A Riotous time in Belfast – 1970 (clic on the photographs to enlarge the image)

Unity FlatsUnity Flats was the rather ironic name given to a brutal 60’s style complex of catholic apartments, planted, more in hope than expectation, at a junction close to the Protestant Shankill Road. By the late 60’s when the Catholic civil liberties agenda had erupted into inter-community violence, it was quite possibly one of the most uncomfortable places to live anywhere in Northern Europe.It would break your heart to have had a young family and be caught in the dangerous claustrophobia of Unity Flats. There was, by that time, a riot almost every Saturday, particularly during the football season. Most of such riots were short-lived affairs with plenty of bricks stones and foul oaths, but they all had the potential to develop into the most ugly mass violence. In September 1970 it did so erupt. I was there as an army combat photographer and managed to get some decent impressions of what occurred. Linfield Football club was originally formed by the Linfield Mill workers and was exclusively Protestant. It’s ground, Windsor Park, perhaps gives a clue that it is a fiercely loyalist club. Union Jacks, Linfield football club and sectarianism are as natural to the Protestant Shankill Road as is undying Catholic enmity to the British that is the Falls Road. The march back by Linfield fans from a Windsor Park Saturday football game, to the Shankill was an occasion for fear in the Unity flats, apprehension in the RUC and the careful deployment of riot troops and vehicles in nearby and convenient streets. Here they come, those fun-loving Linfield fans, Prods on the Shankillchanting their not so friendly footie songs and expressing, as only football fans can, their collective view of what they think of those living in the flats. They are policed by both the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Royal Military Police and it is worth noting that the RMP are wearing soft caps rather than tin helmets, for this was the softly softly approach favoured by our political masters, we all carried helmets and respirators, but they were not deployed until absolutely necessary and we tried, as much as possible to be as unaggressive and as un-macho in appearance as we could, hence soft hats, but with riot vehicles deployed in the side streets.

Inevitably such a friendly football crowd would find it difficult to resist throwing the odd missile or two at the watching Catholics, and so it was on this occasion.   Here a soldier of the Kings own Scottish Borderers is seen comforting a small boy injured by a protestant missile. riot casualty - Unity Flats - Belfast 1970

It was a missile, from a particularly volatile crowd, one of many that was to lead, on this occasion, to over four days of serious protestant rioting.

As I recall a Royal Military Policeman went into the Linfield fans to arrest or stop a particular fan that he deemed more out of order than was called for. It was, in retrospect an ill-judged and foolish thing to do, unarmed as he was. The fans turned on him, more policemen, military and civil, went to his aid, a struggle, a melee, a surge, a baton, a roar and they were off.

The armoured pigs and land rovers quickly filled with troops and moved onto the Shankill as the Linfield supporters, by now a full-blown rioting mob turned to the derelict buildings and began stoning on a prehistoric scale. Up raced the mob to the Shankill, vehicles began to burn, shops attacked.

The army took control from the RUC and armoured vehicles, full of soldiers, moved slowly up towards central Shankill. I jumped into the back of a pig full of soldiers from the Kings Regiment, armed with nothing but my cameras. This pig accelerated and sped towards the Shankill where vehicles were now burning brightly and banks under assault. We leapt out to the usual Belfast scene of street fighting

Shankill road

There was a National Westminster Bank on the corner, already gutted, someone had tried to blow the safe, or at least had a good go at it with a sledgehammer, the building was wrecked but they had not got into the safe. The same could not be said for the manager’s drinks cabinet which was notable for the number of empty bottles and scarcity of anything left to drink.

We set up rather thin lines of riot soldiers facing the now huge crowds of Protestant rioters. This picture captures the scene rather well showing Kingsmen looking apprehensively up the Shankill, waiting to see what would happen next, with local shopkeepers, knowing what would happen next and boarding up their shop!

Kings Regt on the Shakhill road

The riot soldiers were armed but under instructions not to open fire and the truth of it was that there was not enough soldiers and far too many rioters. Control could not be asserted and the rioting went on into the night and continued for about four days.. The Kings were holding a street known as Snugville Street, one of the maze of terraced houses that ran off the Shankill. We were under constant stoning mixed with occasional petrol bombs. Some rioters were using catapults and were firing marbles as well as stones. They bloody hurt and here a King’s Regt sergeant helps one of his men from the front line, badly hurt by a catapulted missile:military  (15)

In the face of such provocation, the Kings kept their discipline. No shots were fired. They just stood and took it for about three days, being forced at one stage into an old sugar warehouse with a baying mob throwing petrol bombs and beating on the corrugated tin doors, confident they had no fear of being shot. At that stage, it got so hairy that I actually put down my cameras and took up a baton, for we feared the mob would break into the warehouse and that a full baton bashing session was imminent.

More troops were poured into the Shankill and over the next four days, the army finally regained control. We, besieged in the Snugville Street warehouse, were relieved by soldiers from 40 Commando who came marching through the terraced streets beating time on their riot shields and firing the occasional teargas grenade. It was a wonderful stirring sight. I was given an escort of about half a company of commandos and marched back to the control lines for most of my photographs would have been needed both for intelligence purposes and for assisting in the prosecution of individual rioters. The poor bloody infantry stayed on the streets for another three or four days calming things down and restoring order.

They take their football rather seriously on the Shankill!

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6 thoughts on “A Riotous time in Belfast – 1970 (clic on the photographs to enlarge the image)

  1. “It’s ground, Windsor Park, perhaps gives a clue that it is a fiercely loyalist club.”. You do, presumably, not realise that the name of the ground has nothing to do with the Royal Family but the name of the area where it was located? Linfield moved to Windsor Park in 1905. The Royal Family didnt change its name to Windsor until 1917.

  2. Hello John, I stumbled on your site by accident, and then was surprised to read your stories on being an Army photographer (as I was). I did a bit of checking and found you on a course picture , standing beside an old colleague of mine, Paul Cooper. I thought you might not be aware of this Facebook group for the AFPA, so here’s a link. https://www.facebook.com/groups/989277714469996/

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