Wednesday 17 July 2019

Burnt Out: How the Troubles Began – new book charts origins of violence in the North in 1969

History: Burnt Out: How the Troubles Began, Michael McCann, Mercier Press, paperback, 320 pages, €15

Fiery cauldron: riots in Belfast in 1969. Photo By Frank McGrath
Fiery cauldron: riots in Belfast in 1969. Photo By Frank McGrath
Burnt Out

Andrew Lynch

In the BBC family sitcom Outnumbered, there is a particularly funny scene that shows an exasperated father trying to control his squabbling children. "Look, I don't care who started it!" he exclaims, to which a small boy replies, "How can you not be interested in who started it? You're a history teacher."

Many people in the North must know exactly how that man felt. Ever since the Derry and Belfast riots that sparked the Troubles half a century ago, diehards on both sides have been arguing about which of them lit the fuse.

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Nationalists pin the blame on a bigoted Stormont government, a corrupt police force and loyalist thugs who reacted viciously to the prospect of Catholics being given equal treatment. Unionists maintain that the real culprits were IRA terrorists who used the Civil Rights movement as a Trojan horse for their own murderous purposes.

For Michael McCann, this is not just an academic question. Aged 14 at the time, he saw his family attacked by vigilantes and forced to leave their home in west Belfast along with thousands of other Catholics.

The Queen's University history graduate has now written a book that promises to establish "the basic facts relating to the beginning of the modern Troubles - a conflict born of sectarian violence instigated by the state and its loyalist defenders in the fiery cauldron of August 1969".

As this bold claim suggests, McCann is contemptuous of other historians who find faults with both communities "in the name of 'balance'". To him, unionist forces were entirely responsible for launching the 1969 riots and nationalist violence was "largely reactive, generated out of quite rational and reasonable concerns for self-defence".

Burnt Out is superbly researched, based on more than 30 eyewitness interviews and a careful dissection of the British government's Scarman Tribunal report - but sadly most neutral readers will also find it far too one-sided to be fully convincing.

McCann's narrative begins in the mid-1960s, a time when newly educated northern Catholics were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. TV audiences around the world watched in horror as Civil Rights marches were broken up by stone-throwing loyalists or baton-wielding RUC officers cracking heads open.

The North's Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, was well-meaning but ineffectual and his disastrously patrician attitude was summed up by a radio interview he gave after resigning in April 1969: "It is frightfully hard to explain to a Protestant that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house, they will live like Protestants, because they will see neighbours with cars and TV sets; they will refuse to have 18 children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in a most ghastly hovel, he will rear 18 children on national assistance."

O'Neill seems like a bleeding-heart liberal, however, compared to the demagogue who McCann calls "the Pied Piper of Protestant extremism". Ian Paisley's later transformation into one of the 'Chuckle Brothers' (along with Martin McGuinness) cannot disguise the fact that back then his inflammatory speeches were no less than thinly veiled calls for ethnic cleansing.

"You people of the Shankill Road, what's wrong with you?" he roared at one rally. "Number 425 Shankill Road - do you know who lives there? Pope's men, that's who!"

The other chief villain of Burnt Out is much less well remembered. John McKeague was a sinister, blond-haired loyalist militant who once published a songbook including the line, "You've never seen a better Taig than with a bullet in his head".

Eventually, McKeague would be exposed as a paedophile and shot dead by republicans, but in 1969 his misleadingly titled Shankill Defence Association was full of young hotheads ready to turn those words into action.

McCann's main focus is the riots themselves, which began on August 12 in Derry when a provocative Apprentice Boys march led to what became known as the 'Battle of the Bogside'. Belfast republicans responded by assaulting an RUC barracks and before long, both cities resembled war zones, the air filled with missiles, petrol bombs and CS gas.

Burnt Out provides an impressive blow-by-blow account of the fighting, but strains credulity presenting loyalists as the aggressors in virtually every single skirmish.

Perhaps McCann's most dubious assertion is that the riots amounted to a deliberate state-sponsored religious pogrom. While Catholics certainly suffered far more during that terrible week (six out of eight deaths and 1,500 out of 1,820 displaced families), the sheer chaos depicted so well here suggests otherwise.

It seems much more plausible that both communities were gripped by paranoia about each other's intentions and lashed out accordingly, prompting the UK government to take its fateful decision to send troops across the Irish Sea.

Either way, a huge unanswered question hangs over the entire book. No matter how savagely many unionists behaved in August 1969, did that justify the 25-year guerilla war and bombing campaign launched by extreme republicans shortly afterwards?

McCann argues that the IRA was a sleeping dog until loyalists stupidly chose to kick it, but even so, his relentlessly grim story seems like a classic illustration of Mahatma Gandhi's famous warning: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."

As the current scare over dissident republican activity in Derry is reminding us, black-and-white thinking about the North can often have frightening consequences. McCann deserves credit for adding some new details to the historical record - but anyone who really wants to know how the Troubles began should read a book with more shades of grey.

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