How "the Troubles" Really Ended

Monday, April 13, 2009
Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

The stubborn insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq have sparked searches for successful counterinsurgency tactics from around the world. Are there universal lessons of counterinsurgency that can be applied anywhere? Can particular techniques be applied selectively to combating irregular warfare, such as resettling the local population out of reach of the guerrillas, securing porous borders, gathering intelligence, and meeting people’s basic needs?

The post–World War II operational environment witnessed a profusion of low-intensity conflicts as weaker forces—anticolonial nationalists, communist insurgents, or terrorist bands—took on their much more powerful adversaries around the world. Many countries underwent these less-thanconventional wars. But Britain weathered several of these asymmetrical campaigns in its colonies, and its counterinsurgency practices have received adulation from American students, particularly with respect to their methods in Malaya in the 1950s.

General Gerald Templer, the architect of the political policies that led to victory in Malaya, famously stated that "the answer [to the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people." Possibly no single catchphrase did more to epitomize the orientation of the military forces toward their adversaries and, more important, the population "sea" in which the guerrilla "fish" must swim, as Mao Zedong so memorably put it. In short, the population must be won over to the government side against the insurgents or the military effort will fail.

In Malaya, Templer set about initiating many of the tactics that have since served as a model for counterinsurgency. The so-called Malayan Emergency, for example, witnessed the resettlement of ethnic Chinese away from jungles and outside the reach of the Chinese-dominated guerrilla forces. It also saw a direct appeal to all non-Malays, who represented a pool of recruits for the communist insurgents, by granting them citizenship to dry up their grievances against their adopted homeland. British troops and their Malay auxiliaries were generally restrained in the use of their firepower so as not to recruit for the guerrillas by killing innocents.

The techniques of the British army in Northern Ireland have also been lavishly praised, especially its small-unit patrolling and intelligence capabilities. But let us look beneath the plaudits for the British army to examine what changes took place within the society itself. Only then can we have a deep understanding of Britain’s much-proclaimed effectiveness in attaining peace and stability in Northern Ireland.


In 1920, the British government finally succumbed to a long campaign of Irish public sentiment—and sporadic violence—in favor of home rule. The Government of Ireland Act provided for two separate and partially self-governing entities: the six counties of Northern Ireland or Ulster (predominantly Protestant) and the Irish Free State in the south (largely Catholic).

The circumstances of Northern Ireland’s formation dictated its turbulent, sectarian history. The Catholic minority in Ulster refused to recognize the Belfast Parliament; likewise the Irish Free State would not recognize the partition. Violence continued to erupt along the porous border. The southern counties eventually achieved full independence as the Republic of Ireland, but Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland continued to resent British rule and economic and political discrimination. In 1968, Catholic civil rights protests led to violent conflicts with Protestants, beginning the period known as "the Troubles." British troops were eventually called in to contain the violence, but the security situation continued to deteriorate rapidly from 1969 to 1972, as the Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) and various Protestant militant groups waged savage violence against each other and civilians on both sides. The IRA also actively targeted British security personnel. British troop levels continued to rise in an effort to restore order, and in 1972 the British government disbanded the Belfast Parliament and declared a policy of direct rule over Northern Ireland from London.

The techniques of the British army in Northern Ireland have been lavishly praised, especially its small-unit patrolling and intelligence capabilities.

At the peak of the violence in 1972, London fielded 30,000 security personnel in Northern Ireland. By the time of the IRA cease-fire in 1994, troop levels had declined to nearly half that level, and by mid-2007 only some 5,000 British troops remained garrisoned in the province. By most accounts, the insurgents numbered 1,500 to 2,000 at their peak in 1972 and had shrunk to about 500 by the mid-1980s.


Much has been written about British military techniques utilized to combat bombings, snipings, and assassinations. The bulk of the assessments have stressed the change in tactics, from a heavy-handed, clumsy, rigid, militarized occupation to a deft, agile, intelligence-informed unconventional force. Known as the "soft approach," the British strategy gradually centered on nonaggressive reactions to attacks. It emphasized interaction with the locals to present a nonthreatening posture and to tease out intelligence. British officers touted this stability-by-civility course of action. Rather than the "full battle rattle" of other counterinsurgency armies, such as the U.S. military, small British foot patrols wore the soft beret, not weighty Kevlar helmets and bulky full-body armor. They patrolled on foot, not in vehicles.

The British stepped away from overt patrolling in the early stages of the insurgency to more-covert operations by the mid-1980s. Fewer troops on the streets also meant a less intrusive reminder of the British presence. When the IRA shed its battalion-size organization for a cellular structure to elude detection, it required the British to also adapt, with the four-man "brick" as the standard patrol unit. The IRA cell apparatus also necessitated greater reliance on police work and intelligence to combat the dispersed network.

Britain’s 14th Intelligence Company enlisted informers as well as inserted bugging and tracing equipment in intelligence-gathering operations. The elite Special Air Service (SAS) used to great effect wiretapping, night-vision equipment, massive surveillance of suspects, and the high-velocity bullet, rather than wide-radius explosives, to dispatch a single terrorist. The SAS’s lethal zeroing in on IRA operatives with deadly force resulted in the insurgents labeling it the "Special Assassination Squad" out of fear.

Rather than heavy retaliation for lost security forces (deaths of security personnel were three times greater than deaths of paramilitary insurgents), the British authorities precisely targeted strikes against individual insurgents, de-escalating the overall climate of violence.

Patience ranks near the top of qualities needed for counterinsurgency success, but the reduction in violence in Northern Ireland was due not just to army restraint, skill, and doggedness but also to political actions to lessen the economic and political marginalization of the Catholic minority. Restraint could make the army no enemies, but it also could make it no friends; jobs, housing, and education programs could win over the uncommitted to grudging acquiescence to continued British rule.


Catholics in Northern Ireland had long felt disadvantaged and discriminated against in jobs, housing, and education compared to the non- Catholic population. Their sense of exclusion from societal amenities fueled their support for the IRA, with a pool of recruits, a ready-made intelligence network, safe houses, and financial or human resources. By lessening Catholic alienation and anger with "hearts and minds" programs, the British authorities banked on separating the bulk of this non-Protestant population from radical members who directly enabled the insurgency.

After Britain suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1972 and began direct rule, it correctly identified the long-term solution to the Troubles as social reform, along with reducing troop levels. London directed the political process and allocation of resources to the beleaguered enclave. In the decade following direct rule, public spending drastically increased to cope with the rise in unemployment, violence, and underdevelopment. Generally the London government identified Catholics for their social-service enticements, although Protestants also benefited indirectly by the rise in prosperity and government benefits. One illustration of Britain’s spiraling outlays in the embattled province was the noteworthy growth in retirement pensions, unemployment benefits, and health care benefits, which increased fourfold from 1969 to 1978.

Restraint could make the army no enemies, but it also could make it no friends. On the other hand, jobs, housing, and education programs could win over the uncommitted to grudging acquiescence of continued British rule.

The reform of local government after the imposition of direct rule was also an essential ingredient of British strategy. In the spring of 1973 the first District Council elections were held under revised procedures, which enabled the Catholic minority parties to win more seats than under the old discriminatory system. This brought more Catholic representation to the twenty-six District Councils, which held resources and power over employment in government service jobs.

The election results led to minority views and votes. Protestant council members now had to work with Catholics and form voting coalitions in order to pass bills, allocate resources, and accomplish agendas. In short, the minority views and concerns now counted in negotiations in ways unheard of before the British reforms. Catholic politicians for the first time in decades sensed an elevation in their participation in local government and decision making. The electoral process presented a viable alternative to the bomb and the bullet.

The Provisional IRA and other murderous gangs drew their recruits from working-class Catholics, the most aggrieved cross-section of the minority. Others within the Catholic community preferred the nonviolent approach of the recognized political parties that contested elections. British civilian officials strove to drain away manpower, intelligence, and financing from the paramilitaries and tried to channel disgruntled members of the minority into political parties to resolve their grievances and attain their goals.

London’s policies constituted a delicate balancing act to alleviate Catholic animosity and alienation without incurring Protestant disaffection and backlash. In particular, the British government devoted attention and money to three major sectors in Northern Ireland society: housing, jobs, and community relations and education.

Housing. Government housing constitutes a huge portion of dwellings in Northern Ireland (in 1971, some 35 percent of the homes in Northern Ireland were publicly rented). The British government supplied funds for housing construction, but it never met the demand. The expansion of the government’s role in home building led to charges of discrimination, for many newly constructed homes went to Protestants.

Catholic politicians, for the first time in decades, sensed an elevation in their participation in local government and decision making.

At the start of the Troubles, the London government established a centralized authority, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), in place of existing bodies and the sixty-seven local authorities. A unique institution, the NIHE became the United Kingdom’s first comprehensive housing authority. In addition to government funds, it gained money from rental income and sales of homes. From its founding until 2001, it built more than 80,000 new homes, improved 350,000 more homes in the private sector, and housed more than half a million people. The sheer breadth of its activities had a substantial impact on making more homes and rentals available in Northern Ireland, thereby dramatically affecting the availability of living accommodations to Catholics and Protestants alike.

Employment. Discrimination in the workplace also caused hostile feelings in the disadvantaged Catholic minority, which was compounded by the overall worsening of Northern Ireland’s economy. Foreign competition eroded the province’s once-prosperous shipbuilding and textile industries. The labor problems contributed to the insurgency, and the beginnings of the insurgency only deepened the economic plight and worsened employment figures in a vicious downward cycle. Thus British efforts to alleviate unfairness in the workplace had also to concentrate on spurring overall economic development.

To combat employment discrimination, the British government established the Fair Employment Agency in 1976, which set up regulations pressuring employers to attain a sectarian balance. The Fair Employment Act imposed no formal quotas, but it made discrimination unacceptable and required employers to monitor the composition of their workforce. Changing the discriminatory pattern against Catholic workers was slow, but an unmistakable and steady improvement took place, especially in the public sector, where direct British rule held much more sway over hiring. Catholic employment leaped ahead, facilitated by a vast expansion of the public workforce. Unemployment, once the bane of Northern Ireland’s economy, fell steadily, to 5.7 percent by 2002.

The enlargement of the public sector and consequent expansion in employment produced a stabilizing effect for Catholics and Protestants alike. With jobs and income, the average person’s life improved, reducing the drift toward sectarian conflict.

Community relations and education. Another crucial initiative facilitating intersectarian reconciliation was in the community relations arena. Britain set out to step up contacts between Catholics and Protestants, who often lived in near-apartheid separation, to foster tolerance and cultural pluralism. It also clearly announced its policies of nurturing equal opportunity for all Northern Ireland’s citizens.

British officials, for example, instituted proposals for police accountability to the community. The central government borrowed, amplified, and instituted policies to foster social harmony. It conducted audits of government agencies for compliance with mutual tolerance measures. It appointed community relations officers for each of the province’s twenty-six local districts, promoted intercommunity contact projects, created intersectarian youth service agencies, and installed antisectarian and antidiscrimination programs within the trade unions.

Hesitantly, the British government also ventured into the educational system in Northern Ireland. In 1989, the government issued the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order, which specified “education for mutual understanding.” This tentative step soon paved the way for a more dramatic step: the inauguration of religiously integrated schools, which enrolled about equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children. By 1993, the government was operating seventeen primary and four postprimary schools with some 3,500 pupils—just 1 percent of the school-age population. Despite the tiny attendance, the government’s initiative traveled uncharted territory in the sharply sectarian landscape of Northern Ireland, where Catholic- and Protestant-dominated schools were an integral part of life.

Unemployment, once the bane of Northern Ireland’s economy, fell steadily to 5.7 percent by 2002.

Accessibility to higher education for Northern Irish teens also figured prominently in London’s pacification policies. Teenagers enrolled in university or vocational schools learned a profession or trade, which, it was hoped, would lead to gainful employment, rather than to the terrorist cells.


Defeating terrorism depended on the Republic of Ireland’s cooperation in cross-border security and extradition of suspected gunmen, meaning that British goals in Northern Ireland hinged disproportionately on productive relations with the Republic. As a consequence, London had to forge cooperative relations with Dublin or watch the Republic become a permanent insurgent sanctuary.

The Republic of Ireland and Britain established a Joint Law Enforcement Commission in 1974 to sort out the disputes occasioned by suspected terrorists’ claiming political status in the Republic to escape extradition from the South. The commission’s recommendations often encountered determined opposition in Dublin and London. Surrendering sovereignty either by extraditing alleged terrorists to stand trial in Northern Ireland or by allowing the Republic of Ireland to try them in its own courts of law never gained acceptance in the respective countries. But the negotiations signaled a willingness on the part of both parties to discuss the fine points of domestic and international law and customs about terrorism and crimes committed abroad.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

The pact that brought about improved relations between London and Dublin was the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985, which provided consultative rights for the Irish government over British policy on Northern Ireland. Although it did not fundamentally alter British policies in Northern Ireland, it did secure better cross-border security arrangements for Britain—a critical factor given the mostly porous border. The agreement laid the groundwork for Anglo-Irish cooperation because it set up a channel for resolving disputes between the two capitals. This was a breakthrough of sorts, for it helped dispel the lingering animosities of bygone decades.

The political climate in Northern Ireland proved difficult to change. Although British and European funds improved the lives of Catholics and Protestants with jobs, education, housing opportunities, and political representation at the district level, and although diplomacy brought together the ancient rivals, the feelings of resentment and fear resisted amelioration. For too long, parties in Northern Ireland had drawn backers and built themselves up from the aggrieved in each community. What did change—along with the formation of new political parties—were the attitudes of the two sectarian communities toward their predicament and any resumption of violence in the province. Both Catholics and Protestants experienced a rising standard of living along with prospects for even more improvement in their lives.

These Ulster citizens also took note of the rapid and enormous economic growth in the Republic of Ireland. Not wanting to be left behind, people on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland longed for a share in the material betterment that their southern brethren enjoyed. That hope became one of the intangible drivers for a change in Northern Ireland that laid the groundwork for an end to hostilities.

Working with Dublin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a declaration in 1993 that allowed any political party to participate in elections and governing if it renounced the use of violence. This declaration paved the way for a cessation of violence.

The shaky truce that ensued helped convince populations on both sides of the divide that peace was better than three decades of killings and bombings in their midst. American involvement in the negotiations among the parties in Britain, Ireland, and Northern Ireland helped resolve their differences.

Once Bill Clinton settled into the White House, his administration turned to nurturing peace in strife-torn Northern Ireland to fulfill one of his campaign promises. Laborious negotiations—prodded along by President Clinton’s representative, former senator George Mitchell—finally bridged the multifaceted differences in the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by Britain and the Republic of Ireland and endorsed by most of the political parties in Northern Ireland on April 10, 1998. It granted Northern Ireland self-rule within the United Kingdom and established a National Assembly. It ensured greater civil liberties for the Catholic community along with a reformed judiciary and police service to safeguard those rights.

The end of murder and mayhem in Ulster’s streets has brought forth only a cold peace. Genuine reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants is still a work in progress.

The complex agreement then went before the voters in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; the results of the referenda overwhelmed expectations, with 71 percent in the North and 94 percent in the South voting yes. Elections in Northern Ireland ultimately took place for the assembly; a government was formed, and British direct rule of the province came to an end. In the decade since the agreement’s signing, occasional threats, provocations, and even bloodshed disturbed the tranquillity in Northern Ireland, but the overall stability and peace have held.

Hard-core republicanism in Northern Ireland since the late 1960s had been an urban working-class movement. This insurgent base eroded with the introduction of equality laws and welfarism, which lessened the "ghetto mentality" of working-class Catholics. Electoral politics offered a peaceful outlet for Catholic grievances and republican protest that seemed much more attractive than paramilitary violence. Thus, in the end the IRA opted for elections, seats in Parliament, and electoral gains rather than an islandwide republican agenda.


British civic action programs, political arrangements, and diplomatic initiatives were crucial in bringing about a cessation of conflict in Northern Ireland. These nonmilitary approaches made a much greater long-range contribution than the military counterinsurgency practices of the British army and its elite units.

By addressing the roots of Catholic discontent and discrimination, the British government siphoned off enough anger, enticed enough collaborators, and neutralized enough opposition that it undermined much of the minority’s support for IRA violence and led to a peaceful political resolution. The insurgency’s leadership realized it could not win if its blood-loyal rank and file began drifting away to new homes, educational opportunities, and steady jobs.

The end of sniping, bombing, and assassinations in Northern Ireland is an enormous achievement after more than thirty years of bloodshed. No one should minimize such an attainment. But also no one should exaggerate the return to total normalcy. The end of murder and mayhem in Ulster’s streets has brought forth only a cold peace. Genuine reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in the province is still a work in progress. Too much distrust and enmity remain for quick healing and are also a reminder to outsiders about the intractability of sectarian battles and the obstacles to attaining genuine reconciliation after the end of a hot and protracted conflict.

A second and perhaps more fundamental point is the uniqueness of Northern Ireland: its history, its culture, and finally its resolution of the internecine fighting. Lessons, techniques, tactics, and strategies that led to the present-day nonbelligerency cannot be applied wholesale to other insurgencies except in the broadest fashion. It would be the height of folly to apply a Northern Ireland template to insurgencies a world away. The common language and culture of counterinsurgency forces and paramilitary forces, the protagonists’ common roots in Western civilization and modernization, the small population (1.5 million residents), and the mostly cooperative assistance from the one neighboring country—the Republic of Ireland—all point to a limited case study in successful counterinsurgency.

Still, the overall picture of the prominence given by the British government in Northern Ireland to political settlements, economic incentives (homes, jobs, and education), and amicable relations leading to diplomatic breakthroughs with the adjacent Republic of Ireland offers intriguing outlines for the resolution of other insurgencies. Most telling, it points up that economic, political, social, and diplomatic factors—managed by civilian authorities—were in the final analysis the keys to stability and peace.