At the minute I’m reading David Boulton’s study on the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF: An Anatomy of Loyalist Rebellion, which was published in 1973. Writing a study of anything as the story is still unfolding is a difficult task, but it’s a pretty enjoyable read. The books cover is the work of Cor Klaasen, and some of you may remember the brilliant exhibition of his work in Dublin back in 2010.
One of the key characters in the work is Major Ronald Bunting, described by Tim Pat Coogan as the “henchman” of Ian Paisley during the worst days of the troubles. Bunting had a history of service to the British Armed Forces,but is perhaps best remembered for his physical opposition to the People’s Democracy movement. Video footage of Bunting and Paisley discussing a planned People’s Democracy march in Derry in January 1969 appears on the RTE Archive website, and can be viewed here. Bunting outlined his opposition to “anarchists, revolutionary socialists and republicans” to the media.
People’s Democracy, a radical movement of socialist principles which campaigned for civil rights in the north, planned a ‘long march’ from Belfast to Derry, in the spirit of marches like the Selma to Montgomery march in the United States. This march was attacked on several occasions, most notably at Burntollet Bridge. Bunting was directly responsible for the violence at Burntollet Bridge, having encouraged loyalists who “wished to play a manly role” in stopping the People’s Democracy march to “arm themselves with whatever protective measures they feel to be suitable.” A crowd of 200 attacked the demonstration. That incident has been remembered in song by both loyalists and republicans, for example in Seamus Robinson’s ‘Democracy':
T’was at Burntollet Bridge we bled, yet never turned to flee
As bloodied but unbowed we stayed to win democracy
Of considerable embarrassment to Bunting was the manner in which his son, Ronnie, would become a committed republican-socialist. Active with the Marxist Official IRA, and later leading the Irish National Liberation Army, the son of Major Bunting was gunned down in his home in 1980. Major Bunting insisted his son be buried in a family plot, and not alongside other INLA members.
One of the most interesting anecdotes in Boulton’s book on the UVF relates to Major Bunting, when it is noted:
He became a ‘loyalist’ hero overnight in 1966 when he gate-crashed a 1916 commemoration service in Dublin to lay a wreath in memory of British troops killed in putting the rising down.
This story is also told in Patrick Marrinan’s biography of Ian Paisley, and Ed Moloney and Andrew Pollak’s biography of Paisley, where they note that at Easter 1966 “he went to St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin to lay a wreath in memory of British soldiers killed in the 1916 Rising.”
This interference from Bunting caused considerable embarrassment for many parties, as the Church of Ireland had sought to mark the jubilee in a fitting manner. In his remarks at the official ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Archbishop George Simms noted:
There is much for which to give thanks on our commemorative occasion. We are grateful across the span of the last 50 years for the goodwill, tolerance and freedom expressed and upheld among and between those of differing outlooks and religious allegiances. The words of the Proclamation that guarantee ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities to all citizens’ have brought help and encouragement to minorities during this period. There is a rock like quality about such elements in the formation of a State.
An excellent article on the Church of Ireland and the 1966 commemorations appears in the Autumn 2012 edition of Search, A Church of Ireland journal. It can be read here.
This wasn’t to be the last time Paisley or one of his henchmen interfered with commemorations or the symbols of the Easter Rising. Almost twenty years later, at Easter 1984, Ian Paisley and some supporters postered the GPO with the message ‘ULSTER IS BRITISH’. At the time Paisley told the newspapers that the photo of him postering at the GPO would take “pride of place” in his home, and that he was “glad to stand where the 1916 proclamation was read”.