Belfast Pogrom article in the Irish Times

Interesting, if a little flawed, article in the Irish Times this morning: Belfast pogroms: ‘The street was a mass of brain matter and blood’ based on the latest release of pension files on militaryarchives.ie (see here for more on that). Hopefully it is not a foretaste of how the 1920-1922 period in Belfast is going to get covered over the next few years.

The articles opening premise – that the scale of violence in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 will be a revelation to many people – is undoubtedly true. Depsite the fact that around 20-25% of all violent fatalities in the War of Independence occurred in the city yet there are maybe only 4-5 books and a very limited amount of scholarship on Belfast during that period to date.

But the framing of much of the article is at best loose, if not misleading. For a start, while operations by the IRA elsewhere could lead to intense reprisals against Catholics in Belfast it is clear from the pulses of violence in the city that political events and a unionist strategy to try and drive as many Catholics as possible from the city were mainly responsible (you can follow the timings in Kieran Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War, p260-265). The modern ‘tit-for-tat’ trope about the conflict here doesn’t really apply when the most violent months coincided with the events like the truce and treaty votes and the assumption of security policy by the unionist government in November 1921. The Irish Times isn’t alone in this regard – few writers make the connection between the tactics of the three constabularies added to the RIC during the War of Independence – the Auxiliary Division, the Special Reserve (the ‘Black and Tans’) and the Ulster Special Constabulary (who ‘Specials’). All three carried out counter-insurgency operations including reprisal attacks, yet only the attacks in north by the Ulster Special Constabulary are classed as ‘sectarian strife’. While the ‘Specials’ found willing helpers among the local population, any distinction between counter-insurgency operations by the Auxies and Black and Tans and those by the Ulster Special Constabulary like the McMahons massacre, Arnon Street and a myriad of killings and abduction is entirely artificial.

The Irish Times also seems to have a worrying lack of appreciation of the origin and nature of the content of the pension files held in the Military Archives. It is asserted that “The rolls list every volunteer in the IRA during the revolutionary period 1916-1923” when they in fact are a list of names gathered in the 1930s and are (by their own admissions) incomplete. The list of fatalities from 1920-1922 in the Belfast files is suggested to be the basis of ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’ – a book produced in August 1922 (you can read more about that book here and here). Yet the list is clearly compiled from the book (and was prepared in the 1930s as part of the work of the Belfast Brigade committee for the pensions board).

Interestingly, though, the Irish Times doesn’t shy away from use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe the events in Belfast. But is all of this a foretaste of how the centenary of various events will be covered in the next few years, or, is simply the start of a process of learning about it? Either way  it is obviously worth a read (you can do that here).

[And click here if you want to pick up a physical copy of the ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’]

…for fear of alienating the Unionist vote… #Brexit

A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.

Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).

Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.

On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.

This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.

The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.

To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.

European Union flag

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled over a pension application?

Was a Belfast IRA commander expelled from the IRA for making a pension application? One of the files included in the latest release of files from the Military Archives is a pension applications made by Davy Mathews starting in 1933 when he was O/C of the Belfast IRA. In January 1934 he was expelled from the IRA. Nominally the reason for his expulsion was that he had allowed prisoners to sign out of Crumlin Road jail for Christmas in 1933 (against IRA standing orders). But now Mathews pension application documents have been published, it looks like the IRA may have had other reasons to expel him too.

Mathews

Davy Mathews (from Jim McDermot’s ‘Northern Divisions’ book)

Mathews formally made his application for a pension on 1st January 1933. In his application letter he recorded that he had joined the Willie Nelson Sluagh of Fianna Éireann in 1914, progressing to join the Irish Volunteers after 1916. He was then a member of the James Connolly Sluagh whose O/C was Joe McKelvey while Mathews himself was First Lieutenant (Fianna officers held dual membership of Fianna Éireann and the IRA). He was arrested and questioned for a day in 1917 after being observed taking charge of Fianna party drilling in the open. Matthews continued active in IRA throughout the War of Independence and was eventually arrested in September 1922 with Belfast Brigade commander, Paddy Nash, and was imprisoned for possession of a revolver. After his release he was pressed to accept a commission in the newly formed (pro-treaty) National Army but instead he agreed to take charge of an (anti-treaty) IRA flying column in Longford. Before he got there, he was arrested at Easter 1923 and spent time on the Argenta prison ship and Larne Camp from where he was sent to Derry Gaol to spend six weeks in isolation before embarking on a hunger strike. A son born while he was imprisoned was a year old before Mathews saw him when he was released in August 1924.

Interned again in 1925 during the collapse of the Boundary Commission, his mother died on Christmas Day but he was refused leave to attend the funeral. The 1925 internees were only released when the Labour government in London put pressure on the Unionists at the end of January 1926.

Mathews remained active in the IRA as well as a prominent member of the Joe McKelvey GAA club. He recorded in 1933 that he had been O/C of an IRA Battalion three times and arrested each time. In September 1933 he submitted a pension application, giving his own rank as O/C Belfast Battalion since 1928 and recording that he had been made O/C Ulster in 1931 on the IRA’s Army Executive. He named some of those who could vouch for his service in his 1933 application including Maurice Twomey (as IRA Chief of Staff) and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele (as members of the Belfast Battalion staff). Imprisoned in November 1933, he was then dismissed from the IRA in January 1934 for encouraging prisoners to sign guarantees to get early release for Christmas.

Page_7_Image_1

Page from Davy Mathews pension application on 4/9/1933 naming Moss Twomey as IRA Chief of Staff and Joe McGurk, George Nash and Jimmy Steele as members of Belfast Battalion staff (for original see militaryarchives.ie file 1RB1254 David Mathews)

Since the IRA refused to recognise the authority of either administration in Belfast or Dublin in the 1930s, Mathews application for a pension would have been in violation of IRA standing orders at the time. While this may seem a little odd now, even in later decades the IRA, and Cumann na mBan, refused to let member hold service posts in the north (as they had to take an oath of allegiance to the crown) just as members did not recognise the courts, legal systems or electoral assemblies. Not only that, but Mathews names members of his Belfast Battalion staff and the Chief of Staff (Moss Twomey) on his application. While the IRA enjoyed a quasi-legal status in the south at the time, it seems unlikely that either Twomey or others in IRA GHQ would have been happy with Mathews. Mathews was on the IRA’s Army Executive as O/C Ulster from 1931 and so held a very senior post within the organisation. While the pretext given for his expulsion in January 1934 did not mention the pension application it seems unlikely that it would have been approved or gone unnoticed as part of the process was writing out to those named by applicants to get statement corroborating information on the application.

There is much more on Mathews time as Belfast O/C in the Belfast Battalion bookBelfast Battalion book.

The time line of Belfast IRA commanders has also been updated to reflect the dates given by Mathews (I’ll post more on this another day).

New IRA pension files released today

The Military Archives have released their most recent set of pension files today including documents shedding light on the activities of the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann. While they primarily relate to the years 1916 to 1923, there is a wealth of information buried within them relating to later periods of equally significant historical value. Here is one example to get started with.

One infamous episode in the history of the IRA was the takeover of IRA GHQ by the Belfast Battalion and court-martial of Acting IRA Chief of Staff, Stephen Hayes, in 1941. Hayes wrote a ‘confession’ (under duress) that was transcribed by Pearse Kelly (a future IRA Chief of Staff and later of RTÉ). This was annotated and used in further interrogation of Hayes (before he escaped by jumping out a window). The Kelly transcription survives in the National Library (you can read more about it here). The main accusation made against Hayes was that he was acting in concert with the Fianna Fáil government rather than in line with IRA strategy (there is more detail on this at the link above). I suspect that, if you follow the rationale seemingly applied in Hayes interrogation that the same accusation would likely have been levelled at Sean Russell if he had lived).

The main argument offered in Hayes defence (including by Hayes himself) was that he was subsequently sentenced by the Military Court to a number of years imprisonment. Other republicans, though, have dismissed the import of that insisting that Hayes was effectively kept in prison for his own safety and was comfortably looked after while there.

After his release Hayes made an application for a pension for his prior military service. Buried within his pension file is a seemingly innocuous memo. Under the terms of the various pension acts, those who had remained active in the IRA were forfeit of a certificate of service and pension entitlements. To facilitate an application for Hayes it was proposed to amend the legislation so that Hayes could receive a pension but, rather than make it specific to Hayes, to make it a more general amendment. It is notable, within the other releases (particularly of Belfast republicans), how many of those who had opposed the treaty and remained active in the IRA subsequently struggled to have their pension entitlements granted (in some cases, due to apparent obstruction by former comrades who had supported the treaty). Largely that appeared to be consistent with a policy of not granting pension entitlements to those who continued to dispute the authority or legitimacy of the southern state. That latter point might seem antiquated, yet given contemporary republican attitudes towards engaging with the authorities on either side of the border, it is significant to see the likes of Belfast IRA staff officers signing and submitting statements to support pension applicants in the 1930s.

Hayes legislation

Memo in Stephen Hayes pension file (MSPC, see link below).

Unlike when Hayes’ case arose, there had been no previous attempt to formally restore pension entitlements. So this may add further weight to the claims that Hayes’ real loyalties had lain with the Fianna Fáil government and as such he then received sympathetic treatment by the authorities as a reward.

I’ll post more on some of the new releases in the near future.

You can read more about the Hayes affair in the Belfast Battalion book.

You can search the Military Service Pensions Collection here.

You can see some of the Stephen Hayes files here.

Belfast ‘Peace Line’ over @IrishCentral

This week in 1969, the Belfast ‘peace line’ between the Falls and Shankill began to be changed from barbed wire to a solid visual barrier so the two communities could not even see each other.

It has remained that way ever since. Here’s a piece I wrote on it for Irish Central.

You can read it here on Irish Central.

The early barbed wire peace line.
The full barrier that was added to the barbed wire by the end of September then replaced it.

Belfast Brigade IRA files, new release by MSPC

Next month will see a further release of pension files from Military Archives in Dublin. The files are scanned copies of the applications made for a pension by individuals who were active in IRA, Cumann na mBan or Fianna Éireann over the period from 1913 to 1923, or the families. While the files contain information about the applicant they often include accounts of their activities, names of commanding officers and other bits of data that help put together a bigger picture of what was happening. I’ve mapped the 1540 files in the new release (see bottom of this post) to make them searchable by area and name (just click on the map to get a search window). The locations are approximate and you can find more on the address listed in the release from MSPC listing the files (you can view that here).

The files related to the Belfast Brigade due to be released in October 2019 are listed below and include some prominent names such as Dan Branniff, Mick Carolan, Rory Haskins, David McGuinness and Davy Matthews and span the period from before 1916 to the 1930s (when Matthews was O/C of the Belfast Battalion). They includes files on the IRA, Cumann na mBan and Fianna Éireann in Belfast and cover districts like Ardoyne, the Bone, the Falls, Hannahstown, Carrickhill, Smithfield and Sailortown. It is possible that other files with addresses outside Belfast will also contain information on Belfast Brigade activities.

The files released with Belfast addresses are listed below the map at the end of this post.

To search files that are currently available go to the Military Archives website (see here) and then use the search fields. Files can be quite large but include applications, transcripts of interviews about military service, administrative information, supporting letters and other information.

I’ll put together some updates based on the information in the files when they are released.

The map on the October 2019 release is below. You can see more maps on the Belfast IRA here (including maps of the Irish Volunteers in Belfast in 1916, Belfast Brigade of the 3rd Northern Division, Argenta internees etc and much more). And you can read some more about a book on the period (Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) in Belfast written by Fr John Hassan and suppressed in 1922 here.

Belfast files in the upcoming October 2019 release:

Boomer, Robert John 23 Clondara Street, Belfast

Branniff, Daniel 16 New Dock Street, Belfast

Carolan, Alphonsus 4 Chief Street, Crumlin Road, Ardoyne, Belfast

Carolan, Andrew 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1921)

Carolan, Michael 80 Chief Street, Belfast (Address in 1916 and 1920)

Cunningham, Edward 15 Wine Tavern Street, Belfast

Donegan, Benedict 12 Ardmoulin Street, Belfast

Elliott, George 8 Slate Street, Belfast (address in 1923)

Flynn, Thomas 3 Raglan Street, Belfast

Graham, Robert 73 Belmont Church Road, Belfast

Gray, Thomas 21 Earl Street, Belfast

Haskin, Robert Columcille 12 Glen Crescent, Falls Road, Anderstown, Belfast

Heathwood, Thomas 31 Upton Street, Belfast

Hegarty, William 449 Crumlin Road, Belfast

Keenan, John 28 California Street, Belfast

Matthews, David 70 Bombay Street, Belfast

McAlea, Joseph 42 Falls Road, Belfast

McCorry, William Braefoot, Hannastown/Hannahstown, Belfast

McGeown, Brigid 58 Earlscourt Street, Belfast

McGrattan, Peter 51 Walton Street, Crumlin Road, Belfast

McGuinness, David 42 Leoville Street, Belfast

McWhinney, Charles 61 Mill Street, Belfast (address in 1915)

McWhinney, James 118 Upper Library Street, Belfast

McWilliams, Patrick 121 Falls Road, Belfast

Moan, Owen 36 Glenview Street, Belfast

Moore, James Ardoyne, Belfast

Stewart, Charles McCaull 18 Parkview Street, Oldpark Road, Belfast