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The North in crisis - The Belfast Massacre

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WORKING CLASS Catholics of Belfast enjoy none of the advantages which made the Bogside struggle a success. They belong to a town where they are numerically inferior, geographically divided and surrounded on all sides by the most militant protestants in Northern Ireland. While indignation and jubilance marked the Bogside struggle the atmosphere in Belfast was one of fear bordering simultaneously on hysteria and despair. The news of the Bogside conflict reached Belfast on the evening of Tuesday 12th. Men returning from work brought home news of Derry to their small terraced homes or cramped apartments. With their families they watched filmed reports of the fighting on television. What they saw in these shots was a siege on the part of the dreaded R.U.C. being fiercely resisted by their fellow Catholics in Derry.

Later that night pipe bands and large crowds of protestants met Apprentice Boys and representatives of the Orange Lodges in Belfast, who had partaken in the Derry parade. As they marched home from York Road station and the bus depot crowds of Catholics assembled in the streets of their two main ghettoes half in the hope of staging some kind of counter action and half in anticipation of attack.

 

Divis Street/Falls Road runs southwest from the city centre and constitutes the larger of the two Catholic areas in Belfast. Falls Road is, in effect, an extension of Divis Street, but the junction of the two is also the junction of two predominantly protestant areas, Springfield Road to the north and Grosvenor Road to the South. The latter constitutes the southern boundary of the Divis Street area while the Shankill Road area lies to the north. Further north, separated from the rest of the Catholic community by the Shankill Road the Crumlin Road area is situated.

Understandably, the Catholic communities in Belfast live in a constant state of siege. During the night of August 12th every sound of revelry that carried over from the neighbouring protestant areas increased the tension. Two bands, accompanied by about 600 Apprentice Boys and supporters waving Union Jacks and singing" The Sash" left York Road railway station and marched to the Shankill Road. On their way they passed Unity Walk flats where" the most serious rioting in thirty-four years" had taken place on August 4th. But this time the orange parade was not stoned.

The night passed without incident, though evacuations and house swapping which had begun earlier in the month continued. Protestants and Catholics housed in hostile areas exchanged houses. The talk continued and the news kept pouring in from the Bogside.

By the following night the Civil Rights Association had got word around of a planned demonstration outside the Divis Tower flats. It was intended that such a meeting, in the heart of the Divis Street area and in defiance of the newly announced ban on public demonstrations would worry and occupy the police without endangering the situation. However, as the crowd increased so did emotions and before long the assembly was out of control.

They set off along Divis Street chanting" S.S. R.U.C." in the direction of an R.U.C. barracks in Springfield Road. After a fairly harmless demonstration outside this they returned along the same route and made for the Hastings Street barracks situated in the heart of the catholic area. This was attacked with petrol bombs and nearby buildings were set alight before police landrovers and armoured cars appeared and dispersed the crowd. Along the route of the retreat cars were petrol-bombed and pushed into the road to delay any advance of police or protestants.

When news ofthe B Special mobilisation reached the catholics on Thursday 14th the already tense atmosphere became hysterical.Barricades were
erected at all entrances to the area and those that were in existence from the previous night were reinforced. Pavement slabs and telegraph poles were torn out of the ground. Buses, lorries and vans were hi-jacked and positioned between Divis Street and the Shankill Road area.

Catholics living in the low terraced houses that connect the two areas were evacuated and reinstated in the houses of their more favourably situated friends. Protestant mobs, led by stewards with white arm bands, were advancing south on the Falls area and north on the Crumlin area.

By about 11.00 p.m. two hostile mobs faced each other in Hooker Street to the north of the Crumlin Road. The two sides fought viciously with stones and petrol bombs. The night was filled with sectarian catch-cries and obscenities and before long pubs and houses were ablaze.

At length two police armoured cars appeared and charged into the midst of the battle. They were pelted with stones and petrol bombs and one of the cars, having crashed, because of a petrol bomb had to be abandoned. The catholic crowd cheered and charged back into the fray with renewed confidence.

A subsequent protestant charge brought about a terrifying clash. Again police cars rushed in to try and separate the mobs, but it was the sound of four bursts of automatic fire which finally brought the crowd to their senses.

While the first shots rang out in the Crumlin area a mob from the Falls Road/Divis Street area had laid siege for the second night in succession to the R.U.C. barracks in Hastings Street. They were dispersed by armoured cars and the area was sealed off. From the roof top of the Divis Tower Flats another crowd showered stones and petrol bombs on the armoured cars patrolling the area.

By 12.30 p.m. mobs of protestants, two to three hundred strong had moved in along most of the routes connecting the Falls Road/Divis Street area with the surrounding protestant areas. In both catholic areas in Belfast the cry for guns became more and more desperate.

For the rest of Thursday night the pitch battle of the Bogside kind was replaced with sniper activity. Bullets ricochetted along the narrow streets. When a mini car raced down an inadequately barricaded street everybody ducked for cover. Seconds later shots and blasts of automatic fire rang out.
During that night thirty-three people were shot; three men and a nineyear-old boy fatally. Catholics claimed that B Specials had been seen distributing guns among protestants. Protestants claimed that the I.R.A. were at work among the catholics. Many people who were shot were in their houses when the bullets penetrated windows and walls.

On Friday the confrontations continued at the barricades, notably in Percy Street and Cupar Street between the Shankill Road and Divis Street areas. Buildings from which snipers were at work were set alight, while lorry loads of men raced backwards and forwards collecting material to reinforce the barricades.

A youth was shot dead as he came out of his house on Kashmir Road. Inside Clonard Redemptorist Monastery men begged priest for blessings before running into the fray. Outside a priest administered last rites to a man who had been riddled with shotgun pellets. From an upstairs window of the monastery streets of terraced houses and enormous factory buildings could be seen blazing throughout the day. The bells of the monastery chimed hysterically while the priests questioned the wisdom of calling out women and children.

Schools and community halls were used as relief centres. Nuns of the Bon Secour Nursing Home in Divis Street harboured shooting victims until the St. John's Ambulance arrived. Men stationed at un barricaded entrances and exits stood aside for the ambulances that raced in and out of the area.
By 5.00 p.m. the catholics on the street were in command of two small calibre .22 rifles. At Clonard Gardens, beside the Monastery, catholics failed to dislodge a sniper from a house in Cuper Street because of a chronic shortage of ammunition. Protestants behind a barricade in Bombay Street were driven back by fire from Divis Street.

When the troops arrived in Divis Street at about 6.30 p.m. they were greeted with subdued applause and cheering. Men and women stood by as the soldiers poured into the blazing streets, cordoned off side-streets and took up positions behind the barbed wire barricades. There were no signs of jubilance or triumph but many visible signs of relief.

During Friday night sniping continued despite the presence of the troops. A soldier in Bombay Street was wounded and B Specials guarding Paisley's home were fired on from a passing car.

A protestant invasion from the Shankill Road area was forestalled by troops using tear gas, while snipers were in command of a nearby mill. Shots were indistingushable from the crackling of burning buildings. For the second night in succession fire brigadcs were unable to bet to the burning homes. Locals attempting to fight the blaze in St. Gall's school beside Clonard monastery used a tender left at their disposal. When the sniper fire became too heavy they left the school to burn. The Catholic Ardoyne area north of Crumlin Road was under intense siege the whole of Friday night.

By midnight on Friday the toll of shooting victims in Belfast had risen to a total of 87. A man shot by a sniper's bullet at 4.11 a.m. on Saturday was the sixth death in Belfast's three nights of chaos



Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 July 2011 16:39

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