Lo, we shall rise up. And then we’ll make the bugger’s eyes water.
— Pink Floyd, “Sheep”
In the 1960s, inspired in part by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Catholics in Northern Ireland began agitating for radical changes to a system they believed had been oppressing them for nearly half a century. Six counties in Ulster, in the northeast corner of Ireland, were still part of the United Kingdom, a Loyalist state partitioned from the rest of the island in 1920 in an act of political chicanery designed to protect a Protestant and pro-British majority. Fr. Michael Brown, a Belfast priest, told an English interviewer in the early 1990s that “to me and most Irishmen, history is the story of how your people for hundreds of years have oppressed mine.” This history continued uninterrupted with the creation of the new British state.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
Northern Ireland in the 1960s was a segregated, highly sectarian society, its government in Stormont, outside Belfast, a “Protestant parliament” serving a “Protestant people.” The Catholic minority was not just inferior — it was disloyal, to be feared as well as hated. The state and its Loyalist subjects used terror and political repression to keep Catholics in line: through pogroms and random attacks against individuals in times of economic distress or political unrest (sometimes with the approval or even the assistance of the police), institutional discrimination, diminution of the Catholic vote, and vast authority in the hands of the executive, including internment without trial. Not until 1969 would London be moved to recognize Northern Ireland’s Catholics as equal under the law.
Eager for change, a group of Republican radicals, trade unionists, communists, and “moderate reformers” founded the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association on January 29, 1967. The group’s demands were reasonable: one man–one vote in local elections; an end to gerrymandering and discrimination in local government; repeal of the repressive Special Powers Act, in place since 1922; and disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s brutal paramilitary reserve force, the B Specials. A historian of the era called these demands “what any decent Englishman would support.”
It proved far more than the Stormont government could tolerate. Police brutality against peaceful marchers in Londonderry, in October 1968, was filmed by Irish TV, providing shocking images of RUC constables running riot, “smashing heads and chasing demonstrators. The marchers were hunted down, batoned, scattered, chased through the lanes and alleys.” Even Gerry Fitt, a Westminster MP from Belfast, was viciously attacked. A hundred people went to the hospital. The next day, William Craig, Northern Ireland’s minister for home affairs, praised the police, calling protesters “silly, bloody fools.” It did not portend better days.
The RUC refused to provide safe passage for a civil-rights march from Belfast to Derry in January 1969, yielding to crowds of angry Protestants armed with sticks blocking march routes, beating drums and shouting insults, and hurling rocks. The RUC’s hostility to the marchers, and its willingness to allow the situation to descend into confusion, only strengthened the hand of the mobs, and contributed to the chaos. Two hundred Loyalist thugs, “many of them off-duty RUC B Specials,” armed with sticks, nails driven through the ends, set upon the marchers outside Derry, sending eighty-seven to the hospital — while eighty RUC officers looked on. At two o’clock the next morning a group of drunken policemen went into a Catholic neighborhood, pounding on doors and breaking windows, and attacking anyone caught out and about. “After an hour they left. Behind was the last remnant of the RUC’s cover as a normal police force.” The next day private citizens stood guard with sticks and iron bars behind barricades, establishing a no-go zone they named Free Derry — free of the police, free of the mobs, free of Stormont’s writ.
Another threat was the Ulster Volunteer Force, a private Loyalist militia, which began random terror attacks against Catholics in Belfast in May 1966, stabbing and killing John Scullion, and opening fire on four men walking home one evening in June, killing 18-year-old Peter Ward and injuring two others. A Protestant woman was also killed by the UVF in May when a firebomb thrown at a Catholic pub missed and landed on her porch next door.
And so it went. Across the province marches ended in violent clashes, between Protestants and Catholics, and between Catholics and the police. “In April 1969 the Sunday Times Insight team made the stark observation that the ‘monster of sectarian violence was well out of its cage.’” The British home secretary sent 500 soldiers to reinforce the garrison of 2,000 stationed in Lisburn, fifteen miles southwest of Belfast, but Stormont assured London the RUC could manage. “Northern Ireland society was moving inexorably towards a major conflict,” writes Martin Dillon.
But only one side had any guns. Hounded north and south of the border for decades, the Irish Republican Army was irrelevant, a historic gesture of defiance for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, and a boogeyman for Protestants. It had only a handful of weapons available to defend 600,000 Catholics, and the “army” was just a few radicals and middle-aged diehards, “a force that could parade in a pub,” “blackened, almost unarmed, and certainly very largely discredited.” Gerry Adams writes, “By the mid-sixties, the movement had shed most of its militaristic leanings and a small, politically conscious organization was developing.” What remained of the IRA was actually more interested in supporting the civil-rights crowd.
Stormont’s response swung the momentum away from those advocating civil disobedience and constitutional politics, and toward the “physical force” men — those who believed that the only safety for Catholics lay in fighting the British state in Northern Ireland. “It is hardly an oversimplification to say that the Catholics were forced off the streets into the arms of the IRA.” When paramilitary police forces soon began rampaging through Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, Protestant mobs followed, looting and burning houses. The British army would be on the streets, and the province racked by civil war. Republicans would regret the absence of arms for defense, and determine “that such a thing would never happen again.”
The IRA: A Rebirth
The powder keg exploded on August 12, when 15,000 Protestants came to Londonderry to join in the Apprentice Boys march, the route taking them along the city walls and the Catholic Bogside. All morning both sides exchanged insults, rocks, and bottles. By afternoon mobs of Loyalists and RUC squads were attacking Catholic barricades, trying to force their way into the Catholic district. The battle ran into the night, the RUC calling in reinforcements and armored vehicles. The situation was quickly spinning out control; the police were overwhelmed, completely unable to maintain order as buildings burned and CS gas filled the air. There was no let-up to the violence, and on the 13th, Northern Ireland’s prime minister, James Chichester-Clark, ordered the mobilization of 8,500 B Specials — the RUC’s paramilitary branch, hated and feared by the Catholic population.
To take pressure off Derry, Catholics in Belfast erected barricades and began throwing rocks and gasoline bombs at the police, further stretching the RUC’s capabilities. Behind the police, Protestant mobs grew. The 14th brought an admission from the RUC inspector-general that “his men could not hold the line and they were in danger of being overrun in Derry.” Chichester-Clark radioed the British home minister, asking for the army to intervene. The troops arrived in Derry just as the B Specials began to appear, “the Bogsiders show[ing] every evidence of delight in the arrival of the British army.” To them, the Battle of the Bogside was a successful defense of the Catholic community — and so a victory.
In other parts of the province, “matters did not go so smoothly.” B Specials fired into a crowd in Armagh, killing a Catholic. More shots were fired in Dungannon, without injury.
In Belfast, Catholics rioted, throwing gasoline bombs and rocks at advancing lines of B Specials, as Protestant mobs advanced behind the police, forcing their way into Catholic areas. By night’s end four policemen had been wounded by IRA gunfire, and several people were dead, including one Protestant man shot by the IRA, and a 9-year-old Catholic boy killed while lying in his bed when the RUC fired wildly at houses with a .30 caliber Browning machine gun. Many were injured in the street fighting, as Protestant mobs became more aggressive, “pushing into Catholic streets, burning down each captured house. Refugees staggered out of burning streets, trying to reach safe Catholic districts.”
Defending the Divis Street area, “a small IRA group,” poorly armed with only a Thompson submachine gun, a .303 Lee Enfield rifle, and four handguns, took up positions at Saint Comgall’s School, where they fired on an advancing Protestant mob for more than ninety minutes. “[They] kept the Loyalists back, wounding as many as eight.” Brendan Hughes, future leader of the IRA’s highly aggressive D Company in Belfast, was there:
[When] the Loyalist mobs came down … they were attacking St. Comgall’s school with petrol bombs, stones, and everything. I mean, they just wrecked the whole front of the school. I knew the school, I had gone there as a child and I showed [name redacted], the IRA guy who had the Thompson, how to go through the school, through the classrooms, [and] up onto the roof … I was on top of the roof … [and the Protestants] were firing petrol bombs, a massive mob of people…. I was trying to encourage [name redacted] to shoot into the crowd [but] he was under orders from Jimmy Sullivan, the O/C [Officer Commanding] of the IRA at that time in the Falls area, not to shoot into the crowd, [but] to fire over their heads. So, he emptied a magazine over their heads which did break the crowd up. They retreated back into the Shankill [a Protestant area of Belfast] and we retreated off the roof.
Many years later, Hughes would recount that those actions were purely defensive. “[Most] of us at that time did not have a great deal of political ideology.… We were motivated by the fact that Catholic homes and streets had been burned down, [that] Catholics had been forced out of their homes.” In the Ardoyne neighborhood to the north, another obstinate few, IRA men all, “held the line” against a Loyalist mob and the RUC. The latter’s return fire killed two Catholic bystanders and wounded eight others.
By mid morning on August 15, it was war in Belfast. “[With] a great pall of smoke hanging over the city, with thousands of refugees in transit, with the mobs still on the street and the crack of bullets audible most places in the west of the city, there was no hope left that the RUC could impose order.” Belfast was on fire. More barricades went up. At 4:30 that afternoon, British soldiers moved into the city, providing a brief reprieve from the violence. All of Catholic Bombay Street and Brookfield Street had been burned out; a Catholic boy, 15-year-old Gerald McAluley, was killed in a gun battle with Loyalists shortly before the soldiers arrived, as he aided stricken families on Bombay Street. Hundreds of families were forced from their homes. Refugees were arriving at Red Cross camps, set up south of the border with help from the Irish army.
Nationalists in the north, particularly Belfast, were livid. Once again Catholics had been helpless victims of mob violence — with no assistance from, and in some cases at the hands of the RUC. Republicans were incensed — with Loyalists and Stormont, naturally, but also the IRA leadership in Dublin. Lack of weapons to defend “their” areas was a significant bone of contention, and arms would remain a prickly issue for the movement even into the next century. London and Stormont issued a joint communiqué, the Downing Street Declaration, on August 19, 1969, declaring the need for reforms in the province. It was too little too late. “In Catholic areas there was real doubt that the RUC could keep the loyalists and B Specials away from the Catholics, or that they wanted to.” The radicals smelled burning houses, and the IRA was “flooded with recruits.” As they saw it, the problem was Stormont, and behind it the British government. This was a reborn IRA, “conceived in the angry, charred back streets of Catholic Belfast.”
Efforts began in earnest to procure more, and better, weapons; even members of the Irish government became involved, including Charles Haughey, the minister for finance, whose brother secreted £3,000 to Cathal Goulding, the IRA’s “chief of staff.” In October a shipment of weapons passed through Dublin Airport and made its way to the IRA. More were sought, from Belgium, Germany, Austria, and the United States. North and south of the border committees were set up to raise funds for relief efforts, but soon it was weapons that everyone wanted. On trial a year later, Belfast IRA member John Kelley said frankly of the time, “We did not ask for blankets or feeding bottles. We asked for guns.”
A Loyalist mob burned down Coates Street in Belfast in September 1969, with no intervention from the army or the RUC. That helped Catholics to learn an “important lesson,” writes Adams. Easter celebrations in March 1970 turned ugly, the Royal Scots Regiment using CS gas liberally against Catholic demonstrators. More people were warming up to the IRA. There was heavy rioting in Belfast and Londonderry in June, the army using a heavy hand to restore order. After soldiers forced a Protestant march through the Ardoyne neighborhood, there was “fierce rioting,” and the IRA shot three rioters, all Protestants. The unrest soon spread east, to a Catholic enclave called the Short Strand. On June 27 a Loyalist mob, backed up by gunmen, advanced toward St. Mathew’s Church, intending to burn it down, in a neighborhood of 6,000 defenseless Catholics, and with “no sign of the British army.” IRA commander Bobby McKee and a small unit held back the mob, their heroics now part of Republican folklore.
The IRA fought on through the night: darkened streets, howls and flickering lights from fires, the crack and whine of bullets, confusion and fear and no sign of authority. Three Protestants and an IRA volunteer, Henry McIlhone from the Third Battalion, were killed and Billy McKee slightly wounded. The mobs were driven back and there was little doubt that the [IRA] had won.
In Catholic West Belfast, the army brutally imposed a curfew in early July, searching for weapons. Adams says that it “made popular opposition to the British army absolute.…”
Three thousand British troops invaded the Falls Road and, from helicopters, voices over PA systems announced that the area was under curfew and that anyone on the streets was liable to be shot. Five civilians were killed, more were injured, and 300 were arrested. The invasion and curfew lasted for two days, during which 1,600 canisters of CS gas were fired. Troops smashed down the doors of houses, pulled up floors, wrecked people’s homes.
Three weeks later, a 19-year-old Catholic man was shot and killed by soldiers during a riot in north Belfast. In some parts of Belfast, the rioting would continue for six months straight. Before, it was always the RUC and B Specials beating protesters and firing CS gas and shooting Catholics, but now it seemed the army was on hand to do the Loyalists’ bidding. Catholics increasingly saw the army as a tool of Stormont and the Protestant police state. Interestingly, the first British soldier would not be killed by the IRA until February 1971. That same month Prime Minister Chichester-Clark said, “Northern Ireland is at war with the Irish Republican Army.”
However, “It was a daunting thought at the time … that we were going to take on the might of the British Army with the antiquated weapons that we had,” Brendan Hughes told an interviewer before his death in 2008. The IRA, particularly in Belfast, wanted Armalites — forerunner of the M-16/AR-15 rifle. “We all fell in love with this weapon,” he said. “The Armalite was much superior for street fighting…. [They] made all the difference … and I loved them. I loved the Armalite.” More of these rifles were smuggled in from the United States, along with other weapons and explosives, helping the IRA to escalate its attacks on British soldiers and police officers. A popular slogan read, “God made the Catholics; the Armalite made them equal.”
Hughes claims that during this period “there wasn’t a [British] regiment that came into the Falls area that didn’t go out with casualties.” Across Northern Ireland, IRA units were taking the fight to the army and police on the streets of Derry and Belfast, in the small towns and villages, and along the back lanes of rural Ulster. In 1971, 48 soldiers and 11 policemen were killed, with another 700 injured. The next year, 129 soldiers and 17 police were killed, and the number of “shooting incidents” would rise to 10,628. Injuries to members of the “security forces” — police, soldiers, and reservists — almost doubled. In June and July 1971 alone, the IRA carried out 125 bombings — more than two per day — and a total of more than a thousand by year’s end. Northern Ireland would be rocked by almost 1400 bombings in 1972. The tiny province was battered into chaos, with many innocent lives lost or wrecked in the bloodletting.
The IRA transformed into an offensive organization.
In March 1972 the Stormont government collapsed, the province returning to direct rule from London. Catholics were ecstatic. This hated symbol of repression, partition, and discrimination was no more, and the IRA had played a major role in rendering Northern Ireland ungovernable. Sadly, the genie of violence was out of the bottle, and the IRA quickly transformed into an offensive organization, committing vicious and unforgivable acts of terror against innocent civilians. The conflict would continue until 1998, when Loyalist and Republican paramilitary forces declared ceasefire, followed by multiparty negotiations that produced a compromise agreement including proportional representation in a new assembly for all parties, a power-sharing executive, a new police force, and better communication between the Irish and British governments on matters concerning the people of Northern Ireland. Republicans resisted disarmament until the bitter end, many still remembering what it was like to be one of “history’s victims.”
This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.