Hope against History; The Course of Conflict in Northern Irelandby Jack Holland
In Northern Ireland, the conflicting claims and aspirations of Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist grate against each other, at each turn escalating the potential for renewed death and destruction. Hope for a peaceful future is not enough to cont with history. In Ulster, history has vanquished hope so often that it seems an
In Northern Ireland, the conflicting claims and aspirations of Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, republican and loyalist grate against each other, at each turn escalating the potential for renewed death and destruction. Hope for a peaceful future is not enough to cont with history. In Ulster, history has vanquished hope so often that it seems an act of folly to expect it to be otherwise. Until recently, the crisis in Northern Ireland was deemed a problem without a solution. Now that the major antagonists have agreed to work for peace and democracy, it is time for an authoritative assessment of "the troubles" that have plagued Ulster for more than a quarter century.
A Belfast product of mixed Catholic and Protestant heritage, Jack Holland is both of and above the fray; he is the writer who has stayed close to the terrorists and antiterrorists of every persuasion since 1966. In this cogent and balanced history, he unravels the complex and often misunderstood story of "the troubles," offering an insightful look at the past, a thorough vision of the present, and a glimpse of what the future may hold.
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RETURN OF THE GUNMAN
THE CONFLICT known as the Troubles began ingloriously in a Belfast side street with the murder of an old woman. Two drunk men emerged from an alleyway, their raincoats pulled up around their faces. One of them hurled a Molotov cocktail across the street at a Catholic-owned liquor store. He missed and hit the house next door, the home of Matilda Gould, a seventy-seven-year-old Protestant widow who lived there with her son. Unable to climb the stairs, she slept in the front room on the ground floor where the bomb landed.
The first sounds of a conflict that would endure for more than thirty years were the crash of glass from a breaking window, the whoosh of flame as a gasoline bomb burst, and the screech of pain as the burning liquid splashed over Mrs. Gould. Rescuers found her crumpled behind the door, burning.
It was 10:40 P.M. on May 7, 1966. And Northern Ireland was, technically speaking, at peace.
Within weeks of the firebombing there were two more killings. This time both victims were Catholics, picked more or less at random. The first was a drunk named John Scullion; he was shot on his way home while singing an Irish republican ballad. The second, Peter Ward, an eighteen-year-old bartender, was ambushed as he left an after-hours drinking den in the Protestant Shankill area of Belfast in the early morning of June 26.
The Troubles, most assumed, were a thing of the past, a name given to the turmoil of the early 1920s when the IrishRepublican Army fought to drive the British out of Ireland. The IRA succeeded in securing twenty-six of the thirty-two counties. Unionists wanted no part of an independent Ireland. They formed their own six-county state, Northern Ireland, carved out of the nine historic counties of the northern province of Ulster, where loyal Protestants possessed an overall majority, imposing their will through violence and intimidation on a recalcitrant Catholic minority. Belfast became its capital, an industrial boomtown, a jewel in the crown of the British Empire, and a bulwark against the nationalism that was threatening to engulf the whole of Ireland.
Between 1922 and 1966, Northern Ireland settled into two more or less homogenous blocks, Nationalist and Unionist, Catholic and Protestant. In many ways they were mirror images of each other. The Nationalists were exiles from the Irish nation; in their exclusion they clung to their religion as a mark of cultural identity; politically, they dealt with the Northern Ireland state by ignoring it. The Unionists were also a community under threata minority within the island of Ireland. In 1920, Lord Edward Carson, the founding father of Northern Ireland, calculated that three of the nine Ulster counties with a Catholic majority, Monaghan, Donegal, and Leitrim, would have to be ditched. But counties Derry, Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, and Down would give Ulster Protestants the homeland they sought. Unfortunately for Ulster Unionists, the prospect of a uniformly "loyal" Northern Ireland proved illusory. There were loyal parts, a majority of them, but in other places in Northern Ireland, Catholics formed a local majority. Northern Ireland was a state based on numbers, and numbers by their very nature have a habit of changing. With this inbuilt insecurity and separated from their parent nation, Britain, Protestants clung to the symbols of their Britishness: the Union Jack flag, the Royal family, and their own particular rituals that celebrated their triumph over popery and nationalism. The most famous of these were the parades organized by the Orange Order, a "brotherhood" of Protestants that had been created in the eighteenth century to fight Irish republicanism. That is, Northern Ireland was comprised of two communities who shared the same area but owed their allegiances to different nations. This difference was the fault line on which the state rested.
By 1966 the IRA numbered its adherents in Belfast on the fingers of two hands. Northern Ireland's Catholic population had failed to respond to its last summons to arms when in 1956 it launched a border campaign to "free" the remaining British-controlled corner of Ireland. The IRA's sporadic attacks against police stations, cross-border bridges, and bus stations sputtered out, barely noticed, in 1962. A liberal Unionist prime minister, Captain Terence O'Neill, was now leading Northern Ireland's parliament at Stormont, promising reform and the integration of the minority Catholic population into the economic and political life of a state that Protestant Unionists had completely dominated since its foundation in 1921. It was the 1960s, after all, the age of the Beatles, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, manned space flight, free love, and civil rights. Never in human history had change occurred at such a rapid pace. But for some in the backstreets of working-class Protestant areas of Belfast, that was precisely the problem.
Matilda Gould, John Scullion, and Peter Ward were the victims of a small group of working-class Protestant loyalists who called themselves the Ulster Volunteer Force and whose professed aim was to defend Northern Ireland against Catholic subversion. The fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 rebellion stirred their fears; their prime minister's overtures to Catholics and appeals that they should be treated with "due consideration and kindness" were seen as evidence of weakness and betrayal. Their idea of "defense" was to vandalize Catholic-owned premises in Protestant areas and scribble anti-Catholic graffiti on Catholic propertyjust prior to the firebombing, "Popehead" had appeared on the Catholic premises next door to Mrs. Gould's homeand kill "IRA" men.
A statement issued in the name of the UVF in May declared: "Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation." However, in 1966, IRA men were rare in Belfast, and when the UVF's halfhearted attempts to find them failed, it did what loyalist extremists have always done: killed the most vulnerable Catholic. Anyway, to loyalists such as Andrew Augustus Spence, known as Gusty, the founder of the UVF, a Catholic was by definition an IRA man.
Spence was a lantern-jawed former British soldier who had served as a military policeman in Cyprus. He worked as a steel-fitter in Harland and Wolff shipyards, whose workforce was almost entirely Protestant and the biggest employer in Belfast. When Spence and his gang were arrested in connection with the killing of Peter Ward, of which they were later convicted, one of them, Hugh McClean, blurted out, "I am terribly sorry I ever heard tell of that man Paisley or decided to follow him. I am definitely ashamed of myself to be in such a position."
The Reverend Ian Kyle Paisley was a big, braying anti-Catholic fundamentalist preacher who told men like Spence what they wanted to hear: that the Catholic threat to Ulster was real, part of a vast conspiracy organized from Rome; its agents were the IRA, liberal Unionists such as Terence O'Neill, the ecumenical movement as represented by the World Council of Churches, communists, and socialists; its conspirator-in-chief was the Pope. "Go into any Roman church in this city," begins a typical specimen of Paisley's preaching, circa 1964, "and what do you see? It's like Madame Tussaud's in London. Legions of graven images! Gaudy and vulgar, and an abomination in the sight of God. Equally rank in the nostrils and nauseating are the sanctuary lamps and candelabras placed before the sickly prints of the Virgin and other saints. These are the trappings of the great whore of Babylon and the Scarlet Woman.... Are you prepared to be party to this base surrender, to be Lundies and Papists?" (Lundy was a seventeenth-century traitor to the Protestant cause.) His favorite trick was to present an ex-nun to regale his outraged congregation with pornographic tales of convent life, a mixture of sexual fantasy and dubious theology that exercised an irresistible charm over a handful of mostly repressed social misfits.
Paisley drew most of his support from the fringe of the Protestant community, a murky world of crackpot religious extremists, bigots, and gunmen who set up paramilitary organizations that were usually unknown to anyone other than the handful of men that formed them. This was part of a hallowed Ulster Protestant tradition where the need for unofficial militias went back to the eighteenth century. There were at least three different groups using the name UVF. Paisley formed the Ulster Protestant Volunteers in the spring of 1966, the same year that Spence set up his version of the UVF.
Though many of Paisley's associates ended up behind bars for violent crimes, Paisley himself spoke out against acts of violence and avoided arrest on anything more serious than an offense for disorderly behavior. But his followers clearly regarded his public condemnations of violence as a mere fiction and acted accordingly They used the UPV headquarters in Belfast to hide their arms. When Paisley discovered weapons there, he ordered the UPV member who had hidden them to remove them at once. The preacher possessed the presence of mind to make sure his follower carried them out the back door, not the front, which he believed was under police surveillance. "If you let those fellows get away with the likes of that, they'd finish us all," he is reported to have remarked, somewhat disingenuously.
A visitor to Belfast at any time since about the mid-1880s would have found gangs of men like those around Spence and Bible-thumping bigots of Paisley's type. It was a hive of fundamentalist faiths and apocalyptic visionaries whose doomsday rhetoric stirred up poor Protestants against the increasing number of Catholics flooding into the city after the Famine of 1847. Catholics were also hungry for jobs and houses. Their large families swarmed in the narrow streets of the Falls Road, just a few hundred yards away from their Protestant neighbors on the Shankill. Moreover, the newcomers traditionally aligned themselves with Irish nationalism. Tension led to clashes and widespread rioting, which in 1886 became so bad as to "assume the character of a civil war." With the rise of the shipbuilding, ropeworks, and linen industries, Ulster became more closely bound economically to Britain and the empire. The severing of those bonds, Protestants feared, would mean the destruction of Ulster's prosperity and status as the only industrially developed part of Ireland.
It remained in 1966 a Victorian city, conservative, pious, and industrious, with work and worship dominating the lives of its citizens, both Catholic and Protestant. The working classes lived in the narrow streets that clustered around the mills and factories in little two-up, two-down redbrick row houses with black slate roofs. It was a city that even then still smelled of coal smoke and candle wax, tobacco and hemp. They were a God-fearing people, reared on religious as well as political dogmas, to whom sin and damnation were as real as the shriek of the factory horn that called them to work in the morning. On Sunday, Belfast shut down. Pubs, restaurants, and cinemas were closed. The children's parks were locked, the swings chained. Like the God of the Old Testament, Ulster had a low opinion of pleasure.
Political change or perceived change made the fault line between the Protestant and Catholic communities shift a little, and the tension released itself in outbursts of rioting and sectarian murder, as much a feature of Belfast life as the gaunt industrial chimney stacks and the church spires that dominated its skyline.
Beyond the low hills that surrounded the city was a world of small, mostly ugly nineteenth-century towns. As in the city, the two communities rubbed against each other, close together yet segregated. The pattern of land distribution dated back to the seventeenth century when James I began the Plantation. English and Scottish settlers supplanted the local, rebellious Celtic warlords. Though the cultural and linguistic links between Scotland and Ulster were far older, the Plantation was a traumatic change, representing the overthrow of the old order of Celtic aristocracy. Protestants farmed the valleys, and Catholics for the most part were left with the smaller, poorer farms among the hills, wresting a meager living from a few stony fields. "Every bullet and every bomb exploded in Northern Ireland," wrote a local historian, "is laid to the blame of a monarch dead these three centuries."
In 1966, the Northern Ireland Unionist Party was celebrating almost fifty years in government. Northern Ireland was, in effect, a one-party state, unique in Western Europe. Voting patterns were as fixed as the Plantation. Of the state's 1.5 million population, around 65 percent were Protestants, the rest Catholic, which kept the Unionists in power year after year, decade after decade. Though a substantial and growing minority, Catholics were politically passive. Nationalist politics was embodied in the Nationalist Partythough "embodied," suggesting life of some sort, is perhaps the wrong word. By the mid-1960s the party was effectively a corpse, killed off by its own verities, one of which was its steadfast refusal to recognize the reality of the Northern Ireland state. Its politicians, when elected to the parliament at Stormont, refused to deal with their Unionist counterparts or act as an opposition in any way. Its goal of achieving a united Ireland through ignoring partition was as far away as ever. During the entire period from 1921 until the 1960s, the Nationalist Party failed to get any reform passed that would benefit the Catholic population or address their grievances.
Catholics were still barred from certain jobs, such as in the Harland and Wolff shipyards. Few found their way into the civil service, and those that did remained on the lower scales. By 1966 only 4 percent of those earning £2,000 (roughly $4,000) were Catholics. In Derry, Northern Ireland's second city, with a large Catholic majority, only 32 of the city's 177 municipal employees were Catholics. Northern Ireland's housing standards were among the worst in the United Kingdom. With outdoor toilets and no bathrooms, some houses dated back to the 1840s. For working-class Catholics the situation was made worse because some local housing authorities, dominated by Unionists, favored their fellow Protestants when it came to allocation of new homes. This was especially noticeable in the west of Northern Ireland, where there was an overall Catholic majority. In County Fermanagh, for example, of 1,589 postwar houses built, 1,021 went to Protestants, 568 to Catholics. The distribution of houses had profound political implications in areas where Catholics were in the majority but Unionists still managed to hold on to the running of local authorities who allocated jobs and houses. It enabled the Unionists to gerrymander the ward system to ensure more Unionists were elected than Nationalists. Thus in Derry, Unionists, though in the minority, were able to hold twelve of the twenty council seats. However, discrimination was an accepted part of Ulster society and practiced on both sides. In some areas where Nationalists held power, such as Newry in south Down, that they should hire "their own" was taken for granted.
Catholics lacked political leadership. A twenty-seven-year-old teacher of French, John Hume, wrote in The Irish Times: "Weak opposition leads to corrupt government. Nationalists in opposition have in no way been constructive.... Leadership has been the comfortable leadership of flags and slogans.... There has been no attempt to be positive, to encourage the Catholic community to develop the resources they have in plenty to make a positive contribution in terms of community service." Hume founded the Derry Credit Union to help working-class Catholics save money in order to buy their own homes. He was a new type of Nationalist that was emerging in the mid-1960s. His mother worked in a shirt factory, and his father was unemployed. Discrimination barred young working-class Catholics like him from skilled manufacturing jobs. A growing number took the route of higher education, effectively moving into the middle class, to become lawyers, teachers, journalists, and academics. They wanted wider horizons than the narrow, sectarian politics of Northern Ireland seemed to offer. And thanks to British education reforms enacted in 1944 and later extended to Northern Ireland, Hume was able to go to a university, where he studied French. One of the first times Hume spoke in public was in a college debate in 1959, when he argued in favor of Ireland joining the Common Market (later the European Community). One of the benefits, he said, was that it would gradually make the border irrelevant. Traditional Nationalist politicians regarded such arguments as heretical. How could partition not be relevant? It was like telling a Catholic that there was no such thing as original sin. But Hume's contemporaries were as impatient with Nationalist verities as they were with the status quo and the unaddressed grievances on which it rested. They wanted change. The problem was, there existed no vehicle to effect that change. But in August 1966, just as Spence and his gang were going to trial for the murder of Peter Ward, a small group of republicans and political activists quietly met to create one.
An urge to make an old vehicle of change, the IRA, relevant to modern Ireland inspired the meeting. Since the debacle of the 1956-1962 border campaign, a powerful group arose within the IRA who saw the trench-coated gunmanthe symbol of the IRA's ethosas a prop that must be carried off the stage of Irish history and dumped. The romantic nationalism that came out of the barrel of his gun would have to be replaced with something else, something more relevant to a country whose most popular television show was Top of the Pops, on which swarms of miniskirted young women and longhaired young men gyrated once a week to the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. At the August meeting, a handful of disgruntled IRA men, left-wing intellectuals, Communist Party members, and trade union activists talked of infiltrating the trade unions to make contact with sympathetic Protestant workers. Like Hume, they were convinced that the old sectarian barriers that divided Catholic from Protestant would crumble. All that was needed was a program around which both Catholics and Protestants could unite. It was an optimistic, progressive vision, based on the left-wing assumption that given the opportunity, Catholic and Protestant workers would realize they shared common economic interests that outweighed the old nationalist ideologies and sectarian beliefs still dividing them.
The unity of Catholic and Protestant workers was the Holy Grail of Irish socialism and, to a lesser extent, republicanism. Progressive left-wing republicans had pursued it since the beginning of the twentieth century. And each time they failed to find it. But in 1966 it seemed right to try again. There were hopeful signs. A Labour government was in power in Britain under the leadership of Harold Wilson. Several Labour Party MPs were known to be keen to reform Northern Ireland and expose its abuses. In February the Catholics of west Belfast had elected Gerry Fitt to Westminster. Fitt was a member of the small Republican Labour Party. He was a bluff and jovial former dockworker, a lifelong trade unionist, the sort of Belfast man who looks as if he was born wearing a cloth cap and with a pint in one hand and a betting slip in the other. In Westminster, Fitt formed alliances with interested Labour MPs to press for the British government to take a more active role in Northern Ireland affairs. For leftwing republicans this seemed to be part of the general movement toward change that was in the air in the 1960s.
On January 29, 1967, a second meeting was held, this time in Belfast. The original group had expanded considerably to include members of the tiny Ulster Liberal Party and the Northern Ireland Labour Party. A liberal Unionist was co-opted onto a steering committee. Out of this, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was born.
Its constitution proclaimed its goals:
1. To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens 2. To protect the rights of the individual 3. To highlight all possible abuses of power 4. To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly, and association 5. To inform the public of their lawful rights
The group also demanded the abolition of the Special Powers Act, draconian security legislation enacted in the early years of Northern Ireland when the IRA was still a menace. This allowed the Northern Ireland police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, wide powers of arrest, including detention without trial. There were also calls for the abolition of the B-Specials, a part-time constabulary set up during the Troubles of the 1920s, whom Catholics regarded as sectarian.
NICRA's tactics of marches and sit-downs would be based on the campaign for black civil rights, which at the time was reaching its climax in the United States. In 1968 it took to the streets as a result of a housing protest. Austin Currie, a Nationalist MP for east Tyrone, wanted to draw attention to the case of a nineteen-year-old Protestant woman, a secretary for a local Unionist, who had been allocated a house over the heads of 269 people on the waiting list, many of them Catholics with large families. Attempts to raise the matter in Stormont proved fruitless. Currie recalled the advice of Labour MP Paul Rose who was active on the Northern Ireland issue. "No British government, including this one, will intervene to remedy injustice in Northern Ireland unless you people there force it to," he told Currie. On June 20, 1968, Currie, his wife, and a local farmer broke into the disputed house and squatted.
"The media arrived within the hour.... After three and a half hours the bailiffs arrived with a sledgehammer. The door was smashed down and we were ejected none too gently into the lenses of the waiting media. That night the BBC news from London for the first time carried a report of injustice in Northern Ireland. Paul Rose rang to congratulate me. The process of forcing the British government to intervene to remedy injustice in the North had begun."
Two months later, in support of Currie, NICRA organized its first protest march, from Coalisland to Market Square in Dungannon, County Tyrone. A minister in the Unionist government, John Taylor, declared that Dungannon town center was "Unionist territory." The Reverend Ian Paisley and his supporters immediately organized a counterdemonstration, which occupied Market Square to block the civil rights protesters from entering. This was a clash of 1960s culture with fundamentalist, conservative Ulster. But it was occurring on traditional ground. That is, it was the form of the protest as much as its content that spurred Protestant reaction. The issue, as the Protestants saw it, was territorial. To march in Ulster is to stake a claim on a territory. It is to say, "I have a right to march here because this is mine." For this reason traditional parades such as those taking place around July 12 each year are basic expressions of the underlying conflict and over the years have provoked so much violence. Now, the civil rights movement was marching to draw attention not to territorial claims but to fundamental issues concerning injustice and the nature of the state. Their struggle was aimed at a public, legal sphere, where they hoped a consensus could be created on the need for change. But to Paisley and his followers, and to other less militant Protestants also, it was an expansion by the enemy into territory that was not theirs. And they responded as Ulster Protestants always have to perceived threatswith blockades, countermarches, and, ultimately, extreme violence.
NICRA's next march was an attempt to show that its campaign was not about territory but about bridge-building. It was planned for October 5 in Derry city. It would proceed from the Protestant Waterside district and cross a bridge into the west side of the city, which was predominantly Catholic, for a rally in Guildhall Square. However, a few within NICRA and on its fringes had different intentions and effectively took over the organization of the event. A small group of Derry socialists hoped "to provoke the police into overreaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities." The IRA, which had been taking a backseat in these events, also got involved. Their volunteers were ordered to act as "stewards" of the march. When it was announced that a few prominent Labour politicians from Britain would be taking part, the IRA instructed its men to ensure that "if the police lashed out they would connect with newsworthy skulls." When the authorities banned the march, the organizers declared their intention to go ahead, and the scene was set for a nasty confrontation.
Four hundred marchers gathered on a gray Saturday afternoon near the Derry railway station, far fewer than expected. But British and Irish television cameras were there as the Royal Ulster Constabulary blocked the route. Several protesters approached the police cordon to remonstrate with the officers. A baton was thrust into the stomach of one, and he collapsed writhing in pain. The RUC waded into the marchers' ranks, clubbing them to the ground. Westminster MP Gerry Fitt's head was split in front of the television cameras. Meanwhile, a second line of RUC men took the marchers in the rear. A water cannon drenched respectable MPs and militants alike. The demonstrators fled in confused panic into the Catholic west side of the city, the RUC in pursuit. The police were met with stones and gasoline bombs in sporadic attacks that lasted into the early hours of Sunday morning.
For many television viewers in Britain, their first sight of Northern Ireland was that of a policeman batoning a peaceful protester. Their ignorance of the Ulster situation was profound; most assumed that the Irish problem had been settled decades ago. They were shocked not only at the pictures of the violence but at the fact that unlike the English "bobby," the RUC were armed, more like a paramilitary unit than a civilian police force. NICRA effectively exploited the coverage with such slogans as "British Rights for British Citizens." As a result, Northern Ireland was suddenly thrust onto the Wilson government's agenda. For the British, after almost fifty years of keeping the Irish problem at arm's length, it was an unwelcome intrusion.
Wilson ordered the Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O'Neill, along with two of his more prominent ministers, William Craig and Brian Faulkner, to London where he impressed upon the Unionists the need for reforms. O'Neill announced on his return that the Special Powers Act would be abolished as soon as it was safe to do so; housing allocation would be in future based on a point system; the company vote, allowing businessmen more than one vote, was to be abolished; and there would be reforms in local government, including the abolition of the Unionist-controlled Derry city council. An ombudsman was to be appointed to handle complaints. Craig, a hard-liner who resented British interference, was furious, and once back in Belfast, he stirred up Unionist resistance to the changes with increasingly violent speeches. He depicted the whole civil rights movement as a stalking horse for the IRA. Faulkner, more wily and driven mainly by ambition, bided his time while looking to replace O'Neill as prime minister.
After five years as head of government, O'Neill was in an invidious position. His problems stemmed partly from the fact that he was not a typical Unionist. Educated at Eton College in England, he looked and sounded more like an upper-class Englishman than an Ulsterman. For all the ferocity of their claims to be British, Ulster Unionists deeply suspected Britain, with its changing, multicultural society, its more easygoing morals, and liberal opinions. O'Neill, by accent, education, and class, was tainted and distrusted. His political gestures deepened that distrust among the more hard-line elements in Unionism. In 1965 he had invited Sean Lemass, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) to Stormont, a harmless gesture in any other but the Ulster political context, with watchtowers and gates as its symbols and betrayal as its rallying cry. He visited a Catholic school and was photographed speaking with nuns. But, in fact, for most of his time as leader, O'Neill had made no serious attempts at addressing Catholic grievances. Instead, he concentrated on economic changes, based on attracting outside investors to Northern Ireland to replace its flagging industries. He hoped that a new prosperity would result that would dissolve traditional sectarian differences, and Catholics would live like Protestants as contented Ulstermen and -women. By 1968, however, it was too late for such long-term solutions. O'Neill was trapped between his enemies within Unionism and the growing anger and impatience of Catholics.
"Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds," observed Alexis de Tocqueville of the days leading up to the French Revolution and the end of the ancien régime. "For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to others and they appear more galling." O'Neill's promise of change unleashed forces that the ancien régime of Unionism could not contain.
NICRA branches mushroomed all over Northern Ireland, and other groups sprang up. More militant left-wing students created People's Democracy; among them was a young woman called Bernadette Devlin. John Hume, worried that left-wing republican influence was too strong in NICRA, established the Derry Citizens' Action Committee. More demonstrations followed, and O'Neill appealed for calm. "Ulster stands at the crossroads," he said on a television broadcast as 1968 came to a close. "Our conduct over the coming days will decide our future. For more than five years now I have tried to heal some of the deep divisions in our community. I did so because I could not see how an Ulster divided against itself could hope to stand.... What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom? Or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast?"
NICRA responded favorably to O'Neill's speech and said it was temporarily halting its demonstrations. But the People's Democracy declared it would hold a long march from Belfast to Derry, beginning on January 1, 1969. One of its leaders said that it would be modeled on Martin Luther King's march in 1966 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which "exposed the racist thuggery of America's Deep South and forced the U.S. government into major reforms."
It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the fourth day of the one-hundred-mile trek, with an RUC escort, the marchers reached Burntollet Bridge outside Derry. A mob of loyalists, several hundred strong, lay in wait. According to Bernadette Devlin, "A curtain of bricks and boulders brought the march to a halt. From the lanes burst hordes of screaming people wielding planks of wood, bottles, laths, iron bars, crowbars, cudgels studded with nails, and they waded into the march beating the hell out of everybody.
The police did little to protect the marchers. As they staggered into Derry, bloodied and battered, riots erupted in the Catholic Bogside district where vicious clashes occurred with the RUC. Three hundred people were injured, and Catholics accused the police of running amok.
O'Neill succumbed to British government pressure to set up an inquiry into the disturbances. His enemies within his own party saw their opportunity Brian Faulkner resigned from the cabinet, accusing O'Neill of abdicating the powers of the Stormont government. Craig attacked him for not standing up to the British and being unable to lead the Unionist Party. Almost fifty years of single-party rule at Stormont, during which Unionists were left to their own devices, made some forget that sovereignty lay not in the Belfast parliament but in Westminster. In a desperate bid to bolster his position, O'Neill called a general election for February 24.
For the first time since 1920 and the divisive debate over whether or not Northern Ireland should comprise six or nine counties, the Ulster Unionist Party began to fragment. Pro-O'Neill Unionists stood against anti-O'Neill Hnionists, and former colleagues bitterly denounced each other. Paisley stood under the label of Protestant Unionist and challenged O'Neill in his own constituency. A similar fragmentation occurred on the Nationalist side. Civil rights campaigners such as John Hume and Austin Currie ran in constituencies formerly the domain of the old Nationalist Party. In Belfast, Gerry Fitt's Republican Labour Party sought to broaden its base among Nationalists and trade union activists.
The election result was a failure for O'Neill and the moderate Unionists. Though his majoritytwenty-seven pro-O'Neill Unionists as against twelve anti-O'Neill MPs or undecidedsseemed solid, it was not the overwhelming endorsement of his policy he felt he needed. Most embarrassingly of all, Paisley, his nemesis, came within fifteen hundred votes of taking his seat. Catholics also failed to support pro-O'Neill Unionists. His attempt to build a bridge between moderate Unionists and moderate Nationalists collapsed under Paisley's jeers that "bridges like traitors go over to the other side." The election dubbed the "crossroads" election (after O'Neill's speech of the previous December) showed that a significant block of Ulster's Protestants were taking the road of extremism. It also showed that Nationalists were following a different road from that of the old Nationalist Party. The party's overall vote dropped catastrophically to 6 percent. Civil rights activists, including Hume, took three seats from Nationalist Party MPs. In Belfast, where the party had never been strong, it ceased to exist. Republican Labour with two seats was now the voice of Belfast Nationalists.
The realignment that took place in February 1969 would set Northern Ireland's political mold for the coming decades. Two months later it saw the election to Westminster of Bernadette Devlin, a twenty-one-year-old student, civil rights campaigner, and the youngest MP for fifty years. The left-wing IRA leadership supported her campaign as a way of bringing civil rights issues right into the heart of the British political establishment. Her maiden speech was a fiery attack on British government policy, and she warned that if British troops were sent to Ulster, "I should not like to be either the mother or sister of any unfortunate soldier stationed there."
Wilson, perhaps misreading the February election result as a clear-cut victory for moderate Unionists, continued to press O'Neill to make reforms, especially to introduce one-man, one-vote for local elections. He moved to introduce the reform. Militant loyalists were more frustrated than ever. O'Neill was still in power, bending to British pressure and as ready as ever, as they saw it, to sell out. On the gable walls in Protestant areas of Belfast was scrawled: "Gusty Spence Was Right."
After Spence was imprisoned for life, his organization, the UVF, merged with two smaller groups on the Shankill Road using the same name. One of these was no more than a gang of street thugs who liked to beat up any Catholics who wandered into their area. Among its members, however, were Davy Payne and Jim Craig, men who would later rise to prominence in loyalism's violent underworld. In the spring of 1969, UVF elements linked up with members of Paisley's Ulster Protestant Volunteers. On March 21 they bombed a Catholic church in County Antrim. On March 30 an electricity substation in Protestant east Belfast was struck. Three weeks later, a few days before O'Neill was to announce the abolition of the property vote in local elections, a wave of explosions rocked Ulster. The targets, as before, were water and electricity utilities, including Belfast's reservoir.
Paisley alleged it was the work of the IRA. But RUC intelligence pointed in a different direction, and O'Neill was told that the attacks were the responsibility of Protestant extremists linked to the UVF. O'Neill had banned the UVF in 1966 after the first wave of murders. It now exacted its revenge. On April 28, demoralized and disheartened, his hope of a moderate center embracing Catholic and Protestant broken, O'Neill resigned.
At the trial in April 1970 of one of those accused of taking part in the bombing campaign, it was revealed that the bombing conspiracy also involved members of Paisley's UPV. It was stated that the defendant, Sam Stevenson, a UPV man and a member of Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, "was not the man who conceived the idea, nor had he a mind subtle enough to consider the long-term implications of his conduct." It was suggested that the mysterious mastermind of the plot to remove O'Neill was Paisley himself. Over the years, though he has been associated with violent organizations, there has never been hard evidence to connect Paisley to violent acts. He himself condemns violence. But there is evidence (as already noted) that he knew members of his UPV were acting illegally at times. The organization's constitution, which forbade Catholics to join, advocated using whatever "legal" means were necessary to uphold the constitution. However, it contained a clause that stated, "When the authorities act contrary to the Constitution, the body will take whatever steps it thinks fit to expose such unconstitutional acts." This was easily interpreted by extreme loyalists as meaning that through violence they could rid themselves of someone like O'Neill whom they considered a traitor.
Brian Faulkner lost the Unionist leadership contest to James Chichester-Clark. Right-wing Unionists who hoped for stronger leadership were soon disappointed. Chichester-Clark would face the same dilemma as his predecessor, caught between insecure and angry loyalists, British government pressure for reform, and increasingly belligerent Nationalists, some of whom began thinking that if Protestants can use violence to achieve their aims, then perhaps the age of the trench-coated gunman was not yet past.
Meet the Author
Jack Holland writes for the Irish Echo and teaches journalism at NYU. A poet and novelist, he is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and co-wrote the 1998 PBS documentary Daughters of the Troubles; his last book, Phoenix: Policing the Shadows, about counterintelligence activities in Ulster, was a best-seller in Britain and Ireland.
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