Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Why the historical record of what happened during the Troubles is so important (because it's surrounded by people trying to rewrite it)

If we try to learn from our mistakes, rather than apportion blame, then we stand a better chance of preventing it happening all over again, writes Malachi O'Doherty

An inspection of the new peace line in the Bombay/Cupar Street area of Belfast in 1970
An inspection of the new peace line in the Bombay/Cupar Street area of Belfast in 1970

By Malachi O'Doherty

My father managed two bars on the Crumlin Road at the top of Agnes Street. I worked part-time in these bars through summer holidays and at weekends.

One was the Enfield Arms, the other the Cliftonville Hotel. They were on facing corners and they were owned by a Catholic family called Gallagher.

I knew Billy and Tommy and what pint they took and they knew me and my brothers who worked there, too.

These bars were burnt to the ground on August 15, 1969, the same day that loyalists burnt Bombay Street.

We had an idea something like this would happen.

That afternoon my sister Brid and I had walked around the lower Falls surveying the damage from the previous night's rioting.

We went up Northumberland Street, crossed the Shankill, where things were more normal, and on up Agnes Street to the bars.

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The atmosphere in the Cliftonville was changed.

People I had been friendly with avoided my gaze.

My brother Brian was in charge and he said he was going to close early.

He didn't like the mood of the place.

Brid and I walked back down Agnes Street, across the Shankill and onto the Falls in time to see soldiers march up Durham Street with helmets on and bayonets fixed.

This was expected. I had watched much of the rioting on the Falls the night before. I had seen mobs on the Falls chuck petrol bombs at the police.

I had seen men on top of Divis Flats drop a crate of petrol bombs unlit onto the road to be ignited as a wall of flame when the baton charge got near.

And I had seen the 'Whippet' armoured cars spin out of side streets to break up the mob.

I was part of an audience on the city side of Hastings Street police station, which was where the Westlink crosses the Falls now.

I saw B-Specials arrive with their rifles in a commercial van and run along the wall and into the station.

And then a senior officer came out of the station to speak to us and tell us that things were likely to get much worse and that he could not ensure our safety.

So, I walked down Durham Street and up the Grosvenor and it was just as I was passing the hospital that I heard the first blasts of gunfire, probably the Browning machine-guns mounted on those Whippets, or Shorlands.

These had been built by Shorts on Land Rover bodies, designed to engage the IRA in open countryside. Now they were being fired in city streets.

So, there was a context for the Army coming in; it was the turmoil of the night before and of the rioting in Derry before that.

There was a context for the burning of the bars. The customers didn't just react badly to a sour pint.

And there was a context for the rioting, too, the build-up of animosity against, and fear of, the police following from their brutality towards civil rights parades.

And there was a larger context to that brutality, too, which was the expectation fostered by the Minister of Home Affairs that an IRA uprising was being planned.

The IRA split shortly afterwards, precisely because the leadership was not interested in having a war.

In the following weeks I read much in small magazines, propaganda sheets and the mainstream media about what had happened on August 14 and 15. Much of it agreed that there had been a pogrom against the Catholic people of the lower Falls.

By this reasoning Bombay Street and the pubs my father managed had been burnt out for no other reason than that the people who lived in those houses, or worked in those bars, were Catholics.

Certainly, people in Bombay Street had done no more to invite the burning of their homes than my brothers and my father had to bring on the destruction of the pubs.

We were innocent people attacked by rabid loyalists, who were intent on destroying Catholic property.

We had expected it as unfocused, irrational and savage revenge for the rioting of the night before.

Had there been no attempt to burn the police out of Hastings Street police station, those bars might still be standing.

Furthermore, since the trauma of those nights was the spark that set off the whole Troubles period, it is conceivable that, had the rioting been better managed, or better still, not happened at all, the eruption of fear and concern that drove people into paramilitary organisations might have been much less incendiary and fewer people would have died in the following decades.

That's my reading of the history of that period. I have written it many times over the years in rebuttal of the simple propaganda that appalled me then and appals me still.

But I have not rewritten it - at least not deliberately.

I happen to think that the historical record is important, because it is surrounded by interests in changing it.

And I suspect that it is because there are so many competing narratives about the past, such suspicion that people are lying, that when consulted on how to deal with this, more people wanted justice than anything else.

If you want to make the case that the IRA was a necessary and, indeed, noble response to unionist oppression and loyalist threat, then you need to edit out the whole business of the republican-led ambush on Hastings Street.

And if you think that the RUC was a fine, disciplined force, then you will play down the fact that they were the one and only British police force ever to use Browning machine-guns in a British city.

You will disregard the fact that they were spooked by their own guns and overreacted, because they didn't know what they were facing.

And if you are proud to be a unionist, you may not want reminded that an early irritant in generating the momentum towards chaos was a unionist Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, who banned parades and instructed a police force which had no training in crowd control to stop them.

And if you think that the civil rights movement was innocent of all involvement in this tilt towards war, you may need reminded that the IRA leader, Billy McMillen, who organised the attack on Hastings Street, was a member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association executive. Learning from that shambles would have more value than trying to identify one party as the sole cause.

Then we might have a better idea how to prevent it all happening again.

Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle For Change In Northern Ireland by Malachi O'Doherty is published next month by Atlantic Books

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