The Communist Tradition on Ireland: Part Eight - The rise of the Provisional IRA

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 14, November/December 1981

The struggle of the nationalist population for basic democratic rights in the late 1960s had demonstrated beyond doubt that the Six Counties statelet was unreformable. The insurrection in Derry in August 1969 and the defeat of the hated RUC has shown that the nationalist resistance to the sectarian statelet could no longer be contained.

On 14 August 1969, the British Labour government sent British troops into Derry to give support to the defeated paramilitary forces of the loyalist state. By this action, the truth was exposed. Behind the RUC stood the British army. Behind the loyalist state stood British imperialism.

It now became increasingly clear that basic democratic rights for the nationalist minority could only be achieved by destroying the loyalist state, ending Partition and driving British imperialism out of Ireland. The nationalist population once again was to turn to those forces which had kept alive the revolutionary struggle to reunite Ireland – the revolutionary wing of the national movement and its armed vanguard, the IRA.

The Belfast Pogrom

As the British troops, armed with sub-machine guns, entered Derry, the RUC and B-Specials immediately withdrew from the Bogside. Negotiations between the Derry Citizens Defence Association and the British army led to an agreement that British troops would not attempt to enter the Bogside, and that the RUC and B-Specials would be kept behind their lines. In Derry, the nationalist people had won. In other nationalist areas, battles still raged.

John Gallagher was killed by a high velocity bullet in the back when B-Specials opened fire into a crowd after a Civil Rights meeting in Armagh. Others in the crowd were wounded. Shots were also fired in Dungannon where again B-Specials fired into a nationalist crowd wounding two men and a girl. 8,500 B-Specials had, in fact, been mobilised throughout the province on 14 August with the agreement of the Labour Home Secretary James Callaghan.

As British troops entered Derry on 14 August, the events which make up the Belfast pogrom were about to begin. The evening before had already given some indication of this. A meeting called by the Civil Rights Association took place in the courtyard of Divis Flats – a high-rise block of flats on the nationalist side of Divis Street. The meeting was called in response to appeals from Derry ‘to take the heat off the Bogside’ and to protest against the RUC. About 200 people turned up. The meeting decided to hand a petition to the local police headquarters in Springfield Road, in protest against the RUC brutality in Derry. The RUC District Inspector, Cushley, although in the building, refused to take the petition saying that the local headquarters had been temporarily transferred to another station in Hastings Street right back down Divis Street. Cushley proceeded to leave the building to go to the other station. With this development, the crowd became angry and a few skirmishes took place and windows were smashed. The Civil Rights protesters then moved to Hastings Street and the police station was stoned and later some petrol bombs were thrown. No real damage was done.

Cushley then ordered out Shorland armoured cars which were driven to confront the crowd, many of whom scattered into the surrounding streets. A section of the protesters, outraged by the RUC decision to loose armoured cars upon them, went back to the Springfield Road Police Station and attacked it with stones and petrol bombs. The RUC fired shots at the crowd and two youths were injured. A few shots were returned by a couple of the demonstrators who had guns. Police on the station roof opened up with rifle and Stengun fire and scattered the crowd. Remarkably, no-one was killed.

But this was nothing in view of what was yet to come. The next day, the Shorland armoured cars would go out on to the streets, this time, mounted with their usual weapons, the Browning 0.30 inch machine-gun. This machine-gun has a range of almost two-and-a-half miles and fires six to eight high-velocity bullets every second. It only fires bursts, never single shots. It was for many years the standard machine gun for the American army. It was now to be used, with devastating consequences, by a sectarian police force on the closely packed streets of Belfast.

After the previous night's events, the news at 3pm the next day that the hated loyalist B-Specials were being mobilised led to barricades going up at strategic points along the nationalist Falls Road. Hundreds of petrol bombs were prepared to defend the nationalist areas. By 10.30pm, barely a street in the area was unblocked and thousands of people assembled behind the barricades in the nationalist areas. The RUC once again sent out Shortland armoured cars. This time, they were armed.

On the Shankill Road, crowds of Loyalists mingled with hundreds of B-Specials armed with rifles, revolvers and submachine guns. At about 10.30pm, bands of loyalist civilians wearing white armbands began moving down the Shankill Road and into streets intersecting with the Falls Road. Other groups headed north for the isolated nationalist area of the Ardoyne.

The attacking loyalist mobs were well-organised and well-equipped with petrol bombs. They moved into the ‘mixed’ streets between the Falls Road and Shankill Road – Percy Street and Dover Street. Hundreds of stones and petrol bombs were thrown and as the Loyalists came on they tossed petrol bombs into the Catholic homes on their way. The RUC stood behind them and looked on. By midnight, both streets were ablaze.

The Loyalists came on and shots were fired from Dover Street at the retreating nationalists. Three men in a crowd of nationalists lined across Divis Street fell under a hail of bullets. Eventually, the Loyalists broke through into Divis Street planting a Union Jack there.

Some IRA men with a few weapons, including one Thompson sub-machine gun, attempted to hold back the loyalist attackers, firing from the vicinity of Divis Flats. A Loyalist, Herbert Roy, was killed. Others were injured. At this moment, RUC armoured cars appeared on the scene and randomly fired bursts of Browning machine-gun fire into the nationalist Divis Flats. Trooper Herbert McCabe, a young British soldier on leave was on his balcony and was killed instantly. Four high velocity bullets pierced two walls before entering nine-year-old Patrick Rooney’s bedroom and blowing half his head away. Thirteen flats were badly damaged.

In the Ardoyne, the loyalist attacks were even fiercer. There, the RUC, B-Specials and loyalist mobs burnt down three nationalist streets. The RUC, during the battles that raged, opened fire with sub-machine guns and one Catholic, 50-year-old Samuel McLarnon, was shot while pulling down a blind at a window of his home. Another man, Michael Lynch, was killed by the same machine-gun fire. Over 20 people were wounded.

The death toll for the night of 14-15 August was six. Hundreds were injured. A scene of utter devastation lay around Divis Street and the Ardoyne. Around 150 Catholic homes had been burnt out in Belfast and Catholics from houses still unburnt in the ‘mixed’ streets were evacuated the next day. Over a thousand families were to leave their homes. Their houses were promptly occupied by Loyalists. Thousands of Catholics became refugees taking trains to the Republic.

Events had now gone too far for the Stormont Cabinet. It doubted the ability of the RUC to take another night of serious confrontation. The British army had to be called in. A formal request for further troops for use in Belfast came from the Stormont Cabinet at 12.25pm that day and it was given immediate approval by Callaghan. Just after 5pm on Friday 15 August, about 600 troops moved into the area around the now well barricaded Falls Road.

While the troops were taking up their positions, loyalist mobs were attacking a small nationalist enclave, the Clonard. It began after 3pm Friday afternoon. Very soon, fifteen-year-old Gerald McAuley was shot dead as he helped Catholic families evacuate their furniture in the Clonard. The Loyalists invaded the Clonard monastery grounds and were fired on and held off by two nationalist defenders of the area in the monastery. The Loyalists fired back. That evening an entire Catholic street, Bombay Street, was razed to the ground. It was after these events and later in the evening that British troops went into the Clonard area. However, they didn't go into the Ardoyne.

In the Ardoyne, another pitched battle took place this time between the nationalist defenders of the area and the Loyalists and the RUC. A Catholic street was burnt out – 23 Catholic homes were destroyed. British troops were to enter the Ardoyne the next day, Saturday 16 August. Within a week, up to 6,000 troops were available to be deployed.

The Split in the IRA

At a press conference at Stormont on Sunday 17 August, Chichester-Clark reiterated statements he had been making earlier in the week: the real cause of the ‘disorder’ was to be found in the activities of extreme Republican elements – meaning the IRA – and ‘others determined to overthrow our State’. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, when the all-out attack on the nationalist areas took place, the IRA neither had the organisation nor the weapons to carry out an effective defence of those under siege.

‘. . . when the inevitable happened in Belfast’s beleaguered nationalist ghettos on August 14, 1969, the victims to their horror found themselves without protection from the one source they hitherto trusted - the Irish Republican Army. When the people sought the weapons they needed to defend themselves, these weapons were not available, apart from a few old guns which were quickly put to use and at least saved an even greater massacre.’

(Provisional IRA, 1973)

Slogans such as IRA = I RAN AWAY appeared on the walls of Belfast. They were, as Mac Stíofáin justifiably argues, grossly unfair to those local units in Belfast who had to take the brunt of the attacks with next to no resources. Nevertheless, they were one expression of the bitterness felt in the nationalist areas at the failure of the IRA to mount an effective defence of their areas. It was this state of affairs which was to intensify the divisions already existing in the IRA (see FRFI 12) and lead to a split in the Republican movement. 

The state of the IRA throughout the Six Counties was a direct consequence of the policies pursued by the revisionist leadership of the Republican Movement after the defeat of the 1956-62 Border Campaign. This leadership had pushed the national question into the background. They concentrated on what they called ‘social and economic’ agitation almost to the exclusion of the military struggle to reunite Ireland (see FRFI 12). It was their political leadership that left the IRA totally unprepared to defend the nationalist minority in the Six Counties as the Civil Rights Movement was forced into confrontation with the paramilitary defenders of loyalist privilege in the loyalist state.

Sean Mac Stíofáin, later to be Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, and many other Republicans based in the Six Counties, time and again warned the Republican leadership of the dangerous situation that was developing with the growing Civil Rights Campaign. As Mac Stíofáin later wrote

‘I and others in Republican circles saw that the civil rights strategy and the Unionists’ puzzled and threatening reaction to it could lead to a very dangerous situation. Therefore, it was more than ever essential to maintain the IRA at as high a standard of military efficiency as possible . . .

Demanding an increase in active training, I pressed the point that some of our own members had helped to initiate the new weapon of mass civil rights protest in the North. The least we expected of the IRA was that it would be ready to meet the dangers that this development might bring about.’

But the revisionist leadership of the Republican Movement, by various manoeuvres, such as increasing the size of the Army Council and packing it with their own supporters, were able to vote down all proposals to organise armed defence of the nationalist areas in the Six Counties. The degree of bankruptcy of the leadership of the Republican Movement at that time, and an indicator of the future direction those supporting that leadership would take, is well illustrated in the response to Mac Stíofáin’s proposals by one member of the Army Council who argued that the British army would have to protect people in the North from the excesses of the RUC!

After the August events, the revolutionary nationalists in the Republican Movement began to organise. The entire country was combed for arms, and arms dumps in the South were emptied and distributed to the IRA throughout the Six Counties. By September 1969, the Belfast Brigade Staff of the IRA was reorganised. Additional members opposed to the revisionist leadership were co-opted on to the Belfast command. At the same time, the Belfast Brigade decided to have nothing more to do with the Dublin leadership. The showdown was being prepared.

It came to a head at an extraordinary Army Convention in the middle of December 1969. The revisionist leadership had packed the Convention with its own supporters. Before the Convention were two crucial resolutions. The first was that the IRA should enter into a National Liberation Front (NLF) with organisations of the so-called ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’ left. In particular, with those groups which had helped to formulate the revisionist standpoint of the present leadership of the Republican Movement. The second resolution was that the Republican Movement should end its policy of abstention from the Westminster, Dublin and Stormont parliaments. The latter proposal for many delegates had the merit of being a clear-cut issue. In the words of Seán Mac Stíofáin, Republicans would now have to choose between accepting the institutions of partition or upholding the basic Republican principle of Ireland’s right to national unity. The Convention voted to end the traditional policy of abstentionism. At the end of the Convention, those opposed to this position went to a prearranged meeting-place and set into motion the necessary steps that would very soon lead to the formation of the Provisional IRA.

The new grouping quickly won nine of the thirteen Belfast units of the IRA to its ranks. At a special Convention held before Christmas 1969, a Provisional Army Executive and Provisional Army Council were elected – the Provisional IRA was born. It immediately repudiated the revisionist proposals passed at the extraordinary Army Convention. Its first public statement was put out on 22 December 1969. It declared

‘allegiance to the Thirty-Two County Irish Republic proclaimed at Easter 1916, established by the first Dáil Éireann in 1919, overthrown by force of arms in 1922, and suppressed to this day by the British-imposed Six County and Twenty-Six County partitionist states’. 

It argued that the compromising policy of the revisionist leadership of the Republican Movement was

‘the logical outcome of an obsession in recent years with parliamentary politics, with the consequent undermining of the basic military role of the Irish Republican Army’.

As ample evidence of this neglect it pointed to the failure to provide the maximum defence of the nationalist areas of the Six Counties ‘against the forces of British imperialism’. It claimed allegiance of the majority of Army units, volunteers and Republicans generally.

On 10/11 January 1970, the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (Conference) was held. Those supporting the principled Republican standpoint attempted to get the Ard Fheis to reject the NLF (Official IRA) proposals. On 11 January a marathon debate took place on the proposals to remove all restrictions on parliamentary participation. The revisionists failed, by 19 votes, to get the necessary two-thirds majority to alter the position. After a motion was put calling for a vote of allegiance to the Official Army Council, delegates supporting the Provisional Army Council withdrew from the hall to a pre-arranged meeting place where a Sinn Féin Caretaker Executive was formed. Its first act was to pledge allegiance to the All-Ireland Republic and give support to the Provisional Army Council. It was also agreed to publish a new Republican newspaper An Phoblacht (The Republic).

Representatives of (Provisional) Sinn Féin met the Executive of Cumann na mBan, the women’s section of the Republican Movement. Just as it had unanimously opposed the partitionist Treaty of 1921, the Cumann na mBan Executive now unanimously decided to accept the authority of the Provisional Army Council. The split in the movement was complete.

The Provisional IRA was soon to become an effective modern guerrilla army with growing support among the nationalist minority in the Six Counties. The conditions had at last again emerged in Ireland for a revolutionary national movement to win mass support for a renewed offensive against Partition and British imperialism.

Dublin government under pressure

The Dublin government came under immediate pressure as soon as the Six Counties erupted and the Battle of the Bogside began. Already in February 1969, not long after the savage attack on the Civil Rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge, an emissary from a group of Fianna Fáil TDs had approached the commander of the IRA in South Derry with a proposition about arms. In view of the growing violence directed against the Civil Rights Movement they were prepared to supply arms for defence of nationalist areas on condition that a separate Northern command of the IRA was set up and political agitation in the South was given up. A group of businessmen with close relations to the Fianna Fáil ministers Blaney, Haughey and Boland were prepared to finance the venture. This was reported to the Dublin HQ of the IRA and although some negotiations took place, they were interrupted by the eruption of the crisis in the Six Counties. Attempts were later made by the NLF (Official IRA) to attribute the formation of the Provisionals to Fianna Fáil finance. There was no truth in this.

On Wednesday 13 August at 11am, when Lynch’s Cabinet met, Blaney and Boland, supported by Haughey, called for intervention in the Six Counties by the Irish army. Lynch supported by the majority of the Cabinet totally rejected this. Compromise was reached. The government ordered the Irish army to the Border and set up army field hospitals at various crossing points for use by those wounded in the North who would face possible arrest in Six Counties hospitals.

Lynch went on television that evening and made a very strong statement. It included the following:

‘The Stormont Government evidently is no longer in control of the situation, which is the inevitable outcome of policies pursued for decades by them. The Government of Ireland can no longer stand by.

It is obvious that the RUC is no longer accepted as an impartial police force.

The employment of British troops is unacceptable and not likely to restore peaceful conditions.’

Lynch went on to call for a UN peacekeeping force for the Six Counties and said that the Irish army had established field hospitals on the Border. He concluded:

‘Recognising that the re-unification of Ireland provides the only permanent solution to the problem, the Government have made a formal request to the British government to enter into early negotiation to review the present constitutional position of the Six Counties . . .’

The speech cruelly raised false hopes for a while among the beleaguered nationalists in the Six Counties. It also enraged the Loyalists. Lynch, however, did not intend to do anything. He knew he had to make some gesture to control the growing anger throughout the 26 Counties against the loyalist attacks on the nationalist minority in the Six Counties. He, just like the British government, was not prepared to let the events in the Six Counties spill over and destabilise the government in the 26 Counties. He was prepared, when the situation called for it, to give a militant sounding speech calling for the re-unification of Ireland, but was totally opposed to ending Partition in the only way possible – by revolutionary means. He made this clear when, after the terror of the Belfast pogrom, a demonstration against the British Embassy in Dublin on 16 August was baton charged by the Gardaí and over 50 people were injured. He reinforced this on 19 August when, after a statement by Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the IRA, saying that volunteers had been active in the Bogside and other parts of the Six Counties, Lynch declared that his Government would not tolerate ‘usurpation of their power by any group whatsoever’. He also condemned what he called ‘the wanton destruction of property and looting and the lawless behaviour by a small minority which has taken place in Dublin and elsewhere in recent days’.

Blaney, Haughey and Boland had not resigned when Lynch rejected the call for intervention by the Irish army in the Six Counties, nor did they attempt to make a public issue of it. They were more concerned to challenge Jack Lynch’s position as Taoiseach by out-manoeuvring him on the Republican issue.

As part of the compromise, the Cabinet agreed to set up a sub-committee to deal with the Six Counties. It also created a Northern ‘relief’ fund of £100,000 out of government funds. Officially, this money could not be used to send arms to the Six Counties as this would lead to a direct conflict with the British government. However, it came out, after British intelligence had tipped off the Fine Gael opposition party, that a large amount had been used in this way. In May 1970, Lynch dismissed Blaney and Haughey after revelations about their involvement in illegally imported arms, valued at over £30,000, which had been recently seized. Boland resigned in protest. Blaney, Haughey and the others involved including Captain James Kelly, an Irish army intelligence officer, were tried for illegal arms deals in September/October 1970 and were acquitted. Their defence had been that the arms importation had the sanction of the government. However, the major outcome of this debacle was that Lynch, in spite of everything, emerged stronger and was now free of his main rivals, without even confronting anything like a party split.

British imperialism intervenes

There can be no doubt that when the Six Counties erupted, it was the intention of Callaghan and Wilson only to send troops into Derry. In Derry, the RUC had been prevented from invading the Bogside, and they were a defeated and exhausted force when the British army was sent in to contain the growing insurrection. In Callaghan’s own words

'(The troops’) immediate orders were to relieve the exhausted police and prevent riots breaking out in the centre of Londonderry’.

In fact, what shocked the Labour-imperialist Callaghan most was not the sectarian violence of the RUC but its inability to put down the nationalist revolt. In Callaghan’s view, the RUC should have carried out an ‘invasion’ of the Bogside ‘by tackling the rioters from the rear’. It failed to do this so the British army had to be called in. It was only after the insurrection in Derry had been contained that the Labour government found the additional troops to send into Belfast to control the dangerous situation developing there.

The role of the British army in the Six Counties was quite unambiguous. Its task was to prevent a full-scale insurrection developing which would inevitably spill over into the 26 Counties and once again raise the national question throughout Ireland. In Derry, where the nationalists were in a majority, this meant replacing the defeated RUC to contain the nationalist revolt. In Belfast, where the nationalists were a minority, it was to prevent the loyalist pogrom against the nationalist minority developing to civil war proportions. It was not a concern on the part of British imperialism to prevent Catholics being butchered and driven out of their homes by loyalist thugs. For British imperialism had not prevented previous Belfast pogroms in the 1920s and 1930s. And for nearly 50 years British governments, Labour and Tory alike, had allowed sectarian discrimination and loyalist repression free rein in order to put down any nationalist opposition to the loyalist state.

On sending troops into the Six Counties, the British government was forced initially to tread carefully. Their task was to restore stability to the loyalist state. To do this, they had to take into account the extent of the nationalist rebellion against the loyalist state, the growing pressure on the Dublin government to take some action, and the widespread international coverage of events in the Six Counties after the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

At first, the response of sections of the nationalist minority to the entry of British troops was one of relief. It was understandable that an exhausted people, having faced days of savage attack from armed loyalist forces, should see the entry of British troops into the Six Counties as a new factor in the situation.

In Derry, the appearance of the troops was clear proof that the nationalists had won. The hated RUC and B-Specials had been kept out of the Bogside and the army had made no attempt to breach the barricades. Within 24 hours, a delegation from the Defence Association had told the Army Commander that no soldier would be permitted to come through the barricades until the police were disarmed, the B-Specials disbanded and the Special Powers Act and Stormont abolished.

In Belfast, the troops had to put a halt to the loyalist pogrom against the nationalist minority. Not to have done so would have meant civil war spreading throughout the Six Counties with serious consequences also for the stability of the 26 Counties state. Most of the Falls Road and Ardoyne were now behind barricades and the British army and the RUC kept outside. Conditions, put by the Defence Committee, for the barricades being removed were the same as those in Derry. Behind the barricades the IRA were bringing in arms to organise defence of the areas. Morale in the nationalist areas was high.

Together with the introduction of the troops went the necessity for reforms in order to take the steam out of the nationalist minority’s rebellion. On 19 August, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner and Porter, the Home Affairs Minister, were summoned to Downing Street to see Wilson, Callaghan and Healey, the Minister for Defence. An agreement was reached that the police and B-Specials would be put under British army control with the B-Specials ‘phased out’ of riot control. Also the pace of reforms would have to be speeded up. A communique was issued, the Downing Street Declaration, which began by reaffirming the pledge that:

‘Northern Ireland should not cease to be a part of the United Kingdom without people of Northern Ireland . . . The border is not an issue'.

It also included a statement, which, given that pledge, could only be regarded as vacuous:

‘Every citizen of Northern Ireland is entitled to the same equality of treatment and freedom from discrimination as obtains in the rest of the United Kingdom, irrespective of political views or religion’. 

However, it would appeal to those calling for moderation. That night, Wilson said on television that the B-Specials would be phased out. The next day it was announced that Lord Hunt – chosen because of his ‘police responsibilities in colonial situations (Wilson) – was to look into the whole structure of the police forces in the Six Counties. A few days later the Scarman Tribunal was set up to report on the ‘disorders’ between April and August 1969.

Callaghan came to Belfast a week later and met the Stormont cabinet. Three working parties, of Whitehall and Stormont Civil Servants, were to be set up to study ways of dealing with discrimination in housing and jobs and improving community relations. A permanent British government representative was to be sent over to keep an eye on developments. Callaghan also toured the battle areas of Belfast and Derry. He was given a friendly welcome by the Catholics in the Falls and Bogside. For them, his appearance symbolised a political defeat for the Unionist Party.

On 12 September, the Cameron Commission – appointed by O’Neill in January 1969 – reported. While attacking ‘extremists’ on both sides, it confirmed and documented the existence of discrimination and gerrymandering against Catholics. It pointed to ‘serious breaches of discipline and acts of violence’ by the RUC and it described the B-Specials as ‘a partisan and paramilitary force recruited exclusively from Protestants’. It also spoke of a ‘failure of leadership on all sides’ which had allowed tensions to build up and eventually to explode in violence.

All this talk of ‘reform’ and ending ‘injustice’, all these inquiries and reports, it should be remembered came after the mass Civil Rights campaign, after the insurrection in Derry and after the near civil war in the Six Counties. British imperialism had made no attempt to democratise the statelet in 50 years because it had no need to. It now took the steps it did in order to reconcile the nationalist minority to the Six Counties statelet after they had rebelled. It could not succeed. For the loyalist statelet, the key to British domination over Ireland, could only exist as long as the Unionist alliance between the loyalist workers and capitalists survived. And that alliance was based on the privileged status and conditions of the Protestant working class. That is, on the lack of civil rights and the discrimination against the nationalist minority, and with the necessary repressive apparatus to enforce such conditions. To make any real inroads into discrimination, to introduce real reforms would threaten Unionism, the loyalist statelet and therefore British domination over Ireland. Inevitably, the Loyalists would fight against such developments and British imperialism and the British army would have to back them. The nationalist minority, in the words of Sean Mac Stíofáin, ‘would quickly realise that a colonial power does not send its army to hurry up social reforms’.

The Road to revolutionary war

It is quite unacceptable to an imperialist power to have areas of its colony which are out of its control. Nationalist areas in Belfast and Derry were behind barricades. The people, not the RUC and British army, policed and controlled these areas. Behind the barricades, the IRA was organising defence of the areas and acquiring arms. One of the main concerns of the Labour government and the British army was to get these barricades taken down. It was not going to be an easy task. Republicans and others had argued, immediately the troops had been sent in, that the British army was not to be trusted and that the people could only rely on themselves to defend their areas.

All the talk of ‘reforms’ and ‘justice’ was designed to impress those waiting to be impressed, and especially the so-called ‘moderates’ in the nationalist community. It was to them that the British army turned when the pressure was building up to get the barricades down.

The first move came on 2 September when General Freeland, Commander of the British forces in the Six Counties, approached the Central Citizens Defence Committee (CCDC), Belfast, to ask for the barricades to be removed. The main personalities involved in negotiations were Jim Sullivan, a Republican leader in the Lower Falls and later to be a leader of the Official IRA, Paddy Devlin MP (NILP) and Tom Conaty, a Catholic businessman. The Committee refused because Freeland would not give a guarantee that the RUC would not be allowed back into the Falls Road area.

On 4 September, the army moved in at dawn and began to remove barricades from the nationalist Turf Lodge estate on the outskirts of Belfast. The residents were shocked and women formed a chain across the road to stop them. But the army succeeded.

On the 6 September, with the aid of the Lower Falls priest, Father Murphy, Jim Sullivan and Paddy Devlin, some barricades in the Falls Road area came down. On 8 September, under pressure from Loyalists claiming that General Freeland was discussing with the IRA, Chichester-Clark went on television and said that the barricades were an act of defiance and must come down in 24 hours. The moderate Catholics negotiating with the army were horrified by this speech. A delegation of leading personalities from the CCDC was put together to see Callaghan. An agreement was reached that the barricades would come down and that soldiers would be at the end of the streets to prevent loyalist attacks.

The delegation then tried to sell the agreement to the CCDC. There was a great deal of dissent led by Francis Card, Billy McKee and Leo Martin, later to emerge as leaders of the Provisional IRA. In the end, Father Murphy was forced to use the power of the Church to get the deal accepted. Dr Philbin, Bishop of Down and Connor, was brought in to persuade the community to take the barricades down. He was driven round the Falls Road area in an army Land Rover. By Wednesday morning, the barricades were down. Shortly afterwards, in Derry, a mass meeting at Free Derry Corner voted to breach the main barricade in Rossville Street. However, divisions and tension were building up within the nationalist community and hostility towards the army was beginning to grow.

On 10 October, the Hunt Report was published. It recommended the disarming of the RUC and the disbandment of the B-Specials. The RUC was to have a British Chief Officer – Sir Arthur Young – chosen because of his previous colonial experience. The report also recommended the establishment of a new, part-time military force, later called the Ulster Defence Regiment.

The following night, angry Loyalists came in their thousands down the Shankill Road and tried to attack the nationalist Unity Flats. They were halted by RUC cordon. Loyalist gunmen opened fire and killed an RUC man, Constable Arbuckle – the first one killed since 1962. The army claimed the rioters fired more than a 1,000 rounds from weapons which included a machine-gun and several sub-machine guns. The troops opened fire and killed two Loyalists and wounded many more. 22 soldiers were injured, 14 with gunshot wounds. The army riot squad moved into the Shankill Road beating up Loyalists, searching houses and capturing guns and ammunition. 68 people were arrested. 

Sir Arthur Young saw his task as winning Catholic confidence in the police and, in particular, in getting the police back into the nationalist strongholds like the Falls and the Bogside. The RUC had not patrolled the Falls area for five years except in pairs of armed Land Rovers. The police had not entered the Bogside on foot for a number of years. On the day after the Shank ill riots, Callaghan brought Young into the Bogside and introduced him to a cheering crowd. Military police came in, unarmed, to patrol the area. They were to do so for the next six months. The RUC made a formal return to the Falls Road Belfast on 17 October. In this period, the British government believed that its main troubles were over and events had now taken an upward turn. Moderate Catholic opinion shared this optimism. But fundamentally, nothing had changed. The reforms that mattered so far were merely promises of reforms and would remain so. As one liberal journalist, Henry Kelly, put it

‘Reform did not bring one new job to the North, it did not heighten the standard of living . . . it did absolutely nothing to give the working-class Catholic any reason to feel identified with the system . . .’

The reforms that had gone through did nothing to alter the fundamental character of political power of the loyalist statelet. Within six months this reality would be exposed. 

The signs that a new conflict would soon break out could already be seen, where it mattered, on the streets, in the working-class nationalist areas of Belfast and Derry. McCann’s description of the situation in the Bogside conveys the resentment building up there among the working-class youth:

‘Reforms had filtered through on to the statute book. An Ombudsman had been appointed. Derry Corporation had been abolished and replaced by a Development Commission. A points system for the allocation of houses was in operation. Moderate Unionists could, and often did, point proudly to this record of progress. None of it, however, made any difference to the clumps of unemployed teenagers who stood, fists dug deep in their pockets, around William Street in the evenings. Briefly elevated into folk-hero status in the heady days of August, praised and patronized by local leaders for their expertise with the stone and the petrol bomb, they had now been dragged back down into the anonymous depression which had hitherto been their constant condition. For them at least, nothing had changed and they were bitterly cynical about the talk of a reformed future. “We’ll get nothing out of it. The Orangemen are still in power.” Occasionally they would stone the soldiers.’ (War and an Irish Town)

That the Orangemen were still in power became clear as events began to unfold. An internal RUC investigation of police action in the Bogside on 4 January 1969 recommended charges against certain RUC men. It was announced on 3 September 1969 that no action was to be taken. On 21 October 1969, an open verdict was returned on the murder of John Gallagher in Armagh on 14 August 1969. No-one was charged or disciplined. An inquest on the death of Samuel Devenny, badly beaten up in his own house by the RUC in April 1969, said his death was due to natural causes. The policemen who beat him up were never identified or charged. However, Bernadette Devlin MP was charged with riotous behaviour during the siege of Derry and sentenced on 22 December to six months in prison. She was granted £250 bail pending an appeal.

The battles, however, really started again with the beginning of the loyalist marching season during April 1970. They led to the first direct conflict between British troops and Irish nationalist civilians for two generations. It took place on the nationalist Ballymurphy housing estate on the western edge of Belfast. For two hours, an Orange parade marched up and down the Springfield Road where it overlooks Ballymurphy, before leaving for a rally in Bangor. When the Orangemen returned to Belfast that night, they were attacked near Ballymurphy with bottles and stones by angry nationalist crowds. The army intervened and barricaded off the nationalist area. They were attacked by about 400 nationalist youth, and 20 soldiers were injured. The next evening, when the nationalist crowds gathered again, 600 soldiers supported by five Saracen armoured cars moved in and occupied the Ballymurphy estate. They were attacked with stones and bottles. The troops then fired 104 canisters of CS gas saturating the estate, ignoring the plight of children and old people living there. The nationalists replied with petrol bombs. Barricades went up and the confrontation lasted three days. General Freeland went on television and threatened to shoot dead anyone throwing a petrol bomb. Callaghan supported him. The way to avoid being shot was easy, he said, ‘Don’t go out with a petrol bomb’. The army had now taken over the RUC’s role as protector of the highly provocative Orange parades.

The British army, Unionist politicians and the press tried to blame the IRA for the disturbances. In fact, both sections of the IRA were attempting to limit the confrontation. The Provisional IRA were not yet fully reorganised and they did not want a confrontation with the British army at this stage. Nevertheless, they issued a warning to Freeland that if he carried out his threat to shoot petrol bombers then the Provisional IRA would take retaliatory action.

On 17 April 1970, there was a by-election in the Unionist South Antrim and Barnside seat of Terence O’Neill, who had been given a life peerage. Ian Paisley won the seat. The two sides were inevitably polarising again.

The battles recommenced during the Orange marches in June. Attempts to have them banned were rejected by the Labour government. An Orange march on 2 June was diverted away from the Ardoyne by a local army officer as it would have passed the mouth of Hooker Street full of burnt out Catholic houses. The Loyalists were furious. Two nights of vicious rioting took place in the Shankill Road area and there were clashes with troops.

Everyone knew that the Orange marches, planned to go past strong nationalist areas later in June, would lead to violent clashes. The Stormont Cabinet refused to call them off. On 26 June, Edward Heath, the new Prime Minister after the Tory election victory, was asked by Burroughs, the new British Permanent Representative, to have them banned. Heath said he would inform the new Home Secretary, Maudling, of the situation. Nothing was done and the inevitable happened.

On Saturday 27 June, Orange marches passed the nationalist Ardoyne, Clonard, Unity Flats and the isolated enclave of Short Strand in East Belfast. Battle soon commenced between loyalist and nationalist groups and nationalist youth and the army. The Provisional IRA was now to face its first major test in defending the nationalist minority. 

As an Orange march passed the Ardoyne, stones were thrown and gunfire broke out. There were exchanges for roughly 35 minutes. At the end, three Loyalists lay dead. The Provisional IRA commander said that the first shots had come from the loyalist side.

The second battle took place in the Short Strand where 6,000 nationalists are surrounded by 60,000 Loyalists. In the evening after the march, loyalist mobs were trying to bomb the St Matthews Church which dominates the entrance to the area. Paddy Kennedy, a Republican Labour MP in Stormont, asked for protection for the church by the army. He was told nothing could be done as the army was overstretched. The Provisional IRA went into action to defend the area. There was a long gun battle. At the end of it, two loyalist gunmen had been killed and two fatally wounded. One Provisional IRA auxiliary, Henry McIlhone was killed and Billy McKee, the Provisional Commander in Belfast was wounded. The Loyalists were held off. The Provisional IRA had emerged as the only effective defender of the area. Its growth was now ensured. 

In Derry, the Bogside had also erupted again. On Friday 26 June, Bernadette Devlin lost her appeal against a six month jail sentence. The RUC agreed that she should surrender at Victoria Barracks in Derry that evening. A ‘farewell’ meeting was arranged for Free Derry Corner. On her way to this meeting from Belfast, her car was stopped five miles outside Derry. She was immediately arrested and taken to Armagh Prison. When the crowd waiting for her heard this, they were furious. Battle with the army commenced. It was to last all weekend. The first Perspex riot shield appeared on the street – a brick hit it and it broke. Rubber bullets were fired for the first time. CS gas was fired and the nationalist youth replied with petrol bombs. On Sunday, moderate Catholics led by John Hume called a meeting of prominent people to find a peace formula. It was decided to send a deputation to the British army to ask them to withdraw their soldiers from the area. Sean Keenan, a leading figure in the Provisional IRA, refused to go. He said what they had to do was to defend themselves. When asked ‘against whom’, he replied ‘the British army’. A week later it would be conclusively shown that what he said was true.

As soon as the weekend battles were over, the Stormont Cabinet met and introduced a draconian Criminal Justice (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1970. It was rushed through Stormont on 1 July after a record 18 hours sitting. It brought in mandatory six month minimum prison terms for offences connected with rioting – ‘riotous behaviour’, ‘disorderly behaviour’, and ‘behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace’. The moderate Nationalist opposition in Stormont did not oppose it.

On the same day, the Joint Security Committee, which included Porter, Freeland, Young and Chichester-Clark met and discussed the weekend events. They decided that the trouble had spread because the army had not been tough enough when it first broke out. The ‘reforms’ had failed. Repression and force were now the order of the day.

On 3 July, the army raided a house in Balkan Street in the Lower Falls – a stronghold of the Official IRA. The army had received a tip-off about arms. They found a small collection of arms including twelve pistols and a somewhat archaic sub-machine gun. As the soldiers tried to get back to their vehicles a crowd blocked their path. Having pushed their way through to their armoured personnel carriers, one of the drivers reversed and crushed a man to death against some railings. The crowd began to stone the soldiers. The army sent in more troops who fired CS gas throughout the area. Petrol bombs were thrown.

The army withdrew from the area to regroup. Immediately, barricades were built and an NLF (Official IRA) unit took up position to defend the area. Freeland had the whole area cordoned off. The army then moved in with massive force and attacked. A helicopter overhead directed the operation. The battle of the Lower Falls began. The army fired thousands of rounds of high-velocity ammunition. Three civilians were killed. The area was saturated with CS gas. Everywhere people choked. There was nowhere to escape. Inside and outside houses, choking clouds of CS gas were everywhere.

At 10.30pm, Freeland declared a curfew of the whole Falls area and did not lift it until Sunday morning 35 hours later. While the curfew lasted, a house-to-house search of the whole area took place. The army smashed doors, ripped up floors, tore out fire places, smashed furniture, stole money and left a trail of destruction behind them. Then to rub it in they took two clearly delighted Unionist ministers, John Brooke and William Long, on an excursion of the area on the back of an army Land Rover. 

Freeland’s curfew prevented bread and milk vans coming in to deliver. Mothers with children were at their wits end. The women of Belfast came up with an answer. Over a 1,000 women and children marched into the Lower Falls carrying bread, milk and other necessities. They pushed aside the troops and distributed the food. It is said that when they came out a good many items the army was searching for came out with them, hidden in prams and under coats. The army’s haul was tiny – 35 rifles, 14 shot guns, 6 automatic weapons, 52 pistols and rounds of ammunition. This should be compared with the over 100,000 guns estimated to be in loyalist hands at that time.

The people of 5,000 households had been subjected to deliberate institutionalised terror. The purpose of the operation had been to intimidate the nationalist people. It had the opposite effect. As Sean Mac Stíofáin was to write later

‘Far from intimidating the Irish people, the behaviour of the British that weekend alienated them in tens of thousands. Coming on top of the successful IRA-led defence of Ballymacarret [Short Strand] and other districts, what the battle of Lower Falls did was to provide endless water for the Republican guerrilla fish to swim in.’

The Provisional IRA had not at first been involved in the Lower Falls battle. However, it gradually came into engagement with British troops, carrying out diversionary actions in other parts of Belfast. A bank was also blown up in Andersonstown and the soldiers who came to investigate were fired on.

The Falls Curfew confirmed everything that the Provisional IRA had recognised from its formation. The Civil Rights Movement had inevitably come into direct conflict with the very existence of the loyalist state. And in that conflict, the real enemy, British imperialism and its troops, had emerged and would have to be fought and destroyed if there was to be any progress for the Irish people.

In the next few months, recruitment to the Provisional IRA rose dramatically. So did nationalist support. The nationalist youth that had fought the RUC and loyalist mobs on the streets of Derry and Belfast were now joining their Army – the Provisional IRA.

David Reed

November 1981

to be continued

[Material from this article later went on to become part of Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed]



Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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