The Troubles: Northern Ireland, 1968-1998

3 mins read

Patrick Mercer recaps the protracted guerrilla war that tore Northern Ireland apart.

RPG in use by PIRA fighter.

The wounds are still raw. It was a bitter conflict, it left many grieving, and it remains well within living memory. But that does not mean that military historians should not study it and attempt to understand it.

The war – in the sense of an armed conflict between the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the British security forces (the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary) – escalated dramatically after Bloody Sunday, when 1 Para killed 14 Catholic demonstrators in Derry.

That day, they also killed the Civil Rights Movement, as hundreds of young Catholics gave up on marching, joined the IRA, and took up the gun. That surge of recruits – of young men rooted in working-class communities like Derry’s Bogside and Belfast’s Falls Road – created an insurgency that the British security forces were unable to defeat in more than a quarter of a century.

It was a highly asymmetrical war. Though numbers fluctuated over the years, the Provos usually numbered only a few hundred active Volunteers, whereas the security forces, Army soldiers and RUC police combined, might be 35,000 strong.

The RUC call for information on suspected PIRA members.

But the Provos were rooted in their communities, and though many ordinary Catholics disapproved of the violence, especially when civilians were targeted, few would countenance giving information about ‘their boys’ to the Brits.

So the Provos could lay an ambush, strike suddenly, and then disappear back into the security of the Catholic estates. So it ground on, with ups and downs, Provo coups, Army coups, a steady trickle of casualties, averaging around five a day for the 30 years the conflict lasted.

Volunteers were taught to attack on a small scale but frequently, not risking themselves or their vital weapons, but pricking the Security Forces like pins wherever an opportunity was seen.

Off-duty police, Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers, prison officers, civil servants – anyone who was part of the British ‘war machine’ – was vulnerable to an under-car booby trap or close-quarter assassination.

Similarly, patrols and helicopters were sniped at, which made the ‘hard’ areas difficult to control. Indeed, certain parts of Ulster gained a ferocious reputation: Crossmaglen, on the South Armagh border, for instance, became known as ‘the graveyard of the British Army’, and it was seen as too dangerous to patrol the area in vehicles due to landmine attacks.

In these rural areas, troops could move only by air or on foot and were not allowed to use tracks or roads. So patrols were heavily laden with ammunition, weapons, and food, and they lumbered over blackthorn hedges as even gateways were seen to be potentially lethal.

But from a high of nearly 500 people dying violently in 1972, the casualty level hovered around 100 annually as the style of the campaign changed – until the extraordinary events of 27 August 1979.


On that day, 18 soldiers died in two linked landmine attacks at Warrenpoint near Newry and Lord Louis Mountbatten was blown to pieces along with several others whilst holidaying in Donegal.

The authorities refused to admit that PIRA had killed a member of the Royal Family and a record number of soldiers in sophisticated, coordinated attacks some hundred miles apart – but they had.

This was a serious challenge for the newly elected Margaret Thatcher. It probably hardened her attitude when having to deal with the complex problem of the Hunger Strikers in the following years.

In protest at the British authorities’ denial of combatant status to PIRA prisoners, the Strikers repeated the tactic of self-starvation that had been successful employed by the IRA in the 1920s. Now, ten men, led by Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death – and due to uncontrollable rioting in Catholic areas, Northern Ireland became temporarily ungovernable.

Large numbers of troops were needed to quell these riots, yet the Government’s policy of military deployment during the day-to-day conduct of the campaign is hard to understand. An Army that prided itself on being flexible and manoeuvrable, whose tactical doctrine demanded fast response and quick regrouping to meet the Soviet threat, tied itself to positional defence in Northern Ireland.

 Fortified, but immobile. Troops at a sandbagged vantage point in Belfast, July 1970.  Image: Shutterstock

Police stations were sandbagged, armoured, and guarded by soldiers, whilst similar ‘security force bases’ (usually using warehouses, mills, bus stations, etc) sprang up in towns and villages, and these also had to be protected around the clock.

Instead of living in the field, remaining mobile, and making itself unpredictable, the Army never moved its posts. Patrols and aircraft operated from these minor fortresses in a wholly predictable way – it was impossible to do anything else. This allowed an enemy who could watch, record, and analyse at his leisure to work out who was going to be where, when, and in what strength.

Armed with these deductions, coupled with the fact that troops in rural areas would use roads only for snap vehicle checks, PIRA could choose to avoid or strike at patrols and bases with relative impunity.

In the end, the attritional stalemate brought both sides to the negotiating table, and the Troubles ended not with a military victory, but with the power-sharing arrangement of the Good Friday Agreement.

War is a continuation of politics by other means, Clausewitz taught us. Only sometimes, it turns out, politics trumps war when the war is unwinnable.

This is an extract from a 13-page special feature on The Troubles, published in the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters.

To read the full analysis, get a copy of the issue from your local Barnes & Noble or W H Smith, or click here to subscribe to the magazine and have it sent straight to your door every month.

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