ON THIS DAY: 27 JUNE 1970: The Battle for St Matthew’s, Belfast

Sometimes historical anniversaries throw up interesting items. Examples of irony perhaps, or maybe indications as to how much things have altered over the course of time. On Friday evening, Sinn Féin was the main political party which took part in what was effectively a picket of a Catholic Church in Ballyfermot. They and others may describe it as a “celebration” and an “act of solidarity,” but they are fooling no one.

A party that has sent a delegation to Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas which has actually executed gay people – and which has close ties with Cuba which likewise has a record in this area, cannot be taken seriously when it claims its motivations in picketing churches is because it is passionately pro-LGBT.

Assembling a hostile crowd outside a place of religious worship is in any event designed to be intimidatory. Just ask the people of Harryville in Ballymena who endured a loyalist blockade of the Catholic Church there. Anyone who would mistake the blandishments of militantly anti-Catholic parties like Sinn Féin and the rag tag of ultra leftists for “concern” should maybe not go out on their own too often.

The furore began with the decision of a priest in the parish to fly the rainbow flag as part of Pride week, and the subsequent directive to him to take it down. This would have been the case, the diocese confirmed, had he decided to hoist a Fine Gael flag, or an advertising flag, or even one supporting a sports team

That of course “triggered” the militant anti Papists, and also conveniently suited Sinn Féin’s bye election campaign in Dublin Bay South, one of the most liberal constituencies in the state judging by recent referendum results.

On Friday, the crowd gathered outside the church with flags and placards. Earlier in the week. an irate local Sinn Féin councillor, Greg Kelly, variously clad in the tracksuit top of a Scottish soccer club and draped rather bizarrely in a flag which appeared to encompass support for all manner of genders and sexual orientation, made it his business to berate local parishioners praying outside the Church and then circle them in his car like some demented extra in a 1950s cowboys and Indians movie shouting the odds, as they say.

Kelly is a member of a party that traces its very origins to a much different time. It is generally accepted that June 27th 1970 was the first time the Provisional IRA engaged openly in military action since the split in the IRA six months previously. They were defending St. Matthew’s Church in the Catholic enclave of Short Strand in east Belfast.

The Church was anathema to local loyalists and had been attacked in earlier assaults on the Short Strand in the 1920s. The Belfast Brigade of the IRA had also played the key role in its defence then.

The attack began when east Belfast loyalists who had taken part in a pre 12th of July march decided that it might be a good idea to end the day with a traditional attack on the local Fenians. Although the RUC and British army were aware of the potential for serious trouble, they told the local Defence Committee that there would only be around 20 British soldiers available to deal with an assault by the mob.

When after 10pm on Saturday June 27, a crowd of around 200 loyalists began to move menacingly towards Short Strand, there were only a handful of unarmed RUC men to stop them, assuming they even wanted to.  Petrol bombs were hurled at the church while 300 local people had taken refuge in the adjacent school in fear that if the mob got past the Church it would burn their homes.

Members of the local Provisional IRA retrieved M1 carbine rifles from dumps and these were used to repel the attackers, two of whom were shot dead, as was a local Catholic who the IRA claimed was shot by loyalists. The Short Strand IRA Volunteers were under the command of Belfast OC Billy McKee who was badly wounded. McKee, a traditional republican and strong opponent of leftism, was later sidelined by the Gerry Adams faction in the leadership of the IRA and supported those who resigned from the movement in 1986.

The successful defence of the Church and of the local community ensured that the Provos were now regarded by more militant Catholics as the legitimate IRA. It also underlined the close connection between that community and the Church, something that was derided by leftists at the time as “Defenderism,” a reference to the secret societies that had acted as a defence against the Orangemen and Yeomanry in the 1790s and later.

Such derision is no longer confined to those outside of the movement that once included the now disbanded IRA. Sinn Féin, however, are notably less brash about asserting anti-catholicism in the north than they are when pursuing the votes of  the liberal left in Sandymount. It is a fine balancing act that is by no means as foolproof as some might imagine. Especially as the overt anti-Catholic aspect of the party, and the growing predominance of a new intake of members and elected representatives antipathetic at best to traditional republicanism, grows in strength.



Roddy McCorley

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