Page last updated at 06:09 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 07:09 UK

Tragic period that transformed NI


On the 40th anniversary of the month generally seen as marking the outbreak of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' the historian Brian Hanley gives his assessment of that fateful period.

He explains how Northern Ireland was transformed by the events of August 1969 as violence spilled onto the streets around the sectarian fault lines of Londonderry and Belfast.

Very different views of what occurred during 1969 are held by people living on either side of the "peacelines" - structures first established in the wake of the August events.

Both communities hold their conflicting "memories" dear, and rival political organisations have invested much in their own reading of the outbreak of the Troubles.

Even a cursory look at some of the 18 fatalities in Northern Ireland that year reveal complexities.

The first British soldier to die in the conflict, Hugh McCabe (home on leave) was killed by RUC gunfire.

The first RUC officer to be killed, Victor Arbuckle, was shot by loyalists, probably the UVF.

The 'Troubles' were generally seen as starting in August 1969
The 'Troubles' were generally seen as starting in August 1969

The IRA - non-existent according to some accounts- caused the first fatality of the August violence in Belfast, loyalist Herbert Roy.

The first two civilians killed by the British Army were Protestants, shot on the Shankill Road in October.

At the time the death toll seemed almost unimaginably terrible - in the context of Northern Ireland's short history it was.


From the vantage point of 40 years and over 3,500 deaths later it is easy to imagine that such violence was an everyday occurrence - it was not.

For most people in Ireland what occurred in 1969 was new and unexpected.

In April 1969 the Irish News described rioting in Derry and Belfast as the "most devastating wave of violence and civil strife" since the 1930s.

In early August, fierce fighting between loyalists and the RUC on the Shankill Road was regarded as the worst violence the city had seen.

Just over a week later in Derry the Battle of the Bogside began, followed by the explosion of August 13 -15 in Belfast.

In retrospect we can trace radicalisation since January, when a loyalist attack on a People's Democracy march at Burntollet was followed by rioting in Derry.

It is unsurprising that nationalists remember themselves as defenceless victims of unprovoked attacks

There was rioting in both Derry and Belfast in April.

A particular flashpoint was Ardoyne where a local priest, Fr Marcellus Gillespie, attested that during the summer "Catholics were as much to blame as Protestants" for the clashes.

That may surprise some today, but Protestants were also victims of sectarian violence in 1969.


Hence many loyalists still believe that it was Catholic aggression that sparked off the trouble in Belfast - while some also celebrate the burning of Catholic homes in "response."

But loyalists had killed as early as 1966 and the UVF were planting bombs aimed at bringing down Northern Ireland's prime minister Terence O'Neill in the spring of 1969.

Catholics comprised the majority of 1969's victims, both those killed and those forced from their homes.

At least eight of the nine Catholic dead were killed by the RUC or the B-Specials auxiliary police force.

In Belfast especially the violence brought back powerful memories of the anti-Catholic pogroms of the 1920s.

During August 1969, many homes were burnt out
During August 1969, many homes were burnt out

Coming on top of the resistance of many unionists to the demands of the Civil Rights movement, it is unsurprising that nationalists remember themselves as defenceless victims of unprovoked attacks.

But that is only partly the reality.

Two Protestants were killed in the fighting in Belfast, which erupted after republicans attacked police barracks to draw their forces away from Derry on August 13.

While no doubt poorly armed, the idea that the IRA had little interest in armed politics simply does not stand up to examination.


The IRA was growing during 1969 and increasingly active, north and south of the border.

The memory of these events was further complicated by the bitterness surrounding the republican split in 1969 -70.

Those who became the Official IRA and the Workers Party played down and then rewrote entirely their role in the violence.

Their rivals in the Provisionals would invest a great deal in their claim to have emerged organically from the demand by disillusioned nationalists for defence.

The story would be complicated further still by the intervention of the Irish government, taken by surprise and at sea in the early stages of the crisis, flirting with intervention and shaken by a wave of nationalist feeling in the south.

In this context money and arms went north, some of it provided by politicians.

However, what the crisis revealed was how little attention had really been paid to Northern Ireland by Dublin.

The 'Troubles' were generally seen as starting in August 1969
There was fierce fighting between loyalists and the RUC

The British government were also ill-prepared for the violence of August and their deployment of the Army was a stopgap, not a considered attempt at a solution.

Despite what some have wishfully imagined, the substantial reforms introduced in the winter of 1969, which included the disbandment of the B-Specials, came as a response to violence of August, not because of the strength of the Civil Rights movement.

Whatever hopes there may have been in O'Neill's reforms were being tested by the resistance of much of unionism to the idea of any change at all.

Ian Paisley and others were describing any compromise as treachery and increasingly winning mass support.

If the events of that year were unexpected, it is also true that no one foresaw that they would be the beginning of a conflict that would last 30 years.

This is an edited version of an article in the July/August edition of History Ireland magazine. It is published courtesy of History Ireland and Brian Hanley.

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