History of Belfast - Conflict 1920–1922

Conflict 1920–1922

The period immediately before and after partition was marked by major sectarian conflict in Belfast, and some areas became much more dominated by one religious group. Although coinciding with the Irish War of Independence, the Belfast conflict had a nature all of its own. Unlike the rest of Ireland, where the war was largely fought between the IRA and Crown forces, around 90% of the 465 deaths in Belfast were civilians, as the violence often took the form sectarian assassinations and also of armed clashes between Catholic and Protestants.

The conflict began in Belfast in July 1920. On 21 July 1920, rioting broke out in the city, starting in the shipyards and alter spreading to residential areas. The violence was partly in response to the IRA killing of a northern RIC police officer Gerald Smyth, in Cork, and partly because of competition over jobs due to the high unemployment rate. loyalists marched on the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Belfast and forced over 7,000 Catholic and left-wing Protestant workers from their jobs. Sectarian rioting broke out in response in Belfast resulting in about 20 deaths in just three days. Both Catholics and Protestants were also expelled from their homes in the trouble. The IRA assassination of an RIC Detective, Swanzy, in nearby Lisburn on August 22 prompted another round of clashes, in which 33 people died in the city over the following 10 days. The violence led to the reviving of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a unionist militia first formed in 1912. Thereafter there were recurring cycles of violence until the summer of 1922.

In response to this violence, southern nationalists imposed a boycott on goods produced in Belfast. In Northern Ireland, an auxiliary police force, the Ulster Special Constabulary was recruited for counter-insurgency purposes.

The year 1921 saw three major flare ups in Belfast. Just before the Truce that formally ended the Irish War of Independence on July 11, Belfast suffered a day of violence known at the time as 'Belfast's Bloody Sunday'. An IRA ambush of an armoured police truck on Raglan Street killed one RIC man, injured two more and destroyed their armoured car. This sparked a day of ferocious fighting in west Belfast on the following day, Sunday 10 July, in which 16 civilians; eleven Catholics and five Protestants, lost their lives and 161 houses were destroyed. Gun battles raged all day along the sectarian 'boundary' between the Falls and Shankill Roads and rival gunmen used rifles, machine guns and hand grenades in the clashes. Another four died over the following two days The second spike in violence came in three days from August 29 to September 1, in which twenty people were killed and the third in November, when more than thirty died. In the November violence, the IRA bombed city trams taking Protestant workers to the shipyards, killing seven people.

The violence peaked in the first half of 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty confirmed the partition of Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Michael Collins the Free State leader, sent arms and aid to the northern IRA with the aim both of trying to defend the Catholic population there and trying to destabilise Northern Ireland. Roughly thirty people were killed in Belfast in February 1922, sixty in March and another 30 in April. The IRA actions in Belfast, such as the killing of policemen, resulted in retaliation with attacks on the Roman Catholic population by loyalists, sometimes covertly aided by state forces. The McMahon Murders of 26 March 1922, and the Arnon Street Massacre of a week later, in which uniformed police shot a total of twelve Catholic civilians dead in reprisal for the killings of policemen, were two of the worst such incidents.

On 22 May, IRA assassinated unionist politician William Twaddell, in Belfast. Immediately afterwards, under the new Special Powers Act, 350 IRA men were arrested in Belfast, crippling its organisation there. The cycle of sectarian atrocities against civilians however continued into June 1922. May saw seventy-five people killed in Belfast and another 30 died there in June. Several thousand Catholics fled the violence and sought refuge in Glasgow and Dublin. However, after this crisis, the violence declined rapidly. Only six people lost their lives in July and August and the final conflict related killing took place in October 1922.

Two factors contributed to the rapid end to the conflict. One was the collapse of the IRA in the face of the Northern state's use of internment without trial. The second was the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in the south, which distracted the IRA's attention from the North and largely ended the violence there.

According to historian Robert Lynch's count, a total of 465 people died in Belfast in the conflict of 1920–22. A further 1,091 were wounded. Of the dead, 159 were Protestant civilians, 258 Catholic civilians, thirty-five Crown forces and twelve IRA members.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Belfast

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