50 years ago today, British troops were sent into the North. Matt Collins takes a look back at that moment, and the year the Troubles began.
At around 5pm, 14 August, 1969, 300 troops from the 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment of Yorkshire entered the city of Derry. In what was then described by the British government as a “limited operation” to restore law and order, but turned out to be one of the longest continuous deployments in British military history, the troops were initially sent in to relieve a beleaguered and embattled RUC, who had been laying siege to the largely catholic district of the Bogside for some days.
The long running street battle between mainly working class youth and the RUC during the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, and the simultaneous eruption of a sectarian pogrom in Belfast—including the burning of Bombay Street, the assault on Unity Flats, and the displacement of thousands of predominantly catholics from their homes—were the sharpest examples of what was a more general breakdown of order in Northern Irish society in the summer of ‘69.
The once mighty Orange State was teetering on the verge of collapse and could no longer hold out on its own. As an exhausted, demoralised and deflated RUC failed to maintain control of the streets, the Unionist government looked to the British government for assistance, who in turn sent the British Army in to restore order. It would be a decisive turning point. The Troubles had begun.
Today, a whole industry of calculated amnesia exists regarding the deployment of the troops. Most of these accounts are at particular pains to portray the British Army as a neutral peace keeping force, sent in to keep the warring tribes apart—even if they sometimes acknowledge that the British government made this or that mistake in the decades that followed. But this is not something that stands up to the slightest semblance of scrutiny.
No amount of stories about catholics welcoming the troops at first, or elderly people providing them with cups of tea at the barricades, changes the very basic fact that these troops were deployed on behalf of the unionist state, indeed at the behest of the Unionist government, in order to maintain its existence.
The hugely uneven character of the British operation in the North in the years that followed—which included the disproportionate use of internment, shoot to kill, and other repressive measures against the catholic population—was not something that happened by accident, or as an outworking of violent resistance by republicans, but instead was the logical conclusion of an imperial policy that sought to protect the existence of the Northern state over all other considerations, which meant by extension siding with those on the unionist side who sought the same objective. The British government was not an indifferent bystander in the North, therefore, but instead the ultimate guarantor of the sectarian and discriminatory Northern state.
A more rounded analysis of why the troops were sent in, and what led to the vicious cycle of violence in 1969, must begin with this fact. But it must also place events in its historical context, and the systemic and structural roots of sectarianism in the Orange State, which created the conditions for the conflict to emerge.
The Orange State was, of course, the result of British imposed partition in Ireland; as an artificial unionist majority was constructed in 6 of the 9 counties of Ulster, which ensnared its catholic minority into a state that discriminated against them in the allocation homes, jobs and other resources. But it was also a state that was built upon a particular intersection of economic factors; namely the strength of heavy industry owned in the main by unionist industrialists, the close political and material ties between the Ulster bourgeoisie and the British empire, and the ability of these elites to exploit both factors to construct a unionist hegemony, that appeared to offer a stake to all protestants in a state that would preference them against the catholic minority. Lastly, but not least, the state was born out of violence, and could rely on a whole swathe of armed bodies, from the RUC through to the B-specials, who would ensure that the stick as well as the carrot could be used to maintain order.
By the late 1960’s, this imbrication of economic factors was beginning to come apart. The decline of the British empire led to a decline in the need for the heavy industry that the North provided. This weakened the economic base of the sectarian state, which led sections of the Unionist government to reconsider their strategy, including the need for more outreach to a growing Southern Irish economy and some symbolic nods to inclusion for catholics in the North. This in turn led to a “loyalist backlash” against the idea that the “protestant state for a protestant people” may be dismantled. This is an important point to underscore. Many commentators place the roots of the “loyalist backlash” as a reaction to catholic street protest or later republican violence. But in reality the emergence of Paisleyism, and indeed the formation of paramilitary groups like the UVF, predated such things.
There can be no doubt, however, that the emergence of the civil rights movement deepened this crisis of unionist hegemony. After decades of political stalemate for the minority community, the civil rights movement exploded onto the streets in Belfast and Derry in 1968. In what was an Irish expression of the global revolts then sweeping the world, activists here took inspiration from the struggle for civil rights in the US, student protestors in Paris and Berlin, and other popular movements of the time, and organised mass demonstrations for civil rights and an end to discrimination. It was a period that held the possibility of a break with past traditions of political opposition in the North, often categorised by nationalist parliamentarianism or by the politics of armed struggle organised by the IRA, and held out the hope of cross-community solidarity as small but significant sections of the protestant population joined in the struggle for civil rights.
Indeed, the extent to which the civil rights campaign represented a break with the past was illustrated in its approach to partition—the ‘age old’ question of Irish politics. Derry socialist Eamonn McCann recalled how both moderates and radicals of the civil rights movement were united in the belief that “partition was irrelevant” in their struggle;1 a proposition that was seriously strained by the Unionist government crackdown on the movement, and definitively obliterated by the arrival of British troops to support them.
Civil Rights to Civil Strife
From day one, civil rights demonstrations were met with widespread violence, both from hard-line loyalists and state forces, including the RUC and later the British Army. It was this repressive reaction which laid the basis for the violence that followed.
1969 began with bloody scenes broadcast to the world, when non-violent and peaceful civil rights demonstrators were brutally beaten at Burntollet Bridge, during a ‘long march’ from Belfast to Derry. The march had been modelled on the Selma to Montgomery demonstration led by Martin Luther King Jnr in 1965, and was organised by The People’s Democracy (PD); the radical student wing of the civil rights movement. The ambush involved a large number of off duty B Specials—the unionist state’s all protestant quasi paramilitary police force—and had all the hallmarks of a trap colluded in by the RUC. The unionist establishment blamed the PD for provoking the sectarian violence, but what happened in Burntollet exposed the inability of unionist Prime Minster Terence O’Neill’s administration to offer any meaningful reform.
The outpouring of anger that followed saw civil rights demonstrations swell the streets across the North. In February an election took place in which the minority community further asserted its demand for rights through the ballot box; the established Nationalist Party lost ground to a number of newly elected MPs who had come from, or were associated with the civil rights campaign.2But the loyalist backlash against reform strongly intensified throughout 1969. UVF bombs forced Prime Minister Terence O’Neill out of office in April, and civil rights demonstrations increasingly ended in violent scenes.
Historian Michael McCann convincingly shows how hard-line loyalists operated throughout this time, by ramping up an atmosphere of intimidation of catholic residents in Belfast, beginning a summer long campaign of expulsions.3 Central to this was the agitation of Ian Paisley and other loyalists, such as John McKeague, who’s Shankill Defence Association (SDA) organised a mass incursion into the catholic Unity Flats area in Belfast in early August. Hundreds of loyalists attacked catholics homes, with the RUC doing nothing to face down the assault. By 4 August the loyalist mob led by McKeague was able to force the RUC out of the Shankill road and operate with impunity. The whole affair illustrated the reactionary relationship between state forces and militant loyalists.
Repression and Resistance
The major turning point came with the yearly loyalist marching season in August—an annual display of Orange triumphalism, but one that took on new significance with the onset of civil rights mobilisation. In Derry, the marching season reached its zenith on 12 August, during the Apprentice Boys walk through the city. After small clashes between youths and the RUC, an uprising broke out—the ‘Battle of the Bogside’.
The Bogside was a deeply impoverished and densely populated area, amassing some 25,000 catholic residents within approximately 900 acres, often in cramped and overcrowded tenement housing.4 By August 1969, these residents had already borne the brunt of decades of state discrimination, and systemic police repression. Thus, when the RUC invaded the area, equipped with rubber bullets, batons and CS gas, the situation was transformed into a mass revolt as swathes of the population engaged in pitched battles with state forces, in the end driving the RUC out of the area which led to the creation of the now infamous ‘Free Derry’. The scale of repression was huge; in the space of 48 hours the RUC fired 1,091 cartridges and 161 grenades of CS gas into the Bogside.5
In solidarity with those resisting in Derry, the civil rights movement launched protests across the North, initially in order to take police pressure away from the Bogside. These demonstrations were followed by an unprecedented level of state repression. In Belfast, crowds marched on police stations, resulting in vicious attacks by the RUC, B Specials and loyalists, during scenes that included the deployment of Shorland armoured vehicles, which traversed west Belfast unleashing heavy machine gun fire. By the end of the weekend 8 people had been killed, including a nine year old boy, Patrick Rooney, whose head had been partially decapitated by a heavy calibre bullet fired indiscriminately by the RUC.
In the wake of the RUC assault, and in the darker hours of 14-15 August, loyalists with the support of the B Specials systematically burnt out catholic homes in a large part of west and north Belfast. The situation developed into an effective pogrom. By the afternoon of 15 August hundreds of catholic homes were burnt to the ground. Particularly affected were Bombay Street and Hooker Street in Ardoyne, a catholic enclave in North Belfast, which were almost entirely engulfed in flames. Eyewitnesses testified how the RUC stood aside as loyalist mobs, whose ranks were made up of off duty and reserve police officers, systematically selected catholic homes to be firebombed.6 The Scarman Report—set up to investigate the disturbances in the summer of 1969—estimated that 1820 families fled their homes between July, August and September; 1,505 of these households were catholics, which made up 82.7 percent, or 5.3 percent of all catholic families in the city.7 The crisis precipitated military intervention and the widespread deployment of the British Army, whose primary aim was to strengthen unionist rule.
Amidst the repression, barricades went up in Belfast and Derry, and autonomous zones where the RUC could not enter were established. Free Derry was the height of the struggle, where the resistance led by Bernadette Devlin MP saw the RUC effectively driven out of the Bogside until October 1969. ‘Free Belfast’, too, lasted some weeks as a large part of catholic West Belfast became a ‘no go’ area where British troops and the RUC could not enter. The main vehicle for organising behind the barricades was the Citizens Defence Committees, which sprang up to direct much of the resistance. But as the days and weeks wore on the situation was untenable from the British government’s perspective. Loyalist incursions toward barricaded catholic areas intensified and posed the threat of a deepening loss of control. And the very existence of ‘no go’ areas such as Free Derry and Free Belfast represented an embarrassment to British jurisdiction, which in the long term had the potential to threaten British power.
The removal of the barricades thus became the priority of the British establishment, who were aided by moderate forces within the nationalist community that wanted to see a restoration of order. For example, Belfast MP Gerry Fitt had gone to some length to bring complaints about both the PD and republicans to the British government, personally telling Prime Minister Harold Wilson “he would condemn the IRA and the extremist People’s Democracy”.8 In another private meeting between Fitt and British Home Secretary James Callaghan, Fitt bemoaned how “the IRA and the People’s Democracy had been allowed their heads too much behind the barricades”.9
These parties worked behind the scenes to ensure that this situation was short-lived, as protracted contact developed between the British government and representatives of the catholic middle class, local politicians and the Catholic Church.10 As the barricades came down the British military separated working class areas, signalling the beginning of physical divides that would remain for decades. August ‘69 saw the loyalist backlash against the civil rights movement reach a crescendo; based upon a wholly exaggerated perception of the threat that reform of the state posed toward ordinary protestants, and a deeply sectarian view of the minority community.
Long before the barricades were dismantled the blame game had begun. The unionist establishment rushed to attribute responsibility to violent elements within the catholic community, or to an imaginary “republican insurrection”, in what amounted to a gross exercise in victim blaming. The IRA was not entirely absent from events in 1969, but its role was largely one that was reactive to loyalist and state violence, and its activities were often marginal when compared to the scale of the mass resistance in events like the Battle of the Bogside. Small groups of republicans gathered what arms they could and tried, much in vain, to defend these nationalist districts. But on the whole, the IRA was ill-equipped and unable to sufficiently respond to the level of attack.
Off the back of the unmitigated failure of the border campaign, and under the influence of figures associated with the Communist movement, the IRA had essentially adopted a political strategy that viewed the civil rights movement as a means to reform the Northern state, in advance of challenging partition—a strategy influenced by the Stalinist approach to the Irish National Question, commonly referred to as the ‘stages theory’, where reform of the Northern state was seen as a precipitating stage in the struggle against partition.
Events in 1969, however, had shown that the first stage of this approach—namely the reform of the Northern state—to be deeply problematic, as unionism resisted any idea of fundamental change. As a result, many figures in the IRA, and indeed many young people involved in the civil rights movement, drew the conclusion that the state had to be smashed by force. One result, was the historic split in the republican movement, with those critical of a perceived “running down” of the military struggle forming the Provisional IRA in early 1970.
The violence of August 1969 came almost unequivocally from the Northern state itself, and in its wake created the conditions that led to a protracted conflict. Any hint of reform of the state was met with more serious aggression. In October ‘69, when the Hunt Report was published—which recommended the disbandment of the B Specials and their replacement with a new force—mass rioting broke out across the Shankill Road, leading to the shooting of an RUC officer, Constable Arbuckle. The first member of the RUC killed during the troubles was thus shot dead by loyalists opposing reform of the police services. The pattern of violent backlash against reform defined the period that followed across the North.
One internal RUC file noted how on 13 October, three days after policing reforms were published, some 120 people, including many B Specials, packed into a meeting in Cloughfin Orange Hall, Tyrone. The District Inspector’s report of the meeting documented how a “deep strain of militancy” was building up “by extreme Protestants [….] against certain Roman Catholics.” It noted “severe criticism” of the RUC and British Army for not taking a tougher approach to the Bogside and Falls Road.
The report went on to state how the B Specials were adamant that they would not hand in their arms, with some arguing that the solution was a return to the state sponsored murder of the 1920s. Indeed, one person referenced the murder of catholics in the area in the early 1920s, after which it was claimed that “calm and peace resulted therefrom.” It was declared, according to the report, that “such action was the only answer today.” Chillingly, the report stated that: “If the opposition, such as the civil rights, provided half an excuse, they (protestants) would have a go with arms. There can be no more parades by civil rights.”11
The violent backlash against reform throughout 1969 continually created far bigger grievances than those originally highlighted by the civil rights movement, and this in turn called into question the reformability and legitimacy of the state.12
The left and the trade unions in 1969
Throughout the course of the civil rights movement socialists played a crucial role, often pushing the movement forward at key junctures by being the most willing current to confront opposition forces through street protest, whilst also placing a primary focus on class politics and catholic and protestant unity in action.
The PD were responsible for reigniting the civil rights campaign and exposing the inability of the unionist state to accept and implement meaningful reform, during the Burntollet march at the beginning of the year. In the uprisings in Belfast and in Derry in August ’69, socialists played a key role, yet much like its involvement in the wider civil rights movement, the left was largely submerged into these and lacked an organised force. In Belfast, for example, PD student radicals were active behind the barricades, producing newspapers and running pirate radio stations to pump out propaganda against the RUC and British troops. The Derry radicals, grouped around Eamonn McCann were also a central component to civil rights activism from its onset.
The support that the left garnered also registered in the electoral arena. In the February election the PD stood in 8 constituencies taking 23,645 votes. One student, Fergus Woods, came 220 votes from being elected to the Stormont parliament. The electoral highpoint for the left came later, in April 1969, when Bernadette Devlin was returned to the Westminster parliament as MP for Mid-Ulster, with over 33,000 votes. Devlin was the only student radical elected to a national parliament across Europe during the great student upsurge of 1968-69. But the election summed up the contradiction that the left faced, in that small groups of socialists had gathered significant support, but lacked the political and organisational coherency to offer a way forward during the crisis of 1969. Thus, as sectarian repression reached a crescendo that summer, the left found themselves on the margins and overcome by events.
The great tragedy of the period was the lack of any class based response against the repression and discrimination meted out against the catholic community. For example, the absence of the official trade union movement, even in the early days of the civil rights movement, was glaring, although this does not dismiss the important role of individual trade unionists in standing against the slide into violence. The most important trade union intervention came immediately in the wake of Bombay Street being burnt to the ground, when shop stewards agitated against the threat of serious attacks on catholic workers in the shipyards, and possibly prevented a repeat of the pogroms of the 1920s. But these efforts were never generalised across the trade union movement as a whole, and the response from ICTU was essentially to argue for a restoration of “law and order” (while barricades went up to defend against state repression), ignoring the fact that it was the very forces of law and order, such as the RUC and B Specials, who were the central force of violence at this time.13
The Absence of Connollyism
British military intervention after 1969 crystallised the question of partition in the North. It was an intervention dictated by well-worn colonial strategies; internment, shoot to kill, “counter insurgency” operations, and the development or assistance for proxy forces, such as loyalist paramilitaries, who could prosecute a “the dirty war” alongside more official state operations. The level of state violence in this period was the major contributor to filling the ranks of those forces who resisted the state, namely the Provisional IRA.
The popularity of the IRA was not in some pathological desire of the catholic population to engage in the blood sacrifice of republican lore, still less the development of some phoenix that inevitably rises from the ashes every generation, but instead was the result of state violence and the simple, if brutal answer that the IRA provided; you have to fight fire with fire. That a more effective answer did not come from those advocating for class politics and socialism, was the tragic effect of years of refusal by sections of the Left to challenge the state and partition themselves, and the disorganised and politically unclear composition of the best elements around the PD who were to make such a challenge, that left a vacuum within which the Provisionals filled.
That said, it should also be remembered that any significant gains made during the civil rights era came about primarily through mass popular struggle from below, not as a result of armed actions carried out by the few. Yet the overriding lesson of 1969 was that the primary force of violence and division was the existence of the Northern Ireland state itself.
The challenge of the civil rights campaign was, in essence, the challenge to re-forge the politics of James Connolly; categorised broadly by anti-imperialism and anti-partitionism, a rejection of the pan-class nature of the unionist and nationalist projects, and the advocacy of 32-county socialism based upon revolutionary class politics, and protestant and catholic workers’ unity. 50 years on from the violence of August 1969, faced with a sectarian state that continues to deny rights and fails to deliver for working class people, the task of re-forging the politics of Connolly remains.
- The three elected were, John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Paddy Devlin.
- Michael McCann, Burnt Out – How the Troubles Began (Mercier Press, 2019) p. 57
- Ibid. p. 116
- Ibid, p. 105
- See, Michael McCann, Burnt Out – How the Troubles Began. Max Hastings, Ulster 1969: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland (London 1970). Ulster, Sunday Times Insight team (London 1972)
- Scarman Report, p. 248
- Note of a meeting between Gerry Fitt and Harold Wilson, 9 September 1969. Meetings with Gerry Fitt MP and other Roman Catholic representatives about the political and security systems in Northern Ireland, Sep 04- Sep 23, 1969. NAUK, CJ 3/53
- Report from Brian Cubbon, 10 September 1969. PRONI, CJ/3/53
- Michael Farrell, The Orange State, p. 267
- Extreme Protestant Reaction – County Tyrone, PRONI, CAB/9B/312/5
- Niall O’ Dochartaigh, From Civil Rights to Armalites, p. 311
- Geoffrey Bell, The British in Ireland, a suitable case for withdrawal, (Pluto Press, London 1984) p. 80