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The Start of the Troubles and Real Politics

Five years ago, the Journal of British Studies published my article “Against Ethnicity.” As the title suggests, that intervention questioned whether the start of the Troubles should continue to be framed in ethnic terms. The academic consensus at the time was that – to quote Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction – “divisions dating from the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the plantations and religious wars of the seventeenth century persisted through Enlightenment, revolution, famine, Industrial Revolution, and mass democratic politics.” I argued for a reorientation towards the political, the short time frame, and the contingent.

A black and white photograph shows a bridge with a few scattered cards crossing. The cars are older models from the 50s and 60s. Barbed wire barricades loom ominously in the foreground.
Army observation post, Bridge End, Belfast, 27 September 1969. Public Record Office of Northern Ireland Reference: INF/7/A/7/15.

Before the 2010s, comparative research about civil-war onset was focused on finding a master structural variable, such as low GDP or ethnic diversity. Nothing in politics, however, is predetermined. And civil wars are, fundamentally, political processes. In this post, I want to refine the case “Against Ethnicity” made for modern democracy being central to both the overarching conflict and the turn to violence. Answering Aidan Beatty’s first question (what is my school of thought?) should make it clearer what I mean. My school is (loosely) Cambridge realism.

“To think politically,” writes the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss, “is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.” Politics is primarily about action and the changing contexts of action. Attempts at coordinating individuals to take collective action are always fraught and contested. The “‘first’ political question,” to quote another Cambridge philosopher, Bernard Williams, is thus how to bring about relative peace and order in a context in which might no longer makes right. Individuals have to be given reasons to act in certain ways and not in others. They also want to give accounts of their behavior to themselves and to the world.

The forms of legitimation available in a particular polity are historically specific. Sometimes, though, conceptual innovations can be used by political actors to imagine a future very different from their present situation. Forms of legitimation are not simply reflections of something else, such as class or ethnicity. That said, they are located inside the political fray, so they cannot be studied completely in the abstract. While forms of legitimation can be weapons in political combat, they constrain the actors who wield them. Indeed, in some cases, embracing a form of legitimation can lead people to see a feature of their everyday lives as universal, necessary, and natural when it is local, contingent, and a product of the exercise of power.

Across the twentieth century, modern democracy has become the form of legitimation. How this happened, the political theorist Karuna Mantena writes, “has never been contained by a single origin story.” Its history is discontinuous, involving appropriations, inventions, and retrojections. While democracy holds out the promise of peace and order, Mantena argues it has also generated conflicts that threaten those very things. She singles out three dynamics: the making and unmaking of states, elections, and everyday practices of democracy. Although Mantena’s scholarship is focused on India, Northern Ireland – likewise a creation of partition – offers another place to study these processes at work.

From the Home Rule crisis to the Brexit crisis, Anglo-Irish history has been marked by conflicts over two questions at the heart of modern democracy in action: Who are the people with the right to self-rule? How is that rule to be given a constitutional form? Competitive elections are the means modern democratic states use for settling disputes over these and other questions. What counts is not rationality nor morality, but what gets counted: the votes. Elections, though, are always moments of conflict that can construct deep divisions where only minor differences existed before. Parties and other political organizations build voting coalitions; they also drive factionalization and polarization. When elections seem incapable of delivering change or appear unfair, one or more organizations may seek to assert their vision of democracy through a direct act in the name of “the people.” Republican paramilitaries did this throughout the Troubles. Loyalist groups did it on occasion, too, notably during the liberal Unionist era at the end of the 1960s. The actions of these militant organizations were key links in the intricate chain of cause and effect that turned the conflict violent. Political organizations went to war over who ruled and by what right; ethnic communities did not clash over questions of identity.

Exploring modern democracy from the global south, Mantena sees something my article overlooked. She highlights how statistics shaped the “democratic social imaginary.” Colonial censuses gave political actors a way of gauging the size of the constituency they claimed to represent, locating it in space, and assessing its relative strength. For Mantena, it was the dilemmas of democracy, not the problems of sectarian nationalisms, which led to partition, war, and violent transfers of populations during the decolonization of South Asia. After the introduction of universal suffrage in 1950, India experienced what the anthropologist Lucia Michelutti terms “the vernacularization of democracy.” The values and practices of modern democracy became grounded in everyday life, a process that encouraged biases for egalitarianism and against authority. In turn, these biases made majoritarianism and populism ever-present dangers.

These two arguments have enabled me to rework the analysis offered in “Against Ethnicity” of the loyalist John McKeague’s testimony to the inquiry into the 1969 civil disturbances. Asked by the tribunal’s lawyers to account for his actions, McKeague answered in a vernacular language of democracy. His majoritarianism equated democracy with the power of numbers. “The majority,” asserted McKeague, “always rules.” He thus situated himself as part of “the majority” that “rules in Northern Ireland.” Although the Shankill – a Belfast neighborhood whose residents were mostly working-class and Protestant – had elected representatives to speak for it, McKeague insisted this elite body was not looking after the area. So, he had stepped up to lead “the people.” His Shankill Defence Association (SDA) was truly democratic, with elected officers and regular public meetings. McKeague again appealed to the democratic logic of numbers: the SDA had around 2,000 members.

But McKeague’s claim to have represented the people of the Shankill at the start of the Troubles did not go unchallenged at the inquiry. The tribunal’s lawyers turned the democratic logic of numbers against him. As few as 200 people met to set up the SDA out of a local population of close to 45,000. When McKeague was a candidate in the 1969 Belfast city elections, he received just 467 votes. The lawyers thus characterized McKeague as an outsider. He had come to the Shankill after failing to win support elsewhere, had been pushed out of other groups, and had ended up heading an organization shunned by the vast majority in the area.

McKeague was a militant majoritarian, who often found himself in a minority of one. He was other things, too. Civil war, even more than other types of conflicts, leads to the privatization of politics and the politicization of private life. McKeague exploited his position within loyalism to sexually abuse teenage boys and to sadistically torture political targets. British intelligence allegedly exploited its knowledge of these crimes to turn him into an informer. McKeague’s life – which loyalist rivals as well as Republican enemies tried to end – shows how the Troubles was in fact multiple dynamic and intersecting struggles arrayed around a central conflict: that of rival visions of modern democracy.

As a political historian, from a generation after the Troubles, who is interested in how conflicts turn violent, I have privileged contingency and the short time span in my work. Nonetheless, I can understand why “Against Ethnicity” was received as a provocation by those scholars who lived in the shadow of the gunman and were attracted to continuity and the long view. I hope this roundtable series can help us to understand both each other and our shared subject better. For non-specialist readers, I hope that reflecting on the Troubles illuminates the divisive character of modern democracy.


Dr. Simon Prince is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University. Prior to his appointment at CCCU, Dr. Prince was a Visiting Lecturer at King’s College London, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, and a Junior Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

Dr. Prince earned all his degrees at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge. Prince has authored several peer-reviewed publications, mainly on the start of the Troubles, conflict, and political violence.


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