North taken to the brink of catastrophe

Posted By: August 13, 2019



Dr. Eamon Phoenix. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, August 13, 2019

FIFTY years ago this week in the space of five frightful and tragic days, Northern Ireland changed forever.

Intercommunal tensions had been rising since the emergence of the civil rights campaign in 1968. Since then, the implosion of unionism over reform driven by London (not Stormont); a Protestant backlash led by Ian Paisley; the Burntollet ambush of January 1969; a UVF bombing campaign and a violent marching season had brought the north to the very brink of catastrophe.

The Twelfth had witnessed serious clashes between the RUC and nationalist civilians in Derry – coinciding with the death from a police batoning of Sam Devenney.

In Belfast, clashes between loyalist mobs and police on the Shankill Road saw the first evictions of Catholic families from their homes on the sectarian interfaces.

In the aftermath of the disturbances a young John Hume, now a Stormont MP, warned British home secretary Jim Callaghan that the situation was spiraling out of control and could only be defused by direct rule from London.

Callaghan was aware of the reactionary nature of Prime Minister of Northern Ireland James Chichester-Clark’s cabinet – somnambulant figures, he noted – but he, along with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, feared being “sucked into the Irish bog”.

There were no votes in that in Britain. Their aim was, in the words of Defense Secretary Denis Healey, “to make Chichester-Clark carry the can”. This arms-length policy would be tested to the breaking point in the coming days.

August 1969 began with renewed turmoil on the Shankill, where rioters linked to loyalist John McKeague’s Shankill Defense Association (SDA) targeted the tiny Catholic enclave of Unity Flats on the spurious claim that an Orange march had been attacked there.

Police used water cannon, the Shankill was turned into a battle zone and 15 RUC men were injured. As the loyalist violence escalated, the Stormont government considered declaring martial law – not used since 1935.

Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labor MP, phoned Callaghan to say that Stormont had lost control and Westminster should intervene.

As Protestant and Catholic families arranged house swaps in the Crumlin Road area, The Irish News reported on August 5 that dozens of Catholic families had been forced out of their houses around Leopold Street and Palmer Street.

A group of 100 Paisleyites was touring the district warning them “to get out or be burnt out”. When distraught residents contacted the RUC they were reportedly told that “the police were too busy and they should fend for themselves”.

Many Catholics began to fear a sectarian pogrom, echoing the worst days of the 1920s Troubles.

Meanwhile, all eyes were fixed on Derry where the annual Apprentice Boys parade was due to bring 15,000 Orangemen to the beleaguered city, still recovering from the recent Twelfth violence.

To increase tensions, even more, Paisley, just released from jail, was threatening to hold a loyalist rally in the nationalist town of Newry.

An alarmed Callaghan wanted to ban all demonstrations but was dissuaded by Chichester-Clark, who feared such a move would end his fragile premiership.

Many responsible citizens exerted their influence to have the Derry parade banned or deferred.

Among them was a cross-community group of notables including Andy Barr of the shipbuilding

union, ex-Belfast lord mayor Sir Cecil McKee and Protestant and Catholic clergy.

However, their appeal was rejected as the governor of the Apprentice Boys asserted that the cancellation of the parade would be a betrayal of the memory of the Apprentice Boys of 1688.

Meanwhile, Derry – as this paper reported – “feared the worst rioting for years”.

The gathering storm had already concentrated minds at Stormont Castle and on August 3, the NI cabinet secretary Harold Black informed the Home Office (which then handled Northern affairs along with London taxi-cabs) that the unionist administration “might be approaching a point when the police might no longer be able to contain the situation and we would have to seek the aid of the army”.

Ever reluctant to intervene, Callaghan warned Black that such a move would carry momentous consequences: a potential Westminster take-over of the government of NI, which civil rights leaders were demanding.

The Stormont cabinet was incandescent with rage. Such a move, they warned Callaghan, would produce “a frightening reaction from the Protestant community”, “a provisional government might be set up” (as in 1912) and civil war might break out.

Callaghan seemed to back down and on the eve of the Apprentice Boys’ march Stormont ministers agreed that the imperative was to avoid the use of troops.

They would rely on the RUC and the 8,500-strong B Specials – a part-time armed sectarian force set up to guard the border at partition.

The Apprentice Boys’ march began in brilliant sunshine on August 12 but, as locals asserted, one could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.

By the afternoon, after catcalls and a disdainful shower of stones from marchers on Derry’s walls into the Catholic Bogside (where one in four men were out of work), nationalist youths began to hurl missiles at the procession despite the best efforts of John Hume and Ivan Cooper.

Cooper was later injured by a brick thrown by loyalists

Significantly, John McKeague had brought 100 SDA members from Belfast to the city to monitor the march.

The predictable pattern of events now played out. The RUC began to push the nationalists back into the Bogside. However, the militant Derry Citizens’ Defense Committee (DCDC) had taken precautions to erect barricades around ‘Free Derry’ and to use all means to prevent another punitive police incursion into the area. Sam Devenney’s recent death was fresh in people’s minds.

As the 700 RUC men stormed the Bogside that summer afternoon, they faced a barrage of petrol bombs from the roof of the high-rise Rossville Flats. The flats became the HQ of the ‘defenders’, who were encouraged by the radical MP Bernadette Devlin.

The Battle of the Bogside lasted just 48 hours and was screened hourly across the globe. Derry priest Fr Anthony Mulvey told the later Scarman Inquiry into the 1969 riots across Northern Ireland that he witnessed a crowd of youths “a thousand strong” chasing the police, who were accompanied by a mob of Apprentice Boys supporters.

“Their determination was so unanimous that I could only regard it as a community in revolt,” he said.

To the RUC commanders, however, the community revolt was a “further challenge to the authority of the Stormont government…and [an attempt] to discredit and destroy the police force”. The stakes clearly could not have been higher.

By nightfall, as the Bogsiders strove to repulse the combined RUC and loyalist forces, the police

feared that military intervention was inevitable.

But Stormont and Whitehall fatally hesitated as tensions and protests spread across the north. The RUC replied with CS gas – used for the first time. Over 100 cartridges were fired, often as weapons at close range and with devastating effects on infants and the elderly.