Why PSNI should look to summer of ’69 if they hope to beat dissidents

Posted By: February 12, 2017

In seeking to curtail the influence of paramilitaries, police must remember that it’s easier to act from a position of strength than weakness, writes Malachi O’Doherty

Malachai O’Doherty. Belfast Telegraph. Thursday, February 9, 2017

Whenever commentators and politicians discuss the likelihood of the return of political violence to Northern Ireland, they tend to say the same things. The conditions are not the same now. Nationalists are no longer a minority discriminated against. The leadership of militant republicanism has redirected the energies of the movement towards politics.

Much of unionism is more secular-minded. It is no longer, for instance, essential that a minister should be a member of the Orange Order. And, aside from these things, many other changes have made life more comfortable and less stressful.

Unemployment isn’t as high as it was when the last round of Troubles erupted in the late-1960s. Most homes now have central heating, so it is always easier to sit at home than to go out on the street to warm yourself up with a riot. And cheap flights and city breaks have given us access – for the time being – to a big, open Europe.

But there is one crucial factor in the collapse of order in Belfast and Derry in 1969 which is back with us. Successive public inquiries located the varied contributory factors to violence, but pointed to one huge failing in the state – and that was the inadequacy of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Throughout the 1960s, there had been warnings. One was a massive riot – largely lost to the history books – in 1964, when Linfield supporters returning from Windsor Park across the Falls Road ran amok.

On Easter Tuesday that year, after beating a Catholic team, Distillery, hundreds of men returning to the Protestant Shankill Road spilled over into side-streets off the Falls Road and clashed with the police and attacked and taunted Catholic residents.

The fact that the Linfield supporters felt safe crossing the Falls Road at all illustrates a culture and climate of the time which is virtually incomprehensible today.

Five years later, there would be a peace line erected by the Army, a permanent barricade to separate these communities, each for its own safety from the other.

The RUC City Commissioner, Graham Shillington, witnessed the eruption of the riot and told his men later that he would not have believed it could have flared up so quickly had he not seen it himself.

There was further rioting in September that year after police removed an Irish tricolour from Republican Party campaign offices at 145 Divis Street.

The display of the flag was illegal, but even the police officer in charge in the area, later Chief Constable Jack Hermon, said the flag was set back from the window and only visible to passers-by “in a wholly Catholic area”, therefore, by implication, unlikely to cause offence.

Jack Hermon described how the police were almost overwhelmed. He had had to organize his men to form battle lines and throw stones back at the rioters.

Accounts of later riots often made much of the fact that police lost control and behaved chaotically and brutally, but the core reality was that they were ill-equipped and ill-trained and that there was no reasonable excuse for this other than that their pliant leaders assured the government of the time that they could cope, when plainly they could not.

In that September riot, one constable got a foot caught in a drain from which the metal grating had been removed and was attacked by the mob, but was rescued by a group of older residents in Percy Street.

When Hermon visited one of those residents to thank her a few days later, he discovered that her family was Republican and that her husband had served time for possessing ammunition. He hadn’t known. He hadn’t been briefed.

It’s a small, but telling, example of the lack of preparedness for what would follow.

Yes, there were lots of panic stories about how the IRA was training for another uprising, but these were only told to political effect. No one really believed them.

And when the balloon went up in August 1969, the police misread and mismanaged the violence. They thought they were faced with an Easter Rising-type revolt. They were spooked by the sound of their own guns.

Police in Donegall Pass police station crouched inside their building, believing that they were under fire, though they weren’t.

And the Army was sent in to restore order, because the RUC had been thrown into disarray by a couple of dozen IRA men, only a few of them armed, and hundreds of young people with petrol bombs.

Their masterplan for dealing with the riots was to deploy Shorland armoured cars, with Browning machine guns mounted on them. These had been built for open-field combat on the border, the idea being that they could scoot along country roads and fire over hedges.

Their first outing was in Divis Street; their first casualty a nine-year-old boy.

If you want to assess the danger of all this recurring in some form, then you can take assurance from the political progress, if you like, and the paltry campaign of the dissident republicans, but you cannot take comfort from the present state of policing.

The most important lesson learnt from that period has been lost and forgotten. What if the police had managed well enough in August 1969 and had not panicked into using machine guns against civilians? The trauma that took 30 years to work itself out of our system might never have arisen.

But both the IRA and the police thought they were fighting again in the style of 1964. And they were wrong.

The IRA had guns and used them, never believing that the police would strafe the whole road with tracer fire. But they did, because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.

On Tuesday, the Belfast Telegraph reported on failings within the policing of Belfast. We reported claims by a senior officer that local people have given up on expectations that the police will deal with crime and are now turning to republican dissidents.

The Belfast Telegraph photographer Kevin Scott, asked on Twitter how he manages to get to incidents before the police, replied: “It’s a bit hard not to be there first when it takes them a day to get there.”

A concerned officer said that there were three problems facing the police in their efforts to deal with crime: they lacked the resources they need; response times are delayed; and the police are nervous about the danger of being attacked by dissidents.

They should be nervous. The danger is real.

But it can only grow if the police aren’t up to the task of curtailing paramilitaries.

It is not always a strong police force that resorts to extreme violence. The past shows that brutality was the more likely resort of a weak one.