Sunday 22 October 2017

Was jubilee the catalyst for the Troubles?

Tensions: Ian Paisley
Tensions: Ian Paisley

Former Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble wrote that "1916 had a particular legacy for the North, as the 50th anniversary of the rebellion started the ­destabilisation of Ulster".

The Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill had a slightly more nuanced reading. He described 1966 as "not a very easy year". O'Neill expressed his frustration that Catholics in Belfast had insisted on celebrating the Dublin rebellion. He argued that Ian Paisley had used the resentment in extreme Protestant circles against the Republican celebrations to stage a series of meetings and marches and that ultimately, "It was 1966 which made 1968 inevitable and was bound to put the whole future of Northern Ireland in the melting pot."

Tensions were certainly high. Police intelligence reports suggested that the IRA was planning a new campaign in 1966 and a special security committee had been set up in Stormont at the beginning of April. All police leave was cancelled over the Easter period and the RUC, Special Constabulary and British army were described as being in a state of "instant readiness".

Minister of Home Affairs, Brian McConnell, decided to 'seal' the border - by banning North-South rail travel for almost 24 hours - to prevent disruptive groups arriving from the Republic during the weekend of the main commemoration in the north on April 16-17. New powers also allowed for the banning of any traffic (if necessary) on the A1 road between Belfast and Dublin. McConnell stated that he would "not permit the peace of Northern Ireland to be disturbed by provocative incursions of hostile elements".

Many Unionist organisations made clear their objections to proposed commemorations of the Easter Rising by nationalists in the north. They were concerned that groups would travel from the Republic; that the Irish Tricolour would be flown along the public highways of Northern Ireland; and that there would be a breakdown of order. The Belfast Committee of the Apprentice Boys protested against the fact that: "A certain section of the people whom we class as Rebels should be permitted to come from the Republic of Ireland and be permitted to associate with those of their kind in the Six Counties to celebrate the 1916 Rising, and to carry their Tricolour in parades and demonstrations which might excite Her Majesty's Loyal Subjects."

In January 1966, a directorate consisting largely of veteran republicans was appointed to oversee the commemorative programme across the north. Their aim was to use the commemoration to re-politicise the population. The Flags and Emblems Act gave the RUC the power to remove any non-Union flag from view if it was deemed a threat to the peace. The IRA in Belfast saw the commemoration as a golden opportunity to challenge this act.

Billy McMillen, organising secretary on the commemoration committee, recalled that the services of every member of Cumann na mBan and dozens of other women were enlisted to make thousands of Tricolour flags and bunting which were distributed throughout all the nationalist areas of Belfast. As a result these areas were festooned in green, white and orange and the Flags and Emblems Act was effectively unenforceable.

Despite appeals from some unionist groups, there was no blanket ban of commemorations in the north and events took place in nationalist areas such as Toomebridge, Coalisland, Newry, Derry, Strabane and Dungiven. In Belfast, the annual parade on Easter Sunday took place as usual and attracted 30,000 spectators. However, the signature event of the northern commemorations took place in Belfast the following Sunday, at which 70,000 people watched a large parade move along the Falls Road to Casement Park led by a colour party bearing the Tricolour, the Fianna and Citizen Army flags.

Ian Paisley had organised a counter-march through Belfast city centre which began with a service in the Ulster Hall, offered in thanksgiving for the defeat of the 1916 Rising. A large police presence kept the marchers apart but there were several skirmishes and six people were detained by the police. Originally the Ulster Hall had been booked for a 1916 commemorative concert but it had been banned by Belfast Corporation's Estates and Markets Committee on the grounds it would lead to a breach of the peace.

One young man had to be rescued by police when he was attacked by crowds waiting for Paisley's parade to pass. He was wearing a Tricolour ribbon and an Easter lily on his coat. It was reported that he was: "Set upon by a crowd of women who battered him with their umbrellas and several men tried to pull him to the ground. The police officer pulled him free and ran with him up Howard Street. When the officer realised he was being followed by a large section of the crowd, some of whom were crying 'Kill him, kill him' he turned and ran back through the crowd dragging the young man with him into the safe neutrality of a Chinese restaurant."

Overall, however, the commemoration in the North passed relatively peacefully. Only one parade was banned, in Loup, Co Derry, and there were few arrests across the jurisdiction.

So, why is it remembered as being so explosive? Northern Irish society was undergoing significant economic and social change. O'Neill's modernising agenda highlighted existing tensions and the commemoration raised the confidence and visibility of the nationalist population. People like Paisley were able to use the commemoration to attack O'Neill and to whip up sectarian sentiments. The UVF was reformed in anticipation of the anniversary and in June the first deaths of the modern Troubles took place when John Scullion and Patrick Ward were killed by Loyalists. In fact, by the summer of 1966, RUC intelligence reports assessed the threat from "extremist Protestant groups" to be greater than that of the IRA.

Commemorations don't upend otherwise stable societies. Northern Ireland's problems were deep and of long standing. Blaming the commemoration of the Rising for the Troubles deflects attention from other factors. An already fractured society can struggle to contain its history; given the right circumstances the past can then explode into the present.

Roisín Higgins is a senior lecturer in History at Teesside University and the author of Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

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