Latest chapter in a troubled history

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Northern Ireland has seen so many acts of violence and political upheaval during the Troubles that the word "crisis" has come to be reserved for particularly momentous episodes.

The present crisis is already being described by many as one of the most serious they can recall, though in fact it has been surpassed in terms of either historic import or, more grimly, the number of casualties.

A number of episodes are unlikely to be forgotten by those who lived through them. The first major disruption came in August 1969, when simmering resentments and occasional street brushes erupted into widespread violence.

Eight people died as Catholics and Protestants clashed in a number of areas of Belfast, while in Londonderry Catholics battled with the RUC. The disorder led to the first deployment of British troops on the streets. Thousands of people moved home in a short period, most of them seeking the perceived safety of entirely Catholic or entirely Protestant districts.

The situation deteriorated over the next two years, until the next major upheaval, in August 1971, after internment without trial was introduced for republicans. Scores died in the immediate aftermath as gun battles broke out between the army and the IRA. Again, thousands of people moved home.

The following year, 1972, was one of sustained crisis, with almost 500 people killed in the most violent year ever experienced. The killing of 13 Catholic marchers by paratroopers on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry sent shock waves through Ireland. Meanwhile Protestant paramilitary groups emerged as a formidable force after the British government of the day abolished the Unionist-dominated Stormont parliament, and the violence became a three-way affair.

In the years that followed, shootings and bombings claiming multiple casualties became almost commonplace, with both republicans and loyalists claiming their shares of the death toll.

In May 1974 came the loyalist general strike, or constitutional stoppage, which some observers view as the nearest precedent to the present Drumcree stand-off. On that occasion most of Northern Ireland's economic and social life ground to a halt as loyalists blocked roads and cut power supplies.

While many Protestants voluntarily stopped work, there was also widespread intimidation at roadblocks all over the country, as well as a number of acts of violence. That action achieved its aim of bringing down the power- sharing administration.

Though differing from the current crisis in many respects, the 1974 stoppage is remembered as a time of great uncertainty, one of the rare occas- ions when it looked as if the authorities might lose control.

A situation of similar gravity was experienced in 1981, when the deaths of 10 imprisoned republicans by hunger strike appeared to destabilise the whole of Northern Ireland. That moment passed, but another such arrived in 1985 when the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement by London and Dublin produced loyalist uproar.

The following months brought rioting, marches and protests, and a campaign of attacks on the homes of police officers.

That was the last time when Northern Ireland appeared to be on the brink, but it and other crises serve as reminders that this seemingly normal society can, with little or no warning, be catapulted into convulsion.

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