This is a brief account of IRA activity in Belfast over the course of 13-15th August 1969 and its reaction to events.
[A brief warning: I’ve included some graphic press images of the violence in Belfast below. Published images and footage of the night-time violence appear to be almost non-existent, despite the clear presence of film crews and multiple photographers.]
By 13th August, in anticipation of protests over events in Derry, the Unionists had 400 B Specials on duty in Belfast. The RUC were briefing that events in Derry and the solidarity protests elsewhere were being organised by the IRA and Sinn Féin. This included claims to have intelligence that the IRA was mobilising units in South Armagh to make a move on Newry and IRA units assembling within Newry itself.
That night violence flared after demonstrations outside Springfield Road and Hastings Street RUC stations. There was also trouble in Short Strand and in Hooker Street off the Crumlin Road. According to Billy McMillan, the Belfast O/C in August 1969, the Battalion consisted of around eighty volunteers and an auxiliary of around two hundred. The Battalion had sent all its weapons to dumps in the south in 1956 prior to the border campaign and at the time was effectively unarmed. For a number of months the Belfast IRA had been requesting it get sent arms and ammunition as it was feared that, similar to the 1920s and 1935, a fresh pogrom was imminent. According to members of his Army Council, like Roy Johnston, the IRA Chief of Staff, Cathal Goulding had deliberately left the Belfast IRA without arms. Goulding assumed violence from the RUC and B Specials would generate so much negative publicity it would lead to Stormont being closed, London taking over responsibility and beginning reforms. Bizarrely, as the crisis unfolded in Belfast Goulding was actually busy staging an ‘IRA training camp’ outside Dublin for a British television crew (for a £200 fee). On 14th August, his solution to Belfast’s problems was to ring one of the Battalion staff, Prionsias MacAirt, and order him to go out and try and reason with the rioters.
On the evening of the 13th August, the RUC had taken up positions on the roof of Hastings Street RUC station with machine guns, while Commer armoured cars drove across the Falls Road into Mary Street, Lemon Street and Peel Street where the RUC smashed windows with batons (see image below).
McMillan ordered a number of IRA operations to be carried out against the RUC and B Specials with whatever weapons the Battalion had available. Shots were then fired at an RUC vehicle in Leeson Street. Two grenades were also thrown but only one exploded. The RUC also reported that six shots were fired from a passing car at Andersonstown Police Station but no damage was done. Later at the Scarman Tribunal, investigating the violence, Belfast RUC Commissioner Harold Wolseley claimed that, taken together, these attacks were deemed to be the signal that an IRA insurrection was underway.
Under this pretext, Shorland armoured cars were despatched to patrol Divis Street and the adjoining areas (see photos below). At Springfield Road Barracks the RUC opened fire on the crowd wounding two men. B Specials and RUC assisted crowds who were evicting Catholic residents from their homes on the night of 13-14th August (eg see Dominic Corr’s account and Michael McCann’s book Burnt Out).
The night of 13-14th August had already used up the minimal resources of the Belfast IRA. While Belfast was relatively calm during daylight the next day, it was clear that preparations were being made for concerted attacks by unionists in areas such as the Crumlin Road, Clonard and Divis Street that night. The Unionist cabinet met that afternoon and decided to intern ‘IRA agitators’ overnight and to request use of the British Army in Derry. The B Specials were also fully mobilised.
During the day, current and former members of the Belfast Battalion scraped together whatever weapons they could find as they fully expected the B Specials to lead attacks from the Shankill Road into Divis Street, Cupar Street and Ardoyne that night. The weapons they got together included any form of shotgun or hunting rifle that could be begged, borrowed or stolen. Billy McKee, a former Belfast O/C, managed to collect together bits of ammunition. Jimmy Steele, another former Belfast O/C, retrieved two revolvers from an ancient dump in his brother’s attic. Joe Cullen, O/C of the Belfast IRA’s engineering battalion in the 1920s assisted with getting the guns into shape. Around twenty-three handguns, some grenade casings and a handful of hunting rifles and shotguns were gathered together by the time darkness fell. A single Thompson submachine gun had also been found (its single magazine was fired in bursts over the head of the crowd attacking St Comgalls). That was the armament available to the IRA to face the heavy machine guns in the Shorland armoured cars, Bren guns, Sten guns, rifles and revolvers carried by 500-600 B Specials and RUC.
By late afternoon that day, houses were already being burnt out and mobs began to emerge onto Divis Street from the direction of the Shankill Road including the Shankill Defence Association, B Specials and RUC. The RUC were also using Shorland and Humber armoured cars after 10.30 pm to drive at the crowd. Armed with a variety of submachine guns, rifles and revolvers, eye witnesses recorded that the B Specials began opening fire in Divis Street. Residents responded with stones and petrol bombs. The crowd that emerged from Dover Street and Percy Street began burning and looting businesses and homes on Divis Street. After 11 pm the RUC and B Specials tried to lead baton charges into the complex around Divis flats. By now the Shorland armoured cars were firing from their heavy machine guns. There was also violence in Conway Street (the first location at which the Shorlands’ opened fire), Cupar Street and on the Crumlin Road.
After midnight the violence intensified as fighting focused on St Comgalls School, which was defended by a number of former IRA members. The Shorlands were firing tracers and it could be seen that they were raking each floor of Divis tower and shooting into side streets (this is when Patrick Rooney and Hugh McCabe were killed). There were also RUC and B Special guns on the roof of various buildings firing down into the various streets.
The IRA had no control over events as they happened, had no meaningful stocks of arms or ammunition and had not trained its members for the roles they now needed to fill. In the absence of any planning, current and former members organised ad hoc groups to defend the likes of St Comgalls School as they came under sustained attack, or like Cullen and Steele, were stationed on Broadway with handguns ready to delay any incursion from the Donegall Road. At the same time, the Battalion Adjutant, Jim Sullivan, though, had advised IRA members that they should only shoot over the heads of attackers. The minimal stocks of ammunition available was used up within minutes. Despite the lack of offensive capability of the IRA, the RUC issued reports saying they had to fall back and were besieged in the likes of Hasting Street Barracks.
In the early morning of 15th August, thirty men were rounded up in an internment sweep including McMillan and MacAirt (although Sullivan avoided the round-up). During the day, as the violence worsened, the IRA commandeered the Broadway cinema as people fled the mobs trying to burn them out of their homes in the streets off the likes of Divis Street and Cupar Street.
When British Army assistance was finally requested by the Unionists, it actually deployed along the Falls Road and Divis Street. The RUC had been advising that the IRA had snipers positioned along the rooftops and that the district was in the middle of an IRA insurrection. It took considerable persuasion by the likes of Fr Patrick Egan to convince the British Army to relocate to the streets, like Bombay Street which had been burned down or were under attack. Six people had been killed in Belfast and at least 133 wounded. One of those killed was Gerard McAuley, a member of Fianna Éireann, the republican youth organization.
Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill walked down the Falls Road the next day (16th August). There was a mood of despair and anger directed at the IRA for its failure to be prepared to defend the population. Both were called deserters and traitors and Cahill claims they were even spat upon (see Anderson, A Life in the IRA).
Meanwhile, besieged in Dublin by IRA officers looking for GHQ to open its dumps and distribute arms and ammunition to the north, Goulding retreated to an upstairs office with Mick Ryan and said “This is terrible, Jesus Christ, this is terrible. What am I going to do? Living Jesus, what are we going to do?” Goulding hadn’t been able to locate the IRA’s Quartermaster General, Pat Reagan, so he replaced him, on the spot, with Ryan (this is based on Ryan’s interviews in Swan’s Official Irish Republicanism). The depth of disorganisation around Goulding is shown by the fact that Ryan didn’t know Reagan had been Quartermaster and thought Goulding was filling the role himself.
A variety of meetings took place, in public and private in Dublin, and money was donated to both solidary funds (for refugees of the violence) and defence funds (basically, to purchase weapons). A meeting between IRA O/Cs and the Army Council was told by Goulding that the IRA should not respond with armed action. Meanwhile, the Unionist Prime Minister, Chichester-Clarke, blamed Catholics, the I.R.A., civil rights movement and Irish government for trying to discredit and subvert Stormont.
Amid the chaos, Goulding issued a widely-derided statement claiming that northern units of the IRA had been in action in Derry and Belfast and that the Army Council had placed “…all volunteers on full alert and has already sent a number of fully equipped units to the aid of their comrades in the Six Counties and to assist the local Defence Committees, Citizen Action Groups and other popular organisations…”. The statement noted, somewhat paradoxically, that “The people of the Falls Road area have gratefully acknowledged this assistance in the past few days and have contrasted it bitterly with the failure of the Dublin Government to act in their defence.”
From Belfast, Joe Cahill, Jimmy Drumm and Leo Martin had been dispatched in three teams to bypass GHQ and make contact with IRA units in the south and retrieve any dumped weapons they could find. They drove non-stop across the south for twenty-four hours then regrouped in Dundalk before bringing the weapons to Belfast. This included a few Thompsons, some Sten guns, .303 and .22 rifles (including M1 carbines, Garand semi-automatics, bolt-action Springfields and Lee-Enfields) and revolvers. Ammunition calibres varied widely as the Thompson fired a .45 bullet, M1s and Garands a .300 and the Lee-Enfield a .303. Many younger volunteers had little expertise in using the weapons. Notably, older volunteers from the 1940s (and earlier) were required to maintain and oversee their use.
Meantime, Steele and McKee had remained in Belfast and organised a meeting to be held a couple of days later, on the return of Cahill, Martin and Drumm. The meeting was held in the social club at Casement Park on 22nd (it may have been on 24th August as exact date isn’t clear). It was attended by the likes of Daithi O Conaill (IRA O/C of Derry and Donegal), Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill, Billy McKee, John Kelly, Billy Kelly, Leo Martin and Seamus Twomey. Cahill, Drumm and Martin were able to report on the attitude of the IRA units, members and supporters they had encountered on their whistle-stop tours. According to Billy McKee, John Kelly and Joe Cahill, those in attendance agreed that the Battalion staff prior to August 15th had to take responsibility for the failures of mid-August and lack of preparedness of the IRA in Belfast. This failure had been compounded and confused by the direction being given by GHQ in Dublin. This included both the emphasis being placed on politicisation and the unwillingness to listen to those in Belfast who had reported that the risk of significant violence against Catholic communities was getting critical.
Those present appear to have decided not to challenge the current Belfast leadership and gave GHQ time to respond to events. The IRA’s own rules would require McMillan to need to be voted in again as O/C on his release from prison (Jim Sullivan acted in the role during his absence). The influx of new and returning members had rapidly expanded numbers in the IRA and created uncertainty over the status of individual’s who took on company and staff posts in the days after 14-15th August. In the meantime, they could just do what they could to distribute the arms and ammunition recovered by Cahill, Drumm and Martin and provide other supports to the threatened districts across the city. And they waited for Billy McMillan’s release from internment to see what would happen next.
You can read more about these events and the wider split in the IRA here and in the Belfast Battalion book.