The peace line formally erected in 1969 is directly associated with the events of 14th and 15th August 1969. With the fiftieth anniversary of those days looming, I’m going to recap some previous posts on the peace line.
The course of the Shankill/Falls peaceline closely mirrors the path of the River Farset as it winds its way from Squire’s Hill down to the River Lagan. From around 1780 to 1800 Belfast saw a boom in cotton manufacturing leading to an unmanaged expansion of the town along the River Farset where there had been mills since at least the 1600s. Two of the main arterial routes into Belfast were the Falls Road between the Farset and Blackstaff, and the Shankill Road (then known as the Antrim Road) on the other side of the River Farset. The Farset actually crossed the Shankill Road at the site of the old church (the Sean Cill) from which the Shankill get its name.
As Belfast developed along the Farset, Falls Road and Shankill Road, Catholics began to congregate on the south bank (Falls Road) of the Farset with Protestants on the north bank (Shankill Road). The light touch regulation by Belfast corporation saw little in the way of infrastructure provided and housing and working conditions and wages were equally poor. These conditions and pre-existing sectarian tensions led to sporadic outbreaks of violence through the nineteenth century. The extent of religious segregation in the Falls-Shankill was explored by F.W. Boal in a paper published in Irish Geography in 1969, before the major outbreak of violence that summer. It included the following illustration of the extent of segregation.
An immediate response to violence was often to deploy police or soldiers as a human barricade. In 1920 this often progressed to the use of knife-rests – wooden structures wrapped in barbed wire – and in some places, formal wire entanglements and blockhouses. In March 1922 formal timber barriers were erected in a number of streets and left there for a couple of years. These walls (see the example from Young’s Row below) completely blocked the view and were designed to prevent snipers and gunmen being able to fire into the street. This was repeated in 1935 although the move to introduce similar full barriers was made much quicker, in only four days (rather than the 21 months it took in 1920-1922). In both 1922 and 1935 the barriers were taken down within a couple of years. You can read more on events in 1920-1922 here and 1935 here.
The UVF, who had been active since 1966, carried out a campaign of bombing in 1969 that had led to the deployment of the British army in April 1969. Photographs of soldiers on duty at key installations show the wire entanglements erected by a detachment of engineers that had arrived that April. Newspaper reports from 1969 show that it had been widely anticipated that British soldiers would be deployed if violence intensified. Despite recent evidence of how the violence might manifest itself, such as in 1964, didn’t seem to influence thinking on the types of tactics and training which may be required if the army were deployed. Therefore no meaningful training or tactics were developed in anticipation of the type of threat that might emerge.
When violence did intensify in mid-August in Derry and Belfast the initial expanded use of troops on 15th August in Belfast was as human barricades, often deploying knife-rests or even utilising the existing ad hoc barricades that had been erected during rioting. In the days after 15th August the emphasis was on removing the ad hoc barricades and replacing them with knife-rests and British soldiers replacing those guarding the barricades from (what were or later became) the ‘citizens defence committee’ on the Falls and ‘defence association’ on the Shankill. However, British soldiers were often reduced to onlookers, unable to intervene or use their weapons, as the glaring lack of tactical preparation became exposed.
By early September the imminent release of the Cameron Report (which was to recommend the disbandment of the B Specials) focused minds on a likely violent reaction. Despite the lessons of 1935, the initial response on 10th September was to involve Belfast city council in identifying a line on which the British army would re-use the materials it had available, mainly pickets and barbed wire, to create a ‘peace line’ between the Falls and Shankill. The route, from Springfield Road to Millfield, was teased out over a number of days and effectively mirrored the earlier course of the River Farset. Again lessons in using complete visual barriers, learned in 1922 and 1935, were not applied and gunfire and projectiles were fired across the barbed wire entanglements. It was quickly realised that, again, the British army still hadn’t trained or prepared troops or officers for the role. Wire entanglements could simply be pushed aside to attacks residents on the other side without any intervention from the soldiers present who had no clear instructions on how to react.
By the 25th-27th September these failures had become apparent and the wire entanglements began to be replaced with concertina-type barriers that were fixed in place and provided a complete visual barrier. It was also announced that there would be an immediate overhaul of the equipment and training supplied to British soldiers so that it was more suitable for their role.
The development of the peace line is being document by Professor James O’Leary of UCL here at the Peace Wall Archive which will include a series of events in September to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its construction.
You can read more on the background to August 1969 in Michael Burns book Burnt Out and in the Belfast Battalion book.
Sean Murray will be showing a short film, The Wall, and giving a talk on the events that led up Shankill-Falls peace line on Tuesday 6th August evening as part of Féile an Pobail. I’ll be giving a talk at the exact same time in the Glenpark for Féile an Tuaiscirt which will include looking at the role of the IRA in August 1969.
Further events marking the fiftieth anniversaries of events in 1969 are planned in August and September by the Falls Commemoration Committee (see poster below). I’ve not seen any events marking the anniversary organised on the Shankill Road, but if anyone knows of any, let me know in the comments and I’ll add them here.