Joint IRA and British Army barricades, Belfast, 1969

For a period of time in September 1969, barricades in many Belfast districts were effectively guarded jointly by the British Army and IRA, under the guise of the local Citizen’s Defence Committees (CDC). The Central CDC in Belfast was chaired by Jim Sullivan who was also acting O/C of the IRA’s Belfast Battalion. The Belfast O/C, Billy McMillen, had been  arrested prior to the August 15th attacks and interned without charge even though it had initially reported that he was being held for illegal possession of a firearm.

A CDC had been formed in Derry early in August 1969 and elsewhere later in the same month. The name mirrored the ‘Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee’, formed in 1966, and its precursors, like the ‘Omagh Citizen’s Defence Committee’ and another set up in Fermanagh in 1953-4 to co-ordinate the local unionist campaigns to prevent Catholics obtaining jobs and housing. Creation of CDCs in 1969 provided an umbrella organisation in which the likes of ex-servicemen, Catholic clergy, political representatives, former IRA volunteers and others could co-operate with each other and the IRA without having to be publicly presented as a face of the IRA, even though it was effectively led and directed by the IRA.

The use of shifting organisational identities had been pushed by Cathal Goulding and others for some time. IRA statements using names like ‘Resistance Forces’ and ‘Citizens Army’ had been appearing even before the formal end of the border campaign in 1962. This was to accelerate into the early 1970s (and later) as the Goulding-led Official IRA was to continually shift it’s identity.

When the British Army was deployed in mid-August 1969, it also brought into play a well established counter-insurgency strategy as well as its best known advocate and practitioner in Brigadier Frank Kitson. This included establishing its own intelligence gathering capabilities in the absence of any effective intelligence held or shared by the RUC, Special Branch or the unionist government.

At a high level this meant that the ongoing attempts to negotiate a removal of barricades from districts that  had been attacked in mid-August could provide a pretext to profile the CDC (and effectively IRA) leadership from close-in. On 6th September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the CDC and acting Belfast Battalion O/C, met with the Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north (revealed in that weekends Sunday papers). This happened alongside meetings with Catholic clergy and others over defence of the districts that had come under attack. Sullivan and Dyball agreed that the barricades would now be guarded by British soldiers alongside the CDC.

That weekend, three barricades in Albert Street were taken down and replaced with British Army barriers and soldiers maintained a presence at them, as had been agreed. The press was rife with rumours that the discussion where this was agreed wasn’t between the British Army and local clergy as publicly claimed, but between the British Army and IRA. But the agreement reached in Albert Street wasn’t replicated elsewhere as almost nightly attacks on isolated Catholic families continued.

That Sullivan pushed for the removal of barricades and delegating the defence of Albert Street to the British Army cut directly across the later narrative promoted by the Officials that the violence didn’t come from the communities and the general unionist population but, rather, was directed by forces from elsewhere (typified by the likes of the British Army). Sullivan personally pushed for the removal of the Albert Street barricades, certainly this is, at least, how it is represented in the contemporary press. Around 300 barricades had been erected across the city but the example of Albert Street didn’t lead to further exchanges of hastily erected barricades for British Army barriers. Within a couple of days, Sullivan was threatening to re-erect barricades if the British Army removed them without agreement. Sullivan, along with Stormont MPs Paddy Devlin and Paddy Kennedy then travelled to London to try and meet senior British government figures for discussions.

British Army preparing to erect the so-called ‘peace line’ in Cupar Street (Irish Press, 11th Sept 1969)

Meanwhile, a demarcation line was being erected by the British Army along the boundary of the most threatened areas (described as a ‘peace line’). This was continuing over the course of the next week and was mostly completed by 16th September. Pressure was growing to have the other barricades removed and the CDC organised meetings of delegates from the various districts to gauge the mood. Assurances were given by the British GOC that the army would provide adequate security and that the Special Powers Act would not be applied. Again, Jim Sullivan then pushed for the barricades to come down but often agreements had to be made on street by street basis indicating a high level of discomfort over the proposed arrangement. This was not misplaced.

Given how the British Army was aware of the limitations of the quality of the intelligence gathered by the RUC and the unionists. An agreement to jointly guard barricades with the CDC now provided the British with a pretext to create its own profile of the IRA. Kitson himself had requested a meeting with the IRA leadership (which was turned down), but John Kelly has recounted that the depth of contact between the IRA and British Army extended as far as a British officer providing a class on machine guns. Kelly suspected that this was to evaluate the level of the technical capacity of the IRA (and presumably to identify the relevant personnel). On top of the failure to have adequately prepared to defend districts from attack in mid-August, the rapprochement between his Belfast IRA leadership and the British Army was also to be held against Cathal Goulding by many in Belfast.

Peace lines in Dover Street (Irish Press. 13th Sept 1969)

One barricade that was slow to come down, was the one that had been erected at the top of the New Lodge Road, at it’s junction with the Antrim Road. This too was taken down on Tuesday 17th September. As with elsewhere, it was then replaced with a British Army barricade which was one of those jointly guarded by the 2nd Light Infantry and the CDC.

On the Saturday night, Tony McNamee, Brendy Magee, Mark O’Connor and Hugh Adams were playing cards on a windowsill outside the Duncairn Arms at the top of the New Lodge Road. As some men were seen approaching the traffic island from Hallidays Road (leading back to Duncairn Gardens), a soldier, Lance Corporal Peter Reid went to warn the four young men to withdraw behind the barrier for safety. Shots were then fired from the other side of the traffic island, at a range of about twenty metres. All five were wounded. Reid, McNamee and Magee were the most seriously injured, with Reid sustaining facial injuries. Following the shooting a local taxi firm was also attacked.

As crowds gathered at either side of the barricade, hundreds of soldiers were rushed into the area. Hallidays Road was searched and a weapon recovered in a house in Stratheden Street. Four men from the unionist Tigers Bay district, Andrew Salters, Arthur Ingram, John Strain and William Jamieson, were arrested (in the end only Jamieson was found guilty, receiving a two year sentence). The next day they were charged with possession of the shotgun used in the shooting. At their remand hearing, on the Monday morning, RUC Head Constable Thomas McCluney explained to the court that the accused fired the shots as ‘feelings had been running high’.

On the Sunday, the CDC for the New Lodge and Docks had met and agreed further security measures. This included introducing a graduated curfew for children (8 pm) and others not involved in patrols and defence (10 pm). The CDC put in place a rota and schedule of patrols for the defence of the area. Oliver Kelly (vice-chairman of the CDC) said the shooting had been a salutary lesson for all those involved. The Major in charge of the 2nd Light Infantry in the district admitted that the hadn’t believed that they would be fired upon by unionists.

But on that Sunday night, unionists left a 2lb gelignite bomb in Exchange Street in the Half Bap area (immediately to the south of the New Lodge and North Queen Street). It exploded in the middle of the street, shattering windows in thirty houses although no-one was badly injured. Immediately a barricade was re-erected at the end of Exchange Street. The same pattern was to follow over the next week as local violence prompted the return of barricades.

The same weekend, the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, was released from internment. On the Monday, against the backdrop of the New Lodge Road shooting and the bombing of Exchange Street, McMillen called a meeting of the Belfast IRA staff in Cyprus Street. Famously, he was confronted about the rapidly changed political landscape in a meeting regarded as critical to the fragmentation of the republican movement that accelerated over the next few months.

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Hundreds of pets killed in sectarian attack – Belfast, 1969

From The Irish Press, Tuesday 16th September, 1969: “The threat to the owner of a pet shop that his premises would be burned out if he did not sack his Catholic manager was carried out yesterday morning.

More than 100 birds, 170 mice, 20 parrots, 20 hamsters and scores of tropical fish died in the blaze at the Castle Aquatics, on the Castlereagh Road, Belfast.

Owner, Mr Robert Matthews (32) received the threat by telephone five days ago. “Of course, I did not sack my manager,” he said. Police and forensic experts yesterday searched among the burned out portion of the shop for clues as to the origin of the outbreak.

The pets died of suffocation, but Mr Matthews, who lives nearby, rescued three puppies and a rabbit.”

Other news reports provide some further details. Robert Matthews owned two adjoining shops on the Castlereagh Road where his manager was Jim Killen a Catholic from the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey. Thousands of tropical fish were killed in the fire including a piranha fish worth £60 (that’s just under half a teachers monthly salary in 1969). There were actually 25 parrots killed and several valuable peach-faced love birds. The fire appeared to have been started with petrol bombs.

 

 

Pets

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.