Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—Kieran Glennon’s article ‘Facts and fallacies of the Belfast pogrom’ (HI 28.5, Sept./Oct. 2020) was fair and balanced. His title was, of course, hinged to the unpublished Fr Hassan (‘G.B. Kenna’) pamphlet Facts and figures of the Belfast pogrom 1920–1922. Hassan’s failing was one-sidedness, not unlike that of his pamphlet’s contemporary, the Irish Bulletin. As Glennon indicates, he only made one original mention of the IRA.

However, using the propagandist term ‘pogrom’ for what happened in Belfast from July 1920 to October 1922 is itself fallacious. The phrase has first to be put into context and defined. By July 1920 the War of Independence was over a year under way, while the conflict in Ulster was not exclusive to Belfast. The Derry riots, which started in April 1920, were a precursor and involved some twenty deaths, including Sergeant Dennis Moroney, the first RIC officer to be killed in the province. Ulster was preparing for the political endgame, with the violence starting in both communities.

‘Pogrom’ is a Russian word meaning ‘to wreak havoc and destroy’. There it involved massacre and expulsion of the Jewish ethno-religious group. Is this similar to what happened in Belfast? The answer, as accepted by most observers, is no. That the Catholic community suffered death, destruction and expulsion at a higher rate than the Protestant is none the less true, as made clear in the literature.

Fr Hassan wrote of 267 Catholics and 185 Protestants dying in Belfast between July 1920 and June 1922, giving a total of 462 people. Alan Parkinson in Belfast’s unholy war (2004) has 498 dead up to October 1922. Glennon breaks that figure down to 181 Protestants plus 33 police officers or 214, and 254 Catholics plus 29 IRA men or 283. Given a population proportion of three to one, the Catholic 53% of deaths was much greater, but then it could be crudely expected that the bigger population would inflict a higher number of casualties on the lesser. If Ulster was the unit under consideration the proportion would be less stark.

Refugees fled south in significant numbers, particularly from the Catholic commercial class, while there was considerable population movement north out of the border counties. Nearly a hundred RIC, RUC and USC officers were killed in the six counties in the three years, which is a minority response unheard of in Russian pogroms.

The assassination of the Woodvale MP, William Twaddell, in May 1922 in Belfast and of Sir Henry Wilson, North Down Westminster MP and former chief of the imperial general staff, in London in June accelerated the introduction of the Special Powers Act and internment. It was effective then but not in the 1970s. However, as the HI editorial points out, northern nationalists were essentially abandoned in the 1920s, not least by Michael Collins, and again in 1969, when Jack Lynch’s broadcast promise to not stand idly by turned out to be a hollow, if destabilising, statement. The Civil War ultimately put paid to the northern IRA’s campaign and the 1920s troubles came to an abrupt end. When they recommenced 50 years later (50 years ago), their memory was far from absent, not least in the older generation.—Yours etc.,


Sir,—Is it really the case, as Martin Mansergh writes, not once but twice (HI 28.4, July/Aug. 2020, Big Books), that the Belfast pogrom of 1920–22 was ‘in reaction to IRA attacks’?

Among others, Michael Farrell, Andrew Boyd and Kieran Glennon have argued that the pogrom was rooted in a combination of internal stresses in unionism—class conflict arising principally from the previous year’s engineering strike, and challenges to the unionist élite from within the loyalist working class in the local elections in January and June 1920. These stresses were multiplied by loyalist fears of the rising intensity of the War of Independence in the south.

There is also a more immediate precipitating factor. On 12 July 1920, at Finaghy field, Edward Carson urged his Orange followers to re-activate the Ulster Volunteer Force if the government would not protect them. The Belfast Newsletter reported his speech:

But we tell you (the Government) this—that if, having offered you our help—and I have offered it to them over and over again—if, having offered you our help, you are yourself unable to protect us from the machinations of Sinn Féin, and you won’t take our help; well, then, we tell you we will take the matter into our own hands. [Cheers] We will re-organise, at all costs, and notwithstanding the consequences, we will re-organise, as we feel bound to do in our own defence, throughout the province the Ulster Volunteers [Loud cheers]—who sent you such splendid help to maintain our Empire during the war. But one thing we will not submit to is that we should be left helpless and hopeless in the face of our enemies, and we tell you that, come what will, in the last resort, we will rely upon ourselves, and, under God we will defend ourselves. [Cheers] Now, I hope that I have made that pretty clear. [Laughter and cheers] And those are not mere words. I hate words without action.’

The London Times commented:

‘If indeed that organisation [the UVF] was revived as a defensive police force for Ulster the most serious consequences would almost certainly ensue. Upon Sir Edward Carson lies largely the blame for having sown the dragon’s teeth in Ireland.’

The pogrom commenced nine days later, on 21 July, in the shipyards in Belfast, organised and planned by the Unionist leadership (using the covers of the Belfast Protestant Association and the strike-breaking Ulster Unionist Labour Association):

‘It is common knowledge in Belfast, and frequently admitted by individual Unionists, that plans were matured at least two months ago to drive all Home Rule workmen in the shipyards out of their employment.’

(Westminster Gazette, 24 July 1920)

‘Belfast is in its present plight and is faced with future trouble simply and solely because there has been an organised attempt to deprive Catholic men of their work, and to drive Catholic families from their homes.’

(Daily Mail, 1 September 1920)

To be clear, all non-Orange, non-loyalist trade unionists (the so-called ‘rotten Prods’) were also included in the expulsions. The major engineering works and the linen mills across the city followed suit. By the end of July nearly 10,000 workers, men and women, had lost their jobs. For the two following years, the UVF in various guises—A, B and C Specials, regular RIC and RUC, and street gangs—terrorised the city’s Catholic population. More than half of the casualties were Catholic (60% according to Robert Lynch), although they represented barely a quarter of the population of the city (24.1% in the 1911 census). In Kieran Glennon’s words, ‘the overwhelming majority of the political violence in Belfast in the pogrom period was perpetrated against Catholics and nationalists’ (HI 28.5, Sept./Oct. 2020).

To say, then, as does Dr Mansergh, that the Belfast pogrom was ‘in reaction to IRA attacks’ is disingenuous. The plans to purge all ‘disloyal elements’ were laid well before the alleged pretexts. Robert Lynch’s study of the northern IRA cites testimony from both republicans and loyalists as to the reality that in 1920 the IRA’s Belfast Brigade existed more in aspiration than practice—‘inactive, small in number and hopelessly isolated’ (The Northern IRA and the early years of partition, p. 37). This is not to deny the impact of the Cork IRA’s assassinations of Lt.-Col. Smyth and DI Swanzy, but it must surely be admitted that targeted assassinations differ in both quality and quantity from the indiscriminate loyalist attacks on the Catholic population in Banbridge and Lisburn, which mirrored the even more savage violence in Belfast.—Yours etc.,



PS: I read Fearghal Mac Bhloscaidh’s Platform piece on revisionism in the same issue with considerable pleasure and relief. I am sure I am not alone in my profound agreement with his argument.


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