This is a follow-up question to Why can't Northern Ireland just have a stay/leave referendum? As I understand the answers to that question, a key part of the problem is that a significant fraction of Northern Ireland wants to stay, just like a significant fraction of Northern Ireland wants to leave, and a subset of both sides are willing to kill the other faction to further their goals.

Why are subsets of both factions willing to use lethal force against each other? People in the other countries of the world (especially developed ones) regularly disagree with each other, often severely, often in situations where the minority is almost a majority, but they don't seem to resort to violence anywhere as often; in fact they'd likely pour scorn on any suggestion to use violence. Examples:

  1. Roughly half of Britain didn't like Brexit, but if there've been terrorist attacks by Remainers on Brexiteers (or by Brexiteers on Remainers), I've not read about them.
  2. Roughly half of Scotland voted to leave the UK, but if either side have attacked the other, I've also not heard about them.
  3. Roughly half of the US votes for the party that does not win in every presidential election, but they don't attack each other.
  4. The Irish same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 also didn't result in violence.

Point #4 implies that the Irish (and presumably Northern Irish) can disagree with each other, including over something that has deep religious undertones, without also trying to kill each other. Why doesn't the same apply to the question of staying in/leaving the UK?

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    No-one is certain both sides are willing to use lethal force, but it's a plausible scenario, given the history of such in living memory
    – Caleth
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:12
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    Bear in mind that in NI stuff that happened 100 years ago is considered recent history. If you talk to the extremists on both sides they will bring up stuff that happened centuries ago as if it were just last year. e.g en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williamite_War_in_Ireland Oct 17, 2018 at 11:15
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    There was the murder of Remainer Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right member of "Britain First", let's not forget, but other than that yes there has been a surprising lack of violence over both the Indyref and Brexit so far.
    – pjc50
    Oct 17, 2018 at 12:15
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    @pjc50 It's not as lacking as you might think independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/…
    – origimbo
    Oct 17, 2018 at 13:05
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    Why do you think various factions in the US (and presumably other countries) would not be willing to us lethal violence to achieve their ends, if they thought it would be effective? We don't have to look that far back, to the race riots and antiwar protests (and reaction to those) of the 1960s to see an example. Then there was Waco, Ruby Ridge, various violent protests up to and including Charlottesville...
    – jamesqf
    Oct 18, 2018 at 3:21

6 Answers 6


Shall we start by seeing how historical violence is viewed by some people in Northern Ireland? There's still quite a lot of murals around. Just to be absolutely clear in case the imagery isn't obvious, the men depicted there are being celebrated for their acts of illegal violence.

IRA mural UVF mural

The Troubles is rather a large subject for an answer, but essentially it started out as a protest against discrimination by the police (Royal Ulster Constabulary, almost entirely Protestant) against Catholics. The police responded with violence and things escalated. The province became effectively a police state - random checkpoints, armed troops on the streets, use of live ammunition on demonstrators and suspected criminals and so on. There were areas of Belfast that the police wouldn't go without at least two armored cars.

It is important to understand that the conflict was effectively "street level upwards", not primarily centrally driven and recruited for. Much of it more closely resembled gang warfare - gangs of young men with stones, petrol bombs and iron bars, who would cross over into an area of the opposite community and attack someone on the "other side". People joined up for safety, pride, defence of their community, and even for something to do (unemployment was extremely high at the time). Once someone you knew had been seriously injured or killed by the "other side", this became much more likely.

Again I would urge you to think of this not as "normal political difference of opinions" but as "ethnonationalist civil war" - not quite as deadly as Yugoslavia, or Syria, it never quite escalated to genocide, but the same kind of motivational structure.

It was brought to a conclusion in 1998 by the Good Friday Agreement, which concluded a ceasefire between the main warring groups and made agreements between the British and Irish governments. Among other things, Ireland formally renounced its claim to the North, and provisions were made for the "border poll" that allowed the possibility of a future peaceful transfer of NI to Ireland. It also established the NI Assembly at Stormont for peaceful devolved politics.

Almost everyone has stopped fighting. But not everyone. There are some "dissident republicans".

So what happens next?

Nothing is certain, but the risk path is as follows:

  1. UK establishes border posts of some kind
  2. Dissident republicans vandalise them, or actually blow one up
  3. Police crackdown
  4. Belief that NI is returning to a state where Catholics are second-class citizens subject to police harassment
  5. Rise in street violence between gangs
  6. Armed groups declare that since the UK is not respecting the GFA and violence has resumed, they no longer consider themselves bound by GFA.

It doesn't help that the path to peaceful resolution of issues - Stormont - is currently not functioning because the government collapsed over fraud in heating subsidies last year.

Any kind of border infrastructure will be a problem for people. The border runs across people's farms and in some cases houses. Some of the proposed border plans present huge opportunities for VAT fraud or petrol smuggling, so organised crime is likely to start up around there.

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    +1 past violence is a major part of this, and the continuing viewing of it in a positive light is also a major reason
    – user19831
    Oct 17, 2018 at 15:44
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    Any actual info supporting the OPs thesis that a significant fraction of Northern Ireland wants to stay, just like a significant fraction of Northern Ireland wants to leave, and both are willing to kill the other faction to further their goals.? Because neither the presence of fringe groups nor history does not imply that there is a significant population "willing to kill", it only makes it slightly more plausible.
    – SJuan76
    Oct 18, 2018 at 12:14
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    There are still a small number of dissident Loyalists as well.
    – Sarriesfan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 12:40
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    Consider also the fact that the authorities who could legally remove such murals, or have them painted over, choose not to do so, to avoid even more provocation than is caused by the murals themselves.
    – alephzero
    Oct 18, 2018 at 14:39
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    I think you should push your comparison with the former Yugoslavia and Syria to the top - that is the comparison. Oct 18, 2018 at 16:26

The simplest way of looking at this is that for centuries Catholics and Protestants in Ireland have suffered from a paranoid siege mentality as a result of cycles of sectarian violence. Both sides believe themselves victims of aggression by the other, and consequently feel violence by their own is defensive and justified.

Even before The Troubles both communities celebrated violence which they associated with national liberation. From Orangemen marching on the 12th of July to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, to Irish rebel music commemorating resistance and uprisings against British rule. During The Troubles both sides painted murals, often venerating organisations and individuals who fought or died for the cause.

It's also worth remembering that violence has a tendency to spiral out of control wherever it happens. Violence in The Troubles was exaggerated by just how close these communities are. In Belfast there are many "peace walls" used to divide and thus protect communities from each other. This proximity meant that violence was felt keenly and provoked frequent retaliation.

Since the Good Friday Agreement the majority of violent groups have renounced violence in principle. The PIRA went through a process of "decommissioning", where they attempted to secretly put their weapons "beyond use" (destroy them). This was witnessed by trusted members of the Protestant community and international observers (Harold Good, John de Chastelain). The problem was that it took much longer than initially planned for the PIRA to decommission their arms, and so this in turn delayed loyalist groups who were sceptical of PIRA intentions. By 2009 the PIRA, LVF, UVF, had all claimed to have got rid of their weapons.

In an effort to promote law and order, the almost entirely Protestant police force of Northern Ireland; the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was restructured and transformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This was an attempt to distance the Northern Irish state from the sectarianism of the past, and to get more Catholics to join the police.

Although there are small dissident terror groups who are still committed to violence, most notably various IRA splinters (CIRA, RIRA), rule of law is slowly returning to Northern Ireland.

One can understand Northern Ireland's violent tendencies as an expression of historic grievances, and a consequence of the breakdown of rule of law during The Troubles. However, with the Good Friday Agreement most people were willing to give peace a chance... even if it meant giving up their weapons.

Most places simply don't share much in common with Northern Ireland's unique history. The closest international example would be Spain's Basque region or Israel/Palestine. Violence in Northern Ireland evolved as a response to particular environmental circumstance, which allowed it to proliferate. Without similar conditions why would you expect to see similar outcomes?


Firstly, there is a history of violence, which is quite important here. But beyond that, none of your examples are comparable; they do not involve territorial claims predicated around strong group identities (religious in this case)

  1. Roughly half of Britain didn't like Brexit, but if there've been terrorist attacks by Remainers on Brexiteers (or by Brexiteers on Remainers), I've not read about them.

There is no territorial claim here at all

  1. Roughly half of Scotland voted to leave the UK, but if either side have attacked the other, I've also not heard about them.

Both sides identify as Scots; also the Union came about via a Scottish vote and the Union has traditionally included Scottish people at the highest levels of it's administration.

  1. Roughly half of the US votes for the party that does not win in every presidential election, but they don't attack each other.

This doesn't even begin to resemble anything territorial.

  1. The Irish (!) same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 also didn't result in violence.

Again. No territorial aspect whatsoever.

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    (2) definitely is a territorial issue, but it's not really a personal identity issue.
    – pjc50
    Oct 17, 2018 at 12:54
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    @pjc50 which is why that's the only one where I don't say it isn't territorial... I do say in the intro that "do not involve territorial claims predicated around strong group identities" which is why I mention "Both sides identify as Scots;" and "also the Union came about via a Scottish vote" to differentiate from the Ireland situation
    – user19831
    Oct 17, 2018 at 13:18
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    @Jontia I don't believe your comparison is apt. EU membership does not replace British identity, but instead it adds to it. You can identify as both British and an EU citizen, it is not one or the other like the Protestant/Catholic divide in Ireland.
    – Roy
    Oct 17, 2018 at 16:46
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    If we were in the sort of alternate realitiy that the likes of Nigel Farage claims to exist and there were EU troops on the streets of the UK "keeping the peace" and arresting anti-EU dissidents do you really think we wouldn't see violence? Claiming the UK leaving the EU is the same as Ireland gaining independance from the British Empire as Nigel Farage did on television recently is laughable and the Irish audience to that did laugh (at him, not with him).
    – Eric Nolan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 9:20
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    "if there've been terrorist attacks by Remainers on Brexiteers (or by Brexiteers on Remainers), I've not read about them" : The murder of Jo Cox (though perpetrated by only a single individual) could arguably be considered as such en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Jo_Cox though I'd consider that an outlier rather than an indication of any potential future trend, at worst expect protests akin to the French Yellow vests if Brexit somehow falls through, though perhaps not as bad.
    – Pelinore
    Dec 15, 2018 at 6:51

The conflict in Northern Ireland is often framed as one of identity and nationality. Yes those factors are important, but what's also important are factors of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

The "troubles" in Northern Ireland spawned from the reaction to Civil Rights protests which were held by the Catholic minority, who were being discriminated against by the Unionist/Protestant majority.

Whereas there is still sectarian hatred, and no doubt there is still some discrimination, things are a lot better now for Catholics in Northern Ireland. This has taken the wind out of the support for the IRA (not that they've completely disappeared).

If the referendum were to be held, I suspect it would pass (as I've explained in an answer to your other question). But if it were to fail, I do not believe there would be a violent reaction. Failure of the referendum would lead to the status quo continuing, and there is thankfully next to no violence in that status quo.

But as I said I suspect it would pass. That could lead to violence, though again I think the treat of such violence has diminished. The unionist paramilitaries were motivated by identity, by the threat of being subsumed into a massively catholic country should the IRA be successful in bringing about unification, and of course by defending themselves against the violence of the IRA. If the referendum were to pass, the first two of those motivations would be reignited, which could in turn re-ignite the third by re-igniting the IRA (though at that stage it would be the regular Irish Army they would be up against).

But I suspect most unionists are simply not that bothered by these issues anymore - they just want to get on with their lives, make money, and raise their children. And the republic of Ireland has changed a lot in the intervening years (e.g. marriage equality and abortion referenda have passed). But the question is - is there enough of that awful sectarianism still floating around that the Unionist paramilitaries would be able to re-ignite? There just might be.

  • I like the quotes you put on "troubles". Never mind the meiosis, it's a highly loaded term that just doesn't deserve the currency it has. It implies: Everything was just fine until you lot kicked up a fuss asking for equality. Carsonia, as Michael Collins called the sectarian statelet, was no paradise. And David Trimble's "cold house for Catholics" doesn't quite cut it - more like "no house".
    – tmgr
    Oct 18, 2018 at 23:03
  • Best answer here. I do think most people are ignoring the economic and institutional factors however, British vs potential Irish investment, NHS vs no national healthcare system, different education system.These aren't trivial factors for Catholics or Protestants living there
    – Icarian
    Oct 19, 2018 at 4:22

Both "sides" do not support killing and violence.

Your view of NI politics is really, really simplistic and I've explained the issues below.

Violence and killing and the actions of extremists who are, as in most cases of terrorism, a tiny, tiny minority. They make headlines, but they're not what "everyone" thinks.

just like a significant fraction of Northern Ireland wants to leave, and both are willing to kill the other faction to further their goals

Again you're confusing the (possible, but not happening) actions of extremists (a minute part of the population) with the way "both sides" actually think and behave. They argue, like anywhere else.

Since the GFA there has been relatively little civil unrest on a large scale. It's arguably no more dangerous than the rest of the UK.

Roughly half of Britain didn't like Brexit, but if there've been terrorist attacks by Remainers on Brexiteers (or by Brexiteers on Remainers), I've not read about them.

Yet. :-)

I wonder how many drunken arguments over Brexit have escalated violent assaults and gang-on-gang fights ? There are no figures I know of, but I bet there's been quite a bit of violence all over the UK.

Well I don't expect extreme violence, but it's not impossible as a later development. For now BrExit has not actually happened. No one knows the consequences (and the UK government never thought this through). There will no no social unrest, much less violence, until there are reasons to drive it. I think talk of "riots in the streets" is really rather silly. Elections, yes. Short, unhappy periods of government after government that fall one after another quickly. Economic problems, yes, for sure. But riots ? A football result can cause a riot, but probably not Brexit.

Also note that within the UK, the move to independence for Wales and Scotland was largely happening anyway. Within England, there are social divisions (rich and poor, maybe racial) but no real political divides likely to cause mass riots and terrorism.

The UK already has terrorism, BTW. It already has terrorists who "soak up" the disaffected in society and turn from them problems to disasters for everyone. All societies are like this.

Roughly half of Scotland voted to leave the UK, but if either side have attacked the other, I've also not heard about them.

Another strange view that political disagreements result in violence. Actually less than half of Scotland voted to leave the EU, like NI, but they got dragged along in the "have to leave" result.

Roughly half of the US votes for the party that does not win in every presidential election, but they don't attack each other.

As in most countries, most people are largely apathetic about political matters that are not huge and do not affect them on an everyday basis.

US elections, like so many democratic elections, are a wealthy elite fighting it out for power. It frankly has little to do with the man in the street.

The Irish (!) same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 also didn't result in violence.

I am Irish (!) and I don't know what led you to think the same-sex marriage was ever going to lead to violence. We've been happily operating a very peaceful democracy (with fewer riots than the UK) since the Irish state stabilized after the civil war (1920's).

Ireland (the Republic) is a very peaceful country.

both are willing to kill the other faction to further their goals.

This is simply incorrect.

From your other question it is clear you have a very, very over-simplistic view of the world and the people in it.

You confuse the actions of minorities with the beliefs of the majority. This is wrong.

Here's the way it was in NI during and before the Troubles :

  • The population was roughly equally split by religious social groupings.
  • Due to rigging of election boundaries, the Protestant grouping maintained an absolute political control of the province.
  • During the sixties, a time of social revolution everywhere in the Western world, protests (peaceful) broke out seeking these perceived injustices to be corrected.
  • Troops were brought from the UK to stabilize unrest, but contrary to what you may think, these were initially very welcome by the Nationalist/Catholic community. Note that the NI police service at the time was viewed as a Protestant/Unionist dominated body and seen as biased in matters of social injustice. SO UK intervention was actually welcomed at the time (by most people).
  • Like similar events in most countries, the vast majority of people just wanted to get on with their lives. They weren't politically neutral - they had opinions - but they wanted things dealt with (ideally) without the unrest.
  • The use of troops went badly and there were significant incidents where they over-reacted and created a very hostile relationship with the Nationalist/Catholic community. The troops rapidly became part of the problem and not part of the solution.
  • Extremists on both side (a tiny, tiny minority of both communities) became terrorists. This happens everywhere and is an inevitable consequence of failing to address social issues with politics (and it can happen without any mainstream issue at all).
  • Again, over-reaction by government and local policing (who were suddenly expected to be both police and army - something they were not trained for), escalated matters on both sides.
  • Extremist politicians on both sides exploited the fears of the masses on both sides, who had significant historical reasons to distrust each other anyway. It didn't take much to make the politics of NI completely them-and-us with little or no middle ground.
  • Deaths (civilian) and atrocities (on both sides) hardened a new generation who grew up in this mess into people and they became firebrands and, in a small number of cases, extremists.
  • The normal criminal activity in any society (about 1% of the population) became mixed up in the extremist groups on both sides. This made it much harder to avoid getting involved in extremism than it would otherwise have been.

The Fix...

  • The UK and Ireland both independently joined the EU.
  • Political activity developed a peace process and social pressure for change.
  • The Good Friday Agreement (a formal legal agreement between governments and social groups) led to the end of violent extremism. Hard work has kept that peace.


  • BrExit is not in and of itself a real issue for either side.
  • But power sharing (as required by the GFA) has been stalled as both sides cannot agree a way to form a government. Both the UK and Irish governments, as well as EU and US politicians, have encouraged this and tried to make power sharing restart, but it has not happened.
  • BrExit came along and a weak Conservative government took support from the DUP party in NI. But the DUP have an agenda historically attached to their largely protestant/unionist support base. They have attempted (explicitly) to use BrExit to get rid of the GFA and to harden the UK's attachment to NI. They are effectively blackmailing PM May's Government.
  • This leads back to the days before the Troubles, where one side (the same side !) had political dominance and tried to exploit it for their own benefit. That, at the minimum, is how the Nationalist/Catholic side sees it.

So this dangerous problem of exactly what political status NI has within the UK and EU is quite plausibly likely to restart the Troubles. But restarting the Troubles does not necessarily mean restarting extreme violence and terrorism. Mostly the troubles were driven (and started by) social injustice, poverty, the need for electoral reform.

So maybe more political problems, more strikes for political reasons, maybe the odd riot, stone throwing, that kind of thing. Terrorist extremism on either side is an unknown. A scary unknown, but an unknown.

The peace in NI rests on a perception of social justice which requires the GFA, the EU and both the UK and Irish governments to maintain it. It would not be perceived as "fair" by both sides without this awkward balance of influences.

  • 1
    "Yet. :-)" Jo Cox? a single individual & an outlier but still, it might be argued it's not been entirely absent.
    – Pelinore
    Dec 15, 2018 at 7:09

The (violence that you are referring to, that doesn't really exist at present, is a potential one, in which a hard border between NI and the ROI may result (in the future) in nationalists pushing to reunify with ROI,and Unionists resisting. It's a potential future conflict that a hard border may instigate, but it's not a thing that exists right now, just a possibility that worries people! It is by no means unique to nationalists and unionists in NI, and is characteristic of numerous historical and present divisions between different groups based on political or national aspirations or beliefs, from America, England, Japan, France, Spain, Israel/Palestine, China, India/Pakistan and many, many more.

If nationalists feel that their movement is sufficiently restricted with the rest of Ireland that it impacts their lives, and their feeling of connection with the rest of Ireland, then they may push for a referendum on reunification with the rest of Ireland. Unionists of course would oppose this. It would be a very divisive issue, determining the nationality of 1.5 million people, split quite evenly with opposing wishes and feelings of national identity. I don't think it's hard to imagine why such a thing may lead to violence. Hopefully it won't though.

Regarding point # 3, America has had a civil war over differences in political ideals. It's also had many, many violent events due to political conflicts, riots, assassinations, racial violence. Politically motivated violence is hardly a strange concept to Americans, or most of the world for that matter. At present I am seeing reports of violence and growing political tensions in America due to the divisiveness of the Trump administration, groups like Antifa that oppose right wing politics, and commit acts of vandalism against their political targets, and groups like the Proud boys who seek to commit acts of violence against antifa and liberals in general. You should be able to draw some parallels. Politically or identity related violence is not uncommon in America or American history!

Regarding point #4, Ireland doesn't really have any hate groups afaik, that would commit acts of violence over a gay marriage referendum. The overwhelming majority, younger and middle aged people supported it. An older, conservative and religious minority opposed it, but it would be very strange to have a violent conflict between elderly, conservative Catholics and younger, secular people!

People down-voting this answer, please state your reasons. There is nothing factually incorrect here, and the stated opinions are all quite reasonable, relevant and useful in understanding the issue and answering OP's question.

  • "may result (in the future) in nationalists pushing to reunify" while it is probably a point of oversimplification of media reports, the current reporting doesn't make this distinction it puts potential violence on the table directly following the re-introduction of the border.
    – Jontia
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:02
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    You should probably see a psychologist regarding your desire to punch people who support gay marriage Bregalad... In Ireland we don't really have hate groups that would do such things.
    – Icarian
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:06
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    I feel like you misunderstood my question (?) It's about staying/leaving the UK, not the EU.
    – Allure
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:11
  • Oh ok, got it. Well, again, I think I have explained why the gay marriage referendum didn't result in violence. It just didn't really affect the lives of people who opposed it, and they tend to be elderly. As I said in my third point, it's not exactly unusual to have violent conflict between two groups of people with different national and political aspirations, civil wars frequenly occur for such reasons and America was no different. Tensions are currently very high over the divisions caused by the Trump administration and I have seen political violence as a result...
    – Icarian
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:18
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    It may be, but nonetheless, in modern times, most people ranging from left to center right would consider a desire to commit acts of violence against people based on sexuality and monogamous commitments to be quite unhealthy. I don't think this is an unusual opinion to hold.
    – Icarian
    Oct 17, 2018 at 11:34

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