Belfast Battalion now available…

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

 

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar

 
IMG_0458-718x539

Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast

 

 

 

 Glasgowcalton

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

 

 

 

 

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

 

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

 

Belfast Battalion currently available…

Litter Press

As of today, you can buy your copy of Belfast Battalion at the following locations:

1517928394917_connollybookshop

Dublin

Connolly Books,

Essex Street East, Temple Bar


IMG_0458-718x539

Belfast

Sinn Féin Book Shop,

55 Falls Road, Belfast


calton

Glasgow

Calton Books,

159 London Road, Glasgow*

*It should be available by Monday or Tuesday next week.

You can order the book direct to your front door online here.

There are also a couple of copies in the library of the Museum in Conway Mill if you just want to browse a copy.

And you can download it for Kindle/ebook here (and preview it below).

View original post

Commemorating a centenary of partition?

The 3rd of May 2021 will see the 100th anniversary of the partition of Ireland. In recent weeks this has come into focus with the DUP taking offence at the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald stating that the party would not be participating in celebrations of the centenary of partition.

In 2016, the DUP’s Arlene Foster was forthright in her refusals to take part in any commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. According to the Irish Times, she had told the BBC: “Easter 1916 was a very violent attack on the state. And it wasn’t just an attack on the state. It was an attack against democracy at that time. Anyone that knows me knows that I believe in democracy and I believe in the democratic will, and therefore I just do not believe that it would be right for me to go and to commemorate such an occasion. When you look at the history of commemorations of Easter 1916 it is only relatively recently that the government of the Republic of Ireland have commemorated that occasion because actually it gave succour to violent republicanism here in Northern Ireland over many years. It would be wrong for me as the leader of Northern Ireland to give any succour to those sorts of people.”

Ironically, as 2021 approaches, there will be an ever increasing engagement with partition, the events that led up to it and all that flowed from it. And not just by unionists. I’d expect that republicans, nationalists, trade unionists, various socialist, communist and anarchist groups, feminists and others will engage with the events around partition. The difference will be that they will critically engage with partition rather than ‘celebrate’ it.

Post-partition unionist rule will inevitably become bound up in that engagement, particularly the structured and sustained abuse of civil rights and curtailment of any meaningful form of political or social opposition.

Another, and in the light of Arlene Foster’s rejection of involvement in 1916 commemorations, perhaps more pertinent issues will be an increasing exploration of the violence which led to partition. In that regard, the synergy between unionist violence and partition will become a dominant aspect of that centenary, largely because for so long it has remained relatively unexplored.

An example in point, that I’ve looked at previously, is the bombing of Weaver Street in February 1922. Weaver Street and the a cluster of adjoining streets such as Shore Street, Milewater Street, North Derby Street and Jennymount Street, contained a concentration of Catholic families who worked in nearby mills. Enclosed by a district largely inhabited by Protestants all within the docks area of Belfast which was the scene of intense violence in 1920-22.

The elements of the tragedy in Weaver Street are uncomfortably familiar. You can read more here, but, in brief, a police constable moved Catholic children from Milewater Street into Weaver Street where they then congregated around a skipping rope near the end of the street. A number of men, possibly including the same police constables, observed the children then, from short range, threw a grenade into their midst. After the explosion, they opened fire on people trying to leave the houses and assist those injured in the explosion. In the aftermath of the explosion, the Unionist administration attempted to mislead the press into believing it was carried out by the IRA (rather than unionists). Subsequent evidence at the coroners inquiry exposed how the police made no attempt to gather evidence or investigate the incident. Four children and two adults died, with at least a dozen more badly injured.

This grainy image (from Birmingham Daily Gazette) shows Weaver Street residents loading a horse and cart before fleeing in May 1922. This is one of the few images I can find of Weaver Street before May 1922.

The remaining residents of Weaver Street fled their homes in May 1922 never to return (a comparison of street directories shows a near total change in the names of heads of households between 1918 and 1924). In subsequent decades Weaver Street was incorporated into a factory and now has been wiped off the map.

Weaver Street decorated for the Twelfth July 1924 (from Belfast Telegraph). Most of those in the photo presumably moved in after May 1922. The photo looks north towards Jennymount Mill. The site of the February 1922 bombing is on the footpath behind the crowd on the right side of the picture.

Weaver Street might seem like an extreme example, but it stands as a metaphor for the types of history that will be explored by people engaging with the centenary of partition. A centenary that will simply not become the celebration that Unionists might want it to be.

…for fear of alienating the Unionist vote… #Brexit

A pivotal moment in the relationship of London and the European community, Unionist votes holding a precarious balance of power, Conservative government policy (including security policy in the north) subject to the need to keep the Unionist votes on side. While no-one seems to have drawn the parallel, we have been here before and the outcome is perhaps worth noting.

Over the course of 1971 and 1972 Edward Heath was trying to push his European Communities Bill through a reluctant House of Commons. The Bill was instrumental in the UK joining the European Economic Community (as the EU was then known). Following the 1970 General Election, Heath had come to power intent on legislating for UK membership of the EEC. With 330 MPs he had a slim majority of 14 and that included the 8 Unionist Party members returned in the north (along with Ian Paisley, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus).

Over the summer of 1971, in the lead up to the early stages of the Bill, the press speculated on the extent to which Heath’s reliance on the Unionist votes was a factor in deciding security policy, including in the lead up to the widespread arrest and internment of Catholics in August 1971. At an early stage, in October 1971, most of the Unionist MPs (who were joined in a formal parliamentary grouping with Heath’s Conservatives) voted against the Bill. All of this provides a notable backdrop to the Heath’s perceived need to win Unionists support for his European project for the crucial votes that would happen later in 1971 and early in 1972. Notably, over this period, security policy continued to fall in line with Unionist demands. Political reform was largely ignored (you can see the types of proposals under consideration at the time). And formal scrutiny of recent events was heavily sanitised, such as the Compton report issued in November 1971. During critical events such as the McGurks Bar bombing in December 1971 and Bloody Sunday in January 1972, UK government policy remained favourably aligned on Unionist needs and wants despite significant international opprobrium.

On 17th February 1972, Heath finally got his European vote over the line with a bare majority of eight (the sum total of the Unionist MPs). His biographer, John Campbell, called it ‘Heath’s finest hour’. Within weeks, there was a shift in security policy as first Stormont was prorogued and then the British government began talks with the IRA that appeared to open up all sorts of political possibilities of British withdrawal to the IRA.

This isn’t to suggest that the guiding factor in Heath’s security policy in the north in 1971 and 1972 was predicated upon needing Unionist support to pass the European Communities Bill. But, whatever it’s significance, it was a factor. And once the need for those Unionist votes was passed, the shift in emphasis in political policy against the Unionists was relatively swift.

The following editorial captures all this under the headline “Heath’s Close Call”, it appeared in the Irish Independent on 18th February 1972.

To Irish people who are used to Dáil cliff hangers coming out in a majority of two or three for the Government, Mr. Heath’s majority of eight in Westminster last night on the crucial E.E.C. Bill will seem small beer. But in a Parliament with over 600 members this vote was proportionately as close as any we have seen in Leinster House in recent times.
Now that Mr. Heath has won his vote, however, it is fair to say that the crisis is over for him on this issue. He can expect a gradual improvement from last night’s lowest ebb. With luck the coal and power crises will be things of the past in a few months’ time; a “handout” budget can be expected in an effort to stimulate the economy and fight unemployment; and Rhodesia has already caused the Westminster Government its fill of embarrassment.
There remains Northern Ireland. Certainly Mr. Heath has personally taken political punishment as a result of his handling of the North. However, last night’s critical vote may now free his hand a bit to make some concessions to the minority viewpoint. Up to this, with this crucial vote pending, Mr. Heath has had to be careful what political initiatives he even hinted at for fear of alienating the Unionist vote for last night’s test. Six of the eight Unionist M.P.s had voted against the principle of the Common Market on October 28th; but last night’s vote had turned into a straight political fight, an issue larger that the E.E.C. question. Three of the six anti-Market Northern Unionists were thus free to support the Government on the basis, presumably, that the E.E.C. with Heath was preferable to Wilson with no E.E.C.
His failure to secure a bloc Unionist vote, however, on an issue which had turned into a vote of confidence in the Government means that Unionist opinion is not solidly behind him. One reason for this could be that some Northern Unionists feel that he is about to “do a deal” with the Northern minority. His hands certainly seem less tied after this vote than before it.

European Union flag

Claims of anti-Catholic bias by the old Stormont regime are hugely exaggerated…!

Accusations of discrimination against Catholics by the unionist Stormont regime of 1921-72 have been a staple of nationalist politics, underlying the Good Friday Agreement and the aspiration for Irish unity. The allegations are widely believed, even by unionists, but are hugely exaggerated.” So claims Graham Gudgin, David Trimble’s former adviser, in one of the, now routine, pieces of counter-factual nonsense run by the Belfast Newsletter.

As a defence of the old Stormont regime, Gudgin’s article fails miserably in trying cherrypick facts to support the premise that the civil rights abuses by the Unionist governments were negligible and unimportant. Unintentionally, Gudgin provides a useful illustration insight into how little is changed in the Unionist mindset. At one point he lovingly cites the following excerpt from the 1969 Cameron Commission, “It is in a sense understandable that, given the political history of Northern Ireland, in certain areas in particular, local unionist groups should seek to preserve themselves in power by ensuring that local authority housing is developed and allocated in ways which will not disturb their electoral supremacy.

Basically, civil rights abuses were fine because they kept Unionists in power. This more or less summarises his thinking. And it seems to be representative of a significant strand of political unionism today as chimes with pretty much every DUP intervention into the Brexit process.

At the time of the publication of the Cameron Commission’s report in 1969, Stormont minister Brian Faulkner was ridiculed for claiming the report showed that Catholics had few genuine grievances. You can read the contents of the Cameron Commission’s report here yourself. The report’s conclusions are a world away from the interpretation given to them by Faulkner in 1969 or Gudgin today. It contains sixteen points, covering discrimination in housing, jobs allocation, gerrymandering, policing, due process, the repressive use of the Special Powers Act and very specifically puts the responsibility for the emerging violence on various unionist groups. I’ve quoted these at the end of this post. All of the report’s conclusions reflect the claims made by the civil rights movement and others in the decades before 1960.

Even Dr Gudgin understanding of the context of the statistics he uses is demonstrably flawed. As part of his dismissal of the significance and impact of gerrymandering, he claims that, “The abuses only concerned local authority elections, but even so the Stormont regime was wrong in not acting to stop them much earlier.” This is manifestly untrue. The restricted electoral franchise also applied to elections to the parliament at Stormont (while, paradoxically, they did not apply in Westminster elections). Thus one impact can be very simply measured by the variation in the total electorate for an election to Stormont and an election to Westminster. To take the electorate for the 1970 Westminster election and the 1969 Stormont election as an example, the electorate for Westminster in 1970 was 1,017,303 while the electorate for Stormont in 1969 was 784,242. So 22.9% of the electorate was disenfranchised for Stormont and local authority elections. Not only were they disenfranchised as individuals, others were able to vote multiple times due to property ownership rights. This means that even this 22.9% reduction in votes masks a larger reduction in the number of individuals eligible to vote. As economic status was the key to electoral eligibility, the Unionist government’s tactic was to utilise poverty to disenfranchise it’s political opponents. There are many lasting monuments to this tactic, including the dearth of physical infrastructure west of the Bann.

If unionism and the likes of the Belfast Newsletter are going to repeatedly insist that others are trying to rewrite history, they might first ensure that their understanding of that history is better informed.

 

Here are the Cameron Commission’s key findings:

(a) General

(1) A rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, in particular in Londonderry and Dungannon, in respect of (i) inadequacy of housing provision by certain local authorities (ii) unfair methods of allocation of houses built and let by such authorities, in particular; refusals and omissions to adopt a ‘points’ system in determining priorities and making allocations (iii) misuse in certain cases of discretionary powers of allocation of houses in order to perpetuate Unionist control of the local authority (paragraphs 128-131 and 139).

(2) Complaints, now well documented in fact, of discrimination in the making of local government appointments, at all levels but especially in senior posts, to the prejudice of non-Unionists and especially Catholic members of the community, in some Unionist controlled authorities (paragraphs 128 and 138).

(3) Complaints, again well documented, in some cases of deliberate manipulation of local government electoral boundaries and in others a refusal to apply for their necessary extension, in order to achieve and maintain Unionist control of local authorities and so to deny to Catholics influence in local government proportionate to their numbers (paragraphs 133-137).

(4) A growing and powerful sense of resentment and frustration among the Catholic population at failure to achieve either acceptance on the part of the Government of any need to investigate these complaints or to provide and enforce a remedy for them (paragraphs 126-147).

(5) Resentment, particularly among Catholics, as to the existence of the Ulster Special Constabulary (the ‘B’ Specials) as a partisan and paramilitary force recruited exclusively from Protestants (paragraph 145).

(6) Widespread resentment among Catholics in particular at the continuance in force of regulations made under the Special Powers Act, and of the continued presence in the statute book of the Act itself (paragraph 144).

(7) Fears and apprehensions among Protestants of a threat to Unionist domination and control of Government by increase of Catholic population and powers, inflamed in particular by the activities of the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, provoked strong hostile reaction to civil rights claims as asserted by the Civil Rights Association and later by the People’s Democracy which was readily translated into physical violence against Civil Rights demonstrators (paragraphs 148-150 and 216-226).
(b) Particular

(8) There was a strong reaction of popular resentment to the Minister’s ban on the route of the proposed Civil Rights march in Londonderry or 5th October 1968 which swelled very considerably the number of persons who ultimately took part in the march. Without this ban the numbers taking part would in all probability have been small and the situation safely handled by available police forces (paragraphs 157-165).

(9) The leadership, organisation and control of the demonstrations in Londonderry on 5th October 1968, and in Newry on 11th January 1969 was ineffective and insufficient to prevent violent or disorderly conduct among certain elements present on these occasions (paragraphs 54 and 118)

(10) There was early infiltration of the Civil Rights Association both centrally and locally by subversive left wing and revolutionary elements which were prepared to use the Civil Rights movement to further their own purposes, and were ready to exploit grievances in order to provoke and foment, and did provoke and foment, disorder and violence in the guise of supporting a non-violent movement (paragraphs 187-189 and 193).

(11) This infiltration was assisted by the declared insistence of the Civil Rights Association that it was non-sectarian and non-political, and its consequent refusal to reject support from whatever quarter it came provided that support was given and limited to the published aims of the Association (paragraph 187).

(12) What was originally a Belfast students’ protest against police action in Londonderry on 5th October and support for the Civil Right movement was transformed into the People’s Democracy – itself an unnecessary adjunct to the already existing and operative Civil Rights Association. People’s Democracy provided a means by which politically extreme and militant elements could and did invite and incite civil disorder, with the consequence of polarising and hardening opposition to Civil Rights claims (paragraphs 194-204).

(13) On the other side the deliberate and organised interventions by followers of Major Bunting and the Rev. Dr. Paisley, especially in Armagh, Burntollet and Londonderry, substantially increased the risk of violent disorder on occasions when Civil Rights demonstrations or marches were to take place, were a material contributory cause of the outbreaks ( violence which occurred after 5th October, and seriously hampered the police in their task of maintaining law and order, and of protecting members of the public in the exercise of their undoubted legal rights and upon their lawful occasions (paragraphs 222-224).

(14) The police handling of the demonstration in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 was in certain material respects ill co-ordinated and inept. There was use of unnecessary and ill controlled force in the dispersal of the demonstrators, only a minority of whom acted in a disorderly and violent manner. The wide publicity given by press, radio and television to particular episodes inflamed and exacerbated feelings of resentment against the police which had been already aroused by their enforcement of the ministerial ban (paragraphs l68 – l7 1).

(15) Available police forces did not provide adequate protection to People’s Democracy marchers at Burntollet Bridge and in or near Irish Street, Londonderry on 4th January 1969. There were instances of police indiscipline and violence towards persons unassociated with rioting or disorder on 4th/ 5th January in Londonderry and these provoked serious hostility to the police, particularly among the Catholic population of Londonderry, and an increasing disbelief in their impartiality towards non-Unionists (paragraphs 97-101 and 177).

(16) Numerical insufficiency of available police force especially in Armagh on 30th November 1968 and in Londonderry on 4th/ 5th January 1969 and later on l9th/20th April prevented early and complete control and, where necessary, arrest of disorderly and riotous elements (paragraphs 87, 101 and 182).

World Mental Health Day

sarahjtholland

When I was a kid, I used to wake up every night thinking the house was on fire.  I would go and check, check to make sure my parents were still alive then squeeze in beside one of my wee sisters, squashing us both and guaranteeing a sweaty and restless sleep for both of us.  I was afraid of death, afraid of fire.  I was suffering from anxiety and didn’t know.

As I grew to a teenager, the sleepless nights continued.  My brain was making sure I was disaster ready, so constantly gave me thoughts of horrific death scenarios.  A base instinct was making sure I would survive, but also tormenting me with gruesome imagery.  I was afraid of ghosts, afraid of the dark, afraid of a fire.  There was less room in our wee single beds, but I still squeezed in with my sisters.  My Daidí used to go…

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“Come Hell, High Water or Herr William Craig…”, #CivilRights50

On 5th October, 1968, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (N.I.C.R.A.) staged the first of the civil rights marches in Derry demanding an end to discrimination in housing allocation, gerrymandering and restrictions in the right to vote.

You can read some more on the background to N.I.C.R.A. here. By the October 1968 march, it had developed the tactics which were to characterise the civil rights movement of the next few years. One of the initial objectives of N.I.C.R.A. when it was founded was to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, association and to protest the rights of the individual. The restrictions on political opposition had been a long-standing, if not central, feature of Unionist rule. The activity of N.I.C.R.A. in 1967 had focussed on education and organisation but there were few early public protests, other than events in Newry and an Easter commemoration in Armagh in April 1968. It was only on the election of N.I.C.R.A.’s second executive committee that tactics began to take greater notice of the success of Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches in highlighting abuses (this is largely paraphrasing Fred Heatley).

march-poster1

The official march poster (original here).

By the summer of 1968, N.I.C.R.A. had replicated Martin Luther King’s success in the publicity achieved through the Caledon and Coalisland-Dungannon civil rights protests. Apparently prompted by the Derry Housing Action Committee (D.H.A.C.), N.I.C.R.A. then proposed a civil rights march in Derry. The James Connolly Republican Club, Derry Nationalist Party and Londonderry Labour Party were all involved in the local organisation of the march while the promotion and wider publicity was managed by N.I.C.R.A.. The Unionist government believed that those involved were the D.H.A.C., the ‘Republican Party’ (which it describes as ‘members of the IRA and Sinn Fein’) and the Young Socialists. About a week before the proposed march, Eddie McAteer, the Nationalist Party leader, informed N.I.C.R.A. that it was pulling out of the event. After meeting with three of the N.I.C.R.A. executive, Betty Sinclair, Fred Heatley and John McAnerney, the Nationalists agreed to stay involved.

In the days leading up to the Derry march, Andrew Boyd wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Press quoting Frank Gallagher’s book, The Indivisible Island, about civil rights abuses including: “…a report from the Northern Whig, January 11th, 1946, which alleged that a Major L. E. Curran; who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, said that ” the best way to prevent the overthrow of the government by people who had no stake in the country and not the welfare of the people of Ulster at heart was to disenfranchise them.” Major Curran and his colleagues could not, of course, take the vote away from everyone whose loyalty was doubtful but they did, in an act passed by Stormont in 1946, restrict the franchise in local government elections to ratepayers. This is still the law. It denies the municipal franchise to about one-third of the North’s adult citizens, but, consistent with Major Curran’s “stake in the country” principle, allows as many as six votes to the owners of business promises on the basis of one vote for every £10 valuation. Until last year businessmen also had extra votes in the Stormont parliamentary franchise…”.

On the Thursday, William Craig, the Unionist Home Affairs Minister, banned the civil rights march and the ban was communicated to the Chief Marshall, John McAnerney (of N.I.C.R.A.). Publicly, the reason given for the ban was that it clashed with an Apprentice Boys parade at the same time and place, although Home Affairs documents indicate that that concern was secondary. Craig also indicated to journalists that the success N.I.C.R.A. had in peacefully holding the 1916 commemoration in Armagh in April 1968 wasn’t going to be allowed to happen again. His ban was immediately compounded, on the same evening, by Dr Abernethy, the governor of the Apprentice Boys. Abernethy stated that he knew of no parade or march planned by the organisation for the Saturday (it was claimed that the clash was actually with Apprentice Boys from Liverpool who would be visiting Derry that day). As it was, the wording of the ban meant that no parades or public processions could take part in the areas of the city covered by the ban.

The N.I.C.R.A. executive met on the Thursday evening then met up with the various groups involved in Derry the next day. After a three hour debate it was unanimously agreed to defy Craig’s ban and proceed with the march. When McAteer rang Craig to protest the ban he was advised by Craig that the protest was banned as it was a Nationalist/Republican parade. Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labour MP, called on people to defy the ban. Similarly, the British Labour party and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster both sent members to Derry for the march.

On the eve of the march, even the unionist Belfast Telegraph noted that “…in some ways it is the Civil Right’s Movement’s misfortune that it is so closely associated with such strident personalities as Gerry Fitt, who can be accused of exploiting the situation to his own political ends. But that it is founded in sincere held grievance is undeniable. Derry’s housing record is one that no city could be proud of.

After the agreement to proceed with the march on the Friday evening, a spokesperson advised the press that “Come hell, high water or Herr William Craig, we will meet at the Waterside Railway Station at 3:30 pm“.

You can see some footage of what happened at the march itself here: