BURNT OUT: how the Troubles began

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

MICHAEL McCANN
Mercier Press
€16.99
ISBN 9781781176191

Reviewed by Brian Hanley

Brian Hanley is the author of The impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968–79: boiling volcano? (Manchester University Press, 2018).

This is an important book that gives a voice to some of those nationalists who were driven from their homes in August 1969. It is a welcome corrective to the prevailing view of the pre-Troubles era as one of reform and increasing tolerance. Michael McCann details numerous incidences of popular sectarianism directed against Catholics throughout the 1960s. He also documents the development of paramilitary loyalism through the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Ulster Protestant Volunteers and the Shankill Defence Association (SDA).

McCann shows the extent to which assaults on Catholics were ‘normal’ even in a relatively peaceful era. The book is particularly interesting on the activities of the SDA’s John McKeague and his central role in the violence in Belfast. McCann notes how often the RUC either turned a blind eye to or actually participated in attacks on Catholics. He is convinced that much of the impetus for the violence that occurred came from leading members of the Unionist establishment.

McCann is highly critical of the Scarman tribunal that investigated the events of 1969, accusing it of absolving Unionism and blaming nationalists for the violence inflicted on them. He also directs ire at academics, who, he claims, have sought to explain the violence of 1969 by blaming republicans. McCann suggests that many historians have traced the origins of the conflict to the commemorations of the Easter Rising in 1966. It is true that some commentators have crudely posited 1966 as the direct precursor to 1969, but in terms of republican reorganisation these commemorations were significant in their own right. Indeed, no less an authority than Ruairí Ó Brádaigh could suggest that ‘the national re-think which sprang, particularly among the youth, from the commemoration of 1966, was in some measure responsible for the development of events in the North since 1969’.

The greatest weakness in McCann’s book is his ignoring of republican activities, perhaps for fear of giving credence to loyalist claims of IRA culpability for the violence. As Gerry Adams has contended, however, the IRA were ‘crucially important’ in halting the loyalists at ‘decisive times’ during August 1969. Republicans had been a factor in the broader nationalist community throughout the 1960s, as well as important actors at various stages. McCann mentions, but does not dwell on, the significance of the 1964 Divis events, when nationalists responded to an RUC raid on republican election headquarters, after Ian Paisley threatened to seize a tricolour on display, with several days of rioting. Similar clashes followed in 1966 when nationalists in the Markets again responded to Paisleyite provocation. Both these events, in which republicans took part, helped to radicalise younger nationalists and made confrontation with the police more likely in 1968/69.

It is a mistake to assume that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) represented a purely reformist movement. Civil rights agitation differed greatly from area to area. Hence in 1968 Kevin Agnew, a member of NICRA’s executive, could predict ‘the end of British rule in the not too distant future’ and suggest that ‘if the O’Neills and the Craigs and the others of their kind in the Stormont regime wanted to go with them, good luck to them’. The republican candidate in the 1964 general election in West Belfast, Liam McMillen, was later a founding member of NICRA as well as the IRA’s commander in the city. McMillen does not feature in this book, though during April 1969, and again that August, McMillen authorised IRA attacks in the city ‘to take the pressure off’ Derry. Young activists such as Joe McCann and Anthony Dornan were central to the organisation of these responses. Both men were among the group who on 14 August opened fire on loyalist mobs, killing Herbert Roy, but both are also absent from this narrative. One of McMillen’s adjutants, Jim Sullivan, is mentioned in passing, but it is not explained that he became chairman of the Central Citizens Defence Committee in the aftermath of the August violence. That was only possible because Sullivan and local republicans had retained credibility in the Lower Falls area. One of the ironies of republican involvement in these events is that many of those involved sided with the Officials when the IRA split later that year and thus never publicised their activities. None of this excuses the role of the Unionist state or loyalism, but republican activity is nevertheless part of the story of 1969.

There are other gaps. As Liam Kelly explained in History Ireland (July/August 2009), ‘one remarkable fact’ was that most of Belfast saw no trouble. Here the role of socialists, trade unionists and clergymen was significant but McCann does not reflect on this. The author is right to be angry about what happened in 1969. But ignoring contrary evidence weakens rather than strengthens his case.

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