From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 14 – the aftermath of August 1969

shankill road

Two days after the attempted loyalist pogrom the Stormont Government gave a press conference before bewildered journalists, who became increasingly angry as the previous days’ events were described as an IRA plot in which Catholic residents had burned their own homes.  A claim repeated by others, including Ian Paisley.

There was no criticism of loyalists or the Shankill Defence Association, and the B-Specials were defended.  One journalist pointed out that not one loyalist had been arrested, and when it was asked who information for a potential inquiry should be given to, ‘almost the entire hall burst into laughter’ when the Minister of Home Affairs suggested the police.

Academics from Queens’ University in Belfast later estimated that 1,505 (82.7%) of the households that had been displaced were Catholic while the number of Protestant households was 315 (17.3%) .  This was an under-estimate and did not include the intimidation by the SDA between April and July.  A separate  academic study estimated that during August and September 1969 3,500 families had been forced to leave their homes with 85% of them Catholic.  In a later three-week period in August 1971 a further 2,069 left.  Yet another study claimed that between 8,000 and 15,000 families in the Greater Belfast area were forced to flee their homes.

But this is not all there was to Belfast in these few days in mid-August 1969 and it has been argued that to believe so is to see only a partial and therefore distorted picture.  One author has noted* that at this time Belfast was divided into six police districts within which the majority of violence flared in only two, with it further concentrated in only three areas within these two.

District A, which included the centre of the City contained two potential flashpoints – Protestant Sandy Row and Catholic Markets – which remained quiet, with two local peace committees working together to maintain it.  District D covered North Belfast, including the Antrim Road which had a number of potential areas of conflict, but saw no sign of serious disturbances, and again some co-operation helped prevent them.  ‘E’ district covered East Belfast which included the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand and the RUC prevented two incursions by Protestant mobs; residents did put up barricades but did not seek to expel the RUC from the area.  The Catholic Committee worked with the mainly Protestant ‘East Belfast Peace Committee’ and with RUC so that the police presence was ‘at the barest minimum.’  ‘F’ district was the site of a number of attacks on Catholic property but barricades on the Donegall Road ‘were manned by Catholics and Protestants working in harmony’ and peace was secured during this period.

The importance of this is that despite it being widely considered as the start of ‘the Troubles’, the attempted pogrom of 14/15 August 1969 did not make ‘the Troubles’ inevitable and certainly not in the form that it was later to take.  This required the introduction of two further developments.  It is also important because it explodes a popular and lazy view that ‘the Troubles’ were an inevitable product of immutable religious/ethnic differences that equally inevitably would lead to violence.  However with this wider lens we can see that many people went to great lengths to avoid or prevent it, and even where it occurred many Protestants were shocked and opposed to the intimidation and expulsion of their Catholic neighbours.

Even in the Harland and Wolff shipyard the shop stewards were able to take an initiative to ensure sectarian violence, which would have led to a repeat of previous expulsions of Catholic workers, did not occur by calling a mass meeting of the workers to prevent it.  The political limitations of this were obvious however as Unionist politicians were invited to address the shipyard meeting and the resolution presented to the workers called upon the Government to enforce ‘law and order’.  The problem being, of course, that the forces of law and order had often led the attacks taking place, including the use of armoured cars and indiscriminate firing of heavy machine guns.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party members most prominent in East Belfast were also on the right wing of the party and led its later further degeneration as ‘the Troubles’ developed.  With this level of political consciousness, the spontaneous effort to limit the spread of violence could go no further, and certainly could not make itself an obstacle to the political developments that fueled the growth of violence over the next period.  These efforts were unable to develop an alternative organisation never mind any sort of force representing a political alternative.

Yet the view that what happened was a result of historic divisions that survived years of peaceful coexistence to suddenly erupt in communal violence is precisely the view that is proposed by the author who brings the wider and more mixed picture to the fore. Sectarian violence had been occasioned during the creation of the state and had also erupted in the 1930’s but these were clearly instrumental. Firstly in creation of the Northern state, by suppressing the Catholic population opposed to its creation, and then in the 1930’s to reimpose the sectarian division that had briefly broken down.  There was otherwise no widespread violence or even latent warfare despite the permanence of the state’s special powers of repression.

The main districts of violence were districts B and C, which included the Falls/Shankill interface and the Crumlin Road with Ardoyne on one side and the Eastern side of the Shankill and Woodvale on the other.  The writer puts the occurrence of violence here “to be explicable in terms of the role played by local collective histories of violence.”  He does mention the role of the police but employs the affected areas “folk memory” of previous sectarian violence to explain where it occurred in August 1969.

This does not explain why sectarian attacks took place later in areas that apparently were without this ‘folk memory’; does not explain how these other areas had ‘forgotten’ about previous sectarian clashes, and why the people of the areas that did suffer in August 1969 seemed to get on for years before 1969.   In doesn’t attempt to explain why folk memories should lead to sectarian attacks and how these memories led loyalists to attack Catholics and Catholics to seek to defend themselves, while the majority of Protestants did not to take part in any of the attacks.

It does not explain how these folk memories, were they so strong, and so recently validated, could be reflected in the particular response to the sectarian attacks by Catholic defence committees.  These were dominated by figures in the republican movement, local clergy and a few Catholic businessmen; but whatever their shortcomings, they did not support the sectarian intimidation that exploded in mid-August 1969.

The newsletter issued by the defence committees on 21 August said this – “For members of the Catholic community to attack Protestants is to sink to the same level as the B Specials and the Unionist extremists . . . The defence committees in the Catholic areas must offer the fullest protection to the Protestant families and Catholic sectarians caught interfering with these families should be severely dealt with.’  What ‘folk memories’ did such sentiments as these spring from?

In other words, this is an explanation in itself requiring an explanation, which is sufficient in itself to expel any speculative ideas about ‘folk memories’ causing the pogrom in 1969.

Such an explanation is a tendentious attempt to explain the violence that erupted in a couple of areas but not in others but fails to realise that it was not two areas but one from which the violence sprung, and this was the Shankill, from which loyalist mobs attacked the Falls to its west and Ardoyne to its east.  The single area can be identified because what happened was not ‘sectarian violence’ in some sort of general sense but an attempted pogrom by directly identifiable actors – the Shankill Defence Association, which had been engaged in such violent intimidation and attacks for the five previous months.

The SDA had succeeded in driving out the RUC, because it wasn’t violently sectarian enough, and had evolved as a particularly virulent strain of sectarianism from the movement around Ian Paisley.  We have seen its close relations with the highest levels of the Unionist regime and its even closer relations with the armed forces of the regime, especially the B-Specials.  This impunity, that continued throughout its attempted pogrom, gave it the wherewithal and confidence to take the initiative in open acts of terror without fear of actions by the state to stop it.  In fact, the state facilitated the attacks in the most direct way by often leading them.

So, what stood condemned by the August attacks was not so much loyalist sectarianism but the Unionist regime and state. The mobilisation of sections of the Catholic population to support the defenders of the Bogside did indeed inflame Protestant anger and fears but to blame this mobilisation is to ignore the political motivation behind such fears that had found expression in opposition to civil rights and the lower level sectarian intimidation of previous months.

Loyalist anger was recharged again when the British Government (Cameron) inquiry, commissioned to look into the events around the early civil rights marches, reported.  The findings of the Commission, which did not simply blame the civil rights movement, prompted yet more attacks on Catholic property.  Once again Catholic owned public houses were a particular target, although the RUC Commissioner described them as “just sheer hooliganism, nothing else.”  Very much, as in later years of the Troubles, sectarian killings by the hundred were described as ‘motiveless murders.’

In October this anger boiled over once more when the Hunt Report recommended that the RUC be disarmed and the B-Specials be replaced by a new locally recruited regiment of the British Army, to be called the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).  This was recognised as an important step and was described by the forerunner of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Derry as a “hitherto unbelievably successful conclusion” to the civil rights movement if fully implemented.  Peoples Democracy described the reforms as striking “at the very heart of the traditional Unionist machine.”

John Hume welcomed the findings of the Report, while his fellow MP Ivan Cooper appealed for Catholics to join the RUC and Austin Currie stated that he was prepared to join himself.  The NICRA executive stated that the long-term good required every section of the community to join.

In the event the RUC was never disarmed, they were even at this early stage permitted to carry arms ‘in certain circumstances’, and the replacement for the B-Specials was suitably similar for it to earn its own reputation for sectarianism.  Even at the time it was clear that the personnel in the existing RUC responsible for violent sectarian acts were going nowhere and the even more unacceptable members of the B-Specials were being sent application forms to join the new UDR, which many of them did.  Half the UDR in County Derry when the force became operational in April 1970 were former members.

In true Orwellian style John McKeague from the Shankill Defence Association warned that “the day is fast approaching when responsible leaders and associations like ourselves will no longer be able to restrain the backlash of outraged Loyalist opinion.”

On Saturday 11 October 3,000 loyalists decide to show how they would defend the RUC that a few months earlier they had expelled from the Shankill Road.  As ever, anger at actions of the British Government was to be expressed through attacks on Catholics, in this case the march down the Shankill was to attack Unity Flats.

Yards from the Flats they met an RUC line with the British Army behind.  Waving Union flags they attacked the RUC and, when the scale of the rioting reduced, they opened fire with rifles, sub-machine guns and machine guns.  The RUC retreated behind the military, so that twenty-two soldiers were hit and one RUC man killed. This was Victor Arbuckle, who was to be the first policeman killed in ‘the Troubles’, shot by loyalists protesting against the possibility that the RUC might be disarmed.

Image result for victor arbuckle ruc

The British Army did not immediately return fire but by 1.45 am they had begun using live rounds and no doubt expended their pent-up frustration at holding back for weeks while loyalists had thrown abuse.  By the end of the rioting 100 had been arrested and two had been shot dead, with fifty requiring hospital treatment, twenty with gunshot wounds. Loyalists attacked police in East Belfast with petrol bombs and snipers while the military prevented the burning of a Catholic church in North Belfast.  The next day the Shankill was sealed off and, as one British major put it, “we are searching everything, I’m afraid we’re not being very polite about it.”

– – – – – – –

Catholics initially felt satisfied at the actions of the British Army, although this was only a taste of what they were later to receive in much greater measure.  In Derry, Eamonn McCann recorded that ‘in the immediate aftermath of the fighting [the battle of the Bogside] relations between the army and most of the people of the area were very good . .’  He notes that women in the Bogside squabbled about whose turn it was to take the soldiers tea, although relations with the youth ‘were to deteriorate very quickly. ‘

James Callaghan had visited Belfast and Derry after the introduction of the British Army on the streets  and while Westminster publicly reaffirmed Stormont’s position, the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also announced that the B-Specials would be phased out, a tribunal to investigate the riots would be set up and one would be commissioned to look at re-organisation of the RUC.  Behind the scenes reforms were to be speeded up and the Government in London would monitor what was going on more closely through the appointment of a permanent representative in the North.

The reaction to the visit of the London Minister of Home Affairs also demonstrated the support and trust that most of the Catholic population offered at that time.  As McCann again records – ‘Callaghan had not just impressed members of the Defence Committee; he had been very popular with the people as a whole.’

He also impressed the Belfast Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC) which was discussing whether to take the barricades down and accept the promise of the British army that their presence at the end of every street would prevent further loyalist attacks.  These attacks had continued at a lower level of intensity in West Belfast, Ardoyne, Highfield Estate, the Shore Road in North Belfast and in East Belfast.

The Catholic Church played a prominent role in trying to get them down and, first in Belfast and then in Derry, the Defence Committees agreed, with the last coming down in October.  The republican Jim Sullivan stated that the CCDC ‘were now confident that the army would provide adequate protection.’

After the clashes between the British Army and loyalists on the Shankill the leaders of the CCDC allowed the police to come back into the Falls and on 16 October the new RUC Inspector General was conducted on a tour of the area by Jim Sullivan and Father Murphy, a prominent Catholic priest who had pushed hard to get the barricades removed.

On the day of the publication of the Hunt Report the Derry Defence Committee announced through its chairman, Sean Keenan, later to be a member of the Provisionals, that it was to disband, saying that the government “might wait a week before sending in the RUC, but that is entirely a matter for the military authorities.  With the police force reorganised there will be no objection from the residents of the Bogside. I hope they will be wearing their new uniforms when they come in.”

When he arrived, the British officer commanding the newly deployed troops, General Freeland, predicted that the Army’s honeymoon with the nationalist population would not last, and it didn’t.

*Liam Kelly, ‘Belfast August 1969’ in ‘Riotous Assemblies’

Back to part 13

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