Northern Ireland History - Northern Ireland Troubles 1970-1972

Northern Ireland History 1970 

The Northern Ireland Conflict Deepens

Rioting continued and gun fire became common as Republicans and Loyalists continued to defend their own areas with the British Army stuck in the middle.  I always remember a guy I went to school with bringing in an audio tape.  He put this into a portable cassette player and we all gathered around to listen to the sound of guns firing.  He had recorded this the night before in his bedroom and we were all completely enthralled.  There would probably have been five or six of us gathered around listening to the cracking sound of gunfire.  The strange thing is that this was all perfectly normal schoolboy behaviour in a very unusual way.  A distinct memory though was that we all could easily identify the different sounds that different guns would make.

The Unionist voting pattern changed with Unionist voters turning towards Ian Paisley's more hard line approach and away from Chichester Clark's Unionist party who were being pressurised by the British Government for change.  The British Army had at first been welcomed by Catholics as they had stopped the intimidation and burning of their homes.  

This relationship with the British Army was now changing to one of aggression and finally came to a climax in what is known to many as the Fall's Road Belfast curfew.  After a prolonged confrontation between Nationalist rioters and the Army, the lower Fall's Road area was sealed off by the Army who then went about house to house searches.  They found over one hundred weapons and over 20,000 people were told not to leave their homes.  These homes were then often ripped apart, floorboards prised up, doors kicked in and rooms ransacked.  

During this period four Catholics were killed by the Army none of whom had any IRA connections.  The Army also brought in by armoured car, two loyalist politicians to view the area.  That collective behaviour marked a huge turning point where Catholics generally moved from a neutral view point on the British Army to one of loathing for them.  I remember this change in attitudes being demonstrated by those I went to school with.  The initial curiousity of the Army had now passed and the boys who lived with these Catholic areas now told stories of the “Brits” coming into their houses in the middle of the night and wrecking them.  Although I was born and raised a Catholic, I actually lived in the town of Antrim which would have been a predominantly Protestant town.  My house was never searched so all of this was a revelation to me.

Northern Ireland History Politics

The Labour government lost the general election to the Conservatives.  A new British Prime Minister, Edward Heath and a new secretary of state, Reginald Maulding became the two principal British players in Northern Ireland.  They lacked a clear policy on Northern Ireland and much of the decision making was left to the British Army who were then strongly supported by Chichester-Clark, and between them they developed a more aggressive policy.  The Civil Right's Association gently faded away although they had gained one man one vote and some important changes to both housing and policing.
Northern Ireland History Gerry Fitt
Gerry Fitt
A new political grouping emerged known as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with Gerry Fitt as its leader and John Hume as the main strategist.  Jack Lynch in the Republic of Ireland was also forced to sack two of his ministers, Neil Blaney and Charles Haughey following reports of an illegal attempt to smuggle guns into Northern Ireland.  There was eventually a court case but all were acquitted and the full explanation of what actually happened may never be known.

In 1971 the first British Army soldier was shot by the IRA and the first IRA volunteer was shot by the British Army.  Deaths continued after this with police and civilians among its numbers.  When three Scottish soldiers were lured to the outskirts of Belfast and shot dead by the IRA, it is believed by many to be both a sickening episode and one that confirmed the so called "Troubles" had met a new desperate low.  In fact many people I have spoken to remember this as a time when they realised that Northern Ireland had sunk into a period of violence that would last for a very long time to come and would be both bloody and violent.  Chichester Clark went to Heath to get stronger security measures and when he failed to achieve this he resigned.

Brian Faulkner

Brian Faulkner
Brian Faulkner replaced Chichester-Clark as the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.  I always remember Faulkner as he had rather outstanding white hair and seemed to be a regular on both radio and television.  From the start of his ministerial role he introuduced a set of measures focussed on security to placate his own party and the British government.  

He did create some new committees at Stormont which were initially welcomed by the SDLP and in exchange for these he pushed Westminster for stronger security measures.  The SDLP then walked out of Stormont when Faulkner refused to hold a public inquiry when a Catholic man and a Catholic teenager were shot dead in Derry by the British Army.  In a past role Faulkner had successfully used internment as a method of defeating the IRA in the 1950s.  Internment simply means the arrest of suspects and placing them in jail without the need for any trial or right of defence.

Faulkner once again pushed for this measure to be implemented and under the codename of "Operation Demetrius" internment was introduced on the 9th August 1971, where thousands of troops and police were sent out to round up members of the IRA.  The reality of the situation was that many IRA men fearing internment had disappeared and the police intelligence was poor generally, yet many people were arrested and interned without trial.
Allegations were made of brutality which were initially denied but later found to be true.  The European Court of Human Rights stated years later that this episode of arrest and torture was an inhuman and degrading treatment.  In the first six months of internment over 2,000 people had been arrested, though most were set free after only a few hours.  

The actions by the British Army caused outrage in nationalist areas and widespread violence against the army broke out in many places with many long running gun battles taking place between the Army and the IRA.  Buses were stolen and set on fire and used as barricades, stone throwing, petrol bombing abounded with pavements being ripped apart to provide materials for those rioting.  

The main impact of internment was the resultant escalation in violence and from its introduction in August until Christmas 150 lives had been lost in a bloodbath.  This was the time when on my way to and from school the streets were regularly littered with broken, glass, stones and bricks and hundreds of burning vehicles.  Many times the bus that took us to school had to change the standard route and we then had to make our way through different streets to the school.  Here it was always easy to see soldiers hiding behind walls and laying in gardens.  It was also a regular occurrence to see youths throwing petrol bombs and anything they could find at those same troops.  Slogans were regularly dubbed on walls and in North Belfast complete lawlessness seemed to be the order of the day.

Despite this Faulkner and Heath continued hoping that they would defeat the IRA and win the war once and for all.  Those interned were held in poor conditions, some of them on an ageing ship known as the "Maidstone" and then later at Long Kesh.  What was interesting and proved to be quite damning was the fact that not a single Protestant had been interned during this time and for as long as internment lasted which was around four years.  That was despite the fact that there were active loyalist paramilitary groups, so this give credit to those who charged Faulkner with using internment as a political rather than a security tool.  In the year of 1971 another 170 people lost their lives and as internment continued, the IRA decided to begin their own offensive.  The Unionists continued to believe that there could be a military solution as did the unionist politicians and many within the Conservative Party in London.

The reason that the IRA could consider such an offensive was that their ranks had swelled due to the outrage of internment and the behaviour of the British Army.  For the first time in a very long time they had a large pool of volunteers to draw from, many of them motivated by revenge and hatred.  The many thousands of house searches, harassment of Catholic people in their own areas, and the number of deaths caused by the British Army had driven willing volunteers into the welcoming arms of the IRA leadership.  In addition to this a "rates and rent strike" was called and supported strongly by many nationalists resulting in around 20% of the entire population refusing to pay these.  Many Catholics also resigned from the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) which had replaced the B-Specials.  A complete alienation had taken place and as this was deepening by the day. Heath and Lynch were also conducting both a written and verbal war, each blaming the other about the usefulness of internment.  Loyalists were also keeping a close watch on Harold Wilson.  Wilson was in opposition at the time but he was making noises about the possibility of a United Ireland.

In December 1971 the UVF blew up a Catholic bar in North Belfast called McGurk's bar and 15 lives were lost in this single incident.  The government of the day flatly denied that loyalists had done this and even produced forensic evidence to show that the IRA was to blame.  Years later a member of the UVF confessed to having carried out the bombing.  At that time the UVF and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) were gathering strength in their own areas, afraid that the British Army may not be able to defeat the IRA.
It is very difficult to explain to people from outside Northern Ireland what state the country was in at this time.  Everyday was lived on the edge with no-one quite certain what the next day would bring.  The bombing at McGurk’s bar I remember well.  It was probably the first time I had seen such devastation.  The bomb that had been set off had caused the building to collapse and had killed 15 people.  I can remember that the man who owned the bar was injured but that his wife and twelve year old daughter were killed. Patrick McGurk the owner of the bar called for no retaliation.  Sadly like many such requests this was ignored by those intent on violence.  Only one person has ever served time for this and he self-confessed to be the driver of the getaway car used by the UVF team.

Click her to read about the Northern Ireland Troubles 1972-1976