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The Troubles – ask most Americans what that phrase means and they will be hard pressed to answer. To most, living far across the Atlantic, on another continent, the situation in Northern Ireland was a series of reports of bombings and killings and protests and military crackdowns but not really understanding exactly why this was going on. It was, for all intents and purposes, a series of events involving people of whom we knew really very little about – except those of us who had some ancestral connection. But it didn’t affect us directly – we looked at the nightly news reports and heard about all the innocents who were caught in the middle – all the randomness, all the bodies, the anonymous streets of death. But we weren’t directly involved – didn’t run the risk of Shopping malls being bombed or assassination plots being hatched.
The conflict began in the late 1960s, and was primarily political and nationalistic, fueled by historical events. It also had an ethnic or sectarian dimension, but despite the use of the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” to refer to the two sides, it was not a religious conflict. A key issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Unionists, who were mostly Ulster Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists, who were mostly Irish Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.
The conflict began during a campaign by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to end discrimination against the Catholic/nationalist minority by the Protestant/unionist government of Northern Ireland and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The authorities attempted to suppress the protest campaign with police brutality; it was also met with violence from loyalists, who believed it was a republican front. Increasing tensions led to severe violence in August 1969 and the deployment of British troops, in what became the British Army’s longest ever operation. ‘Peace walls’ were built in some areas to keep the two communities apart. Some Catholics initially welcomed the British Army as a more neutral force than the RUC, but it soon came to be seen as hostile and biased, particularly after Bloody Sunday in 1972. Armed paramilitary organizations joined the fray, quickly becoming the most violent actors in the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 80s there were several documentaries produced by American networks to help shed some light on the issue, to inform America of the complex and deep-seated issues that made up The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Though The Troubles have been considered over since 1998, when The Belfast Agreement was signed, the stress of the decades-long violence engendered a breakdown in the previously strict sexual morality of Northern Ireland, resulting in a “confused hedonism” in respect of personal life. In Derry, illegitimate births and alcoholism increased for women and the divorce rate rose. Teenage alcoholism was also a problem, partly as a result of the drinking clubs established in both loyalist and republican areas. In many cases, there was little parental supervision of children in some of the poorer districts. The Department of Health has looked at a report written in 2007 by Mike Tomlinson of Queen’s University, which asserted that the legacy of the Troubles has played a substantial role in the current rate of suicide in Northern Ireland.
To get a small idea of what was going on, as of 1982 – here is a documentary produced by WOR-Am radio in New York, and broadcast on August 10, 1982.