It was a brave pop band that went to Northern Ireland at the start of the 1980s and loudly advocated a non-sectarian message – but that’s what The Specials and The Beat did in 1981.
I’m half Irish and my family are from Northern Ireland. During the 1970s, the “Troubles” reached their height. This was a three-corner fight between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), various Loyalist groups and the British Army.
The IRA was a terrorist organisation claiming to represent the “nationalist” Catholic population making about 40% of the people in Northern Ireland back then. The Loyalist paramilitaries claimed to be acting for the Protestant majority. While the British Army had been sent in to keep the peace – welcomed by Catholics initially – but now seen by the same Catholics as an occupying force.
The carnage seemed never ending at the time. Bomb attacks and sectarian assassinations were just a commonplace. And it spilled over into mainland Britain increasingly with terrorist attacks in London, Manchester and Birmingham. So it was very brave of The Specials to go and play in Northern Ireland.
Ulster is the historical name for the province, most of which is in Northern Ireland – though three counties are actually in the Republic of Ireland: Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan. The Troubles were sung about by punk bands whose anger seemed very appropriate. 2Tone brought a different vibe – a mournful commentary on the divisions in British society.
On the UK mainland, 2tone bands had made racial unity central to their musical message. When it came to the violence torn province, unity of Catholic and Protestant youth was their plea. I write about this tour in my biography of Neville Staple – Original Rude Boy. And below is a press clipping from my archives.