seamus dubhghaill

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


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The Battle of Benburb

The Battle of Benburb takes place on June 5, 1646 during the Irish Confederate Wars, the Irish theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It is fought between the Irish Confederation under Owen Roe O’Neill, and a Scottish Covenanter and Anglo-Irish army under Robert Monro. The battle ends in a decisive victory for the Irish Confederates and ends Scottish hopes of conquering Ireland and imposing their own religious settlement there.

The Scots Covenanters land an army in Ulster in 1642 to protect the Scottish settlers there from the massacres that follow the Irish Rebellion of 1641. They land at Carrickfergus and link up with Sir Robert Stewart and the Laggan Army of Protestant settlers from County Donegal in northwest Ulster. The Covenanters clear northeastern Ulster of Irish rebels by 1643 but are unable to advance south of mid-Ulster, which is held by Owen Roe O’Neill, the general of the Irish Confederate Ulster army.

In 1646, Monro leads a force composed of Scottish Covenanter regiments and Ulster settlers armies into Confederate-held territory. According to some accounts, this is the first step in a drive to take the Confederates’ capital at Kilkenny. Other sources say it is only a major raid. The combined force is about 6,000 strong. Monro has ten regiments of infantry, of whom six are Scottish and four are English or Anglo-Irish, and 600 Ulster Protestant cavalry. Stewart and the Laggan Army are slated to join Monro’s force in the attack, however, on the day of the battle the Laggan Army is in Clogher, nearly 30 kilometres away. O’Neill, who is a very cautious general, had previously avoided fighting pitched battles. However, he has just been supplied by the Papal Nuncio to Ireland, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, with muskets, ammunition and money with which to pay his soldiers’ wages. This allows him to put over 5,000 men into the field, an army slightly smaller than his enemy’s. The Covenanters have six cannon, whereas the Confederates have none.

Monro assumes that O’Neill will try to avoid his army and has his soldiers march 24 kilometres to intercept the Irish force at Benburb, in modern south County Tyrone. Gerard Hayes-McCoy writes, “many of them must have been close to exhaustion before the battle began.” Monro’s men draw up with their backs to the River Blackwater, facing O’Neill’s troops who are positioned on a rise.

The battle begins with Monro’s artillery firing on the Irish position, but without causing many casualties. Monro’s cavalry then charges the Irish infantry, but are unable to break the Confederates’ pike and musket formation. When this attack fails, O’Neill orders his infantry to advance, pushing the Monro’s forces back into a loop of the river by the push of pike. It is noted that the Irish pikes have longer shafts and narrower heads than those of their opponents, meaning that they outreach them and are “better to pierce.” At this point, the fatigue of Monro’s troops is apparent as they are gradually pushed back until their formation collapses in on itself. The Confederate infantry then breaks Monro’s disordered formation with a musket volley at point-blank range and falls in amongst them with swords and scians (Irish long knives). Monro and his cavalry flee the scene, as, shortly after, does his infantry. A great many of them are cut down or drowned in the ensuing pursuit. Monro’s losses are estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000 men, killed or wounded. The Irish casualties are estimated to be 300.

O’Neill’s victory means that the Covenanters are no longer a threat to the Confederates, but they remain encamped around Carrickfergus for the rest of the war. O’Neill does not follow up his victory but takes his army south to intervene in the politics of the Irish Confederation. In particular, he wants to make sure that the treaty the Supreme Council of the Confederates has signed with the English Royalists will not be ratified.

The battle is commemorated in the ballad “The Battle of Benburb.”


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Ulster Rebels Take Dundalk During the Irish Rebellion of 1641

Ulster rebels take Dundalk on October 31, 1641 during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. The rebellion is an uprising by Irish Catholics in the Kingdom of Ireland, who want an end to anti-Catholic discrimination, greater Irish self-governance, and to partially or fully reverse the plantations of Ireland. They also want to prevent a possible invasion or takeover by anti-Catholic English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters, who are defying the king, Charles I.

The rebellion begins on October 23, 1641 as an attempted coup d’état by Catholic gentry and military officers, who try to seize control of the English administration in Ireland. However, it develops into a widespread rebellion and ethnic conflict with English and Scottish Protestant settlers, leading to Scottish military intervention. The rebels eventually found the Irish Catholic Confederacy.

The plan to seize Dublin Castle is foiled, but the rebels swiftly capture numerous towns (including Dundalk), forts and fortified houses in the northern province of Ulster. Within days they hold most of the province. Rebel leader Felim O’Neill of Kinard issues a forged proclamation, the Proclamation of Dungannon, claiming he has the king’s blessing to secure Ireland against the king’s opponents. The uprising spreads southward and soon most of Ireland is in rebellion. In November, rebels besiege Drogheda and defeat an English relief force at Julianstown. The following month, many Anglo-Irish Catholic lords join the rebellion. In these first months, especially in Ulster, some Catholic rebels drive out or kill thousands of Protestant settlers (most notably the Portadown massacre), and settlers respond in kind. Reports of rebel massacres outrage Protestants in Britain, and leave a lasting impact on the Ulster Protestant community.

King Charles and the English parliament both seek to quell the rebellion, but parliament does not trust the king with command of any army raised to do so. This is one of the issues that lead to the English Civil War. Charles orders forces to be raised in Ireland, and the English parliament drafts a bill to give itself the power to raise armed forces. Eventually, in April 1642, following negotiations between the English and Scottish parliaments, the Scots send a Covenanter army to Ireland. It swiftly captures most of eastern Ulster, while a Protestant settler army holds northwestern Ulster. Government forces meanwhile recapture much of the Pale, and hold the region around Cork. Most of the rest of Ireland is under rebel control.

In May 1642, Ireland’s Catholic bishops meet at Kilkenny, declare the rebellion to be a just war and take steps to control it. With representatives of the Catholic nobility in attendance, they agree to set up an alternative government known as the Irish Catholic Confederacy and draw up the Confederate Oath of Association. The rebels, now known as Confederates, hold most of Ireland against the Protestant Royalists, Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians. The rebellion is thus the first stage of the Irish Confederate Wars and part of the wider Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which lasts for the next ten years.

(Pictured: Depiction of the massacre of Ulster Protestants during the 1641 rebellion, the LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)


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The Holy Cross Dispute

The Holy Cross dispute begins on June 19, 2001 and continues into 2002 in the Ardoyne area of north Belfast. During the 30-year conflict known as the Troubles, Ardoyne becomes segregated – Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics living in separate areas. This leaves Holy Cross, a Catholic primary school for girls, in the middle of a Protestant area. During the last week of school in June 2001 before the summer break, Protestant loyalists begin picketing the school, claiming that Catholics are regularly attacking their homes and denying them access to facilities.

On Tuesday, June 19, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers have to protect children and parents entering the school after they are attacked by loyalist stone throwers. Police describe the attack as “vicious.” Following the incident, a blockade of the school develops, with loyalists standing across the road and RUC officers keeping the children and their parents away.

The following day, the school is forced to close when loyalists block the entrance. During the evening, up to 600 loyalists and nationalists clash with each other and with the police. Shots are also fired at the police and over 100 petrol bombs are thrown. During the riots the police fire a number of the new ‘L21 A1’ plastic baton rounds for the first time. Thirty-nine RUC officers are injured. Nine shots in total are fired – six from loyalists and three from republicans. The trouble comes after an explosion at the rear of Catholic homes next to a peace line. Both loyalist and nationalist politicians blame each other for the violence. This is the first of many large riots to take place in Belfast within more than a year.

The morning blockade continues on Thursday, June 21. About 60 of the school’s 230 pupils enter the school through the grounds of another school. Senior Sinn Féin member Gerry Kelly says, “It’s like something out of Alabama in the 1960s.” Three Protestant families leave their homes in Ardoyne Avenue, saying they are afraid of a nationalist attack. During the evening and night there are serious disturbances in the area around the school. Loyalists fire ten shots, and throw six blast bombs and 46 petrol bombs at police lines. Two Catholic homes are attacked with pipe bombs, and a child is thrown against a wall by one of the blasts. Twenty-four RUC officers are hurt.

On Friday, June 22, a number of schoolchildren again have to enter the school through the grounds of another school. This is the last day of school before the summer break.

Talks between the protesters and the schoolchildren’s parents take place over the summer, but no agreement is reached. On August 20, a paint bomb is thrown at the home of a Protestant man in Hesketh Park, smashing a window and causing paint damage to furniture. The man had taken part in the loyalist protest.

The picket resumes on September 3, when the new school term begins. For weeks, hundreds of loyalist protesters try to stop the schoolchildren and their parents from walking to school through their area. Hundreds of riot police, backed up by the British Army, escort the children and parents through the protest each day. Some protesters shout sectarian abuse and throw stones, bricks, fireworks, blast bombs and urine-filled balloons at the schoolchildren, their parents and the police. Death threats are made against the parents and school staff by the Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist paramilitary group. The protest is condemned by both Catholics and Protestants, including politicians. Some likened the protest to child abuse and compare the protesters to North American white supremacists in the 1950s. During this time, the protest sparks bouts of fierce rioting between Catholics and Protestants in Ardoyne, and loyalist attacks on police. On November 23, the loyalists end the protest after being promised tighter security for their area and a redevelopment scheme. The security forces remain outside the school for several months.

In January 2002, a scuffle between a Protestant and a Catholic outside the school sparks a large-scale riot in the area and attacks on other schools in north Belfast. The picket is not resumed and the situation remains mostly quiet. The following year, the BBC airs a documentary-drama about the protests.


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Disbandment of the Ulster Special Constabulary

The Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), a quasi-military reserve special constable police force in Northern Ireland commonly called the “B-Specials” or “B Men,” is disbanded on April 30, 1970 following the release of the Hunt Report.

The USC is set up in October 1920, shortly before the partition of Ireland. It is an armed corps, organised partially on military lines and called out in times of emergency, such as war or insurgency. It performs this role most notably in the early 1920s during the Irish War of Independence (1920-22) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) Border Campaign (1956-1962).

During its existence, 95 USC members are killed in the line of duty. Seventy-two of these are killed in conflict with the IRA in 1921 and 1922. Another eight die in air raids or IRA attacks during World War II. Of the remainder, most die in accidents but two former officers are killed during the Troubles in the 1980s.

The force is almost exclusively Ulster Protestant and as a result is viewed with great mistrust by Catholics. It carries out several revenge killings and reprisals against Catholic civilians during the Irish War of Independence. Unionists generally support the USC as contributing to the defence of Northern Ireland from subversion and outside aggression.

The abolition of the B Specials is a central demand of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the late 1960s. On April 30, 1970, the USC is finally stood down as a result of the Hunt Report, produced by a committee headed by John Hunt, Baron Hunt in 1969. Hunt concludes that the perceived bias of the Special Constabulary, whether true or not, has to be addressed. One of his other major concerns is the use of the police force for carrying out military style operations.

It has been argued that the USC’s failure to deal with the 1969 disturbances were due to a failure on behalf of the Northern Ireland government to modernise their equipment, weaponry, training and approach to the job. Upon the disbandment of the USC, many of its members join the newly established Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), the part-time security force which replaces the B Specials. Unlike the Special Constabulary, the UDR is placed under military control. Other B Specials join the new part-time Reserve of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The USC continues to do duties for a month after the formation of the UDR and RUC Reserve to allow both of the new forces time to consolidate.

In the final handover to the Ulster Defence Regiment, the B Specials have to surrender their weapons and uniforms. Despite the government’s concerns about the handover of weapons and equipment, every single uniform and every single weapon is surrendered.

After implementation of the Hunt report, the last night of duties for most B Men is March 31, 1970. On April 1, 1970 the Ulster Defence Regiment begins duties. Initially, the Regiment has 4,000 members who work part-time while the new special constabulary, the RUC Reserve which replaces the B-Specials, initially consists of 1,500 members.

Since disbandment the USC has assumed a place of “almost mythic proportions” within unionist folklore, whereas in the Nationalist community they are still reviled as the Protestant only, armed wing of the unionist government “associated with the worst examples of unfair treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland by the police force.” An Orange Order lodge is formed to commemorate the disbandment of the force called “Ulster Special Constabulary LOL No. 1970.” An Ulster Special Constabulary Association is also set up soon after the disbandment.


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The Greysteel Massacre

The Greysteel massacre is a mass shooting that takes place on the evening of October 30, 1993 in Greysteel, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

On October 23, 1993, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) bomb prematurely explodes as the bombers carry it into a fishmongers on the Shankill Road in Belfast. The IRA’s intended target is a meeting of Ulster Defence Association (UDA) leaders, including brigadier Johnny Adair, which is to take place in a room above the shop. Unknown to the IRA, the meeting had been rescheduled. Eight Protestant civilians, a UDA member and one of the IRA bombers are killed in the blast. This became known as the Shankill Road bombing.

The UDA launches a number of “revenge attacks” for the bombing. Later that day, it fatally shoots a Catholic delivery driver after luring him to a bogus call at Vernon Court, Belfast. On October 26, the UDA shoots dead another two Catholic civilians and wounds five in an attack at the Council Depot at Kennedy Way, Belfast.

The massacre is carefully planned. The order for the attack comes from the UDA leadership and it is believed Greysteel is chosen partly because it is well away from Belfast, where security force activity is intense after the Shankill bombing. Those involved in planning and organising it include Billy McFarland, ‘Brigadier’ of the UDA’s North Antrim & Londonderry Brigade. Stephen Irwin, Geoffrey Deeney and Torrens Knight, all members of the brigade, are to carry out the shooting. The gunmen are first briefed on the plans for the massacre on October 27 in an office owned by the Ulster Democratic Party at Bond’s Place, Londonderry. Before the massacre, the gunmen go to the pub to familiarise themselves with the layout and choose the best positions to shoot from.

On Saturday, October 30, the gunmen drive to the pub in an Opel Kadett, with UDA member Brian McNeill driving a ‘scout car’ in front. Just before 10:00 PM the three gunmen, wearing blue boilersuits and balaclavas, enter the “Rising Sun Bar” in Greysteel. There are at least 70 people inside attending a Halloween party and at first some believe the men are playing a Halloween prank. Stephen Irwin yells “trick or treat” as he opens fire with a vz. 58 assault rifle on the packed crowd in the lounge. He keeps shooting until the magazine empties, quickly reloads and continues shooting. Geoffrey Deeney opens fire with a 9mm handgun at a fleeing woman, but it jams after one shot. Torrens Knight, armed with a shotgun, guards the entrance while the shooting is taking place. There is panic and screaming as people scramble for cover and women plead for mercy. The scene in the Rising Sun is described as “hell-like”; bodies lay everywhere and the lounge and dancefloor are covered with blood and broken glass. The gunmen, laughing, then make their escape in the Opel Kadett driven by Knight. While driving away from Greysteel, the getaway car’s wing mirror is hit by a police car speeding towards the scene. The gunmen drive the Kadett to a pick-up point near Eglinton, where they meet McNeill and burn the car.

Seven people are killed outright and nineteen are wounded, with another later dying of his wounds. The dead are Karen Thompson (19), Steven Mullan (20), Moira Duddy (59), Joseph McDermott (60), James Moore (81), John Moyne (50), John Burns (54) and Victor Montgomery (76). Six of those killed are Catholic civilians and two are Protestant civilians.

The following day, the UDA claims responsibility for the attack using the cover name “Ulster Freedom Fighters” (UFF). Its statement says that the “Greysteel raid” is “the continuation of our threats against the nationalist electorate that they would pay a heavy price for last Saturday’s slaughter of nine Protestants.” A UDA West Belfast Brigade member claims that his organisation “had information that senior IRA men drank in the Rising Sun… Unfortunately they were not there on Halloween but our boys acted on the briefing they had been given.” Afterwards, the gunmen are said to have boasted about the killings.

The UDA members involved are arrested shortly after the massacre. During their first court appearance, Knight is filmed laughing, taunting and shouting abuse at the victims’ relatives as he is led from the building. In February 1995, Irwin, Deeney, Knight and McNeill are sentenced to life imprisonment for their involvement in the attack. Knight is also convicted for the Castlerock killings. In 2000, they are released early, along with other paramilitary prisoners, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The pub is still open in Greysteel. There is a memorial to the victims outside the building that says: “May their sacrifice be our path to peace.”


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Assassination of Irish Republican Ronnie Bunting

Ronnie Bunting, a Protestant Irish republican and socialist activist, is assassinated on October 15, 1980 when several gunmen enter his home in the Downfine Gardens area of Andersonstown.

Bunting is born into an Ulster Protestant family in East Belfast. His father, Ronald Bunting, had been a major in the British Army and Ronnie grew up in various military barracks around the world. His father became a supporter and associate of Ian Paisley and ran for election under the Protestant Unionist Party banner.

Having completed his education and graduating from Queen’s University Belfast, Bunting briefly becomes a history teacher in Belfast, but later becomes involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and then with Irish republican organisations.

Unlike most Protestants in Northern Ireland, Bunting becomes a militant republican. His father, by contrast, was a committed Ulster loyalist. Despite their political differences, they remain close.

Bunting joins the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) around 1970 as he is attracted to their left-wing and secular interpretation of Irish republicanism and believes in the necessity of armed revolution. The other wing of the IRA, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, is seen to be more Catholic and nationalist in its outlook. At this time, the communal conflict known as the Troubles is beginning and the Official IRA is involved in shootings and bombings. He is interned in November 1971 and held in Long Kesh until the following April.

In 1974, Bunting follows Seamus Costello and other militants who disagree with the Official IRA’s ceasefire of 1972, into a new grouping, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Immediately, a violent feud breaks out between the Official IRA and the INLA.

In 1975, Bunting survives an assassination attempt when he is shot in a Belfast street. In 1977, Costello is killed by an Official IRA gunman in Dublin. Bunting and his family hide in Wales until 1978, when he returns to Belfast. For the remaining two years of his life, he is the military leader of the INLA. The grouping regularly attacks the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Belfast. He calls in claims of responsibility to the media by the code name “Captain Green.”

At about 4:30 AM on October 15, 1980, several gunmen wearing balaclavas storm Bunting’s home in the Downfine Gardens area of Andersonstown. They shoot Bunting, his wife Suzanne and another Protestant INLA man and ex-member of the Red Republican Party, Noel Lyttle, who has been staying there after his recent release from detention.

Both Bunting and Lyttle are killed. Suzanne Bunting, who is shot in the face, survives her serious injuries. The attack is claimed by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), but the INLA claims the Special Air Service are involved.

Upon his death, Bunting’s body is kept in a funeral parlour on the Newtownards Road opposite the headquarters of the UDA. On the day of the funeral, as the coffin is being removed, UDA members jeer from their building. The Irish Republican Socialist Party wants a republican paramilitary-style funeral for Bunting but his father refuses and has his son buried in the family plot of a Church of Ireland cemetery near Donaghadee.


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Birth of Joe McDonnell, Irish Hunger Striker

joseph-mcdonnellJoseph (Joe) McDonnell, a volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), is born on Slate Street in the lower Falls Road of Belfast, Northern Ireland on September 14, 1951. He dies after 61 days on hunger strike during the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

McDonnell is one of ten children. He attends a nearby Roman Catholic school. He marries Goretti in 1970 and moves into her sister’s house in Lenadoon. There are only two Catholic houses in this predominantly Ulster Protestant housing estate, and their house is attacked on numerous occasions.

McDonnell is arrested in Operation Demetrius and, along with Gerry Adams and others, is interned on the prison ship HMS Maidstone. He is later moved to HM Prison Maze in County Down for several months. Upon release, he joins the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. He meets Bobby Sands during the preparation for a firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company’s premises in Dunmurry. During the ensuing shoot-out between the IRA and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army, both men, along with Séamus Finucane and Seán Lavery, are arrested. McDonnell and the others are sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a firearm. None of the men accept the jurisdiction of the court.

McDonnell agrees with the goals of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, namely: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners; the right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities and the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Although McDonnell is not involved in the first hunger strike in 1980, he joins Bobby Sands and the others in the second hunger strike the following year. During the strike he fights the general election in the Republic of Ireland, and only narrowly misses election in the Sligo–Leitrim constituency. He goes 61 days without food before dying on July 8, 1981. He has two children. His wife takes an active part in the campaign in support of the hunger strikers.

McDonnell is buried in the grave next to Bobby Sands at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. John Joe McGirl, McDonnell’s election agent in Sligo–Leitrim, gives the oration at his funeral. Quoting Patrick Pearse, he states, “He may seem the fool who has given his all, by the wise men of the world; but it was the apparent fools who changed the course of Irish history.”

McDonnell is commemorated on the Irish Martyrs Memorial at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, Australia and is also commemorated in The Wolfe Tones song, “Joe McDonnell.”

 


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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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Terence O’Neill Becomes Fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland

File source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Captain_Terence_O%27Neill.jpgTerence O’Neill becomes the fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland on March 25, 1963 following the resignation of Basil Brooke, 1st Viscount Brookeborough. He plays a significant role in the first year of the Troubles, trying unsuccessfully to stem growing sectarian violence.

O’Neill is born on September 10, 1914 at 29 Ennismore Gardens, Hyde Park, London, the son of Captain Arthur O’Neill of Shane’s Castle, Randalstown, the first member of parliament (MP) to be killed in action in World War I five months later. He is educated in the English public school system at West Downs SchoolWinchester and Eton College, spending his summer holidays at the family estate in Ulster. He is later commissioned in the British Army, rising to the rank of captain and serving with the Irish Guards in World War II. He is wounded in 1944 and opts to resettle permanently in Northern Ireland.

In 1946, O’Neill is elected to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, representing the Unionist stronghold of Bannside. He remains in the parliament at Stormont for almost 25 years. He becomes Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs in April 1956, Minister of Finance in September 1956 and Prime Minister in March 1963.

As Prime Minister, O’Neill introduces economic reforms to stimulate industrial growth and employment, with mixed results. He also tries narrowing the divide between Protestants and Catholics. He does this with important gestures, like visiting Catholic schools and expressing condolences on the death of Pope John XXIII.

O’Neill also seeks better relations with the Republic of Ireland, and in January 1965 invites Taoiseach Seán Lemass to Belfast. Catholics and moderate Unionists welcome this reconciliation but many conservative Loyalists, like Ian Paisley, condemn it as treachery.

When the civil rights movement erupts in the late 1960s, O’Neill offers a package of reforms and concessions, including changes to the allocation of housing. These proposals, however, anger staunch Unionists and fail to satisfy many Republicans.

In December 1969, O’Neill appears on Northern Ireland television and makes an impassioned plea for unity, warning that “Ulster stands at the crossroads.” His government is reelected in February 1969, though O’Neill himself is almost voted out of his own seat.

With the situation worsening, O’Neill is further embarrassed by Loyalist attempts to sabotage Belfast’s water supply. Fast losing the confidence of his own party, he resigns the prime ministership in April 1969. He remains in the parliament until January 1970.

O’Neill is made Baron O’Neill of the Maine and spends the last decade of his life in Britain’s House of Lords. He dies of cancer on June 12, 1990.


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Assassination of Billy “King Rat” Wright

billy-wrightBilly “King Rat” Wright, prominent Ulster loyalist death squad leader during the ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, is murdered on December 27, 1997 in HM Prison Maze by three members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) who manage to smuggle guns into the prison.

William Stephen “Billy” Wright, named after his grandfather, is born in Wolverhampton, England on July 7, 1960 to David Wright and Sarah McKinley, Ulster Protestants from Portadown, Northern Ireland. The family returns to Northern Ireland in 1964. While attending Markethill High School, Wright takes a part-time job as a farm labourer where he comes into contact with a number of staunchly unionist and loyalist farmers who serve with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Reserve or the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). The conflict known as the Troubles has been raging across Northern Ireland for about five years by this stage, and many young men such as Wright are swept up in the maelstrom of violence as the Provisional Irish Republican Army ramps up its bombing campaign and sectarian killings of Catholics by loyalists continue to escalate. During this time his opinions move towards loyalism and soon he gets into trouble for writing the initials “UVF” on a local Catholic primary school wall. When he refuses to clean off the vandalism, he is transferred from the area and sent to live with an aunt in Portadown.

Wright joins the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in 1975. After spending several years in prison and becoming a born again Christian, he resumes his UVF activities and becomes commander of its Mid-Ulster Brigade in the early 1990s, taking over from Robin “the Jackal” Jackson. According to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, he is involved in the sectarian killings of up to 20 Catholics, although he is never convicted for any. It is alleged that Wright, like his predecessor, is an agent of the RUC Special Branch.

Wright attracts considerable media attention during the Drumcree standoff, when he supports the Protestant Orange Order‘s desire to march its traditional route through the Catholic/Irish nationalist area of his hometown of Portadown. In 1994, the UVF and other paramilitary groups call ceasefires. However, in July 1996, Wright’s unit breaks the ceasefire and carries out a number of attacks, including a sectarian killing. For this, Wright and his Portadown unit of the Mid-Ulster Brigade are stood down by the UVF leadership. He is expelled from the UVF and threatened with execution if he does not leave Northern Ireland. He ignores the threats and, along with many of his followers, defiantly forms the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), becoming its leader.

The LVF carries out a string of killings of Catholic civilians. In March 1997 Wright is sent to the HM Prison Maze for having threatened the life of a woman. While imprisoned, Wright continues to direct the LVF’s activities. On the morning of December 27, 1997 he is assassinated inside the prison by three INLA volunteers – Christopher “Crip” McWilliams, John “Sonny” Glennon and John Kennaway – armed with two smuggled pistols, a FEG PA-63 semi-automatic and a .22 Derringer. The LVF carries out a wave of sectarian attacks in retaliation. There is speculation that the authorities collude in his killing as he is a threat to the peace process. An inquiry finds no evidence of this, but concludes there are serious failings by the prison authorities.

Owing to his uncompromising stance as an upholder of Ulster loyalism and opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process, Wright is regarded as a cult hero, icon, and martyr by hardline loyalists. His image adorns murals in loyalist housing estates and many of his devotees have tattoos bearing his likeness. His death is greeted with relief and no little satisfaction, however, from the Irish nationalist community.