In 2004, six years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I paid my first visit to Belfast. To have gone there as an English tourist before ‘The Troubles’ were officially ended would have been unthinkable for most people, and even after those peace documents were signed, not everybody approved of the outcome, and sporadic violence still wasn’t uncommon.
In my introduction to Northern Ireland I gave a brief explanation as to how the North got separated from the South after the 1921 Irish War of Independence; but the Government of Ireland Act may have solved one problem but it created another – and Belfast, being the North’s capital, found itself in the thick of it.
Different people have different opinions as to when The Troubles actually started because catholic discontent and protestant suspicion had been simmering for quite some time. On the one hand, the minority catholic population felt that they were being treated as second class citizens on issues such as jobs and housing (and there was little they could do about it under the prevailing voting system): Protestants, on the other hand, felt that there was a deliberate attempt by Irish Catholics to change the demographics of the province, and the Northern Ireland government was either inept or complicit in handling it. I think most people accept though, that it was during the late 1960s when things took a distinct turn for the worse, particularly around the time of the Civil Rights marches.
I’ve read numerous books, watched countless news reports and even witnessed first-hand how the conflict affected the UK mainland, but as far as Northern Ireland was concerned, only the people who were directly involved there during this tragic period of Irish history can come anywhere near close to describing what it was like to live in the province during those times. For these reasons, I don’t intend to delve too deeply into the background of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, but I will need to touch on some of the history for anything to make sense.
For anyone who would like to know more, I can highly recommend this excellent 2019 TV documentary series entitled Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History.