From Civil Rights to Armed Struggle
‘Some said the flames were Ulster’s own,
From A Bonfire On The
Back in 1796, during the time of the United Irishmen, Thomas Knox, a pro-English magistrate from Dungannon, wrote about the newly formed Orange Order: ‘As for the Orangemen, we have rather a difficult card to play; they must not be entirely discountenanced - on the contrary, we must in a certain degree uphold them, for with all their licentiousness, on them must we rely for the preservation of our lives and properties should critical times occur.’ Over a century later, in 1912, the Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson launched a campaign against home rule, which culminated in a mass signing of the Ulster Covenant in Belfast - some signing with their own blood. The Covenant refused to recognize the authority of any Irish parliament ‘forced on Ulster’ and threatened to use ‘all means which may be found necessary’ to defeat home rule. These words were used to justify the formation of Carson’s illegal army, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).
During the 1st World War many UVF members had served at the front as the 36th Ulster Division. Afterwards, most survivors returned to the ranks of the UVF and in 1920, during the Anglo-Irish War, men from this armed wing of the Orange Order were encouraged by Westminster to join the newly formed Ulster Special Constabulary. The A, B and C Specials then worked alongside the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in the north of Ireland in a similar way to the Black and Tans in the south.
In the north brutal sectarian killings gave the conflict an additional bitter edge and on 12th July 1920 Sir Edward Carson spoke at an Orange rally in Belfast saying: ‘We in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Fein - no Sinn Fein organisation, no Sinn Fein methods.’ Carson continued with this threat:
Over the next two years 428 Catholics were killed and 1,766 wounded. Also 8,750 Catholics were driven from their jobs and 23,000 were made homeless. There was widespread unease about the use of the Specials and the Manchester Guardian criticised their actions in several editorials, including the following in March 1921:
1: A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century,
2: Arming the Protestants,
The Cromwell Clubs
Little notice was taken of the Guardian’s warning, but as anti-Catholic attacks continued many were now carried out covertly by a secret network of armed organisations called the ‘Cromwell Clubs’. These were instigated by leading unionists and quickly gained devotees among the Ulster Ex-Servicemen’s Association and serving members of the RIC and Specials. By 1922, large areas of Belfast were virtually at war, with thousands of nationalist refugees streaming across the border after being burned out of their homes.
When nationalist resistance continued, around 500 Catholics were arrested and interned without trial. Many nationalists believed that the Specials and the Cromwell Clubs had come into being to terrorise all the Catholics out of the north. A secret Free State intelligence report, compiled from information given by Catholic RIC men, contained detailed information about the attacks on nationalist areas. Named as two of the leading organisers of the Cromwell Clubs inside the RIC were County Inspector Harrison, head of the Belfast Detective Division, and District Inspector Nixon.
The IRA continued to be active in the north, raiding RIC barracks and on 22nd March they shot dead two Specials in Belfast. The next night members of the Cromwell Clubs struck:
The next month, RIC Constable George Turner was shot by a sniper while on patrol in Belfast. Then RIC men and Specials attacked the nearby nationalist area of Carrick Hill, smashing down doors and forcing their way into houses. When they left, local residents Joseph McCrory, Bernard McKenna, William Spallin and Joseph Walsh were dead. Walsh’s 7-year-old son was also killed and others, including several more children, were injured. Walsh was an ex-British soldier veteran of the Great War. His head was smashed in with the sledgehammer that had been used to break down his front door. Spallin was 70 years old and had just returned from his wife’s burial. He was shot down in front of his 12-year-old grandson.
Both raids were organised and carried out by men of the RIC and Specials who were also members of the Cromwell Clubs.
3: Arming the Protestants,
The Cushendall Murders
Many more ‘reprisals’ were carried out against Catholics which resulted in many deaths and injuries. On 22nd June 1922 Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, former Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was shot dead outside his London home. Reggie Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, two IRA men who were ex-British Army veterans of the 1st World War, were arrested at the scene. Wilson had become the security adviser to the nascent Northern Ireland government and was considered by many to have been responsible for the pogroms against Catholics. Dunne and O’Sullivan, who had lost a leg at Ypres, were tried and hanged. At their trial the ex-soldiers were refused the right to read a statement, but it was published in the Irish Independent:
The day after Wilson was killed, a combined force of British soldiers and Specials entered the village of Cushendall in County Antrim. The Specials then killed three Catholic youths, dragging two of them up an alley before shooting them. After strong protests from prominent ‘moderate’ Catholics, the British coalition government agreed to hold an inquiry because ‘British troops were implicated’ and appointed F. T. Barrington-Ward, the Recorder of Hythe in Kent, to conduct it:
Craig’s government rejected Barrington-Ward’s report and held their own enquiry into the incident. They discarded all the evidence of the inhabitants of the village and supported the original version put out by the Specials.
The British government had threatened to publish Barrington-Ward’s report and were requested by the Liverpool MP, T. P. O’Connor, to do so now. But, as Michael Farrell pointed out in his book Arming the Protestants, ‘Lloyd George’s coalition government had now been replaced by a Conservative administration which was more sympathetic to the Ulster Unionists.’ Farrell continued:
4: Arming the Protestants,
5: Ibid - Arming the Protestants,
The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was formed in 1922 and three years later the force was 2,990 strong - of these 1,435 were ex-Specials and only 541 were Catholics. In 1923, as one of the sergeants who had commanded the Specials during their killing spree in Cushendall was promoted, the Sir Robert Peel Memorial Loyal Orange Lodge was established specifically for RUC men. District Inspector John Nixon was its first Worshipful Master. Nixon and Harrison, both former senior Belfast RIC men and Cromwell Club organisers, were rewarded in King George’s birthday honours list. Harrison received an OBE and Nixon an MBE for the ‘valuable service rendered by him during the troubled period.’
In 1924 the RUC’s Orange Lodge was openly supported by Unionist MPs, including the four who spoke at its annual general meeting: ‘One of whom, Robert McBride, declared that “There was a time in Ireland when to wear an Orange ribbon meant imprisonment; but now they had their police force openly identified with the Orange Order”.’ At the same time senior unionist politicians extolled Protestant supremacy and expressed sectarian sentiments about Catholics. Sir Dawson Bates, who was appointed as the first Unionist home affairs minister, was later said by a colleague to have had ‘such a prejudice against Catholics that he made it clear to his Permanent Secretary that he did not want his most juvenile clerk or typist, if a Papist, assigned for duty to his ministry.’
In 1934 Lord Craigavon, the first Unionist prime minister stated: ‘I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and member of this parliament afterwards ... all I boast is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state.’ Also in 1934, Sir Basil Brooke, who was then the Minister of Agriculture and later prime minister, said: ‘I recommend those people who are loyalists not to employ Roman Catholics, ninety-nine per cent of whom are disloyal.’ In later years it was to become common practise for employers to cite ‘Religion’ as the reason for not employing a (Catholic) job applicant.
After Partition the RIC’s tradition as a colonial police force was carried on in Northern Ireland by the RUC. In her book, Ethnic Soldiers, Cynthia H. Enloe described how a police force was first set up in Ireland:
With more than one-third of the population continuously alienated from the state, Northern Ireland - ‘a Protestant state’ - could only survive by consolidating formidable repressive forces. The RUC’s prime task was to uphold the unionist status quo and they were armed, had access to military equipment and heavy weapons and operated from fortified buildings. Protestants identified with the force regarding it as theirs, while most Catholics feared and hated the RUC - referring to them as ‘peelers’ and calling their buildings ‘barracks’.
6: Article by Brian Griffin
7: Irish Times,
8: Northern Ireland Parliamentary Debates,
9: Londonderry Sentinel,
10: Ethnic Soldiers,
A Police State
Until 1922, the United Kingdom was composed of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland. After the partition of Ireland it became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. During the treaty negotiations, partition had been presented as a temporary compromise reconciling the demands of the majority in Ireland, who wanted independence, and the demands of the minority - the descendants of British settlers - who wished Ireland as a whole to remain in the UK.
Ulster, one of the four historic provinces of Ireland, was made up of nine counties, including Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. These were now split off from the remaining six, Fermanagh, Armagh, Down, Tyrone, Derry and Antrim, which now made up Northern Ireland. This area had never existed before as a political entity and had no natural boundaries or internal unity. At the time of Partition, the Unionists had a majority only in an unbroken area smaller than two counties. Northern Ireland then had a population of 1,250,000 people, more than half of whom were concentrated in the city of Belfast, in County Antrim and the northern half of County Down. In this area there were 552,000 Unionists and 149,000 Nationalists. In the four and a half remaining counties there were 281,000 Nationalists and 268,000 Unionists.
After Partition, Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at Stormont. British troops were still garrisoned at strategic locations, but ‘law and order’ on the streets was in the hands the RUC and the B-Specials. Administratively, the British Government at Westminster retained control over matters like defence and trade, while Stormont had control of internal matters, including its armed police and their auxiliary back-up.
The pattern of economic development laid out by Stormont favoured the Unionist population concentrated in the north-east. The Nationalist population experienced persistent discrimination, particularly in jobs and housing. In council elections voting rights were manipulated and electoral boundaries ‘gerrymandered’. Local authorities controlled by Unionists were often openly bigoted and sectarian in the way they discriminated against Catholics, while preserving the relatively privileged status of Protestants. This ‘Orange ideology’ helped form a ‘Unionist bloc’, tying Protestant working class people to the Protestant middle and upper classes. They were united under two main aspirations: upholding the Union with Britain, and the maintenance of Protestant domination over Catholics (the ‘Ascendancy’).
Within Northern Ireland the Unionists’ siege mentality, which has characterised their history, intensified. Draconian measures, like The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, (Northern Ireland) 1922, were introduced to preserve their position. The Special Powers Act was renewed annually until 1933, when it was made permanent. Under the Act the authorities were empowered to:
As British political leaders allowed the Unionists to carry out their will within Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom had become a virtual police state.
In January 1959, TV reporter Alan Whicker arrived in Northern Ireland to film a series of 10 minute reports for the BBC Tonight programme. Whicker had reported on various topics from many countries around the world. But his first report from Northern Ireland, about betting shops, was to land him in hot water:
Although part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland existed in a world of its own, which was guarded zealously by the ruling elite. For showing images that indicated the internal divisions and mentioning the ‘armed police’ Whicker and the BBC were to experience the full fury of Unionist anger.
Whicker, a 2nd World War veteran who had been a war correspondent in Korea before he turned to TV, described how later he watched the programme in a Derry hotel: ‘When the report ended there was silence in our hotel lounge. The man I had been drinking with turned to me: “You can’t say that sort of thing.” I was baffled.
During the previous year I had reported in exactly the same straightforward way from 17 different countries without being told I could not get away with it. “Why ever not? Every word’s true”. “I know”, he said, “but that doesn’t matter. You just can’t say that sort of thing”. As I was to find out later - he was absolutely right.’ The next day Whicker and the BBC came under mounting pressure:
In the end the BBC made a ‘craven’ and ‘grovelling’ apology. Alan Whicker was pulled out of Northern Ireland and the other reports were never screened.
At Westminster, British MPs who did ask questions were given the ‘standard reply’ that it was ‘custom and practice that these things be left to Stormont.’ Alan Whicker’s experiences showed the paranoia which Unionists felt towards anyone who took an interest in what they considered to be their own little State and its affairs. It also showed the craven attitude of Westminster governments and other British institutions who, since the inception of Northern Ireland, had acted towards it like the three wise monkeys: ‘See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.’
11: Ireland: The Propaganda War,
12: Ibid - Ireland: The Propaganda War,
British politicians continued to turn a blind eye, but four decades after Partition changes began to happen in Ireland. By the early 60s, the traditional industries in Northern Ireland were in decline. Meanwhile, across the border, Irish industry had been growing steadily behind protective tariff barriers to a point where the small size of its home base was limiting further development. As the tariff barriers were removed, Ireland grew to become Britain’s third largest market. When both applied for membership of the EEC, it was clear that British economic interests no longer lay exclusively in the North.
In 1963, Terence O’Neill became the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, succeeding Lord Brookeborough and continuing the decades of unbroken one-party Unionist rule:
O’Neill’s view of Catholics in the North was patronizing and racist, although not nearly strong enough for other unionists. In 1969 he talked about how difficult it was to gain support among his fellow Protestants for his ‘moderate policies’:
For expressing these sentiments O’Neill was regarded as being ‘soft on Catholics’ and was attacked for his ‘liberal views’ by other unionists.
The outside world was now in ferment, with an upsurge of student and workers revolts and huge demonstrations against the US’s war in Vietnam. Encouraged by this 60s ‘decade of revolution’ - and especially inspired by the Black Civil Rights Movement in the US - a campaign by the Nationalist minority set about exposing the arrogant, sectarian and repressive nature of the political and legislative apparatus of Northern Ireland:
As the eyes of the world increasingly began to focus on the abnormal situation in Northern Ireland, the Catholic / Protestant aspect to the situation confused many observers and led them to believe that the conflict was based on inter-religious strife. In fact, religion was the badge marking social and political differences: ‘If the setting was Algiers, rather than Belfast, the differences of skin colour would lead us immediately to identify racism as the core of the problem. But in the Irish setting, religious affiliation, rather than skin colour, has marked the social identities of the two groups, colonisers and colonised.’
O’Neill, during visits to London, had promised to bring in some reforms in Northern Ireland. But he did virtually nothing to implement them when back home. The Northern Ireland Prime Minister was under pressure from ‘loyalists’ - Unionist backwoodsmen - who shouted ‘traitor’ and ‘no surrender’ at any hint of a conciliatory gesture towards the Dublin Government and Catholics in the North. O’Neill also knew that any meaningful reforms would have threatened the fragile unity of the ‘Unionist bloc’, and might lead to the possibility of working class Protestants no longer voting for the Unionist Party.
Civil rights marches met an increasingly violent reaction from loyalists and the RUC and B-Specials:
For more than fifty years the Nationalist minority in Northern Ireland had endured second-class citizenship with only occasional outbursts of rebellion. Theirs was a passivity of the poor and despairing, but now hope was in the air and they became determined to win their civil rights.
13: Monthly Review,
14: Belfast Telegraph,
15: Monthly Review,
16: Ibid - Monthly Review,
17: Ibid - Monthly Review,
Northern Ireland, bursting with contradictions, threatened to tear itself apart: ‘The worst of the year’s  rioting erupted in the summer, following annual Protestant marches on July 12th and August 12th, two holidays which at once celebrate seventeenth-century victories of Protestants over Catholics and declare, in a martial atmosphere, the present day domination of settler over native.’
After the August Orange march in Derry the RUC, backed by B-Specials, had tried to force their way into the nationalist Bogside area. They were met by determined resistance from local people who had armed themselves with stones and petrol-bombs. The disturbances quickly spread to other areas, including Belfast, where loyalist attacks were driving many nationalists from their homes.
In Derry, after two days of street fighting, the RUC were forced out of the Bogside and the British Government agreed to the request from the Stormont administration for British troops to replace the exhausted, demoralised and defeated police. That was the situation when on Thursday, 14th August 1969, soldiers of the First Battalion, the Prince of Wales’ Own, were sent out onto the streets of Derry to ‘aid the civil power’. The Labour Government, however, had no intention of changing the status-quo, as the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, made clear in Westminster:
While some members of the Labour Government indicated their support for civil rights, their real intention was to stabilise the situation. Initially, nationalists welcomed the intervention of British troops because they regarded the use of soldiers from Britain as a victory over Stormont and its RUC and B-Specials:
At first it looked like these expectations might be fulfilled as, condemned by the Hunt Report and on instructions from Westminster, the RUC was to be disarmed and the B-Specials dismantled. It appeared that the British Government, the media and most soldiers on the ground were sympathetic to the nationalist population.
These early days of troops on the streets became known as the ‘honeymoon period’. A Welsh ex-officer remembered that time: ‘Tea was brewed for the troops in huge quantities by ordinary people delighted we were there. A patrol of the Catholic Markets area of Belfast inevitably meant half a dozen stops for a drink and a chat, and several more for the loo. “Community Relations” became the big Army occupation - organising trips to the sea for kids, dances for teenagers or soccer matches with the local lads. And we all felt what a jolly good job we were doing.’
Another ex-officer recalled; ‘I think we were aware of the political dimensions. ... We all had a feeling there was injustice over housing, jobs, education and even justice. I think we certainly felt that we were on the side of the Catholics ... there was a huge amount of sympathy for them. That lasted a long time and it was probably the ham-fistedness of the Army as much as the politicians that put paid to that.’
It would have been an ideal time to have pressed forward with a political solution that would have restructured the relationship between Britain and the two parts of Ireland. Radical changes, however, would have meant going against the Unionist grain and no British government was willing to contemplate this.
18: Monthly Review,
19: Pig in the Middle - The Army in Northern Ireland,
20: Monthly Review,
21: Y Saeth,
22: A young officer quoted in
Troops as Police
The object of the Civil Rights Movement was not to bring down the state, they had sought only to secure the same rights as everyone else in the UK. Many in the Labour Party had supported these aims, but the intervention of the British Army in August 1969 was a tacit admission by the Labour Government that their policy of trying to force internal reform through the Unionist administration had failed. From then on Labour had used their troops as police to stabilise the Northern Ireland state. And now Labour, in an election year, did not want to rock the boat and opted to maintain the status quo:
British troops were now the main face of the Northern Ireland state on the streets and their interaction with nationalists began to show signs of strain: ‘In the Ballymurphy area of Belfast and the Bogside of Londonderry, where most of the initial confrontations took place … it was not long before the friendly tea-sipping days of the soldiers’ initial reception gave way to accusations of unnecessary force being used in dealing with riotous youngsters. The soldiers in turn began to lose patience with the numerous conflicting roles which they were called on to perform, from social welfare and youth work to the control of riots.’
With Westminster prevaricating and refusing to take any decisive political action, the ‘honeymoon’ between the troops and the nationalist population started to break down:
During the ‘Emergency’ in Kenya, the Army top brass had identified with the white settler administration there. In Northern Ireland, some senior officers had strong pro-Unionist opinions. With a lack of any meaningful political direction from Westminster, the Unionist view from Stormont increasingly began to dominate:
23: Monthly Review,
24: Law and State - The Case of Northern Ireland,
25: Ibid - Law and State - The Case of Northern Ireland.
26: Ibid - Law and State - The Case of Northern Ireland.
Orange Marches & Attacks
Back in Britain, Labour lost the election anyway. At the end of June 1970, the new Tory Government’s Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, went to Northern Ireland to view the situation: ‘“Tell me”, said one of those who met Maudling, “is he really as innocent as he seems? He didn’t appear to grasp the first thing of what was going on.”
The military verdict was much the same: “He seemed amazed at the ghastly situation.” Maudling’s own feelings were made clear as his plane gathered height on the way back to London ... “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch”, he said. “What a bloody awful country”.’
When soldiers had first appeared on the streets the IRA had been a tiny, almost moribund, secret organisation, with hardly any weapons at its disposal. Many nationalists had been contemptuous of the IRA, because they felt that it had been unable to defend their areas against loyalist attacks. The words ‘IRA = I Ran Away’ had appeared on the walls in Nationalist areas. Now, despite Maudling’s private distaste for the sectarian state, it was soon clear that the Tories would fully back the Unionist status quo. Any good will that was left between the nationalists and the British troops increasingly evaporated - and IRA support built up steadily.
In the summer of 1970, large Orange marches had insisted on following routes through nationalist areas. On numerous occasions in the past this had resulted in riots erupting. British soldiers, now in their policing role, were ordered to protect the marchers and even to attack nationalists who came out to confront ‘the Orangemen’.
At the same time the isolated nationalist enclaves of Ardoyne in the north of Belfast and Short Strand in the east came under attack from armed loyalists and the British Army refused to provide protection. The IRA, regenerating as a community defence force, stepped into the breach to prove they now had the armed capacity to protect nationalist areas. Gun battles took place in Ardoyne and the Short Strand and the attackers were driven off, but only after five loyalists and one member of the IRA had been killed.
A few days later the Joint Security Committee, composed of army and police top brass and Unionist politicians, met in Belfast. The committee discussed the violence that had occurred in the wake of the Orange marches: ‘The trouble had spread, they decided, because the Army had not been tough enough when it first broke out. On this basis, they decided future policy: what was required to restore the peace was a demonstration of force. The very next incident which sparked trouble in Belfast should be put down by the Army with maximum force.’
28: Ibid - Ulster,
The Falls Curfew
This ‘get tough’ policy, however, was to be aimed not at the instigators of provocative actions, but at those who had reacted to them – namely the nationalists. This became clear just two days later, as an action was launched that would change the attitude of many nationalists into outright hostility towards the British Army:
The first to die was Charles O’Neill, a disabled ex-serviceman who had spent ten years in the RAF. Concerned by what was happening, he had attempted to stop a military convoy entering the area and warn them that the soldiers’ actions were creating anti-army hostility. As he limped out into the road with his hand raised, he realised too late that the leading Saracen was not going to stop and was crushed beneath its wheels. A passer-by who rushed to help him was held back by soldiers wielding batons, who told him, ‘Move on you Irish bastard, there are not enough of you dead.’
The local IRA attempted to defend their area and gun battles took place in the narrow streets. Troops of the Black Watch and Life Guards were rushed to the area directly from the ferry terminal and their firing was heavy and often reckless. Three civilians were shot dead by the soldiers and many of the homes that were searched by troops were left wrecked:
The Army posted a cordon of soldiers around the Lower Falls to enforce the curfew during the searches. After a day and a half many local people were running low on provisions but were frightened to venture out. In the end the ‘Falls curfew’ was breached when a crowd of women from outside the area, carrying tea, milk and food burst through the Army cordon and started handing out the provisions to the beleaguered residents inside. A local priest, Father Murphy, saw an abrupt change in many of his parishioners: ‘Women who had been giving soldiers cups of tea, those very same women, were now out on the streets shouting: “Go home, you bums; go home, you bums ...” - to the tune of Auld Lang Syne ...’
That this operation had resulted in creating a mutual hostility between nationalists and British soldiers did not deter the Army top brass or the Unionist authorities who were egging them on: ‘As the Falls Road arms haul was displayed in the yard of Springfield Road police station, Captain John Brooke squeezed the arm of a young constable. “It’s a grand day for us”, he said.’ But a high price would be paid for actions like the Falls curfew in the years to come: ‘In the months that followed, recruitment to the Provisionals [IRA] was dizzily fast: the movement grew from fewer than a hundred activists in May- June to nearly 800 by December.’
29: The Troubles,
31: Ibid - Ulster,
32: Ibid - Ulster,
33: Ibid - Ulster,
Siding with the Status Quo
In 1971, after most local people in nationalist areas became uniformly antagonistic to the British Army, Morris Fraser did a study into riot stress on the civil population. His book, Children in Conflict, described how many local children regarded the soldiers. As nationalist attitudes towards the troops changed from friendship and toleration to fear and hatred, Fraser described two cartoons drawn by twelve year-old Séan:
A Welsh ex-officer who served in Belfast during this early period later recorded his opinion of the Army’s role:
34: Children in Conflict,
35: Y Saeth,
The Re-birth of the IRA
The increasingly aggressive actions of the British Army - in enforcing Orange marches through Nationalist areas as well as invading those same districts to search for arms and republican activists (a role carried out before by the hated and discredited RUC and B-Specials) - was providing the conditions and motivation for the IRA's rebirth. As Russel Stetler reported:
Every year Republicans from all over Ireland journeyed to Bodenstown in County Kildare to pay homage at the grave of Wolfe Tone. They saw themselves as carrying on the centuries-old fight against English rule in Ireland, following in the footsteps of the United Irishmen, the Fenians, James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army and the IRA who fought the Black and Tans. Joe Cahill became the OC of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade in the early 70’s. In 1972 he was interviewed by Michael O’Sullivan, an American writer, and Cahill stated:
During those early days the IRA had split into Official and Provisional factions, mainly over the lack of guns and the inability to provide protection to nationalist areas under loyalist attacks. Gradually, as the predictions of the small, but more militant, group of Provisional republican activists about the true intentions and role of the Brits (British Government, administration and soldiers) began to come true, they reorganised and began recruiting in steadily increasing numbers. On the night of 6th February 1971, Gunner Robert Curtis, of the Royal Artillery, was shot dead on the New Lodge Road in Belfast. Almost a year and a half after the troops had first appeared on the streets, the Provisional IRA had killed their first soldier.
36: Monthly Review,
37: Patriot Graves,
The Military Wing of Unionism
In the 60s, the rise of the Civil Rights movement evoked an increasingly violent unionist / loyalist response. With Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force - the old UVF - now integrated into the state forces as the RUC and B-Specials, a small loyalist paramilitary group later adopted the name in 1965. A year later this new UVF carried out the first killings of this round of the ‘troubles’:
The men were recruited into the UVF and sworn in by an ex-British Army Colonel and Spence now believes that the organisation was initiated to bring down the ‘moderate’ Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. Spence stated:
Gusty Spence, who became a folk-hero to later loyalists, had earlier served as a military policeman with the British Army in Cyprus. Spence later told how in 1965 he had been invited to a UVF swearing-in ceremony: ‘Everything was very secretive, it was all done on a kind of a “need-to-know” basis. Those present were, I would say, “respectable” people. There was no dialogue, no intercourse as such, perhaps for security reasons. They didn’t want the groups in contact with each other. You were told to procure and purchase your own firearms. You were told to hold yourself in readiness.’
As British troops were first deployed on the streets, varies nationalist districts in areas like West Belfast desperately tried to fight off attempted pogroms launched from unionist areas. These attacks were often led by off-duty RUC men and B-Specials. Often the troops were deployed after the attacks had taken place and soldiers stood and watched as nationalist homes burned to the ground.
In August 1973, The Journal of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Commission reported that since 1969 60,000 people in Belfast had been forced to move from their homes through intimidation in ‘the largest enforced population movements in Europe since the second World War’. Over 80% of the people subjected to enforced moves were Catholics and once again some fled as refugees across the border.
During 1971-72 well over 4,000 cases of intimidation were reported to the authorities, but only 12 people were convicted of offences in connection with them. A conviction rate of about a quarter of one per-cent. Colonel David Hancock was one of the first British soldiers to see action on the streets of Belfast. In 1969 he commanded a Light Infantry company and remembers asking the RUC Special Branch for information on illegal loyalist organisations:
Unionists in Britain and Ireland, to stop home rule and secure Partition, had organised and supported the threat of large scale violence from Carson’s illegal army the UVF. That tradition was carried on with the official operations of the RIC / RUC and the Specials - and the clandestine actions of the Cromwell Clubs. Attempting to preserve their position in the years to come, by ‘all means which may be found necessary’, unionists would continue to organise and back their sectarian state forces. As well as turning a blind eye to the activities of - and give covert support to - loyalist paramilitary organisations.
38: Divided Ulster,
39: Seeking a Political Accommodation –
40: Ibid - Seeking a Political Accommodation –
The Roots of the Violence
In early April 1969, the first bombings of this period of the conflict occurred at the Silent Valley reservoir just outside Belfast. They were carried out clandestinely by the UVF, who hoped that the IRA would be blamed and so add to the pressure on O’Neill. The RUC backed this ploy: ‘IRA PLAN BEHIND THE BLASTS SAYS RUC’ ran the Belfast Telegraph headline. The story quoted police sources as saying that ‘it can now be taken that these incidents were caused by people working to an IRA plan ... a “terrorist blueprint”.’ Later, Samuel Stevenson, the Chief of Staff of the UVF, was brought to trial and pleaded guilty to the bombings. But already, with the help of prominent Unionists and the RUC, the IRA had been blamed and O’Neill forced out: ‘It was Protestants who first turned to the use of gelignite in this particular cycle of Ulster politics. As O’Neill resigned ... his last message to the Prime Minister at Westminster, Harold Wilson, was to warn him of the dangers of right-wing extremism [my emphasis].’
Three months before O’Neill resigned, members of Peoples Democracy set off on a Civil Rights march from Belfast to Derry. They were ambushed at Burntollet by loyalists, some of whom were later identified as off-duty members of the B-Specials.
The marchers were attacked again in Derry and later that evening a large RUC force invaded the nationalist Bogside. Locals said that the RUC men smashed windows and appeared drunk and were abusive. Some were loudly singing their version of the Monkees popular hit:
In April the RUC invaded the Bogside again; this time they forced their way into a house and gave 42-year-old Samuel Devenney a severe beating. The first civilians to die in the past thirty years of conflict were 67-year-old Francis McCloskey and Devenney, both from the Derry area. They died within days of one another in July 1969, McCloskey after being hit on the head by an RUC baton, Devenney from the injuries he had received three months earlier after he was attacked in his own home by RUC men.
Despite the repression the Civil Rights Movement continued to grow, attracting support both in Northern Ireland and abroad. Under increasing pressure, the Northern Ireland government promised some reforms, but continued to use the RUC and B-Specials to suppress nationalist areas. In August 1969, after an annual Orange march, the RUC launched another attack on the Bogside area of Derry. The conflict lasted for two days and in the end the police were driven out of the Bogside by its nationalist inhabitants - the event that sparked the ‘troubles’. In desperation, the RUC Inspector General and the new Unionist Prime Minister, Chichester-Clark, asked Westminster to send in British troops.
The conflict which started in Derry soon spread to Belfast, which was also soon in turmoil with street fighting and other violent incidents occurring. It became clear that the RUC were no more welcome on the Falls Road than they had been in the Bogside and they began patrolling nationalist areas in Shorland armoured cars:
On 14th August 1969, as the disturbances intensified, RUC men opened up with rifle fire on the Divis Flats and three RUC Shorlands joined in with their Brownings killing 9-year-old Patrick Rooney, who was asleep in bed in one of the flats. In the early hours of the next morning a British soldier home on leave, 20-year-old Trooper Hugh McCabe, was also killed by RUC guns as he watched events from a balcony in the flats.
Victor Arbuckle, a 29-year-old constable, was the first RUC man to die. His death came after the Hunt Committee - set up by Westminster to advise on policing in Northern Ireland after British TV viewers had seen peaceful civil rights protesters being batoned off their own streets by the RUC - had recommended that the B-Specials should be disbanded and the RUC disarmed. Arbuckle was killed during a loyalist riot on the Shankill Road that had started as a protest against the Hunt Committee’s proposals.
This initial violence from within the unionist / loyalist community - which resulted in the first bombings and the first killings of civilians, a soldier and a RUC man - had come from their paranoid and frenzied reaction to the peaceful Civil Rights Movement. At the time the IRA was barely functioning. This indicated that the principal cause of the ‘troubles’ was unionist extremism and not nationalist agitation. The real problem in the North was therefore not IRA violence, but unionist intransigence and domination - that was to continue, still with the connivance of British politicians, up to the present day.
While everyone who took part in the conflict bears a responsibility for the causalities that would mount in the years to come, the greatest blame, however, still rests with the British politicians who lacked the inclination and/or courage to tackle the roots of the problem - therefore being primarily responsible for the drift into armed conflict. By building a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ that discriminated against Catholics - making them into second class citizens – Unionists had effectively created an unstable statelet that was bound to explode sooner or later. Partition had created, rather than solved, a problem and the way the situation, from 1969, moved from civil rights to armed struggle clearly showed that Northern Ireland was a failed entity – which ignited into spontaneous combustion when unionist dominance was challenged.
43: Ibid - Ulster,
44: Monthly Review,
......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................
Now read chapter eight of Oliver’s Army