Ever since its inception back in 1921-22 the area of Ireland known to the nationalist population as the six-counties or North of Ireland and to the unionists, Ulster or Northern-Ireland community relations have been, like the Irish sea, choppy or up and down to say the least. The unionist reference, shared by their political masters in London of Ulster is almost correct, in fact two thirds right. The ancient province of Ulster consists of nine counties, those of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan are in the province but governed by the republic. If the British had included these three counties back when partition was enforced on the country they could not have used the unionist majority as an excuse for occupation. The unionists and loyalists only include six of these counties, that is two thirds of Ulster’s territory which remain under British control.
This arrangement pleases the unionists who see themselves as British, wrongly because even the British do not afford them this title. They are part of the misleadingly termed United Kingdom, not Britain which consists of England, Scotland and the principality of Wales, not even the British includes Northern Ireland in its make-up, which should give the reader some idea of the relationship between the unionists and the British. Today with the devolved government arrangement, when the assembly sits that is, the area is arguably controlled by devolved government. Between the years 1956-62 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) embarked on its border campaign, Operation Harvest, aimed at bringing about through armed struggle Irish unification. When the campaign came to an end, community relations between the two denominational, Catholic and Protestant, groups improved.
Even with these improvements in relations if the surface was scratched the roots of simmering discontent would be found. The Northern Ireland state differed in a number of ways from the rest of the United Kingdom. From its violent formation it had been ruled by a single party, the Ulster Unionist Party who continued to govern, or misgovern depending on your view, until direct rule was imposed by the London government in 1972. Until 1972 the UUP took the Conservative Party whip at Westminster which showed their political proximity to this British party.
The six-counties, Northern Ireland, differed in other ways from the rest of the UK other than being governed by a single party for fifty years. In local authority elections, or local elections, only property owners and the business fraternity had the vote. This resulted in some people receiving, from the propertied class almost exclusively Protestant, up to six votes. A permanent Protestant local authority or council was guaranteed even in cities like Derry where the population comprised of a considerable Catholic majority. This resulted in working-class people, Protestant and Catholic being disenfranchised and, as most property and businesses were owned by the protestant bourgeoisie it was only they who could vote in these elections.
A few Protestants were to show common cause with their catholic brethren, unfortunately not enough, in this blatant blight on democracy, even its liberal variant. Most Protestants were happy enough not to receive the vote providing they enjoyed elevated positions over the Roman Catholics in other walks of life, such as employment and housing. In Britain, under the 1947 Act (passed by the British Parliament), the franchise was ‘extended to all adults at local level for council elections. Not so in Northern Ireland where the business vote – which entitled some people to have up to six votes – was maintained’ (Northern Ireland Politics Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow eds P. 13). This affected working-class people from across the denominational divide because only the business class and property owners received the vote. Virtually all business and property were owned by the Protestant ruling-class therefore as far as voting rights were concerned the working-class protestants were no better off than their class brethren in the Catholic community. There was also the important question of political gerrymandering which resulted in a city like Derry, with a huge Catholic majority, having a Protestant council, permanently. These people, the electorate in local elections, from the protestant bourgeoisie ensured the Protestant working-class received privileges in the areas of employment, housing and other forms of social standing. Although these working-class Protestants were regarded by their “betters” as second-class, they were considerably better off than the Roman Catholics. The business and political class, all protestants in any meaningful way, ensured they did not alienate their coreligionists in the working-class, and this class collaboration was epitomised in the Orange Order. Some property owners, again all protestant, received as many as six votes in some instances allowing these people power which any other local authority in the UK could only dream of.
Not all, though sadly too few, Protestant working-class people fell for this farce. They recognised that forfeiting the vote in favour of certain privileges in other areas, was not the way forward. These people who did have the foresight to show class solidarity with their catholic brethren were, alas, few, though significant in number. These people, whose forebears in the 1920s were termed “rotten prods” by the Orange Order, became active in the various civil rights movements which sprang up from the mid-sixties onwards. “Rotten prods” were those protestant workers who had socialist or communist political ideas who were, in many cases, shop stewards in the shipyards. Many were expelled from their employment for not joining with their coreligionists of the Orange Order in throwing Catholics out of work – as well as in the river. As the trade union movement were opposed to all forms of discrimination union activists, carrying out TUC and individual union policy, were as fair game as the Catholics to the Orange mobs.
This was a situation which in one respect could reflect the days of the “two Harrys” Grattan and Flood. Flood, the Protestant wanted the vote for all protestants on the island of Ireland irrespective of their class status. These were the days of what became known as “Grattan’s Parliament” back in the eighteenth century. Henry Grattan, on the other hand, wanted the vote for all Catholics above a certain class status. So, we had Flood the sectarian bigot and Grattan the class biased hypocrite. It was a mixture of both which was identifiable in the six counties, Floods vote for Protestants only which transformed into Grattan’s above a certain class standing!
It was in the interests of the Protestant bourgeoisie to keep this system of sectarian discrimination against the Catholic community in place. It had been there since the inception of the state, officially in 1922 but perhaps by de-facto, under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. The Protestant ruling-class were astute enough not to alienate both sections of the proletariat. By granting their coreligionists certain privileges, the protestant community, would ensure there was little danger, generally, of any class solidarity with their Catholic equally disenfranchised brethren.
Against this backdrop even a casual observer could perceive why tensions within the communities ebbed and flowed and were always simmering just below the surface. Perhaps an analogy of the position could be to compare the situation to that of the simmering Sicilian volcano, Mt. Etna! Very calm one day then bang, eruption, but always simmering.
In January 1964 the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) was formed in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, by a group of Catholic professional people – a novelty in itself – to try and redress the unfair balances in society. The primary concern of the CSJ was the blatant discrimination against the Roman Catholic population in the allocation of housing and, like any pressure groups formed out of and by the petit bourgeoisie, lacked any real teeth. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) had more clout behind them than the well-meaning, but fundamentally passive, CSJ. Formed in Maghera County Derry in 1966 NICRA was to become the supervising, umbrella, group for all Civil Rights groups including the CSJ. It was formally inaugurated in Belfast April 1967 with a constitution of five objectives.
1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens.
2) To protect the right of the individual.
3) To highlight all possible abuses of power.
4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association.
5) To inform the public of their lawful rights.
These comparatively bland objectives were to be converted into concrete grievances as the campaign unfolded. NICRA was the body responsible for the protest in Derry on the 5th October 1968 which led to serious unrest, allegations of police brutality and the attention of the international media at what was going on in Northern Ireland. It was the incidents in Derry, which included people defending themselves against the RUC, which gave rise to the third strand of the campaign, the Peoples Democracy (PD). This organisation was of a more militant political nature comprising of many radicals which grew out of a group of militant socialists at Queens University Belfast. One of their first initiatives was to organise a protest outside the Minister for Justice, William Craig, in response to the RUC violence against the marchers in Derry. This militant body operating under the NICRA umbrella, drew up a list of six demands, as opposed to objectives.
- One man one vote
- Fair boundaries
- Houses on need
- Jobs on merit
- Free speech
- Repeal the Special Powers Act
Ostensibly NICRA was the overarching governing body, but their remit did not carry across the six counties in what could be described as entirety. An example would be ‘serious differences arose on the handling of the Derry protest in October 1968. More radical elements in the socialist movement and the Peoples Democracy were intent on militant action’ (Northern Ireland Politics Arthur Aughey & Duncan Morrow ed P.14). NICRA found it difficult if not impossible to control these militants. These cleavages could be likened to militant rank and file trade union action against the moderate reformist negotiations of the leadership. Schisms began to appear on more than one occasion between those who preferred moderation and the more far-sighted and pragmatic militants. It should be remembered at this point in time that these demands were UK rights, as enjoyed by citizens in other parts of the UK, not demands for Irish unification. Had the intransigent unionist government listened to these in hindsight moderate demands, then unification and thirty years of war could well have been avoided. They didn’t and thirty years of conflict did as Irish unification entered the field as the key republican objective. Republicans were involved at this stage in the broader Civil Rights Movement, but they were not in the driving seat, neither did they use it as a vehicle towards unification. The unionist government did that for them.
In 1969 loyalist/fascist gangs from the Shankill Road area of West Belfast mobilised and attacked Catholic homes on the interface with the lower Falls Road. Residents in Bombay Street, a victim of the pogroms by loyalists during the 1920s, were burnt out in what today may be called “ethnic cleansing”. For these mobs of drunken louts, many of them reportedly off duty policemen, the basic demands of the Civil Rights were too much to swallow. These loyalists viewed any reforms, no matter how minor, in Northern Ireland to the Catholic minority – not withstanding those Protestants involved who did not receive the vote either – as giving in to an IRA plot. These loyalists, or perhaps more accurately their wealthy leadership, viewed the demands by the majority, though not exclusively, Catholics as an attack on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.
In August 1969 loyalists supported by off duty B Specials attacked Bombay Street, Lombard Street and Clonard Street, all on the interface between the Shankill Protestant areas and the Falls Road Catholic districts. All were vulnerable because of their location on the interface. Billy McMillen, the Belfast IRA commander, called up all available units for defensive duties. The IRA at the time were few in numbers – they could not have launched an offensive action if they had wished to – around thirty volunteers and weaponry was in short supply adding to the nationalist woes. The arms available to the IRA consisted of one Thompson sub-machine gun, one Sten sub-machine gun, one Lee Enfield rifle and six small arms, revolvers and pistols. The orders issued to the IRA were to disperse people trying to burn houses, but do not take life under any circumstances. This last instruction may have been impossible to carry out because, although the taking of life may have been a last resort, nobody could say “under any circumstances”. These orders were in sharp contrast to the loyalist/fascist gangs with their RUC armed allies who were out for genocide against the Catholic population. The IRA in Belfast, given their relatively small numbers and poor supply of weapons fought bravely. They did not deserve some of the criticisms meted out later after the event, including the daubing of graffiti on the walls – IRA = I Ran Away which was unfair and insulting to the volunteers involved trying, against the odds, to defend these areas.
In Derry the situation was different. In the second city of the six counties the Catholic population constituted a large majority, unlike Belfast where the reverse was the case. Trouble flared after the loyalist Apprentice Boys march came under attack after playing provocative sectarian and triumphalist tunes and enacting behaviour to match after a parade. The tunes played by the bands of the Orange Order and behaviour of many on the parade were designed to infuriate the Catholic population of the Bogside, which lies below Derry’s ancient walls, it worked. When the Catholics of the Bogside protested the RUC attacked them using batons and forced them back into the Bogside. The events which took place between the 12th and 14th August became known as the “Battle of the Bogside”. The residents of the area organised under the Derry Citizens Defence Association and they fought the RUC and B Specials to a standstill. The DCDA set up headquarters in Westland Street where the supervising in the manufacture of petrol bombs took place along with the instruction on the erecting and positioning of barricades. They also set up Radio Free Derry which broadcast developments in the situation to a sizable audience. Local youths climbed on the roof of the Rossville Street Flats, which gave them an elevated advantage to throw petrol bombs down on the police. Years later a journalist and Civil Rights campaigner, Nell McCaffery, recalled being on the roof of the flats. She calculated if the RUC charged the stairwell while their colleagues were being bombarded below what was to stop them, the RUC, throwing people off the roof? A valid observation, the RUC had few enough qualms about causing harm to the Catholic population in times of relative calm so how they would respond to this, given an opportunity, would be anybody’s guess. She decided the risk, though it never happened, was too great and left the roof. Perhaps the RUC/B Specials had not worked it out? The residents of the Bogside fought the police to a standstill, in fact the RUC were literally on their knees. The Bogsiders had won and began the process of setting up no-go areas in what became and is known as “Free Derry”.
To aide the Bogside residents the NICRA executive decided to launch protests in towns and cities right across the six counties. This strategy was designed to stretch the already exhausted and beaten RUC even further. On the 11th August a riot erupted in Dungannon after a NICRA meeting. The RUC baton charged the protestors to the ground in their, by now, traditional fashion. On 12th August protestors attacked the RUC bases in Coalisland, Strabane and Newry. The following day further incidents involving protestors occurred in Dungannon, Armagh and Newry. In Coalisland the hated fascist B Specials opened fire on protestors without orders but were immediately ordered to stop. Imagine if these thugs armed and in uniform were allowed free range to do as they pleased? By the end of what had become an uprising across the six counties eight people had been killed. By Sunday 17th August five Catholics had been shot by the RUC. Two Protestants had been shot by nationalist gunmen who were defending areas, and one member of the republican scouts organisation, Na Fianna Eireann was shot dead by loyalist gunmen. Many Catholics fled across the border into the Republic while many Protestants moved across Belfast to the east of the city where their co-religionists held the majority.
Out of the mayhem, “ashes”, of sixty-nine arose the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) using the phoenix, a legendary bird said to have risen from the ashes (Manchester United Football Club used the same emblem after the Munich Air Disaster in 1958), as an emblem signifying their arrival on the scene. The inadequacies of what became known as the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) in defending the areas were laid bare. As has been pointed out this was a little unfair and certainly offensive to the volunteers who had tried, with limited success, to defend the Catholic areas with hopelessly too few weapons. In an early analysis of what had happened the PIRA concluded that: for almost fifty years the unionist single party government had presided unmolested over the six counties. For almost half a century they have denied our people the vote, discriminated against them in housing, employment and countless other basic rights. They have been allowed to do this, with no interference, by the parent government in London. It has been the London government which has propped up this regime without whose support the deck of cards would have collapsed long ago. It is, therefore, this prop which must go. This is the bones of their analysis not a direct quote. It is not an unreasonable conclusion!
For the first time Irish unification was now on the agenda, something which had the unionist regime listened would unlikely to have become the case. Moderate unionists like sixties Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terrence O’Neill, tried in vain to at least address some of the grievances. This was too much for unionist hard liners like Ian Paisley and Brian Faulkner who saw any concessions as a threat to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. These men were so blinded by their own prejudices that they succeeded in forcing Irish unification, the very thing they wished to avoid, onto the table. All that happened, including the rebirth of the IRA – in the form of the Provisionals – could have been avoided but for the unionists intransigence. Not “one inch” would they move shift in the way of reforms and now they faced the consequences which would result, in 1972, the British imposing direct rule. The early analysis of the Provisional IRA was, albeit simple, correct. The net result of these events were the deployment of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland, Operation Banner had begun. It would last for over thirty years.
Across the Irish border in Dublin the Irish government met to discuss events in the north. Taoiseach Jack Lynch made his now mythical statement “the Irish Government can no longer stand by” while events in the north spiral out of control. Over the years this statement has been amended by some to include the word “idly” – to read no longer stand idly by – which was not strictly what he said. In fact, to all intents and purposes this is exactly what Lynch did, he moved Irish troops to the border and no further. However, the position of Jack Lynch was perhaps not as clear cut as some, often too casual, observers may have thought and many critics suggest. The British Prime Minister back in 1969 was Harold Wilson who, like todays British labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, personally preferred a united Ireland. It was not, however, his opinion which counted but that of the government which he was leader of. The Prime Minister or leader of the party does not dictate party policy be it in the Labour or Conservative party. Therefore, Wilsons opinion counted for little if anything. The rest of his party, along with the British establishment and certainly the Conservative and Unionist opposition did not share Harold Wilsons views on Ireland.
According to the late Neill Blaney, a minister in the Irish government of jack Lynch, to his dying day claimed the Irish government discussed whether “to make a direct approach to the British government to seek their approval for sections of the Irish Army to enter Northern Ireland at two points – one giving it access and eventual control of Derry in the north-west, the other through Dundalk to Newry. It was accepted that Catholics in Belfast would have to wait until Derry and Newry were secured” (The Dirty War Martin Dillon P.7). Blaney went on to claim “the British government waited for forty eight hours before sending troops to Northern Ireland to allow the Irish government to make the proposed incursions” (ibid). Blaney implied Lynch lacked the courage to do this and retake the north, but it must be remembered he, Blaney, had little if any love for his boss, jack Lynch. If what Neill Blaney claimed, that the British were prepared to wait forty eight hours, and there is little reason to doubt him unless he was really trying to hammer Lynch, it appears the Wilson administration were prepared to hold back sending in their troops until the Irish Army had secured a foothold. If this description was correct Wilson was indirectly suggesting the armed forces of another country invade a United Kingdom territory! Had this happened it would have been difficult to take back for the British, that is if the British Army had stood by and let part of “Her Majesties highway” be invaded. It must be remembered the British Army swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, not a particular government so, under such circumstances may well have taken action unilaterally without the approval of Wilson. This we will never know as the incursions did not happen.
No record can be found of Harold Wilson giving what was essentially a “nod and a wink” to the Lynch Fianna Fail government to move in. In his book, The labour Government 64-70 Wilson makes no reference – or none could be found – to this claim of Blaney’s, or of any what could be said unofficial agreement between himself and Jack Lynch. Wilson may have been implying he could hold back for forty-eight hours, but this conversation, if anybody asked, did not take place. Could this have been the case? This does not mean Blaney was making it all up, not at all. What it could suggest is Harold Wilson intimated this in a private conversation with the Irish Taoiseach. For Wilson to have documented such a conversation, tantamount to treason, inviting the armed forces of a foreign government to invade part of the UK, would have been suicidal for Wilson, not only his premiership but himself. Remember Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister of “Her majesties Government” which included, rightly or wrongly, Northern Ireland as part of the realm. Under such circumstances the British Army could well have taken unilateral action, citing their oath of allegiance to the monarch as just reason, the outcome of which we shall never know. Had the British side moved against Irish troops, against Wilsons wishes, they would technically have been, in accordance with UK law, probably committing no offence! Although only the government can declare war the British Army could have claimed “defence” not “offence” meaning they were taking defensive action in part of the realm they swore to protect. The consequences for Wilson could have been far more severe. From jack Lynch’s point of view to have gone down this road would have been tantamount to a declaration of war on the United Kingdom. At this point the British Army garrison in the six counties was small and should have posed no real problem for the Irish Army. However, a full-scale British invasion was another matter.
Had the Irish Army have taken – we are now in the realms of semantics – the strategic positions in the north via Derry and Newry they would have been difficult to remove. How could the British have gone about carrying out this removal? In all probability the British would, under such circumstances, have invaded the republic probably with landings at Dublin and Cork. They also had air power which the Irish did not and eventually the weight of numbers would have told. Had they carried out these sea landings they would have probably followed the Irish troops into the north, coming up their rear. The Irish Army was much smaller in number than their British counterparts – a condition of the treaty dating back to 1921 and not amended or deleted to my knowledge – and having overcome the tiny British garrison in the six counties would then have to fight superior numbers of British troops, plus, if necessary, air power. No doubt Jack Lynch would have been well aware of the possibilities which may have made his decision for him. Perhaps he was more a pragmatist than a coward, what could have been the possible consequences for his country? In real terms how long, should such an occasion have arisen, could the Irish forces hold back a full-scale British invasion of the whole island? If Lynch had claimed Harold Wilson had implied an invasion by the Irish Army may have provided a solution, would Wilson have acknowledged such a conversation? Again, this is a hypothetical question because it never arose. At the time of the disturbances, including the ethnic cleansing, in the north Lynch did send the Irish Army up to the border but not across it. Here they set up field hospitals for injured refugees heading south along with canteens for food and field sleeping accommodation, temporary. Of course, it is possible, though less likely, the British Army would have done nothing without governmental approval. It is equally possible they could have launched a coup against Wilson and his government. All ifs, buts and maybes and the possibilities are boundless, we’ll never know.
In conclusion it must be said that the bloodshed of thirty years could well have been avoided had the intransigent unionist government, as the liberal Terrence O’Neil wanted granted moderate reforms. It was the arrogance of their hard-liners such as the Reverend Ian paisley, Brian Faulkner, James Chichester Clark and others who prevented these reforms, none of which in any way threatened the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Perhaps if O’Neil had grown a spine and stood up to his far-right-wing, matters may have remained calm, though for how long we’ll never know. At the time the IRA was small in the six counties and when defence of the Catholic areas was needed the organisation was found wanting. Not in courage but in arms and numbers. Granting moderate reforms to NICRA may well have been sufficient to buy off the moderates from the militants and socialists in the PDs and those republicans, isolating a militant minority from the moderate majority who were involved. This they failed to do and as a result a united Ireland was by 1970 on the agenda big time! Therefore, the blood of the thirty years must lay at the feet of militant unionism not, as various media outlets would have us believe, the IRA and later after 1974 the INLA. Sometimes the simplest remedies in the early stages can prevent an eruption. From little acorns grow mighty oaks. In this case the mighty oak turned out to be a united Ireland in waiting but could just as easy have been a settled six counties within the United Kingdom. Well done you unionist stalwarts, you probably sewed the seeds of your own destruction!!
He is author of Striking Similarities.