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The Sixty-Five Years’ War

New faces play old roles in Belfast

East Belfast, rioting

Soldiers on guard on a street corner where rioting has taken place in East Belfast, circa 1971.

Keystone/Getty

Ireland was Britain’s first big colonial plaything, and many of the techniques the English kings used to keep the Irish in line were used again in more distant colonies. At the beginning of the 17th century James I introduced a policy that would prove valuable in Palestine and Nigeria: playing one people off against another. The Plantation of Ulster, as it was called, granted the lands of the northern province of Ireland to English and Scotch Protestants in 1000 to 2000-acre lots. The Irish were forbidden to be on the land except as menial laborers.

The rest of Ireland was tenanted by the Irish, but all of it except the wilderness of Connaught was under British ownership. By 1672 three quarters of the land and five-sixths of the houses belonged to one quarter of the population.

Many of the Scotch planters moved on to America where they formed the Scotch-Irish population of the Appalachians. Those who stayed had an understandable loyalty to the British Crown and a hatred and fear of the Irish Catholics they had displaced. Their situation gave a fanatical political edge to their old-fashioned Protestantism. Memories are long in Ulster: The defeat of the Catholic King James II by William of Orange [“Good King Billy”] happened 280 years ago, but the Orange Order’s yearly celebration of the victory can often stir up another round of the old war.

When in the decades between the two World Wars Ireland slowly exacted its independence from the Crown, scare stories of a terrible fate for the Protestant in the case of Home Rule (“Home Rule is Rome Rule”), spread by fanatical clergymen like today’s Ian Paisley, fostered a move to partition Ulster from the self-governing Irish Republic. The struggle between Republic. The struggle between Republicans and Unionists caused a civil war in 1922, but the six counties of the North stayed part of England.

The Catholics of the North, one-third of the population, live in conditions of oppression and discrimination that shock the modern European: The poor are not allowed to vote, voting areas are outrageously gerrymandered, and there is clear-cut job discrimination against Catholics. They even have begun to shock the British Government, now that shipping and linen industries of the North have gone downhill, while the industries of the South have made Ireland England’s third largest export customer.

The freedom movement in Northern Ireland is well known – or at least Bernadette Devlin is. What is less well known is that the Conservative government of Heath has begun to reverse the Labor policy of concessions to the Catholics. The infamous Protestant B Special police force, once fired, has been rehired in almost identical form. The first arrests in an “anti-extremist purge” months ago have been acquitted. The British Army’s increasingly “tough” tactics have driven more and more Catholics to turn to the Provisionals, a split-off of the Irish Republican Army who want to fight it out with guns.

BELFAST – At four in the afternoon, Belfast’s children are coming home from school. This is what they see:

Cars full of police. Lorries full of soldiers. Wooden barriers entangled with black barbed wire. Guardpost shanties of metal roof siding sandbagged against the buildings.

In every doorway and garden gate, in every indentation in the wall, no matter how slight, the places where in New York City, you’d fear a drunk or a junkie – a uniform, a gun, a guard. Authority.

The police are the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They are unarmed and content to stand on corners and lean against buildings the way cops do, with their arms clasped behind them or hidden inside their greatcoats.

The soldiers are British, and armed. Thompson sub-machine guns, long 303 rifles, short widebarrel revolvers that fire rubber bullets. The rifles are carried at arm’s length, muzzles pointing straight out, ready for use. The sub-machine guns nestle in the crook of an arm. The revolvers are held in the hand, dangling at the side. No one shoulders their guns in Belfast.

The children move down Shankhill Road, through the Protestant section. Some go further, on to Falls Road, which runs through the Catholic area. Three burnt-out municipal buses stand like skeletons in an empty rubbled lot. All the shops are boarded up, the boards postered over. Streetlights are shattered and hang like jagged broken teeth. Nights when there is no moon, the streets are dead black.

On Duffy Street, a small dirty boy plays in the mud by a British outpost. Over his head is a ladder that leads to a dugout where a young Scottish soldier sits, the snout of his machine gun jutting out. The little boy is armed with a wooden slat and string rifle. He kills the soldier maybe three hundred times a day.

* * *

PD is where it began. People’s Democracy, the party born of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, long marches, demonstrations, Bernadette Devlin.

In a pub near Queen’s University, the PD people are drinking before their regular Thursday night meeting. Guinness stout flows dark and creamy. Round by round, the night wears on. People are drinking instead of going to the meeting.

“God bless ya boy for buyin’ me this one,” Jimmy McEwen says, accepting a glass and turning back to the discussion. “Stalin was a great man,” he says, holding down a smile. “Ten million dead in purges, but . . . Trotsky would have killed them too. I’m telling you he was the most progressive force in modern history. Besides, Trotsky had four wives.”

Sweaters and mufflers and good heavy overcoats. Student faces sprouting heavy beards. Jerry, who edits the PD paper, takes a long drink, wipes his mouth and says, “Stalin was queer.”

“What?”

“O aye, he was.”

“I won’t indulge in such discussion.”

At another table, John McGouffin is drinking. Now that Devlin and others have left the party, he has become PD’s guiding force. He played host to Jerry Rubin when he came to Belfast. McGouffin looks like Jimmy Breslin and talks like Norman Mailer, biting down and spitting out words.

“When Rubin was here,” McGouffin says, “He was so paranoid, you would have thought he had a million atom bombs in his right testicle. Irrelevant. Totally fucking irrelevant.”

“Time, please, it’s time . . . ladies and gentlemen, it is time.” Flashing lights on and off, they’re putting the chairs up on tables, never too easy to clear an Irish pub. McGouffin stands, straightens his suit, adjusts the thick gold watch on his wrist, decides to attend the meeting.

Thirty-four people in a high ceilinged room. Business starts. The number drops to 20.

“Uh, comrade . . .”

“Point of information, comrade?”

“I see no reason why we can’t each take 50 copies of the newspaper and sell it in the street . . .”

A long, winding discussion starts about an article in the newspaper, figures are being misquoted, sentences flower and blossom, and fill the air.

“Same old shite,” Jerry mutters on his way to the door, under attack for something or other. “Fock off,” he shouts. The door slams shut. The meeting is just about over.

“Hey,” someone says, coming off the phone. “They just blew up Unionist headquarters.”

There are cheers all around.

* * *

Sean is driving. Goddamn. Is he. Belfast Saturday night, Sean is pushing his Volkswagen around old Protestant men and through Army detours while his lady, Eithne, chants and moans, “Bahstads, fuckin’ English cows, up your arse. I hate the bahstads, Sean. Oh don’t mind me Sean. I’m drunk.”

The car rounds a corner, gets cut off, and Eithne picks up the litany, “The bahstads, let’s go up the Shankhill, Sean and shout, ‘Fuck the Proddies.’ “

God bless Sean. He’s an IRA Provisional, a soldier in the army of revolution, and a product of Fianna Eireann (“Youth of Ireland”), the boy scout-type organization the IRA uses to train kids. He’s got more discipline than to go and start a riot because of too many Saturday night rounds at Pat’s Bar.

Pat’s Bar, where you don’t have to worry about how much you drink because there’s no room to fall down and die. You’re held up by the weight of people, all of whom are staunch Irish Republicans, of course. Tom’s there, playing old Gaelic tunes on the boron, which is kind of a marching drum, doing a wild, drunken solo that somehow leads into, “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be.” He’s going in for two years for throwing an acid bomb at six British soldiers.

At one point in the night, someone shouts, “Order for the singer. Stick that fiddle up your arse for a moment, boy,” so that Sean can sing a long mournful folk tune.

Sean is 24. He’s short but thick across, with strong wide features and sandy hair that hangs down into his eyes. He’s spent a year in jail and describes it as “the place where we organize. You can’t give an inch in jail, it’s where you show people who you really are.”

“There is so much distortion about what goes on here,” he says. “In truth, the Stickies (the “Regular” IRA) have about 150 fighting men. Good ones, too. Mainly in the lower Falls Road. When they came to burn the Falls in ’69, there were four guns down there. The Stickies had sold them. The neighborhood was unprotected. Only the fact that the Protestants thought the IRA was armed stopped them from doing more damage.

“Last year, there was just a company of Provisionals where I live. This year, it’s a battalion. We’ve got eight Thompsons and 20 rifles that I know about.

“What I’m fighting for, what we’re all fighting for, is a democratic Socialist Ireland. I’m not going to have my legs shot off or my brains beaten out on the street so that some new politician can take over. I want to be part of that republic.

“We’re organized. There’s a chain of command, from a chief of staff down to a section leader, who is like a sergeant. It’s loose too. There’s a myth about this phantom gunman who kills people in their homes. He doesn’t exist. There are 18-year-old boys who do whatever job they’re told to do and then give in their guns and go home.

“Like the three British soldiers who were killed. The IRA was given credit for that. It’s inconsistent with our policy. They’d never kill a soldier out of uniform. I might, and I don’t feel bad about it, but when they arrest the people who did it, they’re going to be Protestant.

“It’s a revolutionary army, a people’s army. The people are the army and the army are the people. There’s no difference.”

Eithne works for a major British newspaper in Belfast. British soldiers are always in and out, its pages are filled with stories of IRA atrocities. Whatever Eithne hears, she reports to Sean or her father. No one suspects she is a Republican.

“Years ago,” Sean says, “a thousand IRA men would have taken some buildings downtown and waited for the troops to come. Then they’d have fought a pitched battle and gotten killed. We now know that the media are watching, everything that goes on now, television covers. There are things the government can’t do. Internment would make them look like South Africa. We know we can wait.”

Provisional activity has now settled down to nightly gelignite blasts in Protestant buildings and factories. “We’ve done millions of pounds of damage so far in 1971. Now, we’re going to let the Protestant extremists make the first move.”

The Provisionals believe – and they are not alone – that if Prime Minister Brian Faulkner cannot end the troubles, Great Britain will be forced to adopt direct rule. This will suit them. They will then be fighting the British directly.

“The next flashpoint will be this Easter, and then this summer,” Sean says. “The parades. We’ll be marching, probably in uniform. If they want to try and stop us, it’s up to them. We have always marched.”

The parades are a Belfast tradition. On Easter Sunday, the Republicans march to the cemetery to commemorate their dead and to mark the anniversary of the rebellion that broke out on Easter Sunday, 1916. The leaders of that “trouble,” James Connolly among them, were shot.

On Easter Sunday, 1971, 10,000 marched peacefully to Milltown Cemetery. Three days later, someone shot a 13-year-old Protestant boy in the leg. Protestant crowds tried to burn a Catholic church. Two British soldiers were set on fire by a petrol bomb. Summer was yet to come.

“You’ll find that the Provisionals have the sympathy of most of the Catholics here now,” Maureen says, “Sure there are good men among the Stickies but most of their support is in one area.”

Maureen was PD. Her husband, John, still nominally is. “The Stickies,” Maureen says, “that’s what we call what’s referred to as the ‘Regulars.’ Every Easter the organizations make up green and white lily badges. Last year, the Regulars had one with no pin at all on the back, just adhesive. So it’s ‘Stickies’ they’re known as.”

Maureen and John live in a tract house in the suburbs of Belfast. They have three children. John is about 30 and drives a bread van. “Yeah,” a friend says, “and he lets his wife do the street fighting.”

Maureen faces a six-month jail sentence for violating the Special Powers Act. She was arrested after an IRA funeral carrying three hurley (field hockey) sticks and for wearing a khaki combat jacket, which under the Act constitues a “para-military uniform.”

Dolores, who is 20, was also arrested that day and will stand trial with Maureen. She is red-haired, with freckled clear skin and see-through blue eyes. A suburban queen of the hop in any place but Belfast.

“I expect we’ll go in,” Dolores says.

“Probably just four months, with time off,” Maureen says.

“It won’t be so bad,” Dolores says, but she’s not so sure. She’s never been inside before.

* * *

Albert has a full head of fine white hair. The lines and patterns in his face are repeated in the backs of his hands. He has the dignity of an old man who is still able, like Anselmo in For Whom The Bell Tolls. Three separate times he has been interned for revolutionary activities. Seven years spent in various prisons, among them Mountjoy, Dublin’s infamous jail. “Back during the World War,” he recalls, “they had some captured Nazis in there. They were lettin’ the Germans walk around and shout over the walls to the women prisoners. The Republicans kept silent. We were locked in. Terrible things the women were shouting back, too.”

Albert sits talking in his living room, the reflected light of flames from a coal fire flickering over his face as he spins out tales of the old days.

“Oh, we had engineers then. Take some potassium chlorate and boil it up with blocks of wax, making sure to stir with a wooden spoon so as not to cause any friction. As soon as it cooled, load it into suitcases and get an alarm clock that you set for when you wanted ‘er to blow. The British didn’t know what it was. Only bogey was that it was too heavy.”

Albert treasured his memories, like men who recall tales of former sports glory, home runs driven over distant fences. In 1938, he sat in front of his radio and listened as Eamon DeValera, now the President of the Republic of Ireland, promised that Ireland would be united within ten years. “How the politicians have sold out their soldiers, time and again,” Albert says.

Albert goes to see a film made about street fighting in Belfast. After it ends, a group of friends sit talking. They are all in their 40s and 50s, respectable working people, mother and fathers. “Ah,” Albert says, “Gerry Clark and another come over from the States talkin’ up civil rights here. But back there, they were crossin’ the blacks. Cursin’ them and laughin’.”

“Proper Fascists, the American Irish,” a friend says. “They go over and become policemen. Here their own mothers were bein’ arrested for harboring IRA men.”

“Blockheads,” Albert says, shaking his head sadly. “They haven’t a clue as to what it’s all about. Not a clue.”

“I hear Dolores is going inside,” a grey-haired lady says. “Mrs. McCloud’s daughter went down for six months last week. She came round and had a wonderful night, said goodby, and left.”

“Sure,” Albert smiles, “Dolores’ll be fine. She’s a good girl.”

He gets up to leave and meets Dolores at the door.

“Where ya livin’ now?” he asks her.

She tells him, “With Maureen and John.”

“My good garl,” he says to his daughter, “I left my mother’s house fourth September, 1939 and didn’t come back till August, 1945.”

“And when ya got back, she said, ‘Back so soon, eh, Albert?'” a friend of his laughs. Albert has his coat on. He’s almost through the door. He turns back and asks, “Six months?”

Dolores shakes her head yes. A little nervous flash runs across her face.

“Six months ya do standin’ on your head,” Albert says, and he’s gone.

* * *

Polished plastic and fake wood, Formica walls and tables and shiny floors, late Catskills Hotel decadence. The Linfield Sporting Club, on a black street off the Shankhill Road. Not many Catholics have ever been inside. At one in the afternoon on Saturday, the races flicker on the color TV in the corner. The bar is doing steady business, whiskey and Guinness. Bill Godfrey is at the bar. He’s 50 years old but still called “Billy.” His face is red and weathered. His suit, though worn and respectable, has never been new. His index finger is yellow from nicotine. He works as a messenger in a pig market.

“Hello Tom . . . hello Louis . . . hello Isaac,” Billy makes sure to say hello to everyone in the club. This is his neighborhood and these are his friends, every one of them a member of the Orange Order. Many have the blue scarf on today, the blue scarf with small circle emblems that shows you’re a loyal supporter of the Linfield Football Club, the Rangers. The scarf shows the world that you’re a “Blue,” and a Protestant.

“Here’s the chief steward now,” Billy tells me, “and that’s the social secretary . . . Hello John, come and meet an American who’s come to write about us.”

“I work right alongside Caholics, you know,” Billy says. “We get on.” A couple of months ago, Billy and his friends got hold of Dolores’ boyfriend and beat him senseless. Billy’s last three horses went off seven to one, nine to two, six to one, he tells the bartender. The bartender commiserates and slugs down a beer.

“All I want to do is go to work and have a wee gargle,” Billy says, swirling the Guinness around in his glass once. “That’s my philosophy of life at least.”

“There’ll be a dance here tonight,” Billy says proudly. “Oh yes, Members only of course. And their wives. Say, Pat . . . come here and meet the American writer. He’s a friend of mine.”

Later that afternoon, at precisely ten to five, 150 soldiers and 70 constables stand in front of three Army half-tracks, four armored cars, and six or seven jeeps, guarding Unity Flats, a council-built house where Catholics live. L

infield has won, and the “Blues” are marching home from the match, down to the Shankhill Road, passing right in front of Unity Flats. Lines of blue police by grey squad cars, brown-green soldiers in combat fatigues, the shiny barrels and black muzzles of their guns. Packs of kids flow in and out of the flats buildings.

And up the avenue, pipes skirling, drums booming, a baton thrown thirty feet in the air floating magnificently down end over end to be caught by the bandleader, comes the “Pride of Shankhill Belfast Flutes,” with an army jeep inching in front of them and one behind. Their supporters throng up the sidewalks. In the middle of the road, above it all, floats the Union Jack, serene and defiant.

The band passes without incident, and is up the Shankhill in home territory. It looks like no confrontation today. The troops pack up to leave. The police pull away. The crowds thin and the kids go back to kicking a football around.

When through the flats comes a pipestem kid of maybe 17, the kind who spends hours looking in the mirror for his mustache and can find only a scuzzy shadow. A blue Rangers’ scarf hangs outside his jacket.

Yelling and jeering arises from a pack of kids. The Protestant kid jangles down a flight of concrete steps. He’s scared, his juices are flowing, he turns to face the kids and shouts, “Fuck arf,” giving them all the finger.

It explodes. A beefy man is out and on the kid. The kid throws a wild circle punch that misses everything, his leather sole shoes slide on the pavement, he slips and falls on his back. He’s knocked himself down. An old man is in the middle of it, all the way from across the street in a split second, he swings his cane going for the kid’s head and it clatters to the asphalt. Whistles blow.

Two soldiers shove their way in and pack the kid up and tote him away. As soon as he’s out of the fight, he starts really kicking and screaming. “Get the bahstad off me. I’ll kill the bahstad. I’ll kill him.”

It’s over. All that’s left is for the street harpies, the old Protestant ladies, to beat their toothless gums together and waggle their dried-up asses at the flats. Catholic harpies on the porches curse back and wave obscene gestures.

* * *

Sunday in Belfast. Reverend Martin Smith, a leader of the Orange Order, is preaching. Great Victoria Street Presbyterian Church is filled with row on row of men in dark suits with black and silver tasseled bands around their necks and down the front of their suits.

Somber faces. A warm beery smell in the pews and hard looks for the stranger who takes notes. Eyes that squint tight like vises, seeking acknowledgement. Who are you, boy? A question that leads to stomping and smashing of the face for those who aren’t dressed right, whose hair is too long.

“Many say,” the Reverend intones, “that the trouble is an anarchist, Republican, or Communist plot. All of these are involved, yes, but it is those people who have closed out the sun, who use the name Jesus as only a blasphemy, who have forsaken their churches to gather in the streets who are to blame. And what shall we do? What are the Orange to do?

“Stand together, as always. For the tragedy is not those who are born in darkness and die in darkness but those who have seen the light and turn away. Let us pray.”

Heads bow. After the sermon, the Royal Black Preceptory Order march, in black bowler hats, white gloves, and dark suits. Scotch-Irish replicas of English gentlemen by the hundreds fill the streets of Belfast. Again, the Union Jack floats past Unity flats, daring any to defy it.

“A terrible beauty is born,” is the way William Butler Yeats described the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Sixty-five years later, the terrible beauty still lives. It has not aged a day. New names, new faces play out old roles.

In Ireland, another Easter has come and gone. Belfast still waits.

In This Article: Coverwall

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