Bloodless Battle Between British Army And The PIRA

PEOPLE in the Newry region had to endure a month-long power blackout, due to a bloodless battle between the British Army and the Provisional IRA, over control of street-lighting, in 1974. The only victims were local inhabitants, deprived of light, heat, cooking facilities and employment.

Following a spate of hi-jackings, arson, looting and gun-attacks in the frontier town on the anniversary of Internment, the British Army took control of electricity supplies in the area. They imposed a virtual curfew, switching off street-lighting in the town and housing estates.

The Provisional IRA issued a warning to Electricity Service employees, not to repair any faults, while the military retained control over power supplies. Gradually, sections of the network, including Warrenpoint, South Armagh and parts of South Down, had to shut-down due to technical problems.

Civic leaders warned that the area was “on the brink of economic and social disaster.” And the go-ahead was given at a public meeting in Newry Town Hall for a committee of businessmen and trade unionists to hold discussions with the British Army and the Provisional IRA.

Bishop O’Doherty and the principals of all the Catholic schools in the region called for a settlement. A statement said: “A crisis exists, which makes it impossible to run our schools in the normal manner, for the 8,000 pupils in our care. It is our duty to make the problem known to those who can restore normal conditions.

“Like all fair-minded people we desire peace founded on justice, with respect for the community. But this cannot be achieved by causing hardship to others, or to ourselves, as is happening at present.”

And a deputation of housewives, living in all-electric homes, held discussions with the Housing Executive about their plight, especially the elderly and mothers with young children. They complained that, in addition to the rent, they also paid a charge for electricity, which should be stopped while they were getting no heating or light.

Meanwhile, chairman of Newry and Mourne district council, John McEvoy, along with his deputy Arthur Lockhart, trade union, industry and business leaders, were engaged in crisis talks with Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees and his ministers at Stormont.

During the same period, loyalist bomb-attacks on Hughes’ public house at Church Street in Newry, and McArdle’s in Crossmaglen, resulted in almost 80 casualties, but fortunately no fatalities. Two darts teams were about to play in the Newry bar, when the blast threw patrons on to the floor. Four of the Hughes children were in bed, but uninjured. The bomb had been left by two men, who then drove off.

At Crossmaglen, a package exploded in the door-way of the packed bar, seriously injuring two customers, while others suffered from cuts and shock. Surgeons, nurses and other staff were called in. Newry firemen were attending their annual dinner in the station, when the alarm came through. They were joined by colleagues, who had been guests at the function.

As a sort of light relief from the black-out and bomb-attacks was the unique election contest between the controversial Tory politician, Enoch Powell (UUP) and the charismatic young Civil Rights leader, actor, sportsman and councillor Sean Hollywood (SDLP) for the South Down seat at Westminster. The dark horse almost sprang a shock result!

Trouble had erupted after an anti-Internment March on August 9, 1974. Almost 40 cars, lorries and buses were seized; while CIE withdrew its cross-border services. Firemen had a hectic time, dealing with numerous fires, with hostile crowds often barring their path. Vehicles were commandeered on the Camlough Road, including an oil-tanker and a lorry laden with meat, while shots were fired. After a coal-lorry was hi-jacked, all deliveries from the town were suspended.

Dominican Prior, Fr John O’Rourke, told the congregation in St Catherine’s Church: “Those involved in burning and looting are turning Newry into a wilderness, and making people live in fear. Public opinion is the most powerful weapon to combat the damage being caused without reason. It’s no good saying: `That’s terrible`, and going on your way.

“Some people have discovered that they could maim and kill other human beings, destroy property and vehicles, depriving others of the right to work. The North of Ireland is a sick society, where people have rejected God, and are seeking a modern Babylon,” he added.

A spokesman for the Royal Marines stated: “The vandalism has affected all sections of the community, and has achieved nothing except hostility towards those responsible. The demonstration to mark the anniversary of internment was peaceful, but the following 36 hours were marked by widespread hooliganism.

“Many attempts have been made to murder soldiers, and as long as that danger exists, the security forces must be able to switch off street-lighting in the town. All such lighting for Newry and the surrounding estates is controlled by one switch. That means that, when there is a shooting in the town centre, all street illuminations must be turned off.”

But the Newry Brigade of the Provisional IRA called on Electricity Service workers “not to do any maintenance, while they have no control over electricity in the town.

We don’t want to interfere with the employees. But while a form of martial law exists in Newry, we call on electricity workers to down tools, until such time as the British Army hands power back to the Electricity Board, and stops interfering with the amenities of the people of Newry.”

President of Newry Chamber of Commerce, Eddie Mackle called on the Secretary of State to “remove from the British Army the right to keep the town of Newry in a state of black-out. No action by the Army has angered, aggravated and frustrated so many people as this imposed removal of public lighting.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008