The start of the Belfast pogroms, July 12th 1920

It will be interesting to see how much airtime is given to one of this year’s most significant centenaries over the next week or two, that of the start of the Belfast pogroms in July 1920.

On July 12th 1920, Edward Carson addressed the assembled Belfast Orangemen at Finaghy telling them that the UVF would ‘take matters into their own hands’. As the Times put it the next day: “Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.” Carson’s words were taken as the starting point of the pogrom by Fr John Hassan who documented the subsequent events in Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 (written under the pseudonym G.B. Kenna). Within days mass workplace expulsions of Belfast Catholics and trade unionists had begun, followed by a succession of pogroms in Belfast and other towns in the north-east. By the end of two years, hundreds had been killed in violence in Belfast, with 20-25% of violent deaths in Ireland up to June 1922 happening in the city. Yet, given the highly contested nature of so much of the history of 1916-1923 in contemporary Ireland, the centenary of the start of the Belfast pogrom will go completely unmarked by official Ireland and be studiously ignored by others.

Carson giving the speech that began the Belfast pogrom at Finaghy on 12th July 1920 (Irish Independent 14th July 1920)

So what did Carson say in 1920? His speech at the 1920 Twelfth platform in Finaghy was reproduced verbatim in the press for a wider audience, so it wasn’t just those present who heard his message. This is how the Belfast Newsletter reported part of it the next day: “But we tell you (the Government) this – that if, having offered you our help – and I have offered it to them over and over again – if, having you our help, you are yourself unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Fein, and you won’t take our help; well, then, we tell you we will take the matter into our own hands. (Cheers.) We will re-organise, at all costs, and notwithstanding the consequences, we will re-organise, as we feel bound to do in our own defence, throughout the province the Ulster Volunteers (loud cheers) – who sent you such splendid help to maintain our Empire during the war. But one thing we will not submit to is that we should be left helpless and hopeless in the face of our enemies, and we tell you that, come what will, in the last resort, we will rely upon ourselves, and, under God we will defend ourselves. (Cheers.) Now, I hope that I have made that pretty clear. (Laughter and cheers.) And those are not mere words. I hate words without action.”.

One point would not have been lost on anyone in July 1920 was that what Carson was proposing for Belfast had literally just happened in Derry over the previous weeks. Since 18th June, when the UVF precipitated violent clashes in Derry, twenty people had been killed in the city and many more wounded. Everyone hearing or reading Carson’s speech would have known this and understood the exact implications of what Carson was calling for. This was no mere rhetorical flourish or unfortunate phrasing. As he himself said “I hate to see words without action.”

The subsequent unfolding of events in Belfast in the two years following July 1920 were to see hundreds killed, amounting to as much as 20-25% of all violent fatalities in Ireland during that period. A figure of around 500 is generally given for the total number of fatalities (eg see here) but a comparison of the annual averages of violent deaths in the Reports of the Medical Superintendent Officer for Health for Belfast County Borough before and after 1920-1922 suggest that total may be an under-estimate of the order of 100-150 violent deaths. The latter figure likely captures fatalities where there is a gap of weeks or months between the original incident and the death.

[An underestimate of a similar order of around 20% applies to the pogrom in 1935, see here. It is also worth noting that violent deaths only tell part of a story of increased mortality arising from conflict and that would not be captured in any of those figures – for some discussion of this with regard to recent decades, click here. By the way – you can read Patrick Concannon’s account of the June-July 1920 Derry violence here.]

The day after Carson’s speech the London Times’ scathing report stated that: “If indeed that organisation [the UVF] was revived as a defensive police force for Ulster the most serious consequences would almost certainly ensue. Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.” Press reports on the subsequent violence in 1920 and later repeatedly use the term ‘pogrom’ to describe events in Belfast. It is found in many newspapers in Ireland including the likes of the The Irish Times and in British newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette and Daily Herald.

Yet many of the threads of this story have barely been unpicked. For a start, the mechanics of the subsequent violence are largely unexplored. Many writers simply describe the violence in Belfast as ‘sectarian’ as if that, in itself, acts as an explanation. By now, the term ‘sectarian’ has been repeated with such frequency that the key dynamic of the violence being discussed is usually overlooked – pitting proponents of an Irish republic or Home Rule against proponents of keeping Ireland within the British Empire and Act of Union. The repetition also has the effect of removing any context to the violence other than ‘sectarianism’ as if that, in itself, is an explanation.

The use of ‘sectarian’ as meaningless shorthand is worthy of fuller study in its own right as it may be inherited from official information policy strategy from the 1970s onwards as way of removing the immediate context of violent events as a suitable propaganda tool – eg see War on Words: A Northern Ireland Media Reader by Bill Rolston and David Miller. At the same time, the story behind the censorship of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922 in August 1922 shows there is a deep history of deliberately obscuring the events in Belfast being described. In recent decades, historians like Robert Lynch and Alan Parkinson have also been at pains to dismiss the use of the term ‘pogrom’. Lynch (in his 2008 paper in the Journal of British Studies, “The People’s Protectors? The Irish Republican Army and the “Belfast Pogrom,” 1920-1922”) claims, for it to be a pogrom, victims should be mostly women and children. While Parkinson (in The Unholy War) asserts that a pogrom should be state organised.

Ironically, both seem to apply their own definition of ‘pogrom’ rather than using modern accepted definitions such as used by the likes of Werner Bergmann (from mid-2000s) or David Engels. This is summarised as “…a unilateral, non-governmental form of collective violence initiated by the majority population against a largely defenseless ethnic group…”. That collective violence generally manifests as riots and is directed at the minority group collectively rather than targeting specific individuals. There is also an the implication that officials have connived at it, but not directly organised it.  Engel states that although there are no “essential defining characteristics of a pogrom” but that the majority of the incidents “habitually” described as pogroms “…took place in divided societies in which ethnicity or religion (or both) served as significant definers of both social boundaries and social rank, … involved collective violent applications of force by members of what perpetrators believed to be a higher-ranking ethnic or religious group against members of what they considered a lower-ranking or subaltern group, … appliers of the decisive force tended to interpret the behaviour of victims according to stereotypes commonly applied to the groups to which they belonged, … perpetrators expressed some complaint about the victims’ group, …[and] a fundamental lack of confidence on the part of those who purveyed decisive violence in the adequacy of the impersonal rule of law to deliver true justice in the event of a heinous wrong.” For a fuller discussion of Werner Bergmann’s definition of a pogrom see Heitmeyer and Hagan’s survey paper in International Handbook of Violence Research, Volume 1 (2003). David Engels views are reviewed in Dekel-Chen, Gaunt, Meir and Bartal’s Anti-Jewish Violence. Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History.

Anyone familiar with the history of Belfast from 1920 to 1922 can easily map all of those characteristics onto the various episodes of violence (and similarly to later events).

In terms of actually understanding violence, rather than merely describing it, correctly applying the term ‘pogrom’ still only describes the dynamics and mechanisms by which violence is used. It does not explain the political, social or economic purposes of the violence. In an Irish context that is competing visions of from where Ireland should be governed (a point often, perhaps intentionally, obscured by over-use of the term ‘sectarian’). Ironically this modern definition chimes completely with how Fr John Hassan (author of Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom 1920-1922) used the term in 1922, but not critics of the term like Lynch or Parkinson. Notably Kieron Glennon includes it in the title of his From Pogrom to Civil War. However, unpacking the use of the term ‘pogrom’ has implications well beyond 12th July 1920 and, to some extent, explains the widespread reluctance to explore the issue in any depth or to accord any real significance to centenary that will occur on 12th July this year.

* Historically (such as in the 1920’s) the Orange Order and unionist press used the term ‘demonstrations’ to describe the events around the Twelfth.

Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom is available from Litter Press (see here).

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