Mid August 1969 witnessed great violence and suffering. Memories of these terrible events have remained strong, especially in areas affected directly by the conflict.
Less well remembered, however, are the actions of many to prevent violence. While some parts of west Belfast were very badly hit by these disturbances, there was a relative absence of violence or sectarian conflict elsewhere in Belfast. The Scarman report noted the ‘one remarkable fact’ that these riots ‘did not spread from the Falls and the Ardoyne into the rest of the city’.
Recently, historian Liam Kelly has described the valiant efforts of various local peace committees to maintain peace. Politicians such as David Bleakley, Paddy Devlin and Dr Norman Laird organised ‘peace pacts’ between different groups. Clergy, including Fr Des Wilson and Rev. Courtney, co-operated closely to combat outbursts of sectarian conflict.
Places such as the docks and the shipyards were able to avoid trouble very largely, thanks to the efforts of these individuals and organisations, including trade unions. So, how do we explain the violence?
These events were seen by many on one side as part of a conspiracy, involving the I.R.A., to destroy the state, and on the opposite side as part of an organised campaign of violence by forces of the state and others against the Catholic community.
In fact, as the Scarman report showed, the views of both sides were wrong. The report accepted that the IRA had a ‘plan for subversion: no doubt, it always has had’, but insisted IRA members ‘did not start the riots, or plan them’. Indeed, Scarman noted: ‘the evidence is that the IRA was taken by surprise and did less than many of their supporters thought they should have done’.
Scarman also dismissed the idea that the riots originated through unprovoked, organised ‘invasions’ of Catholic areas by Protestants and state forces. It stated: ‘Protestant participation in the disorders was largely that of violent reaction to disturbances started by Catholics, though there were exceptions’. Scarman found certain police officers had acted wrongly but rejected ‘utterly’ the case of ‘a partisan force co-operating with Protestant mobs’.
How did Scarman explain what happened? Conflict over street demonstrations had not only polarised society sharply, but it had highlighted the difficulty of controlling confrontations by the relatively small police force, who were seen by many as not welcome nor neutral.
It is important to see the larger picture and the role played in the longer term by the chief actors in this tragedy.
The unionist government had failed to act effectively to meet the claims of the civil rights movement. Some, such as Capt.Terence O’Neill, had sought to introduce reforms but they had been obstructed by elements both inside and outside the unionist party. In particular, Dr Ian Paisley had opposed strongly the civil rights movement whose claims were |reasonable and moderate, without even any mention of power- sharing or north-south bodies, which Dr Paisley accepts today.
Scarman drew special attention to the role of extreme Protestant organisations whose activities in the previous six months had been directed against unionist moderates. In March/April Protestant extremists bombed electricity and water installations to put blame on the IRA. This helped to topple O’Neill and to heighten Protestant fears about the IRA, which were aroused in August.
The British government had not carried out properly its sovereign responsibilities in relation to these civil rights matters. Furthermore, it was unwilling to accept advice or seek co-operation from the Irish government.
There was a failure in relation to policing. In the previous 10 months, particularly in relation to some civil rights marches, the police had failed to act impartially which had led to bad relations between police and locals, especially in Derry and west Belfast.
Events over this August week must also be seen as evidence of the failure of the civil rights movement, which from its early days had stressed non-violence. On this occasion, however, it failed to stop the outbreak of violence in Derry which began among its own followers, and the call of NICRA for demonstrations on August 13 had disastrous consequences.
Frank Gogarty of the NICRA later acknowledged to Scarman his association’s responsibility, in helping to cause a Protestant backlash on August 14/15. ‘I am afraid that we all in the executive under-estimated the strength of militant unionism at this time, and had we foreseen the holocaust which did occur in mid-August we would not have entered on such an enterprise as we did’.
Unionists fears had been greatly heightened not only by the demonstrations of August 13 but also by Jack Lynch’s broadcast of the same day announcing the sending of units of the Irish army to the border and raising the subject of reunification. Why did Lynch make this statement? Now we know that it was a compromise between the moderate Lynch and other extreme cabinet members, such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland, who wanted a more aggressive response.
Historian John Walsh has commented about Blaney and Boland: ‘They were not seeking simply to protect Catholics: both saw the violence a chance to undermine partition and force Britain to concede a united Ireland’.
Dr Patrick Hillery recalled government meetings at this time: ‘It was like a ballad session. They were all warriors. I remember meetings and you would be a traitor, not to be looking for war. They were republicans and now was an opportunity to be active republicans’.
What about the IRA? IRA members did join in the violence and were prepared to use firearms. Their actions must be judged as causing the worst of all worlds. On the one hand, they did little to protect their own communities, and on the other they exposed their own people to serious violence.
Eight people were killed, hundreds injured and large numbers forced to flee their homes. This marked a new level of violence and was followed by a rapid escalation of conflict.
The IRA had not planned the riots but at the time many unionists believed that what had occurred was evidence of an organised assault on the Northern Ireland state and failed to recognise the underlying problems. Loyalist paramilitaries had justification for their actions.
To fully understand the conflict of mid August 1969, however, we need to turn to the present. If we look at the contemporary situation, compared with 40 years ago, it is obvious why this tragedy occurred. Now, full rights and equality are guaranteed for all. Today, there is legal and political agreement, north and south, on the principle of consent over their constitutional position.
Effective accommodation and cooperation has been achieved between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between the British and Irish governments.
There is now a police force in Northern Ireland which has full cross community support. Violence has been condemned by all the main parties, and the principal paramilitary organisations have decommissioned. None of this existed in August 1969.
Sadly, it took decades to achieve this change.