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August 1969: Northern Ireland explodes - 'the troubles' begin
THE EVENTS of August 1969 were an historical turning point for Northern Ireland that echo down to this day.
The first deaths of 'the troubles' occurred in 1969 and violent clashes in Derry, Belfast and elsewhere in August of that year shaped the 25 years of outright conflict, and the 15 years of relative 'peace', that were to come.
Ciaran Mulholland of the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland explains how the situation rapidly escalated to the brink of civil war and what lessons can be learnt from these events.
FOR ALMOST 50 years Catholics in Northern Ireland had suffered systematic discrimination in housing and in jobs. Catholics were also partly disenfranchised by the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries. In the late 1960s a civil rights movement emerged to demand change and the brutal reaction of the Unionist government lead directly to the street fighting of 1969.
The first outbreak of violence occurred on 5 October 1968. A small demonstration in Derry made up mainly of members of left wing organisations (notably the Derry Labour Party and Derry Young Socialists), demanding an end to discrimination, and jobs and houses for all, was banned and then met with the full fury of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The images of police savagely beating peaceful demonstrators ignited anger in working-class communities and the Civil Rights Movement was instantly transformed into a mass movement of the Catholic working class.
The youth rage at the Unionist establishment was coupled with contempt for the right-wing nationalist politicians who had delivered nothing for the Catholic community. Socialist ideas began to develop a real echo, especially in Derry where the radicalised local Labour Party was able to articulate the anger of young people at slum housing and mass unemployment.
The movement also impacted on a layer of Protestant youth who could see that housing conditions in Protestant working class areas were little different from those in Catholic areas and although discrimination put Protestants first in line for some jobs, poverty and unemployment also blighted Protestant working class areas.
Labour stands aloof
The labour movement could have intervened decisively at this time but did not. The trade union leadership stood aloof from the turmoil, restricting themselves to praising the Unionist government for the partial reforms that were forced on it and to issuing sanctimonious pleas for calm.
A motion to the Northern Ireland Labour Party conference in May 1969 called on the party to attempt to take a leadership role in the civil rights struggle. The right wing leadership tried to get the motion remitted but the conference overruled them and the motion was passed. It made little difference however as the leadership simply ignored it and imitated their union counterparts in doing nothing.
The failure of the labour movement to intervene assisted the civil rights "moderates" - people like future Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader, John Hume - to stamp their authority on the civil rights movement. Hume, who was a voice for the conservative Catholic middle class, argued vehemently against class or socialist ideas. Limiting the movement's demands to rights for Catholics allowed the government and bigots like Ian Paisley to portray it as a threat to Protestants.
There was a strong and influential left within the civil rights movement however. Figures such as Eamonn McCann, then of Derry Labour Party, and Bernadette Devlin came to prominence. People's Democracy, a loose formation of left wingers formed by Queens University students, gained a certain base of support.
As the summer of 1969 approached, tension increased and there was trouble in a number of towns. On 2 August there was serious rioting in Belfast, when Protestant crowds from the Crumlin road area tried to storm the Catholic Unity Flats.
Battle of the Bogside
What became known as "The battle of the Bogside" in Derry began when violence broke out around a loyalist Apprentice Boys of Derry parade on 12 August. The RUC invaded the Catholic Bogside area and the residents mobilised en masse to prevent them entering the area.
The battle of the Bogside raged for more than two days. The RUC repeatedly charged the crowds defending the area but were driven back by a fusillade of stones and petrol bombs, some rained down on their heads from the top of the high rise Rossville Flats.
One day into the battle, Irish Taoiseach (the Irish Republic's PM), Jack Lynch, said that his government "would not stand idly by". Irish military field hospitals were set up across the border from Derry in Donegal. Lynch's bluster was no more than a cover for the fact that the Irish government was "going to stand idly by" but the effect was to stir already aroused sectarian tensions.
By day two of the battle the RUC was effectively defeated. The RUC was 3,200 strong but after months of rioting 600 RUC officers were out injured even before the Bogside erupted. The Unionist government's answer was to issue an order calling up the 8,500 strong police reserve, the notorious B Specials.
Had this armed and bigoted Protestant militia been sent against the Bogside there almost certainly would have been a bloodbath. The violence would have spread and a civil war that would have engulfed Ireland, north and south, would have been the most likely outcome. It was to avert this possibility that the Labour government of Harold Wilson decided to deploy troops.
The British ruling class had no concern for the beleaguered Catholic population of the Bogside but feared a civil war in Ireland would spark upheaval in major British cities, would engulf their property in Ireland and would leave economic relations with Dublin in shreds.
As soon as it was clear that the troops were not going to force their way into the Bogside there was a sense of relief that expressed itself in a welcome for the soldiers. But parts of Belfast then erupted.
On the second day of the battle of the Bogside, 13 August, the Civil Rights Association had appealed for demonstrations across Northern Ireland in support of the Bogside and in an effort to draw off police resources. When such demonstrations took place the violence spread.
Belfast saw by far the most intense violence of the August 1969 riots. The first disturbances took place on 13 August, when a crowd of 500 staged a rally on Divis Street. This rally was initially peaceful and a petition was handed in at Springfield Road RUC station but before long violence broke out. The RUC station was pelted with stones and petrol bombs and an RUC armoured car was attacked with a hand grenade and rifle fire. Who was responsible for this attack has never been determined. The IRA denied involvement and indeed was in a very weak situation in the city at the time.
That night barricades went up between Catholic and Protestant areas and the following night saw the violence in the city worsen. When Catholic crowds attacked the Divis Street RUC station in west Belfast, close to the Protestant Shankill, loyalist crowds turned out to oppose them. Fighting broke out along the sectarian interface at Divis Street and Cupar Street. An IRA unit of six men there exchanged shots with the RUC and loyalist gunmen, resulting in the wounding of three Protestants, one Catholic and an RUC man.
The RUC then deployed Shoreland armoured cars mounted with heavy Browning machine guns. Tracer rounds were fired at the Catholic Divis Tower flats killing a nine year old boy, Patrick Rooney.
B Specials and Protestant crowds began burning Catholic homes and businesses on Dover Street, Percy Street and Beverly Street. At Dover Street, another gun battle erupted between the IRA and the RUC, leaving one Protestant dead and three RUC men wounded. A further eight people were injured in an exchange of fire at St Comgall's school on Divis Street.
Rioting also broke out in Ardoyne in the north of the city. 50 buses were hijacked from the local bus depot, set on fire and used as makeshift barricades to block off access to Ardoyne.
According to one report 20 Catholics were wounded by shotgun fire that night. Two Catholics were shot dead by the RUC and several homes and businesses were burned out by loyalists. A Protestant was killed by a shotgun blast to the face.
The next morning saw many Catholic families in central Belfast flee to Andersonstown and Ballymurphy on the western fringes of the city, in order to escape further rioting. At the request of the RUC, The Royal Regiment of Wales was stationed on the Catholic Falls Road to keep order. The deployment of troops did not immediately quell the violence however.
Some of the most iconic images of the Troubles show residents trying to remove their belongings as in the background Bombay Street burns. The RUC penetrated this area and they were followed into it by Protestant crowds. The result was that loyalists burned out all of Catholic Bombay Street and some of the homes in several other streets. A young member of the Fianna (youth wing of the IRA), Gerard McAuley, was shot dead in the disturbances.
The call for demonstrations in aid of the Bogside was also answered in several other towns. Shots were fired by B Specials in Dungannon, Dungiven and Coalisland. In Armagh, a Catholic man was shot and killed by the B Specials. In Newry, nationalists surrounded the RUC station and attacked it with petrol bombs on 14 August. In Crossmaglen on 17 August, the RUC station was attacked with petrol bombs and three hand grenades.
The rioting petered out by Sunday 17 August. Eight people had been killed and 750 injured, of whom 133 (72 Catholics and 61 Protestants) were treated for gunshot wounds. A total of 1,505 Catholic families and 315 Protestant families were expelled from their homes, either through burning or intimidation. 275 commercial premises were badly damaged or destroyed, of which 83% were Catholic.
The riots represented the most sustained violence that Northern Ireland had seen since the early 1920s. The IRA was blamed by the Unionist government for the violence but in fact it was very badly prepared for the events having few weapons available to its members. The IRA was blamed by some for having failed to protect Catholic areas like Bombay Street. A Catholic priest, Father Gillespie, reported that in the Ardoyne the IRA was being derided as "I Ran Away".
A bitter split in the IRA followed. In December 1969 the Provisional IRA was formed, dedicated firstly to the armed defence of Catholic areas and then to an offensive against the state of Northern Ireland. But the Provos' armed struggle was based on mistaken methods and ideas and became increasingly sectarian. It was never going to defeat the British state and achieve a united Ireland as the ending of its 'war' in 2005 was eventually to prove.
A "breathing space"?
The deployment of troops was presented as a temporary measure by the British government. Troops were needed, they said, because the Unionist government had lost control and would be withdrawn "as soon as law and order is restored".
There was confusion among the prominent left leaders who had emerged from the civil rights struggle. Lacking the steadying influence of a revolutionary party, even the best leaders - Bernadette Devlin and Eamonn McCann included - vacillated under the pressure.
Rather than maintain an independent working class position, Bernadette Devlin flew to America where she pleaded with UN secretary general U Thant for UN troops to be sent in.
When fighting started in the Bogside she and Eamonn McCann issued a joint statement headed "Westminster must act", calling for the suspension of the northern constitution and a constitutional conference of the Westminster, Stormont and Dublin governments to work out a solution.
The Socialist Workers Party criticised those who called for the troops to be withdrawn. "The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists." (Socialist Worker, No. 137, 11 September 1969).
Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, was alone on the left in taking a clear class position. The headline of the September 1969 issue of Militant demanded the withdrawal of the troops. It called instead for an armed trade union defence force. An article analysing the situation warned: "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business".
This was no abstract position conjured from the safety of distance. The few members and supporters of Militant in Northern Ireland at the time were behind the Derry barricades, involved in the defence of the area and facing the consequences of any pogrom. Militant did not bend to what was a temporary mood of support for the troops but explained the real reasons they had been sent and warned what their role would be. This position has been absolutely vindicated by what followed.
Workers' defence force
Nor was the call for a trade union defence force an abstract slogan, removed from the reality of the time. The truth is the troops did not and could not have prevented widespread pogroms. Their presence had a psychological rather than a physical impact.
In parts of Belfast local defence groups sprang up during 1969. In many mixed communities local defence groups involving Catholics and Protestants were set up to keep the trouble out of their area.
The army presence was only in Derry and a small part of Belfast. Elsewhere it was the actions of working class people that prevented the trouble spreading, by taking to the streets and physically stopping the violence and intimidation.
Shop stewards in the big factories and workplaces acted to halt sectarian intimidation. Shipyard shop stewards called a mass meeting attended by virtually the entire workforce and called a brief token strike opposing conflict. Shop stewards followed this by visiting the homes of Catholic shipyard workers who had stayed away from work and assured them of their safety if they returned.
Had these initiatives not been taken, and had the violence spread, the army would have been powerless to prevent widespread pogroms and even civil war. It was the instinctive actions of working class people that prevented a slide to civil war.
The seeds of working class unity and the outlines of a workers' defence force already existed. Had the trade union leadership been prepared to give a lead, or had there been a socialist revolutionary organisation with sufficient support in workplaces and working class communities, it would have been possible to build on this, starting with bringing together shop stewards committees and the various anti-sectarian defence organisations that had sprung up.
The British army acted in the interests of the ruling class, not of the working class. In Northern Ireland over decades the troops provided repression, not security, and their presence vastly complicated the situation. 40 years on we are left with a more divided society and a sectarian impasse that passes itself off as a "peace process". Today new opportunities are opening up for socialist ideas. We will only be in a position to seize these opportunities if we learn from the past.
Divide and Rule: Labour and the partition of Ireland
by Peter Hadden
£1.40 + 10% p&p
First published August 1980 by Militant Publications. 94pages paperback.
The journal of the Socialist Party.
July-August issue includes: When the troops went in by Peter Hadden. £2.50.
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Northern Ireland: Towards division not peace
Can the working class unite to build a real peace process?
by Peter Hadden
£3 + 10% p&p
First published 2002 by Socialist Party Publications (Northern Ireland). 53 pages paperback.
Available from Socialist Books PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD. 020 8988 8789.
In The Socialist 12 August 2009:
International socialist news
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party youth and students
International socialist news and analysis
Workplace news and analysis
Labour history comment