When I was a boy growing up in Northern Ireland I got to learn a lot of songs, some Irish, some rock and some sectarian. One that I remember chanting was
On Saint Patrick’s Day We’ll be merry and gay And we’ll kick all the Protestants Out of the way.
I never meant it. Honest. It was just a thing some Catholic children rhymed off when they were in the mood. I was lucky that I Iived in a mixed neighbourhood actually because I made friends with a good number of Protestants. And I mean good. But these friendships were bittersweet because I was led to believe from what some of my teachers and priests told me that unless these guys were walking saints they were bound for hell. Sadly in those days there was very little chance of salvation outside the Catholic Church.
So when I was in Derry’s city centre one day watching an Orange procession wending its way along the main thoroughfare I wasn’t shocked to come across the other side of the coin. For one of the bands in the procession was playing Marching through Georgia. But the words that some of the Orangemen were singing weren’t anything to do with the American civil war. No, they were much closer to home.
Hello, Hello, We are the Billy Boys. Hello, Hello, You'll know us by our noise. We're up to our knees in Fenian blood. Surrender or you'll die For we are the Billy Boys.
The sectarian divisions that to this day plague Northern Ireland were put in place by our English masters. These imperialists had a long and cruel history of dividing and ruling throughout their far-flung empire. Militant Protestants were used here as a wing of the state and could be depended on to teach Fenians – that is, Irish Catholics – a lesson any time they got out of line. Horrifyingly this lesson sometimes took the form of fire.
In August 1969, not long after the Northern Ireland civil rights movement was set up, there were serious pogroms in Belfast. Seven people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Whole streets of Catholic houses, as well as factories and shops, were burnt out. In addition, thousands of mostly Catholic families were driven from their homes and fled in terror with only the clothes they had on them. In many cases the Royal Ulster Constabulary joined the militant Protestants who were petrol-bombing the houses and made no effort to protect any Catholic areas. All this resulted in many thousands fleeing Northern Ireland, resulting in – at that time – the biggest movement of population in Western Europe since World War 2.
As a result of all this, the Labour government in Westminster sent the British army into our little state in what it said was “a limited operation” to restore law and order. My friends and I understood that the Brits had really come to prevent British investment being wrecked by rampaging rioters from both Catholic and Protestant sides but nearly all Catholics still welcomed the troops with open arms because they saw them as their protectors in a life-and-death situation.
An emergency meeting involving some of the army’s upper brass and Catholic community leaders was very soon held in Saint Teresa’s parish hall in Belfast. At that meeting the Brits confessed that they couldn’t guarantee round the clock protection of all Belfast Catholics so it was agreed that, in the event of Protestant/Loyalist attacks, Catholics would be permitted to protect themselves by use of arms in situations where the British army was not able to arrive on time. The Brits’ one stipulation at that emergency meeting was that they should be informed as to the exact location of those arms. The people who were in charge of the weapons were members of the Official IRA which had been inactive for seven years. But of course they didn’t reveal the whereabouts of all the weapons. These people may have been green but they weren’t gormless.
During the following nine or ten months events took an alarming turn for Ulster Unionist politicians here. More and more the British army found themselves protecting Catholics against Loyalists while the Royal Ulster Constabulary was seen more and more as protecting Protestants from rioting Catholics. This resulted in great resentment on the part of Loyalists and increasing aggression by them towards the army. There was now a real danger of Northern Ireland’s link with England being damaged or even broken by the very Protestant people who most wanted to maintain it.
Fate took a hand however when Labour lost power in Westminster and Edward Heath became Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister on June 18, 1970. The date is important because just fifteen days later – on the 3rd of July – the British army suddenly raided houses in Balkan Street. The trigger for this, according to the British army, was an anonymous phone call from a woman claiming that there were arms and explosives in houses in Balkan Street, an exclusively Catholic part of Belfast’s Lower Falls Road. But the houses that the Brits raided were in fact the ones whose addresses had been supplied to them by Official IRA representatives after that historic meeting in Saint Teresa’s hall the previous August.
This turn of events raised questions. Why did the army carry out such a raid when it was likely to cause untold outrage and dire consequences? (It was in fact a tragic turning point in Irish history, the incident which ushered in nearly thirty years of death and destruction, marking the dirtiest war that the British ever waged, spiralling atrocities and reprisals and both mindless and mindful murders on a massive scale).
The answer most likely lay with a politician called Brian Faulkner (now sadly deceased), a particularly Machiavellian member of the Northern Ireland government. The way I saw it then – and still see it – was that he was a twin soul of the newly elected Conservative and Unionist government in Westminster and a natural bedfellow of Edward Heath just then ensconced in Downing Street. Faulkner saw an opportunity to bring an end to the explosive relations between Loyalists and the British army which threatened the link with Britain. But along with this he hoped to further destabilize the Irish situation and so bring about the resignation of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark so that he, Faulkner, could step into his place. For someone of Faulkner’s cunning it would have been easy to convince Edward Heath that the British army should deal urgently with a situation in which lawless men in John Bull’s other island had easy access to illegal weapons in an already perilous situation.
I am still filled with loathing of what Downing Street did over a period of thirty years in this beautiful little part of Ireland. The British government’s sanctioning of mass murder of innocent people, both Catholic and Protestant, cannot be forgiven. They organized these foul deeds mainly through Loyalist murder gangs and undercover operatives that were recruited by the British Army, MI5 and the Special Branch. All of these bodies were up to their necks in the lowest forms of criminality.
But the day of the raid on Bombay Street will live in my memory as long as any of the corrupt groups named above. For that was the day the British created their Frankenstein monster in the shape of the Provisional IRA, a ruthless guerrilla army made up almost exclusively of my co-religionists. I am afraid that words are beginning to fail me here so I think I should leave the final ones here to a supreme wordsmith, the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney.
A heart-scorching poem of his – Casualty – centers around the Provisional IRA bombing of a pub to punish it for defying an internal Catholic curfew the group had demanded after the Bloody Sunday massacre by British paratroopers in Derry in 1972. An acquaintance of Heaney’s, an elderly fisherman, was among the IRA's victims, "blown to bits" for being "out drinking in a curfew". And Heaney asks:
How culpable was he That last night when he broke Our tribe’s complicity? ‘Now, you’re supposed to be An educated man,’ I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me The right answer to that one.’