From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 13 – Belfast August 1969

The battle of the Bogside saw the local population expel the RUC from the area and compel the withdrawal of any threat of attack from the B-Special Constabulary.  The Irish Government made a militant sounding speech calling for a UN peacekeeping force to be brought into the North and for negotiations with Britain about its future – ‘recognising that the re-unification of the national territory can provide the only permanent solution for the problem.’

The militancy of the words however were cover for the meagreness of the action.  Although a couple of Ministers wanted to do more, and the political class in Dublin had to respond to the widespread sympathy of the population with the position of the Catholic minority in the North, they also primarily wanted to protect their own position.  Sympathy was reflected in rallies in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, which heard appeals for arms for Belfast, while Dublin Trades Council set up a fund for relief of families suffering from the attacks, many of whom had fled from their homes but with nowhere to go.

While Irish troops were moved to the border it was later noted that they went no further, and that their presence was as much an obstacle to anyone else who wanted to go North with more purpose.  This was clearly the intent of all Dublin’s actions at the time and ever since – to contain a conflict considered to have the potential to threaten the Irish partitioned state as well as the British one.

In the midst of the battle the defenders behind the Bogside barricades had called for solidarity demonstrations to tie up RUC resources that otherwise would have been deployed against them.  Demonstrations took place all over the North with some clashes arising, although it was in Belfast that the powder keg exploded.

Marches were held on 13 August on the Falls Road in Belfast, one to Hastings Street police station, where rioting broke out, and one at Springfield Road police station where shots were fired by police inside the station and fire returned from a couple of weapons in the crowd outside.  When the RUC attempted to disperse a Catholic crowd in Leeson street with armoured cars, IRA men fired some shots and threw a grenade.

Rioting increased and members of na Fianna (the republican youth wing) were ordered to attack Springfield Road RUC station with petrol bombs.  While large crowds from the Shankill Road were close by, the clashes on 13 August were between Catholics and the police.  In Ardoyne, the Catholic area on the North-eastern side of the Shankill area, residents also clashed with the RUC.

The next day the IRA were ordered to carry out defensive duties while rioting took place along the streets that linked the Catholic Falls and the Shankill, with the IRA exchanging shots with the RUC.  Loyalist mobs began attacking and burning out Catholic houses in a number of the streets connecting the two areas, coming in behind the RUC who were forcing Catholics back.  One IRA group took up position inside St Comgall’s church at the foot of the Falls to shoot at the encroaching Protestant mob but with orders to fire over their heads, which dispersed the attackers at least for a while.  Earlier in the evening a lone gunman had shot and killed one man, Herbert Roy, from the Shankill and wounded several RUC men, with the IRA claiming that Roy was a member of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force.

A number of IRA members were wounded in later fighting but the initial defending operation at the school could not stand against a much greater number of RUC who were heavily armed.  This included armoured cars with Browning heavy machine guns, which invaded the Divis and Lower Falls area, firing thousands of rounds indiscriminately.  Bullets went through buildings, with one penetrating the walls of a flat to blow off half the head of a nine-year-old boy, Patrick Rooney, as he lay in bed.  Other police fired Sterling sub-machine guns and revolvers, which one British journalist on the scene, Max Hastings, recounted witnessing – “I watched this for forty minutes . . . officers could not tell me what they were firing at.’ Four more civilians were to die from police bullets later that night.

More loyalist attacks took place further up the Falls in Clonard and again the IRA were engaged in defending Catholic streets as one – Bombay Street – was burned down by loyalist mobs.  One fifteen-year-old Fianna member, Gerard McAuley, was killed by gunfire.  Gerry Adams later wrote that the IRA’s actions had been crucially important in halting loyalist attacks at ‘decisive moments,’ and the republican leader at the time Jim Sullivan (later an Official republican) won praise from local priests. These had been afraid that Clonard monastery close to Bombay Street would be burned down when their calls for protection from the RUC had been unanswered.  By contrast, the local priest in Ardoyne had written of earlier events in July that ‘Catholics were as much to blame as Protestants’ for the clashes.

Trouble was not confined to Belfast and there were riots after civil rights rallies in Coalisland, Newry and Dungannon while in Armagh, B-Specials killed one man. In Dungannon the IRA were armed but were persuaded that any armed action would only make things worse.  In both St Comgalls, Clonard and elsewhere the IRA were too small, had too few mainly old weapons and insufficient ammunition.  In the face of much superior forces they could provide no effective defence and, notwithstanding Adam’s claim, the picture of devastation to many Catholic homes and properties after the carnage was over told its own story of its inability to prevent rampaging loyalists and B-Specials, often aided, and certainly not much impeded, by the RUC.

Republican leaders however played up their role in the defence of Catholic areas after the riots had subsided and warned the British Army that the IRA now had ‘fully-equipped’ units in the North.  While a few actions were taken along the border, the IRA was ordered not to take part in offensive operations, a more accurate acknowledgement of its capacity.  The strong public language however was seized upon by unionists to blame the IRA for the violence.  Their oft-repeated predictions of an IRA attack were now ‘confirmed’ by the battle of the Bogside, the IRA actions in Belfast and across the North, and their wider alliance with Irish nationalism proved by the civil rights rallies and the strong speeches from the Dublin government.

The reality of the maelstrom in Belfast on the 14 and 15 of August has been the subject of claim and counter-claim but even the later official Scarman Report noted that during these days the Catholic crowds never left their own territory, which was “invaded” by Protestants.  Indeed, such attacks had begun, as we have seen, much earlier in April, and in the first days of August, with repeated loyalist attacks on Catholic residents of the Shankill area and in nearby Catholic areas such as Unity Flats.  Just before the events above, on 12 August, loyalists had attacked three Catholic-owned pubs in the Crumlin Road, setting fire to one and provoking a riot.

The mobilisation of the RUC with armoured cars contrasted with their earlier withdrawal from the Shankill following loyalist attacks on them by the Shankill Defence Association (SDA).  The Unionist Government reacted to the increased violence in August by invoking the Special Powers Act and imprisoning known republicans while the Belfast Police Commissioner declared on 15 August that he and his deputy were “satisfied that the night’s events had been the work of the IRA.”

The RUC treated the attempted loyalist pogrom as an IRA conspiracy, with one senior officer making incredible claims that ‘armed bands were roaming the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital’, which was on the Falls Road, and that these bands had ‘also taken over the operating theatre’.

On 15 August, just a day after being introduced on the streets in Derry, the British Army was brought onto the streets of Belfast, and very much for the same reason.  The RUC misled the incoming troops into believing that they faced attack from Catholics on the Falls instead of from loyalists, who were now enraged that they formed a barrier to further attacks.

Their presence however did not immediately stop the attacks on Bombay and Kane streets and continued loyalist firing prevented the residents of these streets from returning to their burning homes. Loyalists continued to attack Catholic homes on 15 August so that when a Clonard priest asked the British for help the military initially refused and deferred to RUC guidance.  When the priest eventually did get the military to come they were shot at by loyalists, one soldier being hit twice – the first British soldier thereby being shot by loyalists.

The other major target of loyalist attacks was Ardoyne which many residents, especially women and children, had already evacuated, while barricades had been set up to protect the area.  The RUC smashed through these with an armoured personnel carrier followed by police on foot who were then followed by loyalists armed with petrol bombs.

The RUC later claimed that it was under threat and had driven armoured cars into the area in response, whereupon they were attacked by male residents throwing petrol bombs.  The RUC also claimed that it came under fire, although none received gunshot injuries and no bullets were retrieved.  The RUC on the other hand discharged twenty .38 revolver rounds and thirteen bullets from a 9mm sub-machine gun.  One 9mm round went through the window of a house and killed Sammy McLarnon.  Later, another Ardoyne resident, Michael Lynch, was also shot dead by the RUC.

The next day, on 15 August, the Ardoyne residents responded to further attacks by shooting across the Crumlin Road, which separated the area from the Shankill and Woodvale areas, killing David Linton and blinding another man.  By this stage most residents had left but the attacks continued that night, with the loyalist SDA attacking and burning nine public houses in North Belfast.  The RUC then claimed to be under further attack and opened fire with the Browning machine guns that had been firing indiscriminately in the Falls.

These could fire several rounds per second at speeds of 2400/2800 feet per second.  In one instance bullets from one weapon travelled up to a mile away, hitting a police station and causing its occupants to believe they were under attack.  The Scarman report later admitted that “it was a merciful chance that there were no fatal casualties from Browning fire this evening in Ardoyne.”  Over the two days of 14 and 15 August police fired 3,582 rounds.  Further loyalist attacks in North Belfast continued, including on remaining Catholics living or having businesses in the Shankill.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the introduction of the British Army the loyalists were compelled to call a halt to their pogrom, lamenting their failure to continue even for just a couple more days.  “Forty-eight hours”, it was reported, became the lament of loyalists on the Shankill Road, all that they needed they said to finish the job. A sentiment limited not only to sectarian thugs in the drinking dens of the Shankill.  ‘If only the bloody British Army hadn’t come in we’d have shot ten thousand of them by dawn’, as one Unionist senator was quoted as saying in the members’ dining room at the Stormont parliament.

Back to part 12

Forward to part 14

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 11 – loyalists attack the State

Belfast. Shankill Road. Belfast Telegraph

On 26 July 1969 a Peoples Democracy march for civil rights in Fermanagh was banned and 37 of its supporters arrested.  Just over a week later on 2 August an Orange march passed the Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the Shankill Road, where trouble had broken out a couple of weeks before.

False rumours had emerged that Catholic residents of the flats had abused children during the junior Orange parade that had just taken place before the adult march.  A loyalist mob attacked the flats – “throwing missiles” and “shouting sectarian abuse” – leading to hand-to-hand fighting with the residents while an RUC loudhailer proved unsuccessful in persuading the mob that the rumours were untrue.  John McKeague, led the attack by the Shankill Defence Association (SDA), later admitting to the Scarman Tribunal that he had ordered it, while also being suspected as the originator of the rumours.

Numerous attacks on Catholics took place elsewhere at this time at the top of the Shankill Road, while the RUC stood by or advised the victims to do as they had been told by their loyalist assailants.  The intimidation at this point was mainly against Catholic residents who were seen as encroaching too far into the Shankill area, while later attacks went beyond this to Catholics to the west of the Shankill, in the Falls, and to the east in Ardoyne and Crumlin Road, populated mainly but not exclusively by Catholics.  In today’s language it might be described as ethnic cleansing, although without the mass murder and without there being any kind of ethnic difference.

At Unity Flats, fighting erupted between the residents and RUC who were accompanied by a number of B Specials.  One resident, Patrick Corrie, was knocked unconscious after a number of blows to the head.  He was taken to the RUC station in Tennent Street in the Shankill and held there for an hour before being sent for medical treatment.  He remained unconscious there for several weeks before he died, the post-mortem revealing several skull fractures causing brain damage.

The Scarman Tribunal found that he had died from injuries caused by blows to the head from the police.  Scarman criticised the RUC and absolved the residents, “whose only crime [was] throwing of stones at their attackers.”  Even an Orange Order investigation later stated that there was no evidence of an attack on the junior Orange parade.

The RUC, who found themselves in the way of a potential full-scale attack on the Flats by loyalists, brought in armoured vehicles, being informed that the loyalists were going to acquire weapons.  Failure to take Unity Flats then led the loyalists to turn on the RUC,  throwing gelignite blast bombs at police vehicles while many residents evacuated the complex.    The RUC in turn defended themselves, although never in this period using CS gas against loyalist rioters, in stark contrast to its massive use in Derry only a couple of weeks later.

McKeague led a delegation to RUC Headquarters demanding the removal of the RUC from the Shankill, while Paisley declared his full support for the police and for deployment of the B Specials.  As a recent book on the start of ‘the Troubles’ notes, an extraordinary situation had developed where five separate organisations were patrolling the Shankill: B Specials, Shankill Defence Association, Orange Order (wearing their collarettes) Royal Black Preceptory and RUC (until McKeague demanded their removal). (‘Burn Out’, Michael McCann)

As the author of this book also notes – “following two days of loyalist violence and destruction, large swathes of the Shankill lay in ruins, with almost every shop attacked and many looted . . . . Unsurprisingly, McKeague blamed the looting on nationalists.”  By 3 August the ‘Shankill looked  . . . as though it had been blitzed.  Hundreds of windows in shops and private houses were smashed and the contents of shop windows looted.”

McKeague succeeded by early August in expelling the RUC from the Shankill, although some members of the SDA were policemen and many were B Specials.  Just as loyalists were first to throw bombs at the RUC, so were they the first in Belfast to create a ‘no-go’ area.  McKeague then attempted to negotiate the hand-over of particular flats that directly faced onto the Shankill to what he considered to be loyal Protestants, to be told by a residents’ representative that the SDA would get ‘not one stone in Unity Walk Flats.’

The ties of street vigilantes to the highest political levels of the Unionist regime were illustrated by the exposure that just before this failed attempt by McKeague he had met the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Chichester-Clarke, claiming that he had fully informed him of what he was going to do and claiming also that he had the Prime Minister’s blessing.  The meeting also took place just before Chichester-Clarke broadcast a condemnation of sectarian attacks and expressed hope that the perpetrators would be subject to the law.

The RUC continued to find themselves fighting loyalists intent on entering Catholic areas while on many other occasions simply standing back.  McKeague toured the Shankill whipping up sectarianism and organising the SDA, telling loyalists at one meeting “that ‘papishers’ should be given a one-way ticket to the Republic.”  These rabble-rousing speeches were ignored by the RUC, who also ignored other attacks on isolated Catholic residents, on one occasion the unfortunate victim being told by the RUC that they could not help because “they had no time.”

Many Protestants were sympathetic to their Catholic neighbours’ plight and opposed the intimidation but their attempts to get help from the RUC were also ignored.  As one Protestant said “the gangs told me that I would be burned out if I tried to help the Catholics.”  There was simply no anti-sectarian organisation in these areas that could have organised Protestants to defend their Catholic neighbours.

NICRA organised a meeting in the Catholic Andersonstown area and condemned the RUC for failing to protect Catholic residents, noting that those who had been arrested were looters of shops on the Shankill but not those intimidating Catholics.  One RUC officer claimed that from 1 July to 12 August (when all this was going on) “he had no experience in the district of “actual and real intimidation”, although he was “aware of rumours going around.”

During this time Billy McMillan, the leader of the IRA in the city, admitted that the organisation had come under pressure to act but that their “meagre armaments” were “hopelessly inadequate” and the “use of firearms by us would only serve to justify the use of greater force against the people by the forces of the Establishment and increase the danger of sectarian pogroms.”

The left was just developing its organisation, with Peoples Democracy only launching its own newspaper earlier in the year.  As Michael Farrell put it in a discussion in April published in New Left Review – it was necessary to now “develop concrete agitation work over housing and jobs to show the class interests of both Catholic and Protestant.”  But as Bernadette Devlin also stated in the same discussion – “we are totally unorganised”; while Eamonn McCann stated that “we have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organisation”. Even Farrell noted that at this time “we cannot form any high level organisation, as we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems.”

Events were thus running far ahead of any possible perspective that the left could embark upon that could allow it to play a direct role in shifting the direction of events.  Loyalism was presenting any problem with housing as one of Catholic encroachment into Protestant areas, as symbolic and real evidence of the threat posed to their position by Catholic advance, even if such advance was only intended to achieve equality.

So it was against this background that the annual Apprentice Boys parade was to take place in Derry on 12 August.  Trouble was all but inevitable and there were calls that the loyalist march in the mainly Catholic city should be banned.  To do so however would fatally weaken the supposedly moderate Chichester-Clarke leadership.

The march would go ahead and trigger a series of events that would lead in a couple of days to the British Army on the streets.  The London Government had already flown 500 British troops to the North in April after the first explosion carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force; had moved troops to the naval base in Derry in July, and had moved a detachment of troops to RUC headquarters in August.  The British troops that were to appear on the streets were already in Northern Ireland and British Military intelligence already knew what was going on, as did the British Government.  Whatever was going on during the months before August was not enough to make them feel compelled to intervene.  But this was about to change.

Back to part 10

Forward to part 12

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 10 – the rise of sectarianism

The political confrontation resulting from the clash of the civil rights movement with a Unionist regime unwilling to offer the necessary reforms led to growing tension and violence intensified by the mobilisation of extreme loyalism.

The riots in Derry in April 1969, which were prevented from developing into greater conflict by withdrawal of the RUC, were preceded by an explosion at an electricity station just south of Belfast, followed by another at the Silent Valley reservoir in County Down, and another at an electricity facility in Portadown.  These were blamed on the IRA and provided the opportunity for hard-line unionists to demand greater repression, while denouncing the civil rights movement as a vehicle for armed republicanism.

Ian Paisley’s campaign against O’Neill continued, with the latter described as “a traitor, a tyrant, and a viper,’ whilst his newspaper, the ‘Protestant Telegraph’, declared that “this latest act of IRA terrorism is an ominous indication of what lies ahead for Ulster: IRA barbarism, especially, sabotage and ambush.  Loyalists must now appreciate the struggle that lies ahead and the supreme sacrifice that will have to be made in order that Ulster will remain Protestant.”  In fact, it was associates of Paisley who carried out the bombings, for which he is now alleged to have provided the finance.The loyalist bombs were intended to raise the spectre of an IRA campaign, so justifying rejection of demands for further reform and supporting the removal of the ‘traitor’ O’Neill.

Rioting followed NICRA and PD protests in Belfast; and the IRA petrol-bombed a number of post offices on the same day that the more effective loyalist bombings of the water and electricity facilities were carried out.  The IRA had carried out a number of actions in the previous couple of years but these rather revealed its weakness which had been reflected in poor electoral results, for example coming in fourth out of four candidates in the October 1964 Westminster election.  In May 1967 and January 1968, it had bombed British army recruitment offices in Belfast and Lisburn and in July 1968 had attacked an RUC operation in West Belfast with a hand grenade.

IRA leader Cathal Goulding revealed the policy of republicans at this time and both their new thinking and the limits to it.  In February 1969 he stated that “if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached.  Everyone will realise it and all constitutional methods will go overboard.”  British Intelligence estimated that the IRA had 500 members in the North and while morale was considered good it was short of guns, ammunition and money.  In any case at this point such activity was subordinated to civil rights agitation over which it had influence but not control.

Its actions in targeting post offices was designed to draw off RUC who would otherwise be available to join attacks on the Bogside.  This was justified as a defensive operation that protected Catholics and was to be the approach taken later in the year when attacks on the Bogside took place again in August, one that dramatically demonstrated the extremely limited capacity of the IRA to play this role.  The rationale for the IRA carrying out more minor attacks than loyalists in such circumstances can therefore be questioned.

In the face of continuing protests and the rioting in Belfast, Terence O’Neill conceded the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote’ on 22 April.  The next day the prominent Unionist Chichester-Clarke, who was O’Neill’s cousin, resigned.  The Unionist Parliamentary Party accepted the reform by 28 votes to 22 but the other prominent Unionist leader, Brain Faulkner, voted against.

That night two more explosions occurred at water facilities, leaving the whole of Belfast badly short of water, weakening further the position of O’Neill inside the Party.  Rather than face impending defeat, and in order to secure the leadership for Chichester-Clarke rather than the more hard-line Brian Faulkner, O’Neill resigned, to be replaced by his cousin by a majority of just one vote.

The ingrained sectarianism that existed even within ‘reforming’ unionism was exposed in an interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper in May when O’Neill, after his resignation, said that:

“It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church”

Chichester-Clarke attempted to re-unite the Unionist Party by bringing Faulkner back into the cabinet while announcing a temporary amnesty for offences connected with political protest.  This spared not only civil rights demonstrators but also loyalists like Paisley, who got out of jail, and B Special Constabulary who otherwise might have been expected to qualify for prosecution by the RUC. After Chichester-Clarke and Faulkner met Harold Wilson and James Callaghan from the Labour Government at Westminster it was announced that the next local elections would be held under ‘One Man, One Vote’.

NICRA had called a temporary halt to demonstrations but demanded a timetable for reforms that would include abandoning the proposed Public Order Bill designed to repress demonstrations.  At the end of June demonstrations began again.

The strains placed on the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society meant that the political conflict around civil rights had not been solved, or rather, the acceptance of civil rights by the Unionist leadership did not signal an agreed solution.  Half the Unionist Party had opposed equal voting rights and armed loyalists had attempted to ratchet up the tension and provoke a more repressive response.

In April a meeting was held of community leaders in the Shankill Road in Belfast, ostensibly to address poor housing conditions in the area.  These were undoubtedly awful.  In the house that I lived in at that time the outside toilet had only recently been ‘joined’ to the rest of the house, so that snails had to be avoided on the cold tiles while running from the bath to the fire in order to dry off.  In work done to put in an electric fire in the living room, what seemed like hundreds of cockroaches ran out when the old wooden hearth was lifted up.  Within the year the ceiling in the living room had fallen down unannounced on my mother and myself.

But this accommodation seemed luxurious in comparison to my grandparents house further down the Shankill Road, which still had an outside toilet, complete with newspaper, and two bedrooms upstairs whose floors were so uneven that it was impossible to lie down on the bed without quickly feeling the blood draining either to one’s head or feet. The conditions of many on the Shankill were often no better than conditions on the Catholic Falls and some Protestants thought they were worse, since Divis Flats at the bottom of the Falls had just been built.

The difference of course was that Protestants by and large supported the regime that kept them in these conditions while Catholics opposed it.  They didn’t see such conditions as a reason to oppose the Unionists, unless like my parents they continued to vote for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, but rather were convinced that the Catholics were no worse off than they were and so had no justification for their opposition.  The hostility to Catholic claims was grounded on the sectarian identity that defined most Shankill Protestants and their politics.

The meeting of Shankill community figures included Mina Browne, who had made a name for herself by supporting the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and had been a part-time cleaner in Belfast Corporation.  In that capacity she had organised protests against the Corporation’s decision to allow Catholics to join the list of school cleaners.  She had also sent an anonymous threatening telegram to a Unionist MP on behalf of the UVF, although the telegraph clerk had rather exposed her by putting her address on the telegram!  She had also denounced Paisley as a ‘big wind bag’, proving once again that there was always someone more extreme than the extremists within loyalism.

The meeting was highjacked from its purported purpose and a Shankill Defence Association (SDA) created.  This quickly set up groups of vigilantes with a membership of 2,000 and acquired arms and explosives.  In the later British Government sponsored Scarman Tribunal, which looked into the background to the growing violence, a senior RUC officer was to describe the SDA as a small group of men, even though it was to play a major role in the mass intimidation of Catholic residents in the general Shankill area and the streets adjacent to it.

Slogans began appearing on walls – ‘Fenians get out or we’ll burn you out’ –  and direct intimidation escalated.  Three families fled their homes in Dover street while a few days later another loyalist mob threatened Catholics in Manor Street.   Others received bullets in envelopes marked ‘UVF’, or with a warning that the next bullet they got ‘will be through your head.’.  One Catholic owner of a café on the Crumlin Road received a message from the UVF stating that ‘if she did not shut her café she would be burned out.’

Loyalist intimidation also grew outside Belfast, with three sticks of gelignite planted at a Catholic church in Saintfield, south of Belfast, and a petition organised in the mainly Protestant workforce at the ICI plant in Carrickfergus, north of Belfast, stating that ‘too many Catholics were getting in.’  Meanwhile, the Unionist regime used emergency powers to deploy the British army to guard key installations from the IRA and called up the armed police reserve – the B Specials – many of whose members were responsible for the growing loyalist violence.

The leader of the SDA was John McKeague and it is instructive of so much of what happened in ‘the Troubles’, at this time and afterwards, to read his Wikipedia page. An acolyte of Paisley he was, like many such people, later disowned by him, playing the role of Paisley himself by occupying Belfast City Centre to protest against a James Connolly commemoration demonstration on 15 June.

In the lead up to the height of the Unionist marching season in July intimidation increased on the street and in workplaces.  The Fire Brigade recorded an increase in petrol-bomb attacks on Catholic properties in the Shankill, while McKeague organised swaps of homes between Protestants in Catholic Ardoyne and Catholics in the Shankill/Woodvale. On one occasion forty RUC looked on as a loyalist mob burned down a Catholic house.  On 5 July Paisley threatened at a rally of 2,000 loyalists in Bessbrook that he would march on the Catholic town of Newry.  Later, in August, he declared that his supporters were “armed and premeditated” while threatening that events would be worse than previous troubles in 1912, the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s.

In Belfast the increased tension and intimidation began to centre on the Unity Flats complex at the bottom of the Shankill Road, whose Catholic residents were woken early on 12th by loyalist bandsmen.  The loyalist parade was accompanied by the RUC but residents’ complaints to the police about the parade were ignored.  That night a mob spilling out of a club taunted the residents with ‘burn the fenians out.’  The Scarman Tribunal later noted that a Scottish band was involved, and it has generally been true that Scottish loyalists visiting Orange parades in Ireland often bring their own particular cocktail of sectarian bitterness.

At the Tribunal McKeague complained that Catholics had been given houses before Protestants and that by housing them in Unity Flats Belfast Corporation had “put rebels on our doorsteps.”  One SDA member, who was also a teacher, described mixed housing as a republican plot – “one of our planks was opposition to integrated housing.  The RCs had been taking over new districts, like the bottom of the Shankill.  What they do is, they get enough votes to elect a nationalist councillor, then eventually an MP . . . then gradually they will take over the whole of Northern Ireland.”

Eviction of Catholic families in Belfast continued while trouble also arose at two Orange parades in Dungiven in Co. Derry, with B Specials firing 100 live rounds.  Rioting took place on the 12 July in Derry between police and Catholic residents, and another Orange march in Dungiven saw one Catholic man killed after being hit on the head in an RUC baton charge. Francis McCloskey came to be recognised as the first person to be killed in the ‘Troubles’, dying only three days before Samuel Devenney, who had been assaulted by the RUC in Derry three months earlier.

In truth, ‘the Troubles’ can only have said to have started at this time in retrospect, and even then, it is debateable that this was the case.  Most date the start to 14/15 August 1969, when the British Army was put on the streets, and to the events immediately surrounding it, but this too invites the question – what exactly we denote when we speak of ‘the Troubles’?

In the few short weeks between the high point of the loyalist marching season on 12 July and the explosion of the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ one month later in Derry, the sectarian character of loyalism and the Unionist regime set the framework for what was about to happen.  It was not civil rights that delivered ‘the Troubles’ but the mobilisation of the repressive forces of the Northern State, and loyalist sectarian violence in response to it, that did.

Back to part 9

Forward to part 11

Should socialists support a border poll? 3 What sort of Protestant opposition?

I have stated that the purpose of a united Ireland for socialists is not to unite the nation or the territory but to unite the working class.  The Socialist Party opposes a border poll, which might be one way to move in this direction, because it says that the Protestant working class in the North will oppose it and may do so violently.  It has pointed to Protestant opposition expressed in the flags dispute beginning in 2012 as an example of such opposition, opposition which socialists should concede makes the initiative one that will increase sectarian division.

In this post I will look at this opposition and argue that it is not an example of an initiative that socialists should accede to, and certainly should not be presented as an example of the sort of response that should determine socialist views on the way forward, even if by necessity such actions must of course be taken into account.

In effect, what I am saying is that such opposition has no progressive content, should not be conceded to as legitimate barriers to fighting for progressive, democratic and socialist change, and are in fact wholly reactionary.  Rather than bow to them, it is the task of socialists to oppose such mobilisations – these do not constitute resistance reflecting legitimate interests of the working class but are defences of the most virulent division. Rather than being a reason to retreat or stand still, the forces behind the flag dispute are the most diehard defenders of sectarian division, which if it is to be defeated, will mean the defeat of the forces that defend it.  To do otherwise is to capitulate to sectarianism.

The flag dispute began at the beginning of December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the union flag outside the City Hall to 18 designated days, instead of the existing arrangements of flying it every day of the year.  It led to a riot outside the building on the night of the vote by a loyalist crowd, which had been roused to anger by the distribution of 40,000 leaflets by the two main Unionist parties, who claimed that the unionist (with a small u) but self-identified non-sectarian Alliance Party was threatening unionist identity.

This led to a series of protests that involved almost 3,000 ‘occurrences’ according to police, which included demonstrations, riots and assaults on people and property, although no one was actually killed.  At its height it mobilised about 10,000 people at any one time, and in one night involved 84 different sites across the North.  It was therefore pretty widespread if not massively deep.

The mobilisations declined rather quickly, although continued into 2013, the following year, and a ritual demo takes place outside the City Hall every Saturday to this day.  In terms of previous decades of ‘the troubles’ it was small beer, except it was supposed to be after the success of the ‘peace process’ when we were all apparently to be living in a ‘post-conflict’ society.

However, in other respects it was typical of Northern Ireland politics, and therefore a reasonable controversy on which to hang the argument.  It suits the purpose of the Socialist Party position not only because it is relatively recent, no one was killed, and it obviously involved the question of Protestants’ identity as ‘British’, but also because, unlike other expressions of unionist politics in what they see as defence of their rights, which they could have used, such as the protests around the Drumcree Orange parade in the second half of the 1990s or Holy Cross Primary School in 2001, these would have too obviously demonstrated the naked bigotry of what often passes for Protestant defence of their rights.  No one outside the ranks of the bigots could ever be impressed by an assertion of Protestant rights that involves attacking primary school children and their parents going to school.

We don’t however need the worst examples in order to criticise Loyalist politics, and the example of the flag protest is neither ‘the best’ nor the worst.  It is the one that the Socialist Party writer decided to reference and the essential politics involved has wider application than the contingent factors involved in this particular episode.

The policy of flying the flag on designated days was a compromise from an original Sinn Fein proposal not to fly it at all, although Sinn Fein’s later support for the designated days policy could be guaranteed to anger loyalists, even though three councils with unionist majorities were already adhering to designated days before the Belfast council decision.

Policies on flying the flag had already been agreed for Government buildings and in workplaces (were they are prohibited) but not in local government, and the council already had legal advice pointing out the legal risk on grounds of equality legislation in the existing policy of flying the union flag every day.

The Unionist Parties were now in a minority on the council and the balance of power lay with the Alliance Party, which proposed the new designated days motion, and Catholics now constituted a majority in the city – 136,000 against 119,00 Protestants.  The equality and community relations industry was generally sympathetic to this sort of approach and two public meetings, entailed by official consultation on equality impact grounds, was attended at the first by two members of the public and by one at the second.  A petition of almost 15,000 supported existing policy but this was a result of many of the signatures being acquired at a loyalist celebration.

The Progressive Unionist Party, linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, actually supported the designated days policy in its submission to the consultation, although quickly changed its mind. For some loyalists it is fine if they can determine what does and does not happen, but what does and does not happen cannot be because Catholics have either asked for it or demanded it.  In other words, they have the rights that are allowed to them, which is to say, more strictly and accurately, no rights at all.

In a poll almost three quarters of Catholic Council employees stated that they would be pleased or very pleased if the union flag didn’t fly, while 88 per cent of Protestant staff said they would be displeased or offended.

The successful motion in the council to fly it on only designated days, including on birthdays of members of the royal family, stated that “this reflects the agreed sovereignty of Northern Ireland confirmed in the Good Friday Agreement and accepted by all its signatories . . . it also reflects the preferred determination of the Equality Commission.”

When the result of the vote was made known outside the meeting loyalists at the back of the City Hall rioted and attempted to enter the building.  Later, on their way home to East Belfast, they attacked houses in the small Catholic area of Short Strand, which was to become a regular occurrence.

Protests at the City Hall also became a regular occurrence each Saturday, with the first appearing chaotic and without clear leadership, although a number of individual loyalists became recognised spokesmen for the protests if not the actual leaders.  One was Jim Dowson, formerly a member of the British National Party.  At the march round the City Hall protestors sang sectarian songs such as The Sash, the Famine Song and the Glasgow Rangers football ‘Bouncy’ song (if you could call it a song).

Police appeared to facilitate rather than stop protestors in what were illegal protests.  This was later challenged by a resident of the Short Strand, which was initially successful but then lost on appeal, with the judiciary declaring that not preventing illegal parades was within the discretion of the police.  Catholics had earlier argued that the police had used their discretion to arrest Republican protestors in Ardoyne while taking a different approach to loyalists.

The other significant target for the protestors was the property and personnel of the Alliance Party which were attacked and which had been the original target of unionist politicians’ leaflet campaign.  Most of these politicians kept quiet during the period of violent loyalist protest, with a few issuing ritualistic and general condemnations of violence while a few others were openly standing with the protestors.  However, the leadership of unionism was sufficiently rattled by the out-of-control protests for them to call for unity around a Unionist Forum, which included themselves and paramilitary figures, although this outward show of unity did little to dispel the obvious disunity among them.

The protests petered out although continue in a ritualistic form today.  On the first anniversary of the protest 1,500 took part when 5,000 or 10,000 had been predicted, while a year later only 200 showed up.  By this stage loyalists had found a new assault on their identity with the rerouting of a return parade past the shops in the Catholic Ardoyne area.

This did not mean that the cause the loyalists were protesting was not popular among unionists, or even that the protests themselves were unpopular.  An opinion poll shortly after the protests started found that, while among all respondents 44 per cent thought designated days was the correct policy and 35 per cent supported flying the flag all the time, 73 per cent of unionists wanted it up 365 days a year and 64 per cent of nationalists 18 days. While there was majority support (51 per cent) for the right to protest, after nearly two months 76 per cent wanted them to stop, although 45 per cent of unionists wanted them to continue.

A separate poll, as part of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, found that the designated days policy received the support of 53 per cent of all respondents while 24 per cent supported flying the union flag all the time.  In this poll 48 per cent of Protestants supported the designated days option while 44 per cent supported the 365 days option, although this may reflect the fact that most of this survey was carried out before the decision and protests had started.

A poll taken in August and September 2013, 9 to 10 months after the protests started and then died down – and been replaced to a great extent by those around Orange parades – found that 31 per cent of Protestants supported the all-year policy while only 8 per cent of Catholics did, while 19 per cent of ‘Other’ did, i.e. those who did not identify themselves as either Catholic or Protestant.

It is clear that attitudes changed and the strength of Protestant opposition to the erosion of their British identity, as it has been put, was stronger during the height of the protests than after, and involved a more extensive identification of just what this meant during the protests than before.

It is clear that some of the most extreme elements of Protestant politics were involved in the flag protest.  The often primitive and disordered protests were satirised on line, most prominently in the LAD Site (Loyalists Against Democracy).  The originator of the site described how it began:

“I sat down at the computer one night and created a page and gave it this title, Loyalists Against Democracy – I’m trying to be humorous – and I went to bed and when I got up in the morning 50 people had ‘liked’ the page. I mean, I was trying to be as ridiculous as I could be. I posted one page in particular – it wasn’t very funny – complaining about Aer Lingus flying over east Belfast and next morning there were hundreds of comments agreeing with this, each one more vile than the last.”

While this says something of the political character of the flag protest it also throws into relief the approach of the Socialist Party, which wishes to employ this episode as justification for emasculating a socialist approach and acceptance of limits imposed by the most primitive unionism. Essentially the Party argues that those most wedded to reactionary sectarian politics must be conciliated in pursuit of defeating this politics.

In the next post in this series I will look at some of the implications of this.

Back to Part 2

Sectarianism in Belfast. What’s new?

On July 12 this year a loyalist flute band marched past St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street near Belfast city centre.  They stopped at that particular point by “pure chance” and started walking round in circles playing a tune known as the Famine Song, which contains the line “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”  This song is sung by supporters of Rangers Football club in Scotland and refers to the large Irish and predominantly Catholic immigration into Scotland from the 19th century onwards.  It has been found to be both sectarian and illegal by the Scottish courts.  According to the band and their political apologists they were merely playing a pop song.  Perhaps it was again mere chance it doubles as a sectarian anthem.  Perhaps also those allegations of an attack on a cameraman filming this Orange version of the X Factor are also mistaken.

On this basis the Parades Commission, a quango established by the British government to adjudicate on contentious parades, decided the band could not take part in the loyalist parade last Saturday, which was to pass the same church.  The other bands were also only allowed to march by a single drum beat past the church.

Unionist politicians were outraged and issued a statement, along with assorted flute bands, denouncing the Parades Commission, saying they were running out of adjectives to describe it , so they gave some nouns instead – “arrogance”, “incompetence” and “general ignorance”. This statement was signed by prominent members of the Stormont Government who claimed that they could no longer let the Parades Commission do untold damage to the peace process. “Violence” would potentially ensue, they said.

So on Saturday the loyalist flute band at the centre of events marched as normal and played the normal sectarian tunes that are the staple of these ‘kick the pope’ bands, as did many of the rest. The normal sectarian insults were hurled, which are surprising only to those terminally stupid or naive.   The police did nothing that anyone could notice to prevent this.  Well, not exactly nothing: there is a picture of one policeman using a loudhailer to tell the passing bands that they were really not allowed to do what they were doing.  This robust action will no doubt be followed by the police warning burglars by megaphone that they are breaking the law when they are seen to break into someone else’s house in broad daylight. Through the Police Federation the police later complained of being caught in the crossfire, presumably between those intent on breaking the law and those who were, well, how shall we say it, wanting it upheld?

There were minor scuffles and one apparent loyalist from Scotland was arrested for running through a nationalist protest, although this was blamed by one unionist politician on a republican.

So we have a loyalist coat-trailing exercise in bigotry, defended by the most senior unionist politicians who warn of violence, which stokes up the adrenaline of the street level bigot but allows the unionist politician to deny any responsibility when the lighted match touches the blue touch paper.  The police wring their hands and the nationalist politicians talk about getting it all sorted out through talking.  You have to be very, very young not be aware that this record has been played a thousand times before.  So what’s new then?

Well what is new is supposed to be – everything!  We have a new peace process, a new political settlement, a new Government and a new coalition between the “two sides”.  Belfast has a new skyline with lots of new visitor attractions welcoming tourists, which is still a relatively new concept to Belfast.  We have new cafes and restaurants and art galleries and a new generation too young to remember ‘the troubles’ and which just wants to live in peace and has no time for this sectarian stuff.

But we have been here before.  Belfast in the 1960s was also a ‘happening’ city with a burgeoning night-life whose young generation was hailed as no longer interested in the sectarianism of the past.  The sixties brought new life, hope and light even to Belfast and not just the streets of London or San Francisco.  New housing was being created that was demolishing the slums that had no inside toilet and entries that doubled as permanent rubbish tips.  Some of this new corporation housing promised mixed estates and a new Unity Flats was built at the bottom of the Shankill Road only a couple of hundred yards, if that, from St. Patrick’s church.  Unity Flats was so called because it was to contain both Protestant and Catholic tenants, sharing the one space in harmony.

We all know, or at least have some vague idea, what happened at the end of the sixties.  That swinging decade that even moved in Belfast was very new and modern but Belfast was incapable of accepting civil rights, including fair allocation of housing and jobs and equal voting rights.  Instead it burst into violence, with Orange parades which were hyped up by unionist politicians and a police force that could not subject violent bigots to the normal restrictions of the ordinary law.  Of course this violent explosion hasn’t happened yet and in my view isn’t going to happen, not yet at least.

The mutual exhaustion of the contending political forces has not yet ended and been reversed.  The unionist leaders are attempting to exert pressure that might eventually usher in their preferred model of unionist-only rule but they are not in a position to force a confrontation that would see the British Government accede to their demands. It is not impossible that a violent eruption might occur that goes beyond unionist plans but it needs a realistic objective and the aim of getting Sinn Fein out of government has not yet become the unifying campaign theme within unionism and loyalist organisations that is required.

Instead the provocative and vitriolic sectarianism endorsed by unionist politicians in the highest offices of the Stormont administration erodes the faith of nationalists in the new deal. The approach of Sinn Fein to the recent events has been relatively muted and resembles nothing so much as the old SDLP approach which so many nationalists rejected by supporting the old (republican) Sinn Fein.  Here too however there is no unified project beyond staying in office and doing nothing to jeopardise the electoral prospects of Sinn Fein in the South.

The real republicans can attempt to take advantage of the disillusionment with the Sinn Fein reaction to the sectarian provocation and can build up their support base but what is their political project?  In so far as it simply involves a renewed armed campaign it only strengthens the ideological hold of the peace process even while more and more people, subconsciously at first, begin to wonder when exactly this process, like every other, is going to end.  The traditional republican policy isn’t credible except as a form of protest but outside of an overarching strategy this republicanism isn’t in a position yet to mobilise a large political opposition.

A large scale sectarian provocation might accelerate these trends and the planned large loyalist parade on 29 September past the same church certainly has the potential to be such a provocation.  It might at the least drive home the lessons of last Saturday if it goes ahead as the parade did then.

The condemnation by two Protestant church leaders of the sectarian behaviour of the loyalist bands shows how vulnerable the loyalists are to criticism.  It is their solutions and that of the Catholic Church that is the problem.  They both want to set the rulings of the Parades Commission as inviolable.  The Catholic Church is worse because it calls for special measures to apply when the parades pass a place of worship conveniently setting themselves up as victim, potentially privileged  protection in future while turning a blind eye to the fact that a sectarian march is a sectarian march no matter where it passes. Its vitriolic bigotry is no more acceptable a hundred yards from a church than right in front of it.

What is needed is an anti-sectarian campaign that is unafraid to name sectarianism when it sees it and is not seduced by the siren calls for equality of traditions, including mutual respect for each other’s culture.  There can be no equality for a tradition based on sectarian supremacy or respect for a culture soaked in bigotry.  Such a campaign would target not just loyalist parades but the sectarian policy creeping into housing policy and the recent discriminatory employment practices of Sinn Fein.  It would challenge the trade unions to take a principled stand and, at least in principle, should be capable of uniting much of the small left. The ULA could take the lead on this in the South by making it an issue on the floor of the Dail as the clarion call for an all-island campaign.  To do otherwise is to turn one’s back on sectarianism while claiming this as the means of opposing it.

The main task would be to rip away the protection of the current sectarian arrangements that are more and more revealing their true colours by refusing to subordinate anti-sectarianism to the demands of the peace process, however this is defined.  What sort of peace is it that allows, even sanctions, the displays of sectarian bigotry on display in Donegall Street on Saturday?