An Phoblacht

The Tricolour Riots

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On the evening of the 28 September 1964, 40 years ago, a detachment of the RUC, acting on the direct instruction of Brian McConnell, then Minister of Home Affairs, attacked the Divis Street headquarters of the Republican Party (Sinn Féin had been outlawed that year) in West Belfast. Their perilous mission was to remove an Irish Tricolour.

This took place during a general election for Westminster. Republicans had nominated Liam McMillan to contest in West Belfast.

McConnell, under pressure from Paisley and other unionists, held a conference of his senior RUC officers on Monday morning and ordered that the tricolour flown at Liam McMillan's headquarters be removed. Under the flags and emblems display act of 1954, it was an offence to display the tricolour anywhere in the Six Counties.

On the night of the 28th, when it became known that the RUC were coming to seize the flag, more than 2,000 republican supporters blocked the roadway. Scores of RUC were rushed to the scene in armoured cars. The RUC, though heavily armed with sten-guns, rifles, revolvers, and riot batons, were made to look ridiculous by groups of children, who ran about with miniature tricolour stickers, which they stuck on walls and police cars.

The RUC, using pickaxes, smashed down the doors of the Republican headquarters and took the flag. They carried it away through a hail of stones and to the prolonged jeers of the people.

On 29 September, at 2 o'clock, the RUC cleared Divis Street to make way for an armoured car. Their new perilous mission was to seize a new replacement tricolour. The armoured car stopped outside the Republican headquarters, eight policemen emerged and began another attack with crowbars and pickaxes. They failed to break down the door, but one of them smashed the window, reached in and pulled out the second tricolour.

By Wednesday, news of the events in Divis Street had spread throughout the media. Belfast began attracting television reporters and newspaper men from all around the world. That night, thousands of republicans, armed with petrol bombs, sticks, stones and rotten vegetables, gathered outside their headquarters to defend their identity and their flag. A battle began at eleven o'clock, when the RUC tried to disperse them.

The television cameras were there to record all that happened. For the first time ever, people in many parts of the world were able to watch a sectarian police force in action.

When the republicans indicated that they would stand their ground, 50 RUC men, who had been held in reserve in the small streets between Falls Road and Shankill Road, were deployed but the republicans, in accordance with a pre-arranged strategy, drove them back.

By midnight, the police had succeeded in sealing off Divis Street and dispersing the crowd but 30 people, including at least 18 members of the RUC, had been injured.

One week later, on 5 October, republicans carried the tricolour, at the head of a parade of 5,000 people who marched from Beechmount on Falls Road, through Divis Street, to an election rally near Smithfield. RUC men lined the whole route but made no attempt to seize the flag.

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