No ‘delighted policemen’ at Burntollet?

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Letters, Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17



A line of RUC and B-Specials moves along Hooker Street in Catholic Ardoyne on the night of 14/15 August 1969. (Belfast Telegraph)

A line of RUC and B-Specials moves along Hooker Street in Catholic Ardoyne on the night of 14/15 August 1969. (Belfast Telegraph)

—It is unfortunate that Paul Bew’s article in the last issue (HI17.4, July/Aug. 2009) should be entitled ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’.In it he says that, unlike Bernadette Devlin, he ‘did not see anydelighted policemen’ at Burntollet where he was present in January1969. Everyone else who was there did. In the account published somemonths after the event by the late Bowes Egan and myself, the detailsof which have never been challenged, we were able to estimate thenumber of attackers at Burntollet Bridge at about 320, of whom we wereable to identify nearly 100 as members of the Ulster SpecialConstabulary, to whom Bew refers later in his article by their popularname of B-Specials. As their formal name indicates, they were every bitas much policemen as the RUC men they chatted and consorted with.However extra-curricular their activities, they set about theirhandiwork with every display of enthusiasm. In addition, according tothe minister responsible, 116 constables were on duty, as well as abrace of county inspectors, a pair of district inspectors, seven headconstables and seventeen sergeants. Prime Minister O’Neill said at thetime that one member in six of the RUC (c. 500 men) were involved atsome point or other in ‘protecting’ the marchers. As we estimated themarch at this point as 500-strong, there were over 200 people who hadtaken oaths as members of the police  present during the attack. Whilethe judgement of ‘delight’ is in part subjective, there arenevertheless some clear indicators that the enthusiasm of the attackerswas matched by many—but not all—of the RUC personnel there. At leasttwo of the reports of eyewitnesses we published had RUC members‘smiling’ and ‘laughing’ while they were chatting to locals who turnedout to be B-Specials. Bernadette Devlin’s account is at least balanced,giving some of the police credit for intervention ‘to stop us beingkilled’.
I believe that Bew’s blindness is not a matter of visual impairment onthe day but of current political denial. This is not just a matter ofpoint-scoring. It is important that we acknowledge historical facts andkeep the record as accurate as possible. Beyond that, however, there isthe more important question of how those facts allow us to interpretevents. I disagree with Bew’s judgement that the importance of themarch ‘cannot be overstated’. The march itself, and even the attack,might have had few lasting consequences were it not for the persistentfailure of the Unionist and British authorities to recognise andconfront the realities of Northern Ireland. While Bew emphasisesO’Neill’s loss of ‘moderate Catholic support’, he does not mention theprime minister’s outburst in the immediate aftermath of the march, northe continuing disgraceful and of course wholly illegal activities ofthe RUC after the march. It was this failure to recognise the realitiesof Northern Ireland, not just in the days but for decades after themarch, which amplified its importance. He does refer to the ‘keyelement’ of London’s strategy as replacing the ‘discreditedB-Specials’—the adjective is Bew’s—‘with a new non-sectarian force, theUlster Defence Regiment’. The UDR, of course, never lived up to thisdescription. The fact that this was a ‘key element’ shows two flaws inLondon’s thinking and action: first, the emphasis on securitysolutions, also evident in O’Neill’s statement after the march; second,a failure to grasp the sectarian nature of the state and itsinstitutions, including the police, as exemplified by their behaviourat Burntollet. As I wrote in my own memoir of the march (HI 16.5,Sept./Oct. 2008), had a robust system of democratic accountability beenput in place, ‘the likelihood of more serious collusion in the matterof murder between the RUC and Loyalist paramilitaries in later yearsmight have been lessened, collusion which still casts its shadow overthe peace process and the new dispensation in Northern Ireland’.Failure to accept the need for such change over many decadesrepresented a real lack of vision, against which Paul Bew’s failure tosee what was in front of him on 4 January 1969 is small potatoes.

University of Ulster @ Magee


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568