Getting their retaliation in first: 1969 and the re-emergence of paramilitary loyalism

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Troubles, Volume 17

Revd Ian Paisley in 1969—never showed ‘remorse for intemperate speech’ yet remained adept at keeping a safe distance between himself and paramilitary loyalism.

Revd Ian Paisley in 1969—never showed ‘remorse for intemperate speech’ yet remained adept at keeping a safe distance between himself and paramilitary loyalism.

In April 1966 the Revd Ian Paisley, who had already earned his first token conviction for a public order offence, addressed the inaugural meeting in Belfast’s Ulster Hall of what became the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee. In the course of a fiery speech he told his audience that in anticipation of republican subversion to accompany the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, and in response to the dangerously reformist tendencies of the Unionist prime minister, Captain Terence O’Neill, the new body would form a network of activists called the Protestant Volunteers, who would use the old UVF motto ‘For God and Ulster’.
Noel Doherty, a printer by trade, an Orangeman and a member of the B-Specials, went to prison in 1970 for his part in forming these volunteers into secret armed cells, though at his trial, and in an interview he gave in 1998 to the writer and broadcaster Peter Taylor, he insisted that Paisley was not privy to the actual acquisition of arms and explosives. In fact, recruitment to the Protestant Volunteers overlapped with that for the UVF itself. The latter had begun to re-form a year earlier under leaders such as Gusty Spence.

Easter Rising commemoration, 1966

Tensions were on the increase in Northern Ireland, as O’Neill made conciliatory gestures to the Catholic community that were deeply distrusted by many unionists and Orangemen. The IRA had long since abandoned its border campaign, and its Marxist-leaning Dublin leadership was developing a strategy with which to replace armed struggle by political action on cross-border class issues. Spence and others like him knew little of this, and shared the alarm of loyalists at the major events held in both Dublin and Belfast to mark the 1916 anniversary.
They soon became part of a process by which a new UVF, fiercely proud of its historic antecedents, began to arm and to recruit. Early in 1966 some of its members fire-bombed Holy Cross girls’ primary school in Ardoyne (coincidentally the site of the notorious loyalist blockade 40 years later), where Captain O’Neill was due to address a conference on how to promote better relations between Protestants and Catholics.
By May 1966 the UVF had begun to kill. Their first, but unintended, victim was 70-year-old Matilda Gould, a Protestant whose home in the Shankill area was mistaken for that of a Catholic who lived next door. Seven weeks later she died from multiple burns, the first casualty of the Troubles. By then the UVF had murdered two Catholics, both young men, in the same part of the city. The RUC knew who to look for and acted promptly, arresting Spence and two other men. When they arrived at his home, Spence declared ‘This is what you get for being a loyalist’. In October 1966, after what was then the longest trial in Northern Ireland’s history, they were given minimum sentences of twenty years each for the murder of an eighteen-year-old Catholic barman, Peter Ward. The trial yielded evidence of heavy drinking by UVF men before the killings, as well as the handling of illegally acquired weapons.

Mural denouncing the 2001 loyalist blockade of Holy Cross girls’ primary school, Ardoyne. Early in 1966 the UVF firebombed the same school. Captain O’Neill was due to address a conference there on how to promote better relations between Protestants and Catholics. (Irlanda Notizie)

Mural denouncing the 2001 loyalist blockade of Holy Cross girls’ primary school, Ardoyne. Early in 1966 the UVF firebombed the same school. Captain O’Neill was due to address a conference there on how to promote better relations between Protestants and Catholics. (Irlanda Notizie)

Paisley — no ‘remorse for intemperate speech’
One of Spence’s co-accused also claimed to have joined the UVF under Paisley’s influence. This could never be proven, and Paisley’s newspaper, the Protestant Telegraph, was quick to condemn the murders. The pattern was set for the bloody years that lay ahead, in which Paisley, to borrow from the title of a great poem by Yeats, would never show ‘remorse for intemperate speech’ while remaining adept at keeping a safe distance between himself and paramilitary loyalism.
There were recruits to the UVF, especially in rural areas, who were followers of Paisley, but Gusty Spence and his biographer Roy Garland have always denied that there was ever any political influence over it from outside its own ranks. Spence has, on the other hand, said that there were Unionist Party members involved in early recruitment to the UVF, including his own, but he has never been willing to name them.
Well ahead of Spence’s trial the Stormont government declared the UVF an illegal organisation, but it was able to retain much of its unit structure and continued to recruit despite heavy police surveillance. It did not, however, kill again for another three years, though tensions mounted as Spence began his sentence. This did not prevent loyalist flute bands on Belfast’s 1967 Twelfth of July parade stopping outside Crumlin Road jail to play party tunes in his honour.
From his cell Spence was able to stay in touch with a rapidly deteriorating situation, as marches by the newly formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the left-wing students’ group People’s Democracy began to challenge traditional unionist and loyalist control of the streets. Their increasingly confrontational actions helped to seal the fate of Captain O’Neill’s attempt to offer a more moderate and inclusive form of Unionist rule.
On 9 December 1968 O’Neill went on television to warn viewers that ‘Ulster stood at a crossroads’. Open criticism and calls for him to go grew from both party and ministerial colleagues, and in February 1969 he gambled on a general election to strengthen his position. His Stormont majority survived but he came humiliatingly close to defeat by Paisley in his own Bannside constituency.

Provocateur bombs

Many other working-class Loyalists watched the drama of 1969 with growing fear for the future of 'their' unionist Ulster and would gravitate to the much larger street army of the Ulster Defence Association, seen here parading in Duke Street, Derry, in 1972. (Victor Patterson)

Many other working-class Loyalists watched the drama of 1969 with growing fear for the future of ‘their’ unionist Ulster and would gravitate to the much larger street army of the Ulster Defence Association, seen here parading in Duke Street, Derry, in 1972. (Victor Patterson)

The critical blow came with a series of bomb attacks on 30 March 1969 on electricity installations that cut off power to much of east and south Belfast. More attacks followed on the water supply, and O’Neill’s unionist critics blamed the IRA. On 28 April, amidst growing turbulence in nationalist areas in response to loyalist violence against the January People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Londonderry, O’Neill resigned.
Even before he did, the Stormont Nationalist MP Austin Currie voiced his suspicion that the bomb attacks were the work of loyalist extremists who wanted to create a crisis of confidence that would bring O’Neill down. Events soon proved him to be right. As Northern Ireland descended into communal violence and O’Neill’s ineffectual successor, Major James Chichester-Clark, asked London for British soldiers, another bomb attack was set up, this time against a hydro-electric plant across the border at Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal.
The rationale for this was to punish the Irish state for its alleged interference in the affairs of Northern Ireland by moving troops and ambulance units to the border at the height of the August 1969 crisis, which had brought British troops on to the streets of the Bogside and Belfast. The Ballyshannon attack failed but it also incinerated a known and active UVF member, Thomas McDowell. A few days after his death on 19 October the UVF issued a communiqué on this bungled operation: ‘We wish to state that an active service unit from Northern Ireland was dispatched to undertake this task. So long as the threats from Éire continue, so long will the Volunteers of Ulster’s People’s Army strike at targets in Southern Ireland’. Further UVF attacks followed on symbolic targets like Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown and the O’Connell monument in Dublin.
An earlier UVF statement to Belfast’s newspapers on 1 September 1969 had claimed that it was already on a war footing and that ‘battalions are ready for action and new battalions are being formed’. They killed again on the night of 10 October 1969. With grim irony, their victim was another Protestant, a constable in the RUC, Victor Arbuckle, the first of the security forces to die in the Troubles. Earlier the same day the Wilson government’s Hunt committee on policing in Northern Ireland issued its report on the events of the previous few months. It called for the disarming of the RUC, the disbanding of the B-Specials and their replacement by a new Ulster Defence Regiment, which both communities would be encouraged to join, under the control of the British Army.
These recommendations provoked fury on the Shankill Road, heightened by the action of a nationalist crowd that attacked a loyalist band parade on its way home past the Unity Flats, a housing development for Catholics optimistically situated by planners at what rapidly became a serious sectarian interface at the lower end of the Shankill Road. As the night wore on, army units had to deploy in support of the RUC as they came under a hail of bricks and petrol bombs, as well as sharpened scaffolding poles looted from a building site. As UVF men entered the fray with live rounds, the army responded, and at the barred window of his cell barely a mile away on the Crumlin Road Gusty Spence could hear the gunfire. The paradox of loyalists confronting the very army in which he himself had been proud to serve cannot have been lost on him.
‘The cloud of infection’
Back on the night of 13 August 1969 in West Belfast the IRA had used some of the few weapons it had to fire the first shots of the Troubles aimed at the police. On 10 October it was the UVF’s turn. A violent year drew to its close and the UVF had played its part in bringing down the O’Neill government. Arguably, its volunteers, like Civil Rights marchers, uncompromising Unionist politicians and rioting nationalist crowds, had little conception of what they were helping to unleash. John Hewitt certainly did, when that same year he wrote his powerful and grimly prophetic poem The Coasters:

‘The cloud of infection hangs    over the city,
a quick change of wind and it
might spill over the leafy suburbs.’

The start of orchestrated killing, using the gun and the bomb to target the security forces and slaughtering civilians in the process, was to be the IRA’s forte. If anything, the UVF was slow to respond. It had killed in 1966 and again in 1969 but, though its supporters and some members had taken part in events like the Burntollet attack on the People’s Democracy march in January 1969, no guns were used.
The UVF emerged from the events of 1969 intact, a secretive and centrally disciplined force that would only too soon demonstrate its capacity for utter ruthlessness, though Gusty Spence in Crumlin Road jail and then Long Kesh tried and failed to control its descent into sectarian blood-letting for its own sake. Many other working-class loyalists watched the drama of 1969 with growing fear for the future of ‘their’ unionist Ulster and would gravitate to the much larger street army of the Ulster Defence Association. Before long it and the UVF would rival each other in the ferocity with which they would ‘fight fire with fire’ as they took their war against the IRA to the nationalist community. In terms of death and bereavement, 1969 would be a mere prelude to Northern Ireland’s protracted ordeal.  HI

Ian S. Wood is the author of Crimes of loyalty: a history of the UDA (Edinburgh, 2006).


Further reading:

D. Boulton, The UVF 1966–1973: an anatomy of loyalist rebellion (Dublin, 1973).

J. Cusack and H. McDonald, UVF (Dublin, 1997).

R. Garland, Gusty Spence (Belfast, 2001).

T. Hennessey, Northern Ireland—the origins of the Troubles (Dublin, 2005).

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