Dark Days in Northern Ireland
In the following decades, the Troubles remained a source of pain and dismay for rational people throughout the world. The cycle of killing, retaliation, and counterkilling continued despite all attempts to stop it. Britain discovered that it could patrol the streets and throw thousands in jail, but as long as there was an angry young Catholic with a gun or a bomb, the violence would continue. The Catholic minority learned that they could talk to the politicians all they wanted, but as long as the Protestant working class wanted to maintain its position of superiority, the intimidation would continue. A shadow had fallen over Northern Ireland.
The Hunger Strikes
One of the more notorious episodes of the Troubles was the so-called Dirty Protest of IRA prisoners. The IRA prisoners wanted to be treated like prisoners of war, which would allow them to wear their own clothes, but the British insisted that they were common criminals. To protest, the prisoners refused to wear prison clothes or to clean their cells. For months, they huddled under blankets, wallowing in filth. International journalists called their conditions appalling, but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replied that if they chose to live in squalor, that was their problem.
In 1981, after it became clear that the dirty tactics wouldn't work, the prisoners adopted a more extreme approach. Bobby Sands, a charismatic twenty-seven-year-old prisoner, announced that he would not eat until he received prisoner-of-war status. Every ten days, a fellow prisoner joined him on the hunger strike. The British thought he was bluffing; Prime Minister Thatcher refused to give in to the moral blackmail tactics. The IRA's Gerry Adams pleaded with Sands to call off the strike, as did the Catholic bishop of Derry. While Sands wasted away, he won an election for Parliament as a Sinn Féin candidate.
But he never took his seat in Westminster. After sixty-six days without food, Bobby Sands, MP (member of Parliament), died. Riots struck throughout Belfast, and 100,000 people attended his funeral procession. In the following months, nine more hunger strikers died. Finally, the prisoners called off the strike — they had decided not to lose any more lives in a futile gesture. Three days later, Britain granted the IRA prisoners most of their demands.
The Flow of Guns
One factor that kept the Troubles going for so long was the abundance of weapons available to the IRA. One major source of weapons was the United States. Thousands of Irish-Americans, infuriated by what they saw as the continuing English oppression of the Irish people, gave the IRA money to buy weapons.
One of the largest shipments of weapons came from an unlikely source — Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi. In an attempt to destabilize the United Kingdom through terrorism, he sent the IRA four shipments of machine guns, ammunition, and explosives — hundreds of tons of weapons in all.
The supply of weapons almost certainly prolonged the conflict. The IRA maintained that it could defeat England on military grounds by making its presence in Northern Ireland so costly that it would have to pull out. The abundance of weapons made this strategy seem possible — as long as the IRA didn't run out of guns and bombs, it thought it could continue the campaign for as long as it took.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement
There was a glimmer of hope in 1985, when the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland tried to break through the deadlock of violence by clearing up their own interests in Northern Ireland. Prime Minister Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald, the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which stated that “any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland.” It was a historic statement, making clear that Ulster's fate would be determined by democratic processes within Ulster, and only by those processes. The agreement also established an intergovernmental conference that gave the Republic an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
While the Anglo-Irish Agreement laid the grounds for peace as far as England and the Republic were concerned, it was not well received in Northern Ireland. Unionist MPs resigned in protest, and Unionist workers called a province-wide strike. The IRA wasn't impressed either; later that year, it issued a threat of violence against all civilians, Catholic or Protestant, who worked with the RUC. The following year, a massive IRA bomb killed eleven people at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen. Peace was not at hand.
Why were the Troubles so hard to end?
There are many answers: the ready supply of weapons; the centuries-long history of the conflict; the stubborn unwillingness of hard-liners on either side to compromise. But perhaps the toughest problem was the culture of brutality the Troubles created — as long as people could cheer when a bomb went off, the Troubles could not end.