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Terrorism in Northern Ireland

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3238 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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Terrorism Northern Ireland

Choose a case from the history of terrorism and study it in detail. What does this case say about causes of terrorism? Relate your answer to the relevant academic literature.

This essay is going to look at the terrorism in Northern Ireland, and what this particular case says about the causes of terrorism. There is no set academic definition for terrorism, as no one can agree. Terrorism in this essay is discussed as a form of violence used to achieve political gain, whether that be to make change happen, or to prevent it. The conflict in Northern Ireland has a complicated history.

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The Irish Republican Army has its roots back to the 1840s. Its goal is to have Ireland free from British control. It is said to take its ideology from the French Revolution. There was a guerrilla campaign by the IRA and the Irish political party Sinn Fein, which led to Ireland being sectioned off into the six areas of Northern Ireland, and the twenty six of the rest of Ireland.

The main conflict is between the Loyalists, who wish to remain part of Britain and make up two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland. They see themselves as British, and are mostly Protestant. The other side are the minority separatists, the Republicans, a group which wants to join up with the Irish mainland, and are mostly Catholic. The conflict is both political and religious. The IRA waged a civil war and two military campaigns with the goal of joining up with the rest of Ireland, but were unsuccessful.

There are two offshoots of the conflicting parties – the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). Both are paramilitary organisations which have resorted to violence. The IRA is illegal, but for a long time, the UDA was legal. The Ulster Defence Association can be seen as a reactionary group, trying to prevent change from happening. The provisional IRA formed in 1967, after the Irish Nationalists were repressed during a peaceful civil rights protest.

The Provisional IRA were involved in shootings, torture and bombings as some of their forms of violence. Some of the main terrorist attacks in England include car bombs in London in 1973; blowing up a bus on the M62, which held off-duty servicemen and their families, planting bombs in pubs in Birmingham and Guildford – leading to the loss of twenty six people between them; planting a bomb in a Brighton hotel the night before a Conservative party conference, a series of bombs aimed at economic targets in London such as Canary Wharf and a bomb in the Arndale Centre, a large shopping area in Manchester. Some targets were aimed specifically as the establishment, such as targeting parliament, but they were also unconcerned with ‘innocent’ people, by targeting areas such as Harrods, Selfridges and pubs.

Within Northern Ireland, there are examples of many bombings, shootings and assassinations. One of the main terrorist acts occurred in 1972 when twenty two bombs were set off in Belfast in one day. They also trained one-shot snipers, so they could shoot their target and leave before detection.

A major inspiring event in the history of the Northern Ireland troubles is the second Bloody Sunday. It is difficult to find unbiased accounts of the day, but it started during a civil rights protest. The British army maintain that they were shot at first, although the protestors and eye-witnesses say they were unarmed. There were also reports of an IRA sniper, and the army were given orders to open fire. Thirteen people were shot and killed, six were minors. Five people wounded were shot in the back.

The essay will now look at the possible causes that may have pushed certain groups in Northern Ireland towards using terrorism to fight their cause. One point to note is that academics can come up with theories of the causes of terrorism that may fit certain cases in the history of terrorism, but no one theory fits every case, and theories cannot be tested. It would be impossible, immoral and illegal to set up any kind of new study of terrorist, it has to be from existing cases or cases from the past. Each case brings about a different set of independent variables, so it cannot be repeated elsewhere.

Martha Crenshaw brings up a very interesting point in her journal article Causes of Terrorism. She points out that “only a few of the people who experience a given situation experience terrorism.” She also says that even when people share the same ideology, such as the Republicans, only a handful actually commit or support the Provisional IRA terrorist attacks. Crenshaw suggests that it takes certain psychological variables to actually go ahead and commit terrorism. She points out that there is usually solidarity amongst the group, and they are often isolationists.

Jeffrey Ian Ross suggests that there are three prominent categories that the causes of terrorism fall into to. The first is structural. This includes the political, such as Northern Ireland remaining under British rule; social, the way the two groups are brought up to believe in either a united Ireland, or remaining under British rule, and the Catholic – Protestant split; and economic, the poverty under which some of the Catholic minority find themselves under.

The second cause is psychological, which was discussed above. What kind of people joins the IRA as opposed to the Republicans and why? Finally, the third cause is rational. Ross describes this as, “the participation in terrorist organisations and the choice of terrorist actions as a result of the cost benefit calculators of the participants.”

One of the biggest causes is that terrorism brings attention to the supposed plight happening. Without violence, they may never have got the Irish struggle internationally recognised and discussed. “Terrorism brings attention to a cause; even it doesn’t necessarily solve anything.” It gives a reason for other players in the fight, such as the British government to want to solve the issue, so in this way, it sets the agenda. Public pressure will mount to sort the problems out if there is a high risk, and people on their doorsteps are being killed. It also seeks sympathy from other people. The IRA have got many people to speak on their behalf, such as prominent US politicians.

Some of these politicians have suggested Irish Unity should happen, as if it is an easy thing to achieve, to solve the crisis. The Soviet Union have also named the IRA in reference to ‘freedom fighters’, and said that the British involvement is militarism. They have also said that the IRA are fighting for liberation. These are all terms the IRA wish to portray themselves as, and probably never would have got agreement from other groups without using violence to bring publicity to themselves.

The more support a group has, the easier it is to get hold of funding and weapons. Rich Irish-Americans have been known to both donate, and send weapons. In the early 1970's, it was estimated that twenty million Irish people, or of Irish decent lived in America, and the richer of the Irish-Americans have been known to both donate, and send weapons.

Another possible cause that led to terrorism is that as a minority group, the Provisional IRA may feel that violence is the only way in which they will be noticed. Going through legal methods takes a lot of time, and the British government and the Loyalists combined have much more power and might than they do. Terrorism is for the weak, those who lack numbers and military power.

In the mid to late 1960s, there was a big move towards civil rights, as the nationalists were given second-class citizenship in Ireland. They wanted basic rights, such as universal suffrage in council elections, to be able to vote, an overhaul of the allocation of social housing and jobs. Their peaceful protests were met with violence, from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Union mobs and the state police.

The Loyalists believed that underneath the civil rights protest, was a protest in regards to the legitimacy of Northern Ireland. This repression caused great anger, and the want of retaliation to avenge the deaths caused. If they had been allowed to peacefully demonstrate, which was their democratic right to do so, then further events may have been avoided. This also made the nationalists gain more popularity.

This also links to retaliation against excessive force used by governments to quell protest. This may not just be physical force, but legislation that treats a certain section of society unfairly or differently from the rest. The government introduced internment without trial in Northern Ireland, which saw many Republicans jailed without a trial, angering many. The Northern Ireland government pressured Westminster to bring internment in, which Edward Heath eventually did. Rather than solve anything, it led to a huge backlash of violence, which eventually led to Westminster taking full control of law and order in Northern Ireland.

Many of the people jailed were leading civil rights protestors, rather than members of the IRA. Hundreds were imprisoned with this law. Secret courts were also set up, where Irish people were tried by their opponents. This had the effect of adding to the support being gathered for the IRA. People who were peaceful protestors before, now were for political violence. One of the first bombs on English soil happened at Aldershot at the headquarters of the parachute regiment, after their soldiers opened fire at protesters on a day known as Bloody Sunday.

The RUC was the official police force in Northern Ireland. Nationalists have accused them of being highly biased towards the Loyalists. They were very brutal towards the civil rights protestors. The British army eventually intervened. One IRA member remarked that they thought the British Army would bring peace, but they still continued to stop the protest marches, further adding to the tensions and resentments towards the British.

The greater the amount of democracy there is in a country, the greater the toleration and support there is for terrorism. Liberal democracies allow terrorism to happen. It also allows greater access to weapons and explosives, and the greater the likelihood of the counter-terrorism failing, where as in an authoritarian state, it would be quashed quickly. Civil liberties allow the freedom to express your opinion, and gives freedom to the media. This gives aid to the causes of terrorism, as it has possibly meant that less-strict action has been taken against the terrorist movements of Northern Ireland, whereas it may have been quelled much quicker in a non-democratic society.

Another cause of the terrorism aimed at the government, is that they seek to weaken the regime, and the control over the territory they are fighting over. Such examples of this is setting a bomb off at the Houses of Parliament in 1974, the murder of Airey Neave, who was the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, set to become the actual Secretary of State in the upcoming election, blowing up a coach full of army personnel and the Brighton Hotel bombing, which involved the attempted murder of Margaret Thatcher, which failed, along with members of the cabinet. It did result in the death of five people, and many injuries.

Another cause may be that the terrorists sense a weakness in the state they are fighting against, so move to use it against them, such as the IRA did against Britain post World War I, when their troops were otherwise engaged. They may also seek to have the government counter-react. This then enables the IRA to say that the charges against the regime are founded, and that the British government truly is repressive. They then gain more supporters.

The IRA believes that the British government is illegitimate; they have no right to be there, so they have the right to fight back. The IRA sees political violence as rational, a means to get a foreign occupier out of Northern Ireland. They believe that the partitioning was amoral and only achieved through the threat of Unionist violence, so they should counter it with their own forms of violence.

Derry is a city in Northern Ireland which has a Nationalist majority population. It became the focal point for the civil rights movement, due to a few factors. It had been the focal point for Bloody Sunday, the Battle of Bogside and Internment. Nationalists were also obviously discriminated against both economically and politically. This is the city where the IRA grew. It is also a city with great economic deprivation and high unemployment. This leads into another of the causes of terrorism in Northern Ireland – deprivation.

Nationalists were much discriminated against, being denied jobs and leading to economic deprivation. In 1985 Catholics comprised of just under ten percent of senior level jobs. The members of the IRA were mostly working class, where as members of the Social Democratic and Labour party, a non-violent nationalist party were mostly middle class. The members of the SDLP were more likely to have gone to university, and have a career. This shows they might not have got involved because they had more to lose than members of the working class.

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Involvement in political violence could lead to a loss of their job. The working class were also more likely to be effected by state repression and the British Army than the middle classes were. The SDLP also argued that political violence was counter productive, and unlikely to make the British leave. Members of the IRA however, often believed it would make the British give in. When the first six counties government was announced, it involved all wealthy Protestants. The overwhelming majority of the House of Commons were also Protestants. The minority Catholics had very little representation. The least amount of seats the Protestants ever held was thirty two out of fifty two seats. So Catholics were more likely to be poorer, unemployed, less educated and unrepresented.

The two groups lived, were educated, socialised and often worked separately, as well as being geographically apart. The troubles just further strengthened the differences. School were separated by religion, at both primary and secondary level. Schools had to teach biblical lessons with a protestant slant in order to receive subsidy from the government, meaning education was protestant, and discriminatory towards Catholic schools. This began to be phased out in the late 1960’s, but schools remained religiously separate.

Another cause of terrorism is individual motives. Direct effects from repression such as unemployment and discrimination will cause resentment. Other people may have lost family members in the troubles, or because of British troops. Individual causes cannot be underestimated for people turning to violence. There are other preconditioned factors such as Republicans being brought up to believe in home rule, and the tradition of a united Ireland. On the other hand, Loyalists are brought up to believe in British rule. These factors are very engrained, and hard to change.

The violence used by the Provisional IRA or the UDA could be seen as something that pulled new members in. Those that wished to make changes could be drawn to the secrecy and excitement of being involved with such a group. The violence may have made the groups stand out differently than other groups that could have joined, for those seeking revenge or change, or those trying to protect their country.

The hunger strikes by imprisoned Republicans, further aided public sympathies. The prisoners were protesting the British government not having a special status for Northern Ireland paramilitary prisoners. Ten of the strikers died in 1981. They became Martyrs to the Republicans, and many found they were able to relate to their plight. The cause became personal to many, and moved them.

The Provisional IRA did not want to seem weak, so even when they began negotiations with the British, they still continued with regular terrorist acts so they seemed strong. They continued to do this, even at the risk of alienation of public opinion.

Urbanisation has also been another aid to the cause. Most of the planning takes place in the cities, such as Derry, where the Provisional IRA would have relative anonymity. Most of the attacks have also been aimed at cities and large towns, such as London and Birmingham. Groups in other cities also network together, sharing ideas and plans.

From the other side, the Loyalists believe that if the British Army pulled out of Northern Ireland, the results could be disastrous. They see that in the absence of a stable environment, a civil war could happen. They think it may also pull the rest of Ireland in and destroy Anglo-Irish relations.

In conclusion this essay has looked at many of the possible causes of terrorism in relation to the terrorism in Northern Ireland. It included repression, the though of illegitimate power, poverty, resentment, personal motives, lack of representation, ingrained mindset, the ease of using terrorism for gain such as recognition and agenda-setting. As mentioned above, every case from terrorism brings a different set of variables that add up to lead to the causes of terrorism, that often cannot be related to other cases. Having a set of variables that are stretched to relate to many cases would probably point to a major simplification.



Arthur, P, Jeffery, K, Northern Ireland Since 1968 (Oxford, Basil Blackwell LTD, 1989)

Coogan, TP, The IRA (London, Pall Mall Press, 1970)

Crenshaw, M, Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind (Maryland, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998)

Guelke, A, Political Violence and Terror, Chapter “Loyalist and Republican Perceptions of the Northern Ireland Conflict: The UDA and Provisional IRA.” (London, University of California Press, 1986) pp. 91-92

McMlung Lee, A, Terrorism in Northern Ireland (New York, General Hall Inc, 1983)


Crenshaw, M (July 1981) Causes of Terrorism, Comparative Politics, Vol. 13, No. 4 pp. 379-399

Garrett, J, (1971-1980) Ten Years of British Troops in Northern Ireland, International Security, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 80-104

Ross, Jeffrey, (1993) Structural Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism: Towards a Causal Model, Journal of Peace Research, Vol.30, No. 3, pp. 317-329

White, Robert (May 1989) From Peaceful Protest to Guerrilla War: Micromobilization of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, No. 6, pp. 1277-1302


(2001) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1651637.stm (accessed 22nd November)

(2001) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1201738.stm (accessed 20th November)


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