British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland

In response to increasing violence between segments of the Catholic and Protestant communities, the British government sent military units to Northern Ireland to restore and maintain order.

Summary of Event

The often tragic relations between Britain and Ireland go back hundreds of years, but the late 1960’s saw an intensification of the troubles in Northern Ireland. In 1921, six of the nine counties of the old Irish province of Ulster were given home rule by Great Britain. Shortly after, the other twenty-six counties achieved dominion status as the Irish Free State, which severed all ties with the British Commonwealth and became the independent Republic of Ireland in 1948. Northern Ireland, however, remained an integral part of the United Kingdom, with its own parliament having responsibility for domestic issues. Civil unrest;Northern Ireland
Christianity;Catholic-Protestant violence[Catholic Protestant violence]
Northern Irish riots (1969)
[kw]British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland (Aug., 1969)
[kw]Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland, British (Aug., 1969)
[kw]Northern Ireland, British Troops Restore Order in (Aug., 1969)
Civil unrest;Northern Ireland
Christianity;Catholic-Protestant violence[Catholic Protestant violence]
Northern Irish riots (1969)
[g]Europe;Aug., 1969: British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland[10370]
[g]United Kingdom;Aug., 1969: British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland[10370]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug., 1969: British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland[10370]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug., 1969: British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland[10370]
Chichester-Clark, James
Wilson, Harold
Callaghan, James
Lynch, Jack
Paisley, Ian
O’Neill, Terence

The population of the six counties of Northern Ireland was divided by culture, history, and religion. The Protestant majority was unionist in politics, committed to maintaining the union with Great Britain. One-third of the population was Catholic. Many in this minority community wished to unite the six counties with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland. This was anathema to most members of the majority community, whose Protestant ancestors had come from England and Scotland in the seventeenth century.

What the two Northern Ireland communities had in common was fear—fear that the other wished to deprive it of religious freedom, national and cultural identity, and economic rewards. Because the majority Protestant community had been in power since home rule had been granted in 1921, it was the Catholic community that had faced economic, political, and social discrimination. The administrative bureaucracy was overwhelmingly Protestant, as was most industrial employment. Local government was gerrymandered so that even where Protestants were in the minority, as in the city of Londonderry, they still controlled. Public housing was often allotted to Protestants rather than to more needy Catholic families. The police and security forces were overwhelmingly Protestant and had a reputation for anti-Catholic activities. In the past, there had been violence in the six counties, but by the early 1960’s those troubles apparently were over.

Northern Ireland’s industrial base declined in the 1960’s. Increased trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland was seen as a possible solution, but it would be workable only if tensions between Catholics and Protestants were reduced. These economic difficulties led some to hope that class-based politics might unite Protestants and Catholics by class and break down the traditional barriers which had long divided the communities. Harold Wilson became prime minister of Great Britain in 1964. Many members of his Labour Party were sympathetic to the plight of the Catholic minority, and Wilson himself discussed the necessity to end discrimination against Catholics. Within the Catholic community, there was an increasing demand for equal economic and political rights, a demand symbolized by the formation of the Campaign for Social Justice Campaign for Social Justice in 1964.

In 1963, Terence O’Neill became prime minister of Northern Ireland. He attempted to build bridges to the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland and to the government of the Republic. In reality, “O’Neillism” involved mostly symbols rather than substantive change: He continued to envision the Protestant unionist majority retaining their position, although with less obvious discrimination than in the past. Over time, he lost support. Many Protestant unionists feared he had gone too far in reconciling Catholics and nationalists, but the latter claimed he had not gone far enough. Under O’Neill’s tenure, discrimination against the minority community was not ended, but the issue had come to the fore. In 1967, inspired by the American Civil Rights movement, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was founded to end discrimination against Catholics. A countermovement developed among elements in the Protestant community, notably under the leadership of Ian Paisley, an evangelical fundamentalist minister who was adamantly opposed to Catholicism and even to politicians such as O’Neill and other Protestants who were, he believed, overly sympathetic to Catholic aspirations.

The Catholic minority’s demand for equal rights was complicated by another issue: the choice between continued union with Great Britain or unification with the Irish Republic. Many Protestants claimed that the demand for civil rights by the Catholic community was only a preliminary step: The real objective of the civil rights movement was to join the six counties to the Republic. Many leaders of the civil rights movement were indeed nationalists, but for most, the issue of civil rights was a sincere concern.

Eventually, civil rights Civil rights;Northern Ireland advocates organized protest marches. The first was on August 28, 1968. The demonstration against housing discrimination was peaceful but resulted in countermarches and demonstrations by radical Protestant groups. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Irish police force which was overwhelmingly Protestant, was more sympathetic to the counterdemonstrators than to the civil rights marchers. In Londonderry, on October 5, 1968, a civil rights march banned by O’Neill’s government ended in violence when the police resorted to indiscriminate force against the demonstrators. Seventy-eight civilians and eighteen police officers were injured. A radical student organization, Student protest movement People’s Democracy People’s Democracy[Peoples Democracy] , soon formed at Queen’s University, Belfast. The members of People’s Democracy, like those of student groups elsewhere in the 1960’s, were often more willing to seek confrontation with the police than were the moderate reformers who began the movement. In late November, O’Neill promised both more equitable treatment in housing and local government representation.

Some civil rights advocates were willing to give the government time to implement its pledges, but the People’s Democracy movement was not. In January, 1969, a protest march from Belfast to Londonderry encountered considerable violence, some at the hands of Protestant extremists and some from the police. Catholics living in the Bogside neighborhood of Londonderry were also attacked. In reaction, many in the Catholic community turned to the radicals for leadership. Many members of the Protestant community also became radicalized, but on the other side, criticizing O’Neill’s leadership for its seeming pro-Catholic orientation. Reverend Ian Paisley was jailed for leading an unlawful assembly. An outlawed Protestant group caused a series of explosions in March and April at several public utility facilities. This violence contributed to O’Neill’s decision to resign in late April, 1969. The new prime minister, James Chichester-Clark, O’Neill’s cousin, promised to continue O’Neill’s reforms, including proportional representation and the end to gerrymandering in local elections, but it was too little, too late.

The summer of 1969 saw more violence in Northern Ireland. Some occurred on July 12, the anniversary of the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over James II, deposed Catholic monarch of England, in the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. The major conflict occurred in Londonderry on August 12. On that date in 1689, thirteen young Protestant apprentices had successfully shut the city’s gates against James II. In 1969, when the Protestant marchers approached Catholic Bogside, stones were thrown and bottles filled with gasoline were tossed. The police intervened, but the battle went on for many hours, ultimately leaving Bogside under Catholic control as the police were unable to end the violence. On August 13, Jack Lynch, prime minister of the Irish Republic, spoke on television and perhaps added to the tension, claiming that the people of the Republic would not stand for further violence in the six counties of Northern Ireland. He argued that the only lasting solution would be for Northern Ireland to join the Republic.

Violence spread throughout much of Northern Ireland. After it became obvious that the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other police units could not restore order, Chichester-Clark’s government called for British troops. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his home secretary, James Callaghan, had been urging reforms on the Northern Ireland government and immediately authorized the use of troops on August 14. Radical elements in the Protestant community, particularly the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force, took action against Catholics in Belfast. On the night of August 14, about ten civilians were killed, approximately 150 were injured, and hundreds of Catholic residences were burned. More troops were sent. By early September, there were six thousand British soldiers in Northern Ireland. As a result of the escalating violence, some of it at the hands of unionist forces, the use of the British army seemed necessary to return peace to the six counties.


Initially, the Catholic community in Northern Ireland was relieved at the intervention of British troops. From the minority’s viewpoint, the British army was the protector that could stand between them and the radical Protestant unionists. In a short time, however, the position of the British army became controversial. Even the Protestant unionist majority in the six counties became alienated by the intervention of the government of the United Kingdom.

The presence of the British army gave renewed impetus to the Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army , which had originated during the struggle against British rule during and after World War I. The IRA’s activities had led the government of the Irish Republic to ban the organization, and in Northern Ireland the IRA had been defeated during the late 1950’s. Events in the late 1960’s gave the IRA renewed life. They also caused a split in that organization. The official IRA remained committed to a socialist vision of a united Ireland, believing that it might be attained through peaceful political means. The provisional IRA argued that Irish unity was more important than any particular economic system and was willing to resort to force to achieve its aims. British forces in Ireland reawakened the IRA: The old enemy was back again.

Acts of violence multiplied in 1970 and 1971. The inability of the British army and the Northern Ireland government to control the violence led to an escalation by elements in both communities. Even though Wilson’s British government had taken over the security system in Northern Ireland, there were 213 shootings in 1970 and 1,756 in 1971. A Ministry of Community Relations was established, property qualifications for local government voting were abolished, and proportional representation was instituted. Public housing allocations were taken out of the hands of local government. In 1971, Chichester-Clark was replaced as Northern Ireland’s prime minister by Brian Faulkner Faulkner, Brian , a Protestant unionist who included a Catholic in his cabinet, the first in Northern Ireland’s history. Education was still largely segregated, but this resulted as much from desires of the Catholic community as from Protestants’ wishes. By 1971, much of the segregation previously practiced in the six provinces had ended, but there was no peace. Faulkner banned demonstrations and urged the internment of suspected terrorists.

In an anti-internment march in Londonderry on January 30, 1972, thirteen civilians were killed by British soldiers. Finally, in March, 1972, the Conservative British government of Edward Heath took direct control in Northern Ireland, thus ending the home rule which had been established in 1921. The violence continued. In 1972 alone, there were 474 deaths. The British government attempted to work out a power-sharing arrangement between the two communities in Northern Ireland and to recognize that there was an all-Irish dimension to the continuing problems of the six counties. A strike by Protestant workers in 1974 ended hopes for a permanent peaceful settlement.

Sending troops to Northern Ireland in 1969 to restore order, however necessary in the short run, was in retrospect no solution to the troubles. The British were seemingly trapped, alienated from the Catholic and nationalist minority as well as from many in the majority community who resented their loss of power as the result of the British takeover. If some overt discrimination had ceased because of the greater British involvement, it did not solve the questions of how or by whom the six counties should be governed. Many believed that the presence of British troops contributed to the troubles in the six counties, while others argued that if the British troops were withdrawn, a civil war between the opposing communities in Northern Ireland would be inevitable. The search for compromise, for a middle way in the historical conundrum—between Catholic and Protestant and between nationalist and unionist—would continue for another three decades. Civil unrest;Northern Ireland
Christianity;Catholic-Protestant violence[Catholic Protestant violence]
Northern Irish riots (1969)

Further Reading

  • Bruce, Steve. God Save Ulster: The Religion and Politics of Paisleyism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. This study of Ian Paisley attributes Paisley’s success and influence to his apt expression of the deepest beliefs and fears of the Protestant unionist majority. Includes a bibliography and index.
  • Buckland, Patrick. A History of Northern Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1981. The author is one of the leading historians of Northern Ireland. This brief work is an excellent introduction to the history of the six provinces. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Callaghan, James. A House Divided. London: Collins, 1973. The author was British home secretary at the time troops were sent to Northern Ireland. His personal account, as one who had the responsibility of assuming control, is enlightening. Appendixes and index, no bibliography.
  • Farrington, Christopher. Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Argues that Ulster unionism is the key to understanding Irish politics, and that this fact has yet to be properly understood. Looks at the Irish peace process from this perspective. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Hull, Roger H. The Irish Triangle: Conflict in Northern Ireland. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. The author discusses a number of topics, including that of human rights, from the perspectives of Belfast, Dublin, and London and from the Protestant Unionist, Catholic nationalist, and British government’s points of view. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Keogh, Dermot, with Andrew McCarthy. Twentieth-Century Ireland: Revolution and State Building. Rev. ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005. Analysis of the destructive and constructive forces behind twentieth century Irish history. Revised to take into account the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Bibliographic references and index.
  • White, Barry. John Hume: Statesman of the Troubles. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Blackstaff Press, 1984. This is a sympathetic biography of the most important of the Irish civil rights leaders of the 1960’s and after. A moderate, Hume was opposed to the IRA. Bibliography and index are included.
  • Wilson, Harold. A Personal Record: The Labour Government, 1964-1970. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Wilson was the British prime minister who sent troops into Northern Ireland in August, 1969. In this memoir, he claims that the British government was correct in making that decision but admits that it was a gamble. From his perspective, the gamble succeeded. Includes photographs, cartoons, and an index but no bibliography.

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