The following appeared in The Irish Press on Saturday 16th August 1969. Written by ‘A Northern Correspondent’ under the heading ‘BELFAST LETTER’ and entitled ‘THE OLD DIVISIONS ARE BACK’, it appeared the day after the burning of Bombay Street. Whereas the Battle of the Bogside had began on the previous Tuesday (12th August) there had been outbreaks of intense rioting in Belfast in the preceding days and weeks. On the Wednesday Taoiseach Jack Lynch had said on television that (in reference to events in Derry), “It is evident that the Stormont Government is no longer in control of the situation. Indeed the present situation is the inevitable outcome of the policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont Governments. It is clear, also, that the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.” One small bit of context that is often overlooked is that the UVF had bombed RTÉ’s offices in Donnybrook in Dublin on the 5th August (by 5th August the press were also ominously reporting that the northern government had begun to re-organise the prisons in the north in anticipation of a large intake). Lynch’s words, though, created a hostage to fortune for himself, Fianna Fáil and to some extent the south itself.
Almost immediately, Lynch was being lampooned (see September 1969’s United Irishman below). The soft pro-unionist emphasis of the piece by ‘A Northern Correspondent’ in the Irish Press (quoted in full at the end of this post) may perhaps a better reflection of the real attitude among Fianna Fáil in August 1969. Even the title, ‘The Old Divisions Are Back’ weakly implies those old divisions (in employment, housing, voting rights etc) had at some point gone away, a view that certainly wasn’t held by either the Civil Rights movement or republicans.
The next day the northern government’s Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark responded to Lynch saying, “This is not the agitation of a minority seeking by lawful means the assertion of political rights. It is the conspiracy of forces seeking to overthrow a Government democratically elected by a large majority. What the teenage hooligans seek beyond cheap kicks I do not know. But of this I am quite certain – they are being manipulated and encouraged by those who seek to discredit and overthrow this Government.“
Protests against events in Derry on the 12th and 13th led to further violence in Belfast on the Thursday (14th) which included a handful of attacks mounted by IRA volunteers (these actually happened after Chichester-Clark’s speech). Early on the Friday morning, the Belfast IRA O/C Billy Millen and nineteen others were arrested and detained under the Special Powers Act. Ad hoc groups of ex-IRA volunteers, Catholic ex-servicemen and others began to try and defend districts being attacked by armed unionists. Belatedly, the IRA Chief of Staff Cathal Goulding issued a statement on the following Monday stating that IRA units had been in action. On the previous Friday a statement from the ‘republican movement’ had issued from the National Solidarity Committee on the Friday (15th) but made no reference to IRA units.
That night and the next day there was a confused series of clashes along interface areas where the RUC and B Specials deployed armoured cars, firing Browning heavy machines guns indiscriminately into residential buildings and killing, among others, nine year old Patrick Rooney. By the end of the Friday there were seven dead in Belfast (and one in Armagh). While destruction of individual buildings and rows of houses was widespread in Belfast, symbolically, attention fell to how loyalists burned down pretty much all of Bombay Street, as well as considerable numbers of houses in Cupar Street and Kashmir Road. From that Friday evening until the Saturday evening British soldiers began to be deployed in areas which had seen the most intense violence. As well as the dead, in the previous days as many as 750 people had been injured, including 133 with gunshot wounds.
This was ‘A Northern Correspondent’s’ response in The Irish Press:
ORANGE and Green. Protestant and Catholic. Six Counties and Twenty-Six. The old divisions reassert themselves.
Where is the non-sectarian, non-violent civil rights movement in all this? For the moment, the language is emotional and ‘blood-curdling. “This is the end,” comes a message from the Bogside, but the battle continues. “A war of genocide is about to flare across the North,” says a CBA statement. Maj. Chichester-Clark appeals for peace. “The tragedy of it it is that the hopes of many are put at risk by the irresponsibility of the few.”
Mr. Lynch thinks the situation worthy of a United Nations peace-keeping force. He asks the British Government to review the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The Irish Army sets up field hospitals for those Northerners who prefer not to be treated in a Northern hospital in case they fall foul of the police.
At times it seems a macabre comedy. Surely a U.N. force in Ireland would better be the subject of a farce. Surely the North is not worth the attention it is getting from the world’s Press.
And yet the violence continues, and no-one has found a way to end it. Mr . Lynch’s broadcast indicated a concern about events in the North; Major Chichester-Clark’s instant indignation was predictable, but in the long run it must always be a good thing to attack the Unionist assumption that no one else has a right to say what is good for the North.
Mr. Lynch, of course, is right. The “reunification of the national territory” is probably the only course that would provide a permanent solution. If the Unionists ever lose their battle to remain British , they will be able to shed their negative thinking and make some positive contribution to Irish life.
But is it not premature to look for this kind of revolution now? The evidence of the ballot box is that a majority in the North continues to support the British link.
As Major Chichester-Clark pointed out, most of Ulster remains at peace. These disorders have been restricted to comparatively limited areas, and most Ulster people have regarded them with abhorrence.
And yet his administration begins to have the same air of doom as Capt. O’Neill’s had in its last days. There is no indication that Maj. Chichester-Clark has the slightest idea how to get out of the present morass.
His broadcast appeal was to that broad mass of moderate opinion which still exists in the North, and which is still going about its daily tasks. But that majority has got to make its voice heard. That majority has got to care enough about its own future to stop it being thrown away.”
There were clear echoes of Capt. O’Neill’s December broadcast, in which the former Premier asked that Ulster’s voice ‘be heard’. But Maj. Chichester-Clark does not command the allegiance of moderates, as O’Neill once did; the moderates are still looking for their new leader.
Moreover, it is doubtful if the Premier is capable of real communication with the young people who have been throwing stones and petrol bombs in Derry’s Bogside. The only meaningful contact he has is through the batons of a police force which, as the Taoiseach rightly pointed out, is no longer accepted as impartial.
The Northern Government will do its best to ride out the storm. It has no option, unless it is to admit that self government has failed in the North. But what if the storm becomes worse?
For once, it seems, the Unionists are shaky. The arrogance of earlier years has gone, and there is a realisation that world opinion is very much on the side of the Catholic minority. If the youths of Bogside were wrong to attack the Apprentice Boys and the police, almost 50 years of Unionist misrule must be held partly responsible.
On the face of it, the Government has no answer to the critical situation. The ban on processions and public meetings will eliminate some potential sources of trouble, but the ban was widely ignored on the first night as C.R. bodies throughout the North tried to draw some of the pressure away from Derry.
To extend the use of the Special Powers Act — for example, by interning suspected trouble-makers — could also bring a violent reaction. It is not easy to say what the Government should do.
In such a situation, some of the Unionist Party’s critics see an opportunity to bring the Government down. If the governing party proves incapable of restoring peace, then an outside intervention becomes likely. On this reasoning, it is necessary to keep up the atmosphere of tension.
Of course, some Unionists have all along seen the civil rights movement as a front for Republicanism. There are Republicans at work, certainly but many C.R. workers would be content with a Westminster intervention, on the grounds that anything would be an improvement on the Unionists.
The likelihood of such an intervention increases as the violence escalates, but there has been a very clear statement from the British Government that the North’s constitutional link with Great Britain is not in danger. The pledge contained in the 1949 Ireland Act is renewed; Northern Ireland or any part of it will not cease to be part of the United Kingdom without Stormont’s consent.
Mr. Lynch’s broadcast will not improve relations between the Governments in Belfast and Dublin. The euphoria of the Lemass-O’Neill meetings is now largely, if not wholly, dissipated. But how could the Taoiseach. have remained silent?
The whole situation, alas, is one in which all the participants tend to retreat into traditional refuges. Orange and Green, Protestant and Catholic. Six Counties and Twenty-Six.
Those who have tried to break down some of the barriers of fear and suspicion see their slow progress destroyed, and wait for violence to run its course so that they can begin again.