‘I Ran Away’? The IRA and 1969

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

IRA colour party outside Christ the King Cathedral, Mullingar, in July 1969 for the reinterment of Peter Barnes and James McCormack, two IRA men executed in 1940 for their role in the bombing of Coventry the previous year. An estimated 10,000 attended, and the Department of Justice was critical of the fact that ‘the parade in commando style uniform and the firing of shots at the graveside’ took place unhindered and that it was described as an IRA operation in press and TV coverage. (Seamus Murphy)

IRA colour party outside Christ the King Cathedral, Mullingar, in July 1969 for the reinterment of Peter Barnes and James McCormack, two IRA men executed in 1940 for their role in the bombing of Coventry the previous year. An estimated 10,000 attended, and the Department of Justice was critical of the fact that ‘the parade in commando style uniform and the firing of shots at the graveside’ took place unhindered and that it was described as an IRA operation in press and TV coverage. (Seamus Murphy)

During late August 1969, shortly after the violence that had shaken Belfast and elsewhere, Irish army intelligence gave their assessment of the situation to the Dublin government:

‘. . . some element of [the] IRA was certainly in action in Belfast during [the] night of 14th August . . . as in [the] Bogside, [the] IRA now seem to be in control of barricade defence… Reports indicate that such defence is on an organised, disciplined basis . . . the IRA sees the time as ripe for the establishment of a united Ireland and they intend fighting to achieve this objective.’

Soon British army intelligence too was noting IRA activity and the stockpiling of weapons behind the barricades. This knowledge was not confined to intelligence agencies; the IRA’s activity was surprisingly public. Jim Sullivan, IRA officer and chairman of the Belfast Citizens’ Defence Committee, told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘automatic weapons, revolvers and rifles’ were being held behind the barricades, while an unnamed IRA member appeared on BBC television to claim that if it had not been for his organisation ‘the people in the Divis Street area would have been massacred’. In late August Dublin’s Hibernia magazine considered it ‘unlikely that any policing force could now forcibly penetrate Bogside, Ardoyne or the Falls without first meeting the opposition of automatic weapons’. (Link to the IRA in the South)
This visibility seems out of line with the prevailing view of the IRA during 1969. Most accounts describe the organisation as marginal or assume that it barely existed at all. Indeed, it is often alleged that Belfast nationalists, outraged at having been abandoned in the face of loyalist violence, reacted by painting up the famous slogan ‘IRA—I Ran Away’. But the story is more complicated than that.

Housing agitation and Civil Rights

Contemporary British intelligence reports estimated that there were 500 IRA members in the North and that, while their ‘morale’ was good, funds and modern weaponry were in short supply. The IRA was also involved in housing agitation in the North, as well as with the Civil Rights movement. There certainly seemed to be increasing confidence among republicans, and the numbers at the 1969 Easter commemorations in Belfast (c. 5,000), Derry (c. 5,000) and Armagh (c. 4,000) were the biggest in some years. Here speakers had stressed both republican support for civil rights demands and the view that ultimately force would be needed to end British rule. In February 1969 the IRA’s chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, had explained that ‘if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached. Everyone will realise it and all constitutional methods will go overboard.’

IRA chief of staff Cathal Goulding, Sinn Féin president Tomás Mac Giolla (behind) and Jim Sullivan (wearing armband) at Bodenstown, June 1969—in April 1969 Goulding told BBC radio that ‘if our people in the six counties are oppressed and beaten up . . . then the IRA will have no alternative but to take military action’. (Seamus Murphy)

IRA chief of staff Cathal Goulding, Sinn Féin president Tomás Mac Giolla (behind) and Jim Sullivan (wearing armband) at Bodenstown, June 1969—in April 1969 Goulding told BBC radio that ‘if our people in the six counties are oppressed and beaten up . . . then the IRA will have no alternative but to take military action’. (Seamus Murphy)

Republican rhetoric was put to the test in late April, however. There was rioting in Derry, during which police badly injured a number of local people. In response, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) called for solidarity demonstrations across the North. In what he called ‘an effort to draw off the large force of police who were laying siege to the Bogside’, the Belfast IRA commander Liam McMillen authorised fire-bomb attacks on ten post offices and a bus station across Belfast. Republicans also led a 2,000-strong protest march on the Falls Road that ended in rioting. On BBC radio Goulding warned that ‘if our people in the six counties are oppressed and beaten up . . . then the IRA will have no alternative but to take military action against the police force  . . . [we] . . . have no alternative but to protect our people or allow them to be slaughtered and we are not going to allow them to be slaughtered’.

Rhetoric v. reality

Goulding’s rhetoric implied that the IRA was ready to intervene militarily. But modern arms were in short supply. McMillen claimed that the IRA in Belfast, with about 120 members, had just 24 weapons, most of which were pistols. Nevertheless, all IRA recruits were still undergoing weapons training, and the 1968 IRA Convention had pledged to make a ‘maximum effort’ to secure modern equipment. Debates over how best to acquire such equipment were interrupted by more serious trouble in the North during the summer of 1969. Sectarian tension was rising, especially in Belfast, where both Catholic and Protestant families left their homes, claiming intimidation. Rioting in Dungiven, Co. Derry, saw a man die after an RUC baton charge, and Derryman Samuel Devanney also succumbed to the injuries he sustained in April. IRA members were placed on defensive duty in Ardoyne and at Unity Flats during July. McMillen would claim that he resisted pressure to release weapons because ‘we realised that the meagre armaments at our disposal were hopelessly inadequate [and] that the use of firearms by us would only serve to justify the use of greater force against the people by the forces of the Establishment and increase the danger of sectarian pogroms’.

Billy McMillen, the IRA’s Belfast commander at the time, claimed 120 members and just 24 weapons, mostly pistols. (Irish Times)

Billy McMillen, the IRA’s Belfast commander at the time, claimed 120 members and just 24 weapons, mostly pistols. (Irish Times)

Goulding’s own explanation for not sending ‘extra’ weapons to Belfast was that the IRA leadership was unsure whether violence was going to break out and, if it did, whether their weapons might have been in the wrong place: ‘we felt that if we, previous to the Twelfth (of July), had sent them into Belfast, into Derry, into Newry . . . there might not be any real fighting’ and the weapons might be lost to the police or be unavailable if trouble broke out elsewhere. The leadership believed that the ‘best way for people to engage the police and B-Specials was the way that things developed in the Bogside’, through mass protests. Indeed, local IRA members were heavily involved in the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association, set up to prepare for the Apprentice Boys’ parade in August. But Goulding admitted that, as it transpired, ‘the only defence was armed defence’.

Taking ‘pressure off Derry’

Rioting began in Derry on 12 August during the Apprentice Boys’ parade, and the fighting swiftly developed into the ‘Battle of the Bogside’. As in April, the Civil Rights movement called for solidarity demonstrations. On 13 August McMillen ordered republicans to organise demonstrations to take the ‘pressure off Derry’. IRA members led a march of 1,000 people to Hastings Street RUC station. When rioting began and the RUC attempted to disperse the crowds by driving armoured cars into Leeson Street, the IRA attacked them with gunfire, wounding a policeman. Springfield Road RUC station was attacked by young republicans with petrol bombs. The RUC opened fire on the attackers, wounding two. Large crowds on the Shankill Road looked on but did not join the rioting, which on 13 August in West Belfast was between nationalists and the RUC, not nationalists and loyalists. In Ardoyne in North Belfast, however, where again nationalists had attacked police to divert resources from Derry, the combustible sectarian atmosphere had seen Protestant crowds burn down Catholic property.
On 14 August McMillen and his adjutant, Jim Sullivan, ordered IRA members onto defensive duties, sending small groups to various areas. Buses were hijacked for use as barricades and petrol bombs were prepared. Clashes developed along the streets that led to the Shankill, and by evening serious rioting was taking place. As loyalist mobs encroached into Catholic areas, the IRA exchanged fire with the police in Conway Street and Divis Street. The RUC forced Catholics back towards Divis Street and loyalist mobs followed, setting fire to houses as they progressed. As loyalists approached from Dover Street, IRA men in the grounds of St Comgall’s School opened fire, killing Herbert Roy, a 26-year-old from the Shankill, and wounding several RUC men. The RUC then sent Shorland armoured cars, equipped with heavy machine-guns, into Divis Street. They were pelted with petrol bombs. They opened fire, killing nine-year-old Patrick Rooney as he slept in his home in Divis Flats. RUC gunfire from Hastings Street killed another Catholic, Hugh McCabe, an off-duty British soldier. B-Specials were deployed across Belfast, backing up the RUC, and three more civilians would die from police gunfire over the course of the night, while a Protestant civilian was killed in North Belfast.

Rumours of Irish army invasion

Jim Sullivan, IRA officer and chairman of the Belfast Citizens’ Defence Committee, pictured in front of a JCB during reconstruction of Bombay Street in December 1969. In September he told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘automatic weapons, revolvers and rifles’ were being held behind the barricades. (Voice of the North)

Jim Sullivan, IRA officer and chairman of the Belfast Citizens’ Defence Committee, pictured in front of a JCB during reconstruction of Bombay Street in December 1969. In September he told the Belfast Telegraph that ‘automatic weapons, revolvers and rifles’ were being held behind the barricades. (Voice of the North)

In the chaos there were rumours that the Irish army had crossed the border and taken Newry. IRA members engaged in gun battles with loyalists and police during the night. A contemporary republican account would claim that the IRA had fought ‘until all ammunition was spent . . . weak though it was in comparison to that of the combined UVF, RUC and B-Special forces the IRA firepower slowed up the advance of the rampaging mobs and helped to build vital barricades and refugee centres’. Indeed, Gerry Adams has contended that the IRA’s actions were ‘decisive’ at various stages in repelling loyalist attacks. By the morning of 15 August, McMillen and twenty other republicans had been arrested. British troops were now on the streets, but during clashes at Clonard loyalists moved onto Bombay Street in large numbers, burning houses. A number of IRA men were present but were unable to prevent the attack. Fifteen-year-old Fianna member Gerald McAuley was fatally wounded by gunfire, the first republican killed in action since the 1956–62 border campaign.
Elsewhere there had been rioting in Coalisland, Newry and Dungannon. In Armagh B-Specials killed a local man. IRA members were active during trouble in Newry and Dungannon. In Dublin the republican movement led a march of c. 4,000 on the British Embassy on 13 August, and over the following days there were several thousand people protesting each evening in O’Connell Street. Sinn Féin president Tomás Mac Giolla claimed that ‘when the guns came out and people were being shot the only ones who could protect [them] were the IRA’. He challenged the ‘Free State Army’ to use their weapons to defend the people, and that if they would not, then they should ‘give them to us’. Clashes followed as crowds tried to storm Collins Barracks. These scenes were replicated on a smaller scale in towns across the Republic. The IRA leadership had also met on 14 August and sent volunteers to the border with orders to attack targets such as police stations to stretch the security forces. On Sunday 17 August an IRA unit attacked Crossmaglen RUC station but retreated after an exchange of fire. As the situation in Belfast calmed, orders came to refrain from offensive action. On 18 August Goulding issued a statement on behalf of the IRA, claiming that his organisation had ‘been in action’ and had sent ‘fully equipped units’ to the North. In Derry the IRA had put themselves at the disposal of the defence association, and in Belfast had used ‘their all too limited resources’ to hold off the assault on the Falls. He then called on the ‘Dublin government’ to ‘immediately use the Irish Army to defend the persecuted people of the six counties’. While criticism of Goulding’s statement soon followed, it was quite clear that his organisation had been active over the previous week. Indeed, both through Jim Sullivan’s role as chairman of the Defence Committee and the organisation’s activity on the ground, by September 1969 the IRA had more of a presence in Belfast than it had had for years.  HI

 

Gerry Adams at the time of his arrest in 1974; he has contended that the IRA’s actions were ‘decisive’ in repelling loyalist attacks. (Victor Patterson)

Gerry Adams at the time of his arrest in 1974; he has contended that the IRA’s actions were ‘decisive’ in repelling loyalist attacks. (Victor Patterson)

Brian Hanley is a lecturer in history at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

G. Adams, Before the dawn: an autobiography (London, 1996).

R. English, Armed struggle: the history of the IRA (London, 2003).

B. Hanley and S. Millar, The lost revolution: the story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party (Dublin, 2009).

M. Hastings, Ulster 1969: the fight for civil rights (London, 1970).

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