When is a pogrom not a pogrom?

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

Sir,

—As a student of history and as someone forced out of my childhood home in North Howard Street during the 1969 pogroms, I came away from reading your special issue (HI 17.4, July/Aug. 2009) with mixed feelings. While I welcome the editor’s forthright editorial (‘When is a pogrom not a pogrom?’) and his warning against complacency in the face of enduring racism and sectarianism, I am concerned that much of the writing fails to deliver, falling instead into a long tradition of equivocation on those horrific events.
In his introduction to the issue, Brian Hanley seems so saddled by the pursuit of ‘balance’ that he is unable to confront the question raised by the editor. While there are complexities to take into account, none of these should be used to relieve historians of the responsibility to speak plainly. Hanley is no doubt aware that there is a long list of work by ‘professional historians’ in which the pogroms either go unmentioned or are excused as a reasonable response by loyalists to a republican-led insurrection. In the face of such silence and distortion, one might expect that 40 years later he would take the opportunity to set the record straight. Instead we get more of the same.
Hanley’s aim in ‘The IRA and 1969’ seems to be to counter the suggestion that the IRA was ‘non-existent’ (p. 10) in Belfast on the eve of the pogroms. Since he doesn’t cite any source for the assertion, it is difficult to know with whom he is taking issue, but here Hanley mischaracterises widespread resentment that republicans had been unable to defend nationalist communities, which is a somewhat different matter. In countering that assertion, he inflates the size and violence of the IRA’s role in marches on the Springfield Road and Hastings Street barracks (see the Scarman Inquiry on these), and cites in support of his argument internal IRA sources like Goulding, who had a stake in exonerating themselves. On-the-ground assessments from police and journalists concur that IRA organisation immediately before, during and after the events of 14/15 August was extremely weak (RUC, 18 August: ‘shortage of arms . . . command system behind the barricades . . . weak and lacks cohesion’), and recent public statements from those involved in the defence of the area bear this out.
Another problem occurs in the discussion of the death of loyalist Herbert Roy, who Hanley suggests was killed ‘more than likely by a Thompson submachine-gun’. Presumably it is this death that led History Ireland to include a full page (p. 39) on the weapon. Somewhat less sensationally, however, Scarman established that Roy was killed by a .38 projectile from a ‘Webley type revolver’, a finding confirmed by two experts, including George Price of the Forensic Science Laboratory in Nottingham.
One wonders, in light of the record, why History Ireland didn’t devote more attention to the truly sensational use of weaponry by state forces. For civilians caught in the events and for the seasoned military man and British journalist Max Hastings, it was police use of the high-velocity Browning machine-gun in a dense residential setting that was the most remarkable, and troubling, military feature of August 1969. Hastings, an eyewitness, estimated that upwards of 2,000 rounds were fired, many of them indiscriminately, in the lower Falls. Not one of the gunners assigned to the Shorland armoured cars on which the Brownings were mounted ever admitted firing in the direction of the flats in which young Patrick Rooney was killed, though they were strafed with bullets; shockingly (or not), none of them was ever charged.
With the editors at History Ireland, I look forward to the day when the ‘ghosts of August 1969’ can be put behind us. But banishing them will require a more honest confrontation with the past.

—Yours etc.,
MICHAEL McCANN
Queen’s University, Belfast

Brian Hanley replies:
I would like to reply to two points raised by Michael McCann. I reject his suggestion that my platform piece sought to infer a ‘balance’ in the violence during 1969. I simply stated that both communities remember these events very differently. I pointed out that the RUC and B-Specials were responsible for the majority of deaths and that Catholics constituted a majority of those otherwise victimised. At no point did I argue that violence by loyalists was justified or excused by their fears. Secondly, I was deliberately departing from the consensus view of the IRA during 1969 in my main article. The majority of work by historians, political scientists and commentators, from a variety of viewpoints, has concluded that ‘there was no IRA’ in Belfast (Marianne Elliot), that the IRA were ‘practically extinct’ (John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary) or ‘posed little threat to anyone’ (Tim Pat Coogan). But during April 1969 the IRA in Belfast was capable of organising, at short notice, a 1,000-strong demonstration, as well as carrying out fire-bombings in order to divert police resources from Derry. On 13 August the IRA could again put substantial numbers on the streets, carry out a gun and grenade attack on the RUC in Leeson Street and on 14 August organise defensive actions that included exchanging fire with the police and loyalists. Michael McCann is correct to point out that the Scarman Tribunal found that Herbert Roy was killed by a round from a handgun, but a Thompson was among the weapons fired by IRA members at St Comgall’s at the mob of which Roy was a part. Furthermore, I believe that the reaction of nationalists to the IRA’s performance during August was much more complex than is usually presumed and that it is important to examine this in the light of later interpretations.

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