In 1949, Sir Basil Brooke (1888–1973) was created 1st Viscount Brookeborough. Elected to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1929, he had been appointed Minister of Agriculture in 1933 and in 1943 he had become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. In 1943, the tide of war had turned in favour of the Allies and, as the region supplied Britain with vital supplies necessary for victory, Northern Ireland prospered as never before. The return of peace was followed by the introduction of greatly improved health and social services, much of the additional cost being paid for by the government in Westminster. Northern Ireland in these post-war years appeared, at first glance, to be peaceful and contented. A closer look indicated that it was a bitterly divided place.
Around two-thirds of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland in the mid-1940s were Protestants who were determined to remain in the United Kingdom. The great majority gave their support to the Ulster Unionist Party and it had governed the province alone since 1921. In the general election of 1945, 34 Unionists were elected to sit at Stormont though three Northern Ireland Labour MPs (who supported the Union) were returned for Belfast constituencies. About one-third of the people of Northern Ireland were Catholics, many of whom wanted to see Ireland reunited and to be ruled from Dublin. On occasion, Catholic voters would support smaller parties (such as Socialist Republican and Independent Labour) but most backed the Nationalist Party which won 10 seats in 1945. It was rare for Protestants to vote for candidates seeking the reunification of Ireland and for Catholics to vote for those who wanted to maintain the Union with Britain.
2. Brookeborough and the Ireland Act 1949
On 7 September 1948, during a visit to Canada, the Irish Taoiseach, John A. Costello (1891–1976), announced that Éire would become a republic (with effect from 8 April 1949). The Cold War was now reaching its climax as Stalin began the blockade of West Berlin and the British government was acutely aware of the strategic importance of Northern Ireland. The British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1883–1967), made no objection to this severing of the last links with the British Empire but at the same time he was prepared to give the Unionist government the assurances it needed.
The Anti-Partition League had been formed in 1945 to unite all nationalists in seeking the reunification of Ireland and, when Costello made his announcement, the movement declared that this was the appropriate time to end partition. Brooke, saying that ‘our country is in danger ... Ulster is not for sale’, and called a general election for 10 February, 1949. The Anti-Partition League made collections outside churches all over Ireland for the support of nationalist candidates, and it quickly became known as the ‘Chapel Gate Election’. The election was the fiercest since 1921 and the Northern Ireland Labour Party was eliminated. For the first time, the opposition at Stormont was entirely Catholic. Attlee carried out his earlier promise and his Ireland Act of June 1949 included the guarantee that:
‘In no event will Northern Ireland or any part thereof cease to be a part of his Majesty’s dominions and of the United Kingdom without the consent of the parliament of Northern Ireland.’
Lord Brookeborough had been given impressive support by a majority of the electorate and, particularly after the passing of the Ireland Act, his government seemed the most secure in western Europe. He felt no need to put forward legislation which would help to reconcile the Catholic minority to the continuation of partition.
3. The IRA ‘Operation Harvest’ Campaign 1956-62
Some nationalists in Northern Ireland believed that a constitutional campaign against partition was futile. They were convinced that only a campaign of violence would unite Ireland. Liam Kelly, from Pomeroy in Co. Tyrone, played a leading role in reviving militant republicanism, setting up his own organisation, Saor Uladh, in 1951 after being expelled from the IRA. Meanwhile the IRA, fearing defections, brought forward its plans to launch a violent campaign along the border. A carefully-planned raid on Gough barracks in Co. Armagh on 10 June 1954 provided the IRA with a substantial haul of firearms. Other raids were unsuccessful but ‘Operation Harvest’ was launched during a snowstorm at midnight on 11 December 1956. Around 150 volunteers were involved but apart from minor acts of destruction, little was achieved. Brookeborough ordered the cratering and spiking of all but seventeen border roads and a full call-out of the Ulster Specials Constabulary (commonly referred to as ‘B-Specials’ or ‘B-Men’, a largely Protestant denominated reserve police force), and large numbers of suspects were interned.
The most serious IRA attack of Operation Harvest was that on Brookeborough RUC barracks on New Year’s Eve 1956. After a furious gun battle, the IRA were forced to withdraw, leaving Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South dying of their wounds. The IRA depended heavily on being able to operate from the Republic and the introduction of internment there by de Valera on 4 July, 1957 severely weakened its campaign. The conflict became a series of rather squalid incidents and steadily ran down. It was possible to close down the Curragh internment campaign in March 1959 and the Northern Ireland government released its last internee in April 1961. The campaign was called off on 26 February, 1962. The final toll was twelve militant republicans and six RUC men killed; an additional cost to the Republic of £350,000 a year; and an extra cost of £50,000 to Northern Ireland a year, together with damage estimated at £700,000.
4. Political Stagnation
Though they had given their support for a time to abstentionist republican candidates, the Catholics of Northern Ireland had given very little backing to the IRA and preferred to seek their political objectives by peaceful, constitutional means. This seemed like the appropriate time for the government to attempt to draw Catholics into the institutions of the state and into a fuller participation in the public affairs of the region. Any real progress along this road would require skill and patience, but little or no attempt was made.
Brookeborough’s government was given constant reminders that it risked losing the support of its traditional supporters if it was seen to appease the minority. Attempts to ban provocative Orange marches down the mainly Catholic Longstone Road in Co. Down in the 1950s produced such a strong loyalist outcry that the government abandoned the idea. There was an easing of intercommunal tensions in these years but ministers were still capable of provocative outbursts. The outspoken Minister of Education, Harry Midgley (1893–1957), said in 1957: ‘All the minority are traitors and have always been traitors to the government of Northern Ireland’. In 1959 the chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party Standing Committee, Sir Clarence Graham, proposed that Catholics be allowed to join the party and to stand as its candidates. Graham got almost no support and his suggestion was rejected outright by Brookeborough who declared:
‘There is no change in the fundamental character of the Unionist Party or in the loyalties it observes and preserves … If it is called inflexible then it shows our principles are not elastic.’
Brookeborough, in short, believed that at best the minority should be tolerated and he never ceased to regard all Catholics as potential traitors. He seemed incapable of recognising the benefits of reconciling any of the minority to the régime. For the present, the Catholic minority did not pose as serious a threat to Brookeborough as the growing discontent of Protestant workers in Belfast fearing unemployment.
5. Captain O’Neill takes over: 1963
In the 1950s, traditional export industries, particularly linen and engineering, experienced difficulties. As unemployment rose, especially amongst those who had been loyal supporters of the Unionist Party, Brookeborough’s popularity waned. The Northern Ireland Labour Party captured two Unionist strongholds in Belfast in 1958 and two more in 1962. Brookeborough was forced to resign in 1963 and was replaced by Captain Terence O’Neill (1914–1990).
‘Our task will be literally to transform Ulster’, O’Neill declared a few days after being appointed Prime Minister; ‘To achieve it will demand bold and imaginative measures’. The following year he stated at Stormont that his principal aims were to ‘make Northern Ireland economically stronger and prosperous … and to build bridges between the two traditions within our community’. In short, O’Neill was the first Northern Ireland Prime Minister to state clearly that reconciliation was a central part of his programme. Before becoming premier, O’Neill had served as Minister of Finance for seven years and much of the credit for attracting new firms to the region was due to his professional approach. His firm belief was that forward planning and economic regeneration would heal intercommunal divisions by giving everyone a share in growing prosperity. The problem was that the most ambitious scheme, the 1964 Wilson Plan, envisioned largely Protestant areas as the principal growth points. This was an era of rapidly rising expectations and vastly improved international communications. Despite his mould-breaking gestures of conciliation, O’Neill eventually created intense frustration within the minority by his inability to deliver thoroughgoing reform, while more and more loyalists were convinced that he was conceding too much, and turned against him.
6. Initiatives and Challenges 1965-1968
Seán F. Lemass (1899–1971), Taoiseach since 1959, knew that better relations with Britain were vital to his economic strategy. That must include a friendly approach to Northern Ireland but Brookeborough ruled out any meaningful co-operation. O’Neill, by contrast, took the initiative and invited Lemass to Stormont on 14 January, 1965. ‘I shall get into terrible trouble for this’, Lemass said to O’Neill in the Parliament Buildings toilet but O’Neill was taking the greater risk. O’Neill had informed his cabinet colleagues only that morning— all, with the exception of the Minister of Agriculture, Harry West (1917–2004), arrived to have lunch and to be photographed with the Taoiseach. Though the Reverend Ian Paisley and some of his followers made a protest at Stormont the next day, no widespread hostile reaction greeted the O’Neill-Lemass meeting. O’Neill did well in the Northern Ireland election the following year when the Northern Ireland Labour Party lost two seats. There was little indication that the unionist government had very difficult years immediately ahead of it.
Ian Paisley, who had formed the Free Presbyterian Church with himself as Moderator in 1951, not only quarrelled with fellow fundamentalists but also campaigned against ecumenical trends in the principal Christian churches. His tall commanding presence and oratory delivered in a rich mid-Antrim accent ensured gathering support from evangelical Protestants with a fear of Catholicism; but he was beginning to widen his appeal to greater numbers of loyalists who were apprehensive of O’Neill’s bridge-building gestures to the nationalist minority. An early indication that O’Neill had acute difficulties ahead was the intense rioting in Divis Street during the Westminster general election of September 1964. The Republican candidate for West Belfast, Liam ‘Billy’ McMillen, displayed a small tricolour in a window of a shop he had rented as an election office in the Lower Falls area. Paisley demanded the removal of the flag (its display contravened the Flags and Emblems Act) and, when the RUC complied by breaking the windows and doors to seize the tricolour, local nationalists fought night after night with the police. The violence was soon quelled, however, and for the present Paisley succeeded in attracting the support of a small minority of unionists.
O’Neill made reconciliation official policy: he met Cardinal William Conway (1913–1977), Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, and visited Catholic schools and hospitals, making sure—where possible—to be photographed in the company of nuns. There were some minor reforms, which included the increase in building grants to Catholic schools and the abolition of university and business votes, but otherwise the structure left by Brookeborough was very little changed.
O’Neill’s problems increased in 1966. This year marked the 50th anniversary of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme and intercommunal tensions magnified. Paisley led an illegal march through the Catholic enclave of the Markets in Belfast to make a protest against the ‘Romanising tendencies’ of the Presbyterian Church. Paisley was jailed because he refused to enter into a bail bond. The year also saw the revival of the Ulster Volunteer Force (first created in 1913). ‘Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation’ the UVF declared but those murdered were innocent Catholics—John Scullion and Peter Ward—and an elderly Protestant woman, Martha Gould.
It was a tribute to O’Neill’s official policy of reconciliation that the Nationalist Party for the first time agreed to become the official opposition in February 1965. On Good Friday, 1966, he expressed the hope that Catholic and Protestant children could—some time in the future—be educated together. Opposition within his own party was growing, however, and criticism from Paisley and the rising numbers of his supporters was becoming more strident.
7. The Civil Rights Movement Begins
There had been a major change in the approach to the Catholic minority but very few thorough-going reforms had been made. Local government remained largely unchanged. The gerrymandering of wards—local government boundaries—had continued since the abolition of proportional representation in 1922 and boundaries were redrawn to Unionist advantage in Omagh in 1935, Derry in 1936, Armagh in 1946, and Co. Fermanagh in 1967. The vote in local government elections was restricted to ratepayers (additional restrictions had been made in 1946) and Catholics, being poorer than Protestants on average, were over represented among those denied the vote. The most striking example of gerrymandering was Londonderry City which had a Unionist majority though there were 20,102 adult Catholics and 10,274 adult Protestants living there in 1967.
Catholics were under represented in the civil service (only 11.8 per cent of senior posts in 1951) and in local government jobs. In 1969 Catholics held only six senior legal posts out of a total of sixty-eight. There were 22 public boards by 1969, with 332 members in all, but only 49 were Catholics. In addition, many of the major employers in the private sector—notably in shipbuilding and engineering—employed only small numbers of Catholics.
The discrimination which caused the greatest Catholic resentment was in housing. Since most local authorities were Unionist controlled, Catholics were frequently at a disadvantage when applying to rent council houses. Direct action began in Dungannon where on 28 August 1963 seventeen Catholic families occupied prefabricated bungalows due for demolition. The arrival of television crews caused the council chairman to abandon his plan to evict the squatters. The Homeless Citizens’ League, formed earlier in the year in the town and drawing inspiration from the black civil rights movement in the United States, campaigned vigorously for fairer allocation of council houses. Nevertheless, by 1967 only 34 Catholic families, compared with 264 Protestant ones, had been allocated council houses in Dungannon since 1945.
The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland was formed in Belfast in January 1964 to oppose discrimination and to collect statistics to document its case. The Nationalist Party was slow to give a lead and it was Gerard ‘Gerry’ Fitt (1926–2005), elected as a Republican Labour MP for West Belfast in 1966, who did most to arouse interest in Westminster. He was largely responsible for the formation in 1965 of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster sponsored by sixty MPs. Other pressure groups included the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (1967), the Derry Unemployed Action Committee (1965), and the Derry Housing Association (1967).
8. The First Civil Rights Marches in 1968
In June 1968 Miss Emily Beattie, a nineteen-year-old Protestant, single and secretary to the local Councillor’s solicitor, was allocated a council house in the Co. Tyrone village of Caledon. Squatters moved in and, after raising the issue at Stormont, the Nationalist MP Austin Currie occupied the house himself before being removed by a policeman (who happened to be Miss Beattie’s brother).
A protest meeting in Dungannon, organised by the Civil Rights Association, followed on 22 June. The outcome was a civil rights march on 24 August: some 2,500 people drawn from a wide range of organisations set out from Coalisland to walk five miles to Dungannon. Paisley meanwhile had organised a counter-demonstration in Dungannon and police erected a barrier against the marchers on the outskirts. The marchers sat down, listened to speakers and sang liberation songs. No violence ensued.
To many of those who had taken part, this Coalisland-Dungannon march was similar to popular demonstrations elsewhere in the world. Civil rights activists in Ulster, still small in number, were inspired by the black civil rights movement, American campus unrest, demonstrations against the Vietnam War and nuclear arsenals, the Prague Spring and student/worker riots in Paris. Vastly improved communications ensured that news of international events was being brought into most people’s homes to be viewed on television screens. The next march provided striking evidence of the new power of television.
A march arranged primarily by the Derry Housing Action Committee was due to begin in the Waterside in Derry, cross the bridge over the Foyle and end with a meeting outside the Guildhall on 5 October. Only about four hundred marchers assembled outside Waterside railway station, including Gerry Fitt and three other Westminster MPs. The march had been banned by the Home Affairs minister, William Craig. When the marchers seemed about to move off RUC County Inspector William Meharg warned that he could not allow a march in ‘this part of the Maiden City’. Finding the planned route barred, the marchers turned into Duke Street only to be assailed by policemen wielding batons. Three MPs were hit by batons—Eddie McAteer, Austin Currie and Gerry Fitt—and Fitt had to be taken with blood streaming down his head to hospital. Water cannon arrived to spray not only marchers but also an Ulster Television crew filming from a flat. Only one cameraman, Gay O’Brien of Radio Telefís Éireann (RTÉ), succeeded in his task.
O’Brien’s few hundred feet of film changed the course of Northern Ireland’s history. Images of unrestrained police assaulting unarmed marchers and elected representatives flashed across the world. At a stroke television coverage of the events of 5 October, 1968 destabilised Northern Ireland. The sectarian dragon was reawakened as the region plunged into crisis.
9. O’Neill Conciliates, November–December 1968
On Monday 7 October, 1968 around three thousand students and staff from Queen’s University marched to the centre of Belfast where they were halted in Linenhall Street by police as loyalists were holding a counter-demonstration. On their return to the university they founded the People’s Democracy. A six-point programme was adopted: ‘One man, one vote; fair boundaries; houses on need; jobs on merit; free speech; repeal of the Special Powers Act’. It was only one of many groups which organised demonstrations, marches, occupations and sit-down protests during October and November. Almost 20,000 citizens took part in a peaceful but illegal march in Derry on 16 November.
Harold Wilson’s Labour government in Westminster applied pressure on the Unionist government to enact reform. Only with the greatest difficulty did O’Neill persuade his cabinet colleagues to agree to a five-point programme announced on 22 November. Londonderry Corporation was to be replaced by an appointed development commission; councils were to allocate houses on a fair points system; sections of the Special Powers Act would be repealed; an ombudsman would be appointed; and universal suffrage in local government elections would be considered. The Catholic minority had won more political concessions in a few weeks than it had over the previous forty-seven years.
The civil rights agitation could not be immediately halted. A march in Armagh city, where loyalists also assembled, led to many injuries. O’Neill appealed to the people in a television broadcast on 9 December. He began: ‘Ulster stands at the crossroads’ and told civil rights leaders that their voice had been heard. They in turn called off all street protests. The final weeks of 1968 were calm.
10. Burntollet and the Fall of O’Neill, January–April 1969
Against the advice of nationalist leaders, including John Hume and Eddie McAteer, some dissident members of the People’s Democracy and the Young Socialist Alliance decided to undertake a march—modelled on the 1963 Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King—from Belfast to Derry. Around forty marchers, barracked by a greater number of loyalists, set out on the morning of New Year’s Day 1969. Much of the seventy-five mile route was through Protestant territory and at Burntollet Bridge the marchers were systematically attacked in a carefully planned loyalist ambush. When the marchers reached Derry a large Reserve RUC force invaded the Catholic Bogside and smashed down doors of Catholic residents.
The RUC’s reputation collapsed in Catholic areas and violent protests erupted on the streets. Bomb explosions in March and April 1969 at electrical and water installations were thought to be the work of the IRA. Soon afterwards, the RUC proved that the UVF was to blame—not soon enough to save O’Neill who, unable to cope with mounting criticism from his own side, resigned on 28 April.
11. Descent into Violence: Troops on Active Service, August 1969
Major James Chichester-Clark, a distant relative of O’Neill, was chosen as the new Prime Minister by a margin of one vote. As the ‘marching season’ approached intercommunal confrontations—usually sectarian in nature—became more vicious, especially in north and west Belfast. The police were stretched to the limit during the ‘Twelfth’ holiday period in Belfast but the situation reached crisis point at the close of the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry on 12 August. Stone throwing developed between loyalists and the Catholic residents of the Bogside. Police attempting to invade the Bogside were met by a torrent of missiles and petrol bombs, particularly from the top of the Rossville Flats. By the following morning the fighting had become widespread and intense. The police were overstretched and exhausted. At Westminster the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, agreed to Chichester-Clark’s request to send in the troops. Late in the afternoon of 14 August 1969, British soldiers found themselves on active service in the streets of Derry.
All over Northern Ireland Catholics rioted in an attempt to take the pressure off the Bogside. The worst violence erupted in Belfast. On the night of 14 August Protestants surged through the narrow streets into the lower Falls Road, tossing petrol bombs into houses as they went. Police fired bursts of heavy calibre bullets from their Browning machine guns and one of the first to die was a nine-year-old boy taking refuge in his bedroom in Divis Flats. By dawn on 15 August six had been killed or mortally wounded; at least twelve factories had been destroyed and 400 houses had either been wrecked or damaged by petrol bombs. Troops were unable to prevent further death and destruction that night. Belfast had become a virtual war zone with streets blocked with barricades and Army concertina wire and 1,820 families (1,505 of which were Catholic) had fled their homes.
12. The Emergence of the Provisional IRA, 1969-70
‘The honeymoon period between troops and local people is likely to be short lived’, Lieutenant-General Sir Ian Freeland warned soon after his men had moved into Belfast. Although many Catholic women plied soldiers with cups of tea in the first weeks, Freeland had made an astute observation. The Westminster government was ill-prepared for the Northern Ireland crisis. The Downing Street Declaration, agreed by Chichester-Clark and Wilson on 19 August, promised every citizen ‘the same equality of treatment and freedom from discrimination as obtains in the rest of the United Kingdom irrespective of political views or religion’, but it was not immediately obvious how this was to be put into effect. The Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, toured the troubled districts in Belfast and Derry making well-received upbeat speeches but in private he observed to a colleague that there was ‘no prospect of a solution’.
Protestants were the first to come into conflict with the British Army. The Hunt Report on the future of policing was made public on Friday 10 October. It recommended the disbandment of the Special Constabulary, the disarming of the police and the formation of a part-time force (the Ulster Defence Regiment) under the control of the General Officer Commanding the British Army. The following night some three thousand loyalists clashed with troops and police in the Shankill Road area: along with two rioters, Constable Victor Arbuckle was killed.
Confidential police reports made it plain that the IRA barely existed as a fighting force in August 1969. Catholic residents of the Lower Falls scrawled ‘IRA – I Ran Away’ on gable walls. A breakaway section of the IRA (henceforth known as the Official IRA) named itself the Provisional IRA: rejecting the Marxist philosophy of the Officials, the Provisionals adopted a simple programme of conducting a violent campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile Jack Lynch’s Fianna Fáil government had set up a relief fund to help northern Catholics driven out of their homes. A considerable portion of this money was diverted to the purchase of weapons for the IRA. Lynch dismissed two of his ministers, Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, in May 1970 because they appeared to be implicated though neither was convicted in the subsequent Arms Trial. The guns nevertheless helped to put the Provisionals in a strong offensive position. The imposition of an Army curfew in the Lower Falls between 3 and 5 July 1970 inflamed the local population and the result was – as the Sunday Times Insight Team put it – ‘recruitment to the Provisionals was dizzily fast’.
The year 1970 saw the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath, replace Labour. Heath was no less insistent than his predecessor that the Stormont government press ahead with reform. Chichester-Clark was ready to comply but his colleagues forced him to resign in March 1971. His successor, Brian Faulkner, promised more vigorous action to curb the growing violence. Attacks by the Provisionals became more frequent and daring, and their gelignite bombs – designed to draw troops away from Catholic enclaves and to dislocate the local economy – ensured a rapidly rising death toll of innocent victims. Rioting was widespread during the month of July.
13. Internment and Bloody Sunday, 1971-72
Just after 4 a.m. on Monday August 1971 thousands of soldiers set out in arrest squads and by 7.30 a.m. 432 men had been seized. Terrible violence followed. Rioting, shooting and burning continued almost without ceasing. The following day eleven people were killed in Belfast alone. One in every hundred families in Belfast was forced to move by the destruction of homes and intimidation.
Internment was entirely one-sided. No attempt was made to arrest loyalist suspects and there was not a single person on the Army’s list who was not an anti-partitionist. Catholic fury was magnified by reports, later authenticated, of the ill-treatment of suspects. Internment also failed in its purpose: not one of those held in the initial arrests was a leading member of the Provisional IRA. Opposition to internment united Catholics whether or not they were supporters of the republican campaign of violence or of the Social Democratic and Labour Party – founded in August 1970 as an umbrella nationalist and socialist party dedicated to constitutional methods – and protests followed one after the other. On Sunday 30 January 1972 at least 15,000 people, in defiance of a government ban, marched in protest against internment from the Creggan estate and the Bogside into the centre of Derry. As the Army sealed off the approach to the Guildhall, youths pelted the soldiers with missiles. Then the troops of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment went in. The soldiers fired 108 rounds, injuring thirteen and killing thirteen men, seven of them under nineteen years of age. A fourteenth man died later. Lord Widgery’s official enquiry largely exonerated the troops. Most Catholics, however, agreed with the Derry coroner, Hubert O’Neill, who declared at the close of the official inquest: ‘It strikes me that the Army ran amok that day…I say it without reservation – it was sheer unadulterated murder’. The British Embassy in Merrion Square, Dublin was burned to the ground by an angry crowd on 2 February, a national day of mourning for the Bloody Sunday victims in the south.
14. Direct Rule and Sunningdale 1972-73
On 24 March, 1972 Faulkner and his ministers were summoned to London where Prime Minister Edward Heath bluntly told them of his plans to transfer control of security to Westminster, to appoint a Northern Ireland Secretary of State and to end internment. The Unionist ministers were outraged and resigned. Fifty years of devolution came to an end as direct rule was imposed. On Tuesday 28, March a huge column of loyalists converged on Stormont in protest. The Provisionals, after a brief truce, intensified their campaign, which reached a horrific climax on Friday 21 July, 1972. That afternoon 20 bombs were detonated in Belfast in sixty-five minutes: nine people were killed and at least 130 maimed. The Army took advantage of the wave of revulsion following ‘Bloody Friday’ to occupy republican and loyalist ‘no-go’ areas in Operation Motorman.
The Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, set about restoring devolved government with the conditions that power had to be shared between Protestant and Catholic representatives and that there should be a Council of Ireland linking Belfast, London and Dublin on matters of common interest. An assembly was elected at the end of June 1973 and representatives of those in favour of power-sharing were invited to Sunningdale, the civil service staff college in Berkshire, in December. After fifty hours negotiation over four days (which included representatives of the Dublin and London governments) agreement was reached. At the end of the year the new power-sharing executive began its work with Faulkner as Chief Executive and Fitt as Deputy Chief Executive.
15. The Fall of the Power-Sharing Executive 1974
In the general election of 28 February, 1974 which put Harold Wilson and Labour back into power, 11 of the 12 seats in Northern Ireland were won by loyalist pact candidates opposed to Sunningdale. By a large majority the new arrangements, agreed by London and Dublin, had been rejected by the electorate. Yet the Northern Ireland Assembly still had a majority in favour of the agreement and on Tuesday 14 May, 1974 the assembly passed an amendment expressing faith in power-sharing by 44 votes to 28. A group of loyalists calling themselves the Ulster Workers’ Council announced that a strike would begin in protest against the Sunningdale agreement. After a slow beginning the strike gained support, accompanied by widespread intimidation and protracted power cuts. On Friday 17 May car bombs, probably driven in and planted by the UVF, exploded without warning in Monaghan, killing five, and in central Dublin where twenty-two people died and at least one hundred were injured. (Three more people died later from injuries received in the explosions).
By Sunday 19 May, 1972 Northern Ireland was experiencing blackouts lasting six hours at a time; dairies, bakeries and most other businesses were forced to close down; and almost a hundred road blocks encircled Belfast. Wilson made a controversial broadcast on Saturday 25 May which included a denunciation of ‘people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy and then systematically assault democratic methods. Who do these people think they are?’ This speech rallied Protestant feeling behind the strikers more than ever. Finally on Monday 27 May Faulkner resigned and a loyalist demonstration at Stormont became a massive victory rally.
16. Stalemate, 1974-79
At Westminster there was all-party support for the restoration of direct rule but new efforts were made to find a political compromise. A Constitutional Convention, elected on 1 May, 1975, consistently rejected power-sharing and it was wound up in the spring of 1976. The Provisional IRA meanwhile had extended its campaign to the British mainland. Forty soldiers, men, women and children were killed by bombs between 4 February and 21 November 1974 on the M62, in Guildford, at Woolwich and in Birmingham. In Northern Ireland large areas remained under the control of paramilitaries and were blighted by tit-for-tat sectarian murders, extortion and racketeering. Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams launched the Peace People in August 1976 and attracted tens of thousands to their marches and demonstrations for a time. Sustained widespread support proved impossible to maintain. The year, however, did witness a significant decline in political violence.
The day that Jim Callaghan called a general election in 1979 Airey Neave, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary of State, was murdered by a bomb in his car at Westminster. The Conservatives won the election and Margaret Thatcher began her long reign as Prime Minister. On Bank Holiday Monday, 27 August, the Provisionals carried out two devastating attacks: at Warrenpoint they killed 18 British soldiers in two bomb explosions; and at Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo, they killed Earl Mountbatten, his grandson Nicholas, aged 14, Paul Maxwell, aged 15, and Dowager Lady Brabourne. Mrs Thatcher flew into Northern Ireland two days later but she resisted appeals to take drastic action. She went to Dublin for apparently cordial talks with the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, but soon after events in the Maze prison tested Anglo-Irish relations to the limit.
17. The H-Block Hunger Strike, 1981
Whitelaw had granted internees special category status for a time but this had been withdrawn. A new prison had been built at the Maze, outside Lisburn, with eight single-storey units whose shape led them to be named H-Blocks. Republican prisoners, demanding political status, resorted to a ‘blanket protest’ by refusing to wear prison clothes and then to a ‘dirty protest’ by smearing excrement over their cell walls. Finally Bobby Sands, a former leader of the IRA unit in Twinbrook, began a hunger strike on 1 March, 1981. Admiration for Sands grew rapidly in the Catholic community and, on the fortieth consecutive day of refusing food, he was returned in a by-election as MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone. On Tuesday 5 May Sands died. It was the sixty-sixth day of his hunger strike. At least 100,000 crowded the route from Twinbrook to Milltown cemetery in Belfast on the day of his funeral. The hunger strike went on. By 20 August a total of ten prisoners had starved themselves to death at the Maze. Intense riots erupted after every death and meanwhile the IRA stepped up its relentless war on the security forces. Jim Prior, the new Northern Ireland Secretary of State, hinted at concessions to the prisoners and on 3 October, 1981 the hunger strike was called off.
For the British government this episode had been a diplomatic disaster abroad and at home it was accompanied by a sharp rise in support for the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Féin. At its annual conference in November 1981 Sinn Féin agreed to contest elections while at the same time continuing its campaign of violence – as Danny Morrison, the party’s director of publicity asked, ‘will anyone here object if with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in his hand we take power in Ireland?’ Sinn Féin successes in local government elections caused alarm in both London and Dublin. Garret FitzGerald, returned as Taoiseach with a comfortable majority early in 1983, set up the New Ireland Forum (to which only those committed to non-violent methods were invited) to consider the island’s future. Essentially it was a conference for constitutional nationalists. Its report, issued in May 1984, offered three alternatives: a united Ireland achieved by consent; a federal arrangement; and joint rule by London and Dublin over Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher brusquely rejected all three options.
18. The Anglo Irish Agreement and After, 1985-87
At 2.54 a.m. on 12 October, 1984, the last day of the Conservative Party annual conference, a bomb planted by the Provisionals in the Grand Hotel in Brighton exploded killing five people and horribly wounding many others. Mrs Thatcher did not allow this cruel attack to divert her from developing formal talks with FitzGerald and the Taoiseach did not allow the Prime Minister’s rejection of the Forum’s proposals to deter him. The outcome was the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, on 15 November, 1985.
The main feature of the agreement was the Inter-governmental Conference, headed by the secretary of state and the Irish foreign minister and serviced by a permanent secretariat of northern and southern civil servants at Maryfield on the outskirts of east Belfast. This was to promote cross-border co-operation and deal with legal, political and security matters. With the exception of the small cross-community Alliance Party, all unionist parties condemned the agreement, principally because Dublin would have a say in the affairs of the region. In addition, unionists were furious because they had not been consulted, in contrast to John Hume and the SDLP. There may have been more than 200,000 taking part in the protest against the agreement in the centre of Belfast on 23 November. This inaugurated years of campaigning (with the slogan ‘Ulster Says No’) and non-cooperation.
One of the unspoken purposes of the agreement was to shore up the SDLP and to reverse Sinn Féin’s electoral success. This was modestly successful but the republican ‘long war’ continued. On Sunday 8 November, 1987 as people gathered at the war memorial in Enniskillen for the annual wreath-laying a Provisional IRA bomb exploded. Eleven were killed and sixty-three injured, nineteen of them seriously. Gordon Wilson was there with his daughter Marie; she was one of those who died. ‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge…’ he said in an interview with the BBC later that day, and his quiet, anguished words had a powerful, emotional impact. Over the next few days millions across the world were to share his grief.
19. The Long War, 1988-92
The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland had become the longest-running conflict in Europe since the ending of the Second World War. In 1988 it showed no sign of ending. On 6 March of that year three IRA activists, intent on car-bombing a parade of the Royal Anglian Regiment, were shot dead in Gibraltar by SAS marksmen. Since the three had been given no opportunity to surrender the British government was accused of adopting a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy. The bodies of the IRA volunteers were flown back to Ireland but during the funerals in Belfast’s Milltown cemetery a lone loyalist, Michael Stone, killed three people with hand grenades and a pistol. On 19 March during the funeral of one of those killed by Stone two Army corporals in civilian dress drove into a crowd of mourners. The two were seized, stripped, beaten and shot dead.
Violence steadily increased from 1988. The IRA carried its campaign to the European mainland. Several members of the security forces stationed in Germany, and two Australians on holiday, were murdered between 1988 and 1990. In Britain eleven young bandsmen were killed on 22 September, 1989 by a bomb detonated at the Royal Marines School of Music at Deal in Kent. The Conservative MP for Eastbourne, Ian Gow, was murdered on 30 July, 1990. The Provisional IRA had become the most experienced terrorists in Europe, conducting a ruthless campaign on several fronts but concentrating on Northern Ireland. On 20 August, 1988 eight soldiers were killed by a bomb which blew their bus off the Omagh to Ballygawley road, bringing the total number of soldiers killed that year so far to twenty. Locally recruited members of the RUC and UDR were increasingly pushed to the front line and they suffered accordingly. Another weapon was the ‘proxy bomb’: for example, Patsy Gillespie was forced to drive a van to the Buncrana Road checkpoint in Derry, and there the bomb killed him together with five soldiers on 24 October, 1990.
The early 1990s witnessed an alarming increase in violence. Previously republicans had been responsible for most violent deaths but now the UVF and the Ulster Freedom Fighters reaped as bloody a harvest, targeting known members of Sinn Féin where possible but continuing also to kill Catholics at random as before. Between January and November 1991 loyalist paramilitaries murdered thirty-nine people. On 17 January 1992 a minibus was bombed at Teebane Cross near Cookstown. The explosion killed eight men and injured six others: all were Protestants, attacked by the Provisionals because they carried out work for the security forces. In direct retaliation two men of the UFF killed five Catholics and wounded seven more at a betting shop in south Belfast on 5 February. This brought the total number of victims since 1969 to 2,969. In the same period the Provisionals intensified their campaign with bombs of ever-increasing size, wreaking devastation in Belfast, Lurgan and other provincial towns. On 2 August, 1992 Bedford Street in Belfast was severely damaged by bombs; on 23 September a 2,000-pound bomb destroyed the forensic laboratories in south Belfast and damaged 700 homes; the main street of Bangor was bombed on 21 October; on 13 November a massive van bomb devastated the commercial heart of Coleraine; and further damage was inflicted on shopping areas of Belfast on 1 December. Inside London’s financial ‘square mile’ a bomb containing 100 pounds of semtex killed three people and inflicted damage estimated at several hundred million pounds on 29 April.
20. Searching for Peace, 1992-93
The Conservative government, returned to power in 1992 with John Major as Prime Minister, and the Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition in Dublin applied themselves with new vigour to working out a common approach to planning Northern Ireland’s political future. John Hume, leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, had been having regular discussions and when these were revealed to the press in the spring of 1993, Hume declared he did not care ‘two balls of roasted snow’ if MPs and TDs objected. Taoiseach Albert Reynolds responded positively to news of the talks.
The year 1993 was marked by ferocity and atrocities perpetrated by both sides. Two IRA bombs in Warrington in Lancashire killed Jonathan Ball, aged three, and twelve-year-old Timothy Parry on 20 March. In reprisal loyalist paramilitaries killed four Catholic workmen at Castlerock, Co. Londonderry. On 24 April damage assessed at close to £1 billion was inflicted on London’s financial district by an IRA explosion at Bishopsgate. A spate of IRA bombs shattered parts of Belfast, Portadown, Magherafelt and Newtownards in May, June and July. In the autumn of 1993 loyalist paramilitary attacks on Catholics increased and on 23 October the Provisionals planted a bomb in Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road: nine innocent civilians were killed along with one of the bombers. In revenge loyalists killed two workmen in a refuse yard in west Belfast, two brothers at Bleary in Co. Down and seven people at Greysteel in Co. Londonderry between 26 and 30 October.
Reynolds met Major in London and on 15 December 1993 a joint declaration was presented by both premiers from Downing Street. In a complex document the most striking point was that Sinn Féin was invited to take part in talks if the IRA ended its campaign. In retrospect, the Downing Street Declaration was a decisive move towards the ending of violence and in launching what became known as the ‘peace process’.
Dr Jonathan Bardon