Belfast ‘Peace Line’ over @IrishCentral

This week in 1969, the Belfast ‘peace line’ between the Falls and Shankill began to be changed from barbed wire to a solid visual barrier so the two communities could not even see each other.

It has remained that way ever since. Here’s a piece I wrote on it for Irish Central.

You can read it here on Irish Central.

The early barbed wire peace line.
The full barrier that was added to the barbed wire by the end of September then replaced it.

The path to the IRA Split: September 1969

September 1969 witnessed more milestones in the journey towards the split in the IRA. From a Belfast perspective, key events happened over the course of 22-24 September when the Battalion informed Cathal Goulding’s Dublin-based IRA leadership that it no longer recognised it’s authority. This had its roots in multiple different historical issues. The most immediate was the failure of the Dublin leadership to prepare for the violent attacks in the north that summer. But other factors were at play too, such as long term tensions between Belfast and Dublin over IRA strategy. The split (and moves to not prevent it happening) can also be seen in the context of contemporary guerrilla theory. You can read more background to the IRA split here, here and here.
The release of the Belfast IRA O/C, Billy McMillen, from internment in mid-September required a meeting of the Belfast Battalion Council to formalise his reinstatement as OC, since, under the IRA’s own rules, individuals had to relinquish their commands on imprisonment. While O/C’s were often nominated by the IRA’s leadership, they still had to be formally approved by a vote of confidence from the local staff. But the Belfast IRA had changed significantly since McMillen’s arrest on 15 August. Large numbers of IRA veterans had returned to active duty with the organisation and there had been an influx of new recruits. As an organisation, the IRA operated to a constitution and standing orders at least nominally, if not always in practice. As such, leaders were elected at conventions organised for that purpose. The Belfast IRA of 22 September 1969 was much larger than that of 15 August 1969 both in terms of membership and in the strength and distribution of its units. According to Joe Cahill, “Immediately after events of 15 August, everybody who had been in the IRA and had been dismissed or resigned or whatever, reported back to the Belfast staff.” (Anderson, Joe Cahill; A Life in the IRA, p176). Given that the Belfast Battalion of the IRA and other republican organisations such as Cumann na mBan had a strength of around 1,000 in the early 1940s, and 200-300 even in the 1950s, there was a sizeable pool of former members of the IRA and Cumann na mBan and their families from which to increase its size.
There is a dramatic contrast in the condition of the Belfast IRA on 14-15 August and mid-September 1969. In August it was effectively unarmed, much of its leadership arrested and unable to really influence events when violence erupted. By mid-September, Jim Sullivan, chair of the Central Citizen’s Defence Committee (and acting as Belfast O/C in McMillen’s absence) was meeting Major General Tony Dyball, the British Army’s deputy director of operations in the north. Not only were the British Army and Belfast IRA talking directly about how to guard barricades and manage security, they were apparently doing so over the heads of the Unionist government. This, however, flew in the face of the commentary coming from the IRA leadership in Dublin, via the likes of the United Irishman newspaper in September and October. The British army was presented as being there to maintain sectarian divisions and foment a civil war (so it could intervene and present itself as a saviour). This was claimed to be part of a wider British strategy to regain control of all of Ireland in a London-led federation, hidden within the moves by London and Dublin to join the European Economic Community (eg see United Irishman, October 1969). Goulding’s analysis – which, in a mirror image of the inaction of Lynch’s government, had been exposed as so flawed in mid-August – seemed to be oblivious to any role or agency unionists might have in actively fomenting violence.
The IRA leadership’s response in the aftermath of August 1969 was minimal. A meeting in Leitrim on 17 August had failed to persuade IRA O/Cs that the leadership was capable of responding to any new outbreak of violence. In September a further meeting in Lurgan saw Daithi O Conaill appointed as a military advisor to the northern defence committees. In reality, IRA GHQ in Dublin appears to have been more focused on pushing through changes to IRA policy on abstentionism and political activity such as the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ (in that respect there were elements within the IRA and Sinn Féin that opposed Gouldings policies for a variety of reasons).
The events of mid-September 1969, that saw the formalisation of a ‘peace-line’ and further violence from unionists following the publication of the Cameron Report. This was the immediate backdrop to McMillen’s release. Famously, the Battalion Council meeting to approve his return as O/C was attended by representatives of the newly expanded units of the Belfast Battalion, some of whom were armed (having travelled across Belfast in September 1969 that seems hardly surprising). Billy McKee, who had preceded McMillen as Belfast O/C, outlined what many of those present believed Belfast Battalion strategy should now be: demand changes in the IRA leadership in Dublin with Sean Garland replacing Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff, increase the Belfast Battalion staff to include a number of named individuals, Goulding release monies raised for arms in the north for the purchase of weapons. McMillen recounts some of his own views of the meeting in Rosita Sweetman’s 1972 book On Our Knees. The Belfast IRA agreed to break with Dublin for three months until the necessary changes were made. This was communicated to Dublin but it was quickly claimed that McMillen had reinstated communication with Dublin and agreed with Goulding to string his opponents along for the time being. The repercussion from this then played out as the split in the IRA widened over that autumn. At the time, though, there is nothing in the likes of United Irishman to suggest that the events of September were particularly seismic.
Goulding, through the United Irishman, began to claim that a faction within Fianna Fáil was trying to take control of the IRA in the north naming individuals like Hugh Kennedy (who was a press officer of the Citizens Defence Committees) and the likes of Seamus Brady formerly of the Irish Press. Paradoxically, that October, Goulding himself was actually meeting with the likes of Haughey and in discussion with him and others over the channelling of money to the IRA (he also later claimed that it was Fianna Fáil that was trying to have him ousted as IRA Chief of Staff). By November, though, the Fianna Fáil contacts had clearly soured as the United Irishman carried a critical expose of the contacts with Haughey, Blaney and Boland (in a 1971 pamphlet, Fianna Fáil – the IRA Connection, Goulding again sought to blame Fianna Fáil for the IRA split). Matt Treacy (in The IRA, 1956-69) makes it clear that Lynch’s government had heavily infiltrated Gouldings Army Council long before August 1969 and believed itself to be well-informed in July 1969 when it considered ‘taking steps’ to deal with the IRA in an apparent response to the bombing campaign in the north (which was actually the work of the UVF).
Tensions between Belfast and Dublin were hardly new and had been a long term feature of internal republican politics. It had dogged relations between units in the north and IRA GHQ in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in the Belfast IRA taking over GHQ during the ‘Hayes Affair’ and then relocating GHQ to Belfast for a period of time in the 1940s. Co-operation was no less problematic in the lead up to the 1956 IRA campaign and wasn’t helped by the fact that the weight of internment in the north fell mainly on the Belfast IRA.
The changed circumstances of August-September 1969 brought about a shift in the balance of power within the IRA in Belfast that wasn’t immediately recognised. Historically, the lower Falls had been the seat of the Belfast IRA leadership. IRA units around the city had generally taken a lead from the area as the IRA had a high concentration of supporters there, with more access to safe houses and freedom of movement. Maintaining hegemony in the lower Falls then meant controlling the Belfast IRA. When the IRA rapidly expanded in numbers in 1969, though, its membership had a much wider geographic spread across the city and less of an inclination to take an uncritical lead from the lower Falls. In the short term, McMillen (and by extension Goulding) appears to have felt secure in his own position as he could rely on his support in that area, not realising that the powerbase of the IRA in Belfast had shifted.
A last point to bear in mind when looking at internal tensions within the IRA in 1969 is to briefly look at contemporary perceptions of what a revolutionary movement constituted. Cathal Goulding had intended to announce the creation of a ‘National Liberation Front’ with a number of other groups during 1969. This largely mirrored Vietnam with the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (typically referred to by the press as the Viet Cong) incorporated into a wider National Liberation Front (NLF). The NLF name had been used in previous successful anti-colonial wars, such as in Algeria and by the Greek resistance to the German occupation during the second world war. The IRA under Goulding had already been issuing statements under a variety of shifting identities during the 1960s, including ‘Irish Citizen Army, Northern Command’, ‘Irish Resistance Movement’ and ‘Irish Resistance Forces’.
In theory at least, Goulding already recognised the need for encouraging the participation of a diversity of groupings to achieve success. Where other organisations had operated in competition with the IRA, such as the short-lived Irish Freedom Fighters in Belfast in the mid-1960s, the IRA had shut it down. That Goulding wasn’t quick to move against opponents once a split started opening in the IRA in 1969 may, at some level, been rooted in a National Liberation Front concept that could have absorbed a split as long as it remained under the same general umbrella. In some ways this explains what appears to be complacency about a split on Goulding’s part. A split may also have had a useful purpose. An anti-colonial movement that was often noted in republican publications in the 1950s and 1960s was in Palestine where Irgun and Haganah had performed differing offensive/defensive roles. Consciously or subconsciously, there may even have been a sense that there would be roles for a variety of republican groupings by 1969. That division in roles is pertinent to the later emergence of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association. In that regard, it is possible that a future split in the IRA could have been imagined as an opportunity as much as a threat in 1969.
There is more on the split and related events in the various links throughout the text above and the Belfast Battalion book.

Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Fitt effigies, Shankill Road, 1969

This photograph, from September 1969, shows effigies of Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Fitt on the Shankill Road. Fitt’s is hanging by the wall while Devlin’s has the placard behind it which reads “Would anyone who knows the whereabouts of this vampire please contact the UVF.” The photo was published in the Irish Press on 10 September 1969.

This was in the run up to the publication of the Cameron Report into the violence in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere in 1968 and 1969. The report was published on 12 September 1969. This was the immediate purpose of the erection of a formal ‘peace line’ on 10 September since it was anticipated that there would be further intense violence from unionists as a response to criticisms of the Unionist Party government, its policies, civil rights abuses and the RUC.

 

Revisiting 1969: the Belfast IRA, reactions and responses

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).

RTE 1969

Commer armoured cars in Divis Street on night of 13th August (RTE).

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).

Hastings St 13.14 Aug 1969

Petrol bombs exploding in front of Hasting Street RUC Barracks on the night of 13-14th August (Belfast Telegraph)

Shorland

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

Shorlands 6 and 7

Shorlands on the move in Belfast – identification numbers feature in eye-witness accounts of shooting, particularly number 6 (from Chartres, Henshaw and Dewar, Northern Ireland Scrapbook).

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.

Falls Road 14.15 Aug AP Wirephoto

Shorland and armed B Specials with ambulance waiting behind them off the Falls Road on night of 14-15 August (AP).

Belfast 14.15 Aug 1969

Petrol bombing exploding underneath a Shorland armoured car surrounded by  B Specials, night of 14-15 August (Belfast Telegraph).

Falls Rd Indo 14869

Falls Road, armoured car and petrol bombs burning on night of 14-15 August (Irish Independent).

Belfast shot in head 14.15 Aug 1969

Un-named man wounded in head ‘by a sniper’ (possibly near Divis tower) on night of 14-15 August 1969 (Daily Mirror).

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.

C070B6EE-D7DD-44C0-B76A-F9E3320853FF

Billy McKee with Gerard McAuley just after he was shot in Clonard (courtesy of Pat Leahy).

Xenia Daily Gazette cablephoto Belfast Falls 15 Aug 1969

A street off the Falls Road in flames on night of 15 August 1969 (AP).

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.

Revisiting 1969: Declaration to the people of 26 Counties

Statement as published, Irish Press 18th August 1969:

We, Paddy Devlin, Paddy Kennedy and Paddy O’Hanlon, being elected representatives of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, address the people of the 26 Counties and state the Unionist Government are now pursuing a deliberate policy of genocide against the Catholic population of the six counties of Northern Ireland.

We further state that: they have armed their most fanatical supporters with automatic weapons and have acquiesed in their barbarous and brutal excesses. They have consistently refused to listen to protests, appeals or prayer to grant social justice and to put an end to the present murder, shooting, pillage and burning of Catholic homes. They have now embarked. upon a course of action similar in intent and method to that of the Hitlerite regime in its policy against the Jews.

At the moment, thousands of our families are homeless and in great physical distress. Our people are living on the charity of a dedicated few but their resources of food, clothing and medical supplies are nearly exhausted. While aid to refugees from the six counties is welcome the direct need at the moment is to get food, clothing, medical supplies and other appropriate material through to the beieagued areas in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere. If this is not done immediately the loss in life will dramatically multiply.

We appeal in desperation to the Irish people and their Government to assist us now. We implore the Government to make this aid available to our people without delay, as delay may prove fatal. We ask the people of Ireland to make representation by every means in their power to the Government and to insist that the aid we have requested be given forthwith.

Chichester-Clark’ s statement that the extremist Republican elements are responsible for the disorders in Northern Ireland is a pack of lies. His function now is reduced to deception of the British public about the murderous activities of his extremist supporters. This trouble stems not from Republicans but within his own party and is related to his efforts to retain-leadership in the Unionist Government.

Signed: Paddy Devlin, M.P. Paddy O’Hanlon, M.P. Paddy Kennedy, M.P.

The previous day Devlin, who was to later be a founding member of the SDLP, spoke at a public meeting in front of the GPO in Dublin. He told the meeting that “As we stand here tonight people are being shot down and the only way they can defend themselves is with guns. We have not got these and we need them badly.” (Sunday Independent, 17th August 1969).

Devlin was one of a number of figures who made public calls for weapons or for the Irish Army to invade the north. Here is then President of the Union of Students in Ireland and a later founder of the Peace People, Ciaran McKeown (in footage recorded by Thames TV) speaking at another rally at the GPO, this time on the 17th August 1969.

And one final clip. This time an unnamed member of the governing Fianna Fáil party speaking at the same rally outside the GPO.

If anyone knows who the speaker is, please give us some more information in the comments area!

Dominic Corr on getting burned out of his home, 14th August 1969

Pogroms

As the 14th of August this year marks the 50th anniversary of the British state/unionist pogroms of 1969, I wrote this piece to remember the night our family and many other families were burnt out of our homes and the reasons why. In the hope that such pogroms should never be allowed to happen again in Ireland.

I must say our maternal Granny Nellie McDonnell had experienced this before and I believe her resilience helped our family and others through what was to come. Attempts had been made to burn her out or force her out of family homes on three occasions as a result of British state/unionist pogroms at different stages in her life. Her home and her sister Maggie’s home among others in Norfolk Street had been attacked and an attempt was made to burn them out when she was a young mother on the 10th of July 1921. This was two months after Maggie’s son Volunteer Sean McCartney had been shot and killed in action by the British army and black and tans on the Lappinduff mountain in County Cavan, where he was operating as part of a joint Belfast/County Cavan IRA flying column. A day later on 11th July a local IRA man James (Seamus) Ledlie who was on defence stand by was shot dead by a unionist sniper as he stood in Norfolk Street not long after leaving her house in the reign of terror which paved the way for the formation of the northern state in the 1920s.

Her house was attacked again in the aftermath of the outdoor relief strikes in the 1930s. When the British government again used sectarianism to divide the working classes. As Catholics and Protestants had been protesting together and even rioted together against the state. When the state decided to end payments for the unemployed and replaced them with food vouchers and other poverty inducing cuts that had families almost starved.

Then again in 1969 when she had her own children reared and was now a grandmother and great grandmother watching herself her youngest daughter, son in law and her grandchildren and some of her siblings being burned out of our family homes in Norfolk Street when the state again decided to attack Irish Catholic citizens burning their homes. On the 14th of August 1969 we were to experience the sectarian fascism our Granny had already endured twice before and was to endure again for a third time.

Our family my mother, father and their three sons were burnt out of our home as was our Granny Nellie and some of her siblings who lived in different houses a few doors away. My mother told me years later although tensions were slightly high due to certain unionists among them Ian Paisley stoking up the sectarianism with anti papist and anti Catholic rhetoric within speeches he was delivering at the time. She believed it would blow over until a short time later when an incident happened the day before loyalists burned our houses down. My mother was putting our bin out for the bin men when a few unionists from the Shankill were making there way along Norfolk Street to the Falls Road where many unionists from the Shankill worked in the 1960’s. One woman made a remark to my mother saying that she could possibly be wasting her time putting the bin out as that may be the last bin she would put out as all the dirt and rubbish would be cleared off these streets very soon.

Unionists alongside members of the RUC and B Specials entered our streets and proceeded to attack our family homes the next evening burning many homes and leaving us as homeless political refugees in our own country. As I’ve said sadly this was nothing new to Granny Nellie as this was her third time either having homes attacked or being burned out of different family homes in the Norfolk Street area by unionists and state forces.

The pogrom in which my family and our granny were burnt out of our homes in Norfolk Street was on the 14th August 1969. It was part of a systematic state-led reign of terror when loyalists, orange men and the UVF led by and under the tutelage and command of the B Specials and RUC attacked houses in streets which ran between the Falls and Shankill Roads. These streets were forcibly entered by the above gangs raking them with gunfire and then throwing sawn down lengths of scaffolding poles to break through the windows of small two up two down terraced houses. After the windows had been broken scatter cushions soaked in petrol with lengths of wire tied to them and petrol bombs were lit and tossed into the houses. The homes burned like tinder boxes. These were our homes, the homes of young families, elderly people, and some people living on their own. The common bond this community had and which made us targets was the fact we were working class Irish Catholics living in Belfast.

Almost every family in our street, Norfolk Street were burned out that night on Thursday 14th August 1969. I was too young to have any definitive memories of being burnt out in 1969 or how our family including our Granny, who moved with us every step of the way, became homeless political refugees in our own country. How we had to live in caravans in Beechmount, a school in Andersonstown or my aunt Sadie McVeigh’s house in Kinnaird Avenue, Andytown, along with her husband Tommy and their family of twelve children at the time.

We moved from pillar to post before eventually settling around 1970 in Annadale Street in the New Lodge district of north Belfast. One thing that always stuck with me was the attitude and character of our Granny Nellie. Regardless of her multiple experiences she hadn’t a sectarian bone in her body as she always maintained friendships with Protestants whom she knew a lifetime. She was shrewd enough to know and often made sure we knew that those who burned us out were in fact pawns in England’s game of divide and conquer as well as being ignorant of their own background. They themselves were in fact a residual over spill of a people once plundered and conquered by the very same imperialist racist/sectarian mindset. They were now being used as muscle and puppets. They were the total opposite of people like Theobald Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy and Mary Ann McCracken, William Drennan and other protestant Irish men and women who were the founders of the political concept known as Irish republicanism.

Shortly after 1969 a lot of people left Belfast to get some form of respite going to places in the Free State like Gormanstown army camp were they were provided with food and shelter. Our family never made that move as our Granny Nellie maintained the belief that regardless of what was happening she wasn’t for leaving Belfast. She said she wouldn’t flee south as a refugee from British state/unionist pogroms in the early 1920’s when her home was attacked and the country was partitioned or the 1930’s and she wasn’t for fleeing in 1969.

She always seemed to be adamant in seeing a difference between the evacuation of WWII, the Belfast blitz and the various pogroms and sectarian attacks by unionists and the British state. She went to Katesbridge when the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast but would never leave when unionists, British military, B Specials, RUC, armed orange men and the UVF attacked her homes at different times in her life. She maintained that she and none of her family would “never allow anybody or anything to force me from the city where I was born and raised my family”. When we moved to the New Lodge our Granny Nellie came with us as we settled in 55 Annadale Street which ran between Lepper Street and the Antrim Rd. Pinkerton Street, Carntall Street in the New Lodge and its hinterlands of North Queen Street, Vere Street, The Fenian Gut, Little Italy and Carrickhill in north Belfast is where my paternal family in Belfast all hailed from when my paternal great grandparents settled in Belfast.

Although by 1970 we were settled as I said I think it was hard for both my Granny and my mother as they were Falls Road women who had left all they’d known and the community they’d grew up in. A plus side to our moving was the fact that my mother’s sister Mary and my father’s brother Arder lived in the last house at the junction of Carntall Street and the New Lodge Road and they were closer than most in laws to an extent as two brothers had married two sisters. My Granny was a Falls Road woman born and bred, although she lived the final five years of her life in the New Lodge and died there. I don’t think her life or my mother’s life were ever the same after 1969, and to be honest, I don’t believe a lot of lives including my own were ever the same either. She always maintained it would never happen again as the people had an army (referring to the IRA) which would never allow such pogroms to be repeated.

I often thought about this throughout the last few years. That like many others I had grown up in a war zone, an unjust war which was foisted upon us in an abnormal setting which had became a normal way of life to us. Though that situation would have different effects on thousands of people as a roller coaster of emotions shaped our lives throughout those years. Emotions from being happy at times when realistically you should have probably been solemn and not knowing how to be empathetic in any meaningful way or being in a position where anger became to easy a way to deal with things. At times things happen which bring you back to things that happened which has a direct effect on you personally or others around you.

One such incident happened when I was in Krakow in a few years ago as I visited the Jewish ghetto in a square. While at a holocaust memorial which consisted of metal chairs which symbolised the furniture among other belongings which were dropped on and around that spot by Jews who had been forced to live in the ghetto as they were being rounded up to be assassinated by the Nazis. I thought of my granny McDonnell and my mother and father who had lost all their belongings as they too were burnt out by fascists who would have been happy to assassinate them. At that moment in the square I felt a tingling mixed with a shudder in my body and my eyes welled up, not with sadness or fear but with a sense of pride and gladness. Pride that no matter what my mother, father and Granny came through they would never let it define them in a negative way or turn them into hate filled beings.

I’m glad that they rose above it to still believe that equality and justice would some day be in place in an Ireland free from racist/sectarian British misrule and interference.

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