If the riots of ’86 were a revelation of savagery and brutality on the part of the people and, I will add, of many of the police, the Riots Commission that inquired into them was a revelation of partiality and whitewashing of one section of the population on the part of the majority of the Commission. If the riots had, as I fear they had, both a religious and a political basis, the Commission had a religious and political bias. The riots had broken out while Mr. Gladstone was in office and Mr. Morley was Chief Secretary for Ireland, and were chiefly the outcome of their policy. But they continued at intervals during the general election that followed his defeat, and after Lord Salisbury had come into office, with Sir Michael Hicks Beach as his Irish Secretary, and the Government had trouble in the South as well as in Belfast. In fact, moonlighting and murder were the order of the night and day. But Mr. Sexton was then member for West Belfast, and he kept hammering away at Belfast as if it were the one black spot in Ireland, and his clamouring resulted in the appointment of a Commission, the Government of that day, as, indeed, all Governments since, finding it safer to placate the Nationalists and silence their clamourings by yielding to them. The Commission at first consisted of Mr. Justice Day, an Irish Roman Catholic Judge, and Mr. Richard Adams, an Irish Roman Catholic barrister. Nationalist, and ex-leader-writer for the “Freeman’s Journal” at a time when it represented something of party and power in the country, and a couple of cyphers. I use the word cyphers not in any disrespect to themselves, but in regard to their comparative helplessness in a legal inquiry of which these legal gentlemen figured. They were General Bulwer and Mr. F. Le Poer Trench, Q.C. After a time Mr. M‘Hardy, Chief Constable of Lancashire, who had police experience in that county, and a character for capacity and impartiality, was added to the Commission. From the composition of the Commission, or rather from the character of its head and its right hand, the Protestants had little hope of justice or fair play from it, but they gave a sigh of relief when they heard that one strong and independent man had been appointed upon it. And I may just say that the one strong, independent mail refused to sign the report of the other Commissioners and issued an independent one of his own. But of that anon. The secretary of the Commission was a Roman Catholic barrister from the Munster Circuit.
The Commission commenced its sittings on 4th October. Its members had attended some time before, but as rioting was still going on it was thought advisable to postpone the inquiry till the restoration of peace. There was a large Bar. Mr. James H. Campbell, the present Lord Chief Justice, then without silk, and Dr. Hans M'Mordie appeared for the Loyalist Defence Association; Mr. James Orr, Q.C., the present Co. Court Judge of Down, for the Town Council; Mr. T. L. O’Shaughnessy and Mr. J. B. M’Hugh for the Nationalists; Mr. Isaac Weir, Q.C., afterwards County Court Judge, for the Orange Institution; Mr. J. J. Shaw for an independent local ratepayer (advised by Mr. J. C. White). I should mention that the Nationalists, though Mr. Sexton, member for West Belfast, who was much in evidence at this time, made a feint of pretesting against Mr. Justice Day as the head of the Commission. And of this I am sure, that if the Nationalists had any doubts about the Judge;s partiality towards and consideration for the Nationalists, or, at any rate, the Roman Catholics, they were removed before the days of the Commission were far spent. All that was known of Mr. Justice Day was that he was a strong Judge and a strong Roman Catholic; and if the object of a strong Judge was to get his own way, and the duty of a Roman Catholic to do the best fior his Church, Mr. Justice Day was a very strong Judge indeed. The other legal Commissioner wa Mr. Richard Adams, whom I knew intimatley in my Dublin days, and who was one of the best humorists that Ireland produced. He had been a leader writer for the “Freeman,” and was brilliant at that; but his love of humour and jest was even greater than his love of law or learning, though he had high claims to both. I am sure his presence on this Commission was one of the greatest jokes of his life, and no man enjoyed the humour of it better than he. Though I doubt if he held any strong convictions on politics or anything else, he knew better than most men how to play the game of politics, and he played it well. I often smiled at the twinkle of his eye as he relieved himself of some grave comment of humorous joke during the proceedings/ If Mr. Justice Day was a devotee, Mr. Adams was anything but that; and I am sure he must often have smiled at his superior’s religious gravity. But he knew well how to play up him, and he did. The other members of Commission were Protestants; but they were not Protestants after the assertive and aggressive manner of the chief, and did not use Protestant spectacles as often as he used Roman Catholic spectacles.
When the Commission opened, he laid down the rule that the Commission, would recognise no parties or individuals before them. When the various counsel put in a claim to be heard, including Mr. O’Shaughnessy, who said he represented the Roman Catholic bishop, which he, perhaps thought would have a mollifying effect, the President gave them very short shrift; and at the end of a short argument they all retired save Mr. Weir, who represented the police. This action of the President created dissatisfaction on all sides, and strong representations were made to the Chief Secretary, with the result that in a few days the counsel were allowed to appear, but were received anything but graciously by the President, at any rate so far as they represented the Protestants.
The inquiry last nearly three weeks, and over one hundred witnesses were examined, including police officers and men, military officers, magistrates — stipendiary and local, the Mayor (Sir E. J. Harland), and the Town Clerk (Mr. Samuel Black), and all sorts of men; and some who were victims of attack, and some who were responsible for attacks — but, of course, in the execution of their duty. It transpired during the inquiry that three or four hundred policemen and a large number of soldiers and civilians were injured and several deaths, and that the value of property destroyed was about £290,000. It transpired certainly that there was a limitless destroying of property; that stoning and looting, rioting and shooting were general, and in all cases reckless by the people, and in many cases reckless by the police. It transpired that there was a great want of leadership among the authorities, and that the Resident Magistrates blamed the local magistrates, and the local magistrates blamed the Resident Magistrates. But it is only fair to say that so far as the R.M.'s were concerned, most of the criticism was directed against Colonel Forbes, the Protestant magistrate, and not Mr. M'Carthy, the Resident Magistrate. Though Colonel Forbes was offensive in his evidence with regard both to magistrates and Protestant clergymen, he was specially so in regard to the Rev. Hugh Hanna; but in justice to the clergyman I must say he gave as good as he got. Not a little of the evidence was directed against Dr. Hanna and Dr. Kane, and some of the police witnesses even went so far as to make insinuations against the Rev. Dr. Johnston, who had interfered in the interest of peace. To anyone who remembers Dr. Johnston the baselessness of such an insinuation is obvious; but I only mention it to show the trend of some of the official evidence at the time. There were three Protestant, or, as they were termed, Orange leaders who came in for much criticism. These were the Rev. Dr. Hanna, the Rev. Dr. Kane, and Mr. Cobain, M.P. As regards the last named, I will only say that I thought very little either of his character or judgment at the time, and much less since, and I had no sympathy at the time with much that he said and did. With regard to Dr. Hanna and Dr. Kane, they belonged to the militant school of ecclesiastics — Sir Andrew Reid, the Inspector-General, or some one at the time, represented Dr. Hanna as a combination of Julius Caesar and the Apostle Paul — and it is quite possible they may not on all points have exhibited Christian meekness or a disposition to turn the other cheek on account of the treatment they had seen meted out to Protestants by many of the police. As I indicated previously, I did not adopt the cry of “Morley’s murderers” as applicable to the police, or adopt the suggestion that they had been sent from the South on Mr Morley’s order to shoot down the Protestants of Belfast. I had no doubt personally at the time that such a statement was both improbable and untrue, and did not need the official denial of Sir Andrew Reid, the Inspector-General, who, however, made it at the inquiry to confirm my belief. But, as a matter of fact, and no doubt of necessity, a good many Southern police were sent into Belfast. And when they came, they did not hesitate to shoot. In his evidence at the Commission the Rev. Dr. Johnston swore that he had seen half a dozen of them, who had been doing considerable sniping before, keep on firing along a street and at houses after everyone had fled from the street.
My own idea of their action, founded on my Southern experience of the opinion that in my time there prevailed in the South about the Orangemen of the North and among the classes from which police would have been selected. The popular idea then was that the Orangemen of the North were huge giants, who went up and down stoning or bludgeoning every Roman Catholic that came into their path. And when these sons of the South got to Belfast, and the chance of giving the Orangemen something in return, they did not hesitate to make the beet of the opportunity. And much of it may have been due to panic as well as the lack of co-ordination that existed among the authorities, for at times, from all I heard before and from all I heard at the inquiry, it was difficult to know with whom the authority rested. While I believe there was a little of both considerations I have mentioned as influencing individuals or squads, I did not, and could not, believe that their action was as bad as it was represented at the time, and that if there was panic on the part of some police, there was also panic on the part of some of the people. I have had intimate association with the police North and South for nearly half a century, and whether from the North or South I am bound to confess that they have, in the main, done their duty to Crown and country with great courage and impartiality, and under great stress and difficulty and danger. And while, perhaps, I could not agree with all the official white-washing they received from the Commission, I am confident that in the general they may not have acted as outrageously as the Protestants at the time thought. But I would be a traitor to truth if I did not say that many of them acted rudely and roughly, and even outrageously. The feeling against them, as was proved at the inquiry, was very strong; and I have no doubt that that feeling did much to prolong the riots and add to the bitterness on the part of the populace as well as the police. There was one striking incident of this. At one time the feeling on the Shankill Road was almost uncontrollable, and it was against the police and not against the military, or, to be more strictly accurate, against the Southern police; and the Rev. Dr. Johnston made an earnest authorities to withdraw the police from the road altogether. This was done for several days, and the military were left in charge and I must admit that, though the riots did not end, the fury of them lessened far the time.
The Commissioners’ report was published in January of ’87 — the Commission sat in October, ’86. It created a good deal of stir and a good deal of interest and a good deal of ridicule. When the great Dr. Johnson was replying in the House of Commons he said he took care that the Whig dogs would not have the best of it. The Commission, in their report, took care that the Protestant dogs would not have the best of it. At any rate that is the impression I retain of it. The Nationalists and their priests were largely represented as innocent and pacific lambs, and the Protestants, lay and clerical, as something, quite different. One of the pointed references is that while twenty-eight Roman Catholic public-houses were wrecked, only two Protestant public-houses were wrecked, by way of suggesting the moderation of the Roman Catholic rioters as compared with the Protestants. But as a matter of fact, I question if there were twenty-eight public-houses in the entire area or even in the entire area owned by Protestants, so that the small number of such houses wrecked did not suggest a sparing of Protestant by Roman Catholic and a systematic attack of Roman Catholics by Protestants. And I suspect love of loot and liquor had much to do with the destruction of these houses. The Commissioners made many suggestions as to the police and the magistrates; but I cannot say how many of them were carried out. So far as the constabulary are concerned, they are still under a Commissioner, but there has been no conflict worthy the name between them and the public since. There was a time when many of us thought the police might have done more than they did at the early stage of the labour troubles; but at that time politics came in, and the the police had to act under orders. Neither is there any change in the magistracy. We have still two Resident Magistrates, and any number of borough magistrates; in fact, they seem almost to be without limit. It was alleged by Colonel Forbes during the Commission that the magistrates attended cases of party, and acted in the interest of the party, with a special shot at the Protestant magistrates. I do not know how far that has changed since. But I have heard again and again that whether magistrates attend now in the interests of party they sometimes attend in the interests of publicans, so that it is almost as difficult for the police to get convictions against a publican as it would be to get the National Anthem sung at a Nationalist meeting. However, for my part I am done with ’86 and its riots, and hope done with rioting for ever so far as Belfast is concerned. Its one object now is to get on with the war and work for the war, and its object in the past has been to get on with industry and unity in the only sense in which both are possible. I only recall these memories as a matter of history, and in one respect a painful history, but one suggestiveness of a partisanship which, under certain auspices, has never changed.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 20th April 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.