Media reports of Ballymurphy inquest have been stripped of the historical context, of near civil war in Northern Ireland

A letter from Dr William Beattie Smith:

Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 11:10 am
Updated Saturday, 22nd May 2021, 11:31 am
The Prime Minister Harold Wilson, seen above with Jim Callaghan in 1965, had wanted the Unionist MPs to abstain from voting with the Conservatives. Callaghan, who as Home Secretary from 1967 was responsible for NI, said once soldiers were on the streets, troublemakers would revive the republican narrative of British occupation

Over the past week I have seen much media coverage of the Ballymurphy inquest. My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones, and I respect their determination in pursuing honest answers from the authorities.

It is disappointing that so many nationalist commentators have exploited the families’ tragedy to reinforce their narrative of Irish victimhood and British oppression. They get away with this because the coverage so often reports events stripped of their historical context.

In this case, internment had just been introduced in a rush and poorly planned.

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Letter to the editor

Why? Because Northern Ireland was teetering on the brink of civil war.

Why? Because the IRA had intensified its campaign of violence in order to provoke a reaction from loyalists, a coercive response from the Army, and a political crisis. In July 1971, there were 79 major explosions, and the unionist government was about to collapse.

Looking two years further back to summer 1969, a proper historical contextualisation would remind us that it was nationalists who asked for the British Army to be sent to Northern Ireland. They extended the rioting in Londonderry in summer 1969 to exhaust the RUC – and choreographed it with campaigning at Westminster – deliberately to bring this about.

Why? Because with British soldiers patrolling the streets, the British government would have to take responsibility for security policies and operations, and for Stormont’s performance. Their aim was to undermine the devolved administration.

The RUC and Stormont had asked for police reinforcements, or for soldiers to reinforce the RUC. But Prime Minister Harold Wilson sided with the nationalists and transferred responsibility for security from the Unionists – his political opponents – to Westminster and himself.

Wilson had been threatening to intervene in Northern Ireland since 1963. He wanted the Unionist MPs at Westminster to abstain from voting with the Conservatives on issues which did not concern Northern Ireland. They had not done so, and this was his payback.

In any other part of the UK, police reinforcements would have been sent, appropriately trained and equipped, to support the civil authorities: there would have been no question of constitutional change.

Next thing, the police were restructured under a chief constable from the Met, disarmed, and withdrawn from Catholic neighbourhoods. These communities consequently suffered for years from the lack of civil policing. With only armed soldiers to maintain the peace, predictably, normal order broke down.

Wilson had been warned of the risk, not least by Jim Callaghan (who as Home Secretary was responsible for Northern Ireland), the pair are pictured above in 1965: once the soldiers were on the streets, troublemakers would exploit their presence to revive the republican narrative of British occupation (as then, so now). Callaghan was right, but by the time this was recognised the damage had been done.

Whoever decided to deploy the Paras in Ballymurphy can’t seriously have expected them to act like neighbourhood policemen.

As with Bloody Sunday, any blame properly belongs higher up the ladder of command, not just with the under-prepared and poorly equipped squaddies in the front line.

Dr William Beattie Smith, Belfast BT15

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