By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR
On Friday night, Aug. 9, more than 1,000 rioting Unionist/Loyalist supporters attacked Belfast police while protesting a Sinn Fein parade memorializing the martial law internment of 342 Catholic Nationalists and Republicans by British soldiers 42 years ago to the day. The Sinn Fein parade was rerouted to avoid direct trouble between the two sides.
Several cars were set on fire, storefronts were destroyed, and 56 policemen were injured. All this in the center of the city showing a world audience once again that Belfast is still a very troubled area, and in the process discouraging tourists and businessmen from coming to the city.
The police were shocked at the intensity of the violence and the number of their injured. The next day, an emotionally angry Police Chief of Northern Ireland, Matt Baggott, called it “mindless anarchy” and promised that many would be sent to jail.
A few days earlier, the newly installed Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Mairtin O’Muilleoir, was attacked and jostled by many of the same radicals for having the effrontery to attend an opening of a park in the mostly Protestant Unionist Woodvale section of Belfast. The mayor’s Sinn Fein membership was unacceptable to the attackers. O’Muilleoir, trying to be of service, was reaching out to the entire community, surely a worthy ecumenical exercise.
Both incidents were sad reminders that Unionist Protestants, led by thugs who are known locally known as “Head Bangers,” feel they can use unlawful violence to protest any threat they see to their fading supremacy.
Former Bostonian Frank Costello, who has been living in Belfast for many years now and is considered an expert on Northern Ireland’s difficulties, had this to say: “When the mayor as first citizen of any city trying to present itself to the wider world as first class and a destination for tourism and as a sound place for investment is attacked by a mob in the course of doing civic duty at a public park that in itself is appalling. For it to happen in Belfast at a time when healing, not more division and violence, are needed is especially unhelpful.”
Costello went on to say, “The attack on over 50 officers giving their best efforts to keep the peace deserves more than condemnation from elected officials but also a serious response that sends a message to the mobs behind these attacks that they will receive serious penalties for their behavior, which, again, creates an image of lawlessness that is anything but helpful to any community trying to build hope and opportunity.”
According to the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, there are 2,300 Unionist-Loyalist marches across Northern Ireland each year, most of them celebrating a Protestant victory of some sort over the Catholics hundreds of years ago. The Nationalist-Republican community hold 70 marches in the same period, most of them in remembrance of their struggles over the last 60 years. In addition to the vast differences in numbers of marches, another main difference is that while the Nationalist-Republican parades are contained within their own communities, an increasing number of Unionist-Loyalist marches are parading into Catholic areas led by loud Lambeg drums with derogatory signs and anti-Catholic chanting.
A backdrop to all of this is that the Protestant community is desperately trying to push back reality in the face of a surging Catholic population. The fact that the Catholics will soon be in the majority and controlling local governments is very hard for the Protestants to accept. And that is certainly understandable after being in charge for nearly 100 years. No one recognizes this more than current Catholic leaders.
Northern Ireland Catholic-Nationalist political leaders frequently advise Irish Americans to reach out to the Protestant community in the North by funding Protestant schools and organizations.
Unfortunately, radical elements within the Unionist-Loyalists like the Orange Order and certain paramilitary groups absolutely refuse any accommodation and continue to riot whenever there is an opportunity.
Business, educational, and political leaders in both London and Northern Ireland seem powerless to prevent or even reduce the unlawful rioting, attacks on police, and destruction of property. Perhaps the greatest damage is being done to Northern Ireland’s reputation as a place to visit or do business. Untold moneys have been spent to make Belfast a beautiful and attractive destination for visitors and industries alike. Which it is. But it is the rioting and constant disorder that the world remembers.
The Internments of August 1971
After a summer of violence in 1971, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, in
consultation with British Prime Minister Edward Heath, authorized internment, i.e., prison without trial, which began on the night of August 9.
The British army arrested 342 Catholics and no Protestants over the next two days. Due to imperfect Army intelligence, many innocent people who had nothing to do with the violence were arrested while most of the protest leaders were able to escape. Over the next two days, 25 people died as many houses were burned and Belfast exploded in fury.
Along with “Bloody Sunday” in Derry, which happened early he next year, the internment policy resulted in thousands of men and women joining the provisional IRA.
Over the next four years 1,981 people were arrested, 1,874 of them Catholics before internment ended in 1975. It did nothing to quell the violence.