Disaster

Ronan Bennett

  • De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow by Tim Pat Coogan
    Hutchinson, 772 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 09 175030 X

We know all about Republican violence, about its worst excesses; in Britain, some people, maybe even most, know what the initials IRA stand for. I wonder how many could name the principal Loyalist organisations, still less distinguish between them. You could say that there has been little reason for the average Londoner to get acquainted with the world of Loyalist terror: the UFF do not bomb the City, the UVF don’t shoot policemen. Loyalist paramilitaries now claim more victims than the IRA, but they confine their murdering to Catholics – in Northern Ireland. So while we rightly remember the two boys murdered at Warrington, we conveniently forget the five Catholic workmen killed in County Derry after the two boys died.

Sometimes the Loyalists manage to kill a Sinn Fein official, or even on the rare occasion an IRA man; but usually their victim is a Catholic with no known terrorist affiliations. It has never mattered that much to the Loyalist paramilitaries because the result is the same regardless of the victim’s political leanings, or lack of them. If they remind Catholics to keep Clear of Republicanism, killings like these can be useful, as John Taylor, an MP from the ‘respcetable’ side of Unionism and a Minister of Home Affairs in the days of Stormont, has acknowledged.

Another Stormont MP, now very happily deceased, took the logic of his strong feelings about Northern Catholics a stage further. In 1921-2, when Eamon de Valera was playing his disastrous. Machiavellian games in the course of the negotiations that eventually partitioned Ireland, John W. Nixon, a District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary (later reorganised as the RUC), led a police murder gang in Belfast. As the negotiations between the British Government and Sinn Fein reached their conclusion, Nixon’s gang went on a sectarian killing spree. In one episode, on the night of 24 March 1922, Nixon organised a group of armed men, four of them in police uniform, who broke into the home of Owen McMahon, a Catholic publican from north Belfast. Six members of the family were killed and another wounded. Nixon went on to perpetrate the Arnon Street massacre on 1 April 1922, and in July his gang killed 14 Catholics in the Millfield district of Belfast after a constable was shot.

Although Michael Collins brought these killings to the attention of Winston Churchill during the London negotiations, Nixon was never arrested or charged. He became an embarrassment only when Sir James Craig and the Unionist hierarchy got involved with the Governments of the Irish Free State and Britain in the delicate negotiations about the border. Nixon was forced out of the police, although not before being awarded an MBE for ‘valuable services rendered during this troubled period’. He went on to pursue a successful political career, securing election to Stormont as an independent Unionist. The young Ian Paisley used to travel to the parliament building in Nixon’s car, and he called Nixon ‘the most able and effective politician of his days’.

The RUC-Loyalist murder gangs killed with gruesome theatricality. Crucifixes and rosary beads were draped over corpses. The violence was calculated to spread terror and panic in the Catholic community, and the murder gangs quickly became part of Catholic folk memory, a reminder of what would happen should they challenge the Protestant state. There was an equally profound impact on the Protestant mentality: the killings helped create and foster the belief that it was the duty of Protestants to deploy terror against the Catholic community whenever Unionist supremacy was defied. It is now often overlooked that it was Loyalist violence, in reaction to the growing strength of the non-violent civil rights movement, that sparked the explosion in the North in 1969.

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