seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Murder of Joseph “Jo Jo” O’Connor

Joseph “Jo Jo” O’Connor, a leading member of the Continuity Irish Republican Army according to security sources in Northern Ireland, is shot to death in west Belfast on October 13, 2000. Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) gunmen are blamed for the murder.

The 26 year old O’Connor is shot dead as he sits in a car outside his mother’s house in Whitecliffe Parade in Ballymurphy. He comes from a well-known republican family and is understood to have been involved in welfare work for “Real IRA” prisoners. Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) sources do not suggest a motive for the shooting, except to say it is not sectarian and they believe it is a result of an inter-republican dispute. Continuity IRA sources deny their organisation is involved and the killing is condemned by Republican Sinn Féin.

O’Connor had just left his mother’s home and got into the passenger seat of a car when two hooded gunmen approach on foot and shoot him at point-blank range. He is hit in the head and dies instantly. A relative who is in the driver’s seat is uninjured.

O’Connor’s cousin, who lives nearby, says, “I heard one shot, then a silence, and then four more shots in quick succession.” Tensions between mainstream and dissident republicans at the time are high in Belfast but without serious violence.

O’Connor, who lives nearby in the Springhill Estate, is married with two young sons. His grandfather, Francisco Notarantonio, was shot dead by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in highly controversial circumstances at the same house 13 years earlier. That killing is at the centre of a legal battle between the British Ministry of Defence and the Sunday People over allegations of security force involvement.

O’Connor’s killing is condemned by First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble. He calls on the RUC Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, to state who he believes is responsible. “I understand a police operation is still ongoing and there may very well be further developments, but the question we will all ask is who was responsible for this murder.”

The killing is condemned by Republican Sinn Féin. A Sinn Féin councillor, Sean McKnight, says local people are “shocked” by the killing. “We call on those responsible for this deliberate shooting to declare themselves and spell out to the people what their motives are,” a spokesman says. “Local sources indicate the deceased man was associated with the 32 County Sovereignty Movement. Republican Sinn Féin has no hesitation in condemning this action and points out the obvious dangers that lie ahead.”

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) representative for Belfast West, Alex Attwood, condemns the murder as pointless but says no one should “rush to premature judgment” about who is responsible. “The overwhelming mass of political and wider opinion is determined to consolidate the political and peace process and no words, no acts and no narrow politics will destabilise it.”

(From “Leading ‘Real IRA’ member is shot dead in Ballymurphy” by Suzanne Breen, The Irish Times, October 14, 2000)


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The Tricolour Riots

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)


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Mitchell Returns to Belfast to Save the Peace Process

george-mitchellFormer United States Senator George Mitchell returns to Belfast on September 13, 1999 in a bid to prevent the Northern Ireland peace process from coming apart at the seams.

The soft-spoken but firm Mitchell leads a review of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he played a crucial part in brokering. The aim is to halt a renewed drift to violence by pro-British Protestant and pro-Irish Catholic paramilitaries, and to persuade the two communities to begin cooperating in the province’s elected assembly.

“The peace process is mired in mistrust on both sides of the sectarian divide,” says a British government official, who declines to be identified. “It will need somebody of Mr. Mitchell’s political caliber and neutrality to find a way forward.” The future role of the Northern Ireland police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), will be “part of the tangle [Mitchell] has to unravel,” the official adds. The 92% Protestant force, in a society where Catholics make up 42% of the population, is widely seen as requiring urgent attention.

The Protestant political leaders are unwilling to accept the good faith of Sinn Féin, the political ally of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They are also attacking Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam for having refused to acknowledge that republican paramilitaries have breached the cease-fire despite several violent incidents and the discovery of an alleged plot to send arms to the IRA from the United States.

Mowlam’s decision enraged David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s main Protestant political party and first minister-designate in a devolved Belfast government. Trimble and his senior lieutenants called for her to be fired. Trimble also launches a bitter attack on the Patten Commission after a leaked report indicates it would recommend allowing active IRA members to join the RUC police force.

Mitchell’s main contribution to the peace process has been to insist that the issue of decommissioning terrorist arms must be addressed in parallel with talks on future political structures in Northern Ireland. But he still has to find a formula that will satisfy Unionists for the IRA to begin handing in its weapons and explosives. Trimble and other Protestant leaders insist the IRA must agree to decommission before Sinn Féin is allowed to join a devolved Belfast government. Sinn Féin says that was not part of the 1998 peace accord.

Most worrying for Mitchell is the recent outcry over IRA tactics that makes a solution to the problem of law and order all the more important. The IRA is known to use threats and so called “punishment beatings” to maintain law and order in areas under its control, where RUC forces dare not tread. Six Catholic youths are in hiding in Britain after being threatened with violence, even death, if they remained in Northern Ireland.

According to the RUC, the youths have been targeted because of their refusal to accept the authority of sectarian paramilitaries in the areas where they live. Vincent McKenna, spokesman for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau, says, “The IRA thinks it has the right to police its own areas, and it is determined to punish anyone critical of the political direction of the Sinn Féin leadership.” He adds that since the Belfast agreement was signed 16 months earlier, 757 young people have been “exiled” by the IRA and Protestant paramilitary groups.

Mowlam reportedly says that if the Patten Commission can come up with a blueprint for the police that gives Catholics a larger role in legitimate law enforcement, the scope for policing by paramilitary groups will be reduced.

(From: “Mitchell returns to N. Ireland tinderbox,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 2, 1999)


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The Tullyvallen Massacre

tullyvallen-orange-hallThe Tullyvallen massacre takes place on September 1, 1975, when Irish republican gunmen attack an Orange Order meeting hall at Tullyvallen, near Newtownhamilton in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. The Orange Order is an Ulster Protestant and unionist brotherhood. Five Orangemen are killed and seven wounded in the shooting. The “South Armagh Republican Action Force” claims responsibility, saying it is retaliation for a string of attacks on Catholic civilians by Loyalists. It is believed members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) carried out the attack, despite the organisation being on ceasefire.

On February 10, 1975, the Provisional IRA and British government enter into a truce and restart negotiations. The IRA agrees to halt attacks on the British security forces, and the security forces mostly end their raids and searches. There is a rise in sectarian killings during the truce. Loyalists, fearing they are about to be forsaken by the British government and forced into a united Ireland, increase their attacks on Irish Catholics/nationalists. They hope to force the IRA to retaliate and thus end the truce. Some IRA units concentrate on tackling the loyalists. The fall-off of regular operations causes unruliness within the IRA and some members, with or without permission from higher up, engage in tit-for-tat killings.

On August 22, loyalists kill three Catholic civilians in a gun and bomb attack on a pub in Armagh. Two days later, loyalists shoot dead two Catholic civilians after stopping their car at a fake British Army checkpoint in the Tullyvallen area. Both of these attacks are linked to the Glenanne gang. On August 30, loyalists kill two more Catholic civilians in a gun and bomb attack on a pub in Belfast.

On the night of September 1, a group of Orangemen are holding a meeting in their isolated Orange hall in the rural area of Tullyvallen. At about 10:00 PM, two masked gunmen burst into the hall armed with assault rifles and spray it with bullets while others stand outside and fire through the windows. The Orangemen scramble for cover. One of them is an off-duty Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer. He returns fire with a pistol and believes he hit one of the attackers. Five of the Orangemen, all Protestant civilians, are killed while seven others are wounded. Before leaving, the attackers also plant a two-pound bomb outside the hall, but it fails to detonate.

The victims are John Johnston (80), James McKee (73) and his son William McKee (40), Nevin McConnell (48), and William Herron (68) who dies two days later. They all belong to Tullyvallen Guiding Star Temperance Orange Lodge. Three of the dead are former members of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

A caller to the BBC claims responsibility for the attack on behalf of the “South Armagh Republican Action Force” or “South Armagh Reaction Force,” saying it is retaliation for “the assassinations of fellow Catholics.” The Irish Times reports on September 10: “The Provisional IRA has told the British government that dissident members of its organisation were responsible” and “stressed that the shooting did not have the consent of the organisation’s leadership.”

In response to the attack, the Orange Order calls for the creation of a legal militia, or “Home Guard,” to deal with republican paramilitaries.

Some of the rifles used in the attack are later used in the Kingsmill massacre in January 1976, when ten Protestant workmen are killed. Like the Tullyvallen massacre, it is claimed by the “South Armagh Reaction Force” as retaliation for the killing of Catholics elsewhere.

In November 1977, 22-year-old Cullyhanna man John Anthony McCooey is convicted of driving the gunmen to and from the scene and of IRA membership. He is also convicted of involvement in the killings of Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) soldier Joseph McCullough, chaplain of Tullyvallen Orange lodge, in February 1976, and UDR soldier Robert McConnell in April 1976.


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The Ballymurphy Massacre

ballymurphy-massacre-muralThe Ballymurphy Massacre is a series of incidents that take place over a three day period beginning on August 9, 1971, in which the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment of the British Army kill eleven civilians in Ballymurphy, Belfast, Northern Ireland, as part of Operation Demetrius. The shootings are later referred to as Belfast’s Bloody Sunday, a reference to the killing of civilians by the same battalion in Derry a few months later.

Two years into The Troubles and Belfast is particularly affected by political and sectarian violence. The British Army had been deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969, as events had grown beyond the control of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

On the morning of Monday, August 9, 1971, the security forces launch Operation Demetrius. The plan is to arrest and intern anyone suspected of being a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The unit selected for this operation is the Parachute Regiment. Members of the Parachute Regiment state that, as they enter the Ballymurphy area, they are shot at by republicans and return fire.

Mike Jackson, later to become head of the British Army, includes a disputed account of the shootings in his autobiography and his then role as press officer for the British Army stationed in Belfast while the incidents happened. This account states that those killed in the shootings were Republican gunmen. This claim has been strongly denied by the Catholic families of those killed in the shootings, in interviews conducted during the documentary film The Ballymurphy Precedent.

In 2016, Sir Declan Morgan, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, recommends an inquest into the killings as one of a series of “legacy inquests” covering 56 cases related to the Troubles.

These inquests are delayed, as funding had not been approved by the Northern Ireland Executive. The former Stormont first minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) defers a bid for extra funding for inquests into historic killings in Northern Ireland, a decision condemned by the human rights group Amnesty International. Foster confirms she had used her influence in the devolved power-sharing executive to hold back finance for a backlog of inquests connected to the conflict. The High Court says her decision to refuse to put a funding paper on the Executive basis was “unlawful and procedurally flawed.”

Fresh inquests into the deaths open at Belfast Coroner’s Court in November 2018 under Presiding Coroner Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan. The final scheduled witnesses give evidence on March 2-3, 2020 around the fatal shootings of Father Hugh Mullan and Frank Quinn on waste ground close to an army barracks at Vere Foster school in Springmartin on the evening of August 9. Justice Keegan sets a date of March 20 for final written submissions from legal representatives. A decision is still pending.

The killings are the subject of the August 2018 documentary The Ballymurphy Precedent, directed by Callum Macrae and made in association with Channel 4.

(Pictured: A mural in Belfast commemorating the victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre)


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First “Twelfth of July” Sectarian Riots in Belfast

orange-order-paradeThe first recorded “Twelfth of Julysectarian riots erupt in Belfast on July 12, 1813 as clashes break out between Orange marchers and Irish nationalists. Several Orangemen open fire on a crowd in Hercules Street, killing two Protestants and wounding four other people.

The Twelfth, also called the Glorious Twelfth or Orangemen’s Day, is an Ulster Protestant celebration held on July 12. It is first held in the late 18th century in Ulster. It celebrates the Glorious Revolution (1688) and victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which begins the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.

On and around the Twelfth, large parades are held by the Orange Order and Ulster loyalist marching bands, streets are bedecked with British flags and bunting, and large towering bonfires are lit. Today the Twelfth is mainly celebrated in Ulster, especially in Northern Ireland where it is a public holiday, but smaller celebrations are held in other parts of the world where Orange lodges have been established. The Twelfth involves thousands of participants and spectators.

In Ulster, where about half the population is from a Protestant background and half from a Catholic background, the Twelfth has been accompanied by violence since its beginning. Orange marches through Irish Catholic and Irish nationalist neighbourhoods are usually met with opposition from residents, who see the Orange Order and its marches as sectarian, triumphalist and supremacist. This sometimes leads to violence.

The Order is also politically a unionist/loyalist organisation. Violence related to the Twelfth in Northern Ireland escalates during the 30-year ethno-political conflict known as the Troubles. The Drumcree conflict is the most well-known dispute involving Orange marches.

Attempts have recently been made to downplay the political aspects of the marches and present the Twelfth as a cultural, family-friendly event at which tourists are welcome. The majority of events pass off peacefully, however, there is a small contingency who occasionally stir up trouble.

When July 12 falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the parades are held on the following day instead.


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The Drumcree Conflict of 1998

orangemen-drumcree-marchThe Drumcree conflict or Drumcree standoff is a dispute over yearly Orange Order parades in the town of Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland. The town is mainly Protestant and hosts numerous Protestant/loyalist marches each summer, but has a significant Catholic minority. The Orange Order, a Protestant unionist organization, insists that it should be allowed to march its traditional route to and from Drumcree Church on the Sunday before The Twelfth. However, most of the route is through the mainly Catholic/Irish nationalist section of town. The residents, who see the march as sectarian, triumphalist and supremacist, seek to ban it from their area. The Orangemen see this as an attack on their traditions as they have marched the route since 1807, when the area was mostly farmland.

In 1995 and 1996, residents succeed in stopping the march. This leads to a standoff at Drumcree between the security forces and thousands of Orangemen/loyalists. Following a wave of loyalist violence, police allow the march through. In 1997, security forces lock down the Catholic area and let the march through, citing loyalist threats to kill Catholics if they are stopped. This sparks widespread protests and violence by Irish nationalists. From 1998 onward, the march is banned from Garvaghy Road and the army seals off the Catholic area with large steel, concrete and barbed wire barricades. Each year there is a major standoff at Drumcree and widespread loyalist violence. Since 2001 things have been relatively calm, but moves to get the two sides into face-to-face talks have failed.

Early in 1998 the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 is passed, establishing the Parades Commission. The Commission is responsible for deciding what route contentious marches should take. On June 29, 1998, the Parades Commission decides to ban the march from Garvaghy Road.

On Friday, July 3, about 1,000 soldiers and 1,000 police are deployed in Portadown. The soldiers build large barricades made of steel, concrete and barbed wire across all roads leading into the nationalist area. In the fields between Drumcree Church and the nationalist area they dig a trench, fourteen feet wide, which is then lined with rows of barbed wire. Soldiers also occupy the Catholic Drumcree College, St. John the Baptist Primary School and some properties near the barricades.

On Sunday, July 5, the Orangemen march to Drumcree Church and state that they will remain there until they are allowed to proceed. About 10,000 Orangemen and loyalists arrive at Drumcree from across Northern Ireland. A loyalist group calling itself “Portadown Action Command” issues a statement which reads, “As from midnight on Friday 10 July 1998, any driver of any vehicle supplying any goods of any kind to the Gavaghy Road will be summarily executed.”

Over the next ten days, there are loyalist protests and violence across Northern Ireland in response to the ban. Loyalists block roads and attack the security forces as well as Catholic homes, businesses, schools and churches. On July 7, the mainly-Catholic village of Dunloy is “besieged” by over 1,000 Orangemen. The County Antrim Grand Lodge says that its members have “taken up positions” and “held” the village. On July 8, eight blast bombs are thrown at Catholic homes in the Collingwood area of Lurgan. There are also sustained attacks on the security forces at Drumcree and attempts to break through the blockade. On July 9, the security forces at Drumcree are attacked with gunfire and blast bombs. They respond with plastic bullets. The police recorded 2,561 “public order incidents” throughout Northern Ireland.

On Sunday, July 12, brothers Jason (aged 8), Mark (aged 9) and Richard Quinn (aged 10) are burned to death when their home is petrol bombed by loyalists. The boys’ mother is a Catholic and their home is in a mainly-Protestant section of Ballymoney. Following the murders, William Bingham, County Grand Chaplain of Armagh and member of the Orange Order negotiating team, says that “walking down the Garvaghy Road would be a hollow victory, because it would be in the shadow of three coffins of little boys who wouldn’t even know what the Orange Order is about.” He says that the Order has lost control of the situation and that “no road is worth a life.” However he later apologizes for implying that the Order is responsible for the deaths. The murders provoke widespread anger and calls for the Order to end its protest at Drumcree. Although the number of protesters at Drumcree drops considerably, the Portadown lodges vote unanimously to continue their standoff.

On Wednesday, July 15, the police begin a search operation in the fields at Drumcree. A number of loyalist weapons are found, including a homemade machine gun, spent and live ammunition, explosive devices, and two crossbows with more than a dozen homemade explosive arrows.


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The Loughinisland Massacre

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v80), quality = 90The Loughinisland massacre takes place on June 18, 1994 in the small village of Loughinisland, County Down, Northern Ireland. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group, burst into a pub with assault rifles and fire on the customers, killing six civilians and wounding five. The pub is targeted because it is frequented mainly by Catholics. The UVF claims the attack is retaliation for the killing of three UVF members by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) two days earlier.

About 24 people are gathered in The Heights Bar, also known as O’Toole’s Pub, watching the Republic of Ireland vs. Italy in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. It is thus sometimes referred to as the “World Cup massacre.”

At 10:10 PM, two UVF members wearing boilersuits and balaclavas walk into the bar. One shouts “Fenian bastards!” and opens fire on the crowd with a vz. 58 assault rifle, spraying the small room with more than sixty bullets. Six men are killed outright and five other people are wounded. Witnesses say the gunmen then run to a getaway car, “laughing.” One witness describes “bodies … lying piled on top of each other on the floor.” The dead were Adrian Rogan (34), Malcolm Jenkinson (52), Barney Green (87), Daniel McCreanor (59), Patrick O’Hare (35) and Eamon Byrne (39), all Catholic civilians. O’Hare is the brother-in-law of Eamon Byrne and Green is one of the oldest people to be killed during the Troubles.

The UVF claims responsibility within hours of the attack. It claims that an Irish republican meeting was being held in the pub and that the shooting was retaliation for the INLA attack. Police say there is no evidence the pub had links to republican paramilitary activity and say the attack is purely sectarian. Journalist Peter Taylor writes in his book Loyalists that the attack may not have been sanctioned by the UVF leadership. Police intelligence indicates that the order to retaliate came from the UVF leadership and that its ‘Military Commander’ had supplied the rifle used. Police believe the attack was carried out by a local UVF unit under the command of a senior member who reported to the leadership in Belfast.

The attack receives international media coverage and is widely condemned. Among those who send messages of sympathy are Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II and United States President Bill Clinton. Local Protestant families visit their wounded neighbours in the hospital, expressing their shock and disgust.

There have been allegations that police (Royal Ulster Constabulary) double agents or informants in the UVF were linked to the massacre and that police protected those informers by destroying evidence and failing to carry out a proper investigation. At the request of the victims’ families, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland investigate the police. In 2011 the Ombudsman concludes that there were major failings in the police investigation, but no evidence that police colluded with the UVF. The Ombudsman does not investigate the role of informers and the report is branded a whitewash. The Ombudsman’s own investigators demand to be disassociated from it. The report is quashed, the Ombudsman replaced and a new inquiry ordered.

In 2016, a new Ombudsman report concludes that there had been collusion between the police and the UVF, and that the investigation was undermined by the wish to protect informers, but found no evidence police had foreknowledge of the attack. A documentary film about the massacre, No Stone Unturned, is released in 2017. It names the main suspects, one of whom is a member of the British Army, and claims that one of the killers was an informer.


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Official Irish Republican Army Declares Ceasefire

official-ira-ceasefire-1972The Official Irish Republican Army (IRA) announces a ceasefire on May 29, 1972. This marks the end of the Official IRA’s paramilitary campaign. The organization, however, reserves the right of self-defence against attacks by the British Army and sectarian groups. The Provisional Irish Republican Army dismisses the truce as having “little effect” on the situation.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, William Whitelaw, welcomes the move and a spokesperson says it is “a step in the right direction.”

A statement is read out from Dublin after the previous night’s meeting of the executive of the Northern Republican Clubs, a political movement allied to the IRA. It states, “The overwhelming desire of the great majority of all the people of the north is for an end to military actions by all sides.”

It goes on to say that a suspension of activities will be a chance to prevent all-out civil war in Ulster. The group insists it will continue a campaign of civil disobedience and the political struggle until its demands are met, namely:

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army are the first to benefit from such a ceasefire as they have been the primary targets of the IRA. Residents of Belfast in particular have been worn down by the four-year campaign of violence and this news is very welcome there.

Father Hugh O’Neill, who leads a Londonderry peace movement, says, “Please God, everyone will now sit down and begin to talk.”


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Formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

northern-ireland-civil-rights-associationThe Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organisation that campaigns for civil rights in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s, is formed in Belfast on April 9, 1967. The civil rights campaign attempts to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to discrimination in areas such as elections (which are subject to gerrymandering and property requirements), discrimination in employment, in public housing and alleged abuses of the Special Powers Act.

Since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1922, the Catholic minority suffers from varying degrees of discrimination from the Protestant and Unionist majority. Many nationalist historians regard the ethos of Northern Ireland as unambiguously sectarian, however, academic and author Senia Paseta posits that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. In fact, laws against religious discrimination are enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland’s constitution. No government of Northern Ireland, even if they want to, can create laws which overtly discriminated against any religious body of peoples.

The genesis of NICRA lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies which is attended by Cathal Goulding, then chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). During its formation, NICRA’s membership extends to trade unionists, communists, liberals, socialists, with republicans eventually constituting five of the thirteen members of its executive council. The organisation initially also has some unionists, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on its executive council. Official Sinn Féin and Official Irish Republican Army influence over NICRA grows in later years, but only as the latter’s importance declines, when violence escalated between late 1969 until 1972, when NICRA ceased its work.

Events escalate in Northern Ireland until August 1969, when the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march is attacked as it marches through the city’s walls and past a perimeter with the nationalist Bogside. Initially some loyalist supporters throw pennies down from the walls onto Catholics in the Bogside. Catholics then throw nails and stones at loyalists leading to an intense confrontation. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) intervenes, and a three-day riot known as the Battle of the Bogside ensues. Rioting quickly spreads throughout nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, where at least seven are killed and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics are driven from their homes by loyalists. These events are often seen as the start of the Troubles.

In a subsequent official inquiry, Lord Leslie Scarman concludes, “We are satisfied that the spread of the disturbances [in Derry in August 1969] owed much to a deliberate decision of some minority groups to relieve police pressure on the rioters in Londonderry. Amongst these groups must be included NICRA, whose executive decided to organise demonstrators in the Province so as to prevent reinforcement of the police in Londonderry.” In December 1969 and January 1970, both Sinn Féin and the IRA split into “Official” and “Provisional” wings, with the “Official” wings retaining influence in NICRA.

The British government introduces internment on August 9, 1971 at the request of Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. The British Army, in co-operation with the RUC, intern 342 people. One hundred sixteen of those interned are innocent of involvement with the IRA and are quickly released.

The introduction of internment is not a closely guarded secret, with newspaper editorials appearing and discussion on television. The IRA goes underground or flees across the border. As a result, fewer than 100 arrests are from the IRA. By this stage, support for NICRA begins to wane, however NICRA continues to organise anti-internment marches. In Derry on January 30, 1972 NICRA takes part in a mass anti-internment march which had also been banned. Fourteen unarmed demonstrators are shot and killed by British troops during the march which becomes known as Bloody Sunday.