‘One remarkable fact’: why most of Belfast remained at peace

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

The images that have come to dominate our understanding of Belfast in August 1969—but there is another side to the story. (Belfast News Letter, 25 August 1969)

The images that have come to dominate our understanding of Belfast in August 1969—but there is another side to the story. (Belfast News Letter, 25 August 1969)

The magnitude of the events in Belfast during that fateful month can be gauged by the testimony of 2nd Lt Adams to the Scarman Tribunal, describing the scene he witnessed on entering Bombay Street for the first time on the night of 15/16 August:

‘I was horrified. I had never seen houses burning like that in my life. There were houses on both sides of the road on fire, and further down. Something which I dreamed of never going on.’

The statistics of that traumatic period also reveal the scale of the violence and destruction, with seven people killed (five Catholics and two Protestants) and an estimated 1,820 households (1,505 of them Catholic) displaced.
But these powerful images and statistics disguise what the Scarman Tribunal described as the ‘one remarkable fact’ of the riots of August 1969: that they ‘did not spread from the Falls and the Ardoyne into the rest of the city’. Part of the explanation lies with various ‘peace’ groups that sprang up across the city throughout the summer of 1969. As the Belfast and District Trades Union Council noted in its 1969 annual report, ‘The people in practically all areas of the city formed their Peace Committees composed of Catholics and Protestants’.

Peace groups
From the earliest days of August 1969, when violence erupted around the Unity Flats and Hooker Street areas of the city, such ‘peace’ groups were already in evidence. For example, in the Oldpark Road district of North Belfast, a Catholic/Protestant ‘Peace Corps’ consisting of around 40 volunteers had begun patrolling the area at night, advising people to ‘stay off the streets’. Such cooperation was praised by a News Letter editorial, which declared that the ‘coming together of Protestants and Roman Catholics at street and neighbourhood level in the interests of preventing violence is the most heartening development in a situation which otherwise would be one of despair’.
This was mirrored by more sophisticated set-ups like the telephone network established under the auspices of the Belfast Housing Action Committee on 7 August in order to combat further intimidation and violence. This linked up to ten local action committees who could then be ‘obtained within a short time for any family, Catholic or Protestant, in need of it’. A similar telephone scheme was established by a number of Protestant clergymen on the Shankill who provided a 24-hour ‘flying squad’ service, described as having ‘been planned like a military operation’.
When the worst of the violence broke out between 13 and 16 August, some of these already-established organisations proved their worth in preventing the disorder from spreading into their districts. This was the case in the Docks area, where the joint Catholic/Protestant Action Committee, established on 6 August, was widely praised by local clergy for ‘the example they had set the rest of the city’.
The majority of these groups, however, sprang up in reaction to the violence of mid-August. A survey of the three local newspapers (Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter) shows that such neighbourhood-based organisations were operating in the following districts by the latter part of the month: Alliance Avenue; Andersonstown; Ballymacarrett; Ballymurphy; Corporation Street; the Docks; the Donegall Road; Glenard (Ardoyne); the Grosvenor Road; Highfield; Manor Street; the Markets; New Barnsley; Roden Street; Sandy Row; Springhill; Springmartin; Suffolk; Turf Lodge; and York Street.

David Bleakley, chairman of the East Belfast Peace Committee in Ballymacarrett, ‘revolutionary for that area’, according to the Irish News, which in the past had ‘been singled out as one of the main trouble spots’. (Victor Patterson)

David Bleakley, chairman of the East Belfast Peace Committee in Ballymacarrett, ‘revolutionary for that area’, according to the Irish News, which in the past had ‘been singled out as one of the main trouble spots’. (Victor Patterson)

Some, like the East Belfast Peace Committee, established under the chairmanship of the NILP politician (and future minister for community relations) David Bleakley in Ballymacarrett, were ‘revolutionary for that area’, which in the past had ‘been singled out as one of the main trouble spots’ (Irish News, 19 August 1969). The group also showed a high degree of sophistication in its operations: producing daily news-sheets to keep locals informed; organising street patrols; running an aid service out of its headquarters; and maintaining a 24-hour incident telephone line. All of these activities were undertaken with the full cooperation and support of the police.
Other bodies were set up in areas where there had already been trouble in order to prevent further outbreaks, like the Joint Action Committee established on the Springfield Road by Fr Des Wilson and Revd Courtenay. The influence of clergy was a constant theme, and their work was praised from as far afield as the New York Herald Tribune. Some organisations showed a particularly proactive disposition. A joint Catholic/Protestant ‘Peace Group’ formed in the Broadway area of the city actually sealed off the M1 motorway leading into the city, in order to help ‘restore peace’, in what was described as an ‘incredible sight’. A spokesman for the group justified their actions, proclaiming that ‘No gunmen are going to drive into our city to kill’. According to a local resident, the ‘spirit of friendship was now greater than before the riots’.
Even in areas where the peace committees formed were not of a cross-community nature or where no such bodies were established, a degree of cooperation between local residents was often noticeable. Thus in the Grosvenor Road area two separate groups worked in tandem after a ‘peace pact’ had been negotiated by Paddy Devlin, NILP MP for the Falls, and Dr Norman Laird, Unionist MP for St Anne’s. In police district A (city centre and parts of South Belfast) the Scarman Report noted how two committees, one formed in Sandy Row (a predominantly Protestant neighbourhood) and the other in the Markets (a predominantly Catholic neighbourhood), ‘collaborated well and worked together to maintain the peace’. In fact, it was largely due to this cooperation that the area remained peaceful, because there were never more than a dozen or so policemen available to patrol the district.

Industrial action
The cooperation displayed on the streets was also, intriguingly, repeated within the shipyards, despite the fact that they had on previous occasions been ‘a sea of trouble’. Following ‘an unprecedented meeting’ held on 15 August, attended by 4,000 workers, a resolution was passed expressing the workers’ determination to maintain peace. Mr Alex Scott, chairman of the steel-workers’ group and the shipyard shop stewards’ committee, talked of how ‘the shipyard men are determined to maintain peace and set an example to the rest of the province’.
This industrial action followed on from a spontaneous meeting held at the Michelin factory in Mallusk, attended by an estimated 2,000 workers, which originated out of a discussion in the staff canteen between two workers, described as an Orangeman and a Republican, about the deteriorating situation. A spokesman for the ad-hoc group declared that ‘the general feeling is that if Protestants and Roman Catholics can work together, why can’t they live in peace together?’

Paddy Devlin, NILP MP for the Falls—he negotiated a ‘peace pact’ with Dr Norman Laird, Unionist MP for St Anne’s, for the Grosvenor Road area and the two groups worked in tandem. (Victor Patterson)

Paddy Devlin, NILP MP for the Falls—he negotiated a ‘peace pact’ with Dr Norman Laird, Unionist MP for St Anne’s, for the Grosvenor Road area and the two groups worked in tandem. (Victor Patterson)

There was also the curious case of the pirate radio station ‘Radio Peace’, which competed for listeners’ attention with the more partisan broadcasters, ‘Radio Free Belfast’ and ‘Voice of Ulster’. The station took record requests but never revealed anything more than the Christian names of those calling in. Unfortunately, the positive sentiment behind the project was not always matched by the efforts of its DJ, who on one occasion, after announcing that he would broadcast all night, fell asleep live at the transmitter after just two hours!
Didn’t always work
Despite the success of many of these neighbourhood-based organisations (and the example set by workers in both Mallusk and the shipyards), it is clear that these types of social mechanisms were far from foolproof. As the Sunday Times Insight Team’s research reveals, a meeting between the Protestant/Catholic Peace Committee in the Clonard area on 15 August in order to ‘calm tempers’ and establish ‘mutual guarantees of non-aggression’ clearly failed. It was later on that very same day that Bombay Street, which lies in the shadow of the Clonard monastery, was burnt down. As the Insight Team’s study concluded, ‘the geography of the area was critical to what happened’.
It is clear, then, that the pattern of violence and intimidation was not only mediated by the admirable efforts of these various ‘peace’ groups but also by the sectarian geography and communal history of the city. Therefore, not unsurprisingly, the traditional area of tension along the Orange–Green line, which separates the Falls from the Shankill, was where much of the communal disturbances were concentrated during August 1969. But one should not discount the positive influence these committees exerted on their respective communities; as one local priest in the Oldpark Road area noted after a show of joint Catholic/Protestant cooperation in the wake of a sectarian attack, ‘It certainly is a change for the better’.
In its summary of the traumatic events of August 1969, the Belfast and District Trades Union Council noted that ‘The humanity and understanding shown was greater than the forces of reaction and great unity was forged’—an overly optimistic assessment, perhaps, but still part of the story. HI

Liam Kelly is a Ph.D candidate at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast.

Further reading:

This People’s Democracy poster applies a class analysis to why some parts of Belfast suffered more violence and destruction than others. (Linen Hall Library)

This People’s Democracy poster applies a class analysis to why some parts of Belfast suffered more violence and destruction than others. (Linen Hall Library)

J. Darby, Intimidation and the control of conflict in Northern Ireland (Syracuse, 1986).

The Sunday Times Insight Team, Ulster (Harmondsworth, 1972).

Violence and civil disturbances in Northern Ireland in 1969 [Scarman Report] (Belfast, 1972).

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