For 30 years, Northern Ireland was scarred by a period of deadly sectarian violence known as “the Troubles.” This explosive era was fraught with car bombings, riots and revenge killings that ran from the late 1960s through the late 1990s. The Troubles were seeded by centuries of conflict between predominantly Catholic Ireland and predominantly Protestant England. Tensions flared into violence in the late 1960s, leaving some 3,600 people dead and more than 30,000 injured.
The origins of the Troubles date back to centuries of warfare in which the predominantly Catholic people of Ireland attempted to break free of British (overwhelmingly Protestant) rule. In 1921, the Irish successfully fought for independence and Ireland was partitioned into two countries: the Irish Free State, which was almost entirely Catholic, and the smaller Northern Ireland, which was mostly Protestant with a Catholic minority.
While Ireland was fully independent, Northern Ireland remained under British rule, and the Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry (legally called Londonderry) complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. In time, two opposing forces coalesced in Northern Ireland largely along sectarian lines: the Catholic “nationalists” versus the Protestant “loyalists.”
One of the deadliest protests occurred on January 30, 1972, Catholic nationalists in Derry organized a march to protest the British internment policy, but the military was called in to shut it down. When protestors didn’t disperse, the troops opened fire with rubber bullets and then live rounds. Thirteen protestors were killed and 17 wounded in a tragedy known as “Bloody Sunday.”
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Northern Ireland suffered dozens of car bombings and sectarian attacks perpetrated by paramilitary groups on both sides like the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Hundreds of civilians were among the dead.
The Troubles came to an end, at least officially, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which created a framework for political power-sharing and an end to decades of violence.