Interesting, if a little flawed, article in the Irish Times this morning: Belfast pogroms: ‘The street was a mass of brain matter and blood’ based on the latest release of pension files on militaryarchives.ie (see here for more on that). Hopefully it is not a foretaste of how the 1920-1922 period in Belfast is going to get covered over the next few years.
The articles opening premise – that the scale of violence in Belfast between 1920 and 1922 will be a revelation to many people – is undoubtedly true. Depsite the fact that around 20-25% of all violent fatalities in the War of Independence occurred in the city yet there are maybe only 4-5 books and a very limited amount of scholarship on Belfast during that period to date.
But the framing of much of the article is at best loose, if not misleading. For a start, while operations by the IRA elsewhere could lead to intense reprisals against Catholics in Belfast it is clear from the pulses of violence in the city that political events and a unionist strategy to try and drive as many Catholics as possible from the city were mainly responsible (you can follow the timings in Kieran Glennon’s From Pogrom to Civil War, p260-265). The modern ‘tit-for-tat’ trope about the conflict here doesn’t really apply when the most violent months coincided with the events like the truce and treaty votes and the assumption of security policy by the unionist government in November 1921. The Irish Times isn’t alone in this regard – few writers make the connection between the tactics of the three constabularies added to the RIC during the War of Independence – the Auxiliary Division, the Special Reserve (the ‘Black and Tans’) and the Ulster Special Constabulary (who ‘Specials’). All three carried out counter-insurgency operations including reprisal attacks, yet only the attacks in north by the Ulster Special Constabulary are classed as ‘sectarian strife’. While the ‘Specials’ found willing helpers among the local population, any distinction between counter-insurgency operations by the Auxies and Black and Tans and those by the Ulster Special Constabulary like the McMahons massacre, Arnon Street and a myriad of killings and abduction is entirely artificial.
The Irish Times also seems to have a worrying lack of appreciation of the origin and nature of the content of the pension files held in the Military Archives. It is asserted that “The rolls list every volunteer in the IRA during the revolutionary period 1916-1923” when they in fact are a list of names gathered in the 1930s and are (by their own admissions) incomplete. The list of fatalities from 1920-1922 in the Belfast files is suggested to be the basis of ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’ – a book produced in August 1922 (you can read more about that book here and here). Yet the list is clearly compiled from the book (and was prepared in the 1930s as part of the work of the Belfast Brigade committee for the pensions board).
Interestingly, though, the Irish Times doesn’t shy away from use of the term ‘pogrom’ to describe the events in Belfast. But is all of this a foretaste of how the centenary of various events will be covered in the next few years, or, is simply the start of a process of learning about it? Either way it is obviously worth a read (you can do that here).
[And click here if you want to pick up a physical copy of the ‘Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922’]