Battle of St Matthew's
The Battle of St Matthew's or Battle of Short Strand was a gun battle fought between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster loyalists on 27 June 1970. It took place in the area around St Matthew's Roman Catholic Church, which is in the mainly nationalist Short Strand district of Belfast. At the time it was the Provisional IRA's most significant operation in the Troubles.
The Northern Ireland riots of August 1969 marked the beginning of the Troubles. Belfast saw the fiercest clashes between republicans (mainly Catholics), loyalists (mainly Protestants) and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). During the riots, which saw both communities in the grip of a mounting paranoia about the other's intentions—Catholics convinced that they were about to once again become "victims of a Protestant pogrom" and Protestants that they were on the "eve of an IRA insurrection". Loyalists burnt whole streets in mainly Catholic and republican areas. The Irish Republican Army, which then had very few members, was unable to hold off the attackers, and in December 1969 split into the Official IRA and Provisional IRA—with the Provisionals vowing to act as defenders of the area in future.
The Short Strand is a mainly Catholic and nationalist enclave in mainly Protestant and unionist East Belfast. In the early years of "the Troubles", Catholics in Short Strand numbered about 6,000, while their Protestant neighbours totalled about 60,000.
The shooting began shortly after 10pm on Saturday 27 June and lasted for about five hours. However, republicans and loyalists disagree over what sparked the violence and who fired the first shots.
Republicans and nationalists claim that the violence was started by a mob of loyalists who were returning from an Orange Order parade. They say that the loyalists tried to set the church alight with petrol bombs and invade Short Strand, with the intention of burning the nationalists from their homes. Hence, the republicans argue that they were simply defending the church and Short Strand from loyalist attack. Loyalists claim that the violence was begun by the republicans; allegedly when the returning Orangemen and supporters came under attack on Newtownards Road. They also claim that republicans attacked homes on Newtownards Road in order to lure the loyalists into a trap.
Whatever sparked the violence, a small group of IRA volunteers and members of the Citizens' Defence Committee took up positions in the grounds of St Matthew's Church and in the surrounding streets; intending to hold back the loyalists. The IRA was led by Billy McKee, who was then commander of the IRA's Belfast Brigade.
Shortly after the shooting began, Stormont MP Paddy Kennedy went with Short Strand residents to the local RUC base and demanded protection for their homes. British Army Colonel Mike Dewar later said: "The whole incident had taken its course because the Army was so chronically overstretched that night in Belfast". A British Army company did arrive but it did not intervene. BBC journalist Peter Taylor later said:
The shooting intensified but the soldiers still declined to intervene and separate the two sides – either because they felt they were not numerically strong enough or because did not wish to get caught up in the middle of a sectarian fight, in the darkness, with shots being fired by both sides.
Liz Maskey, who was a volunteer nurse that night, said that Short Strand was surrounded by loyalists and claimed that they attacked her ambulance as it tried to leave the area.
- Robert Neil, a 38-year-old Protestant, died instantly when a shot fired from the church bounced off the pavement and hit him in the spine.
- James McCurrie, a 34-year-old Protestant, was shot dead on Beechfield Street.
- Henry McIlhone, a 33-year-old Catholic, was helping to defend Short Strand when he was accidentally shot from the republican side. He died on 29 June. However, McKee maintains that McIlhone was shot by loyalists. Tírghrá, the IRA's official list of its fallen, lists McIlhone as a "volunteer" but adds "although not a member of the IRA, Henry McIlhone was included in the republican role of honour as a mark of respect for this great Irishman by republican comrades he fought alongside".
Other disturbances and aftermath
Other street disturbances in Belfast that day resulted in three Protestants being shot dead by the IRA, with all three incidents happening in trouble off the Crumlin Road.
The following day, loyalists expelled 500 Catholic workers from the Belfast shipyard. Shortly after, the British government’s representative at Stormont said that the decision to allow Orange parades to go ahead on that day was "the greatest single miscalculation I have ever seen made in the course of my life".
Many Catholics and nationalists believed that the IRA had failed to defend them during the August 1969 riots. However, it is argued that the IRA's defence of Short Strand redeemed it in the eyes of many Catholics and nationalists. Among republicans, the battle is seen as a key event in the growth of the Provisional IRA.
- Timeline of Provisional Irish Republican Army actions
- Timeline of Ulster Volunteer Force actions
- 2011 Northern Ireland Riots
- Barry McCaffrey (25 June 2010). "Battle of Short Strand". The Irish News. pp. 14–17.
- CAIN - Chronology of the Conflict - June 1970 (see "deaths" link for information on fatalities)
- Bishop, Mallie, The Provisional IRA, p103
- English, Richard (2004). Armed struggle: the history of the IRA. Oxford University Press US. pp. 134–135.
- Shanahan, Timothy (2009). The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the morality of terrorism. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 24–25.
- Liam Clarke (24 May 2009). "'Loyalist victim' was shot by IRA crossfire". The Times (London). Retrieved 25 June 2010.
- David McKittrick (5 June 2002). "Reid talks to republican and loyalist leaders in bid to stop Belfast rioting". The Independent (London). Retrieved 25 June 2010.
- White, Robert William (1993). Provisional Irish republicans: an oral and interpretive history. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 80.
- "Remembering the past: the Battle of St Matthew’s". An Phoblacht. 28 June 2007.
- Michael Norby. "Northern Ireland conflict photographer to give 'Peacelines' presentation". The Irish Emigrant. Retrieved 25 June 2010.
- CAIN - Sutton Index of Deaths - 1970