The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

From the late 1960s to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – Northern Ireland saw a murderous terrorist conflict between Loyalists and Republicans that claimed the lives of thousands of people. A turbulent period of history dubbed The Troubles. These six counties of the island of Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom after the other 26 counties became part of the Irish Republic a century ago. A devolved government at Stormont was dominated by ‘Unionist’/’Loyalist’ politicians from the majority Protestant community. They often denied the minority Catholic community their basic civil rights. By the 1960s, this situation exploded into terrorist conflict with the British Army called in to control the situation. Through the dreadful violence of the 1970s and 1980s, rock and pop bands tended to give Northern Ireland a wide berth.

Bands avoid Northern Ireland during The Troubles

The absence of gigs in Northern Ireland during The Troubles only served to highlight its isolation because of the conflict. Young people were denied the simple pleasure of seeing their favourite pop acts at close range. So, top bands of the 1970s and 1980s would tour from Glasgow to Newcastle, Bristol to London – but Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry if you prefer) would be absent from the list of tour venues. They were simply too wary to play those cities given the risks.

To be clear, The Troubles were something fought over most people’s heads by a few hundred Protestant Loyalist and Catholic Republic terror groups. There was a wider layer of support for the terrorists within the communities. And politicians stoked the sectarian hatreds to win support for their parties. But under the surface – especially among the young – there was a growing desire to find a way out of this constant cycle of tit-for-tat killings of Protestants and Catholics. Otherwise, how would they ever see their favourite bands locally?

The Miami Showband Massacre

Bands had good reason to be scared of going to Northern Ireland. On 31 July 1975, The Miami Showband – one of Ireland’s most popular music acts both north and south of the border – were stopped at a British Army checkpoint as they returned to Dublin in the Republic from a gig in County Down in the British-controlled north. Only this wasn’t a British Army checkpoint. It was a group of terrorists from the Ulster Volunteer Force – a violent Loyalist organisation – in disguise. They were impersonating a legitimate checkpoint. At first the band suspected nothing.

However, the encounter on a dark country road ended with three band members including lead vocalist Fran O’Toole being shot indiscriminately to death. Fran’s head was pulverised with bullets in what can only be described as a vindictive act to leave him unrecognisable. In a pathetic attempt to exonerate their thuggery, the UVF claimed that The Miami Showband van was being used to smuggle IRA weapons. They described the killing of the three musicians as “justifiable homicide”.

A Netflix documentary lays out the details of what happened that night and the cowardice of those who massacred an entirely innocent group of young men. It’s an issue that grates with me as my family on my father’s side is from counties Tyrone and Monaghan. In the 1970s, a cousin of mine was killed for no reason other than being a Catholic in a sectarian ambush. Wrong place, wrong time – that was enough to end your life.

Charley Pride plays Belfast

So, by and large, pop and rock bands stayed away. The exceptions though were notable and sometimes quite unexpected. Country and western music was very popular in Ireland – given the similarity and roots in Irish traditional songs. Yet in the 1970s, American country superstars Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash decided to avoid the war zone. However, country and gospel sensation Charley Pride threw caution to the winds and played Belfast’s Ritz Cinema in 1976 – being hailed by both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland for his stance.

Pride stayed in the Europa hotel – which boasted it was the most bombed hotel in Europe. I stayed there before the Good Friday Agreement and didn’t get a wink of sleep as an army helicopter hovered in the sky nearby all night. Pride was moved by the whole experience as he told an interviewer years later:

I did see soldiers riding along with guns stickin’ out those little things, and by the third show I had a better grasp of the politics. I remember I sat on a stool to sing Crystal Chandeliers, and I got to thinkin’ about the people coming to see me when there was all this trouble going on, and I got very emotional. And I don’t do fake tears. I sing songs, and I like it that it can bring people together.

Punk bands and The Troubles

If any musical genre was going to stick two fingers up to the terrorists and play Belfast and Derry – surely it had to be punk? Well, that was what many Protestant and Catholic youth hope for in 1977 when The Clash were booked to play the Ulster Hall in Belfast. It had been organised by the Entertainments Committee of the Northern Ireland Polytechnic. But – the gig never happened.

This event has become part of Northern Irish punk folklore. A full-blown riot of punk fans in the middle of the city was reported to have occurred. But ageing eye-witnesses have since confessed it was pretty tame as civic disorder goes. A couple of windows smashed and that was about it. Various logistical issues prevented The Clash from playing but some critics felt the whole episode descended into a photo op for the band. So contentious is this landmark of punk history that in 2014, the University of Ulster even held a symposium to try and get to the bottom of what actually happened. Sadly, Joe Strummer from The Clash is no longer around to give us his version of events.

Maybe as a direct result of this – as some have suggested – or just because there was so much to get angry about – an indigenous punk scene developed. The most famous band was Stiff Little Fingers from Belfast. Their 1978 hit single Alternative Ulster was released at the same time that a Derry-based punk band The Undertones brought out Teenage Kicks. Whereas Stiff Little Fingers were unabashedly political – The Undertones tended to focus on the angst of teen life. The great thing about these two bands and others that emerged from the punk and post-punk scene in Northern Ireland was that local youth found their own voice.

It would be wrong not to name check other punk bands that Northern Ireland produced during The Troubles: The Defects, The Outcasts, Protex, Rudi and an anarcho-punk outfit inspired by Crass called Toxic Waste. While many mainland British punk and New Wave bands referenced The Troubles in a rather romanticised way, bands from Northern Ireland tended to express the futility of having to endure this sectarian nightmare on a daily basis. To be honest, I cringe when I listen to what some well-meaning British artists sang about The Troubles at the time. Whereas Stiff Little Fingers have never given me cause to wince!

FIND OUT MORE: Irish skinheads, rudeboys, and punks

2Tone comes to Belfast

In 1979, the 2Tone record label was promoting a message of racial unity through the music of bands like The Specials and The Selecter. This was at a time when the neo-Nazi extreme Right had made disturbing electoral gains in some part of the UK and racist tensions were at a height. So, inevitably almost, the bands wondered whether they could bring a little unity to Northern Ireland. On 23rd November 1979, they played at Queen’s University in Belfast.

This was especially brave because on 27 August that year, the Queen’s cousin – Lord Mountbatten – was murdered by the IRA while fishing on a small boat near Mullaghmore in western Ireland. This shocking assassination was depicted in the Netflix drama series about the British royal family – The Crown – with actor Charles Dance playing Mountbatten. Incidentally, it was no fun for me at school at the time as the killer – who was apprehended – shared my surname, a certain Thomas McMahon.

FIND OUT MORE: The Specials in Northern Ireland

Death of Bobby Sands

In May 1981, an imprisoned member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – Bobby Sands – died in prison aged 27. He’d been on hunger strike over demands that IRA offenders behind bars should be treated as political prisoners. This would mean not wearing a prison uniform, being exempt from prison work and most critically – the right to free association with other prisoners.

The hunger strike had been ongoing for 66 days when Sands passed away. While refusing food, he ran in a parliamentary by-election caused by the sudden death from a heart attack of the sitting MP Frank Maguire. Sands won the seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone but obviously couldn’t take his seat in Westminster as he was in the throes of starving himself to death for his cause.

The death of Sands caused another pull out of bands from Northern Ireland. Rockabilly popsters Matchbox said they were “very nervous about going” over to Ireland. Heavy metal combos Girlschool and Vardis decided to cancel concerts in the Irish Republic on the advice of gig promoters.

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