On the evening of the September 28, 1964, a detachment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), acting on the direct instruction of Brian McConnell, the Minister of Home Affairs, attacks the Divis Street headquarters of the Republican Party (Sinn Féin had been outlawed earlier in the year) in West Belfast. Their perilous mission is to remove an Irish Tricolour.
This takes place during a general election for Westminster. Republicans have nominated Liam McMillan to contest in West Belfast. McConnell, under pressure from Ian Paisley and other unionists, holds a conference of his senior RUC officers on the morning of September 28 and orders that the tricolour flown at Liam McMillan’s headquarters be removed. Under the Flags and Emblems Display Act of 1954, it is an offence to display the tricolour anywhere in the six counties of Northern Ireland.
That evening, when it becomes known that the RUC are coming to seize the flag, more than 2,000 republican supporters block the roadway. Scores of RUC are rushed to the scene in armoured cars. The RUC, though heavily armed with sten guns, rifles, revolvers and riot batons, are made to look ridiculous by groups of children, who run about with miniature tricolour stickers which they stick on walls and police cars.
The RUC, using pickaxes, smashes down the doors of the Republican headquarters and takes the flag. They carry it away through a hail of stones and to the prolonged jeers of the people.
The following day the RUC clears Divis Street to make way for an armoured car. Their new perilous mission is to seize a new replacement tricolour. The armoured car stops outside the Republican headquarters, eight policemen emerge and begin another attack with crowbars and pickaxes. They fail to break down the door but one of them smashes the window, reaches in and pulls out the second tricolour.
By September 30, news of the events in Divis Street have spread throughout the media. Belfast begins attracting television reporters and newspaper men from all around the world. That night, thousands of republicans, armed with petrol bombs, sticks, stones and rotten vegetables, gather outside their headquarters to defend their identity and their flag. A battle begins at 11:00 PM when the RUC tries to disperse them. The television cameras are there to record all that happens. For the first time ever, people in many parts of the world are able to watch a sectarian police force in action.
When the republicans indicate that they will stand their ground, fifty RUC men, who had been held in reserve in the small streets between Falls Road and Shankill Road, are deployed but the republicans, in accordance with a pre-arranged strategy, drive them back. By midnight, the police have succeeded in sealing off Divis Street and dispersing the crowd but thirty people, including at least eighteen members of the RUC, have been injured.
One week later, on October 5, republicans carry the tricolour at the head of a parade of 5,000 people who march from Beechmount on Falls Road, through Divis Street, to an election rally near Smithfield. RUC men line the entire route but make no attempt to seize the flag.
(From: “The Tricolour Riots,” An Phoblacht (www.anphoblacht.com), September 23, 2004 edition)