Northern Ireland’s centenary as much about the future as the past

BBC Spotlight next week examines the legacy of partition and new opinion poll findings on attitudes to Irish unity

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The sight of Protestant and Catholic teenagers attacking the PSNI close to the Belfast peace line brought back memories of decades past. But which decade? The Belfast City Hall Union Flag dispute of 2012 and 2013?

The Drumcree crises of the mid 1990s? The early days of the Troubles in 1969? Or even older days: the intense violence which accompanied partition of the island and the creation of Northern Ireland in the early 1920s?

If I am tempted to cast my net back 100 years, that’s because – when the latest riots erupted – I was deep into an exploration of the violence of the 1920s and its aftermath for BBC Northern Ireland.

Back in 1989 I made a film for BBC Spotlight about Northern Ireland’s contentious anniversaries. Then I had been able to talk to Orangemen as they set off on their marches and to visit schools to learn what version of history was on the syllabus.

In 2021, that was clearly a non-starter, though I found youngsters who are part of the Newgate Arts Centre in Londonderry/Derry’s Fountain Estate who marked the centenary with a socially-distanced performance. However, they were the exception. Most events are happening online, or delayed.

Reading the history of the creation of Northern Ireland (Alan Parkinson’s A Difficult Birth was a great place to start), I was struck by the similarities between the violence of the 1920s and the Troubles I covered in the 1980s and ’90s.

Some of Belfast’s sectarian flashpoints in the 1920s are the same street corners where I stood with camera crews 70 years later. Then, I had talked, too, to Protestants living close to the Border who felt the same fear and vulnerability their forebears had decades before.

And then there were Catholic complaints in the 1980s and later about collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. In the 1920s, their ancestors had done so about the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Ulster Specials.

Reprisal gangs

Rather than supplying information to others, sometimes they formed their own reprisal gangs willing to murder Catholic civilians in supposed retaliation for IRA attacks. Their superiors generally seemed to turn a blind eye.

Initially, the fact that the present mirrored the past was just an academic observation. Soon, though, I began meeting people who put faces and names to what had previously seemed the dusty details of distant history.

People such as Jack Gray, a sprightly 81-year-old who told me about what had befallen his own father Nevin and his Uncle Joseph. They were just 18 and 20 in June 1922 when the Dundalk IRA hammered on the door of their home near the hamlet of Altnaveigh on the outskirts of Newry. The family home was burned to the ground and young Joseph shot dead. A rare family photograph, taken in 1907, captures the boys in happier times petting their dog.

His father was traumatised by witnessing the murder of his brother, but never spoke of if later: “There was never any hatred,” Jack recalls. “We lived in a mixed area, we played with everybody, our neighbours were mixed, they were friends of ours. There were never any signs of hate or vengeance.”

The Altnaveigh massacre – in which five Protestant men and one woman were killed – hit headlines then. So, too, did the murder of five members of the Catholic McMahon family and an employee in March 1922.

The brutal slaying of prominent businessman Owen McMahon and his sons at their substantial town house in North Belfast was the work of a notorious police reprisal gang. The horror that lay behind such deaths has meant that the stories have flowed through the decades.

But outside of his family circle, hardly anyone has heard of Thomas Heathwood, a 17- year-old who was killed in the same month as the McMahons about a mile away in Carrickhill at the bottom of the Shankill Road.

A butcher’s apprentice, he had been out on his delivery bike when he was gunned down by a loyalist sniper. When Thomas’s inquest was held it was one of 19 cases that day up for the coroner’s consideration.

The book Facts and Figures of the Belfast Pogrom, written by a Belfast priest Fr John Hassan under the pseudonym GB Kenna, is the nearest 1920s equivalent to the Troubles’ celebrated testament to the dead, Lost Lives.

However, the book actually gets Thomas’s name wrong, listing him as “Eastwood” not “Heathwood”. Even the street corner on which Thomas died is no longer there as the Carrickhill area has on two separate occasions been bulldozed and redeveloped.

Mistaken identity

The only reason I heard about Thomas was that I got chatting to Peter Heathwood, a remarkable man who is both the curator of an extraordinary video archive of the Troubles and a campaigner for a pension for the severely injured.

In 1979, a loyalist gunman left Peter paralysed, in a case of mistaken identity. Peter told me that, as he lay in his hospital bed, his uncle Austin had engaged in a bit of black humour, joking: “Why didn’t you get offside like I did?”

Austin had escaped a loyalist ambush in the 1920s by urging his horse and cart forward at a gallop. Peter’s father’s cousin Thomas had not been so lucky.

When we talk about “tit-for-tat” in Northern Ireland we normally mean short term retaliation – petrol bomb for petrol bomb, bullet for bullet. But as I talked to Peter I realised that bullets and unresolved arguments over Northern Ireland’s identity have ricocheted through the generations, blighting what should have been long lives and happy homes.

So far I have not found a photograph of young Thomas, but I was able to show Peter documents from the Irish government archives which provided much more detail about what had happened to the teenager than Peter and his family had realised.

The Heathwoods are not the only family to have their lives shattered once, only for it to happen again. On Spotlight we also hear from Valerie Lockhart whose great grandparents, Thomas and Elizabeth Crozier, were murdered in Altnaveigh in 1922.

Fifty years later, Valerie’s cousin, Robert Chambers, was the youngest victim of the Kingsmills massacre when republican gunmen slaughtered a group of Protestant workmen. Valerie’s grandmother sensed something was wrong when Robert, who waved to her every evening on his way home from work, did not pass by her window at the usual time. “On both sides of my family,” Valerie told me, “we’ve had some sense of the atrocities that went on.”

Examining a contentious landmark such as Northern Ireland’s centenary, one realises that it as much about the future as the past. The 1921 Border was deliberately drawn to create a 2-to-1 Protestant majority. This year’s Northern Ireland census could confirm that those days are over.

Such a moment will fuel talk of a Border poll. Equally, there is a curious symmetry that 100 years on Unionists are now fretting over the imposition of an economic sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

However, believers in a United Ireland may do well to remember that in 1921 their predecessors thought a Boundary Commission would soon render the new Border a temporary construct, and it’s still there a hundred years on.

With all this in mind, I spoke to those who may hold our destinies in our hands, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, prime minister Boris Johnson and Stormont’s First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

Flag wavers

Meanwhile, I found two people whose unionist ancestors had signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912, but who nine years later came to very different conclusions about Irish unity. In addition, we will unveil the results of a major cross-Border opinion poll on the future.

Inevitably, though, it is the tragic human stories which stick in my mind. Reflecting on the loss of 17-year-old Thomas back in 1922, Peter Heathwood worries about this month’s rioting teenagers and what the future might hold for his own 14 grandchildren.

Urging youngsters on both sides not to listen to “flag wavers” who want to “whip these young lads up”, he warned that “it’s never them that pays the price”. He hopes he will be proven wrong, but is pessimistic, fearing what a Border poll could bring.

If unionism loses such a referendum, he fears for the consequences. “Do you honestly think that won’t cause violence?” he ask me. Then before I can attempt an answer, he adds: “No chance”.

It’s a bleak assessment, a scenario which both the British and Irish governments hope will never be put to the test, but a concern many may share after this month’s rioting. Let’s hope that one hundred years on, we still will not be repeating our fractured history.

Spotlight – A Contested Centenary is on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday April 20th at 9pm. Mark Devenport is BBC Northern Ireland’s former Political Editor.