Sinn Fein followed a policy of 'Abstentionism' in the north, though it mustered a measly 155,000 votes in the 1955 election. The poor electoral showing of Sinn Fein was interpreted however as sufficient evidence to justify the resumption of violence which ran from 1956-1962. The IRA relied on the 1920s 'flying squad' tactics (attacks on customs posts), which were notable during this renewed period for their lack of success. The Irish government responded by resuming internment for IRA members. By the early 1960s the IRA looked to be burning out, but was salvaged by two key developments.

The IRA received a new leadership in 1962 centred on Cathal Goulding and Roy Johnstone, who looked to give the movement a new appeal to working-class sympathies of the North in particular. They also wanted to bring an end to Abstentionism, and taking a distinctive left-wing turn began to follow Socialist and Marxist ideas. This ideological change of direction provoked a split in the IRA, which in 1969 formed into the official wing and the Provisional Council ('Provos').

A further stimulus to the operations of the IRA was the onset of the Catholic Civil Rights movement that spread from the United States, reaching Ireland by the 1960s. The Catholic Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s played a significant part in the demise of Unionist control and the introduction of British troops onto the streets of Northern Ireland. The Unionists had ruled Northern Ireland for more than 50 years, even though the discrimination and prejudice Catholics faced in Northern Ireland were well known by this time. In 1965 Paul Rose began the 'Campaign for Democracy' in Ulster and affiliated the movement to the National Council for Civil Liberties. From this developed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which demanded the same levels of social justice in the Province as were found in mainland British society. It catalogued discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment and demanded equal voting rights for all in local government elections. Unionists regarded the civil rights movement with deep suspicion believing that it was a pretext for the Catholics' real objective: the unification of Ireland.

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