CLONTIBRET ‘INVASION’

ClontibretIt was hardly an ‘invasion’ in the true military sense. Nothing like the 200,00 Allied forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 or the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 or of Poland in 1939. Yet Peter Robinson’s nocturnal excursion along with a group of 150 loyalists across the border into the quiet County Monaghan village of Clontibret on August 7 1986 was dubbed an ‘invasion’ by some sections of the media.

It was more like a sortie, a raid, an incursion or an infiltration. His intention was to show what he believed were the gaps in cross-border security, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Yet it was the RUC who tipped off the Gardaí about his plans, according to Stormont papers recently released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Historian Éamon Phoenix who has researched them says that a note from a Northern Ireland Office official from the Political Affairs Division to the British Ambassador to Dublin refers to about 150 loyalists, “some wearing paramilitary uniforms and carrying cudgels” entering Clontibret.

They daubed the slogan “Ulster is Awakening” on a Garda station and from what I myself remember of the day in question, on some walls including that of a Church of Ireland school. The crowd also injured two Gardaí.

The BBC reports that the note said: “The RUC’s action in tipping off the Gardai during the night of 6-7 August about the incursion by Peter Robinson and his loyalist thugs was also warmly appreciated in Dublin, according to Michael Lillis [of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs].”

The NIO official who wrote the note told the ambassador: “We have done our little bit here by holding Irish hands in the [Anglo-Irish] Secretariat and feeding them with material for their hourly reports to their ministers during periods of particular tension.” The report notes that the crowd dispersed when gardai fired shots into the air.

“Robinson, who appears to have lingered behind deliberately, was arrested and held in custody for 32 hours (during which he refused all sustenance provided by the gardai, preferring the wholesome Ulster food brought to him by his wife) before being charged with four offences, including assaulting gardai and causing wilful damage.”

Although Mr Robinson was already in Ulster, this reference is to the breakfast brought to him by his wife Iris during his detention at Monaghan Garda station.

The official noted that Mr Robinson (who first appeared in court in Ballybay) was granted bail to appear in court in Dundalk on 14 August.

Other loyalist shows of strength planned to take place on the same night as Clontibret were limited by RUC activity to Swatragh in County Derry where a group of masked men, some carrying firearms, marched through the nationalist village, causing some damage to property. Both incidents were condemned by the British and Irish governments. For its part, the DUP hailed the operation “as a clear indication of the absence of cross-border security”.

A separate file reveals that Peter Robinson and his party leader, Ian Paisley, felt they “narrowly escaped with their lives” and made a formal protest to the British Foreign Office about inadequate protection, following a court appearance in Dundalk over the Clontibret incident.

Peter Robinson later took over from Ian Paisley as DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland.

REMEMBERING US SERVICEMEN

Lisnabreeny Memorial Photo: © Michael Fisher

Lisnabreeny Memorial Photo: © Michael Fisher

The Mourne granite memorial at the former American military cemetery at Lisnabreeny in Castlereagh has 148 names etched on three sides. As the crowd gathered on Saturday for the dedication of the monument, I noticed a namesake (but not a relation) among them: FISHER, PATRICK A S/Sgt.

Names on Lisnabreeny memorial: Staff Sergeant Patrick A Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

Names on Lisnabreeny memorial: Staff Sergeant Patrick A Fisher Photo: © Michael Fisher

I thought of him during the service and afterwards I tried to find out if there was any record of his military service. I found two servicemen of the same name from different states in the USA but both were listed as Privates when they joined in 1942. The older one was from Pennsylvania and would have been around 31 when he enlisted in 1942. In civvy life his occupation was described as “express messenger and railway mail clerk(s)”. I would welcome any further information either via the comments below or by contacting me on twitter @fishbelfast.

Ceremony at Lisnabreeny Photo: © Michael Fisher

Ceremony at Lisnabreeny Photo: © Michael Fisher

The ceremony was organised by Castlereagh Borough Council, which also reinstated the entrance to the former US military cemetery and provided the monument. It began with a formal parade from Lagan College, headed by the Mayor Councillor David Drysdale, who was driven in a former US Army jeep of the type used in World War II. The pipes and drums of 152 (Ulster) Transport Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, followed with the other members of the Council, the Air Training Corps Cadets and members of local branches of the Royal British Legion.

WWII US Army Jeep in Castlereagh Photo: © Michael Fisher

WWII US Army Jeep in Castlereagh Photo: © Michael Fisher

The guests included the Lord Lieutenant of County Down, David Lindsay, the Acting US Consul General Gabrielle Moseley and the First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson. Wreaths were laid at the memorial at the end of the dedication service.

NI First Minister Peter Robinson lays a wreath at Lisnabreeny Photo:© Michael Fisher

NI First Minister Peter Robinson lays a wreath at Lisnabreeny Photo:© Michael Fisher

Councillor Drysdale explained the Council’s involvement with the site at the start of the ceremony.  He said:-

“Over the last few years, the Council has been involved in an extensive restoration project to reinstate the original entrance to the former Lisnabreeny American Military Cemetery and create a lasting commemoration to the American servicemen who lost their lives in the Second World War.  A dedicated monument has been erected as part of the project, which will provide an opportunity for the people of Castlereagh to visit the site for generations to come and learn more about these brave servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom today”.  

View of ceremony from jeep Photo: © Michael Fisher

View of ceremony from jeep Photo: © Michael Fisher

The service of dedication of the memorial was led by the Mayor’s chaplain, Pastor George Moffett. Lieutenant Colonel Travis Phillips, Assistant Army Attaché at the US Embassy in London expressed thanks to the Council for acknowledging the legacy of US military personnel who had paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Allied war effort. He said the recent restoration of the former cemetery underpinned the shared history and special ties of kinship between Northern Ireland and the USA. After an American Serviceman’s Medley sung by Donaghadee Male Voice Choir, Lt Col Phillips read the poem ‘His Rest is Won’.

Lt Col Travis Phillips US Army (centre) Photo: © Michael Fisher

Lt Col Travis Phillips US Army (centre) Photo: © Michael Fisher

After the wreath laying ceremony, the Mayor’s Chaplain led the Act of Remembrance, which was followed by a two minutes silence. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will remember them”. “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today“.

The ceremony concluded with the singing of the British and US national anthems.

Star Spangled Banner

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Air Vice Marshall, David Niven of the Royal Air Force added:-

I am proud to be asked to place a wreath, on behalf of all three Services, at this dedication ceremony.  We are, in mid-September, commemorating the service and sacrifice of our servicemen during the Battle of Britain, a battle which prevented the invasion of the United Kingdom. We are also remembering, at the Service of Dedication of this cemetery, the sacrifice of our American Allies who served and died, here, in Northern Ireland. They came from the United States to fight alongside us, in our hour of need, when the rest of Europe had been over-run by the Nazi war machine.  The sacrifice of our American Allies, commemorated in granite, and standing proud in the rolling Castlereagh hills, shall never be forgotten.”

A spectacular end to the ceremony was provided by a restored B-17 Flying Fortress bomber Sally B, which made a number of low level flypasts en route to the Flightfest in Dublin the following day.

Restored entrance to former US Military Cemetery Photo: © MIchael Fisher

Restored entrance to former US Military Cemetery Photo: © MIchael Fisher

On  26th January 1942 the first American troops arrived at the Dufferin Dock  in Belfast as the first phase of Operation MAGNET, the defence of  Northern Ireland, As agreed between President Roosevelt and Prime  Minister Winston Churchill during a meeting in Washington DC in December 1941. Over the next three years there were seldom less than 120,000 US  servicemen in NI at any one time. A  US Special Army Observer Group had been acting as an American Military  mission in London since 1941. This group approached the war office in  London on 9 December 1941 to obtain burial grounds for American forces  in the United Kingdom.

Two plots were initially set aside for emergency  burials in Northern Ireland, one in Derry and the other in  Belfast. The Belfast plot, located within the City Cemetery, and  extending to one sixth of an acre was chosen. The  first American servicemen to die in Northern Ireland were 3 members of  the US Navy who lost their lives in an accident at the American Naval  Base in Londonderry. The first burial in the Belfast City Cemetery plot took  place on 12th March 1942. From then until October 1942 a total of  41 American servicemen were interred there. At that  stage the plot had reached capacity and it was decided to ship deceased personnel across to England for interment until an alternative  could  be found.

Burial at Lisnabreeny 6th May 1944 of Pte Steve Fellin 56th Field Artillery Bn, 8th Infy Division

Burial at Lisnabreeny 6th May 1944 of Pte Steve Fellin 56th Field Artillery Bn, 8th Infy Division

On  2nd December 1943 a ten and a half acre plot of land at Rocky Road was  officially opened as the (link to photo chimneyrockb26crash.com) Lisnabreeny American Military Cemetery. It  was decided to re-locate all deceased personnel to this new site, and  between 23rd May 1944 and 1st June 1944 all of the 41 bodies previously  interred in the City Cemetery were exhumed and re-interred at  Lisnabreeny. By the end of the war a total of 148 American servicemen  were buried in Lisnabreeny, the majority being Army Air Force but also including US Army and US Navy personnel

The  Cemetery was accessed via a red brick entrance with iron gates on the  Rocky Road. A white gravel driveway, lined with cherry trees, led to a  flagstaff where the Stars and Stripes was hoisted daily. The graves were  laid out in rows with 25 to each row, and each grave had a simple white  marker, either a Cross or a Star of David, depending on religious  denomination, bearing name, rank, unit and date of death.

The Cemetery  was looked after by 5 US Army personnel with a minimum of 2 on duty at  any one time. A Nissan type hut was located on site and provided storage  and office space for maintenance equipment and Cemetery records. The  Cemetery was maintained to a very high standard with grass regularly  mown, trees and shrubs clipped and pruned, and the stone paths borders  whitewashed weekly. Following  the end of the war, the Cemetery continued to be maintained right up to 1948 when all deceased were exhumed, and either transferred to the  permanent American War Cemetery in Cambridge, or repatriated to the  United States, at the request of their families. At that point the  cemetery was deactivated. Some more information on the cemetery can be found on this American source:

Graves registration activities of the Quartermaster Corps in the European Theatre (of WWII) began in December 1941, when the United States asked the British War Office about burial facilities for our military personnel expected to arrive in 1942 in Northern Ireland, where they would aid the British in their defence of that part of Ireland. Sadly, as was expected, American lives were lost after the men arrived. These burials had been in swampy ground in local cemeteries, but the U.S. Army negotiated with the British and secured a plot of land at Lisnabreeny, a suburb of Belfast, where the Americans were reinterred“.

From “A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham”, who worked for the American Graves Registration Command in Paris, quoted by his daughter, Jean Peckham Kavale in A Personal Look at U.S. Army History.

UNIONIST DIS-UNITY

Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt

What happens next is what happens next”   That’s my nomination for quote of the week. You can now see why ex media star Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. His ability to state the obvious with ease and not answer any difficult questions from interviewers, now that he is on the other side of the microphone or the camera. Mike had been asked on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster (1:58:00) about the future direction of the UUP and whether there would be other agreed unionist candidiates in future elections. The question arose following the resignation from the party last night of former deputy leader John McCallister MLA, over the UUP/DUP decision to run an agreed unionist candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election, which I wrote about yesterday. Mr Nesbitt described the move as a “one-off”, but some wondered if it would just be the start of the end for the UUP and its amalgamation with the larger party led by Peter Robinson.

Then came a second bombshell for the UUP. Lagan Valley Basil McCrea MLA did an interview with the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster in which he announced his resignation. He hinted that plans were underway for the formation of a new “opposition” party along with Mr McCallister and the East Londonderry independent MLA David McClarty (formerly UUP).

Mr McClarty told the same programme on the BBC anybody who was a betting person would have put their money on John and Basil going at some stage. It happened extremely quickly, and it wrong-footed an awful lot of people, he said.  Mr McClarty said the UUP had lost its way. The Ulster Unionist Party is sending out mixed messages; they want to be progressive and pluralist, he said, yet they really have now turned this bye-election into a sectarian head count and we’re back to tribal politics. The three will be keeping in contact over the next few weeks and it remains to be seen what plans they will come up with.

One of the criticisms made by Basil McCrea was that the choice of one candidate on the unionist side (who is unlikely to win the seat anyway, given the current level of support for nationalist parties) would lead to a sectarian dogfight on the campaign trail. DUP leader Peter Robinson rejected this and said unionism was not sectarian.

The agreed unionist representative is Nigel Lutton, an orangeman who has worked with Protestant victims’ groups and whose father was shot dead by the IRA in 1979, shortly after he had left the RUC Reserve. Sinn Féin are putting forward Francie Molloy and the SDLP candidate is deputy party leader Patsy McGlone.

Patsy McGlone

Patsy McGlone

He hit out at the decision by the two unionist party leaders to back Mr Lutton and said it had the potential to reduce the by-election into a bitter sectarian struggle, echoing the views of Basil McCrea. He felt it would only create deeper tribalism. He claimed that Mike Nesbitt was leading the Ulster Unionist Party into electoral oblivion and was denying the electorate a choice. Eric Bullick will run for the Alliance party.