August 1971 & Militant Loyalism – Excerpts from Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries

Although I had promised that with the Liverpool University Press sale and recent anniversary of the publication of Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries I would stop posting about the book, I noticed the interest from people who had never read the book after I published the recent ‘From Tartan to Terror’ piece on the 45th anniversary of Bloody Friday.

Having sought feedback from people, I decided that I would periodically post excerpts from the ‘Tartan’ book as I continue my second book project. TGAP240216

This next blog entry includes excerpts relating to ‘Operation Demetrius’ – internment without trial – which was introduced on 9 August 1971 (it will be the 46th anniversary next Wednesday). Specifically, these excerpts seek to provide an understanding of how the Protestant working-class and loyalist communities of Greater Belfast felt in the days surrounding the introduction of internment. Moreover, there are first-hand accounts of how the nascent loyalist paramilitaries felt further galvanised by the need to defend Protestant areas from attack.


August 1971

As the Tartans ‘fought it out’ amongst themselves in early August republican violence increased. Exasperated by the continuing conflagration Prime Minister Brian Faulkner used the Special Powers Act to introduce internment without trial for those suspected of involvement in militant republican activities. Internment was introduced on 9 August following a weekend of republican violence which had been described by some older observers as being more awful than the worst of the German Luftwaffe Blitz which had destroyed parts of Belfast during WWII. The intelligence used to round up and arrest suspects was woefully out of date with many of those arrested completely innocent or older republicans who were no longer active. _40602385_faulkner238

The impact of the internment policy on the republican community would be cataclysmic with Farrell suggesting that the mass alienation of the Catholic population continued and grew.  While internment led to increased support for republican paramilitaries less is known about the Protestant working class experience of August 1971 and the manner in which events conspired to further calcify already bitter attitudes within communities and individuals. As Catholic working-class communities erupted in anger Protestants felt that the much-feared republican uprising had finally been put into action. Aware of the chance to undermine Faulkner, but also perhaps quietly cogniscent of the manner in which internment had backfired and galvanized militant republicanism Paisley claimed that the policy was not being implemented as a means of settling the security question, ‘but as a weapon of purely political expediency to bolster up his (Faulkner’s) own totering (sic) premiership.’

Local newspapers reported that on the night of Sunday 8 August, a van had toured the streets of Ardoyne which were still religiously mixed and over a loudspeaker its occupants warned Protestant families that if they did not leave they would be burned out of their homes.  A 40-year-old Protestant security guard was killed by a nail bomb which had been thrown into Mackies factory on the Springfield Road.   In North Belfast a middle-aged Protestant widow named Sarah Worthington was shot dead by a soldier who later stated at the inquest that he had mistaken her for a gunman as she stood inside her home at Velsheda Park in the Ardoyne area. Many families had been leaving Velsheda Park as a gun-battle raged, and Worthington’s family had been helping her move from the area which was at this stage in the process of being burnt out.

As tensions increased a more co-ordinated effort was made to give safe passage to those Protestants in Ardoyne who were on move. On 10 August the Belfast Telegraph reported that ‘There were reports today that Protestant families in Alliance Avenue began leaving their homes this afternoon. Men hi-jacked lorries and vans on the main Shankill Road to carry away furniture and other belongings. First estimates said that 50 families were involved.’  The Belfast Telegraph further stated that 240 houses in Farringdon Gardens, Cranbrook Gardens and Velsheda Park had been set on fire by out-going Protestants while families fled the New Ardoyne. According to a report in the paper, ‘A Protestant man, who also lost all his possession (sic), including a television set, a radiogram and records, seemed to think the burning of the houses was the right thing to do. Mr Basil Houston said that if Catholics wanted houses they should build them and pay a proper rent, and not get cheap rents in the area.’

The fledgling loyalist paramilitaries were instrumental in the movement of Protestant families during this period. A famous picture, captured by the Evening Standard and later used by the English band Dexys Midnight Runners for the cover of their 1980 debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, shows young Catholic brothers Anthony, Gerard and Kevin O’Shaughnessy while preparing to leave Cranbrook Gardens with their bags packed.  Anthony, then aged 13 is in the centre of the picture staring down the lens of a press photographer’s camera while his brothers are moved by militant loyalists Robert ‘Basher’ Bates on one side and Roy Stewart on the other. In the background there is a coal lorry; undoubtedly one of those which had been hijacked on the Shankill.

Chaos in North Belfast in the wake of internment. Robert Bates (behind flag carrier) and Jim McDonald (UVF, on right of picture in glasses) pictured.
Robert ‘Basher’ Bates on the left of picture, Roy Stewart (in denim) on right.



During this part of my research I was fortunate to speak to a leading member of the Red Hand group who agreed to explain the organisation’s role during this episode:


The Red Hand was one of the micro-groups active on the evening of 9 August with one former member recalling in detail the manner of their briefing on the Shankill and mobilization on the streets of Belfast where Protestant and Catholic working class communities abutted one another:


On 9 August…we rushed down to the Bricklayers Arms…John McKeague was kept informed about the overall situation. Most activity centred around Horn Drive at Lenadoon, Oldpark and Ardoyne, Malt Street off the Grosvenor Road and other flashpoints. We had about a dozen young men or so, two cars and not a great amount of firearms. McKeague organized two carloads of four men in each, equipped with old rifles and a couple of handguns. Four others were given semi-automatic pistols and revolvers and told to make our way on foot to the designated points.


‘Defend the areas and shoot to ward off any attacks by the republicans.’  That was John McKeague’s order. John called me to the side and handed me his personal .32 seven-shot automatic pistol and a box of 25 rounds of ammunition.


The foot patrol of Red Hand members walked to the nearby Heathfield and Torrens area between the Oldpark and Cliftonville roads where isolated Protestants lived: ‘Heathfield…was a small Protestant enclave, facing Ardoyne Avenue and was under severe threat. The front of the Oldpark Road was marked by the Finiston School* wall and railings, directly facing the barricade at Ardoyne Avenue.’  On arrival the Red Hand members were greeted by a group of young loyalists who directed them to a small house in the Torrens area where a local character and known loyalist named Patsy Gallagher lived:


Inside sat an elderly man with grey hair and poor eyesight. He was the boss of the area. I explained who sent me and gave him my name. He greeted me warmly and said he had been expecting me. The house was filled with relatives of the old man, friends and eager young men who wanted to play their part in defence of their small tight-knit area.


The issue of the available arsenal was then discussed, along with strategies for defence:


He asked what weapons we had. I embarrassingly told him we had only four handguns between the four of us. He called in one of his relatives and asked what weapons they had. I was told they had several shotguns between them. He then instructed his relative to load up and take further orders from me. The group left the house and the old man said to me, “Make sure those bastards know the area is armed and make sure they do not attempt to attack our area.” I gave him my word but told him that under no circumstances would we fire the first shot until our mobile support arrived.


Instructions were then given by the Red Hand member who was in charge to the young loyalists who lived in the area:


I engaged with all the men with firearms and instructed them to take up positions at the school wall facing Ardoyne Avenue. I left one local man and told him to keep the eager young men back from the Oldpark. They were making petrol bombs and wanted action, which concerned me. A couple of hours passed, quietly. In the background I could see the flames of Cranbrook Gardens, Velsheda Park and Farringdon rise into the sky. Gunfire was constant albeit in the distance. I watched the movement of young men and others around the barricade facing the school…shouting could be heard, but I realised that they too were in defensive mode, just as we were. Several times some of our young men moved onto the Oldpark and threw stones and bottles at their barricade. I shouted to get them back and the local guys moved them back, waving their shotguns. I had to go and tell the guys we could not attack until our cars arrived in the area. Within minutes I heard an almighty cheer from Torrens. Then seven or eight men, armed with rifles ran around the corner and told me they were ready. Much relieved, I told them to take up positions at the school front. I sent word to the old man that we were going to let the rebels know that the area was armed and to expect some gunfire. Once in position, I instructed every man to wait on my command. The young lads were excited and I told them to stand back because I expected return fire.


The assembled and armed loyalists decided to shoot at the Catholic barricade in order to make it known that the Heathfield and Torrens area was not going to be acceded:


Apart from the noise of distant gunfire and the noise from the lit up, flaming Ardoyne streets at the back, there was an eerie silence. “Fire” was shouted and immediately eight rifles, four handguns and several shotguns opened up. I could see people scramble behind cover at the barricade facing us. Then came the expected fire in return. Bricks on the gable wall smashed and shattered beside us. We fired another volley or two and they returned the compliment. After some time all went silent. “Ceasefire – shoot only at identifiable targets” was instructed. I called the riflemen together and told them that I was satisfied that there would be no incursion into the area, now that we had made our presence felt. The eight men in two cars drove onto the Cliftonville Road and went about their business for the rest of the night. The area was again left with four visiting gunmen and a few locals with shotguns. I reported to the old man. He stood up and shook my hand. He was satisfied that the area was safe for the night. The small group of Red Hand men had played a small but necessary part in the defence of several loyalist areas that interment night.


The authors of the FLIGHT report which was published at the end of September 1971 by the Community Relations Commission Research Unit estimated that 70 per cent of the out-bound movement from New Ardoyne was by Protestant families, 80 of whom sought sanctuary in the Ballysillan estates of Silverstream, Benview and Tyndale with another 56 families moving to Glencairn; with further Protestant migration to areas such as Woodvale and Shankill, along the Shore Road out to Glengormley, Rathcoole and Monkstown and across to East Belfast, in particular to Dundonald.  Furthermore the report found that ‘Protestant households in North Belfast have evacuated in large numbers from the Farringdon/Cranbrook streets of New Ardoyne, from the Ballynure streets on the Oldpark Road opposite Ardilea Street and from the New Lodge Road side of Duncairn Gardens, the Spamount/Upper Meadow Streets’  while in West Belfast Protestants had ‘…moved from Lanark Street, between Cupar Street and Mayo Street, just off the Springfield Road, from the Grosvenor Road end of Roden Street, including Malt Street, and from the Lenadoon Avenue area of the Suffolk housing estate, outside the city boundary.’  It was also noted that Protestants had left Bryson Street, close to St. Matthews in East Belfast.’

Like so many other working classProtestants the period surrounding internment had a personal impact on Ronnie McCullough. The McCullough family home in Rosevale Street was situated just behind Ballynure Street, an area from which many Protestants would flee during August 1971.

Rosevale Street, long after the conflagration of 1971. Note the security barrier. Source: Allan McCullough archive.

Fearing the worst his mother left to stay with a relative in the Highfield estate. McCullough stayed, but not for long. Being a staunch loyalist he recalls


I quite openly displayed my Orangeism in the area in which I lived…I would have flew the flag, I would have had a framed picture of King William of Orange on my wall, which could be seen through the front window….and people knew that a Protestant and Orangeman lived in that house. It was at a time when Protestants were moving out of the Oldpark and Catholics were moving in and it was changing from being a Protestant area to being a Catholic area. I was adamant that I was going to hold my ground and stay. But…after internment, things became so hot in that area that my mother refused point blank to sleep at home.

photo 2 (1)
Ronnie McCullough, third from front. walking with Prince Albert Temperance LOL 1892.

In the panic that ensued during the days that followed the introduction of internment local Catholics in the area rioted. McCullough made a decision to leave the house in Rosevale Street and seek permanent accommodation for himself and his mother elsewhere:


Blast bombs were thrown in the vicinity of my home. I perceived this as a direct attack on my home, and the other Protestants who lived in that area…we organized six or seven lorries which were hijacked by a group on the Shankill Road, and several dozen people got on top of the lorries, moved up to Rosevale Street and assisted in moving all the furniture…into a house which had been procured…in the mid-Shankill area as a refuge. It was in Silvio Street.


The house had belonged to an army deserter and a local man named John McAllister offered to stand guard while McCullough gathered the rest of the family possessions to move in. When McCullough settled into his new home and became acquainted with more of his neighbours he discovered that there was a local neighbourhood vigilante group that met above a shop at the corner of Silvio Street and Sydney Street West. The men who formed this organization had done so fearing an IRA incursion into their area. John McAllister was one of the men, and McCullough remembers that he would patrol armed with a billiard ball in a sock; totally inadequate. Another resident of the street was more realistically prepared for what would be required if the area was to be defended against republicans and on one occasion the individual produced a Webley .45 revolver and a Mills 36 hand grenade. The Silvio Street group eventually invited the Red Hand to take over the room above the shop. This became a secondary meeting place, the Bricklayers Arms remaining the main headquarters for the time being. John McAllister, who died in 2014, was sworn into the Red Hand.


As the summer turned into autumn many working class Protestants began to patrol their areas in vigilante groups. Loyalist News encouraged this and instructed its readers to ‘Guard Your Street’, stating in its 11 September issue that


Tonight as we go to print the Protestant population of Belfast is on the alert.

The city is tense and anything can happen, the I.R.A. threat with regard to the internment of their thugs does not deter the Protestant.

Many times this paper has urged you to join your local Defence Group, if you have not done so yet, do it now.

You can’t expect others to guard your street, while you watch T.V.

The threat is real, but like our fathers before us, we take up the challenge…if they want a fight…they can have one…

Early picture of Woodvale Defence Association members at the bottom of Heather Street.


*Depending on family commitments and so forth I hope to tidy up and include excerpts from my PhD research on the effect of this period on Protestant churches and schools in North Belfast. This will involve another post next week all being well.

Published by gmulvenna

Co-editor of 'The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); author of 'Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash' (Liverpool University Press, 2016) Currently: -Collaborating with Billy Hutchinson on his autobiography -Curating and archiving photographs of West Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s taken by my late father-in-law Paul Molloy -Trying my hand at creative writing

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