Mural on Divis Street in remembrance of the Falls Curfew, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mural on Divis Street in remembrance of the Falls Curfew, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Ardfern / Wikimedia Commons / cropped from original / licensed under CC 3.0, links at the bottom of article

Chris Bambery looks at the history of the Northern Ireland state – and the violence Britain was prepared to use to maintain it 

Just before Christmas 1993 the British prime minister and his counterpart, the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, issued the Downing Street Declaration paving the way eventually to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the effective ending of Republican and Loyalist violence.

Included in the text of the Good Friday Agreement was the statement, copied from the earlier Downing Street Declaration, that Britain has ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland.

Yet that wasn’t quite true, was it? As we shall see, Britain had 70 years before divided Ireland, the underlying cause of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and in August 1969 British troops had been sent in to support a Unionist government leading to a trail of events which exploded into a guerrilla war.

The British government was never some innocent bystander in Northern Ireland, therefore, but instead the midwife and the ultimate guarantor of a sectarian, Unionist one-party state in Northern Ireland.

The sectarian state was the product of British-imposed partition in Ireland. An artificial Unionist majority was constructed in six of the nine counties of Ulster, which trapped its Catholic minority population into a state that discriminated against them over employment, the allocation of homes and much else.

Why this occurred was because, back in 1921, the Belfast area was the one industrial centre in Ireland, integrated into the British imperial market. The Unionist bourgeoisie had strong ties to the British elite, especially the Conservative Party, and the military, which it exploited to the hilt. It supposedly offered the majority Protestant population of this state, ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.’

Northern Ireland was born in violence, directed against the Catholic minority, repression was always a permanent feature and the state relied on bodies of armed men: the armed Royal Ulster Constabulary, overwhelmingly Protestant, and the B Specials, an entirely Protestant state militia which was permanently armed.

The future looked bright in 1921, the future looked Orange. But post-First World War Britain had entered its irreversible decline which hammered its staple industries such as shipbuilding, textile and engineering on which Northern Ireland depended.

British troops return

By the late 1960s, the links between the Unionist elite and the British ruling class had weakened, Northern Ireland was no great economic asset and British governments urged rapprochement with the Irish Republic, now an important economic partner for Britain, and some face-saving reforms in what was now a political slum.

That enraged much of the Unionist Party and its support but it also encouraged the emergence of a Civil Rights Movement opposing a system under which Unionist businessmen were given extra votes in local elections and in the city of Derry, with a majority Catholic population, council boundaries were gerrymandered to produce a Unionist run council.

On October 1968 a civil rights march in Derry was batoned off the streets by the RUC. The state had responded the only way it knew how, with violence. Events started spiralling out of control.

In August 1969 British troops were rushed onto the streets of Northern Ireland. The narrative from Westminster would be that British troops were sent in ‘to keep the peace’ and to ‘keep the two sides apart,’ the suggestion being that the British army was a neutral force trying to restrain the lethal passions of the Irish.

In fact, the Labour government of Harold Wilson took the decision after a request from the Unionist Government in Stormont on the basis that troops were needed to maintain ‘order.’ In Derry, the Royal Ulster Constabulary had effectively been beaten by an insurgent Catholic population in the Battle of the Bogside.

Down the road, that London narrative would include the idea that the Provisional IRA was to blame for introducing the gun into Northern Ireland.

This was a bare-faced lie. The RUC had always been armed and the B Specials kept their guns at home. After the RUC had used their batons to drive Civil Rights marches off the streets of Derry and other towns they continued to act as if nothing had changed.

The Troubles begin

The first two deaths of the Troubles, on 13 August 1969, were of Catholic men at the hands of the RUC. 67-year-old Francis McCloskey died after being struck on the head by an RUC officer during a baton charge against rioters in Dungiven. Two days later, 42-year-old Derry man, Samuel Devenney, a father of nine, was killed when several RUC officers broke into his house and had beaten several members of his family, during the course of which Samuel was fatally injured.

The bombings had already begun in March and April 1969 when the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force bombed water and electricity installations in Northern Ireland. They hoped the attacks would be blamed on the IRA and would provoke harsh measures from the Unionist government which they regarded as too ‘soft.’

The first RUC officer killed in the Troubles was shot dead in October 1969 by the UVF during a riot on the Shankill Road in reaction to the dissolution of the B Specials.

But by then a crucial event in the development of the Troubles had taken place. A full-scale pogrom was unleashed on Catholic West Belfast in August 1969. RUC armoured cars, equipped with machine guns, fired on the Catholic Divis Flats killing a six-year-old boy, while further up the Falls Road, police failed to stop a Loyalist crowd, including B Specials mobilised by the Unionist government in the city, from burning down two terraced streets in Catholic neighbourhoods. Eight people were killed over three days and 750 injured while 1,800 Catholic families had been forced to flee their homes.

The British army arrived in West Belfast in the middle of this. They took up positions on the Falls Road and at the Divis Flats nearer the city centre because the RUC had briefed them this was an IRA insurrection. That meant the Loyalists were able to continue their attacks on Catholic homes just to the east.

The then British Minister of Defence, Denis Healey, would recall later:

All the violence was coming from the Protestants at the time.

So where was the IRA? In Belfast it was very small and had few weapons or ammunition with which to carry out what they saw as their traditional role, defending the Catholic population from Unionist attacks. They did deploy, and shot one Loyalist, but were simply overwhelmed. The IRA leadership in Dublin refused their requests for weapons arguing that they were committed to maintaining peaceful Civil Rights protests.

The IRA leadership had shifted left in the 1960s but were influenced by the Communist Party which pursued a ‘stages’ theory. This meant that in both the Republic and Northern Ireland the aim was to pursue a fight for democracy. Only then could matters move on to Irish unity and only after that socialism. Overnight all this was swept away.

The IRA split and the Provisional IRA was formed, committed to launching an armed struggle for a United Ireland.

The Provisional IRA began a bombing campaign in October 1970 but it wasn’t until February 1971 that it first killed a British soldier in North Belfast.

Rather than the Provisional IRA introducing the gun into Northern Ireland, its growth was a reaction to RUC and Loyalist violence, much of it sanctioned by the Unionist government, and to the repression of the British army.

By committing troops in August 1969 the British government was committed to maintain a state in Northern Ireland which would prove irreformable. Between August 1969 until March 1972, when they swept away the Unionist government and took direct control from Whitehall, the British government and its army attempted to prop up Unionist rule and cajole that government into introducing reforms. In turn, it found its support attacking it for being too soft.

Growth of the IRA

The milestones in British actions creating popular support for the IRA were:

  • In July 1970, British troops searched a house in West Belfast’s Lower Falls looking for weapons. That provoked, as now had become normal, rioting. The British commander sealed off an area with 3,000 homes and imposed a curfew which would last for 36 hours. Thousands of British troops moved into the curfew zone, carrying out house-to-house searches for weapons causing much destruction, and saturating the area with CS gas. Unionist ministers were taken on a tour of the area by the Army. The curfew ended on 5 July when a march of women breached British lines to bring food to the occupants. Four civilians had been killed by the British Army, at least 78 people were wounded and 337 were arrested.
  • In August 1971 the Unionist government insisted on internment without trial. On 9 August 1971, the army swooped into Catholic areas at dawn dragging off 346 men to be interned without trial, often for years. Few were IRA activists. No Loyalists were taken. Nine civilians were shot dead as rioting spread in response. By now the IRA was recruiting widely.
  • In its own analysis of operations in Northern Ireland, the British army stresses it opposed internment and only acted under orders. This did not stop the army secretly taking 12 men away and subjecting them to a grotesque experiment in ‘sensory deprivation techniques’.
  • A month before, General Harry Tuzo, the army commander in Northern Ireland, briefed the then Tory government on the situation in Derry telling them that:

‘A choice had to be made between accepting that Creggan and Bogside were areas where the army was not able to go or to mount a major operation which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians.’

The government raised no objections.

Bloody Sunday and beyond

On 7 January 1972 General Robert Ford declared in a memo to Tuzo,

I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry young hooligans after clear warnings have been issued. I am convinced that our duty to restore law and order requires us to consider this step.

At Downing Street four days later prime minister Ted Heath told his cabinet,

As to Londonderry [Derry], a military operation to reimpose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.

Accordingly, the paratroop regiment was sent to the city on the eve of a protest march against internment. On 31 January after a minor riot Paratroopers shot 14 unarmed protesters dead. This was a massacre similar to ones British troops had committed around the world. Killings by the army would continue. In response, the IRA became the most effective guerrilla movement of its day.

Between 1972 and the eventual final IRA ceasefire, and the destruction of its weapons, it became clear that while the British Army could not defeat the IRA neither could the IRA defeat the British Army.

That did not stop terrible acts on both sides. As we now know British intelligence helped run a ‘dirty war’, targeting Republicans for Loyalist gunmen and providing weapons. More came from Apartheid South Africa. These were, in the main, used to gun down any Catholic simply for being a Catholic.

In 1981 the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed 10 Republican prisoners to starve to death following a hunger strike in pursuit of being treated as political prisoners, not criminals.

But the hunger strikes saw the election of the leader of the IRA hunger strikers, Bobby Sands, to Westminster and hunger strikers and their supporters won seats in the Irish parliament and in Northern Ireland local elections. This encouraged Sinn Fein to contest seats and, eventually, to take its seats in the Irish parliament and then the Northern Ireland Assembly (they still refuse to do so at Westminster).

The reality of Northern Ireland was that it was still a state based on repression, sectarianism and poverty where Catholics were second class citizens (working-class Protestants were little better off – 2 shillings and sixpence looking down on 2 shillings’ as the saying went).

The rise of a Sinn Fein led the Republican leadership to claim they could achieve Irish unity ‘with a ballot slip in one hand and an Armalite in the other.’ In truth, there was a tension between the two parts of that strategy. In the late 1980s, as a military stalemate was obvious, the IRA debated a massive escalation of their war or entering negotiations.

The IRA was operating within a minority community of a state that was the most heavily policed and observed in the world outside occupied Palestine. The turn was made towards a negotiated cease-fire and political settlement.

The Good Friday agreement involved peace, popular among all but a tiny few, and the creation of a political system, power-sharing, in Northern Ireland which has not delivered on promises of change. Many of Northern Ireland’s fundamental problems remain.

Brexit and a United Ireland today

Today the bungled Brexit deal has created a situation which is not sustainable with Northern Ireland effectively remaining in the EU alongside the Republic while the rest of the UK has quit. Added to that is the general incompetence of the Boris Johnson government, all of which is encouraging support for a united Ireland even among those whose great grandparents would have taken up arms to stop such a thing.

The big question is: what kind of society might that be? In Northern Ireland, the NHS exists. Would that be maintained and extended across Ireland, or would it be the Republic’s system mixing public and private care, including still Church-run hospitals?

At the beginning of the 20th century, on the eve of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary turmoil in Ireland, the Irish socialist, James Connolly – executed by the British for his leadership role in the 1916 Easter Rising – argued thus:

But who are the Irish people?

Is it the dividend-hunting capitalist with the phraseology of patriotism on his lips and the spoil wrung from sweated Irish toilers in his pockets; is it the scheming lawyer – most immoral of all classes; is it the slum landlord who denounces rackrenting in the country and practices it in the towns; is it anyone of these sections who today dominate Irish politics? Or is it not rather the Irish working class – the only secure foundation on which a free nation can be reared – the Irish working class which has borne the brunt of every political struggle, and gained by none, and which is today the only class in all Ireland which has no interest in perpetuating either the political or social forms of oppression – the British connection or the capitalist system?

The Irish working class must emancipate itself, and in emancipating itself it must, perforce, free its country.

Those words ring true to me today.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.