Respecting The Dead And The Living

James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden, erected 2003 by the East Belfast Historical and Cultural Society (Íomhá: CAIN / Martin Melaugh 2009)

The Battle of the Short Strand is widely regarded as one of the seminal events in the long history of the 1966-2005 conflict in the north-east of Ireland. Over the course of the 27th and 28th of June 1970 several ill-armed Volunteers of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army defended the isolated Irish Nationalist enclave of the Short Strand in East Belfast from attacks by British Unionist mobs and armed militants, the majority of the fighting taking place in and around St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church. Though somewhat mythologised at the time and subsequently, the engagement is widely regarded as (P)IRA’s “baptism of fire” and the moment when the insurgent grouping eclipsed its Official IRA rivals in the all-important political and military cockpit of Belfast. From mid-1970 onwards (P)IRA was seen as the only realistic defender of Nationalist areas from Unionist “pogroms” and its membership and support grew to reflect this. Though dozens were wounded in the clashes that night only three fatalities occurred: Henry McIlhone, a local man not associated with any Republican guerrilla force who volunteered to defend his neighbourhood, Robert Neil, a civilian killed by a ricochet shot, and James McCurrie, also slain by a single shot. Despite divergent claims it remains unknown whether the latter two, both from the surrounding Unionist community, were part of the riotous or armed groups attacking the Short Strand enclave at the time of their deaths or more likely were uninvolved spectators caught up in the cross-fire. The celebration of both in militant Unionist circles does not necessarily imply any wrongdoing on their part.

A large if somewhat incongruous-looking memorial to both was erected by the semi-political East Belfast Historical and Cultural Society (EBHCS) on the Lower Newtownards Road in 2003. In recent years this has been subject to repeated acts of vandalism which are entirely wrong and unjustified, regardless of the circumstances of its erection or the purpose it serves beyond simple commemoration (the monument is inscribed with a poem which includes a sort of call-to-arms: “When I look back in the light of day, There can be no compromise with the IRA, This date should be burned in our brain, East Belfast cannot let this happen again!”). The British and Unionist community of Belfast has as much right to honour those lost in the era of the Long War as any other community and while the memorial to those who died in the battle around St. Matthews may be controversial to some there certainly should be no controversy about commemorating those murdered in the Kingsmills massacre of 1976. Yet it too has been desecrated and for no good reason beyond giving offence and causing communal or personal hurt to others.

Vandalising historic monuments to the dead is the most nihilistic of political actions, revealing the ideological and moral hollowness of those who conduct them. They are the antithesis of Irish republican behaviour and regardless of provocation or assumed justification they must stop.

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2 comments

  1. I absolutely agree that monuments to the dead need to be respected, and I think Republicans (if it is they who are the culprits) should lay off this type of thing. However I think the monument’s inscription itself is deeply distasteful – betraying the usual mixture of perpetual victimhood and selective memory that characterises most Unionist/Revisionist discourse – whether it be in East Belfast or the offices of the Sunday Unionist (aka the Sindo). The folk ultimately responsible for these deaths were the mob of loyalists and British security forces who attempted to burn out Short Strand.

  2. Hard to argue with that. For all my revision ist anti-republican views, I can’t say I’ve ever been that fond of the Prods either.

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