A Civil Rights Movement Gone Bad
The Troubles began in the late 1960s, when Catholics tried to use peaceful protest to demand equal treatment. But the Protestant population had other ideas and responded with violence. The Irish Republican Army and various Unionist paramilitary groups jumped into the fray, which quickly escalated into something resembling a local war.
The Derry March — the Troubles Begin
In the late 1960s, a population of young, educated, and unemployed Catholics looked west and saw the success of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. They created the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), intending to use peaceful protest to bring attention to discrimination in employment and housing.
One of NICRA's first efforts at peaceful protest was the Derry March of 1968, which many people consider the start of the Troubles. The protesters planned to march from Belfast to Derry, imitating Martin Luther King's 1966 march from Selma to Montgomery. The 600 marchers proceeded peacefully for four days, but when they reached Derry, a mob of Protestants attacked them with stones, nails, and crowbars. The RUC escort — which was composed primarily of Protestants — did little to protect them. Riots broke out in the Catholic Bogside neighborhood, which the RUC put down brutally.
The Derry March was an inauspicious beginning to the Unionist– Republican debate. It established an unfortunate precedent of mass violence between the sides, and it told the Catholic population that it could not trust the RUC to look after its safety. When Protestant paramilitary groups subsequently launched campaigns of arson and intimidation against them, the Catholics turned to a group that was more than willing to fight back — the IRA.
The IRA had kept calling for a united Ireland since the War of Independence, although its agitation hadn't been taken seriously for years. The outbreak of violence in Derry was exactly what its members had been looking for: an excuse to strike back at the Unionists and the police forces, which the IRA saw as the agents of British imperialism.
The IRA took on the role of police and defense force for Northern Ireland's Catholics. If someone sold drugs in a Catholic neighborhood, he could be maimed or even killed by the IRA. If Unionist paramilitaries burned down a Catholic house, the IRA would bomb a Protestant pub. A stream of guns and bombs started flowing into the neighborhoods of Belfast and Derry.
Members of the IRA weren't just out to defend Catholics — they also wanted to drive out the English. To that end, they began a campaign of terror against the RUC — and later, against British soldiers.
The Unionist paramilitaries, meanwhile, were waging their own campaign of terror. Groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commandoes used the same tactics of murder and bombing. The UDA's attacks were generally meant to intimidate activist Catholics or to retaliate for IRA killings, which were usually in retaliation for UDA murders, which were generally retaliations for earlier IRA murders … and so on.
Of the paramilitary groups, the IRA always received the lion's share of news coverage. There were two reasons for this. First, Irish descendants in other countries have tended to sympathize with the IRA cause, even while condemning its methods. The news plays to them. Second, the IRA chose the United Kingdom as its enemy, whereas the UDA targeted neighborhoods and individuals. When the British government tried to control the Troubles, it moved against the group that had targeted it — the IRA. This led to increasing coverage of the IRA's role in the conflict, and it also led many Catholics to perceive that the British government was biased against their side. This perception of British bias grew much worse after one of the most notorious events of the Troubles — Bloody Sunday.