How to look for records of... The Troubles in Northern Ireland
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This research guide will help you find records relating to the Troubles in Northern Ireland held at The National Archives. The Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland lasted over thirty years from the late 1960s. We show you how to search for records in our online catalogue to locate files on the conflict and signpost various record series that you may find useful. We suggest potentially useful documents and search terms but the guide is not exhaustive.
There are terms in this guide that you may find upsetting or offensive but which may prove necessary search terms to make the best use of our word-searchable catalogue if you want returns with the most comprehensive results. It is not our intention to cause offence and the inclusion of these terms should not be taken as The National Archives favouring any side in the conflict.
The records were created by UK government departments and they therefore reflect the priorities, policies and perspectives of successive UK Governments on the conflict.
While many of these records concern events and Troubles-related incidents that occurred within Northern Ireland, others also document events that occurred in mainland Britain and sometimes events that occurred in the Republic of Ireland and continental Europe.
Most of the records covered in this guide cannot be viewed or downloaded online. To view these records, you will need to either visit us at Kew or pay for copies. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
2. What records can I view online?
Most of the records available online represent high-level government and parliamentary discussions and activity.
2.1 Cabinet papers
Read our research guide to Cabinet and its committees for advice on searching our catalogue for cabinet papers.
The archived Cabinet Papers site has themed pages which you can browse, some with links to downloadable documents.
2.2 Parliamentary papers
Search parliamentary papers. This collection includes full texts of House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. It also includes some House of Lords Sessional Papers, local, private, and personal acts, journals of the Houses of Lords and Commons; and Hansard (the records of debates and proceedings at the Houses of Parliament).
Online parliamentary papers are available to view at The National Archives building and in Kew and through libraries or other institutions with a ProQuest account.
Search legislation.gov.uk for policy created by Westminster and Northern Ireland. You can search for pieces of legislation that were significant to incidents during the conflict, such as the Special Powers Act.
It is always best to start online if you are looking for newspapers or articles relating to the Troubles. A growing number of websites provide access to digitised newspapers, for example:
- British Newspaper Archive (charges apply)
- The Gazette website (includes the Belfast, London, and Edinburgh Gazette)
- The Irish Newspaper Archive
- British Library Newspapers
- The Irish Times Newspaper Archive
Local libraries may have their own subscriptions to these online archives that you can use.
3. Searching our catalogue for original records and how to view them
The National Archives holds a large number of open and closed files that relate to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Though a small percentage are viewable online, most are not. For those records held by The National Archives available only in their original paper form, you will need to use Discovery, our catalogue, to search for them. To view these records, you will need to either visit us at Kew or pay for copies. Alternatively, you can pay for research. If you want to see a closed record, you can submit a FOI request.
Some records ‘retained’ by government departments will also appear in the catalogue. These records are not kept at The National Archives and viewing requests must be directed to the relevant government department listed in the catalogue.
If the catalogue description states that the records are held at another archive you will need to contact that archive directly for access arrangements.
Use the main catalogue search or the advanced search page. Try the search strategies outlined below in this section. You can view a breakdown of any record series by clicking on the link and scrolling down through the series description to ‘Browse by Reference’. The following sections of this research guide highlight specific types of records on the Troubles, including political, security and legal records, and help you to search for these kinds of records in more detail.
The advanced search option allows you to build your searches more precisely by restricting dates and other criteria from the start. Other sections of this guide will give you some ideas about which National Archives departments and series to search within. For more information about using our catalogue effectively see Discovery help.
3.1 Contested language and terminology
Quite often record titles and descriptions use language that is now out of date and sometimes offensive, but once records are transferred to us, we don’t alter them. The terminology used by the people that created the records is part of the story they tell.
Words that you might contest depending on your perspective and the incident or individuals described, like ‘extremism’ or ‘extremist’ or ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’, for example, are used.
Contested place names in Northern Ireland will also reflect the British perspective. Using ‘Derry’ will not reveal records in the catalogue as the record creators used ‘Londonderry’. Factor this in when using the catalogue to search for files.
The records and the catalogue have been compiled in the English language. The catalogue does not recognise Irish orthography and accents on letters in the alphabet. Irish names included in documents have often been anglicised by the record creators.
3.2 Search using broad terms
You will uncover a wider range of records if you search the catalogue using broad terms. Try using combinations of words as search terms such as:
- Talks AND Northern Ireland
- Unrest AND Northern Ireland
- Terrorism AND Northern Ireland
- Peace AND Northern Ireland
To narrow search results, use the date, government department and other filters on the search results page.
3.3 Search using specific search terms
If you are interested in a specific aspect of the Troubles, you should use more focused terms such as:
- Nationalists or Republicans
- Unionists or Loyalists
Combine these terms with ‘Northern Ireland’ or specific location you are interested in, such as ‘Belfast’.
A useful glossary of terms relating to the Troubles has been compiled by the CAIN archive (see section 7 for further information).
3.4 Search in specific record series and departments
The list below contains links to key record series that you can search within our catalogue, helping you to target your searches more precisely. These are series within departments that produced the largest number of records on the Troubles and Northern Ireland. By clicking on the series links you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series, using keywords.
You can use the advanced catalogue search to target the records of one or more entire departments (for example, the Ministry of Defence or the Prime Minster’s Office). Use the department reference, which is always a letter code, to do this (the code for the Ministry of Defence, for example, is DEFE, and for the Prime Minster’s Office it’s PREM).
CJ 3 – this series contains files of the Home Office which were transferred to the Northern Ireland Office on its establishment in 1972.
CJ 4 – this series contains files of the Home Office which were transferred to the Northern Ireland Office on its establishment in 1972.
CJ 5 – this series relates to registered files of the UK Representative in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office from 1969-1972.
WO 305 – holds Army unit historical records and reports created by the War Office and Ministry of Defence.
ADM 202 – files relate to Royal Marine Commando unit diaries and HQ papers created by the Admiralty and Ministry of Defence.
DEFE 13 – holds records created in the Private Office of the Minister of Defence and by junior ministers, mainly concerned with strategic or political issues from 1950-2007.
DEFE 24 – this series contains registered files and branch folders created and used by branches within the Army departments of the unified Ministry of Defence.
HO 287 – the files relate to Home Office functions and responsibilities in the field of police matters from 1917-2005.
HO 291 – the files relate to the functions and responsibilities of the Home Office about the preparation of legislation and the administration of the law, as well as overall management of the criminal justice system.
FCO 87 – this series contains records of the Republic of Ireland Department dealing with UK relations with the Republic and in particular the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
PREM 13 – contains correspondence and papers (1964-1970) from the Prime Minister’s Office from Harold Wilson’s Premiership.
PREM 15 – contains correspondence and papers (1970-1974) from the Prime Minister’s Office from Edward Heath’s Premiership.
PREM 16 – holds correspondence and papers (1974-1979) from the Prime Minister’s Office which cover the Labour administration.
PREM 19 – contains correspondence and papers from the Prime Minister’s Officer (1979-1997).
CAB 128 – files consist of Cabinet conclusions from 1945 onwards, including the Confidential Annexes.
CAB 129 – files consist of Cabinet memoranda in the CP and C file series.
Getting an understanding of the departments involved can help to inform further searches.
4. Political process
4.1 Civil rights movements
To search for files on the Civil Rights Campaign, search our catalogue using keywords such as ‘civil rights or ‘human rights’ combined with ‘AND Northern Ireland’, or ‘discrimination AND employment.’
You can also search by name of a specific human rights organisation. For example, search the ‘European Commission on Human Rights AND Northern Ireland’.
HO 325 – contains files that relate to specific organisations such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.
4.2 Politicians and political parties
To search more specifically around political parties in Northern Ireland and their activities during the Troubles, search across record series using the name of the political party, such as ‘Ulster Unionist Party’ or ‘Social Democratic and Labour Party’.
The names of many of the people involved in politics or the peace process during the Troubles are well known and you can search by name. Using the name of a person as a search term will search across all record series but will only show a file that has been catalogued with the name of the person. Many names will appear in the content of the records that do not appear in the catalogue titles or descriptions.
A useful glossary of political parties in Northern Ireland and their activities during the Troubles can be found here. It has been compiled by the CAIN online archive (see section 17 for further information).
4.3 Northern Ireland Assembly
For files on the Northern Ireland Assembly during the conflict, try searching ‘Assembly’, ‘elections’, ‘government’, or ‘devolution’ AND Northern Ireland.
For records on the introduction and machinery of direct rule and the governance of Northern Ireland during the conflict, try searching for ‘direct rule’, ‘contingency planning’, ‘constitutional options’ AND Northern Ireland.
4.4 Northern Ireland peace process
To find records related to earlier events prior to the formal peace process in the 1990s, Search our catalogue using terms such as ‘Anglo-Irish Agreement’ or ‘Sunningdale’ as keywords.
FCO 87 contains overseas reactions to the Anglo-Irish Agreement (15 November 1985) and reactions from the Irish government.
To locate files on the Brooke-Mayhew political talks (April 1991 to November 1992), use terms search as ‘Brooke talks’ as a keyword.
To search for files on peace movements in Northern Ireland that campaigned for an end to the conflict, try searching using keywords such as ‘peace’ combined with ‘Northern Ireland’. If you are interested in a particular peace organisation, try searching for the name of the group. For example, ‘Women’s Peace Movement AND Northern Ireland’.
4.5 Peace process (1993 to present)
To search for peace or political talks, try searching using keywords such as ‘talks AND Northern Ireland’, ‘political talks AND Northern Ireland’, ‘inter-party talks’ as search terms.
Narrow the dates of your search to the talks you are interested in which largely started from 1991.
Files on issues that were central to the peace process can be searched using keywords. For example, weapons decommissioning can be found by searching ‘arms decommissioning’ AND Northern Ireland’, files on parading issues can be found using ‘parades’, ‘processions’, ‘marches’ AND Northern Ireland.
4.6 The Good Friday Agreement/ Belfast Agreement (signed 10 April 1998)
FO 93 – contains treaties signed between the Government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland in 1998 following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Consult our guide to Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records from 1782 for advice on locating records of treaties.
5. Security forces and paramilitaries
5.1 How to conduct a general search
- Ministry of Defence (DEFE)
- Northern Ireland Office (CJ)
- War Office (WO)
- Prime Minister’s Office (PREM)
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
A keyword searching can be a good way to begin. Try searching by:
To search for records that relate to the deployment and operations of British troops, try searching our catalogue using ‘deployment AND Northern Ireland’ or ‘army AND Northern Ireland’ as keywords.
PREM 13 – contains discussions on the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland at the Prime Minister’s Office.
FCO 87 – includes the reaction from the Republic of Ireland government on the deployment, operations, and actions of British troops in Northern Ireland.
5.2 British Troops in Northern Ireland (1969-2007)
This guide contains advice on locating records of British unit war diaries and operational records, as opposed to records of individual soldiers. These records are varied, sometimes incomplete and held in a variety of places.
How to locate unit diaries and other operational records
If you use the Advanced search option you can focus your search by entering an appropriate date range and/or the reference for a particular department. Many records are not viewable online. To view records which are not online you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for research.
- WO 305 – includes unit diaries, army headquarter diaries, detachment reports and orders, and post-tour reports of the British troops stationed in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Defence Regiment.
- ADM 202 – contains unit diaries, detachment reports and orders for Royal Marines stationed in Northern Ireland.
Not all the records have been given specific or detailed descriptions in our catalogue (some, for example, may be catalogued as ‘Miscellaneous’, or other generic descriptions) so keyword searches will not always find everything on that subject.
Nevertheless, keyword searching can be a good way to begin. Try searching by:
- Name of unit. If you are looking for war diaries or other records related to specific British Army regiments and other units – these are often recorded in our catalogue using abbreviations so try a variety of terms when searching (for example, ‘Regt’ as well as ‘Regiment’).
If you do not know the name of the unit, try searching within the series for ‘headquarters AND Northern Ireland’ or search ‘Northern Ireland AND WO 305’ and narrow the date range of your search
5.3 Northern Irish security forces
For records on the security forces in Northern Ireland, search for the name of the organisation, for example ‘Royal Ulster Constabulary’ or ‘RUC’ or ‘Ulster Defence Regiment’ or ‘UDR’.
DEFE 70 – contains information on Northern Irish security forces, for example, try searching our catalogue for ‘Ulster Defence Regiment’.
Often files on Northern Ireland security and army in the DEFE 70 series are catalogued simply as ‘Northern Ireland’.
The National Archives holds British government files on paramilitaries. Use our catalogue to search for records on paramilitaries. You can also search using the name of Republican or Loyalist paramilitary groups, for example ‘Irish Republican Army’ or ‘IRA’ or ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ or ‘UVF’.
You can try searching for individual members of paramilitary organisations in the catalogue, but unless they are well known, you are unlikely to find them by searching their names.
A useful glossary of Republican or Loyalist paramilitary groups active during the Troubles has been compiled by the CAIN archive (see section 7 for further information).
CJ 4 – contains records relating to the activities of paramilitary groups.
Army unit and army headquarter diaries include reports on the activities of loyalist and republican paramilitaries throughout the conflict. See section 5.2 for more information.
Search for allegations of collusion between the British government and various paramilitaries by searching ‘paramilitaries AND Collusion’.
5.5 Violent incidents
The records held at The National Archives do not usually focus on victims of Troubles related incidents. Try searching using keywords and the terms ‘victims’ AND Northern Ireland’ to highlight records that contain information on victims at a high level.
Violent incidents occurred throughout the Troubles. For records on violent incidents, you can use general search terms like, ‘violent incidents’, ‘shooting’, or ‘internal security’ or AND Northern Ireland.
FCO 87 – contains records on major bombing incidents.
CJ 4 – contains records on major bombings and violent incidents.
If the incident occurred in Northern Ireland search within:
Unit diaries can provide a useful insight into reports of all types of violent incident that occurred during the conflict. See section 5.2 for more information.
- DEFE 70 – contains analysis of bombing patterns and other patterns of violence in Northern Ireland.
Information on bombings and other violent incidents that occurred in mainland Britain often generated files from multiple government departments, including the Metropolitan Police.
If you are searching for a bombing that occurred in a particular place, search our catalogue using the location and the word ‘bomb’.
You can find lists of major violent incidents relating to the Troubles here which has been compiled by the CAIN online archive (see section 7 for further information).
To search for files on internment, narrow the date range from 1971 to 1975 and try searching ‘Internment AND Northern Ireland’, ‘special powers AND Northern Ireland’ or search for an internment location, such as ‘Long Kesh’.
CJ 4 – contains records that relate to internment and the treatment of detainees and allegations of ill-treatment by security forces. Try searching using ‘European Commission on Human Rights’ and ‘Red Cross’ as keywords.
6.2 Court cases
If a violent incident associated with the Troubles occurred in England, often court cases contain witness depositions from victims. Consult our guide to Criminal court cases: an overview for advice on locating court records.
6.3 Prisons and prisoners
For records that relate to prisons in Northern Ireland and their role during the Troubles search our catalogue using ‘Prisons AND Northern Ireland’ as keywords.
If you are interested in a specific prison, refine your search to the prison name for example ‘Maze’, ‘Armagh’, or ‘Maghaberry’.
CJ 4 – contains files on prisoners, prison escapes, and prison protests including hunger strikes. Access to some of these records remains closed.
HO 325 – holds files on the transfer of prisoners. Access to some of these records remains closed.
Search for ‘extradition AND Northern Ireland’ or if you know the name of the individual who was extradited or considered for extradition for Troubles-related incidents to or from the UK to other countries, you can search for their name and ‘extradition’ in the catalogue.
To search for records that relate to inquests into Troubles-related deaths and legal issues surrounding the administration of inquests, search for ‘inquests AND Northern Ireland’ across record series.
CJ 4 – contains a small collection of files on individual inquests, search for the name of the individual to which the inquest relates in this record series.
6.6 Investigations and Inquiries
Search within HO for records on government and police investigations into Troubles-related incidents. For example:
HO 287 – contains police files on investigations into bombings, including complaints and discipline procedures in relation to bombing investigations.
HO 504 – contains files in the Inspectorate of Constabularies records on the Inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings.
To search for government inquiries related to the Troubles, try searching our catalogue using keywords such as ‘Inquiries AND Northern Ireland’.
If you know the specific title of the inquiry and the date of the publication, you can use these in your search.
7. Records in other archives
Many other archives and libraries have large collections of written, visual, and audio material relating to the Troubles which include:
- Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
- Linen Hall Library
- National Museums Northern Ireland
- The Prisons Memory Archive
- The National Archives of Ireland
- The Troubles Archive
8. Further reading
- CAIN online archive: Conflict and politics in Northern Ireland
- Writing the ‘Troubles’ (wordpress.com)
- Divided Society
9. Printed resources
Many books have been published about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Use our library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, Northern Ireland: a chronology of The Troubles, 1968-1999 (Dublin, 1999)
Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, The Northern Ireland peace process 1993-1996: a chronology (London, 1996)
Marianne Elliott, When God took sides: religion and identity in Ireland, unfinished history (Oxford, 2009)
Thomas Hennessy, The Northern Ireland peace process: ending The Troubles? (Dublin, 2000)
Thomas Hennessy, The evolution of The Troubles. 1970-72 (Dublin, 2007)
David McKittrick and David McVea, Making sense of The Troubles (London, 2012)
Claire Mitchell, Religion, identity, and politics in Northern Ireland: boundaries of belonging and belief (Aldershot, 2006)
Margaret M. Scull, The Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1968-1998 (Oxford, 2019)