Ardoyne: A cockpit of violence for over four decades
The rioting at Ardoyne came as no surprise to retired detective Alan Simpson. Throughout his 27-year police career it was the scene of some of the worst outrages during the Troubles
I can hardly believe that 43 years have elapsed since I first stood at the Ardoyne shopfronts in July 1970 as a young probationer constable – part of a police contingent there to keep the peace as the Ligoniel Orange Order passed by going to and from the annual Twelfth demonstration.
That stretch of road seemed somehow more neutral in those days, given that there was little trouble at these events other than some rowdiness.
In July 1971, I found myself back on duty at the shopfronts with my colleagues and the Ligoniel Orange Order feeder parade passed – again without much incident.
But little did we know that this was merely the calm before the storm, which erupted a few weeks later on internment day – August 9, 1971.
I started duty at 7am that day in the local patrol car and soon we had a backlog of calls to the Ardoyne area, as many of the families who found themselves on the wrong side of the sectarian divide were having to flee their homes.
The lucky ones managed to arrange all sorts of lorries and vans to shift their belongings; the less-fortunate only had cars – at best.
As over-stretched police officers (and in spite of the assistance of the Army), we found it incredibly frustrating to be unable to offer much assistance to these refugees, other than to keep a presence.
Then, as the houses were vacated, I heard what must be one of the most distressing sounds imaginable, as the former occupants began to smash the interiors of what had been their homes, so as to make it as difficult as possible for families from the opposing side to occupy them.
Gun battles between the IRA and the Army raged all day and throughout the night, which I could clearly hear from my bedroom in Tennent Street police station.
When I reported for duty on August 10, 1971, we were informed that, during the night, 200 houses had been burned-out in Protestant-held Farringdon Gardens and Valsheda Park, in the area behind Ardoyne shopfronts.
I was detailed to go there, with other officers, to prevent looting. On arrival, I was shocked to see the blackened shells of the houses, with wisps of smoke rising from them and firemen dousing the remaining embers.
I could so easily imagine myself in somewhere like Berlin or Dresden at the end of the Second World War – such was the level of destruction. I was amazed to learn that some of the occupants had burned the houses themselves to prevent them being taken over by Catholic refugee families.
In the months which followed, there was to be no let-up on us, as police officers.
On August 15, 1971, we experienced a great tragedy when two of our colleagues – Constables Cecil Cunningham and John Haslett – were gunned to death by the IRA as they sat in a car in plain clothes, keeping watch on Ardoyne Post Office, due to a spate of robberies.
In 1987, the IRA claimed another police victim when they staged a robbery at premises at Ardoyne shops and laid a booby-trap bomb for police, which killed Reserve Constable Peter Nesbitt.
After my two-year period as a probationer constable, I spent the remainder of my 25 years' police service as a detective working mainly in north and west Belfast.
In 1989, I had another experience at the Ardoyne interface, when, as detective superintendent and head of CID in north Belfast, I was summoned to the scene of the shooting of Brian Robinson at Crumlin Road, just below Flax Street.
On arrival at the cordoned-off scene, I was shown Robinson's body, which was in a crumpled-up position. He had just ruthlessly pumped 11 bullets into a totally innocent Catholic man, Paddy McKenna, selected at random at Ardoyne shops.
The murder had been witnessed by a plainclothes Army observation team, who followed Robinson and his accomplice as they made their getaway on a motorbike.
As they attempted to turn into Cambrai Street, they fell off the motorbike and a female soldier shot Robinson dead. His accomplice was captured. It was later confirmed that both men were in the UVF.
I mention all of this to give an insight into just what a troubled area of north Belfast this really is.
And, although I have long since retired from the police, it pains me greatly to watch my successors in the PSNI having to undergo the outrageous annual ritual of having to face nights of vicious rioting from hordes of republican youths following the passing of the Orange Order along what is now commonly referred to as the Ardoyne interface.
This year was a little different, insofar as the parade had been banned from passing the interface, so a loyalist mob vented their anger on the PSNI with several nights of rioting causing many injuries to police.
I cannot begin to express my admiration for the courage, steadfastness, restraint and professionalism of the policemen and women who faced down these savages. This surely can't go on every year, as the only answer to the parades issue.
A large degree of maturity is now required by our politicians and leaders of the Orange Order to find a lasting solution, which does not involve the police service being put through this abuse, year after year.
If not, then perhaps in another 43 years' time, some other retired police officer will be writing as I am today.