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Holy War in Belfast,
by Andrew Boyd (1969)

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Andrew Boyd ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Andrew Boyd, with the permission of the publisher, Anvil Books. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is taken from the book:

Holy War in Belfast
by Andrew Boyd (1969)

Originally published by:

Anvil Books
County Kerry

[Note: later versions of this book have been published by other publishing companies]

These extracts are included on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the back cover:
‘The disturbances were savage, repeated and prolonged . . . '
Winston Churchill

. . . our church is now in a melancholy condition. Political and religious bigotry have mingled together; and those who foment the persecutions amongst us have made it their policy so to conjoin the two principles that scarce an individual is now held orthodox who is not also an enemy to the civil or religious rights of his fellow men. (Henry Montgomery, 1829)

. . . the excitement in Belfast did not subside. Eventually dangerous riots, increasing in fury until they almost amounted to warfare, occurred in the streets between the factions of Orange and Green. Firearms were used freely by the police and combatants. Houses were sacked and men and women killed. The disturbances were savage, repeated, and prolonged. (Winston Churchill)

. . . the police discovered an astonishing number of unlicensed guns, as well as swords, daggers and even spears. They found a man in Carrick Hill with an ancient cannon, loaded and ready for action.

Falls Road was a strange sight that night. The people of this completely Catholic district lamented the defeat of Home Rule by setting their chimneys on fire. The chimneys belched flames and choking black smoke into the air, making the atmosphere, as the Belfast News Letter described it, ‘as thick as a London fog. Whilst the smoke enveloped the Falls, hundreds of tar-barrels blazed in triumph along the Shankill.






























RIOTING and terror returned to the City of Belfast on Monday 28 September 1964. That evening a detachment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, acting on the explicit instruction of Brian McConnell, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs, attacked the Divis Street headquarters of the Republican Party in West Belfast. Their mission was to remove an Irish tricolour.

This took place during a general election for the British House of Commons, an assembly in which Northern Ireland has twelve seats, besides having its own parliament of 52 members. The Republicans had nominated Liam McMillan to contest West Belfast; the other candidates in the constituency were Unionist, Republican Labour and Northern Ireland Labour.

When McConnell, himself a Unionist, ordered the police to move against the Republican headquarters he was responding to pressure from Ian K. Paisley, leader of the Free Presbyterians. Paisley had threatened that if the RUC did not remove the tricolour he would lead a march of his followers to Divis Street and take it down himself.

For several days before this threat was uttered, the RUC and the Ministry of Home Affairs had been pestered by anonymous telephone callers, all complaining about the tricolour and demanding its removal. Anonymous callers had also warned the Republicans that their headquarters would be burned if they continued to display the Irish flag.

James Kilfedder, the. Unionist candidate in West Belfast, complained about the tricolour too, and sent this telegram to McConnell: "Remove tricolour in Divis Street which is aimed to provoke and insult loyalists of Belfast."

McConnell acted, even though Divis Street is in a part of Belfast where few of those people whom Kilfedder described as "loyalists" are to be seen. He held a conference of his senior police officers on Monday morning and ordered that the flag be removed. His authority to do this was the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act. At the same time, exercising the power given to him by the Public Order Act of 1961, he restricted a Paisleyite protest march to an area within the vicinity of the City Hall. This was a part of Belfast which the minister considered to be a safe distance from Divis Street.

Traffic was brought to a standstill on Monday night of 28 September when it became known that the RUC were coming to seize the flag. More than 2,000 Republican supporters blocked the roadway and scores of constables were rushed to the scene in armoured cars. The constables, though armed with sten-guns, rifles, revolvers, riot-batons and shields, were made to look ridiculous by groups of little boys who ran about with miniature tricolour emblems which they stuck on walls, trolley-buses, police-cars and the windows of the Republican headquarters.

Meanwhile, at the City Hall, Paisley had decided not to march; but he held a meeting which he opened with prayers and readings from the Bible. Then he read a telegram from an organisation of people calling themselves the Ulster Loyalist Association. The telegram congratulated him "on his stand against the tricolour." After that the meeting became the familiar Paisleyite medley of prayers, anti-popery and political invective.

By this time the RUC, using pickaxes, had smashed down the doors of the Republican headquarters and taken possession of the flag. They carried it away through a barrage of stones and empty bottles, and to the prolonged jeers of crowds of youngsters.

Next day Liam McMillan telegraphed Harold Wilson, leader of the British Labour Party: "armed police using crowbars smashed into Republican headquarters, Belfast, without warning. Seized Irish flag. Demand you clarify attitude to this violence against democracy."

He also announced that unless the police returned the tricolour by noon on Wednesday another would be put in its place. The confiscated flag was not brought back so McMillan hoisted a new one, and, as he did so, 300 people cheered and sang "A Soldier’s Song," national anthem of the Irish Republic. The nearest policeman, fifty yards away, was directing traffic.

Shortly after two o’clock that afternoon the RUC cleared Divis Street to make way for an armoured car. When the car stopped outside the Republican headquarters eight policemen emerged and began another attack on the place, with crowbars and pickaxes. They failed to break down the door, but one of them smashed the window, reached in and pulled out the second tricolour.

By Wednesday news of the events in Divis Street had spread throughout the world. Belfast became the hub of the general election campaign, attracting television reporters, camera teams and newspaper men from many countries. That night thousands of Republicans, armed with petrol-bombs, sticks, stones, rotten vegetables, and some with loaded firearms, gathered outside their headquarters to sing Irish patriotic songs. A battle began at eleven o’clock when police tried to disperse them.

The television teams and the commentators were on the spot to record all that happened. For the first time ever, people in many parts of the world were able to watch, on their television screens, the intensity of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

At the first indication that the Republicans would fight, some fifty RUC men, who had been held in readiness in the small streets between Falls Road and Shankill Road, were rushed into Divis Street. But the Republicans, who seemed to be acting in accordance with a pre-arranged strategy, drove them back into the side-streets. They attacked them with stones, bottles, chunks of metal and petrol-bombs.

In Divis Street a Belfast Corporation trolley-bus was set on fire. Eight RUC men jumped for their lives when a petrol-bomb was thrown into their car. Bottles, stones, sticks and heavy iron gratings were hurled in all directions. Plate-glass from the windows of wrecked shops crashed to the ground.

By midnight the police had succeeded in sealing off Divis Street and in clearing it for several hundred yards on both sides of the blazing trolley-bus. Order was largely restored, but thirty people, including at least eighteen members of the RUC, had been injured seriously enough to require urgent hospital treatment.

Next day it became evident that events in Northern Ireland were being regarded with astonishment throughout the world. In vain did Terence O’Neill, Prime Minister and leader of the Unionist Party, appeal for restraint and a return to law and order. His appeal brought only sneers and insults from the Paisleyites. They looked upon him as a liberal weakling and believed that his policies of reform and reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants were destroying the Protestant Ascendancy. Since 1963, when O’Neill had secured the premiership by outwitting his nearest rivals within the Unionist Party, the Paisleyites had been demanding his removal from office. "O’Neill Must Go" became the policy of their newspaper, The Protestant Telegraph. Their campaign was intensified when he met Sean Lemass, An Taoiseach (Premier) of the Irish Republic, in January 1965.

On 6 October, five days after the Divis Street riots, Professor Robert Corkey, Unionist senator and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, indicted Paisley as the man mainly responsible for the disturbances. "His loud protestations of Protestant principles," said Professor Corkey, "have attracted a considerable following of thoughtless people."

Next day, in the Northern Ireland Parliament, Harry Diamond, a Republican Labour MP, also blamed Paisley and described him as "a half-demented exhibitionist." Diamond alleged that a caucus of the Unionist Party in Belfast Corporation had urged Paisley to complain about the tricolour and threaten to pull it down. The involvement of members of the Unionist Party might explain why O’Neill refused an official investigation into the events which resulted in the Divis Street disturbances. He pleaded in the House of Commons that there "was no precedent for such an inquiry."

The Unionists won West Belfast and the eleven other Northern Ireland constituencies. When the count closed on 15 October, Kilfedder was declared elected with a 6,000 majority. His first words, after the result had been announced, were directed to Ian Paisley without whose help, he said, "it could not have been done."

Nevertheless, the Republicans had their own victory. On Sunday 5 October they carried the tricolour, in public and in broad daylight, at the head of a parade of 5,000 people who marched from Beechmount on Falls Road, through Divis Street, to an election rally near Smithfield. Police lined the route but made no attempt to seize the flag.

The same day a congregation of 2,000, in Belfast’s Ulster Hall, heard Ian Paisley accuse "many Ulster Protestant leaders of showing weakness in the face of Republican pressure." If they did not stand firm their Protestant faith was in jeopardy, he warned.

This alleged threat to Protestantism in Ulster and the weakness of certain Unionist political leaders were the main points on which Paisley was to base his campaigns and rally his followers after the battle for the Divis Street tricolour. By 1966 it was clear that his strategy was to attack every manifestation of tolerance on the part of O’Neill and to create controversy around even the slightest hint of rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. All the while he and his followers were also campaigning against the Republicans. They called on the government to ban all demonstrations which were arranged, within Northern Ireland, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. When they failed in this their newspaper screamed that "over Easter the soil of Ulster was desecrated by the rebels."

Much of Paisley’s abuse fell upon the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches. He travelled to Rome to protest, in person, against the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Pope Paul. In June he announced his intention to march to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church against what he claimed to be its "Romeward trend."

The march, which was held on the evening of Monday 6 June, was intended to be both insulting and provocative, yet the Minister of Home Affairs and the RUC allowed it to take place. Moreover, they gave permission for Paisley to proceed to the Assembly Building by way of Cromac Square, a predominantly Catholic part of the city, which had been the scene of sectarian riots in other years.

Since the riots of 1935 no Orange or loyalist processions had been allowed anywhere near Cromac Square. Consequently, to allow a Paisleyite march in that locality, particularly as it was well known that the marchers would carry placards and posters painted with slogans insulting to Catholics, was an act of serious irresponsibility on the part of the RUC and the Minister.

The marchers, led by Paisley and a few of his close colleagues, among them a fanatical middle-aged woman who sang "Onward Christian Soldiers," were stopped on Albert Bridge by a crowd of some hundreds of young people. The RUC, who accompanied the marchers, dispersed this crowd, but, within a few minutes, a really serious attack was mounted at Cromac Square. One young man, brandishing an iron bar, came within a few feet of Paisley and might well have poleaxed him had not the militant Protestants hastily formed a protective cordon around their leader. Stones, bricks, iron nuts and bolts and lumps of broken plate-glass were hurled at the Protestant extremists by the crowd in Cromac Square.

An eye-witness testified afterwards that, as the fighting broke out, the RUC forced the attackers away from the procession and into the side-streets near the square. One constable was seen to spin a youth round by the shoulder and strike him with full force in the face with his truncheon. The policeman was then tackled and dragged struggling to the ground.

The attackers yielded only a little ground along the side-streets. Then they turned and fought the police with sticks and missiles of many kinds. The RUC’s helmets and riot shields seem to have been inadequate protection, for at least six policemen were seen to fall in the melee.

Although the riot at Cromac Square was short and sharp the material damage caused was extensive. Cars and taxis parked in the vicinity of the square were wrecked and the plate-glass windows of shops and of Cromac Square Post Office were smashed. Eventually the Paisleyites, flanked and protected by RUC men, got through the square and proceeded along May Street and Howard Street to where the General Assembly was in session and awaiting the arrival of Lord Erskine, Governor of Northern Ireland.

When the Paisleyites reached the Assembly Building, they attacked the Governor and Lady Erskine with foul abuse and insulting language, and might even have trampled them down had there not been a strong cordon of RUC, several ranks deep, around the building. Lady Erskine was grievously disturbed by the outrage. She left Northern Ireland soon afterwards and within a very short time Lord Erskine resigned the governorship and returned to his native Scotland.

During the Cromac Square riots Terence O’Neill and Brian McConnell, the Minister of Home Affairs, were in London, having been summoned there to explain why they were unable to maintain law and order in Northern Ireland. They had scarcely finished their talks with officials of the British Home Office when they received a police report on the riot and the attempts to molest the Governor and Lady Erskine. Later, they were to see the whole outrageous occurrence in detail on the television news bulletins.

On Wednesday morning McConnell was back in Belfast and was sent, like a penitent, to express his regrets to the General Assembly and to assure the Moderator, Right Rev. Dr. Alfred Martin, that his department would "in future take all possible steps to prevent a recurrence" of the indignities to which the members of the Assembly and their guests had been subjected on Monday evening. McConnell spoke for four minutes, during which absolute silence prevailed. When he had finished Dr. Martin said to him:

We accept the expression of regret which you have brought. We have asked for a written assurance that such happenings will not occur again. When we receive this it will be recorded in our minutes.

There were no further words. The entire Assembly stood silent as McConnell left their presence.

In October McConnell was removed from the Ministry of Home Affairs and given a minor post in another department. In August 1968 he was made Deputy Commissioner and President of the Industrial Court in Northern Ireland, a £6,000-a-year post, which took him out of Parliament and politics. His successor at Home Affairs was William Craig, an incredibly stubborn and tactless politician. The decision to reinstate him as Minister of Home Affairs, a post he had previously held in 1964, was one that O’Neill was soon to regret bitterly.

On Saturday 11 June, John Patrick Scullion, a young engineering worker, died in the Royal Victoria Hospital from wounds he had received on the night of Friday 27 May. Scullion was buried in Milltown, the Catholic cemetery, but on 22 June the police, who had been making intensive inquiries into the circumstances of his death, requested that the body be exhumed for further examination.

The cause of Scullion’s death was said to be a stab wound in the abdomen. Immediately after his funeral, however, the newspapers in Belfast received anonymous telephone calls to the effect that he had been shot, executed in fact, by a militant Protestant organisation.

Some days before Scullion’s death the Belfast Telegraph received a telephone call from someone who described himself as Captain William Johnston, Adjutant of the 1st Belfast Battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force. He informed the paper that "from this day we declare war against the IRA and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation." He also claimed that the UVF had battalions in many parts of Ulster.

This organisation took its name from the illegal army which the Unionists raised, in 1913, to fight against Irish Home Rule. Its members collected money, generally by force, from shopkeepers and others and used it to buy guns and ammunition. It is one of a number of extremist groups which make up the militant Protestant movement. Others include the Ulster Protestant Volunteers, the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee, Ulster Protestant Action, as well as several similarly-named groups which operate locally in various parts of Northern Ireland, outside Belfast.

On 23 June, Terence O’Neill told parliament that his government had no intention of using the Special Powers Act to curb the activities of the Protestant extremists. There was no evidence, he said, that the militant Protestant organisations were contemplating the use of violence. On this, O’Neill was either tragically mistaken or else badly informed by his police chiefs and the Minister of Home Affairs. The executions which had been threatened by "Captain William Johnston" were attempted in the early hours of Monday 27 June, when one man was shot dead and two others wounded.

At two o’clock that morning people living in Malvern Street, on Shankill Road, were awakened by gunshots. Two young girls who had been listening to music from an all-night radio station, rushed into the street and saw a gang of men in the act of shooting down three others. The victims were Andrew Kelly, aged 27; Liam Doyle, 24, and Peter Ward, 18. They were hotel workers, and with a fourth man named Richard Leppington, had gone late into a public house called the Malvern Arms. The four men were Catholics and were recognised as such by members of the UVF who were in the Malvern Arms that night, planning an execution.

Peter Ward was shot through the heart and died within a few minutes. Doyle had severe leg wounds. Kelly had several wounds in his abdomen and was rushed to the operating theatre immediately he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital. Leppington, who suffered only minor injuries, told the RUC what happened. He said he and his companions left the Malvern Arms at two o’clock. They had scarcely reached the street when a man, described as of terrifying appearance and between thirty and forty years of age, opened fire on them. He was Augustus Andrew Spence, a leader of the UVF. Leppington ran, but turned back when half-way along Malvern Street. He found Peter Ward dying and the other two wounded men being assisted by people from nearby houses. The gunmen had fled.

The police, however, knew who committed the crime and within a few hours had three of them in custody — Augustus Andrew Spence, Hugh Arnold McClean and John Williamson. All three were accused of the murder of Ward and brought before the Belfast magistrates on 28 June. Three months later they stood trial before Lord McDermott, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

In a statement made to the police soon after his arrest McClean said that UVF men met regularly in the back rooms of public houses on Shankill Road where they plotted to kill people whom they believed to be members of the Irish Republican Army. He said that on Saturday 25 June he was given a gun and ordered to attend a meeting in McDowell’s Bar. There he heard Spence say that "Martin, the IRA man who lives in Baden-Powell Street, is the target for tonight."

The Malvern Street murder made Terence O’Neill change his mind about the militant Protestant organisations. On 28 June he announced that the Ulster Volunteer Force had been declared an unlawful organisation under the Special Powers Act. This was the first time this act, which had been framed to deal with the Irish Republican Army, was invoked against people who considered themselves "Protestant and loyal."

O’Neill’s carefully-worded statement to the House of Commons denounced the UVF as "a sordid conspiracy of criminals prepared to take up arms against unprotected people." He did not include any of the other militant Protestant groups in this denunciation, though next day, 29 June, he told Parliament that according to information which he had received from the police, a leading member of the UVF was also an important official of the Ulster Constitutional Defence Committee of which Paisley was chairman.

Peter Ward and John Scullion were not the only victims of the UVF terror that June. On the day when Spence, Williamson and McClean were arrested, Mrs. Matilda Gould, a 70-year-old widow, died in hospital. She had been severely burned seven weeks earlier when a petrol-bomb was thrown into her home in Upper Charleville Street, between Shankill Road and Crumlin Road.

Mrs. Gould, a Protestant, lived next to a public house owned by Catholics. The petrol-bomb which caused her death was intended for them. Three years later, dealing with a claim for compensation on behalf of Matilda Gould’s family, Mr. Justice Gibson said, in the Northern Ireland High Court, that "terrorism had been used in a bid to force Roman Catholics to leave predominantly Protestant areas."

When Hugh Arnold McClean was charged and cautioned in Brown Square police station on the night of his arrest, he was reported to have said: "I am sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him." When this statement was made public Paisley’s newspaper denied that he had any association with the UVF. "Mr. Paisley," stated the Protestant Telegraph, on 27 August, "has never advocated violence, has never been associated with the UYF and has always opposed the hell-soaked liquor traffic which constituted the background to this murder."

When that pronouncement was made Paisley was serving a three-months’ sentence in Belfast prison. Following the Cromac Square riots and the demonstration against the Governor, he was charged with unlawful assembly. On refusing to enter into a rule of bail and be bound over to keep the peace for two years, he was sent to prison. He told a rally of his followers, in the Ulster Hall, that he was going to jail because he refused to surrender the right to protest.

He also told them that the day would come when "with the help of God and the Protestant people of Ulster he would be a member of the Northern Ireland Parliament." That forecast on 24 February 1969 when Paisley, challenging Terence O’Neill came close to fulfliment at the Northern Ireland general election in the Bannside constituency, got 6,331 votes, almost forty per cent of the total poll. O’Neill, even though he held the exalted positions of Premier of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Unionist Party, got only 7,745 votes, about 47 per cent.

Bannside, in County Antrim, is Paisley’s homeland. He was born there, son of the Rev. J. Kyle Paisley, in the town of Ballymena, some 42 years ago. He is not an orthodox Presbyterian minister, though he holds the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the Bob Jones University, a theological college in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, USA. It is believed that he started his pastoral career, soon after the end of the second world war, in a disused army hut somewhere about Belfast’s dockland. Nowadays he preaches most of his sermons in Belfast’s municipally-owned Ulster Hall. Soon he will be using the £200,000 basilica which is being built for him at Ravenhill, in east Belfast.

Paisley has no difficulty in obtaining the regular use of the Ulster Hall for his crusades; he has a substantial number of influential friends and followers among the Unionist councillors and aldermen, and many adherents in the Orange Order, the Unionist Party and the Northern Ireland Parliament. William Craig, for example, maintained, three months after the Malvern Street murder, that the militant Protestants were law-abiding. Later he was to declare that there was plenty of room for the Paisleyites inside the Unionist Party.

Nor is O’Neill himself altogether free from the taint of association with the Protestant extremists. He and his numerous political kinsmen in the Unionist Party have long been associated with the Orange Order, a movement whose membership includes the imprisoned UVF leaders, Spence and Williamson. Spence is also a member of the Royal Black Institution, an exclusively Protestant society headed by Sir Norman Stronge, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a sectarian club into which O’Neill was ceremoniously inducted soon after his elevation to the premiership in 1963.

In October 1966, Spence, Williamson and McClean stood trial on two counts. On the first count they were accused of the simple murder of Peter Ward: on the second—more serious because it carried the death penalty — they were alleged to have murdered Ward in the furtherance of a seditious conspiracy. The indictments stated that all three:

. . . on divers dates between 1 March and 27 June 1966 conspired together, and with other persons unknown, to incite illwill among the different classes and creeds of the Queen’s subjects, to create a public disturbance and disorder and to injure and murder persons who might be opposed to their opinions.

After a trial which lasted two weeks they were found guilty on the first count, the simple murder of Peter Ward, and so escaped the death penalty. They were found not guilty on the second count. Sentencing all three to life imprisonment, Lord McDermott said:

The public must be protected from those like you who would not scruple to kill someone you have disliked or someone with whom you disagree.

He ordered that they be kept in prison for at least twenty years and not released before that time had elapsed.

Prior to this, Spence had been charged with the murder of John Scullion but, when the case was brought before the magistrates, the evidence produced by the police was not sufficient to secure an indictment.

The final episode in this affair took place on 12 July 1967 when the Orange lodge of which Spence and Williamson are members, Prince Albert Temperance LOL No. 1892, held up the Orange parade, as it reached the gates of Belfast prison, to pay homage to the murderers imprisoned therein.

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