The birth of the Civil rights movement in the 1960s, coupled with the failures of the IRA campaigns up until 1962 when it ended its border campaign, left the IRA on the verge of disbandment by 1965.
During this period, genuine attempts were being made to improve the relationship between north and south by then First Minister Terence O’Neill and Taoiseach Sean Lemass, with Ulster Unionist leader Terence O’Neill seeking to grow the economy and to build bridges between the two communities in the province. This led to the rise of a Unionist named Ian Paisley who had founded the Free Presbyterian Church and in 1966 set up the Protestant Unionist Party to strongly oppose O’Neill, objecting to articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution which claimed jurisdiction over the whole island, the Irish constitution’s declaration of the ‘special position’ of the Catholic church and the Catholic church’s policies, such as banning members who married Protestants from bringing up their children as Protestants. His activities also encouraged the UVF who in 1966 made a statement declaring war on the defunct IRA and carried out three attacks on Catholics in Belfast.
In the first, a Protestant civilian (Matilda Gould) died when the UVF members tried to firebomb the Catholic-owned pub beside her house but accidentally struck her home. In the second, a Catholic civilian (John Patrick Scullion) was shot dead as he walked home. In the third, the UVF opened fire on three Catholic civilians as they left a pub, killing one (Peter Ward, a native of the Republic of Ireland) and wounding the other two.
O Neill declared the UVF illegal and continued to meet with Sean Lemass both in Stormont and in Dublin with the two agreeing to co-operate on the issues of tourism and electricity, resulting in O Neill establishing a new non-sectarian university, the New University of Ulster, in Coleraine.
His thinking later expressed in his own words,
“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 consider and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church … ”
Captain Terence O’Neill, Unionist Party, Northern Ireland Prime Minister, May 1969
Reported in: Belfast Telegraph, 10 May 1969
Perhaps had he tried harder to convince his own people that Catholics were entitled to jobs and housing as well as recognition of their social and constitutional rights, then the conflict could have been avoided. His failure to be more resolute and in taking the people for granted, instead instilled fear and mistrust among both communities. Mistakes that are still being repeated today.
Supporters of Ian Paisley held mass demonstrations branding O’Neill the ‘Ally of Popery’ and demanding that he ‘keep Ulster Protestant’ creating sectarian tensions and deterioration of the relationship with the Republic where there were also suspicions around the decline in the numbers of Protestants, although this has since been shown to be a result of social factors, rather than ‘Popification’.
During this time, Labour’s narrow majority at Westminster meant that they had little time to waste on Northern Ireland matters but after the March 1966 Westminster general election, Labour was returned with a comfortable majority and Wilson began to take a tougher line, threatening cuts in financial support to Northern Ireland. British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins also warned that if reform did not continue the result could be the abolition of the Northern Ireland government and direct rule from London.
O’Neill’s government faced further opposition with the creation in February 1967 of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association which demanded a fair voting system (‘one man one vote’), an end to gerrymandering, and an end to religious discrimination, disbandment of the B-Specials and general equality for all the people of Northern Ireland. The Civil Rights Association included nationalists and republicans who were prepared to challenge the existence of the Northern Ireland state and in August 1968 a Civil Rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon was stopped by the police outside Dungannon town centre to prevent it meeting a counter demonstration led by the Revd Ian Paisley. Various marches were attacked and beaten by the police with batons, for which Stormont received condemnation from around the world. O’Neill relented and agreed to some of the demands. The Civil Rights Association called off its campaign.
Northern Ireland students such as Bernadette Devlin (today Bernadette McAliskey) led the People’s Democracy movement, refusing to accept the concessions, saying they were too little as Stormont had still not introduced ‘one man one vote’. They organised a march from Derry to Belfast for January 1969 which was ambushed by loyalists and some off-duty policemen and B-specials at the crossing over the river Burntollet.
The marchers were stoned and beaten while on-duty police made no effort to stop them which appalled O’Neill who announced an inquiry, despite opposition from his own party. O’Neill’s Deputy Prime Minister resigned in protest saying the inquiry could only make matters worse and soon the tensions had risen so much that the Civil Rights Association resumed their Civil Rights marches.
In February 1969 a general election was called and O’Neill’s party no longer had enough votes to form a strong government forcing O’Neill to introduce ‘one man one vote’ for the next election, but this caused so much chaos and anger from his own party that he was forced to resign giving way to a new First Minister, James Chichester-Clark.
On 30 March, the UVF and Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) bombed an electricity substation just outside Belfast, causing blackouts across much of the city’s south and east, with further bomb attacks on a water pipeline at Dunadry on 4 April, the Silent Valley Reservoir and an electricity pylon in Kilmore on 20 April, the water pipeline at Dunadry on 24 April and on 26 April they bombed a water pipeline at Annalong, cutting off the water supply to much of Belfast.
During a civil rights march in Derry, RUC officers entered the house of uninvolved Catholic civilian Samuel Devenny, and beat him along with two of his teenage daughters, one of which was beaten unconscious as she lay recovering from surgery. Devenny suffered a heart attack and died on 17 July from his injuries.
In August 1969, after the marching season, a large number of Catholics began a huge riot in western Derry and the RUC fought with them for three days. It became known as the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ and involved attacks by loyalists working alongside the police.
The most bloody rioting was in Belfast, where seven people were killed and hundreds more wounded as the rioters began to use guns. Scores of houses, most of them owned by Catholics, as well as businesses and factories were burned-out. In addition, thousands of mostly Catholic families were driven from their homes with the RUC helping the loyalists in a pogrom against the Catholic and nationalist minority.
Many ordinary Protestants were appalled by the dramatic reaction of the government to the Civil Rights campaign, although many hardliners supported it.
In the Republic of Ireland, economic prosperity had made most citizens happy with life and indifferent to Northern Ireland and the issue of reunification. However, it soon began to look as if the Northern Ireland government was suppressing a valid Civil Rights movement which was now collapsing into Civil War. Taoiseach Jack Lynch authorised the formation of a number of infantry groups on the border and the establishment of field hospitals. That evening Lynch made a televised address to the Irish people where he claimed that his government would ‘no longer stand by and see innocent people injured’ which some Unionists took as a threat to invade Northern Ireland to protect the Catholic population.
As civil unrest continued throughout Northern Ireland, the army received authorisation to mobilise a further two infantry groups ‘due to the deterioration of the situation in the North East part of the country’. Soldiers from the Cavan and Dundalk areas provided most of the personnel, augmented by troops from other counties. The combined force totalled 795 men, including four rifle companies (approximately 400 combat soldiers), three field artillery troops and a field battery. On the night of 14 August, violence within Belfast city resulted in the burning of hundreds of homes and the displacement of thousands of civilians. Even if the political will had existed within the Irish government, the infantry groups did not have the manpower, transport or equipment to protect the nationalist areas of Belfast. Speaking retrospectively, Lynch admitted that ‘we had no intention of moving in… we did not have the men or equipment even if we had the desire’. Only areas close to the border could have been protected by the infantry groups. Areas such as Newry, however, despite experiencing medium-scale riots, saw negligible casualty levels.
The Irish government tried to maintain secrecy in relation to the infantry groups. A government press release claimed that only ‘medical and support’ personnel had been deployed, although it described the presence of ‘other support troops’. A Press Association correspondent in Dublin reported mass mobilisation of the army, a claim contradicted by an army spokesperson as ‘completely untrue’. On 14 August reports of full mobilisation, the calling up of the first line reserve and large-scale troop movements towards the border were denied by the Irish Government Information Bureau (GIB). A statement claimed that ‘there are no troops on the move except those directly concerned with the setting up of the field hospitals and their ancillary services’. On 15 August, in the aftermath of the Belfast violence, the GIB announced that the Irish government had decided to call up the first line reserve of the Irish army to have them ready for a peacekeeping operation. This admission of mobilisation stimulated invasion rumours. Rev Ian Paisley warned Protestants to prepare for the very worst. Sir Knox Cunningham, MP for South Antrim, said that ‘Mr Lynch’s order to move republican troops to the Ulster border is similar to the action of Hitler in 1938 over the Sudetenland’. Jack Lynch was no Adolf Hitler, and the Irish army, with less than 8,000 men, was certainly no Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, a general ignorance regarding the army’s capability provoked fearful comments.
The UK government realised that Northern Ireland was about to collapse into anarchy.On 15 August, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in response to a request from the Government of Northern Ireland, ordered the British Army into Belfast and Derry to restore order and state control, and peace lines began to be built to separate the two sides. Four days later he also ordered the Stormont government to establish better community relations, introduce ‘one man one vote’, disband the B-specials, and disarm and restructure the RUC. With all their demands now unexpectedly met, the official Civil Rights campaign shut down.
However, the violence that had erupted, directed mainly towards the Catholic community, had prompted many people there to rekindle their old desire for a united Ireland. In 1969 a fierce debate began within the ranks of the IRA. Some members supported the non-violent strategy. However many others accused the leadership of ‘going soft’ on the aim of a united Ireland and pointed to the new presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland. This militant group split off in 1970 and formed the ‘Provisional IRA’.
Ministers Haughey and Blaney disapproved of the cautious policies of Taoiseach Lynch on Northern Ireland and favoured a more robust approach. In August 1969 Lynch had asked Irish Army Intelligence to draft proposals for limited military intervention in Northern Ireland to protect nationalist areas from Ulster loyalist mobs, known as Exercise Armageddon, but it was seen to be unworkable and was not adopted by the cabinet. Subsequently some more actively nationalist Irish government ministers were tried in 1970 in the Arms Crisis trial, where the defendants included an Irish Army officer. It emerged that a secret Irish government fund of £100,000 had been dedicated to helping the refugees, but some of it had been spent covertly on buying arms for paramilitary groups. Ministers Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney were sacked from their posts.
The nationalist areas were given a form of protection later in August by British forces in Operation Banner, and Lynch saw this as an effective short-term measure. On 30 October 1968, Lynch had met with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson in London and had called on Britain to take steps to end the partition of Ireland.
Out of office in the autumn of 1971, Wilson formulated a 16-point, 15-year programme that was designed to pave the way for the unification of Ireland. The proposal was not adopted by the then Heath government.
In January 1970, the UVF began bombing Catholic-owned businesses in Protestant areas of Belfast. It issued a statement vowing to “remove republican elements from loyalist areas” and stop them “reaping financial benefit therefrom”. During 1970, 42 Catholic-owned licensed premises in Protestant areas were bombed, mainly by the UVF.
In February, the UVF bombed the home of Sheelagh Murnaghan, a staunchly anti-physical force and anti-republican Roman Catholic Ulster Liberal Party MP. Beginning a campaign against critics of militant loyalism, they also bombed a TV relay station near Raphoe in County Donegal, Republic of Ireland. The mast transmitted television and radio signals from RTÉ, (the Irish national broadcaster), which could be received in Northern Ireland.
In March they claimed responsibility for exploding a bomb at the home of Nationalist Party MP Austin Currie and on 2 July, shots were fired through the living room window of Currie’s house while he and his wife and children were inside and a bomb damaged an electricity substation in Tallaght, near Dublin. An anonymous letter claimed responsibility on behalf of the UVF.
In April the UVF exploded a bomb at the home of liberal Ulster Unionist MP Richard Ferguson.
On 2 July, a bomb damaged the main Dublin-Belfast railway line at Baldoyle in north Dublin. Gardaí believed it was the work of the UVF.
The Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) became operational replacing the ‘B-Specials’ (the Ulster Special Constabulary). The UDR was a locally recruited regiment of the British Army. Roy Hattersley, then Minister of Defence, visited Northern Ireland to mark the occasion. [Initially Catholics formed 18 per cent of the membership of the UDR; however it was to become almost exclusively Protestant and in its time attract almost as much controversy as the ‘B-Specials’. Many ex-members of the ‘B-Specials’ joined the new force.]
On the morning of 3 April 1970 three armed members of Saor Éire were in the process of robbing the Royal Bank of Ireland at Arran Quay, Dublin when Gardaí Paul Firth and Richard Fallon arrived by car. Confronting the three at the front of the bank, Firth and Fallon were repeatedly fired at. Firth, “who was behind Garda Fallon, called back to the patrol car driver to summon assistance before he dived to the ground. As he reached out to seize the gunman nearest to him, Garda Fallon was hit by fire from one of the others, and fell mortally wounded. He had been shot twice, in the shoulder and, fatally, in the neck. He died instantly.”
Subsequently three alleged members of Saor Éire were charged and acquitted of his murder.
Over thirty years after his death, the family of Garda Fallon accused the government of assisting members of Saor Éire in escaping after the murder. Previously secret government files made available in 2006 confirmed the sighting of Pádraig “Jock” Haughey, brother of the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, in the company of a member of Saor Éire in London during the period before the Arms Trial. The government has refused to hold a public inquiry into the matter and possible State collusion with members of the organisation.
Ian Freeland—the British Army’s overall commander in Northern Ireland—announced that anyone throwing petrol bombs would be shot dead if they did not heed a warning from soldiers.
A general election was held across the United Kingdom on 18 June 1970 with the Conservative Party replacing the Labour Party to form the government at Westminster. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Reginald Maudling, was appointed as Home Secretary and had responsibility for Northern Ireland.
Shortly after in July, Reginald Maudling paid a visit to Northern Ireland. [As he boarded the flight out of Northern Ireland again he was reported to have said: “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!”.]
On 27–28 June 1970 serious rioting erupted in Belfast following Orange Order marches past Catholic areas.
During the evening groups of Loyalist rioters began to make incursions into the Catholic Short Strand enclave of east Belfast. Catholics in the area believed that they were going to be burnt out of their homes and claimed that there were no British Army troops on the streets to protect the area.
Members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) took up sniping positions in the grounds of St Matthew’s Catholic Church and engaged in a prolonged gun battle with the Loyalists. The battle was the Provisional IRA’s first major action during the Troubles and was a propaganda victory for the organization. It lasted about five hours and ended at dawn when loyalists withdrew. The British Army and police were deployed nearby but did not intervene. Three people were killed and at least 26 wounded in the fighting, while another three were killed in north Belfast. PIRA presented itself as having successfully defended a vulnerable Catholic enclave from armed loyalist mobs. Catholics in Short Strand numbered about 6,000, while their Protestant neighbours totalled about 60,000. Loyalists, however, argue that the IRA lured them into a carefully prepared trap.
The following day, loyalists expelled 500 Catholic workers from the nearby Harland and Wolff shipyard. Shortly after, the British government’s representative at Stormont said that the decision to allow Orange marches to go ahead on that day was “the greatest single miscalculation I have ever seen made in the course of my life”
Many Catholics and nationalists believed that the IRA had been unable to defend them during the August 1969 riots. However, it is argued that the IRA’s defence of Short Strand redeemed it in the eyes of many Catholics and nationalists. Among republicans, the battle is seen as a key event in the growth of the Provisional IRA.
On 3–5 July 1970 a British Army operation which began as a search for weapons in the staunchly Irish nationalist district of the Lower Falls ended with local youths attacking the British soldiers with stones and petrol bombs to which the soldiers responded with CS gas. The soldiers fired 1,600 canisters and cartridges of CS gas during the operation with allegations that some soldiers fired CS gas canisters through the windows of houses while residents were still inside. Hundreds of women and children, along with the sick and elderly, began to leave the area. This quickly developed into gun battles between British soldiers and the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA). After four hours of continuous clashes, the British commander sealed off the area—comprising 3,000 homes—and imposed a curfew which would last for 36 hours. Thousands of British troops from the Black Watch, the Life Guards, the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment moved into the curfew zone and carried out house-to-house searches for weapons, while coming under intermittent attack from the IRA and rioters.
Locals hastily barricaded a number of streets to keep the soldiers out. Buses were hijacked and made into burning barricades.
Jim Sullivan, the local Official IRA commander, instructed his men to move weapons out of the area. At about 6pm, Provisional IRA volunteers attacked the troops with improvised hand grenades. A number of soldiers suffered leg injuries. As more troops arrived, “the Officials realized that they would have to fight”, and Sullivan ordered his men to confront the troops. An Official IRA source later said: “The way we looked at it, we were not going to put up our hands and let them take the weaponry. We didn’t want the confrontation, but we couldn’t surrender”. One source says that 60–70 Official IRA volunteers were involved, while another says that 80–90 were involved. Each was armed with a rifle and at least one revolver. They exchanged fire with the troops and attacked them with grenades, with journalists who were present such as Simon Winchester reporting hundreds and hundreds of bullets were being fired by both sides.
Hundreds of local youths also pelted the troops with stones and petrol bombs.
Later when asked by reporters the British army played down the attack claiming that its soldiers fired only 15 shots in sum though figures published later confirmed that soldiers in the Falls that weekend fired no less than 1,457 rounds.
The searches caused much destruction and a large amount of CS gas was fired into the area. On 5 July, the curfew was brought to an end when thousands of women and children from Andersonstown marched into the curfew zone with food and groceries for the locals.
During the operation, the British Army killed four civilians:
Charles O’Neill, a 36-year-old Catholic civilian and invalided ex-serviceman, died on 3 July after being knocked down by a British Saracen APC on the Falls Road during the initial rioting. According to eyewitnesses, he walked out on to the road and attempted to flag down the APCs, but the lead vehicle sped up and “deliberately” ran him down. One eyewitness said that soldiers prodded O’Neill in the ribs and that one of them remarked: “Move on you Irish bastard – there are not enough of you dead”.
William Burns, a 54-year-old Catholic civilian, was shot dead at the front door of his home on the Falls Road on 3 July. He had just finished chatting to a neighbour when he was shot in the chest. The shooting took place at about 8:20pm, almost two hours before the curfew was announced. A pathologist said that the bullet had likely been a ricochet.
Patrick Elliman, a 62-year-old Catholic civilian, was shot in the head on Marchioness Street on the night of 3 July and died of his wounds on 10 July. He had walked to the end of the street in his night clothes “for a breath of fresh air”. Elliman was taken away in an ambulance. However, it was searched and re-routed by the British Army, which meant that it took thirty minutes to reach the Royal Victoria Hospital a few hundred yards away. That night, British soldiers broke into Elliman’s home and quartered themselves there for the night.
Zbigniew Uglik, a 23-year-old of Polish heritage who lived in England, was shot dead at the rear of a house on 4 July. He was an amateur photographer and had been taking photographs of the riots. Uglik was in a house at Albert Street, at the edge of the curfew zone, and decided to fetch another camera from the hotel where he was staying. A British Army sniper shot him as he climbed over the back wall of the house, shortly after midnight.
Another 60 civilians suffered gunshot wounds. Eighteen soldiers were also wounded; twelve by gunshots and six by grenades. A total of 337 people, including Official IRA leader Billy McMillen, were also arrested.
The Falls Curfew had deeply alienated Belfast’s Irish nationalist and Catholic population from the British Army where previously, many of them had seen them as a neutral force in the city that would protect them from the police. The events gave credence to the Irish republican argument that the British Army was a hostile colonial army of occupation. According to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, “Thousands of people who had never been republicans now gave their active support to the IRA; others, who had never had any time for physical force now regarded it as a practical necessity”.
On 31 July, the British army shot and killed 19-year=old Daniel OHagan during rioting in the New Lodge Road area of Belfast. It marked a turning point in the conflict, with a step up of intensity by the IRA and the issue of a yellow card outlining the rules of engagement to be used in Northern Ireland.
The conflict was no longer about civil rights or defending Catholic areas, it had evolved into all-out war against the British army with loyalists becoming a tool in their arsenal to be used in their operations. Unionism had rebirthed the IRA in northern Ireland and after decades of so called “defending” against an imaginary threat, had finally created a conflict from which they could now justifiably claim that nationalism is a real and enduring threat to their way of life.
It is easy to condemn from an armchair reading the black and white. But for those who watched their children choking on CS gas while sitting in their homes, who saw their children shot dead defending their communities from mass attack, pogrom and police led aggression, the call to arms was justified.
It was the responsibility of the states to prevent the conflict, but the British army is a very blunt instrument and once unleashed, is not so easily controlled.
Unionism has done more to prove that Ireland cannot be ruled by Britain than any Irish Republican in history.