As I travelled on the train into Belfast Central Station this morning, passing along the River Lagan, adjacent to Ormeau Park and the embankment, my mind was cast back to the historical details of events which occurred 45 years ago to the day. On Thursday 20 July 1972, on streets on the other side of Ormeau Park, a group of young loyalists made a decision which would effectively change their lives forever. They were members of the Woodstock Tartan, the largest of a number of loyalist youth gangs which had sprung up since 1969. The gangs were marked out by the different clan tartan material they adopted and the Woodstock gang had a reputation for being vicious street fighters who were often involved in riots with republicans from the Short Strand area. By the spring of 1972, following the proroguing of Stormont and in the context of an increasingly vicious Provisional IRA campaign, the young Tartans were coveted by the emerging loyalist paramilitaries who desired an injection of youthful energy for their organisations.
In my book, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries, I interviewed members of a central core of the Woodstock Tartan who on Thursday 20 July 1972 agreed to be sworn into the Red Hand Commando. The ‘Red Hand’ had been formed over the last weekend of June, 1970 after a number of Protestants had been shot dead by the PIRA in North Belfast during and after Orange marches. One of the Orangemen who had witnessed fellow Protestants being shot on the Crumlin Road was Ronnie McCullough, an 18 year old apprentice electrician from Rosevale Street in the Oldpark area. During the evening which followed the shootings, McCullough and a number of other young loyalists met in the parlour room of McCullough’s family home. John McKeague, the Shankill Defence Association leader, was approached and became the overall leader of the new organisation.
By the early summer of 1972, members of the Red Hand could often be seen patrolling the ‘no-go’ areas in loyalist strongholds of Belfast, sometimes enacting unarmed combat routines for the British media.
July 1972 — Woodstock Tartan member, Robert Niblock, had turned 17 four months earlier.
He recalls that between the Vanguard rallies of late winter/early spring 1972 and the summer,
we had approaches from the UVF officially, approaches from the Red Hand, from Tara … two older guys who came and played tape recordings and gave us a presentation, and also the Orange Volunteers who brought a couple of us for weapons training as well.
During this period the Woodvale Methodist Minister John Stewart publicly described the emerging situation as the ‘Protestant majority’s high noon’, further stating that ‘from the Christian point of view to speak of restraint sounds hollow and unrealistic to those who live in the streets of uncertainty, disappointment and discontent’.
In my book, I describe the swearing-in of the Woodstock Tartan members:
The decision to join the RHC had been made as a group on the previous Thursday, 13 July. Niblock remembers: ‘All our meetings were held on Thursday nights … in the Raven Bar. We had … decided unanimously that the RHC suited us best. There were no special arrangements, other than be there – don’t be late – try and look a wee bit tidy – no drinking’. Niblock recalls the scene in the Raven Bar on 20 July: ‘There was a lounge up the stairs with a sort of raised area where they played darts … we were called up before the other people arrived. They had set up the table with a Union Jack, and a bible and a Luger gun. We just took our seats’. The senior members of the group who had arranged the table then went downstairs, reappearing after 15 minutes with two other young men, Ronnie McCullough and another Shankill RHC, Sammy Neill. ‘The two guys, I’d known them to see … they put on pilot jackets and berets and swore us in’.
A rubicon had been crossed, and Niblock described his emotions in the immediate aftermath:
You felt as if you’d achieved something; certainly it was a dividing line – you were going from something where maybe you could have been fucking about, to … this is serious now. Certain ground rules were laid down. You were told here’s why you’re joining the organisation, here’s the reasons you should be joining the organisation, and here’s what’s expected of you … it was formal then, whereas there was none of that in the Tartan. There was a line we knew we’d crossed, and things were going to take a more serious turn.
David Ervine has famously stated that it was the events of the following day which finally persuaded him to join the UVF.
The day after Niblock’s recruitment into the RHC has become notorious as a landmark in the Troubles: ‘Bloody Friday’. That afternoon, Friday 21 July 1972, the IRA launched its ‘biggest ever bomb offensive’ across Belfast. Peter Taylor has stated that the ‘carnage was horrendous: eleven people killed and 130 injured. The IRA claimed they had never intended to kill civilians, which is what they always said, but the excuse sounded hollow amid almost unbearable television pictures of the slaughter’. At the bus station in Oxford Street television cameras captured unforgettable scenes of men shovelling human remains into bags. The movement from Tartan to RHC appeared to be vindicated as the IRA once again stepped up its campaign. Robert Niblock was enjoying a day off during the traditional two-week summer break and recalls his memories of Bloody Friday:
The next day was just a normal day … in the afternoon I’d went to Ormeau Park which I lived beside. I had a dog which had a broken leg. [I] carried the dog to the park … [I had a] transistor radio. What I always remember was there was a sort of slope that took you down to the football pitches.
Like so many other people in Belfast, Niblock was enjoying the good weather:
a lovely day … you weren’t far from the [River] Lagan. Across the river, over towards the Markets area there was a boat club; there must have been a group practising for a performance. I couldn’t see them, but the doors of the boat club were open … they were playing a song which was out at the time called ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, Johnny Nash and another real ‘pop’ song, ‘I’m Mad About You’
All of a sudden the care-free atmosphere of the summer day was broken:
It wasn’t unusual but because of the stillness of the day and the good weather I can remember a bomb going off and thinking, ‘That’s a fair bang there’. And then another. And then another, and another. At one stage I can remember saying to myself, ‘Time I wasn’t here, there’s something serious happening’. So I took the dog back home and left it in. Straight out, round to the corner and by that stage all the boys started to arrive. I think it was around 4.30ish or 5.00 p.m. we decided to have an impromptu meeting in one of the guy’s houses. By this stage the news was coming through of what had actually happened. A lot of us wanted to go out and do something that night. At that stage the revenge we were looking to do was maybe go to the Short Strand or Lower Ormeau and shoot a couple of Catholics, but the hierarchy decided no, we’ll not do that; we’ll wait and see what happens. Nothing happened that night. I actually went to the pictures. We were put on a sort of ‘stand-to’ situation. It [Bloody Friday] was a big turning point in my life.
The following week, in the febrile atmosphere following ‘Bloody Friday’, and only seven short days after he had sworn Niblock and the others into the RHC, Ronnie McCullough and two comrades were arrested after crashing their van as they tried to flee after attempting to murder an innocent Catholic. McCullough, Plum Smith and Tom Reid were all eventually sentenced to 10 years in Long Kesh.
Although the Woodstock Tartan members who had joined the RHC only seven days previously had been told by McCullough about the eventualities a paramilitary could expect to face, it must still have surprised the young men to find out that a leading member of the organisation, who had been integral in their passage from Tartan to militant loyalism, had been arrested so quickly. For many a young man, this may have acted as a sign or a warning of the dangers inherent in the lifestyle they had chosen, but in the context of July 1972 such timidity did not and could not exist. Niblock remembers that more than anything McCullough’s arrest at the scene of an attempted sectarian assassination actually galvanised him and his cohorts to ‘carry on the fight’:
It was a bit of a shock, but it also in many ways … hardened our belief in what we were doing was the right thing … he was leading by example … this is what attracted us to the Red Hand, you know – that most people done things. They weren’t a big organisation, so more was expected of you. Everybody pulled their weight. And this is what we were led to beleive; so a week later, [we were] sort of saying, he’s setting the scene for what we should be doing … when he appeared in court on remand we were all there to see him and he became a bit of a figure then. It also gave us that sort of impetus to say, well at least we don’t have bullshitters here and we don’t have people who’s going to ‘swing the lead’ – he’s obviously a leader in the best possible way and that’s the way we want to go.
Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries – The Loyalist Backlash (Liverpool University Press, 2016) is available to buy here