It is a somewhat curious thing that we have rarely touched on the city of Belfast, the second biggest urban centre on the island of Ireland, but odds are we will be discussing it a lot more as we continue to cover the 20th century. In the context of the Irish War of Independence, Belfast was at the heart of sectarian tension that boiled over into outright violence throughout the course of conflict, but beginning with a succession of serious flash points in the year 1920. As with Derry that same year, the close proximity of dual communities of Catholics and nationalists on the one hand and Protestant and unionists on the other, inevitably resulted in a conflagration.
Belfast in 1920 was a city divided. In the 19th century the largely Protestant area had grown hugely, helped by an influx of industry and burgeoning developments on the docks. Such growth had been an attraction for, and later continued a, mass influx of Catholic settlers, mostly populating the west of the city. This, alongside the growing marriage of Catholicism to Irish nationalism, gradually changed Belfast from a mostly liberal port town – that had held a parade to honour the fall of the Bastille in 1789 – into a more hardline conservative city a century later. Multiple civil disturbances are reported at different points on the 19th century, such as when Orange Order marches were temporarily banned in 1829 or during the tensions over the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, when as many as 50 people may have been killed in a succession of riots. Alongside the common side-effects of overcrowding, other things like trade union disputes – Jim Larkin led a stroke of dock workers in 1907 that eventually involved the military – and the growing Home Rule crisis as the 1900’s became the 1910’s, Belfast was a city on the edge.
Several events tipped things towards violence. Despite the growing conflict in the rest of Ireland, the north-east of the country was comparatively quiet in 1919, but this changed as 1920 continued. There was the violence in Derry throughout that year which served as both a rallying cry for nationalists and a warning to unionists. There was the growing power of Sinn Fein in local government, with that party taking its first Belfast corporation seats in 1920, though they were still comfortably outnumbered by unionists. There was the killing of Gerald Smyth and the subsequent controversy over the return of his remains to his ancestral Ulster homeland. All of these things and many more contributed to an atmosphere of tension and mistrust in Ulster’s capital, that would not need much to be turned into outright violence. Protestant unionists were actively hostile to the aims of Sinn Fein and the IRA, and considered the Catholic population of the city to be potential fifth columnists: Catholic nationalists, for their part, felt oppressed by a system of control that left Protestants in the better positions at every level of society, and where their aims for self-determination were bound to be subverted by armed resistance from that same opponent. Catholics in Belfast were especially isolated, still a minority and left to live in enclaves that were dangerously open to attack.
Events in the city on the 21st of July proved the final straw. It was around the general period of “the Twelfth“, so unionist hackles were already up, and the killing of Smyth on the 17th only raised them more, with sectarian violence reported in numerous smaller towns in Ulster. On the 21st, a meeting was arranged by the Belfast Protestant Association at the shipyards of Workman Clarke’s in East Belfast, where unionists whipped a crowd of Protestant workers into a frenzy, on the basis of the aforementioned issues. They also took advantage of long-standing fears that Catholic workers were gradually taking over work that had traditionally been the domain of Protestants, and had previously been held by men who served in the First World War, a common complaint. Trade unions that were perceived as troublesome were tied to republicanism. An impromptu but violent pogrom of Catholic workers – and “rotten Prods”, that is Protestants who were deemed to be too sympathetic to Catholics, or simply too left-wing – took place in the shipyard, which quickly spread to the much larger Harland and Wolff shipyard nearby, and to other associated businesses. Catholic workers were attacked and manhandled away from their positions of employment, some of them forced to swim the River Langan to get to safety, and then barred from re-entry. It was not the first time that such an employment pogrom had taken place, but the sheer size of it is notable: as many as 7’000 Catholics and left-wing Protestants may have been made unemployed that day.
Such an event could not exist in a vacuum. Large parts of the city, but especially the borders between majority Protestant and majority Catholic areas, were suddenly filled with people, and rioting was the result, made more and more bloody by the employment of arms and the intervention of the authorities, usually on the side of the unionists. Soldiers nominally called out to maintain order opened fire on crowds of both nationalists and unionists, killing many. Bombs and incendiaries were thrown at churches.
It was only the beginning. Over the next few days continuing riots on the streets, the burning of houses and the expulsion of workers would eventually result in 18 deaths. Police and military struggled to stop mobs from firing homes and churches, and whenever night fell the volume of gunfire increased. While the majority of the victims were Catholics, Protestants were not immune, and there were plenty of incidents of Protestant homes being attacked and their residents forced to flee. This could not accurately be called warfare, bearing a much greater similarity to definitions of ethnic cleansing, albeit without much in the way of defined organisation. It was not until after the 24th, when the military was placed on the streets in a much more large-scale way, that the violence began to ebb. But the genie was out of the bottle now, and Belfast was to become the most violent part of Ireland, per capita, during the War of Independence, with killings influencing reprisals and counter-reprisals, a cycle that the city would struggle to break.
The next flare-up was only a month in the coming. On the 22nd of August, RIC DI Oswald Swanzy was assassinated by the Belfast IRA, on the orders of Michael Collins. Swanzy had been named as an involved party by the inquest into the murder of Thomas Mac Curtain in May of that year, and Collins wanted revenge. Swanzy, who had been moved to Lisburn for his protection, was shot on the street in broad daylight, allegedly with Mac Curtain’s own handgun.
Beginning in Lisburn and then spreading to nearby Belfast, the shooting was the genesis for another round of sectarian violence. Again, something resembling a pogrom against Catholic workers and homes took place. Again violence being exhibited on Catholics in the streets and in their homes led to counter-strikes, and to the involvement of authorities whose own sympathies were not entirely in the middle. This time the riots, burnings and shootings were dragged out over a vicious ten day period, when as many as 33 people may have been killed, as gangs of Protestants and Catholics clashed in the streets.
Throughout all of this, there was little reaction from the IRA, partly due to its limited size in Belfast, and also due to a certain aloofness, a feeling that the organisation needed to place itself above sectarian strife. Their operations in Belfast had been small-scale, raids on tax offices and the like, that would now morph into attacks on the RIC, and they had neither the means nor the inclination to try and defend Catholic areas from sectarian attack. It is an interesting and telling statistic that, in the two years of violence that began in July 1920, not one member of the IRA was killed in Belfast during events characterised as riots: the casualties on the nationalist side would be entirely civilian. The Republic, for its part, attempted to organise a boycott of goods coming from Belfast, but this was largely ineffective. Better perhaps were subscriptions organised for unemployed workers.
It had been in June of 1920 that attempts had been made to reform the Ulster Volunteers, to act as a protective force of unionist militia, but these had mixed success: most of the old companies were lucky to muster 100 men. These often acted as independent gangs, worrying authorities who wanted to exert some control over such activities. To that end, and as a partial response to what had occurred in Belfast in July and August, a new branch of the police was created specifically for the north: the Ulster Special Constabulary, or USC. Created in October, it was designed, like the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries, to be an armed reserve for the RIC, specifically to fight a counter-insurgency war. There was a significant political element to the USC as well, as it was formed with the intention of being a force to be directed by unionist politicians in the north, giving them power over Ulster’s security ahead of the expected partition of the country. Lloyd George was enthusiastic about the idea, seeing it as a way of freeing up the RIC and military, though others, like General Macready, thought it a bad idea due to its inherently escalatory nature.
The USC was to be divided primarily into three distinct sections: “A”, the full-timers working alongside the RIC, “B”, the part-timers, and largest contingent, and “C”, the reserve of the reserve, usually elderly men assigned to guard duty if anything. The USC would become largely defined by the “B” element, to the extent that they are popularly remembered as the “B Specials” in some parts. It was an almost entirely Protestant organisation, and as such was widely distrusted by Catholics. It took almost no time at all for the USC to become involved in sectarian attacks.
Violence would continue to occur in Belfast in dribs and drabs for the remainder of the year, with more flash-points in 1921 that I will come to in time. For now, I want to take the chance to look at the wider strategic picture from the British perspective. In the summer of 1920 key decisions about the direction of the war effort were being made in both Dublin and London, that would prove fateful to the final outcome of the conflict.
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