Northern Ireland History - Northern Ireland Troubles 1976-1981

Northern Ireland History 1976

Roy Mason took over as the Secretary of State from Merlyn Rees.  He was a more strict and uncompromising man who focussed on security and in particular a military defeat of the IRA.  In May 1977 a new group formed called the United Unionist Action Council (UUAC).  Their prime objective was to have another strike to try and force the hand of the British government to have a Stormont government put back in place.  It was not supported by all Unionists however it was by Harry West and the Orange Order.  Ian Paisley was also keen to push the strike through but business people and trade unions appeared to have no appetite for it. 

The strike went ahead in early May and once again intimidation was used to prevent people getting to work with gangs of UDA members patrolling the street.  However after a few days people began slowly drifting back to work when the police and British troops started to clear the main roads, in a move that did not happen in the previous strike.  A key element also missing from this strike was the fact that Ian Paisley and Ernest Baird were unable to convince the Electricity Power workers to go on strike.

The remaining strikers also began to feel pressure from the main Protestant churches and when violence claimed the lives of three people, the strike was called off.  Paisley had stated that he would resign if the strike failed but then continued on afterwards.
I had just started work when this strike was called and my memory was fresh from the last such strike.  There was a difference this time though as none of the barricades were set up and there did not appear to be as much intimidation.  I had just started as an apprentice and contacted work to see if it was possible to get to my base in Belfast.  Some others had tried to but had been met with some opposition so I was advised to leave it for a couple of days and just report to my local base.  Some areas of Antrim had been cordoned off but generally work continued on as normal, but it was yet another of those very tense and divisive times.

Mason's new approach had assured Loyalists they had nothing to fear and paramilitary activity declined as they felt more assured with Mason in charge.  Mason also wanted the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to take the lead role in the security of N.Ireland and for the British army to provide a more supportive role.  As internment had been stopped Mason focussed on putting paramilitary, especially IRA members through a criminal system and into jail.  

Northern Ireland History 1976 - Diplock System

Since the beginning of the Troubles, juries had been abolished for fear of intimidation and had been replaced with a system known as the "Diplock" system.  This was simply a single judge making a legal decision on any case brought before him.  

The best way of convincing a judge was twofold: confessions and forensic evidence.  These became the policies of the RUC and an interrogation centre was created in Castlereagh in East Belfast and many paramilitaries rounded up and taken there.

Both loyalists and republicans complained that brutality had taken place in Castlereagh and that confessions had been extracted under violence and coercion, through a sustained period of systematic torture.  I do remember talking to a guy one night in a bar that had been “lifted” by the RUC.  He told me he had been taken to Castlereagh and that he had been beaten up quite a bit. All I can tell you was that he did have bruises around his kidney area and he now had a deep hatred for the police.  He told me he had done nothing and was just walking home from a friend’s house in the Rathcoole area of North Belfast.  

I heard other similar stories like this over this time period.  One other notable difference was to happen as the SAS staged ambushes and shot dead members of the IRA.  This started the allegations of a “shoot to kill” policy by the British government.

Northern Ireland History 1976 - Political Stagnation

Politically N.Ireland seemed to be going nowhere and John Hume of the SDLP then tried to bring N.Ireland into the International scene by making it an Anglo-Irish affair and involving Irish friendly politicians in the USA.  Up until then the USA had viewed Ireland in a very patriotic way, not that aware of Unionism and supportive of the Irish fighting for their freedom.  It was always what is probably best described as a romantic relationship and somewhat ideal, rather than an understanding of the complex political situation.  As such it was a rich source of money raising and gun-running for the IRA.
Mason tried to introduce private investment and agreed a £56 million government investment to bring De Lorean sport's cars to West Belfast.  As all of these many changes were taking place Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness took the leadership of Sinn Fein over from Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O' Conaill.  They told their followers from the start that the British had no intention of leaving Northern Ireland and that they would have a long struggle ahead.  This became known in Republican circles as the beginning of the "Long War".
This new leadership believed they would have to use violence and politics to achieve their objective and they also went about changing the structure of the IRA volunteers into what were known as cell units.  This was to minimise the risk of informers and infiltration.  They also widened their targets to include anyone who supported what they described as the British war machine, such as prison warders.  

They targeted a hotel in East Belfast known as La Mon House and in this attack 12 people died, some of them burning to death.  It was a horiffic attack and worked against the IRA as they had been trying to maintain the profile of Freedom Fighters rather than terrorists.  This along with the numerous arrests caused Mason to make a statement that the IRA was waning and could not sustain a prolonged campaign.  He had hoped for an IRA ceasefire but this did not materialise.

Northern Ireland History 1976 - INLA and Lord Mountbatten

Another Republican paramilitary group known as the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) were also active and had been from the early 1970s.  In 1979 they planted a bomb under the car of Airey Neave the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, which killed him instantly.  He was a close aide of Margaret Thatcher and when she got elected in 1979 a new Secretary of State called Humphrey Atkins took over.  

Soon after Lord Mountbatten, the Queen's cousin and 18 soldiers were killed near to Warrenpoint in County Down.  16 of these were from the Parachute Regiment and they were attacked initially with an 800 pound bomb which was followed up by gunfire.  As the soldiers took cover behind a wall, another bomb that had been concealed there was detonated and took their lives.

Atkins tried once again to set up a conference with the major political parties to discuss devolution.  The SDLP leadership was also changing with both Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin resigning as essentially their principles of trade unionism and socialism were being squeezed by Thatcher's type of politics and the fact that Northern Ireland politics was now more about nationalism than socialism.  

They were replaced by the well liked and respected John Hume who had always argued that the Northern Ireland problem was one of unionism and republican division rather than the British presence in N.Ireland.  He had always argued that partition was a symptom rather than what had actually caused the current period of violence.  He strongly believed that it was up to nationalism to convince unionism that they should have an accomodation in an agreed United Ireland.

Atkins however ruled out any return to Stormont and any involvement from the Republic of Ireland which effectively ruled out any chance of his inititative ever working.  James Molyneaux who had taken over leadership of the main Ulster Unionist Party boycotted any such initiative, and that pretty much put an end to that political move.

Northern Ireland History 1980 - The Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland

As the 1980s approached a decision made by William Whitelaw as far back as 1972 was to have serious repercussions for the province.  Back then, Whitelaw had agreed that a special category status was to be created for prisoners involved in paramilitary activity and this was often known as "political status" rather than branding them as criminals.  

Ever since he had introduced that status, the various Home Secretaries had attempted to have it removed and protests at Long Kesh had been ongoing since 1976.  The name Long Kesh had also been changed to the "Maze Prison" and the jail, when viewed from the air looked like a set of "H-blocks".  With the special category in place these H-Blocks were run along similar lines to World War Two camps, and they were essentially tin huts surrounded by barbed wire.  

The prisoners inside did not obey any instructions from the warden or any authority but from what was known as their Operational Commander (OC), usually the most senior ranking within their own organisation. The prisoners wore their own clothes, did not have to do any prison work and received additional visits and parcels.  This meant that the prisoners although under guard and imprisoned, largely led their own type of existence within the compound.

In 1976 Merlyn Rees announced that he was removing this special status for any new prisoners convicted, though he was not going to remove it for prisoners who were already on that status, for fear of a violent backlash.  These prisoners would therefore be expected to work and wear prison uniforms.  

Loyalist prisoners initially protested against this but with some reluctance did eventually accept these new changes.  However, many Republican prisoners refused to accept these new changes and were then kept in their cells wrapped only in a blanket.  They were also refused visits and lost remission, and often had their cell furniture removed as a punishment.  

Tension grew rapidly between the prisoners and the prison warders. (Usually called Screws) Outside the jail, the IRA began to target prison warders and from 1976-1980 nineteen of them would lose their lives.
The protest inside the jail continued and was known either as "Being on the the blanket", or "The blanket protest".  In 1978 there were approximately 800 republican prisoners and there were 300 of them on this blanket protest.  What was also strange was that this protest by the prisoners was not actually supported by the IRA leadership and outside the prison there was also little support in general from the republican movement.

Several leading people were involved in what was known as the H-Block campaign and these people now came under attack from the UDA.  These included Bernadette McAliskey (Bernadette Devlin) who had a miraculous escape from being killed in a shooting, the deaths of Ronnie Bunting a member of the INLA, a university lecturer called Miriam Daly and a Protestant nationalist politician called John Turnly.

Inside the prison the prisoners decided to increase the pressure by going on a "no-wash" protest.  The prisoners refused to leave their cells which meant that prison officers had to empty chamber pots and many clashes took place between warders and prisoners.  This became known as the "Dirty Protest" when prisoners started smearing excrement on the cell walls and as the state of hygiene dropped dramatically with infestations of maggots and a danger to health, the authorities were forced to act.  They removed all prisoners and steam cleaned the cells, and then forcibly gave all prisoners haircuts, shaves and baths.  

This did bring the prisoners some publicity but little changed within the prison and in 1980, the prisoners used their ultimate form of protest, a hunger strike.  Again, given the lack of success of previous hunger strikes within the republican movement, this was opposed by the IRA leadership, but in October 1980, seven prisoners went on hunger strike.  The killing of prison officers stopped and the dirty protest was stopped and the prisoners issued five demands:

1.        The right to wear their own clothes
2.        No prison work
3.        Free association with other prisoners
4.        Weekly letters, visits and parcels
5.        Restoration of all remission lost during the protests

These were issued and sent to the British government who at that time was a Conservative government and the Prime Minister, known as the "Iron Lady" was Margaret Thatcher.  Her initial statement ensured that the protest would not be easy to resolve as she said, "I want this to be utterly clear - the government will never concede political status to the hunger strikers or to any others convicted of criminal offences."  

This clearly demonstrated the view that although the IRA considered their volunteers to be Irish Freedom Fighters, the British government considered them to be terrorists and criminals.  It was a wide chasm in view points and one that would prove difficult to close.  In the background links netween the IRA and MI6 were made and it was muted that concessions on clothes and work were possible but only if the hunger strikes ended.  In December a hunger striker lost his sight and was close to death.  The strikes were called off amidst considerable confusion with Sinn Fein claiming a victory; however it quickly transpired they had not achieved this at all.  

To this day there is still confusion as to what was offered and what was not, but the bottom line was that the prisoners did not get any of their demands and a new phase was to be entered.
On the 1st March 1981 a second hunger strike began and it was to be done in a phased approach.  Bobby Sands the OC for the IRA in the Maze was the first to go on hunger strike.  Two weeks later another would join and so on which would continue to build the pressure on the British government.  

Bobby Sands ignored the IRA leadership and was indeed angry about the way the first strike had been dealt with and wanted that to be avenged.  This earned him the nick name of "Geronimo."  Bobby Sands was born and grew up in the mainly Protestant Rathcoole estate on the outskirts of North Belfast and his family had been forced to leave that area, along with other Catholic families as a direct result of intimidation.  They had moved to West Belfast and he joined the IRA, served a short prison sentence in 1972 and was sentenced again in 1977 for 14 years after being arrested in possession of a gun on an IRA operation.

This new hunger strike did catch the sympathy of the nationalist people as although not many Catholics supported the IRA, they did view this situation as being a lack of flexibility by Margaret Thatcher and her British government.  Photographs of Bobby Sands were released and he looked ordinary, more like a long haired musician rather than an IRA member, and this proved to be a very useful propaganda tool for the Republican movement.  

Silly as it may seem the fact that he had been imprisoned for having a gun, along with his ordinary looks, made Thatcher's stance appear one of pure obstinance rather than a political sticking point.  I remember seeing the first photograph of Bobby Sands and it is true, he looked to me much more like some kind of folk singer, rather than an IRA man.  Perception is a strange thing and on top of this Margaret Thatcher was not the most popular of people.
Northern Ireland History 1980
West Belfast Mural
To add to this a unique, somewhat fortunate card was dealt to the hands of Sinn Fein.  An independent nationalist MP called Frank Maguire passed away suddenly.  This created a by-election in the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone for a seat at Westminster.  Sinn Fein put Bobby Sands up for election and he stood against the former Unionist party leader, Harry West.  Sands defeated West and won the election by 30,492 votes to 29,046 in a huge turnout.  Thatcher was now left with an MP on hunger strike and this proved to be a massive PR victory for Sinn Fein and the first time they could see the use of politics in developing a future.  However nothing changed and on the 5th May 1981 Bobby Sands died and with his death he became a Republican martyr.  Over 100,000 people attended his funeral and the impact from around the world was one of criticism for Thatcher.

Disturbances on the street were inevitable and the Army reacted with plastic bullets and yet again the death toll in N.Ireland started to mount.  Seven Catholics were killed including 2 young girls and although the Army maintained those that had been killed were rioting, subsequent inquests in five of the seven cases proved this to be untrue and compensation was awarded.  I was 23 years old at the time and I was working on and off in Belfast.  I witnessed some of the worst rioting I had ever seen, and saw in the faces of many young people absolute signs of hatred.  It is hard to explain this vehemence on a website but I remember those faces and I remember the anger.

James Prior now replaced Atkins as the Secretary of State.  The rioting and violence continued and at times was heavy and prolonged. The hunger strikers continued to die as each side of the dispute dug their heels in.  In total seven IRA and three INLA hunger strikers died bring the total to ten.  It was finally brought to an end by the intervention of the families of the prisoners who were assisted by Father Denis Faul.  Where the others had died the families now asked the medical teams to intervene when their sons had lapsed into comas.  

The protests were called off in October and within days Jim Prior eased the prison regulations to allow the prisoners to wear their own clothes and made some smaller adjustments to cater for the remaining four demands.  It had been a harrowing time for the people of Northern Ireland and even at its conclusion the violence, death and murders continued.

The IRA assisnated a Unionist MP called Robert Bradford who had called for a tougher security policy against the IRA.  On the day of his funeral many memorial services were held by the Protestant people and Ian Paisley threatened to organise a rent and tax strike to make N.Ireland ungovernable.  The loyalists then staged a day of action where members of a “third force” were put on parade.

The hunger strike initially looked like a miserable failure for the IRA and Sinn Fein, yet it did bring Republicanism many gains.  Most importantly the world had noticed and had to an extent sympathised and taken a deeper interest in the politics of a divided land.  New recruits once again started to fill the ranks of both the IRA and Sinn Fein.  It allowed them for the first time to announce a strategy that would include “the ballot box in one hand and an armalite in the other.”  The loss of the ten lives which had initially seemed to be a waste and a defeat for the IRA had in fact gave them a new direction, a new strategy and many new recruits to their cause.

You can now read about the Northern Ireland Troubles 1982-1984