Written by Marcas Mac Congail
After the riots of summer 1969, “Operation Banner” commenced which saw the insurrection of British Armed forces into Northern Ireland in what would turn out to be the longest continuous deployment of troops in British military history. Their role was to restore and maintain peace and order in the north, and for the nationalists they were viewed as an impartial police force. Thus, troops were greeted with relief by besieged Catholics after events such as the Bombay Street Burning. The troops were presented with cups of tea and tray bakes as they developed a “Pathetic love relationship”, however even GOC Ian Freeland suspected that the ‘honeymoon’ period would be “short-lived” and, “that it had probably already reached its peak and that the army could soon become an object of both Protestant and Catholic hostility.”[C Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005). From civil rights to armalites. Pg 153]
Despite this, it can be argued that there was no honeymoon period at all to begin with as Irish nationalists have always traditionally opposed the British Army. Derry saw some nationalists opposed welcoming the army from the outset as during a riot, Bernadette Devlin urged “Don’t make them welcome. They are not here to help us.” She was proved right as shortly after their arrival, the Army searched two Catholic farms for arms. Derry Labour party radicals stated that ‘No further proof is needed that the troops, whatever they are here for, are certainly not here to protect us from the excesses of unionism’. In addition, both radical and traditionalist Republicans began to prepare for an armed campaign immediately after the arrival of the troops. They naturally were opposed to the army presence.”[ C Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005). From civil rights to armalites.pg 134.] However, it is widely accepted that there was an initial honeymoon period between the British Army and northern nationalists and rather, the debate is on how long it lasted.
In Derry, tensions between the British Army and northern nationalists began to threaten the honeymoon period with the erection of the “Peace-ring” in response to several 1969 riots. Now, the Army did not appear in a kind light. They had sought after the removal of the Free Derry barricades in order to restore normality. However, The Army’s peace-ring was anything but normal as it isolated Free Derry without any of the benefits of its limited independence. The army now forced a curfew on the area lasting from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. each night and as a result, moods began to change as even the most tolerant groups toward the army’s presence were beginning to think that the army now seemed to be encircling the people of the Bogside and Creggan rather than protecting them.
The ‘honeymoon’ had only been possible due to the army having not been involved in directly “controlling” the Catholic community. “Now the army was treating Catholics as a problematic population. As the army took on these new functions it changed the way it interacted with people on the street, particularly with young males, and created conditions for tension and confrontation.” [Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005). From civil rights to armalites. Pg.156] Although the creation of the “Peace-ring” did create tension between the British Army and northern nationalists, it did not represent the end of the honeymoon period.
Debate of the end of the British Army’s ‘honeymoon’ period with northern nationalists has focused on riots in Ballymurphy, at the beginning of April 1970. The rioting is seen to have been carefully constructed by the Provisional IRA to disturb relations between the army and nationalists. They deliberately ‘provoked a weekend of trouble luring the army into tough action that caused their ‘brutality’ to be criticised’. [ C Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005). From civil rights to armalites.pg 154]. It is described as the first clashes between the army and Catholics, and relations reached a low point when the army issued a warning that anyone caught firing petrol bombs would be shot at with live ammunition. However, it would be wrong to claim that these riots represented the complete breakdown of relations between northern nationalists and the British Army and thus the end of the honeymoon period; rather, it acted as an indicator of what was to come.
Whilst searching for arms on Balkan Street, a military curfew was imposed on the Falls area of Belfast on Friday 3rd of July at around 10pm, and was lifted on Sunday 5th. A search commenced for weapons at homes in the nationalist area and soldiers seized firearms, leading to a recoil of violence. No such actions were taken in unionist areas and “PM Edward Heath claimed “nothing should be done which would suggest any partiality to one section of the community” but events such as the falls curfew seemed to suggest precisely that” [English, R. (2003). Armed struggle. Pg.136].
The Army and the IRA engaged in a gun battle and four civilians were shot dead. The Falls Curfew represented the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period between the British Army and northern nationalists as Hamill writes, “From now on there would be a significant change in relations between the Catholic community and the Army; a change from sullen acceptance to open hostility. “[Hamill, D. (1986). Pig in the middle. pg 39] The Falls Curfew confirmed that the army was no longer a neutral police force. In Belfast it was now waging a counter-insurgency programme and in doing so they burnt the bridges to the nationalists in Belfast which had been built in the first weeks of their arrival. After the curfew, there was a definitive change in how northern nationalists viewed the intentions and actions of troops and this was visible in the locals’ actions, “since the Lower Falls Curfew…Following the lead of their parents, the children became more anti-Army, stoning soldiers when they could” [Hamill, D. (1986). Pig in the middle. pg 40.] Although the Falls Curfew was a military success, it was a political catastrophe that only helped to isolate a community and deepen within it a more active bitterness against the British Army, representing the beginning of the end of the honeymoon period.
The Falls curfew represented the end of the honeymoon period in Belfast for the British army and not the wider areas. This point is reiterated by Geoffrey Warner who believes that the curfew “was not as crucial a turning-point in the Troubles as many have claimed. It may or may not be true that the Falls Road Curfew was the “last straw” for many nationalists in Belfast. However, this view is centred on the situation in the city and does not adequately reflect the position outside of Belfast”. [MCCLEERY, M. (2015). OPERATION DEMETRIUS AND ITS AFTERMATH. Pg. 97] Therefore, The Falls Curfew represented the end of the honeymoon period between the British Army and Belfast nationalists.
“Operation Demetrius” and Internment would result in being the significant event that represented the end of the British Army’s honeymoon period throughout all nationalist areas as the army adapted the “get tough” approach. The introduction of arrest without trial proved to be spectacularly counterproductive. “In a series of raids across Northern Ireland, 342 people were arrested and taken to makeshift camps. There was an immediate upsurge of violence and 17 people were killed during the next 48 hours. Of these 10 were Catholic civilians who were shot dead by the British Army.” [https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/intern/chron.htm] Many of the men arrested had little or no ties with the IRA; the list of names provided by the RUC to the army was greatly out-dated, to the extent that, in one case in Armagh, when the army went to lift a man whose name was on the list they found he had been dead for four years.
Furthermore, it left some 7,000 homeless and the abuse of detainees exacerbated the breakdown of relations between the British Army and northern nationalists. In fact, Richard English argues that “The effect on the Catholic community was certainly to strengthen resistance to the govt. and to unite the Catholic people in opposition to the authorities.” [English, R. (2003). Armed struggle. Pg. 140] this led to William Whitelaw, future secretary of state claiming “Internment was a political disaster, nor was it particularly effective in military terms” [English, R. (2003). Armed struggle. Pg. 141] The Operation did more bad than good, turning a lot of the nationalist opinion against the British Army, who weren’t using such methods on loyalists. Therefore, internment represented the end of the honeymoon period between the British Army and the northern nationalists.
Internment was pivotal in the upsurge of PIRA recruitment, with one of the biggest ironies of the troubles being that the British army turned out to be the IRAs best recruitment agency with high profiles such as Patrick Magee, future Brighton Bomber, joining the IRA after being interned. The point is highlighted by McCleery, ““There is no doubt that the way in which internment was introduced dramatically increased support for the IRA and especially, PIRA. As the British admitted, as early as November 1971, it had made the IRA “look for the first time a mass movement instead of a small body using Catholics as cover””. [MCCLEERY, M. (2015). OPERATION DEMETRIUS AND ITS AFTERMATH pg 53.] The problem with Operation Demetrius, apart from the hugely out-dated Intel the Army received, was the timing of the operation. Had internment occurred after an IRA atrocity, it is perhaps right to assume that it would have led to a significantly lower increase in IRA support. However, the messiness of the operation, the subsequent treatment of detainees and the increased support for the IRA reinforces that internment, not The Falls Curfew represented the absolute end of the honeymoon period and the relationship between the British Army and all northern nationalists was now officially over… and they weren’t getting back together!
Internment acted as a catalyst for four days of violence in which 20 civilians were killed and thousands were left homeless. Of the 17 civilians killed by British soldiers, 11 of them were in Ballymurphy. The Ballymurphy massacre between August 9th-11th 1971, is a key event that simultaneously, along with the introduction of internment, represented the end of the honeymoon period between the British Army and northern nationalists. However, its significance is often overlooked perhaps due to the lack of media coverage it received compared to other massacres such as “Bloody Sunday”. Ten people were shot dead by the Paratroopers, of the same regiment who had recorded the first loss of one of its members in May a few months previous. The event has been described as “The most obvious example of informal state repression in the aftermath of Operation Demetrius” [MCCLEERY, M.(2015) OPERATION DEMETRIUS AND ITS AFTERMATH. Pg.58]. The Ballymurphy massacre represented the end of the honeymoon period between northern nationalists and the British Army as the army was now openly firing on innocent civilians.
By the time “Bloody Sunday” occurred on 30th January, 1972, the honeymoon period between the British Army and northern nationalists was long over. If any northern nationalists had been holding on to hope of a relationship between themselves and the army being restored, the events of “Bloody Sunday” would have smashed every last chance there would have been to restore a relationship, if any. Soldiers from the Parachute Regiment marched in on an anti-internment protest and murdered 14 civilians. Irish Taoiseach at the time, Jack Lynch described it as “Unbelievably savage and inhuman”. Again, it created an upsurge in IRA recruitment ““Recruitment to the IRA rocketed as a result. Events that day probably led to more young nationalists to join the Provisionals than any other single action by the British” [English, R. (2003). Armed struggle. London: Pan Books, pg.151] Further increase in IRA recruitment highlighted the damaging effect that “Bloody Sunday” had on the relationship between northern nationalists and the British Army, however, I would argue that by this stage the honeymoon period was already over.
“Bloody Sunday” is a key event of the Troubles as it lead to the introduction of direct rule and “It hardened attitudes in the Catholic community and strengthened support for the IRA as well as causing damage to Britain’s reputation internationally” [Gordon Gillespe, “A short history of The Troubles”, pg.50] The covering up of these killings by the British Army and its government, only gave the IRA more determination to step up their campaign in order to avenge the victims in search for justice. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the total number of killings throughout 1972 as an aftermath of “Bloody Sunday” amounts to nearly 500, making it the bloodiest year of the Troubles. “Bloody Sunday” led to a decreased possibility of compromise or restoring calm. It completed the absolute disintegration of any form of good relationship between the British Army and northern nationalists and marked a point of no return.
To conclude, many factors represented an end of the ‘honeymoon’, such as the increasing sense of Irish nationalism, the social strains shaped by the company of the army and their decision in early 1970 to ‘get tough’ and the development and growth of the Provisional IRA. Although the Falls Curfew was a key event in representing the end of the honeymoon period, I feel it ended it within Belfast only; it wasn’t until internment and the Ballymurphy Massacre that the honeymoon period was ended on the behalf of all northern nationalists everywhere. As for “Bloody Sunday” I feel as if the honeymoon was over by then, but it represented an absolute point of no return and sparked off a year of brutal violence as the provisionals stepped up their campaign against the British Army.
- Cain.ulster.ac.uk. (2020). CAIN: Events: Internment: Chronology of events. [online] Available at: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/events/intern/chron.htm [Accessed 23 Jan. 2020].
- English, R. (2003). Armed struggle. London: Pan Books,
- MCCLEERY, M. (2015). OPERATION DEMETRIUS AND ITS AFTERMATH. [S.l.]: MANCHESTER UNIV PRESS.
- Ó Dochartaigh, N. (2005). From civil rights to armalites. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Hamill, D. (1986). Pig in the middle. London: Methuen.
- Gillespie, G. (2010). A short history of the troubles. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.