The Blanket

The Short Strand

Anthony McIntyre • 5/6/2002

The Short Strand where much of the present street fighting is taking place occupies a privileged space in the mythology of Provisional republicanism. It is 32 years ago this month that a spirited defence of the small Catholic enclave enabled the Provisional IRA to stake a strong claim for recognition as serious defenders of vulnerable nationalist communities. In the words of Jim Gibney who lived in the area at the time: ‘had the IRA ... not been on the streets, then I believe Short Strand would have been razed that night.’

While it may not have been at the forefront of the minds of Belfast's emerging alternative republican leaders, the looming battleground on which loyalism and republicanism were butting heads would also prove vital in the internal republican struggle over who would come to clasp the torch of legitimacy. The somewhat chauvinistic leadership of Official republicanism under Billy McMillen and allies such as Jim Sullivan regarded the six month old Provisionals as mere pretenders to the republican throne; fallen angels with a band of camp followers comprising urchins, upstarts and Glasgow Celtic supporters who needed manners put on them.

The Provisionals were scathing of their former comrades whom they believed had decommissioned IRA weaponry at a critical juncture by giving them to the Free Wales Army and were now planning on reforming the Northern state and abandoning traditional republicanism. Bums on Stormont seats at the top of the Newtownards Road rather than backs against Short Strand walls at the bottom of it seemingly the preferred strategic option for Official republicanism.

On his drive from west to east across the city on the evening of the 27th June 1970 the Provisional IRA's Belfast leader, Billy McKee, noticed an abundance of British troops and RUC sitting just outside the area. The thought struck him that they were holding the ring and were not prepared to make any intervention to prevent the massing crowds of loyalists overrun the Short Strand. He suspected that the cynical game plan was to allow both communities to sicken each other with violence and when they had their fill of it would, out of exasperation, turn to the military for relief.

Earlier in the day there had been a loyalist bands parade and the blood was beginning to boil. The British, eager not to have Chichester Clarke toppled from within, refused to accede to demands to have the parade rerouted. In the inevitable ensuing armed loyalist assault on the Short Strand a number of attackers were shot dead by the IRA entrenched in the grounds of St Matthews Chapel. The church was the first and last line of defence. While the British Army would justify its standing idly by approach on the grounds of being ‘so chronically overstretched,’ the IRA was hardly bursting with personnel or resources which it could rapidly muster and easily dispatch. Nevertheless, its volunteers were not for retreating and one of their number, Henry McIlhone, lost his life in the grounds while Billy McKee was wounded by loyalist gunfire.

On the very same night at Ardoyne the local Provisional IRA shot dead three loyalists in similar circumstances and suffered no fatalities. According to Martin Meehan ‘every door in Ardoyne was opened’ to the IRA after that. Billy McKee felt likewise and would later claim, ‘a lot of people joined the Republican Movement after St Matthew’s. It finished the business of IRA equals ''I Ran Away''. If that trouble had not have broke the IRA was dead.’

In working class nationalist consciousness a link was being forged between Provisional IRA armed resistance, the willingness of its volunteers to risk their lives and sustain casualties, the prevention of armed loyalist incursion, and the successful defence of the Catholic church. While there may have been no attachment other than residual within that general consciousness to the ideology of 1916 the Provisionals moved into pole position bearing the number plate 1916-1969 because of their relevance to the moment. A powerful symbolism was coming into being - one which cast the Provisional IRA as the phoenix rising from the ashes of destruction.

A week later the British made them even more relevant by pouring fuel onto the embers already nourishing the new phoenix when the incoming Tory government under Ted Heath and Reggie Maudling ordered a curfew on the Lower Falls and sent in British Army search teams to capture republican weapons. The troops enjoying the culture of immunity created for them by their government went on a murderous rampage. While most of the weapons lost belonged to the Official IRA the psychological impact on working class nationalism was electrifying. A perception had taken hold which saw the British as depriving nationalist communities of the very weapons which only the week previous had been the one firewall preventing a nationalist area being over-run. It was the take off point from which the Provisional IRA was thrust into the face of the Northern Irish state, firstly disfiguring it and then re-arranging the parts.

Those who battled that night a third of a century ago may pause to reflect that the imperative of community defence, which fed the growth spurt of Provisional republicanism, has never really gone away and is now the guiding logic shaping the armed street skirmishing with loyalists in defence of nationalist communities in a British controlled North of Ireland. And while they may feel we no longer have a 'sectarian state', this shall be tempered by awareness that we have merely replaced it with a state in a very sectarian society.



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives





Freedom for supporters of the government only, for members of one party only
— no matter how big its membership may be —
is no freedom at all.
Freedom is always freedom for the man who thinks differently.
- Rosa Luxemburg


Index: Current Articles

6 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


An díomhaointeas ag cothú drochiompair

Liz Curtis


Wishing for reunion but walking yet apart

Paul A. Fitzsimmons



Dorothy Robinson


2 June 2002


Pointless Pontificating
Ciarán Irvine


The Killing of Children
Anthony McIntyre


What Is To Be Done? What Is To Be Thought?
Alain Badiou, Natasha Michel, Sylvain Lazarus


Davy Carlin



The Blanket




Latest News & Views
Index: Current Articles
Book Reviews
The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
Republican Voices