The conflict known as the Troubles was a long war on many fronts. There were some people fighting against those they saw as invaders and oppressors and others fighting to show how loyal they were to the country they felt part of. There was also a propaganda war being fought as various groups tried to reach sympathetic audiences (and large pocketbooks) around the world. The third battleground was the deadliest of all and it was comprised of all the tit-for-tat, mostly Sectarian killings between various paramilitary groups. This last front resulted in the vast majority of civilian deaths throughout the region and it was the hardest to prepare for or justify. It includes the Devil’s Night massacre at the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel, which happened on this day in 1993.
The news out of Ireland this week has been insane – so much so that I haven’t even been able to decide which story to write about or how to keep up. There’s so much going on, and it kind of makes me want to put the entire region on a time out, just so I can catch up. In case you missed some, here are just a few of the things that have been interesting me, in the last seven days alone.
Lawyers are a group of people in an occupation that everyone loves to hate. Endless jokes use them as the punchline, there’s an eternal stream of songs and stories about how evil they are, and it seems that no matter which area of law they practice, they’re always hated by someone. It takes a thick skin, an obsessive attention to detail, endless patience, and a lot of manipulation to succeed in the field. In the North of Ireland, the law not only takes over their lives, but sometimes it ends them. It is not a job for the weak.
Rosemary Nelson lived her life trying to make the world a better place for everyone. She lived in a hotbed of Sectarianism during the Troubles but she represented people on both sides of the religious divide in small matters for years and went to bat for those that other people would ignore. She fought on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents during the long Drumcree conflict in nearby Portadown, which thrust her firmly into politics and ruined any rapport she had with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC). That relationship only got worse when she decided to represent Colin Duffy, a man accused of killing their officers. That case would change her life and it ultimately took it as well. In the North, there have been many cases where certain factions of the population are unable to separate the lawyer from the criminal, and the assumption is that they’re one and the same. Even before she got Duffy released on a successful appeal, she was getting death threats from officers and Loyalist paramilitaries alike, just for representing him. There were twenty serious and documented death threats over a two year period, and two of them allegedly came directly from police officers. She dutifully reported each one, but was consistently refused protection by the police and the government, even after the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur stated on television that he felt her life was in danger. He recommended that the British government take action. They chose not to. She eventually testified about the threats before a committee of the United States Congress that was investigating human rights in the North of Ireland. It seems everyone was concerned about Nelson, except the very people whose job it was to take care of her.
The British government, MI5, and the RUC did not investigate any of these threats, nor did they ever give her protection. In case you feel like they didn’t do anything, rest assured that they did – they put Rosemary herself under surveillance for criminal activity. Between 1994-1998 security reports about her life increased until her home was bugged. She was seen as a criminal, rather than an attorney; and a threat, rather than a victim.
Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb planted under her car exploded on March 15th, 1999. The Red Hand Defenders, a Loyalist paramilitary group that was mostly made up of members of the LVF and the UDA, took credit for her assassination. Many of the members of the Red Hand Defenders were also RUC officers and British Army soldiers – people who belonged to the same organizations that had ignored her complaints for years, even while they were watching her every move. Strangely though, they didn’t have much in their records to investigate when it came to her death, despite all the surveillance – at least nothing they were willing to share with anyone else. There were a few inquiries into her murder and the final reports stated that all three agencies (the Government, MI5, and the RUC) had failed to protect her and had helped “legitimize” her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist paramilitaries. It also stated that these agencies and their employees had publicly threatened her and that their intelligence information had been “leaked”, making it easier for the murderers to get to her. It noted that numerous requests and warrants for surveillance footage or reports had been ignored completely. The inquiry couldn’t prove definitively that anyone in these departments had directly been involved in her death, but it certainly couldn’t prove otherwise either and their report clearly stated that investigators could not rule out the possibility that officers or soldiers might have aided the murderers.
Nelson was awarded the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize after her death – an award that honors “extraordinary heroes of conscience.” Her humanitarian status was celebrated and mourned world-wide in the aftermath of her murder – and while some Loyalists still see her as a symbol of hate, those who she spent her life trying to help remember her as an incredible and determined woman, who wanted justice for everyone whether they were young, old, Catholic, or Protestant. Today would be her birthday and I humbly suggest doing something wonderful in her honor. Help someone in whatever way you can, large or small, friend or stranger. I’m sure she’d want to be remembered in that way, rather than for the horrific way she was targeted, abandoned, and killed.
For many people a romper room is a play room full of games and toys or a television show that they grew up watching. It evokes a carefree and silly time in childhood that is full of play, puppets, and joy. For others, particularly in the North of Ireland during the Troubles, a romper room is a place of absolute horror, torture, and death – a room that is akin to a slaughterhouse or a snuff film set. These romper rooms were usually derelict homes or businesses where drinking, dancing, torture, and killing could occur without much fear of discovery or interference. One of the more brutal murders of that era took place in a UDA-controlled romper room in the Sandy Row area of Belfast, 41 years ago today. The victim’s name was Ann Ogilby and her killers were all female members of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association). It wasn’t really a political killing even though the murderous women involved were loyalist paramilitaries – it was more of a jealous feud that ended in Ann’s horrific torture and savage beating death. The story was so repulsive and put such a spotlight on the women’s group that it resulted in the total dissolution of their unit.
And now for a different Máire. Máire Drumm was born into a staunchly Republican family. She was lucky enough to have had a mother who was active in the War for Independence and the Irish Civil War, so the concept of strong women who could fight and lead was instilled in her from birth. Perhaps it was also the reason she knew she could grow up to be a commander in Cumann Na mBan and the Vice President of Sinn Fein. She settled in Belfast in 1942 and began fighting on behalf of Republican prisoners, which she did for many years to come. It was in this role that she met Jimmy Drumm, a Republican prisoner who would later become her husband.
Operation Banner is the official name for the nearly forty years that the British Army was officially deployed in the North of Ireland. It was launched on this day in 1969, in part because of the Battle of the Bogside and the riots and protests that it set off in the rest of the north.
It was clear that the Royal Ulster Constabulary could not handle (and did not tolerate) the rising voices of the Civil Rights movement, nor could it control the protests and riots that unfolded during that time. The civil unrest was made worse by the obvious bias that the RUC had against Catholics, Nationalists, and Republicans. Originally those communities welcomed the Army, thinking the soldiers would be more impartial and supportive. It soon became apparent that was not the case and as the British Army paired up with the RUC, a gradual souring took place within the community. This led to an uptick in those willing to fight against them and the enrollment in the Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups boomed.
Throughout history there are not many instances that one can absolutely prove that a horrible crime was just a part of a scheme that would have led to something much, much worse. The Miami Showband killings in Ireland is one of those times and it is an appalling lesson of just how brutal and insane the Troubles could get. It is also a clear cut example of how involved the authorities were in some of the most heinous crimes of the era.
Showbands were quite a popular phenomenon in Ireland. The uniqueness of the showband was documented in the film “The Commitments” which was popular throughout the world. These bands usually had five to ten members and were loved for playing showtunes, pop music, jazz and down home rock n roll greats. Many played the favorite traditional tunes of the area as well and they were extremely popular from the 50s right up until the mid-seventies. It’s amazing how quickly attendance and participation waned when one was targeted so ruthlessly by the paramilitaries of the UVF. Continue reading