Armed confrontations between the IRA and RUC in Belfast

Armed confrontations between the Belfast IRA and RUC were not commonplace. While IRA volunteers engaged the RUC in 1932 during the Outdoor Relief riots and again during the attempted pogrom of 1935, in the former case they were not acting under IRA orders while in both instances it occurred during more general violent clashes. During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, there were numerous occasions on which the IRA and RUC exchanged fire in Belfast. While two RUC fatalities occurred in 1933, otherwise anyone wounded during the exchanges generally survived including both RUC and IRA personnel. By the late 1930s, though, IRA volunteers could expect at least ten years in prison if arrested. Tactically, by early 1938, the RUC also appeared to be showing more bravado in armed raids on houses they believed were occupied by the IRA, starting with the aftermath of the shooting of William Smyth, when an RUC party including Constable Patrick Murphy tried to storm a house in John Street. The IRA’s Northern Command O/C (later Chief of Staff), Eoin McNamee, had also directed volunteers to resist arrest if armed, where they could practicably expect to escape.

This was all to come to a head in 1942, starting with Cawnpore Street where Constable Patrick Murphy was shot dead at number 53, for which the O/C of the IRA unit involved, Tom Williams, was later to be hung. This was to establish a pattern over the next two years which saw more fatalities in Belfast including several more members of the IRA and RUC.

The main confrontations up to 1942 are detailed below. After 1944, confrontations between the IRA and RUC did not really occur again until 1969.

One of the first direct, armed, confrontations occurred in December 1932, when the RUC ran into a group of IRA volunteers being drilled in Finaghy (the RUC claimed seventy to eighty men were present). The men scattered when the RUC appeared and while at least two IRA volunteers, John Turley and Chris McLaughlin, appear to have been armed, there was no exchange of fire.

On the 28th February 1933, during the railway strike, the Belfast O/C ordered an IRA unit to the Great Northern’s lorry exit at the corner of Durham Street and Grosvenor Road. There, at the request of the unions, they were to fire warning shots at strike-breaking lorry drivers. The drivers were being guarded by about twenty-five RUC men.

IRA volunteers Bob Bradshaw and Joe Pimley went down the Grosvenor Road and took up positions in the darkness at eleven o’clock. Bradshaw opened fire on the lorries as they emerged. Meanwhile Pimley discovered that his pistol was defective and couldn’t provide covering fire. After three shots, Bradshaw’s firing position was identified and an RUC sergeant came at him firing (the RUC reported they had come under fire from six gunmen). Once Bradshaw counted off the RUC sergeant’s six bullets he made a break for Stanley Street followed by Pimley.

Two RUC Constables, Lally and Ryan were going along Albert Street when they heard shots. Realising that other RUC men on duty at the goods yard on the Grosvenor Road must be under fire, they headed towards Stanley Street. When they turned into Stanley Street, they saw two men (which must have been Bradshaw and Pimley) firing revolvers. The two RUC constables were quickly forced to duck as they too came under fire from other RUC men firing from the Grosvenor Road. As Bradshaw and Pimley came up Stanley Street, they realised they were cut off and ducked down Cullingree Street where they were joined by Jack Crosskerry (who had been one of the lookouts and had presumably escaped into Cullingtree Street via Trelford Street).

Lally and Ryan then ran back into Albert Street intending to get down to Durham Street and cut the three off again. Bradshaw had also managed to reload his gun. At roughly the same time, they all reached the junction of Albert Street and Durham Street, where the three IRA volunteers had crossed the road and were walking in front of the Queen Victoria Public Elementary School (now demolished).

MapBradshaw

The scene of the shooting on 28th February 1933.

As Ryan rounded the corner he saw three men on the other side of the road rather than the two he had saw in Stanley Street. As Cullingtree Street was joined to Albert Street by Fox Row and Grosvenor Road by Trelford Street, the three IRA volunteers could have easily bypassed Ryan and Lally. Presumably Ryan was unsure if they were the same men as he pointed his revolver at them and shouted “What are you fellows up to?” as he crossed over the road. Ryan, Pimley and Bradshaw were now within five yards of each other. Lally appears to have been a little behind Ryan and was carrying his revolver in his hand.

Ryan, Lally and Bradshaw all opened fire.  Ryan got off three shots but was hit by four bullets fired by Bradshaw, two in the stomach, one in the chest and one in the face. He collapsed to the ground immediately. Lally fired but hit nothing. Pimley again tried his gun but, as his ammunition was dozed, it was to no effect. Lally then fired several wild shots, emptying his revolver after Bradshaw, Pimley and Jack Crosskerry as they ran up Albert Street. Several girls who witnessed the shooting said they kept glancing back at the scene as they fled.

Ryan was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital but his wounds were fatal. He was the first RUC man to die in action against the IRA since 1922. Bradshaw, Pimley and Crosskerry all fled to Dublin (despite RUC reports, none were wounded in the incident). The strikers, who were mostly Protestant, were not put off by the fatality and the strike continued (there was another bomb attempt on 2nd March at Adelaide locomotive sheds). Meanwhile the RUC tore the Grosvenor Road apart searching for the gunmen. The northern government offered a reward of £1,200 for information.

In October 1933, two RUC Constables, Anderson and Fahy, were on protection duty guarding George Gibson at his Roumania Street home. Three men carrying revolvers, their faces masked by handkerchieves, approached them from the Servia Street corner and told the two RUC men to put their hands up. Anderson drew his revolver and at least one of the gunmen opened fire. Anderson was hit in the wrist and staggered out into the road where a second bullet hit him in the stomach. Fahy threw himself on the ground. He then fired off a few shots from his revolver but didn’t manage to hit anyone. The gunmen escaped back down Servia Street. The next day a revolver, with two chambers empty, was found inside the railings of Dunville Park, five hundred metres away. One eyewitness reported that the three young men involved were followed by four youths, suggesting this was an organised IRA operation. During the night Anderson died from his wounds in hospital. It is not clear now whether the attack on the RUC in Roumania Street was planned, although it has echoes of the attack carried out on orders from the Belfast O/C in Durham Street the previous year (as described above). George Gibson reportedly moved out of the house to an unknown destination the next day.

In response, the RUC flooded the district with Lancia cars and carried out a series of raids over the next couple of days, mainly between 4 am and 5 am in the mornings. They swooped and arrested suspected IRA volunteers in Belfast, including most of the Belfast staff. In the early morning of Friday 13th alone, they detained thirty-three men across the city. By the Friday evening the RUC had served detention orders on forty-nine men who had been moved into Crumlin Road Prison. At one stage sixty men were detained but no prosecution was ever made.

While the December 1935 Campbell College raid had led to a running gun battle in which the IRA and RUC blazed off shots at each other to little real effect. At one stage this included an RUC Constable Ian Hay and three IRA volunteers firing revolvers at each other in a kitchen which measured about three and half metres by three metres in which there were also Billy and Cassie Hope, Jean Getty and her two children. Remarkably only Hay was hit, being wounded by four bullets (although he made a full recovery). IRA volunteer Eddie McCartney, who exchanged shots with the RUC elsewhere that evening was captured and sentenced to ten years.

Two months later, an IRA party drilling off the Glen Road on the night of 9th February was observed by an RUC sergeant who tried to use cover to get close and observe them. The IRA look-out had spotted him though and jumped out brandishing a revolver. In the ensuing struggle, the look-out fired off two shots but lost the revolver.  As the look-out ran off the sergeant fired two shots after him but was knocked to the ground by the other IRA volunteers who also made good their escape.

In the week after De Valera’s new constitution came into force in January 1938, a pressure group within the IRA carried out an unauthorised attack, on this occasion trying to kill an ex-prison warder, called William Smyth, who Harry White says had a reputation for beatings when he worked in Belfast prison where he had been a warder between 1927 and 1936. Smyth now worked as a night watchman on Divis Street in the stables of Wordie and Company. While he had worked in Belfast prison he was believed to be under threat and had been placed under RUC protection, but that had been withdrawn. On the night of 5th January, six IRA volunteers entered the yard, all carrying revolvers at 8.20 pm. They confronted Smith and one opened fire, wounding Smith four times, with one wound just above the heart.

When they were leaving the scene, four of the IRA volunteers ran into RUC Sergeant Latimer and Constable Patrick Murphy in a patrol car. In court the RUC were to claim to have been unaware of the shooting and had merely observed four men ‘jaywalking’ on Divis Street. Latimer and Murphy had decided to intercept them after they headed into John Street across the waste ground at the corner of Divis Street and John Street. They seem to have intended to check out the ‘jaywalkers’ as they rejoined the footpath at other side of the waste ground in John Street. When the IRA volunteers observed the RUC car turning into John Street, they presumed that the RUC were aware of the shooting that had just taken place. The IRA volunteers had barely rejoined the footpath when the RUC patrol appears to have passed them. Thinking that the RUC were aware that the shooting had just taken place, one IRA volunteer opened fire at the car. Even though the range was short the shots missed and one passed through the window of Theresa McNally’s house, number 20 on the other side of John Street, smashing a flower pot on the windowsill and then hitting the fire place. A chaotic chase by the RUC followed.

The patrol car’s attempt to cut off the escaping IRA volunteers in John Street was now delayed by a children’s bonfire that stopped the car going any further along the street. With the patrol car now in their way, one volunteer had to roll under the side of car and out the other side then run off. Latimer and Murphy had to dismount the car and follow the men on foot along John Street. They thought they had one IRA volunteer cornered where he had ran through the front door of a house close to the end of John Street. Latimer and Murphy then burst into the house with their weapons at the ready only to find he had ran straight through and disappeared over the yard wall. In the end all six IRA volunteers escaped.

Map Wordle

The stables of Wordie and Co was located roughly opposite the end of Barrack Street (on Divis Street). The IRA unit escaped across the road into John Street.

Another IRA volunteer (one of the two who hadn’t tried to escape along John Street) left his revolver on a windowsill as they left the scene. A local girl picked it up only for the IRA volunteer to return, take it off her and put it back on the windowsill (this appears to have been pre-arranged – the weapon was being left to be picked up and returned to an IRA arms dump). It had disappeared by the time the RUC heard the story and turned up looking for it.  Smyth’s wounds were almost fatal, but he managed to make a full recovery.

Another attempt to storm a house was then made in August 1940 when the RUC got suspicious of a man who ran into a house in Baker Street. Up to five RUC constables drew their revolvers and then tried to storm the house. A crowd then formed at the house which the RUC tried (and failed) to disperse by firing shots in the air. But then IRA volunteers, who had gathered at the top of the street, opened fire on the RUC constable who had been left to guard the door. More RUC constables then joined in and up to sixty shots were exchanged. In the end RUC reinforcements arrived to extract the party from Baker Street. Further raids were then carried out in the area leading to twelve arrests.

In July 1941, the Belfast IRA made an attempt to raid the head office of McAleveys bookmakers in Berry Street. A six-man IRA unit took part, gaining entrance to the office at around 7 pm when the takings were being counted. Staff managed to raise the alarm and two B Specials appeared as the IRA unit were about to leave empty-handed. The Specials opened fire on the IRA unit in the doorway of the bookmakers. Only one volunteer got clean away, despite having the B Specials fire a shot after him. Of the remaining five, Robert Dempsey sustained stomach wounds, while Thomas Marley, Gerry Watson, Gerry McAvoy and Bobby McGuinness were all arrested. None of the IRA unit fired a shot during the incident. All five were given ten years in prison a couple of weeks later.

Hunger strikes and contesting narratives in republicanism

Historically, hunger strikes and prison protests have been a recurring aspect of conflict in Ireland. Generally, increasing rates of incarceration have coincided with the continuation of a campaign of resistance to the status quo inside the prisons by demanding recognition of the political status of imprisoned republicans (as an overt and highly public critique of the legitimacy of the various administrations in Ireland). Republican writing provides some quite intimate insights into the realities of such protests and the impact on the body of refusing food (and at times liquids). The use of the body to articulate resistance to challenge the status quo, historically at least, has had deep resonance in the public psyche in Ireland.

Critically, though, it highlights that the theatre of conflict here is the media and public discourse. A prison protest behind (literally) closed doors, for all the bravery and resilience of its participants, can be readily ignored by the authorities without a coordinated publicity campaign to apply pressure. In a hunger or thirst strike, the protestors try and trade increasing public concern as to their physical well-being against mobilising that public opinion to bring pressure on the authorities to reach and settlement, and by doing so, achieve some of their demands.

This is clear in the various protests I’ve blogged on here, from the 1936 hunger strike, through to the Armagh hunger strike in 1943, the 1944 hunger strike and 1946 strikes involving Sean McCaughey and David Fleming. Another significant hunger strike had taken place in 1940 (in which Jack McNeela and Tony D’Arcy died). The failure of newspapers like The Irish News to provide publicity and the role of nationalist and other politicians in undermining the protests. The cumulative impact was to give republicans a greater grasp of the necessary interplay of strategy and publicity that was evident both in the absence of major prison protests in the 1956-62 campaign and in the role of Republican News in reporting on the hunger strike led by Billy McKee in 1972.

This appreciation of publicity and propaganda shouldn’t be a surprise, since wider republican strategy consistently relied on mobilising public opinion, rather than being expected to culminate in a military victory, to achieve its aims. The extent to which that strategy was conscious or subconscious is perhaps a different argument. What makes this contentious for some, too, is that it centres on a key republican narrative that violence was political rather than some inchoate urge to simply commit ‘criminal acts’ (as its opponents would consistently claim). I would argue that, retrospectively, IRA strategy from the 1920s to (at least) the 1960s, was largely political only with little or no actual military dimension.

All this does, to some extent, explain why some have tried to contest the narrative around the 1981 hunger strike. Currently The Irish News is promoting a reading of events that is pushed by republicans and others who oppose the political strategy being followed by Sinn Féin, despite it appearing to be flatly contradicted by the evidence. While others can tease out the details of this elsewhere, my point is simply that the dispute illustrates the extent to which republicans (both on and off the Sinn Féin bus) understand the centrality of publicity and narrative. Ironically (in light of me having this blog), contesting historical legitimacy is a zero sum game of interest to less and less people as it progresses. To paraphrase the political scientist, Wallace Stanley Sayre, “Historical politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

History Is Written By The Victors, Even When They Lose

Great overview of the flawed ‘warring tribes’ narrative that is deployed to gloss over the unresolved issues of colonialism in Ireland.

[If you don’t follow An Sionnach Fionn’s blog, by the way, it’s time you got your act together.]

AN SIONNACH FIONN

The commonmaxim, “history is written by the victors“, is afavourite one amongwriters and journalists trying to elucidatethe contested pastsof colonised peoplesornations for readers more familiar withthe versionscraftedbythe colonisers. Ironically the quote is popularlyattributed to the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill despite mostsources pointing tothe anti-imperialists George Orwell and Jawaharlal Nehru (respectively, “History is written by the winners” in 1944, and “History is almost always written by the victors and conquerors, and gives their view” in 1946). The saying is especially true of Ireland’s turbulent past which has been filtered through British eyes and words since the fevered imaginings of the Medieval scribe,Giraldus Cambrensis. So accustomed did the English-speaking world become to the barbarous portrayal of the Irish that many ofour ownpeople stillseem to believe in the inherent inferiority of our indigenous language, culture and nationality. Or in the case of the British-apologist school of…

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After Bombay Street: The Old Divisions Are Back

The prelude to Bombay Street

The following is the summary of news from Belfast on 14th August in the lead up to the burning of Bombay Street on the afternoon of the 15th.

With the Battle of the Bogside having begun on August 12th, Belfast had been under pressure to draw off unionist forces from Derry. To that end, with the very limited resources left to him, the Belfast O/C Billy McMillen ordered a number of operations to be carried out against the RUC and Specials over the evening and night of 13-14th August.

McMillen and nineteen others were detained by the RUC the following night, prior to the attack on Bombay Street. Despite that, the pitiful condition of the Belfast IRA was blamed both on McMillen and current IRA policy. However, that was not to be an issue until a month after the violence of mid-August.

Bombay Street, August 1969


This summary was published in the Irish Independent on 14th August 1969.

SHOTS were fired at the police patrols in the Leeson Street area of Belfast late last night but no one was injured. A hand grenade was also thrown but failed to explode.

The firing of the shots was confirmed by R.U.C. Headquarters early today following persistent reports in the area of firearms being used.

Police also confirmed that six shots were fired from a passing car at Andersonstown Police Station, Falls Road, Belfast but no damage was done.

On Falls Road early today dozens of petrol bombs were being tossed from side streets on to the main road, some hitting passing cars and other vehicles.

About 15 cars were burned out in the car showroom that was set on fire by the rioters.

Elsewhere in Belfast at the Unity Walk flats, where Protestant-Catholic trouble erupted two weeks ago, the barricades went up against a possible attack by Shankill road people. The barricades erected following earlier trouble, which had been taken down some days ago, were manned by vigilantes some carrying sticks and other weapons.

Two factories and the Falls Road branch library were among the targets for petrol bomb attacks while Springfield Road police station nearby was also hit.

The Belfast IRA and politics, up to 1969

The recent release of the film 66 Days about the hunger strike of IRA Volunteer Bobby Sands in 1981 has attracted considerable publicity. One of the notable things about the commentary around the film is the received wisdom that the 1981 hunger strike set the IRA on the road to politicisation (or words to that effect). Yet repeatedly, in the period from 1922 to the 1960s, the IRA had participated in a variety of political projects. The 1980-81 hunger strike and the blanket protest that began with Kieran Nugent in 1976 started barely twelve years after Billy McMillen, then Belfast Battalion O/C, stood in West Belfast in the 1964 general election (the ‘Tricolour Riots’).

Republican election headquarters, Belfast, 1964

Political projects supported by the IRA didn’t usually extend to officially supporting candidates in elections to either local authorities or the northern parliament. Yet, paradoxically, the IRA usually stood candidates in elections to the Westminster parliament (which it explicitly wasn’t going to attend). After 1981, the IRA extended the range of elections in which it participated and ultimately loosened its abstentionist policy, however, the impetus was no different to previous initiatives where the concern within the IRA was that political gains would be made by others attempting to cash in on momentum achieved by what it saw as the sacrifices made by IRA volunteers.

In 1933, in the aftermath of the Outdoor Relief and rail strikes of 1932-33, the IRA had supported four candidates in the general election to the northern parliament. Again, in the aftermath of the violence of 1935, the IRA stood (among others) a Belfast Battalion staff officer, Charlie Leddy, in the Westminster election that November (while Leddy was imprisoned in Arbour Hill in Dublin). Leddy polled more than 20,000 votes in West Belfast but still lost to his unionist opponent. Leddy’s Director of Elections was the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, while in 1933 it had been the Belfast O/C Davy Matthews. Prior to 1933, while officially supporting IRA initiatives like Saor Éire and Comhairle na Poblachta, the IRA didn’t stand a candidate in Belfast after the 1924 election (when Hugh Corvin and Paddy Nash stood in Belfast).

The departure of serial political intriguers like Sean McBride from the Army Councill and GHQ in the late 1930s, coincided with both the expansion of the Belfast IRA and a disengagement from electoral politics. During this same period, in 1936 and the mid-1940s, the Belfast IRA absorbed key lessons in the interaction of publicity and prison protests such as hunger strike. These lessons were to be applied with increasing effectiveness from 1972 onwards, with 1940s prisoners like Billy McKee and Joe Cahill now in senior command positions within the IRA. Again, by the late 1940s, perceiving advances being made by various left and ‘republican’ candidates, the IRA co-operated with Sinn Féin in contesting (and outside Belfast), winning electoral contests. During this period, the Anti-Partition League (to some extent a McBride vehicle), the Nationalists (loosely aligned with Fianna Fáil) and a variety of left republicans created a series of dynamics that gave added imperative for the IRA to support candidates in elections. Senior IRA figures, like Jimmy Steele, Frank McGlade and Billy McMillen, continued to be put forward as candidates in Belfast.

Although candidates were stood in Westminster elections up to 1964, no real inroads were made in Belfast. Again, little has been made of the limited military capacity developed by the Belfast Battalion in this period particularly given it’s apparent indifference to the 1956-62 ‘Border’ campaign. Arguably, the Belfast IRA, through a focus on publicity and some limited electoral activity, was beginning to explore political alternatives in the 1950s and 1960s. Mostly, conventional histories view IRA strategy through the prism of its Dublin-based leadership. A recurring friction, though, is almost always evident in the relationship between the Belfast IRA and Dublin throughout this period. The failure of this dynamic was probably more important in 1969 than any dispute over politicisation, militarisation or a leftward trend in IRA strategy and policy. No candidate was put forward in 1966 or 1970, while Albert Price and John Brady (Republican Clubs) stood in 1974. While the Republican Clubs continued to run candidates, the IRA did not support candidates again in Belfast until the 1982 Assembly election.

By the late 1970s many influential voices within the IRA and wider republican community would have been keenly aware of lessons learnt about politicisation, publicity and prison protests in the previous decades. Subsequently the role this learning played in the development of strategy in 1981 seems to have been forgotten or overlooked.