Revisiting 1969: the deployment of the British Army, April 1969

This is another article revisiting 1969, this time looking at the initial deployment of the British Army.

In 1969, violence led to the deployment of the British Army in the north. Historically people usually associate this event with the aftermath of serious disorder in Derry and Belfast in the middle of August. However, the British Army was actually deployed in April 1969 following a bombing campaign by the UVF.

A British soldier on guard duty, April 1969 (Getty Images)

An explosion on 30th March at an electricity station in Castlereagh caused £500,000 in damage (equivalent of £8.5m today). The bombing came on the eve of an internal Unionist Party meeting that was to focus on the leadership of Terence O’Neill who was under pressure for trying to move the party towards accepting the introduction of universal suffrage in local elections. There was no claim of responsibility but the next day (31st March) the Belfast Telegraph reported both that the Republican movement had denied any responsibility and claims from an un-named ‘republican source’ that it was the work of ‘nationalist-minded people living in the Six Counties’ and another claim from un-named ‘republican source’ that attributed responsibility to ‘Saor Uladh’. The latter claim looked particularly spurious since Saor Uladh had been defunct for almost ten years. Various figures attributed the explosion to an un-named ‘subversive organisation’. 

The Unionist government’s immediate response was to call up a further 1,000 B Specials to full-time service. Given the widespread public criticism of the performance and behaviour of the 400 B Specials that had already been called up, the likes of Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie publicly questioned the wisdom of the move. Further explosions followed with a bomb attack at Dunadry on the Belfast water supply from Lough Neagh on 4th April (again on the eve an internal Unionist Party meeting about O’Neill’s leadership).

On the 19th April, amidst further intense rioting in Derry, the Home Office at Stormont asked for advice on “…what the attitude of the British Government would be towards the use of troops for law and order enforcement if the Government of Northern Ireland were to announce their acceptance in principle of universal adult suffrage for local government elections.” This was only minuted by Stormont’s Ministry of Home Affairs on 7th May, when it noted the response stated that “…It is not possible for Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to give any secret pledges of military assistance…” (implying the Unionist government had requested a secret pledge). It goes on to state that “…At common law it is the duty of the military, at the request of the civil power, to take whatever steps the military judge necessary to maintain order, it being clearly understood that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” The British government claim that common law dictates that the degree of force is solely at the discretion of the responsible military commander is significant in light of later events involving the British army.

The night after that request was sent, there were further bomb attacks at Silent Valley reservoir and an electricity pylon in Kilmore in Armagh on 20th April. The Unionist government then made its request for the deployment of the army that day with Deputy Prime Minister John Andrews thanking the British government for permission to use the troops in the next day’s Belfast Telegraph (21/4/1969). The Press Association noted that contingency plans to deploy troops had been in place for some time. Initially, troops already based in the north were to be used but a number of additional detachments were transported from Britain over the next couple of days.

The photographs above and below are British troops being deployed, 22nd April 1969 (Getty Images)

That night the IRA, under pressure to draw some of the B Specials away from Derry, carried out a series of petrol bomb attacks on Post Offices in Belfast. The next day Belfast Telegraph had Brian Faulkner intimating that all the bombings were the work of the IRA and hinted at the use of internment. However, a leading member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, Vincent McDowell, made a public statement explicitly blaming the bombings on the UVF. Henry McDonald and Jim Cusack’s book UVF – The Endgame recounts that, in the first months of 1969, there had been widespread graffiti threatening violence from the UVF against Catholics’ businesses and homes, both in flashpoint areas and in districts where Catholics were in a distinct minority. This was no idle threat, obviously, as the UVF had carried out a number of killings in 1966. McDonald and Cusack also state that some of those publicly blaming the IRA actually knew the bombings were the work of the UVF.

The deployment of the British Army did not deter further bombings, with attacks at the Lough Neagh water pipe on 24th April and one at the water pipe at Annalong on the next night. The British government decided to send further British troops by air to Aldergrove the following day (25th April) including The Prince Wales Own Regiment and a detachment of Royal Engineers. The bombings also followed in the wake of the Unionist Party’s narrow vote on 23rd April in favour of universal adult suffrage for local elections (the ‘one man, one vote’ demand of the civil rights campaigns). It didn’t save O’Neill’s premiership, though, as he finally resigned on 28th April and was replaced by Chichester-Clarke, who had resigned as Minister of Agriculture when universal adult suffrage had been passed. With O’Neill’s resignation, this phase of the UVF bombing campaign ended.

British troops awaiting deployment, Belfast Telegraph 26/4/1969
After arrival at Aldergrove, Sunday Independent, 27/4/1969

The 1969 bombing campaign is revealing on a number of levels. Since the 1930s, if the IRA had carried out a bomb attack, the RUC immediately responded with a wave of searches and arrests. A key (and revealing) signature of past unionist bombings was the clear absence of an RUC response. The 1969 bombings were little different, suggesting the RUC (and Unionist government) were aware from the very start that the bombings were being carried out by the UVF. By the end of April 1969, the UVF campaign had led to the British army being deployed to the north. The further deployment in mid-August is the one that subsequent histories have tended to stress and so the introduction of British soldiers is often associated with the later violence of mid-August. This overlooks the start of the British Army deployment and, by doing so, underplays the significance of the UVF bombing campaign and its purpose. That campaign had intended to stop Terence O’Neill initiating basic reforms such as introducing universal adult suffrage (if you need reminding of the range of civil rights abuses, you can read the Campaign for Social Justice’s The Plain Truth report published in mid-June 1969 here).

It is also worth noting that security and intelligence apparatus began to be put in place in April 1969 as part of the initial deployment (for more on that see here). And in advance of that initial deployment it is maybe worth pointing out it is possible that overall thinking around the use of troops and the degree of force permitted had already received the following guidance from the British government, “…that the judgement of the necessity for military forces and the degree of force used are entirely the responsibility of the military commander.” That kind of thinking clearly has had a long term influence.

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