Lest we forget: Life in Northern Ireland before 'the troubles'

Peter Berresford Ellis recalls a disturbing but enlightening visit to the six counties in 1964 and reminds us that the consequences of Westminster’s refusal to ‘lance the festering boil’ that was Northern Ireland was the eruption of violence which followed a few years later

LIKE THE day on which president Kennedy was assassinated, I can remember exactly where I was on Thursday, 1 October 1964. I was running along the Falls Road, west Belfast, and it seemed to me that I was personally being pursued by a heavily armed phalanx of RUC, armed with sten-guns, hand-guns, batons, steel helmets and shields, supported by armoured cars mounted with machine guns and water cannons.

I was a very young reporter at the time and it was only my second visit to Belfast; in fact, only my second visit to the six counties. I was working for a publishing trade magazine in London but had done my junior journalist training on English south coast local newspapers.I was keen to supplement my salary by picking up ‘lineage’. That is, I used to either do occasional sub-editing nightshifts (£8 a shift) on one of the London dailies, or write ‘lineage’ (stories paid by the line of print) news items for the dailies or news agencies such as Extel or PA.

I had initially been sent by my magazine to cover an innocuous meeting of newsagents and booksellers in Belfast. Because of this, a contact on one of the newspapers asked me if I would send him two hundred words on the general election campaign in west Belfast as ‘it looked interesting’.

Unionist James Kilfedder was being challenged by Harry Diamond, a socialist republican who already held a seat in Stormont. Liam McMillan was standing for Sinn Féin and there was also Billy Boyd of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. I was given a quick briefing. What I did not know at the time was that while everyone, theoretically, could vote in Westminster elections, the unionists regularly massaged the votes, a system of gerrymandering and other tricks, which usually produced the results they desired. Yet it seemed Harry Diamond stood a good chance of winning.

The first piece of trouble was that an Irish flag had been placed in the window of the republican campaign office in Divis Street. This ‘innocent abroad’ soon learnt that the display of an Irish flag or symbol was illegal under legislation adopted in 1954 by the Stormont regime.

This was when I first became aware of Ian Kyle Paisley, self-styled moderator of his own church. His father had ordained him in his own church. The academically questionable Pioneer Theological Seminary in Rockford, Illinois had bestowed his degrees of BA and Hon. PhD, while a Master’s degree was obtained in 1958 after a six weeks correspondence course with the Bob Jones University. The US department of education did not accept the validity of these establishments, which handed out degrees for dollars. In 1966 Bob Jones III gave Paisley an ‘honorary doctorate’ on his release from jail in October 1966.

It is still amusing to hear senior British politicians defer to Paisley as ‘Reverend’ and ‘Doctor’. It is the pretence that is nauseating. Many men have risen to political heights without scholastic laurels. But Paisley was insecure enough to feel the need to surround himself with this social respectability.

On the Sunday, 27 September, the day I flew into Aldergrove, Paisley had called a meeting at the Ulster Hall, having heard of the flag in the window of the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters. He declared that if the RUC did not remove the flag he would lead his followers in an attack on the election office. The Stormont minister of home affairs, R W McConnell, actually went in person to see Paisley to placate him and assure him that the RUC would go in.

The day after I arrived ‘wide eyed’ in Belfast, district inspector Frank Lagan and fifty RUC men — the first time I had seen such heavily armed police in what was supposed to be part of the United Kingdom — smashed in the door of the election office, confiscated the flag and generally destroyed everything they could lay their hands on. A few days later the flag was displayed again in defiance and the RUC were soon back with pick axes. This time the office was destroyed beyond salvage. This was Northern Ireland unionist democracy at work.

What struck me at the time was the young lads who, unafraid in the face of the grim paramilitary phalanxes of the RUC, were busy sticking tricolour stickers on anything they could reach while the uniformed and armoured lines advanced like stormtroopers. That night protests turned to rioting in west Belfast. The RUC then astounded the world by going into action with armoured cars, mounted with guns and water cannons. I say ‘astounded’ because the UK government officials later claimed that they had no idea the RUC possessed such an arsenal.

Yet the ultimate authority over the RUC was supposedly the British home secretary. It demonstrated just how little interest or control London was taking in the activities of the unionist regime. It was discovered that they were spending more, in percentage terms, per capita on their police than South Africa was on its defence forces.I had never been in a riot before. Indeed, a fellow reporter who, along with myself, was trying to avoid the advance of the baton wielding lines of RUC, who were not interested in NUJ press cards, exclaimed: “It’s no riot but a bloody war!”

I’ll never forget the kindly old lady who gave us shelter in her house — now vanished with the new buildings — while we watched electrified as local people, without any arms at all, just sticks and stones against all the imposing arsenal of suppression, managed to drive back the lines of RUC.

The next day, however, the RUC were back. Some 400 men with military helmets, flak jackets, sten guns, hand guns, batons, once again supported by armoured cars, drove up the Falls Road. It was a miracle that there were no deaths but over 50 people were hospitalise with serious injuries.

The result of the general election so far as West Belfast was concerned was fairly predictable. Unionist James Kilfedder won with 21,337 votes; Harry Diamond took 14,678, Billy Boyd 12,571 and Liam McMillan 3,256. Kilfedder, in his victory speech, had the audacity to publicly thank Ian Paisley “without whose help it could not have been done”. Although my father was from Cork City and I had already imbibed a lot of Irish history and thought myself fairly well read on matters, the trip to Belfast was a learning curve. Politically, I grew up very rapidly.

At the time, people in England did not believe the story that I came back with nor did they care. Sadly, this has been their general attitude ever since. Only a few years later — a year or so even before the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association came into being — I published an article stating that unless the Westminster government addressed the abuses and discriminatory regime in the six counties then, by the turn of the decade matters would erupt into a bloody urban guerrilla war. This was not to say that I was politically clever. Anyone who been to Belfast could have made the same prediction.

It has been hard to convince people in this country that I am now talking of a period five years before the date when ‘popular history’ now asserts that the recent ‘troubles’ started.

When the unionists try to convince people that during this time they ruled over a ‘democratic’ corner of the UK, they are blatant liars and hypocrites.It was this 1964 experience that opened my eyes.

I was in the anti-apartheid movement at the time. With my eyes now open about Stormont I read with horror the text of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland), 1922, by which the six counties had been ruled by since it had come into being. It was an Act which Adolf Hitler had admired in 1933 and then regretted he did not have the power to introduce similar legislation in Germany. It was an Act which South African leaders also admired.

In April, 1963, when the South African minister of justice, Belthazar Johannes Vorster (1915-1983) was introducing some new apartheid laws (The Coercion Bill) he publicly stated that he “would be willing to exchange all the legislation of this sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act”. Vorster, in 1966, became prime minister of South Africa and then president.In fact the architects of apartheid in South Africa often quoted the Special Powers Act to justify their own repressive regime. (see South Africa and the Rule of Law, South African department of foreign affairs, April, 1968). In 1935 a London based civil liberties commission declared the Stormont law as “contrary to the fundamental principles of democratic government”.

But the Westminster government did not want the English public to know what the regime was doing in Belfast. In fact, in 1959 Alan Whicker, then a well known BBC TV presenter, led a team from the Tonight programme to Northern Ireland and did a series of nine programmes. After the first programme was broadcast, the BBC suppressed the series. Alan Whicker himself had told the people of Northern Ireland: “This is the only place in the world where you can’t report honestly without silly people kicking up about what is only the truth.”

Well, suppression of truth was quite legal. Clause 25 of the Special Powers Act said that “no person shall by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, boo, circular, or other printed publication, spread reports or make statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to His/Her Majesty” The clauses in this area also covered broadcasting and film.

In 1969 I was taken aside by a member of the Special Branch and ‘advised’ that my name had been ‘noted’ because of what I had been writing. I was advised my presence might not be welcomed in the six counties. It was a quiet, menacing chat. For a while I took the hint. Earlier in that year I first went to Northern Ireland, on 17 January 1964. The Campaign for Social Justice in Northern Ireland had been formed for the purpose of bringing the light of publicly to bear on the discrimination and lack of civil rights. They began issuing pamphlets, which I eagerly seized upon for information.

Two leading lights of the Campaign were Dr Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia of Dungannon.

But, UK Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home had stated in that year of 1964 that any cases of discrimination could be pursued and resolved in the courts in Northern Ireland. Members of the campaign were surprised —- especially with the Special Powers legislation in place.

An eminent legal authority was called in but, having reviewed all the relevant Northern Ireland legislation, the campaign was informed “that the discrimination practised by local authorities is not capable of review by the courts under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920/1949 or any other statutory provisions”.

As the Government of Ireland Act empowered the UK government to intervene decisively in the affairs of Northern Ireland, the UK prime minister was contacted. By September 3, a few weeks before the general election, a correspondence with the prime minister determined that while the UK parliament had the ultimate responsibility for discrimination and lack of civil rights in Northern Ireland, the prime minister refused to allow his parliament to intervene. Despite the fact that the prime minister claimed that allegations of discrimination or lack of civil rights could be dealt with by then current Northern Ireland law he was unable to refer to the precise legislation which could circumvent the draconian Special Powers legislation or, indeed, the Government of Ireland Act.

Thus Northern Ireland was a festering boil that had either to be lanced or erupt. The UK parliament steadfastly refused to apply the lance to the boil. The eruption was inevitable.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-07-30 10:03:55.
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