“Oh, Wrap The Green Flag Round Me Boys!”
The Funerals of Barney Watts And Jim Saunders
The 6th of February 1971 was not only a very significant night in the history of the North Belfast troubles but also in the activities of the local Irish Republican Army. At Butler street the local unit launched a four pronged ambush on two huge ‘saladine’ military vehicles as they made their way along the street. The rapid firing was followed by a bomb thrown by a Volunteer which blew one of the vehicles upside down causing it to burst into flames. People ventured out on to the streets to see what was happening, one of them being a local man Barney Watts, who was celebrating at a party in his home. The British Army began firing indiscriminately and Barney was shot , they later attempted to say he had a bomb in his hand and was just about to throw it. Barney was not a member of the IRA and certainly was not holding a bomb, which the coroner later accepted , but never the less no charges were pressed against the soldiers who shot him.
Later the same night over in the adjoining “MarrowBone” district a gun battle broke out between the British Army and the IRA, no doubt to take the heat of Ardoyne which was being encircled by British military. A young man a member of a prominent republican family from Ardilea Street, IRA Captain, Jim Saunders was shot dead. Jim Saunders was the second Volunteer to die in the campaign, the first being Vol. Michael Kane who died when a bomb prematurely exploded a few months previously. Coincidently Martin and Paddy McAdorey were in the Guard of honour at Michael’s funeral so was a young Gerry Adams.
In the nearest other Catholic area to the Bone , the New Lodge Road, another ferocious gun battle ensued between the Republican and British Armies. Here the first British soldier of the troubles, Gunner Robert Curtis was shot dead, another, Lance Corp, John Lawrie, died a week later from wounds he received, two others survived their wounds.
Martin looking back on those early events, said, “There is no doubt that it was the men and women of the Irish Republican Army in North Belfast who initiated the actual war against the British Forces, I am not taking anything away from West Belfast, or any other area, but the 3rd Battalion spearheaded the war. Ordinary Men and women simply went out to fight to break the connection with England. We may have done things wrong, could have done things better, but Britain knew they had a formidable enemy, and it was not just a flash in the pan”
On the day of Barney Watts funeral, the Irish National Flag was draped on his coffin as a mark of respect to the fact that he was murdered by British forces, not that he was a member of the IRA and it was placed into the hearse for burial. The cortege made its way along Twaddell Avenue, Ballygomartin Road, intending to cut across the Westcircular Road to Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast, This route, the most direct, was through a very Loyalist district but little did the mourners know that due to collusion with the Loyalists the RUC had already allowed a barricade to be placed across the Westcircular Road to halt the cortege. The funeral reached the Council Bin Lorry come barricade and was forced to stop, loyalists attempted to attack the mourners. Martin Meehan and other mourners jumped out of the cars and hand to hand fighting took place, but by then one of the Loyalists had opened the door of the hearse, snatched the National Flag and ran off , the whole dramatic scene was all caught by Television camera’s. It was alleged later by the RUC that Martin Meehan and his brother Sean had pointed guns at the Loyalists. The loyalists and RUC had hoped that the funeral cortege would do a U turn and return to Ardoyne rather than attempt to continue along the long Loyalist stretch of the Westcircular Road but Martin ordered the cars to continue which they did. There had been some speculation that the RUC and Loyalists would make some sort of attack on the cortege as a day or two earlier the then Prime Minister of the Stormont Government had said on Television, “Northern Ireland is at war with the Irish Republican Army Provisionals” which in unionist ‘Northern Ireland’ translate as “up boys and at ‘em.. get stuck into the Fenians”
. As for the young man who dishonoured the Irish National Flag, it is believed he was killed some years later under the most strange circumstances.
The same afternoon Jim Saunders was to be buried from his parents home in Ardilea Street, where a full guard of honour assembled. Six men in full uniform and balaclavas fired shots over his coffin as the body was brought out, hundreds of people crowded the street onto the Oldpark Road. The fearsome warrior, Paddy McAdorey, Commanding officer of the Guard Of Honour snapped orders in Irish, Martin Meehan handed out Hurley Sticks to any young man who was prepared to carry one and defend the funeral from Loyalist or RUC attack on its way to the cemetery. Further down the Oldpark Road at the corner of Rosapena Street British Soldiers, the RUC and gangs of Loyalists blocked the Road, whilst up the Oldpark Road they had blocked the Road at Torrents Avenue which was near the RUC barracks. It seemed they were wanting a repeat of the incidents by forcing the funeral across the brickyard and up towards Twaddell Avenue, But Martin was determined that the hearse was not going to be vulnerable to attack for one minute, he had already decided that the cortege would pass along the Cliftonville Road, via Oldpark Road Cliftonville Circus, and onto the staunchly republican New Lodge Road then across Carrickhill to the Falls Road.
As the cortege moved along the Cliftonville Road it was noticed that hundreds of Loyalists had ran down Rosapenna Avenue and were standing waiting along with dozens of RUC men. The hearse slowly moved along and the young men with the Hurley Sticks , about 100 in all, moved forward to form a human chain in front of the hearse and then all walked forwards. Hundreds of flying bottles thrown by the Loyalists filled the air, the RUC drew their batons and moved to meet the young men with the Hurley’s, the RUC were no match, head after head was cracked and the loyalists fled up Rosapenna being pelted with their own stock of bottles which they abandoned,
the funeral was able to carry on its way. Later some of the Hurley Bat Brigade as they became known were later identified from photo’s arrested and imprisoned. But it was a small price to pay for setting the ghoulish RUC and their Loyalists cohorts to heel .