THE murder of two Protestant men 40 years ago this month has been cited by both sides of the political divide as the birth of the Provisional IRA.
On the night of June 27 and early morning of June 28, 1970, east Belfast men Bobby Neill and James McCurrie were shot dead by the IRA.
According to the Historical Enquiries Team, both men were innocent victims and neither was a member of any paramilitary organisation.
On the same night, 32-year-old Henry McIlhone, a Catholic from the Short Strand area, was shot in the grounds of St Matthew’s chapel in the east of the city. He died two days later. Although his name appeared on an IRA roll of honour, his family have vehemently de-nied he was a member.
According to the book Lost Lives, Catholics and Protestants from the immediate area have diametrically different memories of the gun battle which took place that night, with each maintaining that the other was the initial aggressor.
Prior to this there had been a history of sectarian conflict around the small Catholic enclave of Short Strand, but it had been largely confined to stone throwing, beatings and attacks on property – both sides had previously shied away from the use of guns.
Chairman of the East Belfast Historical Society Jim Magee, who said he was “on the ground” on the Newtownards Road on the night in question, said in June 1970 RUC officers were not armed and “there were no guns in east Belfast [among the residents] to mention”.
He said that earlier on June 27, 1970, nationalists had gone into Mountpottinger RUC station to say they were under attack from the Protestant community, “trying to give themselves a reason for their planned attack”.
Mr Magee said then UUP East Belfast MP Stanley McMaster found out in July 1970 through parliamentary questions that shooting took place for five hours on the night of June 27/28.
“It was also revealed through his questions on Hansard that as well as the three people killed, 26 civilians were injured.”
Mr Magee added: “I know so much about what happened that night because I was there.
“When I arrived on the scene there were two girls lying on the Newtownards Road who had been shot. They were 18 or 19 and their squeals and yells were unreal.
“The peelers were all standing at the corner where the doctors surgery is and they hadn’t even got a pea-shooter.
“Eventually we got a van and we got the two girls away. I went over and the police didn’t know what to do because they were not armed. He said if you have anything get it out and protect your people. So we got an old rifle and went into Frazer Street and started firing back. There was no army near the place. They sat at the end of the road.”
According to Hansard, troops assisted police from the early hours of June 28 but fired no shots because “owing to the confused situation, it was impossible to identify targets”.
Mr Magee said the only republican injured that night, Mr McIlhone, was fatally wounded by a member of the IRA. This theory of an accidental shooting by a member of the IRA is also recorded in Lost Lives.
“The shooting was from the chapel onto the Newtownards Road,” he said.
“This had been twisted for years by republicans. What happened that night was the birth of the Provos.
“That was them saying to Roman Catholic people that they were the new kids on the block.
“The UVF did not start in east Belfast until after June 27/28 and I can say that most definitely because the police and the army were not protecting the Protestant people.”
Meanwhile, Catholics from the Short Strand have claimed that a Protestant mob had attempted to burn St Matthew’s after tempers on both sides had been inflamed by an Orange march along the Newtownards Road.
Republican publications have cited the “Battle of St Matthew’s” as one of the most significant battles of the Troubles.
Prior to the Short Strand clash, the IRA faced criticism for failing to defend nationalist areas in the face of attacks from loyalists.