B Specials re-enactment for NI celebrations branded ‘offensive’

Coleraine festival organiser defends event saying force ‘played a part in history of Northern Ireland’

Veteran activist Eamonn McCann said it was ‘inappropriate to celebrate’ the B Specials. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Veteran activist Eamonn McCann said it was ‘inappropriate to celebrate’ the B Specials. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

A “re-enactment” of drills by the auxiliary police force known as the B Specials at an event to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland has been described as “offensive” and “just wrong”.

Both the cross-border Ulster Scots Agency and the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council have put funding towards “centenary celebrations” in Coleraine, Co Derry, today.

Part of the event at The Diamond will be a “B Specials Historical Re-enactment”.

Joanne Hunniford, secretary of the Coleraine Festival Committee and one of the organisers, said it will involve men dressed in B Specials uniforms staging a “checkpoint” using a vintage car as well as a “drill demonstration”.

“I think people are interested in the fact that they did play a part in the history of Northern Ireland, and bringing us to where we are today,” she said. “They had a role to play. Unfortunately, there was a terrorist threat since Northern Ireland was formed. They were trying to keep that threat under control.”

The B Specials, formally known as the Ulster Special Constabulary, was almost exclusively Protestant, much feared by Catholics, and was involved in numerous controversial episodes, including an infamous attack on civil rights marchers at Burntollet, Co Derry in 1969. Formed just before partition, it was disbanded in 1970.

‘Positive feeling’

Ms Hunniford said it was “a force that was drawn from a large part of the community in Northern Ireland, so I think there is positive feeling towards them, as I’m sure on the nationalist side of the community there is a negative feeling towards them”.

She said the re-enactment should not have any impact on cross-community relations and that “there are different interpretations of all history.”

Gillian McMaster, director of development at the Ulster Scots Agency, which is jointly-funded by Stormont and the Irish Government, confirmed it awarded £2,359 (€2,798) to “a two-day festival of Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture.” “It will provide people with a range of opportunities to embrace their Ulster-Scots identity.”

A spokeswoman for Causeway, Coast and Glens Borough Council said it provided £3,796 (€4,503) for “a range of activities” at the Coleraine centenary celebrations but council funding was not going towards the re-enactment.

“The applicant group have confirmed that the re-enactment element of their Northern Ireland centenary event is being funded through their own resources,” she said.

The event also includes music, dancing and children’s art and craft workshops.

Inappropriate

Veteran activist Eamonn McCann, who was among those attacked at Burntollet, said it was “inappropriate to celebrate” the B Specials and questioned the “propriety” of the Ulster Scots Agency in particular associating itself with the event.

“The idea that the Ulster Scots tradition and the history of the B Specials are interwoven is simply not true,” he said.

“The B Specials were very controversial from the outset, the paramilitary wing of a particular unionist cause that didn’t represent all unionists, and certainly didn’t represent all Protestants.” The re-enactment “is just wrong”, he said.

“I think it does nothing to improve [cross-community] relations. In effect, this is presenting the B Specials as being an authentic and legitimate expression of the unionist cause back then, and implicitly since then . . . it is not actually.

“It is like taking the most jagged edge of unionism and saying this what it was like and what we adhere to.” It was unfair to unionism, he said.

“No matter what your historical perspective, the idea that the Catholic community in the North can have a shared experience or shared history with the B Specials is politically and historically ignorant, apart from being offensive.”

Bernadette McAliskey (née Devlin), also a leading figure at march ambushed at Burntollet, said: “Fondly remembering the ‘good old days of the B Specials’ can only be an exclusively unionist event, but that is their business.”