How the crisis unfolded 1969

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

Robert Ballagh’s 1970 painting, The Third of May After Goya, inspired by the events of August 1969. (Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane)

Robert Ballagh’s 1970 painting, The Third of May After Goya, inspired by the events of August 1969. (Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane)

Towards the end of 1968 Northern Ireland seemed to have pulled back from the brink. In response to pressure from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and from the Labour government in Westminster, and in spite of opposition from within his own cabinet, Prime Minister Terence O’Neill announced a reform package. Buoyed up by the positive response to his ‘Ulster at the crossroads’ speech of 9 December, he sacked his hard-line home affairs minister, William Craig, two days later. But within days of the New Year, the Belfast to Derry People’s Democracy march, and the violent loyalist response to it (particularly at Burntollet), had polarised opinion even more sharply. Gordon Gillespie takes the story up to the British general election of June 1970.

On 24 January 1969 commerce minister Brian Faulkner resigned from the Unionist government in opposition to O’Neill’s policies; a second minister resigned two days later. Less than a week later twelve backbench Unionist MPs called for O’Neill’s removal in order to maintain party unity. O’Neill responded by calling a general election for 24 February (which, in reference to his December speech, became known as the ‘crossroads’ election). He hoped to demonstrate the degree of public support for his policies and so isolate his critics. With a turnout of just under 72%, the election returned 39 Unionists (27 pro-O’Neill, ten anti- and two undecided), six Nationalists, three Civil Rights candidates, two Republican Labour candidates and two from the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP).
Although O’Neill and his supporters won an overall majority of seats, he failed to see off his critics; instead, the election served mainly to demonstrate the divisions within the unionist political bloc. In an indication of future developments, there was also a shift in voting in the nationalist bloc away from the Nationalist Party towards individuals connected with the Civil Rights Movement.

O’Neill resigns
Unable to see off the opposition, both from within his party and from outside, O’Neill resigned on 28 April 1969. In an attempt to appease dissent within the party, his successor, James Chichester-Clark, brought Faulkner and two other critics of O’Neill into his government. At the same time he stated that he would continue O’Neill’s policies, including changes to the local government election franchise, and agreed that local government boundaries would be re-drawn by an independent commission. In early May it was also announced that there would be an amnesty for all offences connected with demonstrations since October 1968.

Stormont minister for commerce Brian Faulkner—his resignation in January 1969 and other dissent within Unionist ranks persuaded Prime Minister O’Neill to call the ‘crossroads’ general election on 24 February. After O’Neill resigned on 28 April, the new prime minister, Chichester-Clark, brought him back into the cabinet. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

Stormont minister for commerce Brian Faulkner—his resignation in January 1969 and other dissent within Unionist ranks persuaded Prime Minister O’Neill to call the ‘crossroads’ general election on 24 February. After O’Neill resigned on 28 April, the new prime minister, Chichester-Clark, brought him back into the cabinet. (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

Again, however, the Unionist government’s moves towards reform were overtaken by events. On 12 July Orange parades led to violence in Belfast and Derry, while sectarian clashes also broke out in Lurgan and continued for two days. On the night of 13 July, 67-year-old Francis McCloskey was found lying by the roadside near Dungiven and he died the following day. He was a bystander near where youths were attacking an Orange Hall, but it was unclear whether he had been struck by a police baton or had received head injuries in a fall. Whatever the facts, many Catholics viewed the incident as a savage attack by the police on a pensioner, and this helped to sour relations between the two communities even further.
On 16 July, 42-year-old Samuel Devenney from Derry died from injuries he had received on 19 April, when he was beaten by members of the RUC in his home while they were pursuing rioters in the Bogside area. He sustained internal injuries and suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. In November 1970 the then chief constable of the RUC, Sir Arthur Young, claimed that there had been ‘a conspiracy of silence’ within the force over the identities of those involved in the incident.
To some extent an argument could be made that Northern Ireland was, if anything, under-policed at this time, and the RUC was unprepared for the level of violence that was to come. In August 1969, at the outbreak of major sectarian conflict, RUC strength was just over 3,000 officers, while the B-Specials had 8,500 part-time and 100 full-time members. By late April, however, 1,500 soldiers had already been given responsibility for guarding public buildings and utilities in Northern Ireland following a series of terrorist attacks. These attacks were later revealed to be the work of the UVF (see p. 22), which had been working to undermine moves towards reform.

The Battle of the Bogside
On 12 August 1969 severe rioting broke out on the edge of the Bogside area following an Apprentice Boys of Derry march through the city. Rioting continued for three days in what became known as the Battle of the Bogside. Trouble broke out at 3pm as the Apprentice Boys parade passed through the city centre. Rival crowds of Protestants and Catholics began taunting each other, and stones and bottles were thrown. After the parade had passed, however, the confrontation became one of police against local Catholics. The Derry Citizens’ Defence Association, a local vigilante group, became involved in coordinating opposition to the police by erecting barricades, patrolling the streets and helping to counter the effects of CS gas fired by the RUC. This eventually led to the development of a ‘no-go’ area in the city, known as ‘Free Derry’, in which the security forces were not able to operate.

The ‘crossroads’ election of February 1969 saw the emergence of a number of figures who were to dominate Northern Ireland politics for the next three decades, not least John Hume, who was elected for the Foyle constituency, and the Revd Ian Paisley, who provided a strong but unsuccessful challenge to O’Neill in Bannside.

The ‘crossroads’ election of February 1969 saw the emergence of a number of figures who were to dominate Northern Ireland politics for the next three decades, not least John Hume, who was elected for the Foyle constituency, and the Revd Ian Paisley, who provided a strong but unsuccessful challenge to O’Neill in Bannside.

In Belfast some NICRA members attempted to divert police resources away from Derry. On the evening of 13 August a car with a loud hailer toured Unity Flats and called on people to meet at Divis Tower in support of those in Derry. Subsequent Catholic attacks on the police increased Protestant anger and encouraged a general belief among unionists that there was an IRA plan to take over parts of Northern Ireland and wait for military support from the Republic to overthrow the state and bring about a united Ireland.

Lynch’s speech
At this point Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a crucial intervention. In a television broadcast he said, ‘It is evident that the Stormont government is no longer in control of the situation  . . . It is clear that the Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’. Lynch called for United Nations troops to be sent to Northern Ireland and also ordered that a number of Irish army field hospitals be set up along the border. This appeared to many unionists to confirm their fears of an imminent invasion by the Irish Army. Chichester-Clark called Lynch’s remarks ‘inflammatory and ill-considered’, and said that he would hold Lynch personally responsible for any worsening of feeling.
Chichester-Clark called up the B-Specials to provide support to the RUC but this proved insufficient to contain the deteriorating security situation. With police officers exhausted, Chichester-Clark requested British Army support to maintain law and order and, at 5.15pm on 14 August, soldiers of the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment were deployed to patrol Derry. Soldiers from the Queen’s Regiment went on patrol in Belfast the following day. Despite this, a number of ‘no-go’ areas soon developed—the most high-profile was the Bogside, Brandywell and lower Creggan area of ‘Free Derry’, but there were other republican no-go areas in parts of West Belfast.
As rioting spread beyond Derry, violence deteriorated into open sectarian conflict. In Belfast, fires destroyed hundreds of houses, leaving thousands of people, in most cases Catholics, homeless. During the course of the riots in Belfast barricades were erected on both sides of Cupar Street between the Falls Road and the Shankill Road to provide communal protection. When the Army erected iron sheets as a barrier in September it was a physical recognition of a division that already existed. Over the following years, ‘peace lines’ between Protestant and Catholic areas would be expanded and their construction would become more sophisticated (see p. 43).

Greater British government involvement

In addition, on 17 April Bernadette Devlin was elected to Westminster in a by-election for the Mid-Ulster constituency as a Unity candidate. At the age of 22 Devlin became the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Commons and the youngest MP in half a century. (Pacemaker, TPS/Central Press)

In addition, on 17 April Bernadette Devlin was elected to Westminster in a by-election for the Mid-Ulster constituency as a Unity candidate. At the age of 22 Devlin became the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Commons and the youngest MP in half a century. (Pacemaker, TPS/Central Press)

In the wake of the August riots and the deployment of troops on the streets of Belfast and Derry, the greater involvement of the British government in Northern Ireland affairs became inevitable. On 27 August the British home secretary, James Callaghan, visited Northern Ireland to press the Stormont government for further reforms to the legal system and administration. It accepted the Hunt Report proposals that the RUC should become an unarmed civilian force and that the B-Specials should be replaced by a new RUC Reserve and a locally recruited part-time military force, the Ulster Defence Regiment, under the control of the British Army.
While Catholics generally welcomed these proposals, many Protestants saw them as further concessions in the face of nationalist threats. The proposal to abolish the B-Specials in particular was a source of anger among the unionist community and led to two nights of rioting by loyalists. It was during these riots that RUC Constable Victor Arbuckle, the first RUC officer to be killed in the Troubles, was shot dead by the UVF on the Shankill Road on the night of 11 October (see p. 22).
In November a number of the reforms that had been agreed in August became law; the post of Commissioner for Complaints was established to deal with the grievances of individuals against local councils and public bodies, and the Electoral Law Act addressed the controversial area of voting in local government elections by introducing universal adult suffrage for all elections.

Officials and Provisionals

At the end of the year, however, an important new factor emerged. Divisions within the IRA had been growing since August 1969 between the Southern, Marxist, leadership and those in the North, whose main concern, initially at least, was the defence of Catholics and who argued for more military action. A statement from the ‘Provisional Army Council’ on 28 December signalled a split in the IRA between what would become the Official and Provisional wings. The split in the IRA became clearer in January 1970 at the Sinn Fein Árd Fheis (conference) in Dublin, when a vote to abandon the policy of abstention from the Dáil triggered the break between the Provisional and the (more Marxist) Official Sinn Féin, and consequently also led to a split in the IRA between Provisionals and Officials.
On the ground events were changing rapidly. In August 1969 Catholics had generally welcomed the arrival of British troops on the streets as protection against loyalist attacks, but in April 1970 Ballymurphy in West Belfast saw the first major clashes between nationalists and the British Army.

New political parties

Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark described Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s 13 August broadcast as ‘inflammatory and ill-considered’. (Victor Patterson)

Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark described Taoiseach Jack Lynch’s 13 August broadcast as ‘inflammatory and ill-considered’. (Victor Patterson)

New political parties were also emerging. In April the cross-community Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was formed. From the outset it drew its support from across the religious divide and from those primarily seeking reform within Northern Ireland and an improvement in community relations. Although its base of support was stronger among middle-class voters, it initially also gained the support of many former NILP voters.
In August the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was formed by a coalition of seven Stormont representatives from the Nationalist Party, Republican Labour, NILP and independents associated with the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland. The party aimed to achieve a united Ireland by constitutional means, and on social and economic policies was generally left of centre. The SDLP soon displaced the Nationalists to become the party supported by most Catholic voters, and would remain so for the next three decades.
Events in the North also rocked the government in the Republic. In May 1970 Taoiseach Jack Lynch sacked finance minister Charles Haughey and agriculture minister Neil Blaney after revelations of a plot to smuggle arms into the state and then send them to Northern Ireland. A third minister, Kevin Boland, resigned in protest against the sackings, and the minister for justice also resigned.
The June 1970 Westminster general election reflected some of the changes that had taken place on the ground. The Ulster Unionists won eight of the twelve Northern Ireland seats with 54.3% of the poll. Ian Paisley was elected in North Antrim and Frank McManus (Unity) for Fermanagh–South Tyrone. Gerry Fitt and Bernadette Devlin held their seats in West Belfast and Mid-Ulster. In a sign of the problems to come for centre-ground parties, the NILP received almost 100,000 votes (12.6% of the poll) but failed to win a seat. HI

Gordon Gillespie is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast.

British soldiers (with fixed bayonets) on patrol on the Falls Road in the wake of their deployment on 15 August 1969. (Hulton Getty Picture Collection)

British soldiers (with fixed bayonets) on patrol on the Falls Road in the wake of their deployment on 15 August 1969. (Hulton Getty Picture Collection)

Further reading:

G. Gillespie, Years of darkness: the Troubles remembered (Dublin, 2008).

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

M. A. Murphy, Gerry Fitt: political chameleon (Cork, 2007).

S. Prince, Northern Ireland’s ’68: civil rights, global revolt and the origins of the Troubles (Dublin, 2007).

Who was to blame?
Inevitably there were conflicting views as to what had sparked the violence of August 1969. In 1972 an official report of a tribunal under Lord Scarman found that:

‘Neither the IRA nor any Protestant organisation nor anybody else planned a campaign of riots. They were communal disturbances arising from a complex political, social and economic situation. More often than not they arose from slight beginnings: but the communal tensions were such that, once begun, they could not be controlled. Young men threw a few stones at some policemen or at an Orange procession: there followed a confrontation between police and stone-throwers now backed by a sympathetic crowd. On one side people saw themselves, never “the others”, charged by a police force which they regarded as partisan: on the other, police and people saw a violent challenge to the authority of the state’ (Scarman Report, Para. 2.4).

But despite the accuracy of Scarman’s assessment it failed to convey the full impact of the violence on individuals. Most of the damage to property was to Catholic homes, particularly in Bombay Street, where three-fifths of the houses were destroyed by fire. Of 63 houses in the street, 38 had to be demolished, five required major repairs and ten minor repairs. By contrast, few houses were damaged in Protestant areas.
Of the eight people killed on 14 and 15 August, seven were killed in Belfast. Six of those who died were Catholics, including nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, who was shot at his home by the RUC while rioting was continuing nearby.

'


Copyright © 2019 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568