Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2753

The roots of armed struggle in Northern Ireland

This article is over 2 years, 11 months old
​​​​​​​Repression led to uprising and armed struggle, explains Simon Basketter
Issue 2753
Memorial mural in Derry commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday
Memorial mural in Derry commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday (Pic: Jimmy Harris/Flickr)

Operation Banner—An Analysis Of Military Operations In Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007 was co-written by General Mike Jackson. He was second in command of the Parachute Regiment when they shot dead 14 unarmed people in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

According to his and other official histories, the conflict in Northern Ireland was about two warring tribes, Catholics and Protestants, who for their own safety had to be separated.

In truth the British state colluded, encouraged and ordered attacks and atrocities by its soldiers. Military intelligence recruited, trained and armed Loyalist murder gangs in Northern Ireland, ordering them to carry out a series of assassinations.

The Labour government sent troops onto the streets in 1969 to prop up a Unionist government. It ran Northern Ireland as a sectarian, one-party state but was facing mass resistance.

In July 1970 the British imposed a curfew on the Lower Falls Catholic area of Belfast.

How sectarian divides helped Britain rule in Northern Ireland
How sectarian divides helped Britain rule in Northern Ireland
  Read More

They sealed the area off, saturated it with gas and shot four unarmed civilians dead.

It was February 1971 before the Republicans of the IRA killed their first British soldier.

In August 1971 the army swooped into Catholic areas at dawn, dragging off 346 men to be interned without trial, often for years. Nine people were shot dead as rioting spread in response.

By now the IRA was recruiting widely.

A month before Bloody Sunday General Harry Tuzo, the army commander in Northern Ireland, told the then Tory government, “A choice had to be made between accepting areas where the army was unable to go or to mount a major operation which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians.” As the repression intensified and armed resistance replaced mass struggle, the IRA’s influence grew.

British policy was to use force to contain the conflict. In 1975 the Labour government was embarrassed by international criticism of the number of political prisoners—then 3,000—in jail. In a typical Labour Party move, Northern Ireland secretary Merlyn Rees abolished political status, and they became just prisoners.


Prisoners protested for years in the jails and a mass movement grew in support.

Prisoners were prepared to starve themselves to death for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

The hunger strikes won massive support in Ireland, north and south, and around the world.

In 1981 a hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. A month later, he died.

Sands was the first of ten hunger strikers the British government allowed to die. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral and there were major strikes north and south on the day.

That mass mobilisation forced a rethink from the Republicans.

Talk of imminent victory had been dropped, and a “long war” strategy adopted.

Nationalist movements look to both bosses and workers because loyalty to the nation trumps any class interests. So an increase in republican use of socialist language went hand in hand with fundraising from right wing US politicians.

The grassroots were promised an “Armalite and ballot box” strategy. It led to a political campaign of “bombing to the negotiating table.”

It rested on an ability to carry off repeated “spectaculars” that shook the establishment while building up electoral support.

Meanwhile by the mid-1990s, the British state hoped to reach a compromise with the Republicans that would make sectarianism in Northern Ireland more manageable for Britain.

The British security forces recognised they could not defeat the IRA by military means. The IRA’s leadership recognised it could not defeat Britain.

It took mass demonstrations north and south to force the issue beyond a stalemate, but a peace deal was reached.

The final column will look at the nature of the Irish peace process and its consequences for today.

This is the third in a series of articles on the partition of Ireland. Read our full coverage at

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance