Revisiting 1969: armoured cars and tanks and guns

This is the latest in a series of articles reconsidering events in the summer of 1969. On this occasion looking briefly at the killing of Patrick Rooney, the use of armoured cars by the RUC, a man called Paisley and a book called Unholy Smoke.

On 14th August, 1969, the Unionist government agreed to reintroduce internment, leading to the immediate arrest of twenty three men deemed to be suspected ‘IRA agitators’. The same day, it agreed to request that the British government extend the deployment of British troops and use those on hand immediately in Derry.

Popularly, history remembers that the British Army were first used over the 14-15th August 1969 due to widespread violence. In reality, though, they had been deployed in April 1969 in the face of a UVF bombing campaign. Similarly, the mass internment sweep of 9th August 1971 it is widely remembered, but the facility to introduce internment without trial had always been available to the Unionist government, and had been utilised on 14th August 1969. As on previous occasions, it was used against ‘suspected IRA agitators’ rather than, for instance, those involved the UVF bomb campaign or those mobilising mobs to attack Catholic homes in Belfast.

During the violence of 1969 the Unionist government had the RUC and B Specials deploy alongside Shorland armoured cars, some of which mounted a Browning machine gun. Numerous eye witness accounts describe the use of the Shorlands, firing into streets and residential areas. The Shorland had been commissioned by the Unionist government in the early 1960s and was delivered in 1966. It was a direct replacement for the obsolete 1920 pattern Rolls Royce armoured cars that had mounted a Vickers machine gun.

The Mark 1 Shorland lacked the radiator armament of the 1920 Rolls Royce which largely betrayed the expectation that it would be used, as the Rolls Royce had, to provide fire support where there was no expectation it would be subject to any meaningful gunfire being returned. This was the case in August 1969 where it was deployed against crowds of rioters. The Browning machine gun it mounted was intended as an infantry support weapon, not for crowd control, but it was deployed as such in colonial policing and military operations. In the late 1960s it was widely used in that role by the British Army. In 1967 it had been used in Aden, firing thousands of rounds as ‘crowd control’ and inflicting significant casualties (the extent of casualties is difficult to assess as most accounts disregard any Arab fatalities and only record British military casualties).

Mark 1 Shorland armoured car mounting a Browning machine gun (from http://www.shorland.com)

When the Shorlands were deployed in Belfast, the RUC used them in the style of the colonial policing operations witnessed in Aden, opening fire indiscriminately into residential areas, like Divis flats. A nine year old boy, Patrick Rooney, was killed inside his family’s flat in Divis tower as was Trooper Hugh McCabe of the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars who was home on leave with his family who lived in Divis tower.

Patrick Rooney

Hugh McCabe

In his 1969 book, Unholy Smoke, George Target describes McCabes death. He notes that the Unionist government had reported that McCabe had been killed lying prone with a single bullet wound to the head by a sniper on top of Divis flats implying (as Target reports was publicly rumoured) McCabe had been firing from the top of the flats. The official report stated the same. According to Target, though, those present reported that he had went out to help a man who had been shot by sniper fire. A machine gun had then opened fire on those helping the wounded man and McCabe was hit seven times in the back and died. He was the first British soldier killed in Belfast in the recent phase of the conflict.

George Target was an evangelical Protestant who had formerly served in the British infantry. He had published a number of books in the 1960s and his book, Unholy Smoke, is one of the first dedicated books about the violence that intensified in Belfast in 1969.

One figure that Target was critical of over events during 1969 was the Rev. Ian Paisley. He gives the following as a sample of Paisley’s opinions (this is the text as directly quoted by Target, Unholy Smoke, p.72-3 ): “We are at war in this Province with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church… The Jesuits are the Gestapo of the Vatican. Their purpose is to undo the Reformation and bring Protestantism and all other religions of the world under the jackboot of the Papacy… The hatred of all things British and Protestant is but the product of the diabolical and soul-destroying doctrines of the Church of Rome. The system that produced Hitler and Mussolini has given birth in the country to the hate-mongers of the Bogside… The IRA is the armed wing of the Roman Catholic Church… The age-long dream of [that Church] is an Ireland Romanised from end to end, the people of God in chains or driver forever from the land of their birth. This must never happen! We must hold Ulster by every means God lays to our hands…. Protestants of this Province must not be deceived by leading Romanists, Ecumenists, Communists and Anarchists. Their sot wards are but a Devil’s lullaby to chloroform Protestantism in order that [this] Romanist-sponsored rebellion in our midst might succeed… The belief in the good faith of the British government, which has sided with the Roman Catholic hierarchy against the Ulster Government, is the vapouring of minds drugged into abject subjection by the sops of an able and subtle for. Ulster is betrayed… if the forces of the British Crown are going to support the IRA to destroy Ulster, then we are prepared to do as our Fathers did and fight for our freedom… When the call comes we will be able to take our stand as Protestant men in the battle that is going to be waged…“.

Target notes how Paisley’s ‘Ulster Constitution Defence Committee” continually erected posters on every street corner saying: “For God and Ulster, EMERGENCY, All Protestant men who wish to help Ulster in the present crisis are urged to contact The Ulster Constitution Defence Committee“. An interesting point noted in passing in Unholy Smoke was that all the main church leaders and political leaders made it clear in public statements and interviews on the BBC during 1969 that they believed that the problems and conflict were all political in nature, not religious. Meanwhile, Ian Paisley insisted that it was a religious conflict, a theme that was subsequently given much more substance in the media.

Target began his book with a dedication to Patrick Rooney:

To the Memory of

PATRICK ROONEY

aged nine

killed by a stray bullet

Divis Street

Belfast

during the fighting 

on the night of

14th August 1969

Christ have Mercy on us

3 responses to “Revisiting 1969: armoured cars and tanks and guns

  1. Pingback: Revisiting 1969: the Belfast IRA, reactions and responses | The Treason Felony Blog

  2. Pingback: The path to the IRA Split: September 1969 | The Treason Felony Blog

  3. Pingback: Some previously unrecognised 1920-1922 IRA fatalities in Belfast (by Kieran Glennon) | The Treason Felony Blog

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