1971 Belfast Refugees and the Loyalist People of Liverpool
A personal story by Stephen Gough. Reproduced by kind permission
I first became interested in this story when my partner Susan and her Mum started talking about it one night. I was fascinated as I knew nothing about it. As I listened to them recall the events of 1971 my brain got into gear and at the next meeting of the East Belfast Historical and Cultural Society I proposed that we tell this “untold story.”
As a Society we had previously told the “untold story” about the events of June 1970 when the Provisional IRA came to the fore and murdered 6 innocent Protestant men, simply because of their religion. I shall come back to that subject later.
The fact that it has taken 3 decades to tell these stories says a lot about loyalism and our inability to get our message across to the outside world.
One thing I can say for certain is that you can be rest assured that if it was women and children from republican communities that had been evacuated in 1971 the whole world would have known about it and known about it many years ago. Books would have been published, poems and songs written.
The reason why as a community we don’t get our message across in the same way republicans do is quite simple money. Our cause does not have the millions that come from America thrown at it. If we had how different things would have been.
Meanwhile in 1971 the streets of Belfast were riddled with fear. Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland were in turmoil, bombings and shootings occurred daily and street disorder was commonplace.
The tightly knit working class loyalist communities literally faced their republican counterparts across main roads or at the bottom of a terrace street where bonding together in the face of adversity to form vigilante groups, which later became in many cases defence associations etc.
1971 saw a sharp and startling increase in terrorist outrages in Northern Ireland as the situation continued to deteriorate during the year. Each month seemed to bring new heights of destruction and viciousness.
In the first 7 months of 1971 13 soldiers, 2 policemen and 16 civilians had died a violent death. There were also 311 explosions, not including bombs that failed to explode. 100 people had been injured in these explosions.
During January there were 16 bomb explosions, this had increased monthly and in July there was a total of 94. This included 10 bomb explosions on the route of the annual 12th July celebrations in Belfast.
Also in one July night there was 20 explosions between 23.00 and 7.00. Shops, stores, car showrooms, banks and public houses were targeted.
The Unionist people were feeling the effects of sustained Provo violence aimed at both the Security Forces and the Protestant population.
Protestant Refugees Running out of Food
Several Protestant families who fled from their homes in Malt Street, Grosvenor Road, Belfast, ten days ago are now running out of food. The refugees, ten adults and 25 children, are now living in a large hall in Linfield Street, Sandy Row.
They are confused about what to next, yet are afraid to return to their homes. “All that is left is cornflakes and jam, I don’t know where the next meal is coming from,” said one woman, who refused to give her name because of the fear of repercussions should she return home. Until now the refugees have been living on food provided by local shops and neighbours. But another woman said, “My children won’t starve as long as they have me.”Press report: 2nd August 1971
Eventually the deteriorating security situation and pressure from the Stormont government forced the hand of the Westminster government who on the 9th August agreed to the introducion of interment without trial. Hundreds of suspected republicans were arrested and interned in hours. The reaction from the republican community was unsurprisingly ferocious.
The following are excerpts from the media which illustrate the deteriorating security situation;
Factory fires and bombings sweep Belfast
A scene of utter destruction greeted people on their way to work in east Belfast. The area was covered in a shroud of black smoke from burning buildings and hi-jacked buses and lorries. Streets were littered with bricks, broken bottles, tiles and an assortment of rubbish, which had been used to make burning barricades. Short Strand and Mountpottinger Road were completely sealed off by rioters after troops made a series of arrests and house searches.
As the people of Belfast ate their breakfasts to the sound of explosions and gunfire, the Corporation suspended all town bus services. The worst hit area was east Belfast, which was the scene of utter destruction.
Rioters sealed off the Short Strand and Mountpottinger areas after the army made arrests. More than a dozen Corporation buses were hi-jacked and used as barricades and rioters attempted to set fire to the Wellington Tank Company.
Premises at the junction of Bridge End and Newtownards Road were ablaze. Buses were also burned. By 8.00 am four factories in the area were burning fiercely. Equipment from inside them was hurled into the streets.
In North Belfast burned out buses blocked the entrances to Brompton Park, Kerrera Street and Butler Street. By mid-day practically every corner on the Falls Road had become a petrol bomb “factory.”
Groups of youths also piled planks with nails in them across the road. A 25ft lorry was hijacked and overturned at the Donegall Road end of Broadway. Teenagers stored empty bottles, petrol bombs and bricks behind the lorry. Onlookers thronged the road as gangs of men with bulldozers and youths with pick axes smashed anything that could be used as a barricade.
Seven trees, which had been ripped up were stretched across the road from the Broadway traffic lights to the Broadway cinema and children set up a petrol bomb factory at the corner of Beechmount Drive. Street lights had also been torn out of the ground and a milk float was used as a barricade.
Shopkeepers boarded up their windows as queues of anxious housewives, out to get stocked up with food lined the road. In Andersonstown and Ballymurphy barricades were hastily erected and more than a dozen lorries and vans were hijacked. Oil was poured over the road at Andersonstown and 3000 workers at Mackie’s were sent home after a fatal bomb attack on a security officer.Monday 9th August 1971
Leave Protestants Alone says Sinn Fein Leader.
The President of Sinn Fein Tomas MacGiolla, hit out at the Provisional IRA for attacking Protestant owned property when he spoke at Killarney at the weekend. He said that the Provisionals had carried out many explosions in the past 6- 8 months and their campaign was designed with Protestants as the target, Protestant Public Houses, Protestant Halls and Protestant schools with Protestant children in them. “And this is supposed to be a campaign against British Forces” he added.
Mr MacGiolla said that the Official IRA was involved in an exclusively in a campaign against the British soldiers and never against Protestants, either as a community or as individuals. He added, the Provisionals have boasted about shooting Protestants. We are all tarred with the same brush now and attitudes are hardening.”
On August the 9th the British and Northern Ireland Governments introduced internment. Hundreds of men were interned and the reaction amongst the republican community was as expected – violent. On the receiving end of this violence was the Army, the RUC and of course the Protestant population. Some more examples of how the trouble unfolded were recorded as follows;Monday 9th August 1971
Fifteen bodies are found
The final death toll from the rioting and violence during the past 24 hours is still uncertain. The bodies of fifteen people including two women have been recovered, but both police and army privately feel that there could be as many as twenty dead.
Gunmen have fired on Protestants on the Woodvale Road; nail bombs were also used in the attack. Fourteen families are also reported as having left their homes in Springfield Park this afternoon.Tuesday 10th August 1971
Gunmen wound 2 soldiers
Two soldiers were shot and wounded in separate incidents in Belfast. The first one was shot in the leg when the army moved to disperse stone throwers in the Mountpottinger area. They used CS gas and rubber bullets to break up the crowds. The soldier was hit in Beechfield Street and was taken to hospital. Arrests were made. In the middle of the afternoon troops were still dealing with rioters.
Meanwhile on the Falls Road another soldier was wounded in the foot when a gunman opened fire. It Fifteen bodies are foundwas claimed that the trouble in started in east Belfast after a mixed Protestant and Catholic family had been intimidated. When they left their home it was set on fire and barricades erected with hijacked lorries.
An explosion caused extensive damage to Parkway Motors garage at Oldpark, the same blast also hitting the Crumlin cinema on the Crumlin Road. An entry at this point links the Oldpark and Crumlin Roads and separates the garage and the cinema. It is understood no-one was in the cinema at the time and no-one was injured.
The RUC were unable to confirm a report that a man travelling in a car on the Oldpark Road received gunshot wounds. The Oldpark shooting as on many occasions centred on Louisa Street and at times it was reported heavy with flares being used.Wednesday 11th August 1971
Belfast’s refugee problem is still growing, with the number now homeless running into several thousand more people. Both Protestants and Catholics are moving out of areas affected by the severe rioting.
The exodus continued across the border and into relief centres in the city. An estimated 3,000 catholic women and children have fled their homes and travelled to Irish army camps in the last 24 hours. More left this morning in special buses from Ardoyne.
Belfast Corporation Welfare Department today reported that there are now 19 relief centres operating in the city. Eleven of these cater for approximately 1,200 people.
An offer of help for Protestant refugees, who have left their homes in the Springmartin estate, which faces Ballymurphy, has come from Liverpool.
About 200 people from the estate have been staying in Blackmountain Primary School since Monday night and a spokesman there said that a Protestant organisation had offered shelter for children in Liverpool.
Arrangements would be made later today when an official from the organisation arrives in Belfast.
The flight from Protestant areas continues and it is estimated that 2,000 have fled their homes since the outbreak of trouble on Monday and more are continuing to seek refuge outside the city.
A number left the Suffolk area, which borders Andersonstown and have occupied houses on the Old Warren estate in Lisburn.
In the early hours of the morning 150 children from the lower Shankill arrived in Newcastle County Down where others have already been given shelter.Thursday 12th August 1971
Remember it was at this time Protestants fleeing attack from their Catholic neighbours set fire to their home in Farringdon Gardens etc. They simply couldn’t stay any longer, they feared for their safety but they didn’t want their neighbours to have their homes so up they went in flames.
Parents were petrified for their families, at night children hid under beds, lights were turned off in houses, tables were put up against doors and gunfire echoed down the narrow terrace streets. At nights children could hear footsteps across the rooftops as gunmen attempted to get the best vantage points to return or open fire.
Barricades were erected, food gathered in, bottles collected and anything else that could be used to defend a community. It was a frightening time for all.
Our children where suffering horribly at the hands of republican aggression. They were seeing and hearing things that they should never have seen. Many were traumatised it was a harrowing time.
It was against this backdrop that the good people of Liverpool decided to act and act in a manner that would see them extend the hand of friendship across the water.
Word circulated around the affected areas that there was an opportunity for children to go to Liverpool for a while to get away from the mayhem.
Decisions were made by parents quickly, there was no time to waste.
Within a couple of hours the first batch of children from Belfast had their bags packed and they were sent by bus to catch the evening sailing on the Ulster Prince or the Ulster Queen to Liverpool.
It all happened so quickly but the excitement of going away dealt with any homesickness there may have been. They simply had no time to think.
On the boat they explored and ran and ran playing games, this for the children was an adventure. For the small number of adults who also left it was a relief to get away. For many their houses had been burned to the ground. After a while all got some sleep before being woken early as the ferry headed up the Mersey.
As they walked down the gangway to the waiting crowds I have no doubt a different fear took hold of the children, a fear tinged with excitement. I am sure the fear quickly left them as they received a warm welcome, new clothes and a warm breakfast.
Suffice to say the response of the loyalist people of Liverpool was awesome and the dedication by certain people unbelievable.
I think what surprised me most when researching this story was the response in Liverpool. It didn’t just come from ordinary people but statutory agencies – health, the council and the police all played a part.
I recall Elsie telling me that a local convent offered help as well. Perhaps if the parents back in Belfast knew about the convent they might have had second thoughts about sending their Protestant children over!
Two stories brought a smile to my face when listening to some of the people here in Liverpool telling me how Belfast children behaved. One was about the buses in Liverpool, back home the buses were red, over here they were green, to the kids from Belfast that meant only one thing and as a result they stoned the buses.
The other story relates to a Liverpool mother looking after refugees. She wondered why the street was so quiet, normally it was full of laughter and screams as the children played, but not today.
Why was that she wondered and went out to investigate and there they all were huddled around the kids from Belfast who were teaching their hosts how to make petrol bombs!
As the weeks went by the kids started to go home as and when their area was deemed safe. Some like Susan stayed for several months and even went to school in Liverpool before catching the ferry home. A small number stayed and never went home, building new lives in England.