Tour of “The Troubles” in Catholic Belfast
As part of our Belfast visit we wanted to learn more about the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles”. Anyone old enough can remember how from the early ’70s until well into the ’90s, year after year, every day there would be stories in the news of bombings and killings and disagreements and fighting in Northern Ireland. How did Northern Ireland come to be? What was the fighting all about? How did it start and finally end?
There’s a great deal of complexity to Irish history, and we can only skim the surface in a short article. Still, the story of this conflict needs to be told because it is like so many others that perpetuate in our world today, whether it be the problems with race relations in the US, the conflict over the state of Israel, or the civil wars in Syria, Afganistan, Iraq, Egypt, and numerous other states.
There are two sides to every argument. The British and their Unionist followers in Northern Ireland had political and governmental goals that to them seemed every bit as valid and necessary as the Irish Republican reasoning that we heard about during our tour. The safety and security of a large portion of the population was at risk through the actions of rebellious minority group. The Irish Republicans whose rights were being oppressed decided to stand up until their grievances were addressed. The best practice for doing this has yet to be invented. Redressing the problems caused when one people subjects another people to their will and discriminates against them is painfully difficult – witness efforts in the US to undo slavery.
We’ll describe our tour and afterwards provide more historical details of the period leading up to “The Troubles”, a short history of Irish Republicanism, and a basic historical recounting of period of “The Troubles”.
Brenda and I took a more than 2 hour walking tour of Belfast along Falls Road heading west from downtown. Falls Road runs through the center of the Catholic neighborhood in West Belfast. A couple of major streets to the north was Shankill Rd, which was the heart of the Protestent neighborhood. These two neighborhoods were where many of the incidents of “The Troubles” took place.
Our guide was a staunch Republican (a supporter of a free Irish state and usually a Catholic) named Jack Duffin. He is a left leaning supporter of the Irish Republican Army who would like to see Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Ireland. Jack was born and raised in the same neighborhoods where the fighting occurred. He had been on the front lines, and many of his friends were killed or arrested during the course of the conflict. Jack now works for a company called Coiste, which has a small office near the tour route and also a great web site at http://www.coiste.ie, where you can learn more about the story of “The Troubles”.
There were only 7 in our group – five from the US and two from Italy. From the US we had a Ph.D. graduate student doing research for his thesis, a UCLA Ph.D student and her boyfriend who were enroute to Egypt for similar studies, and us.
Our tour started at the Divis Tower, the location of one of the early neighborhood battles of 1969, then past Saint Comgell’s Primary School, where we could see some of the bullet holes in the concrete and brick. We stopped at a memorial for the Republicans martyrs from one neighborhood and across the street saw a block of murals supporting various situations involving human rights all over the world. A short while later we stopped at a library funded by Andrew Carnegie. Jack pointed out that the Republicans have a museum in an old factory building that was a linen factory back in the days when Belfast was the largest producer of linen in the world. He described how miserable working conditions were for those early factory workers.
We passed several building murals dedicated to players of the Belfast Celtic Football Club, reportedly one of the best soccer teams in the world from 1891 to 1949. The football club ended in 1949 as a result of fighting between Catholic team members and Protestant fans.
There was a memorial on the side of one building for the martyr Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was a leader of a Hunger Strike in 1981 while he was imprisoned at Her Majesty’s Maze Prison south of Belfast. The Catholic prisoners sent there during “The Troubles” considered themselves to be prisoners of war. In the early ’70s the British government had agreed to grant these prisoners a Special Category Status, allowing political prisoners of the conflict to not wear the normal prison uniforms, not perform prison work, to freely communicate with one another, and the right to one visit, one parcel, and one letter per week. These rights were revoked by the British in 1976, and the hunger strike was a protest that these rights had been removed. Bobby Sands died of starvation after 66 days. During the hunger strike, Sands was elected in a special election to the British House of Commons, though he died of hunger in prison before he could ever take his elected seat.
We stopped in front of the local Sinn Féin office, with memorial placards above the door to fallen members of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. One was Pat McGeown, a leader who died in 1996 from complications started during his hunger strike in prison in 1981. Another was to Máire Drumm, Vice President of Sinn Féin when she was assassinated in 1976. Two other placards were memorials to 6 members who had been killed by the RUC in the early ’90s.
We passed by the place where President Bill Clinton met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in November 1995. Adams has been President of Sinn Féin since 1983. President Clinton was revered by the Catholic community for his support of Gerry Adams and the peace process in Northern Ireland.
A couple blocks later we passed by the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, where Gerry Adams’s life was saved after an assassination attempt in 1984. As a result of the many assaults during “The Troubles”, the hospital became a cutting edge facility for the treatment of gunshot woulds. It also made another significant contribution to emergency medicine – a doctor there invented the portable defibrillator. The hospital was also the world’s first air conditioned public building, the unit having been developed by the Sirocco Works in Belfast in 1906.
We continued along Falls Rd, eventually reaching another area where the street side was lined with posters, one still demanding justice for a bombing in 1971 that killed fifteen patrons at McGurk’s Bar. Individual posters cited the death of over 200 Republicans, showing each to have been murdered at the hands of the Unionist paramilitary groups, the police, or British troops. Jack knew a number of them personally and recounted for us each of their stories.
We went by the home of James Connolly, where he lived in Belfast from 1910 to 1913. Connolly was a socialist politician and leader of trade unions who is revered for his advocacy of Irish nationalism and independence. In 1916 he led a group of volunteers in what became known as the Easter Rising. The Irish Nationalists attacked and took over various areas of Dublin and proclaimed Ireland as an independent republic. The British troops quickly quelled the uprising, and Connolly was badly wounded and had only a short time to live. Still, the British found him guilty of treason, tied him to a chair (since he could not stand) and executed him. Such martyrdom did not go unnoticed – the public awareness soon increased public support for Irish nationalism.
The tour ended by passing the Protestant Falls Park cemetery, where many of the Unionist victims are buried, and then proceeded to the Catholic Milltown cemetery on the opposite side of the road, where we viewed many graves of the Nationalists, including Bobby Sands.
Our tour ended in the dark and the rain, and afterwards we all went together to a nearby club where we hoisted a pint of Guiness to our guide and to the memory of those in the conflict. The Americans in our group were highly interested in “The Troubles”, and we enjoyed the stimulating discussion. On our cab ride home, the driver related his own feelings about “The Troubles”. He also noted that we’d just come from the most Republican club in town.
See more photos of the tour.
Some history leading up to “The Troubles”
How did Scots and English become the majority in Northern Ireland?
According to a Wikipedia article, the area that is now Northern Ireland was sparsely populated by Gaelic Irish, clans or tribes that migrated seasonally with their cattle. It was the most Gaelic part of Ireland. In the 1590s, the forces of the Gaelic Irish chieftains fought the Nine Years War to oppose English rule in Ireland. The war was throughout Ireland, but was mainly fought in the northern province of Ulster. The English won the war, and in in 1601, in exchange for King James I pardoning the chieftains, they gave up control of their land to England, a substantial part of what is now Northern Ireland. At the end of the war this area was sparsely populated with perhaps 25,000 to 45,000 people.
In 1609 the English organized to colonize a substantial portion of the counties of Ulster, redistributing the land to Protestants from England and Scotland. The English intention was to civilize the Ulster region and to anglicize the Irish, including converting them to Protestantism. The principal landowners, known as Undertakers, were wealthy men from Scotland and England who undertook to import tenants from their own estates. All tenants were to be English speaking and Protestant. Veterans of the Nine Years War also lobbied successfully to receive land grants, these to be paid for by subsidies from other organizations within England. Also the remaining portions of Northern Ireland that were not part of the official plantation, including the area around Belfast, were planted with immigrants in many cases by the private land owners.
In 1641 there was a massacre of about 4000 Protestant settlers when the Irish Catholic population staged a rebellion on the Ulster plantation. Another 8000 Protestants went home as a result. The English sent a force of 10,000 to quell the rebellion, and they committed many atrocities against the Catholics. After the conflict, there were no more Catholic landowners in the Ulster region, but so many of the tenants in the plantation areas had left that the percentage of immigrants was actually greatest in the privately settled areas closer to what is now Belfast.
After England’s William III conquered Ireland in 1691, a complicated series of acts were put in place to limit and discriminate against the Irish Catholics and also those Presbyterian Protestants who would not swear an oath of allegiance to the King. These included exclusion from public office, a ban on interfaith marriages and the state’s refusal to recognize marriage of Presbyterians, barring of Catholics from holding firearms, exclusion from the legal profession and judiciary, ban on converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, and many more similar restrictions. Many of these restrictions were later repealed, but they remained as a strongly resonant element in the politics of Irish Catholicism for long afterwards.
The author and sociologist Allan G Johnson describes how over the years of English control, the English subjected the native Irish to discrimination:
“The British came to view the Irish as something like a separate species altogether, possessing inferior traits that were biologically passed from one generation to the next. In this, the British were inventing a concept of race that made it a path of least resistance to see other peoples as subhuman if not nonhuman, making it easier to objectify them and more difficult to feel empathy for them as members of their own kind, both integral to the exertion of control over others.”
This historical undercurrent eventually resurfaced in the tension between the Irish Catholics and ancestors of the migrant English and Scottish Protestants that boiled over in the a period of civil conflict between 1969 and 1998 known as “The Troubles”.
History of Irish Republicanism
History of Irish Republicanism from the Coiste web site:
Following the enforced partition of Ireland by the British Government in 1921 the newly elected Unionist Government in the Six Counties set about establishing a form of religious apartheid,’a protestant parliament for a protestant people’, as one former Unionist prime minister described it. In the decades between 1921 and 1969, Catholics and Nationalists bore the brunt of institutionalised discrimination and state repression. No opposition to Unionist rule was tolerated.
By the 1960s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights association was formed, and began to campaign peacefully for basic civil rights – one person one vote and an end to discrimination in housing and employment. That peaceful campaign was met with violence by the Unionist regime; demonstrators were attacked with batons, tear gas and eventually live bullets. Whipped into a frenzy of sectarian hatred and fear, loyalist mobs supported by the police force (RUC and B Specials) swept into Nationalist districts throughout Belfast on the night of the 15th August. Hundreds of Nationalist homes and businesses were attacked and destroyed leaving thousands of Nationalists homeless. That evening Gerard Mc Auley, just 15 years of age, was shot and killed by Loyalists. Later Patrick Rooney just 9 years of age was shot and killed by the RUC. Trooper Mc Cabe who was on home leave at the time from his regiment in the British Army was also shot and killed by the RUC in the Divis Street area.
Before 1969 the IRA was a relatively small organisation, made up for most part of older men and women who had previously fought military campaigns against British rule in Ireland. After the suppression of the civil rights movement and the pogroms, hundreds of men and women joined the ranks of the IRA. The British Government ordered British troops onto the streets again and the perennial struggle between the British and Irish Republicans began again.
Short history of the period of “The Troubles”
Wikipedia provides an overview of “The Troubles”:
“The Troubles” refers to the three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist community (mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). The conflict was the result of discrimination against the Irish nationalist/Catholic minority by the unionist/Protestant majority and the question of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.
In 1964 Nationalist Catholic Irish began a civil rights campaign to end restrictions on government hiring, gerrymandering of election districts, changing of the vote from 1 vote per household to 1 vote per person, reform of the police (the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was almost 100% Protestant), and repeal of special powers that enabled search without a warrant, imprisonment without trial, banishment of assembly, etc. During the period from 1964 to 1969 the Unionists organized several loyalist paramilitary groups: the Ulter Volunteer Force (UVF) among people in the Shankill Rd neighborhood north of Falls Rd; the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee (UCDC) set up a paramilitary style wing called the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV). During the same period the Nationalists formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). During these years there are skirmishes but not outbreaks, and the Nationalists continued to press their case for civil rights.
In 1969, loyalist paramilitary groups bombed electricity and water installations in Northern Ireland, and cast blame upon the then dormant Irish Republican Army. Outside of Belfast, there was fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Derry. Loyalists in Belfast invaded the Republican neighborhoods, burned houses and businesses. Republicans exchanged gunfire with Loyalists and the RUC. British troops were deployed to restore order.
During the period 1970 to 1972, violence escalated and over 500 people lost their lives . Two more Republican groups formed, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Official Irish Republican Army. Our tour guide was a member of the Official IRA and described the Provisional IRA members as being angered and driven to action by their loss, but not ideologically in tune with the political ideas of the Official IRA. The newer Provisional IRA was more attuned to armed struggle. Unionists imposed a “Falls Curfew” upon the residents of the Falls Rd . Also they imposed internment without trial, almost always applied to the Republicans rather than the Unionists. By 1972 the Provisional IRA had carried out a destructive campaign of violence, killing about 100 soldiers and carrying out more than 1300 bombing of mostly commercial targets. The Official IRA carried out a similar campaign. Loyalist paramilitary groups retaliated by assassinating Republicans, and both Protestants and Catholics were displaced out of their communities by force.
In 1972, the government of Great Britain passed emergency legislation dissolving the Loyalist Government at Stormont, Northern Ireland and introducing direct rule from London.
In 1974 an effort to achieve a cease fire failed, and for the rest of the 1970’s the two sides traded violent attacks. In 1981 ten Republican prisoners starved themselves to death as they advocated restoring a political status to the Republicans in Northern Ireland. The first to die, Bobby Sands, was elected to Parliament. Over 100,000 people attended his funeral. The IRA received arms from Muammar Gaddafi of Libya during this period. During the ’80s, the paramilitary violence between Unionists and Republicans continued unabated.
In the late ’80s, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, sought a negotiated end to the conflict. After prolonged negotiations between Loyalists, Republicans, and the British, the first cease fire was declared in 1994. Subsequent violence interrupted this first attempt. The IRA bombed targets in the UK.
In 1997 a second cease fire was declared with the assistance of the US government as negotiations without the agreement of Sinn Féin became known as the Good Friday Agreement. Later in the year Sinn Féin agreed to the conditions. President Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland during this time and arranged a US visa for Gerry Adams. He met with leaders of both sides of the conflict and today is well remembered for his influence in helping to bring an end to “The Troubles”.
Though some violence still occurred, the second cease fire has largely held up and a political process has begun. Self government has been restored to Northern Ireland, and the police force has been reformed. There are still some significant problems to be resolved.
Between 1969 and 2001, 3526 people were killed. More statistics of casualties can be found here.
When the north was divided from the rest of Ireland and kept British in 1921, Northern Ireland was about 70% Unionist. Today the percentage of Unionists has dwindled to about 48%, according to our tour guide. Sinn Féin has grown to be the second largest political party in Northern Ireland.