A Short History of the Troubles
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A Short History of the Troubles

Brian Feeney

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eBook - ePub

A Short History of the Troubles

Brian Feeney

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About This Book

From the first symptoms of serious unrest - the Divis Street riots of 1964 - to the tortuous political manoeuvrings culminating in the 2003 Assembly elections, the book traces the reality of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

It details the motivation behind the IRA 'armed struggle', the Civil Rights movement, the murder campaigns of various loyalist terror groups, the major incidents of violence and the response of the British security forces and the justice system.

It describes what it was like to live with bombs, army searches in the dead of night, death threats to politicians, activists and others. A detailed account of the political and personal toll of the Northern Ireland conflict.

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1. Reform and Reaction, 1963–1968

The deployment of British troops in 1969 to halt major civil strife on the streets of Derry and Belfast is commonly cited as the start of the Troubles. But Northern Ireland did not suddenly erupt into a clear blue sky in 1969. Whiffs of sulphur had been rising into the atmosphere for years. The first wisps appeared in 1963 as soon as the new leader of the permanent Unionist administration, Terence O’Neill, tried to initiate reform. The response to his efforts from both inside and outside his own party quickly demonstrated the truth of Alexis de Tocqueville’s maxim that ‘the most dangerous moment for an oppressive government is that at which it begins to reform’.
In March 1963 Terence O’Neill became only the fourth prime minister in the North of Ireland in forty-two years. O’Neill replaced the seventy-four-year-old Lord Brookeborough who had governed since 1943. Brookeborough, a dour old bigot from Fermanagh who had helped set up the loyalist militia, the B Specials, in 1920, had kept the North in deep freeze since the Second World War. Infamous for saying he would ‘not have a Catholic about the place’, he legitimised the endemic sectarianism of the Unionist regime.
Since the establishment of Northern Ireland by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Unionist politicians had kept an iron grip on the six northeastern counties that the then British prime minister, Lloyd George, had carved out for them. The region was administered by a miniature government, complete with prime minister and Cabinet. There was a legislature made up of a fifty-two-member Commons and a smaller, powerless Senate. By judicious boundary changes, called gerrymandering, and by abolishing proportional representation, Unionists usually managed to win about forty of the seats in the Commons – an unassailable majority.
Unionists kept all levers of power in their own hands, completely excluding the minority Catholic community, also called nationalists, from all facets of the new State. Unionists regarded nationalists as disloyal and subversive. It should also be said that, in the early days of the regime, even if Unionists had offered any position to nationalist politicians it would have been refused because the nationalist community refused to recognise that the new arrangements had any legitimacy.
The political structures in the North were buttressed by a heavily armed police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and a part-time, armed Protestant militia called the B Specials. Apart from the extensive range of firearms at their disposal, the most powerful weapon the security forces could deploy was the provisions of the Special Powers Act 1921, which gave police wide-ranging powers of search-and-arrest, detention without trial and, incredibly in a part of twentieth-century United Kingdom, flogging.
During the whole of the regime’s existence prior to 1969 there was no Catholic Cabinet member. Most judges and magistrates and virtually all senior civil servants were Protestant. Indeed, many of the judges had previously been Unionist politicians before moving to the bench. To copper-fasten loyalty to the Unionist polity, anyone taking up a publicly paid job – police officer, teacher, civil servant, local government official – had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. Many nationalists refused to do this, as the Unionist legislators hoped they would.
Local government too was a Unionist preserve, with over 1,000 councillors elected in Northern Ireland. Although as many as one-quarter of the councillors were nationalists, the council areas were gerrymandered by boundary changes to ensure that nationalists never managed to gain control of any major council. For example, between 1922 and 1972 there was no Catholic mayor of the overwhelmingly Catholic city of Derry.
Unionist politicians therefore controlled all aspects of social and economic activity. They allocated the annual subvention from Westminster as they saw fit. They decided where public housing would be built and who would be housed in it. The vast but ailing engineering and shipbuilding industries, located mainly in east Belfast, which had formed the core of Unionist prosperity were naturally protected and provided with favourable commercial conditions. Jobs in these industries went overwhelmingly to Protestants.
When new industries, such as man-made fibres, textiles and chemicals, were encouraged to locate in the North in the 1960s they went to majority Protestant districts. Areas with Catholic majorities, like Derry city and county and counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, languished in rural poverty with huge unemployment figures. For forty years, from 1921, Northern Ireland really was, in the words of its first prime minister, Sir James Craig, governed by ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’.
By the 1960s a new generation of Catholics had grown up after the Second World War. Thanks to the extension of the British free education system to Northern Ireland they were better educated than their parents and demanded a bigger role in society. They were not prepared to accept second-class status. They expected a fair society and demanded that the standards which applied in the United Kingdom as a whole should apply to the North of Ireland. They were ready to agitate to achieve these standards of justice and fair play, following the example and using the methods they saw others demonstrating elsewhere in the world. The Unionist administration in the North was equally determined not to allow the outside world in.
Despite their best efforts, Northern Ireland, it seemed, could not remain immune from the changes the 1960s brought to the world. Everywhere in the West young people who had grown up since the end of the Second World War wanted radical change. The signs were all around: television, The Beatles, topless swimsuits, President John F. Kennedy, a liberal pope, John XXIII, in the Vatican. These things affected the North as much as anywhere else. A fad for satire that ridiculed authority figures and derided the Establishment swept through Britain. This fad was exemplified by the magazine Private Eye and by the hard-hitting, disrespectful, topical TV programme ‘That Was The Week That Was’, which the BBC took off the air in the run-up to the British general election of 1964, so damaging was it considered to be to the Conservative government.
When the forty-nine-year-old O’Neill, an Anglo-Irish, Eton-educated former Irish Guards officer, replaced Brookeborough, he indicated his intention to change the ethos his predecessor had maintained. He talked about ‘imaginative measures’. Most unionists assumed he was referring to modernising the North’s flagging industrial economy, but it soon became apparent that he meant reaching out to the 35% Catholic minority who had been frozen out of the State. The Catholic community was growing rapidly. They were disaffected, they identified with the Republic of Ireland and withheld allegiance from the Unionist government, which existed to maintain the link with Britain.
O’Neill began to visit Catholic schools and was photographed shaking hands with Catholic clergy. Many unionists approved. The unionist evening newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph, endorsed the overtures. Unthinkably, even the tribal news-sheet of unionism, the Belfast Newsletter, oldest newspaper in Britain and Ireland (established in 1737), caught the mood. Its obituary of Pope John XXIII in June 1963 praised his reforms.
Others were not so taken with the new atmosphere. O’Neill was an awkward, remote man and a poor politician. He had prepared no one for his change of direction, least of all his Cabinet members who had happily supported Brookeborough’s icy exclusion of northern nationalists. Within six months of taking office, O’Neill was the subject of a whispering campaign led by his most ambitious and able minister, Brian Faulkner, who alleged that his tentative reforms would open the floodgates to uncontrollable change.
In the wider unionist community there was also disquiet. Opposition to change was expressed most vociferously by Rev. Ian Paisley, a thirty-seven-year-old Protestant clergyman of prodigious physical proportions with a voice to match. Paisley’s first appearance on the political stage had been fifteen years before when, at the age of twenty-two, he had campaigned in the 1949 Stormont election in the Dock constituency in Belfast. There he organised a ferociously sectarian campaign, which wrested the seat from Labour.
Paisley had established his own Free Presbyterian Church in 1951. His religious fundamentalism is a toxic mix of raw politics, anti-Catholicism and evangelicalism delivered at full wattage. In a five-decade career of implacable resistance to change, Paisley has always managed to rouse the darkest fears of the unionist community in the North.
He had embarrassed the Unionist government about marches and flags in the 1950s. In 1959 his threat to lead thousands of Belfast’s Protestant shipyard workers to the small County Derry town of Dungiven and force a banned Orange Order march down the main street of the Catholic town led to the dismissal of the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs. Once again, in 1963, it was his direct street action to prevent change and his verbal assaults on Terence O’Neill that shot Paisley to prominence. His ability to connect religion and politics, combined with his incomparable flair for publicity stunts, made a volatile cocktail. An early sign of his power to stir up old hatreds was his protest march against an unprecedented gesture by Belfast City Hall when the Union Jack was lowered to half mast to mark the death of Pope John XXIII. Despite his march being banned, about 1,000 protesters joined him, waving Union Jacks.
Further evidence of Paisley’s potential to provoke major trouble came in 1964 during the British general election campaign. One of the features of the Troubles has been that, by coincidence, British prime ministers have repeatedly called general elections at the most inauspicious moments for political developments in the North of Ireland, perhaps the most disastrous occasion being 1974 when groundbreaking new political arrangements were less than two months old (see page 43). October 1964 was the first such occasion.
The response of northern nationalists to prime minister O’Neill’s liberalising gambit had not been one of gratitude. Far from it. A new wave of young Catholic professionals had emerged as a result of free university education. They saw O’Neill’s promotion of change as an admission that their grievances were genuine. They wanted quick results. They began to publish statistics on injustices such as systematic discrimination in jobs and housing and electoral gerrymandering, which ensured majorities of Unionist councillors in towns where there were nationalist voting majorities. They made contact with sympathetic Labour MPs in Britain, many of whom had large contingents of Irish Catholics in their constituencies. They had, it seemed, found their voice, and they knew what they wanted to say.


It was in this climate that the British prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, called a general election. The election did not involve O’Neill’s regional government, but would nevertheless be a revealing test of Unionist attitudes to his reform programme. Northern Ireland had twelve seats at Westminster: Unionists held them all. The only chance for nationalists was the West Belfast seat with its large, densely packed Catholic population.
When Paisley received information that an Irish tricolour was displayed in the window of the election office of the republican candidate, he announced his intention to lead a march into the heart of west Belfast to remove the flag. Rather than tackling Paisley, the police decided to remove the flag themselves. It was replaced, but when the police smashed the window and seized the second flag, the reaction was two days of the worst civil unrest since 1935: the Divis Street riots. Petrol bombs were thrown and police used water cannon. The disturbances galvanised the unionist electorate who poured out to vote and retain the seat.
The Divis Street riots displayed most of the ingredients which were to become standard fare over the following decades: the appeasement of Unionist extremists, like Paisley; the close connections between Unionist politicians and Northern Ireland’s police force, the RUC, which was 90% Protestant; the RUC in riot gear, backed up by armoured cars, pitted against Catholic crowds; baton charges; running battles in the streets; petrol bombs. In 1964 only gunfire was absent.
The Divis Street riots were a shock, especially to young nationalists who had never seen the RUC in full paramilitary action. Nevertheless, the warning signs in west Belfast did not deflect any group from the course on which they had embarked. Catholic professionals strengthened their ties to MPs in prime minister Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour government in Britain in the hope of radical reform of Northern Ireland; various strands of Unionist opposition to reform began to join forces to conspire against Terence O’Neill; while O’Neill himself also ignored the Paisleyite message from Divis Street and quickened his pace.
In January 1965 O’Neill crossed his Rubicon when he met the Irish Republic’s leader, Taoiseach Sean Lemass, in Stormont and returned the compliment by travelling to Dublin in February. No northern premier had met his southern counterpart since the 1920s. O’Neill had given no warning of the meetings, which critics bitterly denounced not only because Lemass had been prominent in the IRA during Ireland’s War of Independence (1919–1921), but more importantly because all previous overtures from Dublin had been spurned while Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Irish Constitution remained in place: these Articles claimed the six northeastern counties as part of the national territory of Ireland. For Unionist hardliners, O’Neill’s meetings with Lemass meant tacit acceptance of the hated Articles.
The fact that the Nationalist party at Stormont immediately responded to the O’Neill–Lemass meetings by accepting the role of official opposition at Stormont damaged O’Neill further in the eyes of his Unionist critics. To them, O’Neill’s openness to change seemed merely to have whetted an insatiable Nationalist appetite. All his actions were construed as concessions to Nationalist demands. Even more alarming, prominent British Labour MPs were openly sympathetic to those Nationalist demands, which were carefully couched in the modern language of civil rights and equality rather than in traditional irredentist rhetoric.
O’Neill now faced the central problem which has confronted all his successors as Unionist leader. Could he reform fast enough to satisfy the nationalists whose hopes for change he had raised, yet slowly enough to placate the opponents of change within his own party and the wider unionist electorate?
Any illusions O’Neill had of a period of calm were dashed by extensive plans in the North to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, plans which horrified unionists who had sought to expunge all Irish imagery from their State. O’Neill later said the anniversary soured the whole atmosphere. Northern nationalists took the opportunity to parade, displaying republican symbols officially endorsed by the Dublin government. Many rushed to buy a specially struck commemorative silver coin featuring an icon of Irish republicanism, Patrick Pearse. Right on cue, the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, called a general election ten days before Easter, timing certain to raise emotions to boiling point in the North.
In this election west Belfast’s nationalist voters, determined not to waste the opportunity as they had in 1964, swung behind Gerry Fitt, a classic urban, working-class politician. He was elected amid tumultuous scenes. A former merchant seaman, Fitt was an experienced Belfast councillor and Stormont MP. He was sharp, articulate and combative. In debate he had a devastating line in repartee. He excelled on television. Unionists feared his tongue.
Fitt’s victory in west Belfast marked a turning point. For the first time in decades there was a nationalist presence in Westminster. Advised and supported by veteran Labour MPs who instantly warmed to his working-class rhetoric, Fitt managed to overturn the convention which prevented questions about the North being asked at Westminster. He was able to bring nationalist grievances onto the floor of the House of Commons, to the intense discomfort of Unionists.
The fevered political mood of 1966, the Easter commemorations, Gerry Fitt’s victory, the undisguised joy of nationalists, a hostile Labour government in Britain with a large majority – all helped to convince many on the wilder shores of unionism that Northern Ireland’s existence was being threatened. A tiny group of men, less than a dozen, in the loyalist heartland of west Belfast, the Shankill district, styled themselves the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) after the militia established in 1913 to prevent Home Rule. They declared ‘war’ on the IRA. Within weeks of Easter they began a campaign of violence, attacking Catholic-owned property and, most seriously, killing two Catholics in gun attacks and an elderly Protestant woman in a petrol bombing that ‘went wrong’.
The IRA in 1966 was a figment of the UVF’s imagination. For all practical purposes the IRA ceased to exist as an armed force after the failure of its 1956–1962 campaign. That series of attacks, also known as ‘the border campaign’, was desultory but deadly for all that. Organised from Dublin, the targets tended to be customs posts at the border with Northern Ireland, and RUC barracks in towns near the border. The campaign had largely petered out by 1958 due to internment of IRA suspects without trial both in the Republic and in the North. Even so, in 450 incidents eight IRA men an...

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