Disarming Violence

Disarming Violence: Decommissioning and the Northern Irish Peace Process

The Troubles and Decommissioning Weapons

A British soldier overlooks the aftermath of the IRA bombing on Shankill Road on 23 October, 1993. Photo Credit The Independent

On October 23, 1993, the Provisional Irish Republican Army planted a bomb at a fish market on the Shankill Road in Belfast. The primary targets were leaders of a rival paramilitary group, the loyalist Ulster Defense Association, whom the IRA believed were meeting in an office above the shop. There was no meeting, however, and nine Protestant civilians plus one of the attackers died when the bomb detonated prematurely. Two of the dead were children, and an additional sixty people were injured. One week later on October 30, two gunmen from the Ulster Defense Association opened fire a bar outside Derry killing six Catholic and one Protestant civilian during a Halloween celebration.[1] This sequence was typical of the back-and-forth revenge killings between Irish Catholic republican and Protestant loyalist paramilitaries, with innocent civilians often caught in the crossfire.


For three decades Northern Ireland was locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence and conflict. The era commonly referred to as “The Troubles” lasted from the late 1960s to the early 2000s and was defined by sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries as well as the British military. Caught in the crossfire were the everyday civilians of Northern Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, who lived in near constant fear of riots, stabbings, shootings, and bombings. Between 1966 and 2001, over 3,600 people died in the course of the conflict, many of whom where civilians killed by paramilitary groups.[2]


Despite the seemingly endless violence, starting in the 1990s the British and Irish governments in coordination with Northern Ireland’s political parties began negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, which voters approved in a referendum in May 1998. The agreement included many reforms to policing, governance, and political prisoners in the North, but the most contentious issue was the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. At several points it seemed that decommissioning would derail negotiations, but the largest paramilitary groups did disarm and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has almost completely ended in the years since.


The experience of decommissioning of paramilitary weapons in Northern Ireland holds many lessons on the issue of war termination in civil conflicts. This project will examine the background of the conflict, traditions of violence, the type and number of weapons used by militants, the role of decommissioning in the peace process, the significance of dissident groups, and finally lessons for war termination more broadly. An analysis of government documents, commission reports, and statements by politicians and paramilitaries involved in the peace process shows that decommissioning was successful because of a changing political environment and a willingness for both governments and paramilitaries to make genuine moves for peace.


[1] Paul Brew, Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles, 1968-1999. Rev. Ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1999), 277-278.

[2] Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 379.