were organised Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and Vanguard led by William Craig. It was also during the period of the Sunningdale Agreement that loyalist paramilitary violence peaked.

In 1973-74 the British Government tried to set up a power-sharing Agreement between unionists and nationalists. It collapsed after massive loyalist protests.

Most significantly, the Ulster Workers’ Council – a body involving Protestant trade unionists as well as loyalist paramilitaries – organised a general strike across Northern Ireland including in power stations. Loyalist paramilitary roadblocks  on all main roads prevented even those who did not support them from going to work. The two week strike caused the Unionist Party to pull out of the Agreement, making it null and void. There would be no further internal political agreements until 1998.

Nationalists were enraged that the British Army was not deployed to break the strike. In 1977 by contrast, when the Ulster Workers Council staged another general strike with the aim of forcing the restoration of ‘majority rule’, the strike was effectively broken by police and military action.


Loyalists protest th Sunningdale Agreement at Stormont.

Loyalists protest the Sunningdale Agreement at Stormont.


Ulsterisation, the Prison struggle and the Hunger Strikes

In the late 1970s, the British government, despairing of a political settlement, tried to find a security solution to reduce political violence to ‘an acceptable level’ in the words of one Northern Secretary.

In 1976 internment without trial was ended but convicted paramilitaries were treated as ordinary criminals. This provoked a grim struggle within the prisons.

Their strategy was to try to undermine the IRA’s claim that they were fighting a war of national liberation by two means. The first was so-called ‘, Ulsterisation’ – reducing the primacy of the British Army and returning it to the RUC police force.

The second strand was ending internment without trial – viewed to have been a public relations disaster – in 1976, and phasing in non-jury trials for paramilitaries. The aim was to have no ‘political’ prisoners but only prisoners convicted of criminal offences. They were to be housed, not in the Prisoner-of War type camp at Long Kesh but a purpose built prison – the Maze – situated next door. Moreover they were to be afforded no special treatment compared to ordinary criminals.

This led to 301211_bobby_sands_SWIFFsustained protest by republican (and initially, some loyalist) prisoners for political status. They refused to wash or slop out their cells (the ‘dirty protest’) or to wear prison uniform (‘the blanket protest’). The protest culminated in the Hunger Strikes of 1981 in which 10 republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death for political status.

The Hunger Strikes ended up reviving the IRA’s flagging support in the nationalist community and across Ireland. The deaths of the hunger strikers proved their willingness to die and undermined the Government strategy of painting them as apolitical criminals. The prisoner Bobby Sands was elected to the British Parliament in a by-election during the strike, as, when Sands died, was Sinn Fein member Owen Carron. Two more hunger strikers were voted into the Irish Dail. There was widespread rioting in nationalist areas upon the deaths of the hunger strikers.

The ‘Long War’

Provisional IRA members in Belfast, 1980s.

Provisional IRA members in Belfast, 1980s.

Throughout the 1980s the conflict sputtered on. The IRA had a change of leadership in the late 1970s as southern leaders such as Ruari O Bradaigh were replaced by younger northerners such as Gerry Adams.

Adams and his colleagues devised a strategy known as the Long War, in which the IRA would be reorganised into small cells, more difficult to penetrate with informers and continue their armed campaign indefinitely until British withdrawal.

Parallel, they would win political support through their party, Sinn Fein. The election of hunger strikers was a major fillip to this strategy. In 1986 they decided to enter the Dail if elected. Their strategy was popularly known as the ‘Ballot Box and Armalite’ strategy after a speech by Danny Morrison.

Political violence went on throughout the 1980s but in spite of the IRA’s attempts to up its intensity, never reached the levels of the 1970s.

Political violence in Northern Ireland throughout the 1980s remained at a lower level however than in the 1970s. In only three years (1981,1982 and 1988) was the death toll over 100 and in 1985 there were only 57 deaths due to the conflict (see here).

The IRA in Belfast and Derry never regained the momentum they had had in the previous decade and were heavily infiltrated by informers. The organisation’s rural units in places such as South Armagh and Tyrone took on a greater importance through their continued ability to attack British forces with weapons such as mortars, improvised mines and heavy machine guns.

However many targets particularly of the part-time Ulster Defence Regiment were also killed while off-duty and unarmed. Bombings of civilian targets, particularly the Enniskillen bomb of 1987 in which 12 Protestants attending a war memorial service were killed, also damaged their popular support. Throughout the conflict Catholics voted in greater numbers for the SDLP over Sinn Fein.

The Enniskillen bomb of 1987 in which 11 people were killed.

The Enniskillen bomb of 1987 in which 11 people were killed.

The IRA also continued to attack targets in Britain and further afield, attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton in 1984 for example and blowing up 11 British soldiers on parade in London as well as Harrods department store. Three Provisional IRA members were killed while preparing a bomb in Gibraltor in 1988.

Despite importing significant quantities of heavy weapons from Libya in the mid-1980s, the IRA was able only to modestly increase the intensity of their campaign by the end of the decade. The exception to this was their bombing campaign in England. Importing large amounts of semtex explosive enabled them to detonate massively destructive bombs in commercial districts of London in the 1990s. Although these caused relatively few casualties due to warnings being given, the destruction of property in the financial centre of The City was enormous.

Loyalists, after a lull in the late 1970s, began killing large numbers of Catholics in the later 1980s – allegedly with police and Army ‘collusion’

Crown forces in the 1980s generally became much more careful to avoid killing civilians than in the preceding decade. There were however many allegations of targeted killings of IRA fighters – a so called ‘shoot to kill’ policy. For instance at the Loughall ambush in 1987 an IRA ‘active service unit’ of 8 men was wiped out. There were also serious problems with the use of rubber and plastic bullets to control riots, the deployment of which was responsible for 16 deaths, mostly Catholics, and many more injuries.

Loyalist violence lulled in the early 1980s but picked up again after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, in which the British government agreed to give the Irish government a consultative role in Northern Ireland. Loyalists, including a group linked to the Democratic Unionist party named Ulster Resistance, imported weapons from South Africa in response to a feared ‘sell out’. In some cases aided by British Army and RUC intelligence, loyalists began targeting republican militants and politicians for assassination. However, as in the 1970s most of their victims were unarmed Catholics.

By the 1990s loyalists were killing significant numbers of Catholics as well as republican activists. The IRA and other republican groups like the INLA and its off-shoots retaliated with attacks on loyalists, sometimes shading into attacks on Protestants such as the Shankill bomb of 1993 which killed ten people.

The Peace Process 

GFA pampletBy the late 1980s there were signs that republicans were looking for an end to the conflict. There were talks between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader John Hume and privately between republicans and the British and Irish governments.

In 1994 the Provisional IRA declared a unilateral ceasefire. This was followed six weeks later by a ceasefire from the main loyalist groups. The IRA broke its ceasefire in 1996 with a massive bomb in London, as a result of Sinn Fein not being allowed into negotiations before the IRA gave up its weapons.

The IRA and loyalists called ceasefires in 1994. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

In 1997 the IRA resumed its ceasefire and Sinn Fein was readmitted to talks. These also involved the nationalist SDLP and the Irish government as well at the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party the Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Democratic Party (representing loyalist paramilitaries) and the Women’s Coalition. The Democratic Unionist Party, led by Ian Paisley refused to participate as long as Sinn Fein took part. These negotiations culminated in the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement of 1998.

The central plank of the Agreement was that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would be decided only by the democratic vote of its inhabitants -known as the ‘consent principle’ – but that people from Northern Ireland would be entitled to both British and Irish citizenship.

This deal returned self-government to Northern Ireland but stipulated that government must be formed by equal numbers of nationalist and unionist ministers in proportion to their vote. Cross border bodies were established but the Republic gave up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. The RUC police force was disbanded and replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland which had had quotas for the proportion of Catholic officers.

Under the Agreement unionist and nationalists had to share power. Police and state services were reformed. But it was 2007 before the parties could agree on a stable programme for self-government.

The Agreement was passed by referendum in Northern Ireland and a concurrent referendum in the Republic accepted the deletion of the claim to Northern Ireland from the constitution.

This was not however immediately the end of violence or of political deadlock. ‘Dissident’ republicans who split off to form the ‘Real IRA’ detonated a bomb in Omagh in 1998 killing 30 people. Various ‘dissident’ groups have attempted to mount armed campaigns to the present day.

There was also widespread rioting each summer for several years around Orange Order parades resulting in several deaths, notably around the Drumcree standoff(1996-2000). Loyalist groups also engaged in a number of internecine feuds, resulting in about 40 deaths up the mid 2000s.

Loyalist Ian Paisley and Republican Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, 2008.

Loyalist Ian Paisley and Republican Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, 2008.

The first Northern Ireland Executive (regional government) did not get up and running until 1999 and again collapsed in February 2000 as Unionist leader David Trimble refused to operate it while IRA weapons had not been decommissioned. It was re-established in May of that year but remained fragile and collapsed again in 2002.

Trimble’s position deteriorated as his Party lost electoral support to the DUP. At the same time Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP as the nationalist party with the largest vote.

The IRA did not destroy most of its weapons until 2005, when a large quantity of guns, explosives and ammunition were destroyedunder international supervision. It also announced the definitive end of its armed campaign. In response the British Army began dismantling its fortified bases across Northern Ireland and withdrawing from active deployment there.

There followed more talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP which finally produced a deal whereby those two parties would form a new Northern Ireland Executive in 2007 with a DUP First Minister, Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, IRA veteran Martin McGuinness.

By early 2010 all the paramilitary groups had undertaken some decommissioning. Currently Sinn Fein and the DUP share power in a restored Northern Ireland Authority.


The violence of the ‘Troubles’ is still open to partisan interpretation. Republican paramilitaries killed significantly more people than any other actor (some 2,000 of the 3,500 deaths). State forces were responsible for 368 deaths (including 6 by Irish state forces) and loyalists for over 1,000. (See here) Even if, as many republicans argue, state forces and loyalists had a high degree of cooperation, republican groups still killed more.

The ‘Troubles’ were less bloody than the previous conflict (1916-23) in 20th century Ireland but much bloodier than any other internal conflict in Western Europe since 1945.

This leads unionists to argue that the conflict consisted in the main of republican terrorism combated by a state constrained by the rule of law. They point out that by 1998 there were nearly equal numbers of loyalists as republicans imprisoned – 194 to 241. Statistics are hard to come by but estimates of the total number of republicans imprisoned over the conflict amounts to 15,000 and estimates of loyalists imprisoned range from 5 to 12,000.

However, Catholic civilians were significantly more likely to be killed than Protestant civilians, leading republicans to argue that their violence was legitimate warfare (as the majority of victims were state forces) whereas the loyalist campaign was simply sectarian murder.

Whether the conflict was a ‘war’ or a period of sustained ‘terrorism’ remains bitterly disputed.

Compared to the earlier conflict in 20thcentury Ireland (1916-1923) the violence was somewhat less intense. In the earlier period roughly 4-5,000 died over an 8 year period and almost all but the 500 who died in Easter week 1916, died between 1920 and 1923, Moreover in the earlier period British state forces killed significantly more civilians than non-state forces, a pattern that was reversed in the Northern Ireland conflict.[2] However compared to comparable low intensity conflicts in Western Europe in the late twentieth century, such as the Basque Conflict, the Northern Ireland conflict was much bloodier.[3]


It is widely considered that nationalists gained more from the peace process than unionists, as the unionist character of Northern Ireland was undermined, strict majority rule abolished and discrimination against Catholics reversed by quotas. However it is also true that republicans ended up putting aside their demand for united Ireland and working within a ‘partitionist’ settlement.

The old unionist dominated Northern Ireland has been swept away but it is far from clear what the long term future of the region will be.

The conflict caused a deepening of sectarianism, especially in working class urban areas where fortified ‘peace walls’ still separate Catholic and Protestant areas.

Paramilitary prisoners (about 450 people) who were affiliated to political parties which had signed up the Good Friday Agreement were all released in 1998. However a small number of ‘dissident’ republican prisoners (about 70) are still held under anti-terrorism legislation for acts committed since then. Moreover, as evidenced by the 2014 arrest of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams for the murder of Jean McConville in 1972, there has been no amnesty for acts committed prior to the agreement.

Rioting in Belfast in December 2012.

Rioting in Belfast in December 2012. Loyalist protest about the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall.

Northern Ireland’s future remains ambiguous. Catholics now form an almost equal proportion of the population to Protestants. This has led many to predict a nationalist majority in the future with a consequent end to partition.

However the latest polls indicate that support for a united Ireland is not unanimous among Catholics, with 20% preferring to stay in the United Kingdom, 35% in favour of unity in 20 years and only 7% in favour of unification now. Support for Irish unity among Protestants is very low – at about 4%.

While these preferences may change, Northern Ireland remains closely tied to the United Kingdom economically. The conflict period damaged its economy greatly and also coincided with de-industrialisation in Western Europe which decimated its ship-building and linen industries. Over 30% of the workforce is directly employed in the public sector, compared with under 20% in Britain or the Republic. The Northern regional government is also heavily subsidised from London – raising £14 billion in taxes in 2011-12, for example but spending £23 billion.

Until the Republic (now heavily indebted) is able to make up this shortfall unification of Ireland would be extremely difficult. Thus the status quo appeared likely to remain for the forseeable future.

However, when, in 2016, the United Kingdom voted by referendum to leave the European Union, but Northern Ireland voted to stay, the status of the area was again thrown into doubt. The prospect of a resurrected ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic, as well as the near parity in votes between nationalists and unionists in the 2017 Assembly elections, led to renewed calls by nationalists for a referendum on Irish unity.

Northern Ireland’s future remains uncertain.


[1] In which ‘Both the Official and Provisional wings of the Irish Republican Army (OIRA and PIRA) fought the security forces in more-or-less formed bodies. Both had a structure of companies, battalions and brigades, with a recognisable structure and headquarters staff. Protracted firefights were common. ‘

[2] In 1919-21 the IRA was responsible for 281 of the 898 civilian fatalities, with British forces being responsible for 381. A further 236 deaths could not be confidently attributed to any party (the IRA, loyalist, rioters, undercover Crown forces). [See Terror in Ireland, p153-154]

[3] The Basque conflict caused the deaths of about 1,000 people from 1968 to 2010, roughly 800 killed by the separatist organisation ETA and roughly 2-300 by Spanish state forces, in an area with a comparable population to Northern Ireland

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