Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

In January 1966, the northern government’s Minister of Home Affairs, Brian McConnell made very public calls for the IRA to have the ‘good sense’ to not get involved in violence in the upcoming  1916 commemorations.

Then, in February 1966, an RUC vehicle and unionist party HQ were petrol-bombed. The petrol bomb was thrown at an RUC landrover at Andersonstown on the night of 10th February (in Commedagh Drive), while the Unionist party HQ was attacked on 18th February. The next night, in ‘reprisal’, St Gerard’s primary school on the Antrim Road was vandalised and a fire bomb thown at St John’s primary school in west Belfast. St Joseph’s primary school in Crumlin was also attacked. The IRA vehemently denied any connection to the incidents and issued a statement of denial from the ‘Republican Movement’ to the press through the Irish Republican Publicity Bureau on 22nd February (notably, unionist false flag attacks were to be a clear feature of the next few years). On the night of 24th February two petrol bombs were thrown at the Broadway Presbyterian Church. 

Then, in March, the Belfast Battalion O/C Billy McMillen and a staff officer, Denis Toner, were arrested and ended up being held over the Easter period. Meantimes, another petrol bomb was thrown, this time at Holy Cross Girls School on the Crumlin Road. That same March, Gerry Fitt had taken the Westminister seat of West Belfast for Republican Labour in a general election. He was the first non-unionist to take the seat since Jack Beattie in 1951 and for the first time, since the same election, the IRA hadn’t stood a candidate (notably, 58.8% of the vote in 1964 had gone to non-unionists). The IRA wasn’t to put a candidate up against Fitt again until 1974.

The first of the Easter Rising commemoration events was the conventional Easter Sunday commemoration. The main events were then to take place the next weekend.

On the following Sunday, the fiftieth anniversary Easter Rising Commemoration itself took place. That morning, unionists detonated a bomb at Milltown in the republican plot but it did little damage. A second bomb was also exploded at Ligoniel. 
The RUC mounted armed checkpoints across Belfast throughout the day as Ian Paisley also had organised counter parades to try and disrupt the republican commemorations (ironically, Paisley’s marchers paraded behind a banner saying ‘Ireland belongs to Christ’). A number of people heading for the republican commemorations were assaulted, including one man almost beaten death as he tried to cross a road through Paisley’s marchers.

The main republican march formed up in the old Pound Loney district in Hamill Street, Institution Place, John Street and Barrack Street. Some 5,000 took part in the parade, but an estimated 70,000 people came out to watch. The presence of many senior republican figures underscored the emphasis the IRA placed on the Belfast commemoration in 1966. One veteran IRA volunteer who joined the march, Chris McGouran, collapsed and died while walking during the parade.

The northern government, discomforted by the scale and enthusiasm of the commemorations, had the Belfast Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, and two other staff officers, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin, charged with failing to give sufficient notice for the commemoration and for conducting what was then an illegal procession.

While Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin had been blown up by republicans in March, despite all the unionist claims to the contrary, no violent action had been planned by the Belfast Battalion. Yet in April, an additional battalion of the British Army had even been sent to the north, just in case they were needed. In the weekend after the main 1966 commemorations, a Catholic owned shop of the Shankil Road, O’Hara’s Self-Service Stores, was petrol bombed although little damage was done. The same night, a family in Hopewell Street had three shots fired into their house from a moving car.

That unionists were behind the attacks was apparent at the start of May, as the newly reorganised Ulster Volunteer Force publicly threatened that “…known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation.” On the 7th May, it tried to firebomb a Catholic owned bar in Upper Charleville Street (in the Shankill Road area of Belfast), but instead set fire to the adjoining home of Matilda Gould, who subsequently died from her injuries (on 27th June). The same night, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of Josephine MacMahon on Northumberland Street and two petrol bombs were thrown at St Marys Training College on the Falls Road. At a debate that followed in Stormont, the Home Affairs Minister, Brian McConnell revealed there had now been eight such petrol bomb attacks in March, April and May.

A couple of weeks later, on 27th May, UVF members shot John Scullion in Oranmore Street having originally been trying to find and kill Francis McGuigan, a Belfast IRA volunteer. The RUC reported that Scullion had been stabbed and that they believed he knew the name of his attackers. However, it was reported at Scullions in quest that they were given the two bullets that had hit Scullion the night he was shot.

At the start of June, a unionist crowd, led by Ian Paisley, was permitted to march through Cromac Square in the Markets area. Unionist marches had been discouraged from passing through there since 1935. Paisley was en route to protest a Presbyterian General Assembly. The resulting riot at Cromac Square restarted the next night when two petrol bombs were then thrown at the RUC by the IRA in Lagan Street in the Markets on June 8th. A few days later, John Scullion died of his wounds (on 11th June). The RUC had perpetuated the idea that he was stabbed, repeatedly reporting that he knew his attacker and that were awaiting him to regain conscious and give them the name. They then reported that he had passed away without divulging the name (even though the UVF had been claiming responsibility and rang the press to confirm their claim). A few days after Scullion died, the UVF fired shots into Willaim Gamble’s shop in the Shankill Road district.  A brick had also been thrown through the window some days previously.

There were further attacks at the end of June. Just before those attacks happened, the State Pathologist in Belfast ordered that John Scullion’s remains be exhumed to review the cause of death (he had been buried just over a week previously). On the 20th, Jim Sullivan, Malachy McBurney and Leo Martin didn’t turn up in court for a scheduled appearance to hear the charges over the Easter commemoration and had fines imposed by the court in absentia.

The next day, Terence O’Neill, the Prime Minister of the northern government, claimed there was no reason to use the Special Powers Act against the unionists who had been claiming responsibility for recent violence. Then, during the night of 24th-25th, unionists broke into Leo Martin’s house in Baden-Powell Street in the Oldpark district. They tried to set fire to the house with little success. It later emerged that it was three UVF men that had tried to break in, intending to shoot Martin. That night, two armed unionists also entered the house of Thomas Maguire on Canmore Street, between the Falls Road and Shankill Road. Maguire was disabled but still had a gun put to his stomach and told to leave his home. Several hours earlier a friend, who had been visiting Maguire’s house, was stabbed after leaving the house. There were a number of other attacks involving minor vandalism and bomb hoaxes at the houses of prominent Catholics on the same night. There were also attacks on six houses in Ardmoulin Avenue.

The same night, the UVF unit that had failed to find Leo Martin at his home, instead encountered four Catholic barmen drinking in the Malvern Arms in Malvern Street off the Shankill. The UVF shot the barmen outside, wounding two and killing Peter Ward. Two days later, Matilda Gould died from the injuries she had sustained in May.

The Belfast IRA issued a statement on the day after Matilda Gould died, stating that “The Republican movement condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent outrages in Belfast, and expresses deepest sympathy with the relatives of all those killed and wounded in these incidents. We would reiterate that Republicans are utterly opposed to sectarian bitterness and strie and would remind our members that their duty is to resist all efforts to provoke them into acts of relationation. Discipline and self-restraint must be exercised by all.

The cumulative effect of the deaths of Scullion, Ward and Gould was that the northern government was forced to declare the UVF an illegal organisation. It also made a series of arrests and proferred charges against those involved.

A British royal visit at the start of July then led to some confrontations and protests. There were further attacks over the weekend of the Twelfth. This incuded a Catholic couple, the Donnelly’s, being assaulted in their home in Frenchpark Street on the 12th July. A mob also attacked houses in Rockview Street. Robert Donnelly was one of three people who received serious head injuries. The same night windows were broken in Charles O’Hara’s shop on the Newtonards Road. His window had been smashed during the election earlier that year and a petrol also thrown at the shop. There were further attacks in late July, on Catholics in Alloa Street between Manor Street and Clifton Park Avenue.

Having failed to turn up for their court appearance in June, Jim Sullivan and Malachy McBurney were arrested and given three months in jail. The trial of the UVF members (in which Ian Paisley was also named) dragged on over the summer and into August and September.

It was only in late August that the northern government officially admitted that John Scullion had been shot rather than stabbed despite having known this was the case from the night it happened. The pattern of RUC behaviour over Scullion’s murder has clear echoes of what was to become a familiar routine in the coming years. It also shows up an existing native capacity for disinformation and propaganda, long before the arrival of specialist British Army staff in 1969.

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One response to “Disinformation and propaganda: violence in Belfast in 1966

  1. Pingback: #McGurks Bar: a brief prehistory of disinformation | The Treason Felony Blog

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