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Britain’s Troubles, Ireland’s Pain

Fifty years ago, British troops were deployed on Northern Irish streets in the name of keeping the peace. But their actions simply worsened the crisis — fueling a conflict that still casts a shadow today.

A Welcome to Northern Ireland sign is marked with bullet holes on February 17, 2019 in Ballyconnell, Ireland. (Charles McQuillan / Getty Images)

August 14 marks fifty years since British troops were first deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland. Initially seen as a short-term venture, Operation Banner became one of the British Army’s longest and most lethal engagements since 1945. Tens of thousands of soldiers went on to serve in the region over the next three decades. There were 722 soldiers killed, the vast majority by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — more than the casualty rate for British forces occupying Afghanistan and Iraq.

In total, more than 3,500 people died before the “Troubles” came to an uneasy halt in the late 1990s. Adjusted for population, that would be the equivalent of a conflict in the United States killing 600,000 people and injuring almost 9 million.

The Brexit crisis has exposed some of the fault lines running through the postwar settlement in Northern Ireland. The legacy of the Troubles still casts a long shadow over the region. However, predictions that Brexit will lead to a fresh round of conflict are often based on a superficial, impressionistic view of Northern Irish politics. If we’re going to judge the likelihood of another war, we need to understand how the last one started.

Civic Responsibilities

Harold Wilson’s Labour government sent in the British Army in August 1969 after an eruption of violence on the streets of Derry and Belfast, Northern Ireland’s two largest cities. That violence was the result of a political crisis that had been steadily escalating for the past year.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) held its first march on August 24, 1968, from Coalisland to Dungannon. NICRA called for universal suffrage and fair electoral boundaries in local government, an end to discrimination against the nationalist minority in housing and employment, and repeal of the Special Powers Act, which gave the Northern Irish government extraordinary leeway to clamp down on its opponents.

On paper, these demands were fairly moderate, and would simply have brought Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. But after fifty years of single-party Unionist government, the local power structure was deeply entrenched and hostile to reform.

NICRA’s first demonstration passed off without incident. On October 5, 1968, the group organized a second march in Derry, but the Unionist politician William Craig banned it from entering Derry’s city center. When some of the marchers tried to push their way through police barriers, they came under attack from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Television footage of RUC officers beating up demonstrators was seen around the world. Embarrassed by the spectacle, Harold Wilson told the Unionist leader Terence O’Neill to come up with a package of reforms.

But O’Neill’s cabinet held out against the idea of universal suffrage. O’Neill warned them in private that NICRA would never be satisfied without “one man, one vote.” This set a pattern for the next year, of concessions offered reluctantly and belatedly that angered right-wing Unionists without going far enough to satisfy the civil rights movement.

The political temperature rose sharply at the beginning of 1969 when a student group called People’s Democracy marched from Belfast to Derry in imitation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s celebrated march from Selma to Montgomery. On the outskirts of Derry, the protesters came under attack from a mob of Unionist hard-liners armed with cudgels and iron bars.

Terence O’Neill condemned the violence but infuriated nationalists by denouncing the march as a “foolhardy and irresponsible undertaking” that should have been greeted with “silent contempt.” He promised new public-order legislation to deal with protests, and wider deployment of the B-Specials, a part-time militia whose members had taken part in the ambush of the People’s Democracy.

O’Neill wanted no more talk of reform: “We have heard sufficient for now about civil rights: let us hear a little about civic responsibility.”

On the night of January 4, RUC officers charged into the Catholic Bogside district in Derry. In their book Ulster, the Insight Team of the Sunday Times described the incursion as “a night in which groups of burly RUC men roamed through the Bogside, crashing from time to time into the tiny terrace houses and even into a department store, dealing out arbitrary ‘punishment’ with their batons.”

Days later, the RUC’s top brass informed O’Neill’s cabinet that they had been forced to withdraw from Derry’s Catholic neighborhoods: “Considerable strength, possibly even involving the use of firearms, would be required to re-enter the area in the current atmosphere.”

A Disaster Foretold

In April 1969, police officers returned to the Bogside after another civil rights protest, breaking into a private home and assaulting the residents, one of whom, Samuel Devenny, later died of a heart attack. The mood among Derry’s nationalist population predictably hardened.

By the summer of 1969, Northern Ireland was bitterly polarized, and there was a sense of foreboding as the marching season approached.

Every year, the Orange Order and other Unionist marching bands would take to the streets in a display of communal pride. Many nationalists saw their parades as an exercise in sectarian triumphalism. The Apprentice Boys’ march in Derry, a predominantly Catholic town, was especially controversial. Well aware of the mounting tensions, the Irish foreign minister Patrick Hillery urged the British government to ban the parade that was scheduled for August 12.

Harold Wilson’s home secretary, James Callaghan, knew there was a real danger of violence. But he left the decision with Northern Ireland’s prime minister, James Chichester-Clark, who had replaced Terence O’Neill in May. Chichester-Clark allowed the march to go ahead.

Republicans and left-wing radicals had set up a group called the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association (DCDA). The DCDA asked the Apprentice Boys to call off the parade. When they refused, its members prepared for a confrontation.

Local youths began throwing stones at the marchers and their police escort, and the RUC responded by charging into the Bogside, to be met with a hail of petrol bombs. The DCDA put up barricades, and the “Battle of the Bogside” had begun.

NICRA and the DCDA also put out a call for protests elsewhere in Northern Ireland, to take the heat off Derry.

There were clashes between nationalists and the police in Belfast, and the RUC deployed armored cars fitted with heavy machine guns in a densely populated area. Many people in Belfast’s Protestant neighborhoods feared that the IRA was going to mount an insurrection, and rioting erupted throughout the city.

By the time Harold Wilson sent in British troops to restore order at Chichester-Clark’s request, ten people were dead and almost two thousand families — 80 percent of whom were Catholic — had been forced to leave their homes.

Unreliable Narrators

A war of narratives began almost immediately and rages to this day. Unionist politicians claimed — and in some cases still claim — that the disturbances were the result of an IRA conspiracy to provoke violence.

But the IRA leadership wasn’t planning to launch a new campaign of guerrilla warfare like its abortive border campaign of a few years earlier. That failure had inspired a comprehensive rethinking of republican strategy. IRA leaders like Cathal Goulding and Billy McMillen wanted to build a political movement based on socialist politics that could intervene in trade-union and community struggles. In Northern Ireland, they helped initiate the civil rights campaign.

It wasn’t clear where the IRA’s traditional military role would fit into this plan. Gerry Adams, a young republican activist in Belfast at the time, later argued that the IRA leadership had embarked on “a serious attempt to democratize the state,” during which “the national question would be subordinated in order to allay Unionist fears.” There was certainly no plan in the summer of 1969 to exploit the crisis in order to launch a full-blown insurgency against British rule.

Gerry Adams was one of those who put forward a very different narrative about the events of August ’69. According to this line of argument, the Goulding leadership had betrayed its responsibility to defend nationalist areas by getting involved in political schemes and running down the IRA. This supplied the foundation myth for a breakaway group, the Provisional IRA, which quickly supplanted Goulding’s Official IRA and became the main protagonist of the conflict. Adams was one of its most important leaders.

However, this story of “betrayal” was much too simplistic. The founders of the Provisional IRA wanted to break with Cathal Goulding anyway over separate political issues. They knew the claim that Goulding had left the Catholic ghettoes defenseless would carry a strong emotional charge. But the truth was more complex.

The IRA had a limited pool of weapons and didn’t fully anticipate what was going to happen after the unrest spread from Derry to Belfast. Gerry Adams himself reported that the Belfast commanders who were closest to Goulding, Billy McMillen and Jim Sullivan, moved quickly to organize “defensive operations for nationalist areas” as best they could when the violence erupted. It’s also by no means clear that more guns would have helped the situation in Belfast. If the state forces had made use of all the firepower available to them, no amount of IRA weaponry would have been adequate as a response.

The Provisionals presented themselves as the defenders of working-class nationalist communities, claiming to have risen “from the ashes of Bombay Street,” a Catholic area that was torched by a Protestant mob. This helped them to win over some key activists in Belfast (including Adams). However, their intention was always to move as quickly as possible from defense to a full-scale offensive against British rule.

Part of the Problem

The third narrative is the most influential — especially in media and academic circles. It comes from the British state and its supporters, who hold the Provisional IRA (Provos) responsible for the conflict that followed. They insist that the British Army was deployed to protect the nationalist population after the violence of August ’69, and that they could have maintained order while reforms were carried out under British supervision. The Provos sabotaged that prospect by launching attacks on British soldiers, forcing the Army to engage in counterinsurgency and souring its relationship with nationalist communities.

There’s one important grain of truth behind this story. The core leadership of the Provisional IRA didn’t turn to armed struggle as a last resort: from the very start, they wanted to revive the tactics used by the old IRA in the War of Independence from 1919 to 1921. But it was British government policy that made it possible for them to do so.

In truth, the British Army wasn’t sent in to protect Catholic neighborhoods: its job was to back up the “civil power.” Wilson and his home secretary, Callaghan, considered suspending the regional government and imposing direct rule from London. This would have made it far easier to carry out reforms. But Wilson’s government preferred to leave the Unionist administration in power as a buffer, to avoid taking full responsibility for the region. That meant any reforms would have to be limited to what the Unionist Party could swallow.

Unionist politicians like James Chichester-Clark and his successor, Brian Faulkner, kept demanding action from the British Army to restore “law and order.” At a staff conference in October 1969, the commander of British forces, Ian Freeland, explained to his officers what was really meant by such demands: “Why didn’t the Army counter the resistance of the Roman Catholics behind their barricades by force of arms and reduce this minority to their original state of second-class citizenship?”

According to the British Army’s official history of the conflict, junior officers posted to the region were “well aware of the discrimination and deprivation, and asked themselves at the time why the Government did not do anything about it.” But there was no chance of any “substantive action” from the administration in Belfast, which was “part of the problem and could have been so recognized at the time.”

By the summer of 1970, well before the Provos had started to target British soldiers, the relationship between nationalist communities and the British Army was already becoming fraught. From that point, a series of events made it possible for the IRA to win thousands of recruits for its war: the Falls Road curfew, internment, Bloody Sunday. Those events all stemmed from the choice made by politicians in London to prop up a dysfunctional system of government, until they were forced to impose direct rule in March 1972.

It required a very particular set of circumstances, both long term and short term, to produce the conflict that erupted in the early 1970s — and then to keep it on the boil for the next quarter-century. The same conditions don’t exist today, and loose talk about the Brexit crisis sparking a new war should be avoided.

But one thing clearly hasn’t changed: the cynical, self-interested character of British policy toward the region. The disastrous sequence of events between 1968 and 1972 shows how damaging that can be, and it should stand as a warning to Britain’s political class today.