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.

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