Northern Ireland History

Northern Ireland History 1972-1976

In this year of 1972 in Northern Ireland there would be an increasing and most deadly of conflict where almost 500 people were to lose their lives.

Northern Ireland History - Bloody Sunday

I am not going to go into this incident in massive detail.  Many books, articles and documentary films have been made on this subject and I would not do it justice here, but have included it as it is significant in the history of Northern Ireland.  The background to this was that a civil right’s march had been planned to end in the city centre of Derry at the Guildhall.  The army had erected barricades to reroute the march and it was redirected to what is known as Free Derry Corner.  However a number of youths broke off from the march and persisted in pushing the barricade so as they could get to the original venue of the Guildhall.  This caused rioting and the army responded with water cannon, tear gas and the controversial rubber bullets.  The army were given permission to use live rounds.  Under the command of Major Ted Loden over 100 rounds of live ammunition were fired into the crowd.

30th January 1972, Londonderry - Thirteen people were killed, thirteen more were shot and  injured, one fatally when British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment opened fire.  This drove even more young people into the IRA.  Almost 40 years later those families impacted are still awaiting the publishing of an inquiry into what actually happened on that day.  The enquiry is due to be published in late June 2010 many years after this incident took place.  The Army claim they were fired at but the IRA deny that any of their units were involved.  No soldiers were either killed or injured and no weapons were ever recovered or found by the British Army.  Five of those wounded were shot in the back and many witnesses and journalists testified that all those they seen who were shot carried no arms.

There have been articles, books and films made on the subject and many differing views expressed.  It would take a website on its own to explain the full events of the day but needless to say it was one of the most significant days in the troubled history of Northern Ireland.  A young and angry Bernadette Devlin scratched the face of the then British Home Secretary Reginald Maulding in the House of Commons in the British Parliament.  Dublin withdrew their ambassador from London and also declared a day of national mourning for the funerals.  Paramilitary recruitment increased dramaticaly and the British Embassy in Dublin was set alight to a cheering nationalist crowd.  Violence increased to an even higher level and the Official IRA tried to attack the Parachute regiment's headquarters in Aldershot, but only succeeded in killing five female domestic staff, a gardener and a Catholic chaplain.

Like many thousands of other people I watched this on television.  We all saw bodies on the streets of Derry and in yet another iconic moment saw a local priest wave a white handkerchief as he led four people carrying a body away from the rioting.  We also saw the rioting and the troops reacting to that and at that moment I believed that hell had actually descended on Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland History - Abercorn Bar in Belfast

In March the Abercorn bar in the centre of Belfast was blown to pieces on a Saturday afternoon and two youg women lay dead and many more injured.  This moment was probably the first time I wanted to leave this country.   Just two weeks later a car bomb left in Donegal Street in Belfast saw another seven people dead with 150 injured, and those people had been running away from another bomb scare in a nearby street.

The British Prime Minister Edward Heath did consider many options and that included pulling Britain out of this most unstable of places, and agreeing a joint rule with the Irish Republic.  Faulkner urged Heath to continue with internment, and to ignore any attempt to give nationalists a guaranteed role in the Northern Ireland government.  He also refused to consider handing security measures to the British government.  William Craig who had lost the initial leadership battle to Faulkner formed a "Vanguard" organisation which was a unionist umbrella group to get him a wider support.  Craig did associate himself with the UDA and indeed made speeches were he said it may be one day necessary to liquidate the enemy.

Heath called Faulkner to London near the end of March and informed him that he would be introducing Direct Rule from Westminster, taking charge of security and looking at a way of doing some type of power sharing with nationalists.  Faulkner was genuinely shocked and when he reported back to his cabinet they all resigned.  Craig using his Vanguard organisation called a two day strike which brought Northern Ireland to a complete stand still.  Stormont had lasted half a century but its reign came to an end on 28th March 1972.

This was a time of despair for Unionists but Heath had decided that Stormont with its Unionist domination was actually part of the problem, rather than an actual solution.  One thing was certain that the violence experienced in the Province in 1972 was of the most frightening and regular kind imaginable, with car bombings, almost 500 dead, shootings every day, rioting and robbery a regular feature on the news.
Direct rule was introduced and the first Secretary of State was William Whitelaw, a Conservative minister.

His job was virtually impossible as against a background of constant and violent conflict; he attempted to bring the various political parties together to at least attempt to talk.  He did release some people who had been interned and he also introduced something which in later years would be significant, that of awarding a "Special Category" status to prisoners associated with paramilitary groups.  

Whitelaw also arranged for meetings with senior Republicans including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, which proved to be fruitless.  He did also meet Loyalist paramilitaries at Stormont Castle.  All the while, paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide continued to grow in both strength and number.  The UDA staged many public marches mainly as a means of showing they were capable of defending their own areas and loyalist violence did increase so that by the end of 1972, they had killed around 120 people.  I can remember watching from my own bedroom window when about 30-40 members of the UDA marched around the back of my house.  They all wore dark sun glasses and had their faces covered, but they did march in unison and to command.  Some street barriers were erected at the bottom of my street and were manned both night and day.

The evilness of some of the attrocities was beyond anything that had been seen before.  Drunken loyalists raped a mother and then killed her handicapped son and the IRA tried to rip the life and soul out of Belfast on what became known as Bloody Friday.  In one single hour, twenty devices exploded taking away the lives of nine people and injuring many more.  The images of policemen shovelling burned and twisted remains into plastic bags was shown in the various forms of media, yet despite this the violence continued, as a new stage of depravity was reached and accepted.  Old people and a child were killed when the IRA set off a bomb in Claudy in County Londonderry.  It seemed that the depths of violence and attrocity simply knew no boundaries.

Whitelaw did publish a document for discussion which basically suggested that power sharing was required and that the Republic of Ireland also had a role to play in the affairs of N.Ireland.  This was welcomed by the SDLP and the Irish government and completely rejected by the IRA.  For Unionists it posed a new problem and Ian Paisley pushed for integration, Craig appeared set on a confrontational approach and Faulkner seemed willing to negotiate.  Whatever their chosen approach it became clear that this new British strategy had split the Unionist people in their views towards the idea of no Stormont government, Direct Rule and the suggestion of power sharing.

Northern Ireland History in 1973

Both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community in 1973 amidst continuing violence where the IRA also began sporadic attacks in England, and when the first loyalists were interned.  Whitelaw published his initial discussion paper and again this was reluctantly accepted as a basis for negotiation by Faulkner and rejected by both Craig and Paisley.  The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) wanted to accept it as a basis but still struggled with internment being in place.  Despite these mixed view points from the various parties an election for a power sharing assembly took place in June of 1973.  
The outcome of that was that Faulkner came out of the election leading a bitterly divided party and with no majority of popular unionist support.  The Assembly was divided from the start with so many groups involved, all with different view points and none willing to change.  The Assembly amounted to nothing more than a debacle and in the mean time, the violence continued though reduced as compared to the previous year.  A form of agreement was eventually made with 7 Unionists, 6 SDLP and 2 Alliance members forming the Executive.  The more militant groupings refused to take part in any elections or any Assembly.

Northern Ireland History Sunningdale Agreement

These three parties along with British and Irish government representatives met at Sunningdale in Berkshire England in 1973 and hammered out what became known as the "Sunningdale Agreement".  A key element in this was the agreement to have a Council of Ireland.  It was agreed that there would be 7 Northern Ministers and 7 Southern Ministers with a lower consultative tier of 30 people from the North Assembly and 30 from the Southern government.  There were many other agreements made but they did fail to deal with the main constitutional issues and indeed the agreed security issues.  That said each party having gained something went back to their parties to attempt to sell the agreement.
On the 1st January this Executive took office and was proclaimed as an historic day.  Brian Faulkner was the chief minister and Gerry Fitt became his deputy.  It was however doomed to failure from the beginning as it never had the majority of Unionist support to begin with and there were too many issues that had not been resolved, before it formed.  Many Unionists believed it was the start of a slippery slope towards a United Ireland.  The Ulster Unionist Council voted against The Council of Ireland causing Faulkner to resign and be replaced by Harry West, an uncompromising Unionist.  At its first meeting late in January open violence broke out when anti-Agreement Unionists attacked Faulkner supporters and the RUC had to intervene.

In the UK, Edward Heath and his Conservative party lost the next general election.  Harold Wilson and his Labour Party and another new Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees arrived in Northern Ireland.  He was met by a Protestant general strike intent on only one thing to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement. This strike was organised by the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) and was made up of trade unionists and predominantly Protestant work forces in the ship building, electricity and heavy engineering type industries.  

The first day of the strike was the 15th May 1974 and it was generally ignored.  The UDA then blocked roads and "persuaded" workers to go on strike, as men manned barricades with clubs and cudgels.  Electricity supplies fell right across the Province as many thousands were intimidated from going to work and neither the Army nor the RUC made any attempt to remove these barricades or keep the roads clear. On the third day of the strike bombs went off in Mongahan and Dublin which killed 25 people in Dublin and another 7 in the town of Monaghan.  The UVF were blamed for the bombs and it was also alleged that British intelligence had played a role in this.

I was 16 at the time and was now going to school in Antrim town.  I remember very clearly barricades which were being manned.  I also remember a shortage of food as the strike lasted from the 15th May for around two weeks.  I remember watching on television as milk was being dumped by farmers unable to get to the dairies.  Pubs closed, shops closed and factories were abandoned.  We also didn’t receive any post and I remember my mother setting up a gas stove as the electricity had failed a few times.  Petrol became scarce as many stations were closed and people simply stayed indoors simply praying that this would all end.

The strike continued and Wilson in his frustration made a television broadcast where he referred to loyalists as "people who spend their lives sponging on Westminster and British democracy, and then systematically assault democratic methods.  “Who do they think they are?” was one of his famous quotes.  This caused outrage within the Unionist community and Faulkner resigned from the Assembly when Rees refused to speak with the leaders of the strike.  Rees then put an end to the Executive and the Sunningdale Agreement was confined to history.

Loyalists celebrated this victory with a rally at Stormont as everyone else looked on in despair and the forlorn hopes of any type of political settlement.  Merlyn Rees was forced to go back to the drawing board, but it seemed unlikely that the Unionists fresh from a victory, were willing to consider anything that did not fully guarantee their numerical majority.  Trying to find any type of moderate middle ground in the vicious political opinion in Northern Ireland was going to be one large hill to climb, and meanwhile the political vacuum, fed hungry paramilitary mouths.

It was for this reason mainly that Rees legalised the UVF and Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA) so as he could enter into talks with both, even though they were done in secrecy and on an informal basis.  At differing points during both 1974 and 1975, it led to temporary cessation of activities by the IRA.  In between these cessations however the death count did continue to rise both in the Province and in England.  Bombs placed in public houses in Birmingham took the lives of 21 people with many injuries and 7 more lives were blown away at Woolwich and Guildford.
There was great sadness and despair as these were shown on television and in the background many different types of talks were taking place between differing groups of people.  The ceasfire by the IRA was "rewarded" by Rees not signing off internment requests,and by the scaling down of operations in Nationalist areas. Whatever notions or misconceptions were being read into potential agreements did however mean that although Rees was hinting that the British government had no political or territorial interest in N.Ireland, there was a sense of unease about the actions being taken.  Rumours at that time were suggesting that the continuing contact between the British government and the Republican movement could lead to a withdrawal of Britain from the affairs of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland History 1975

For much of 1975, Loyalist violence remained high and was responded to by the IRA in a set of "tit for tat" killings.  In December 1975, Rees released all the internees and declared that internment was now at an end.  The British it seemed had also no intention of withdrawing and in truth had actually been planning and developing a more appropriate security response.  The IRA it seemed had either been misled or misread what they had been hearing from the British government representatives, and they were now in a highly weakened state.  

The sense in Republican areas in the North of Ireland was that the old IRA leadership in the South had been duped by some clever talking from the British Government.  Rees did set up a political convention but there seemed little point such was the political opinion where none were willing to move.  

The Unionists wanted Stormont back and if that happened they would consider appointing nationalists to some committee chair positions.  Any idea of power sharing was not going to be considered and so the vaccuum remained as was before.  The strike had ensured that the British government could not impose power sharing on the Unionist people and the Nationalist people would never agree to any return to the old Stormont days, and so late in 1975 there was a deep political divide and complete stalemate.


Violence continued with the IRA attacking Protestant bars and the UVF attacking Catholic bars and this continued in 1975 and into 1976.  Some of these incidents live long in the memory and following a wave of attacks by the UVF on Catholics going to work, IRA gunmen lined up on each side of a road and shot dead 10 Protestant workmen who were in a coach near Kingsmill in County Armagh.  Republicans had always argued strongly that they were not a sectarian organisation wanting working class Protestant and Catholics to work together, but some of their actions at that time most certainly called that claim into question. 

Northern Ireland History - The Shankill Butchers

The UDA and UDF however were quite open about their sectarian nature and regarded the Catholic population as legitimate targets.  The clearest indication of this was the "Shankill Butchers", a gang of UVF members who conducted a series of notorious killings.  They were led by a man called Lenny Murphy and they killed many Catholics and also other Loyalists involved in feuds at that time.  
They were best known for the wway they killed people as the murders were quite shocking and often involved savage beatings and knives.  This is what earned them their nick name as quite often meat cleavers and axes were used to murder Catholics who had been picked up at random, from Nationalist areas.  Murphy himself did not take part in any of the killings but he was known as a sadistic dedicated killer who ruled by terror.  The gang was eventually jailed in 1979 and Murphy himself was killed by the IRA, though he never stood trial for any of the gang's murders.

Northern Ireland History - The Peace Movement

A member of the IRA whilst driving a car was shot by the British Army and this car then lost control and crashed into a school fence crushing the Maguire family.  An 8 year old girl, a 2 year old boy and a six week old baby died.  The Catholic mother Anne Maguire awoke in hospital to hear the news and the waves of anger, sympathy and emotion that incident caused gave rise to what became known as the "Peace People Movement".  

Mairead Corrigan who was the children's aunt and a local woman known as Betty Williams started a march and rallies which were attended by thousands and attracted huge publicity.  Both women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but sadly internal wranglings and bickering caused a loss of credibility and the movement simply petered out.  Sadly some years later Anne Maguire took her own life, never quite able to recover from the deaths of her small children.

You can read about the Northern Ireland History 1976-1981 by clicking here.