"Fellow Irishmen:" The B-Specials and the IRA in the 50's
"If to have striven to make my fellow-men love each other was guilt, then I am guilty." -Bartholomew Teeling
Founded in 1922, the B-Specials were an all-protestant, para-police force. In the mid 50's, their membership counted 1,000 full time, and over 11,000 part time.(1)
Their standard duty, especially in rural areas, was manning roadblocks but whenever there was an "incident" -a raid, an escape, a shooting- the B Specials would perform sweeps of the surrounding countryside and homes, usually in support of the RUC and Army. The fact they were usually locally recruited gave them a significant edge over the mostly southern-born IRA volunteers and made them a vital part of any British search party or cordon. "The B Specials were the rock on which any mass movement by the IRA in the North has inevitably floundered" wrote Tim Pat Coogan. (2)
The Specials, however, were complicated by the fact most were ordinary workers by day- many, in fact, commuted from the south as a sort of night job in Ireland's depressed economy. Says one writer, "the Protestant hill farmers (in her area) who shared farming tasks with catholic neighbors and related to them as equals were almost all members of the b-specials."(3) But once in uniform they displayed a Jeckyll and Hyde-like persona swing. "A lot of fellows I knew during the day were out at night as Specials manning road blocks and pretending the didn't know me," recalls Seamus Heany. "I knew that had I been an equally innocent protestant I would have been allowed to pass without any bother."(4).
Seamus Graham remembers growing up with the Specials in Belfast:
"(It was) about 1957, the IRA’s Border Campaign was raging and armed “B” Specials ...could be seen on the streets of Belfast amidst an uneasy air. As we came out of the cinema there were two “B” Specials standing outside, as we passed them in the ignoring way that was second nature to Catholic kids, they called on us to halt. They asked us our names and addresses and on hearing the Ardoyne address’s began treating us as ‘the enemy’. Here we were, typical young lads being grilled for no reason other than we were Catholics, they were letting us know who were the bosses in the six counties.....It is an historical fact that they were not the brightest and cowardly into the bargain, during their existence thirty of them either accidentally shot each other, or themselves, dead and they cost the old “Northern Ireland” (Six Counties) government a fortune for the claims made by farmers who woke up in the mornings to find their cows and sheep shot in the fields. These Ulster warriors were not the brightest yet they were turned loose on the streets armed to the teeth, to ‘Keep the Fenian’s in their place’." (5)
"Keeping the fenians in their place" often took the form of vicious assaults on even marginally nationalist events, like NCA races or St Patrick's Day Parades. During the 1952 St Patrick's Day parade in Derry a photographer captured an image of a B-man's baton about to fall on a 6 year old girl, but nearly no newspapers would carry it. "It was then I felt," says one Derry man, "that there was no chance of having the injustice of the Protestant sectarian state or its militant and paramilitary apparatus exposed."(6) Any event displaying the banned Tricolor- or something resembling it, as the Kerry team of the Ras Tailteann learned one year- was singled out for attack. In addition to their security duties, they were effectively the state's shock troops against the nationalist population.
Sean Cronin, in his pamphlet "Resistance," observes "(they) lack the discipline of an army" and that "it takes little enough incitement to set (them) on a rampage." Indeed, there is a lengthy list of people murdered or wounded for life by the B Specials.
The following covers just a 2 year period, and does not include those injured in other situations, like baton charges:
"March 5, 1955: Eighteen year old Arthur Leonard was shot dead by a B-Special patrol between Keady and Darkley, County Armagh. He was driving a van at the time. His companion, 16-year-old Clare Mallon, was seriously wounded.
March 6, 1955: Austin Stinson, a 23-year-old native of Derrygonnelly, County Fermanagh, was seriously wounded by a patrol of B-men on the Aughnacloy-Augher road while driving a car.*
October, 1955: Thomas Corrigan (33) of Ann Street, Dungannon, was, in his own words, “brutally attacked by a party of armed B- Specials on the outskirts of Dungannon.” He received medical treatment to his head, arms and legs.
October, 1955: A B-Special Constable, Daniel Richmond (26), was shot dead while drilling with other Specials at Park Hall, Armoy, County Antrim.
December 26, 1956: Charles Hilliard (38) of Brackley, Ederney, County Fermanagh, was wounded in the leg by a B-Special patrol while driving home early in the morning.
January 1, 1957: Five young Tyrone people were fired on by B- Specials as they drove home from a New Year’s party, near Caledon. Una Buchanan (12) lost the sight of an eye. Maurice Buchanan (19) was seriously wounded in the back. Florence Buchanan (14) and Ruby Buchanan (17) had hand injuries. Mervyn Mulligan was wounded in the arm.
January, 1957: A B-Special shot his own son as the latter approached a road-block between Dungannon and Coalisland, Co. Tyrone.
February 1, 1957: Special Constable Kenneth Elliott of Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh, was motor cycling near his home at 8.15 p.m. when he was fired on by a police patrol and received serious abdominal injuries.
April 8, 1957: Special Constable Robert Henderson (24) was shot dead in the day room of Trillick Barracks, County Tyrone, by another B-Special.
June 9, 1957: Mrs. Margaret Martin (42) of Belfast, was wounded in the shoulder when a mixed B-Special R.U.C. patrol opened fire with Sten guns on her husband’s car near Killeen Customs Post, County Armagh. Subsequently it was established she will be paralysed for life.
June 5, 1957: A B-Special patrol fired on the car of Mr. James Hay, Strabane on the Swatragh-Maghera road.
July, 1957 : Special Constable Joseph Ewing (21). Cullybackey, County Antrim, received a bullet wound in his leg when an automatic weapon was discharged while he was on duty on the Dungannon-Moy road.
August 14, 1957: Robert Brown (25), Crossgar, County Down, was shot dead by a member of the Ulster Special Constabulary on the Kilmore-Crossgar road.
September 21, 1957: While motoring home at about midnight, Kevin John MacManus (35), of Lisnaskea. County Fermanagh, was seriously wounded after being fired on by a B-Special patrol.
November 13, 1957: John Collins (45) a motorist ot Clanrye Avenue, Newry, was wounded about the head after being fired on by a B-Special patrol on the Armagh-Newry Road at 9.30 p.m." (7)
The IRA's response to all this was disciplined and mindful of the responsibility they carried. Attacking the specials in turn would have been natural under the circumstances but to the Republican Movement it was more important to prevent the sectarian warfare that could ensue between the Unionist and Nationalist/Catholic populations. The bloody events of the 20's in the North - in which the B Specials played a prominent role- were still very much in memory.
The IRA's statement on the opening of the campaign called for the Specials to step aside or resign, stating "the struggle...is most certainly not against the Unionist population of the 6 counties... The the members of the RUC and B Special Constabulary...We ask them to remember they are Irishmen."(8) Volunteers were further cautioned to limit attacks on the RUC, and outright forbidden to initiate attacks on B-Specials, in the event it would be construed as sectarian-motivated, or provoke such a reaction. "It was neither neccessary nor desireable to antagonize the unionists" writes Ruan O'Donnell in "From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber." (9) Thomas Mac Goilla, then a young member of Sinn Fein, explained that "they were seen as ordinary protestant people, mostly protestant workers, and very Irish, and we had no campaign against (protestants)." (10)
Sean Cronin says the same in "Resistance": "Since the Resistance Movement recognises that the B-Specials are Irishmen who have been misled by sectarian and British propaganda, deliberate attacks on this body have not been part of its guerrilla policy up to now." The language of the movement and volunteers reflected this attitude. The 1955 Sinn Fein manifesto makes no mention of the "orange state" - only the British one, and says that sectarianism and bigotry have "no place in the movement." Statements from the dock by volunteers almost invariably emphasized that their arms were to be used solely against the British Army, and not against anyone from the Unionist community- being "fellow Irishmen". Joe Doyle: “These arms were to be used against the British Army of Occupation in Ireland." Even Sean Geraghty of the breakaway group in Dublin declared that "no Irishman or woman of any political persuasion has anything to fear from us." It would be tedious to list the many other statements that affirmed this.
An interesting example of these "fellow Irishmen" was seen in the case of James Crossan, a Sinn Fein organizer and former IRA intelligence officer, who was casually drinking with an off-duty B-man the night he was murdered by the RUC. The B-man in question later testified in favor of Crossan. An isolated incident, but indicative of the fluid relationship the IRA at the time sought to foster.
When targets such as B-Special drill halls and posts were attacked it was timed specifically to avoid casualties (though a special was wounded in one such attack in early 57.) There were still running gun battles for the first two or three years of the campaign but the IRA was deprived of the very important factor of aggressive or preemptive action when faced with armed confrontation with them. They were further hampered as the campaign went on by the fact that specials were being used as fill-in security at Army and RUC sites, making it impossible to avoid them on operations. It was akin to "attempting to fight the cavalry while endeavoring to ignore the existence of the infantry." (11)
It frustrated to no end the northerners, who had to deal with the Specials on a daily basis. Saor Uladh considered them targets from the outset, though like the IRA they sought to avoid casualties. The IRA O/c of Derry wrote that he was restraining his men but if given permission to attack, "no one will complain." Volunteers recall the local nationalist population saying the B-Specials were the ones they should be attacking, not the army, and saw little reason to give support as a result. This attitude weighed heavily on the abilities of the IRA, which depended on an enthusiastic and supportive population to create enough proverbial "water" for their "fish."
In 1958 the IRA announced that B Specials would be considered targets. Still, few volunteers took advantage of this and the B Men emerged from the campaign with the fewest casualties of all involved.
THE END OF THE SPECIALS
The IRA stuck to this non-aggressive policy throughout the 60's. During this time the volunteers helped and stewarded marches of the Civil Rights movement, one of whose demands was that the B-Specials disband. Violence by the Specials reached a feverish peak, culminating in the attack at Burntollet and Belfast pogrom of 1969. The non-violent force of Civil Rights movement was winning the day however. The Republican Movement's restrained and forward-thinking policy allowed the world to see "the naked sectarianism of the 'B' Specials" for what it was and after 50 years, the Specials were finally disbanded in 1969. "In terms of the civil rights struggle.... the disbandment of the 'B' Specials was regarded as a major victory. At the time the role of the new force, later called the UDR, was not clear and the sectarian nature of this group did not emerge until later. But some progress had been achieved." (12)
The practical anti-sectarianism of the 50's volunteers has continued in different ways. Sean Cronin devoted the better part of his writings to anti-sectarianism and the example of the United Irishmen, Adjutant General Charlie Murphy became a trusted confidant of the loyalist leadership in later years, and the stand of many others from that generation against cross-community warfare is well known. In recent years there have been several events (organized by "ORM") where veterans of Op. Harvest talk to loyalist youth about their experiences. The response so far has been very positive; many enjoyed hearing about their life on the run and were unaware of the IRA's history before the modern "Troubles."
In conclusion, the IRA's Border Campaign was not successful but their desire to avoid sectarian conflict was, and it is certain that they did not consider victory in the north to be worth compromising their beliefs or provoking violence between the communities.
Sectarian policing is still an urgent issue in the North. The struggle against sectarianism itself is an ongoing one with no clear victory point but the important matter is that an effort be made to end the blight.
*- Stinson was a B man himself and member of the Orange Order. His shooting is sometimes erroneously pinned on Saor Uladh.
1. James Dingley, "The IRA."
2. Tim Pat Coogan, "The IRA."
3. Quoted in "Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis" by Frank Wright
4. Quoted in "Seamus Heany: the making of a modern poet" by Michael parker, pg 15
7. All quotes by Sean Cronin are from "Resistance," made available online by the Connolly Youth Movement.
8. Quoted in "Inside the IRA: Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy"
by Andrew Sanders
9. Ruan O'Donnell, "From Vinegar Hill to Edentubber."
10. Quoted in "Official Republicanism" by Sean Swan.