Loyalist backlash?

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—In Gareth Mulvenna’s interesting article (HI 25.1, Jan./Feb. 2017), the Tartan gangs of Belfast, which flourished in the 1960s and ’70s before being subsumed into the UDA/UVF, are presented as part of a loyalist backlash, a violent reaction to nationalist/republican violence. This ignores the actual origins of the ‘Troubles’. Unionist unrest dates back to the early ’60s and was a reaction to the emerging civil rights movement, which had begun in 1964 and whose protests and marches were particularly in evidence in 1968; a banned march in Derry City in October 1968 was baton-charged by the RUC, the action—and the ensuing riots—given worldwide TV coverage. The civil rights demonstrations, seen by many unionists as ‘rebranded republicanism’, were strongly opposed by loyalists led by Ian Paisley, with the attack at Burntollett on a student march in January 1969 a violent expression of loyalist opposition, the ‘spark that lit the prairie fire’, according to Paul Bew. Unionist unease had been further increased in 1968 by proposed reform measures.

Like most aspects of the ‘Troubles’, the actual starting point is unclear. However, later events would seem to be foreshadowed by three deaths in June 1966: the murder of two men from the nationalist Falls Road and the death of a woman whose Shankill Road home was mistakenly set on fire during an attempt to burn a neighbouring Catholic-owned bar on the loyalist Shankill Road. The authors of Lost lives, which outlines the history of the ‘Troubles’ through the stories of those who died, concludes that a ‘small loyalist gang, which styled itself the Ulster Volunteer Force’, was responsible for these deaths. The idea that the early loyalist assassinations began in the first months of 1972 and were retaliation for the IRA campaign does not seem tenable.

The next phase began in August 1969 when, in the wake of nationalist protests and rioting, loyalists from the Shankill invaded the nationalist Falls, petrol-bombing houses in the nationalist section of streets linking the two areas. Having entered Divis Street, they continued to petrol-bomb buildings; according to one eyewitness, their progress was only stopped by gunfire from the grounds of St Comgall’s School. In the Clonard area the monastery was the main target; when this attempt failed, surrounding streets were burnt, with Bombay Street in particular being almost obliterated. Numerous pictures have recorded the destruction. Other Belfast areas also suffered. One estimate put the overall Belfast displacement of families at 1,800; of these, 1,500 were Catholics and 300 Protestant. Of property damaged, 83% was Catholic-occupied.

As regards the IRA, there is little evidence of their participation up to this point; to quote Lost lives, ‘Catholic anger at the IRA’s ill-preparedness … revived a secret army which was all but dead’. This revived army became the Provisional IRA, formed towards the end of 1969, its main aim now seen as ‘taking on’ the loyalists and protecting nationalist areas, a task which republicans had singularly failed to carry out in August. In June 1970, after Orange marches, the Provisionals killed six loyalists, three in north Belfast and three in east Belfast. In Gareth Mulvenna’s article these deaths provided the motivation for some young ‘Tartans’ to found an organisation to uphold their British identity and defend their communities against ‘republican aggression’. In east Belfast the three killings occurred in the vicinity of St Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church, on the edge of the small nationalist district of Short Strand, whose population was outnumbered ten to one by that of the surrounding unionist area and which has long been a centre of conflict. In June 1970, while Short Strand residents maintained that the violence was begun by a loyalist mob trying to destroy the church, which was defended by IRA men, loyalists alleged that the whole affair was a republican plot to lure them into the Short Strand. The ‘battle of St Matthew’s’ lasted five hours, ending when the loyalists retired. A British Army colonel said that IRA men and locals ‘defended’ the church against Protestant gunmen and lamented that they were allowed to fill the role of defenders of the minority community. Lost lives suspends judgement, merely commenting on ‘the diametrically different memories of the gun-battle’.

While the term ‘backlash’ is often proposed as an explanation for loyalist violence, it is surely an oversimplification when used in the overall context of the ‘Troubles’ from 1966 on and would need altogether more analysis. The Tartans may have been naïve, gung-ho youths looking for a cause in 1970 but presumably some of them went on to provide the foot-soldiers of the UVF, UDA, Red Commandos etc., like the young Frankie Curry mentioned, who in 1999 claimed to have killed either sixteen or nineteen people and who was himself killed by loyalists. Curry and other youngsters were following an already established pattern.—Beir bua,

BRÍGHID Mhic SHEÁIN

Belfast

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