While Americans were flying to the Moon, we were heading back in time

Posted By: July 20, 2019

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, July 20, 2019

As we plod our selective pathways through a decade of centenaries, we are about to witness a newly-emerging list of half centenaries, which will trace the origins of the thirty bloodiest years in this country’s history.

The first death in the 1969 Troubles, that of Francis McCloskey in Dungiven, was marked in this newspaper last week and the litany of fifty-year anniversaries will now come thick and fast.

There is something rather eerie about reading historical accounts of events which you have lived through. Despite the high quality of the reports, there is always a bit missing. They do not explain how it felt at the time.

Someone once said that historians will tell you what happened, but novelists will tell you what it felt like. Today’s column is not an attempt at a novel, but it tries to recall what it felt like in 1969 because those feelings shaped attitudes and behavior in the following months and years.

It was still the period of the Civil Rights movement which for the first time challenged the northern State through reason rather than riots. But the State’s response to reasonable demands for democracy was unreasonable violence. This was evidenced by Francis McCloskey’s death and that of Samuel Devenney, who had been injured in a similar RUC baton charge in Derry two months earlier. He died two days after Francis McCloskey.

Although our response to their deaths was one of anger, it was tempered with a realization that the RUC could never be held to account.

Politically, Stormont had recently located a new city less than 30 miles from Belfast, named it after Lord Craigavon (the man who described Stormont a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people) and placed the new university in Coleraine [a Unionist/Protestant ] rather than Derry [aNationalist/Catholic city].

Those of us who protested at political, social and economic injustice were battened off the streets by the RUC, as the Unionist government danced to Ian Paisley’s tune.

But despite growing state violence, we felt the Unionist government was losing. Non-violent protest was working. We were confident and optimistic.

But as the killings continued, some began to argue for counter-violence. ‘B’ Specials shot dead John Gallagher in Armagh on August 14 and later that evening, nine-year-old Patrick Rooney was killed in bed in Divis flats by an RUC tracer bullet from a Browning machine gun.

Oddly we had no sense of fear following the deaths. We saw the violence as the death throes of Unionist injustice and hoped for United Nations intervention. Instead, we were promised the Irish army and got the British army—which was welcomed with Nationalist cups of tea.

Unionism was in turmoil and needed an IRA campaign to rescue it. That summer had witnessed a UVF bombing campaign, in the hope of having the IRA blamed, so that Prime Minister O’Neill could be forced from office.

One of the bombers was Thomas McDowell from Kilkeel, who later died trying to blow up an electricity transformer in Co Donegal.  Catholics who had worked with him described him as “a right fellow”. Sectarianism would change the behavior of many “right fellows” over the next thirty years, as a genuine IRA bombing campaign took place.

When the British army arrived, we felt that Westminster’s intervention would guarantee the civil rights we had demanded. We thought we had won and in terms of legal reform— we had.

But following the burning of Bombay Street on August 14, the IRA split and those who argued for counter-violence set out on a new campaign. The rest, as they say, is bloody history and that changed the entire political landscape. The Americans were heading for the moon and we were going back in time.

Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself—at best it sometimes rhymes. Fifty years ago this month, it was beginning to rhyme with the early 1920s and it has been rhyming with heart-breaking precision ever since.