O'Neill, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at the time (1963-69) had been campaigning for greater liberties for the Catholic minorities in the Province but met with little success, his aspirations undermined by the events of the Derry Civil Rights March (1968). The march was forcefully dispersed by the RUC while being watched by a number of Labour MPs. O'Neil was ordered by the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, he must maintain the peace in the Province - which he failed to do as violence erupted in Derry and Belfast in 1969. The use of force to break up civil rights marches drew international attention to the problems within Northern Ireland. It also gave rise to renewed hostility in the Nationalist community towards the RUC and Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom.
The British government was now convinced that if law and order could not be maintained by the Stormont government, it would have to come directly from Westminster. After further violence and deaths, British troops entered the Province in August 1969.
The response of the Labour Prime Minister to the deterioration of events in Northern Ireland reveals the continued British mishandling and mental detachment from Irish affairs even at this late stage. Wilson wrongly presumed that Westminster was better equipped to cope with maintaining the peace than the Stormont government (which it undeniably was not). Further by implying the Province's politicians were unable to cope with the situation he discredited them. Finally, Wilson gave the IRA ammunition to portray the turn of events as another example of the British government's efforts to obstruct Irish nationalism.
A new political party representing the Catholic minority of Northern Ireland was formed in 1970 - the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party). The new Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, hope to use the new party as a 'political safety valve' by appointing four of its members to the Cabinet. However politics was quickly overtaken by the pace of sectarian violence on the streets. The IRA killed its first British soldier of the 'Troubles' in 1971. Another 171 people were killed in sectarian violence that year, with a further 400 losing their lives in 1972. The bitter cycle of sectarian violence, murder and assassination was, at first, played out between the IRA on the Nationalist side and the UDF on the Loyalist. However, as the IRA would be joined by the extremist INLA (Irish National Liberation Army), the UDF had soon precipitated the emergence of the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) into the terrorist struggle.
In August 1971 Prime Minister Brian Faulkner declared he was initiating internment without trial for those arrested for involvement in violence. Between March and August 1971 sectarian street battles were a daily experience, and as the marching season approached a number of IRA bombs were planted and detonated in the city centre. The army declared a curfew on the Catholic Falls Road, but policing seemed to have no effect on the IRA's activities. Internment was a tactic that had proved successful during the 1950s but in 1971 it was a major political blunder as most of the IRA leadership escaped army raids. Subsequent allegations of torture by the RUC led to an increase in IRA recruitment and widespread sympathy for and monetary donations to the organisation.
Maudling, the Conservative Home Secretary during these years spawned the concept of 'acceptable levels of violence' in dealing with Northern Ireland. On leaving Belfast he is reputed to have said 'what a bloody awful place'. Violence during the early 1970s was second nature in parts of Northern Ireland. The 'McGurk's Bar Bomb' (1971) killed 15 Catholics, which was followed by 'Bloody Sunday' (January, 1972), a Civil Rights march in defiance of a government ban in which British troops killed 13 people, provoking the IRA to bomb the Parachute Regiment's barracks in Aldershot (1972). The new British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, was determined to resort to stronger actions and the government passed the Northern Ireland Act (1972) which suspended government from Stormont for one year at first. The effect of this move was to bring an end to the era of Stormont and initiate a period of direct British rule, with William Whitelaw taking control of the Province. Direct rule had never been intended as a settlement measure, rather a means to an end - the end of the Troubles.
Negotiations at Darlington, County Durham in 1972 and Sunningdale during 1973 followed after a plebiscite revealed 57.4% of the population of Northern Ireland favoured remaining within the Union. The violence continued even during the talks. The government had created a special category of prisoners in 1972
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