What if…the army hadn't gone to Northern Ireland

Prospect’s counter-factual column
October 16, 2013

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 to extricate them. But as dozens of wounded were carried into casualty units, and as more and more fires lit up the night skyline, the army became the only realistic means of restoring order. There was a suggestion that a UN peacekeeping force could be drafted in, but London rejected the idea.

The troops produced a temporary lull but did not deliver peace; in fact things were to get much, much worse. In 1972 alone 500 people were killed, more than 100 of them soldiers, as the IRA and extreme loyalists took to killing on a large scale.

In August 1969 the absolute imperative was to make clear that things were not spiralling completely out of control. Had the government not sent in the military, one benign scenario is that civilised instincts would eventually have prevailed. Belfast would have pulled back from the brink and returned to a sullen peace.

But that overall death toll of 3,700 stands as compelling evidence that the Troubles would not have simply petered out of their own accord. There were simply too many reservoirs brimming with distrust and hatred.

The blood was up, and would remain up for a generation. In the years that followed the unvarying judgement of both London and Dublin was that a troop withdrawal would have led to absolute mayhem.

All the signs are that the rioting and killing would have dramatically escalated. In other words, if soldiers had not been deployed in August 1969, they certainly would have been in the following months. Such were the facts of life, and death, in Belfast.

David McKittrick is Ireland correspondent for the Independent