Fewer than a dozen people had died violently in Northern Ireland when the first bewildered British squaddies with fixed bayonets edged nervously on to the Falls Road, Belfast, in August 1969. What if the soldiers hadn’t appeared—what if Harold Wilson had not ordered them in to quell the rising tide of Protestant and Catholic street clashes?
The arrival of the military obviously provided no solution, for during the next two years more than 200 died. In the decades that followed, about 3,700 people lost their lives before the peace process eventually brought today’s semblance of normality.
But if London had not sent in the troops, the chances are things would have been even worse. Although there had been few deaths, the streets of Belfast and Londonderry were pulsating with terror, dread and hatred. Largely peaceful protests had degenerated into extensive rioting as two working-class communities, republican and loyalist, squared up to each other.
Everyone was terrified, especially in Belfast where the Catholic minority feared that whole areas might be overrun by militant Protestants. For half a century the Protestant and unionist community had wielded absolute power, in charge of government, police, judiciary, civil service and everything else. Catholics were second-class citizens.
A heavily armed police force had enforced the system but the 1960s winds of change—better education, a civil rights movement styled on Martin Luther King, the election of Wilson himself—produced a new zeitgeist.
Catholics acquired fresh ambitions, most Protestants new nightmares: there was much at stake. The power struggle combined in a toxic mix with the long tradition of street disorder in Belfast, a city which saw its first lethal sectarian riot in 1813.
The immediate reason for sending in the army was that the local police force, the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, was falling apart. Days and nights of sustained rioting had left its men—there were only 3,000 of them—exhausted, demoralised and in many cases injured. No longer in control, it was in need of reinforcements and indeed rescue.
The area with the greatest potential for real slaughter was Belfast. Rioting was widespread, hundreds were fleeing their homes, and the guns were coming out of their ancient hiding places. It was a picture of chaos and destruction, worsening by the day, with much talk that civil war was on the way.
British ministers were extremely reluctant to send in the military, correctly believing that it could take years…