Limited operation that would last for decades

AN uneasy peace had broken out in Belfast.

"Beneath the thin veneer of semi-calm lurks hate and fear, which could boil over at any time into another spate of vicious, senseless violence," wrote our reporter Hugh Owens.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day British troops were first sent to Northern Ireland, in what was described as a 'limited operation' to restore order following three days of violent riots. But Operation Banner, as it was known, would run for 38 years, making it one of the longest continual deployments in British history.

The trouble had first flared up in the Bogside area of London on August 11, 1969, during the Apprentice Boys march. The annual Protestant parade commemorates the defence of the city by 13 boy supporters of William of Orange, who shut the gates when it came under attack from the forces of Catholic King James II in 1688.

Towards the end of the march, it passed the city walls near the Catholic Bogside area, and police came under attack from both Loyalist supporters on the one side, and nationalists in Bogside.

Initially, some loyalists started throwing pennies from the top of the walls at Catholics in the Bogside below, who responded by firing marbles with slingshots. As the parade passed the perimeter of the Bogside, Catholics started throwing stones and nails. As the violence escalated, Irish nationalists started throwing petrol bombs from a nearby block of flats, preventing police from entering Bogside to take control. A full-scale riot quickly developed, with bombs and missiles exchanged by both sides.

As the fighting intensified, rioting also spread to Belfast and other towns in Northern Ireland, and by August 14 seven people had been killed in the Ulster capital, and hundreds more injured. The sheer scale of the unrest meant the same police officers had been forced to remain on duty for three days and two nights without a break, and tear-gas was deployed for the first time in the Royal Ulster Constabulary's history.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Home Secretary Jim Callaghan cut short their holidays for a hastily arranged meeting at RAF St Hawgan in Cornwall. Prime Minister of the Irish Republic Jack Lynch caused further anger when he suggested United Nations peacekeeping forces should be sent to Northern Ireland. Major James Chichester-Clark, prime minister of the devolved government in Northern Ireland accused Lynch of 'outrageous interference', and responded by telephoning Callaghan – who was still on a plane heading for the summit in Cornwall – asking for military assistance.

The first 300 troops, from the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire, were deployed to the centre of Londonderry, taking over from the exhausted police officers. The following day, 600 more soldiers – including a large contingent from the West Midlands – were sent to Belfast.


Initially, the troops were welcomed by both sides, who were eager for an end to the fighting. Commander of the 3rd Battalion Light Infantry, Lt Col John Ballenden from Shrewsbury, joked that there was no real need to provide his troops with food as they were being fed so generously by the locals. Private Ian Slaven, 20, of Wrockwardine Wood, Telford, said: "No-one has taken a pot-shot at us, or anything like that. The reception has been very good."

Corporal Ronald Gittings, 22, from Madeley, added: "The locals are really pleased to see us. They keep coming out every 10 or 15 minutes with sandwiches and cups of tea."

However, one thing this newspaper did observe was that none of the men had any idea of when they would be returning home.

General Sir Ian Freeland, the officer commanding Northern Ireland, told a press conference on August 18 that the 'honeymoon period' for the use of troops was at its peak.


He warned: "If something constructive does not come out of the meeting at Westminster tomorrow, the honeymoon period could finish possibly in a matter of hours."

The honeymoon was indeed shortlived. The following day the troops opened fire on a car which refused to stop for police, racing at 80mph through police checkpoints. Nobody was injured, and the car's occupants were detained, but it marked the beginning of renewed tensions. The same day, a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of a community centre in the Cregagh area of Belfast.

An offer from the Army to guarantee Catholics living in Bogside their safety in exchange for removing their barricades was rejected as 'unworkable' by Paddy Doherty, of the Derry Citizens Defence Association.

On August 27, Mr Callaghan visited Belfast, and told the people of Northern Ireland that only they could bring peace to the province.

"Only you can decide whether you are are wiling to live in peace with one another, in freedom and equality, and without discrimination," he said.

"We really cannot be dragged back by what took place 50 years ago, even less by what happened 300 years ago."

The Home Secretary said the many letters he received showed an overwhelming desire among the people of Northern Ireland to live together in peace. That may well have been true, but it was a hope that proved to be in vain. The bloodshed in Northern Ireland – and in Great Britain – would continue for the best part of three decades. And the 'limited operation' to halt rioting in Northern Ireland would see troops patrolling the province until 2007.

Date: 14 August 2019 | Source: Shropshire Star