I am trying to plot the background of an alternate history story revolving around an Irish-British teenager living in a post-Troubles London where tensions are much higher. Unlike our timeline, the Troubles ended with Northern Ireland reuniting with the Republic of Ireland sometime during the 1990s through violent means rather than something like a referendum.

In case you're unaware of what surrounded the Troubles, here is a link. Basically, I'm wondering what events would need to take place between the 1970s and 1990s for the Troubles to end in an overwhelming victory for the Irish Nationalists.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for asking an alternate history question with an objective, focused, and definable goal. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Nathan Hopp Reunification is the wrong word for the Republic of Ireland annexing Northern Ireland, no matter how many people use it in real life. The last time that all Ireland had a common government was when all Ireland was part of the UK, so the only possible way for Ireland to be "reunited" would be for the Republic to rejoin the UK. The only time when Ireland was both "united" and ruled by Irish people was in the Middle Ages when the high king was the theoretical overlord of all the Irish kingdoms. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Even if there had been a unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, it wouldn't have ended the troubles, as you'd just have the IRA and the "Protestant" forces swapping positions. It would really take a major attitude change of some sort, perhaps increasing secularism driven by the exposure of the Church's many abuses in the Republic. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 16:59

4 Answers 4


Have Britain lose the Falklands War

A crushing military victory for the IRA is all but impossible (barring some catastrophe crippling Britain, which would have to be of a magnitude that its legacy would end up dominating your alternate London far more than that of the Troubles would), but they might be able to pressure the British government to cut its losses and withdraw from Ireland rather than go on fighting an endless guerilla war. Think Vietnam for a comparable example; the Viet Cong were never in a position to forcibly eject the US Army, but they still won the war in all the ways that matter.

Your best bet to achieve this is to have the left wing faction of the UK Labour Party gain power and negotiate a retreat. This faction was generally quite sympathetic to Irish Nationalism, but in real life they lost control of the party after Thatcher drubbed their leader Michael Foot in the 1983 election. She was able to do this despite having trailed in the polls for most of her term because in 1982 she won the Falklands War, giving her popularity a massive boost.

In your timeline, however, her decision to fight backfires (the Argentines get lucky and manage to sink the British carriers, making the long range campaign impossible) and Labour rides the backlash to win the next election on an anti-militarist platform of avoiding further loss of life in colonial conflicts. Negotiations would still be fiendishly difficult and take a long time (the IRA didn't yet recognise the legitimacy of the southern Irish government, complicating things), so the process could well last into the early 90s. Nonetheless, it's quite possible that Foot or a sympathetic successor like Tony Benn would eventually agree a deal handing over the North to Dublin. A referendum would have to be avoided as the Unionist majority would presumably still vote against such a deal, so the Troubles would be regarded afterwards (both by triumphalist Nationalists, and by angry Unionists and Tories accusing Labour of betrayal) as the IRA having unified Ireland with the armalite rather than the ballot box.

  • $\begingroup$ A bit more plausible than my Spain & Gibraltar annexation suggestion, simply a small change in historic outcomes (a bad outcome of the Falklands causes Maggie to lose popularity & Foot gets in) leading to a UK government more sympathetic to Irish nationalism, OK, make that a lot more plausible (probably). $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 10:59
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    $\begingroup$ But the simplest way to achieve the outcome is perhaps to simply have the Falklands never happen, just have Galtieri never decide to invade in the first place, Maggie was likely on track to lose the next election anyway without any major mishap to her name b4 the Falklands happened & gave her a boost. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ Fair point. My thinking behind having Britain fight and lose (as opposed to the war not happening at all) was that this fiasco would help discredit military campaigns to hang onto bits of the Empire. This would then make withdrawal from NI less of a hard sell to the UK electorate. Foot wasn't an ideologue on Irish unity (he cut deals with the Unionists back in 79) so he'd need to be convinced that it wasn't political suicide. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 11:48
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    $\begingroup$ Recent military debacle makes it an easier sell, fair point. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 11:57

The loyalists regard themselves as British, not Irish. Reunification would force them to become Irish, the same way nationalists in the north are currently forced to be British and the Irish prior to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, were once regarded as being British.

Emotions on the issue still run very deep on both sides.

It's took close to call.

A recent survey found that a majority favoured holding a referendum on unity within the next five years, with 47 percent currently in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom and 42 percent supporting a united Ireland. Among the under-45s, reunification led by 47 to 46.

Shortly after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Greece and Turkey had a population exchange in 1923, following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1921, where anyone who was Christian was regarded as being Greek and anyone who was Muslim was regarded as Turkish and people were forcibly exchanged.

Maybe a similar system of forced movements might be required where staunch unionist are forcibly moved to Britain if Ireland was reunified.

  • $\begingroup$ "Among the under-45s // 47 to 46" Make the Pope reverse church edict on contraception! it's our only hope! $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ A pedantic point: Loyalists (and I am not one, although I am Irish) regard themselves as Irish (and British). $\endgroup$
    – tomd
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 22:00

In 1982 UK fought a successful war against Argentina for the Falkland/Malvinas.

And if they fought a war for some small islands far away from home, it's gonna be hard that they let something go away right on their doorstep. Therefore you need a huge crisis for the government and monarchy to make them weak.

What can happen to do so?

Based on my memory, the divorce between prince Charles and Lady Diana struck quite a blow on the reputation of the monarchy. Fast forward and Lady Diana dies in Paris in 1997. Credible evidences are shown that the monarchy and the government have directed the death of the beloved princess, weakening both of them at the eyes of the public opinion.

While the government and the monarchy struggle to stay afloat, the backslash causes Scotland, Wales and North Ireland to question their permanence in the Union. With the excuse of ensuring safety, Ireland establish a peace force in Northern Ireland and soon after simply annexes it: with no army to back them up, the opposition to the unification is quickly silenced.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that would do it, it's the sort of thing that can bring down a government but not the sort of thing that might weaken the new incoming government, perhaps something external like other foreign actions tying up UK forces, something like Spain under a populist leader annexing Gibraltar or threatening to & then the Republic of Ireland does what you suggest after UK forces are already engaged or relocated to prevent a threat of that, a war on two close to home fronts wouldn't be embraced enthusiastically by the UK. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ The trouble with this is that the Unionists would have an army to back them up; the British Army, which is already stationed there in numbers and won't let the (very small and historically committed to neutrality) military of the Irish Republic walk in and take over. This can only work if the scandal brings about the complete collapse of the UK state into anarchy, which - as Pellinore suggests - is highly unlikely. As a comparable example, would the US Army let Canada march in and annexe Alaska if Joe Biden was revealed to have murdered Jeffrey Epstein? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, downvoted because even a massive UK public opinion scandal wouldn't be enough to make the ROI army march into Northern Ireland nor the UK army simply give it up. @Montefeltro's answer is far more plausible. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, I'd almost forgotten that Mitchell & Webb got there first with this idea: youtu.be/b4meFC1ee7Q "The IRA can do whatever they like this weekend." $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this answer is that people don't really think of the monarchy and the government as part of the same thing. The monarchy is like a popular sitcom. A royal crisis or scandal is probably a win for the government, they don't need to worry about their blunders getting into the news for a while. $\endgroup$
    – Dast
    Commented Apr 10, 2021 at 20:54

Could you have the coronavirus come early? With less capable technology, it might be that (a) the fatality rate in both the UK and ROI would be much higher, and (b) there is no effective long-term mitigation strategy but to massively reduce cross-border travel.

In the wake/midst of high death rates and a perception that the UK government was unwilling or unable to help Northern Ireland, the case for unifying the island of Ireland might become much stronger. There would certainly be less appetite to send troops from the rUK into Northern Ireland to counter any escalating violence.

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    $\begingroup$ Potentially a distinct difference in death rates between RoI and UK could force this crisis point. $\endgroup$
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 13:31
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    $\begingroup$ Really interesting concept, but we do actually have a good idea already of what effect a mass viral pandemic without 21st century medical tech would have on an Anglo-Irish conflict. The Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-20 overlapped directly with the Irish War of Independence 1919-21, and killed more of the population than the conflict did. However, as far as I can tell it had no discernible impact on Britain's willingness to continue the fight (which ended in a negotiated compromise some time after the epidemic had faded away, as all epidemics eventually do). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Montefeltro I think the OP could set up enough differences with the Spanish Flu pandemic that this isn't necessarily a fatal objection – for example, changing the initial centre of the outbreak or the prevailing scientific consensus about how to handle it. $\endgroup$
    – dbmag9
    Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the AIDS pandemic could have its first recognised outbreak among the Catholic population in NI (helped along by traditional religious aversion to contraception) leading to mass panic in the UK and a demand to bring the troops home before this poorly understood 'Irish plague' can infect Britain via them? This would fit the chronology, but still seems a bit of a stretch. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2021 at 19:22

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