Robert Porter, a humane if luckless minister of home affairs

Sir Robert Porter, known  to all as  “Beezer” who has died aged 90 gave the lie to the image of a jack booted Unionist minister at the beginning of the Troubles. He was indeed minister of home affairs in 1969 when demonstrations gave way to riot and finally to the events of August 1969 when the Army took over control of the streets after days of rioting in Derry and Belfast culminating in the burning of Bombay St. He was a  liberal Unionist, a member of the freemasonry of lawyers whose position in society allowed them to cross the sectarian divide with ease and who went into unionist politics for a while on the way to a judgeship. He was at home with things Irish and enjoyed the odd convivial drink. The Porters of today stay well clear of politics.

In early 1969 Beezer drew the short straw. I can’t swear to the truth of this but I suspect he was given the job because he could put up a measured lawyer’s defence of the RUC without getting flustered or angry, a rare skill among ministers at the time. This was in contrast to his hapless predecessor, the pipe smoking Willie Long or Bill Craig who had given the fateful order to halt the civil right march in October 5 1968 and spoke with quiet menace. Craig  had earlier been known as a reformer  but in Home  Affairs he saw the IRA behind events. His hard line split O’Neill’s cabinet and sealed our fate for a generation.

Those were the fateful days before everyone had become  hardened to trouble and a baton charge by the riot squad was regarded as effective policing.  There was never any danger of  Beezer or anybody else actually taking control of the situation as it drifted  inexorably to serious sectarian rioting and then the guns came out.

Beezer was a genuine Derry patriot. In August 13 ( I think it was ) the rioting got so bad that the RUC asked his permission to start using CS gas. The story goes that Beezer insisted on submitting to a dose of it himself before authorising its use. A genuinely decent man he was not alone at being unable to rise to the level of events. His daughter Kathryn, an old friend and colleague, said of her Dad :

“My father was a man of very sharp intellect and propriety in a career in law and politics. He was also a very humorous man who loved the arts, opera, literature and sport. He had a great sense of fun and was an inspirational father.”

And I would add, a unionist who enjoyed good relations with many nationalists throughout his life. I never met anyone who held his time as minister in charge of policing against him  We could have done with many more like Robert Porter.

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  • “Craig had earlier been known as a reformer but in Home Affairs he saw the IRA behind events.”

    Robert Porter had this to say on 23 April 1969:

    The hon. Member for East Tyrone (Mr. Currie) has spoken at some length about the peaceful nature of the civil rights movement. Whilst I would certainly agree immediately that there are in the civil rights movement people who are motivated by high principles, who are prepared to seek changes and to have what they regard as grievances remedied by lawful democratic means, including protestation in public, I feel there is now abundant evidence that these people have been used and are being shamelessly used by extremists who appear to have assumed control and who are prepared to mount a campaign of denigration against the forces of law and order, to throw the country into a state of anarchy, and whose aim would seem to be not the achievement of civil rights but the very destruction of this State. .. source

    If we widen the analysis to look at matters through Unionist, Nationalist and Socialist lenses rather than just the customary first two then I’d suggest that the major trigger for descent into anarchy came from the Socialist sector, armchair and militant, as outlined by Liam O Comain.

    The Irish government had referred to the risk of anarchy in early 1966 but Robert mustn’t have been paying attention.

  • socaire

    “My father was a man of very sharp intellect and propriety in a career in law and politics. He was also a very humorous man who loved the arts, opera, literature and sport. He had a great sense of fun and was an inspirational father.” Was it Goebbels’ or Himmler’s daughter who also spoke in such glowing term of her father?
    My granny was a great one for the old sayings like ‘Show me your company and I’ll tell you what you are’ and ‘If you lie down with dogs yo will rise with fleas’.

  • SDLP supporter

    What a load of ‘bullcrap’ [the word du jour-if Mick uses it, it must be ok] from Socaire. Comparing someone like Porter to mass murderers, and justifiers of it, like Himmler and Goebbels.

    I know which party has the most mass murderers and the justifiers of mass murder among its members. It’s Sinn Fein.

    Whingeing, whiney and pathetic.

  • socaire

    I wasn’t comparing him to Nazi murderers. I was merely pointing that a loving daughter’s recommendation is no guide line to a man’s character. If you know any lawbreakers in any party should you not be in contact immediately with the beloved RUC/PSNI or maybe that was who you were referring to? Election not go your way, wee man?

  • Harry Flashman

    Why would Porter have been criticized for the decision to use CS gas in Derry in August 1969?

    The RUC had come under a very severe attack and had suffered hundreds of casualties, they were being hammered in their defensive position trying to defend the commercial heart of the city being razed to the ground (as it was to be in later years) and CS gas sure as hell beats the next step up the ladder of live rounds (as was to occur in Belfast).

    No I am not being a troll here nor being a revisionist trying to get a rise. The fact is that despite all the propaganda and rewriting of history that was to be written about the Battle of the Bogiside the Bogsiders were not “defending” the Bogside from the RUC, the Bogsiders were the aggressive party.

    They had planned their strategy well in advance and it paid off in spades. An utterly unprepared, under-manned, badly equipped and untrained provincial police force was attacked and took a complete hiding from well-organized, well-prepared, well-equipped and tactically advanced urban street fighters.

    The RUC got the shite beaten out of them in the Bogside in 1969 and many people might say, with some justification, that they deserved it but let’s drop the nonsense that they were the aggressors and the poor wee darlings of the Bogside were total innocents responding to an entirely unjustified attack.

    Facts is facts.

    Oh and by the way, why was the burning of dozens of Catholic-owned terraced houses in front of an exhausted and demoralised police force considered a magnificent act of popular resistance when the homes were burned in William Street in Derry but the burning of Catholic-owned terraced houses in front of an exhausted and demoralized police force in Bombay Street in Belfast is considered an unforgiveable act of sectarian hatred?

    Don’t the onwers of the burned out homes in Derry count as victims?

  • Brian Walker

    Socaire I quoted Kathryn Porter’s tribute to her father because I agreed with it.

    Harry, You start with the false premise that I criticised Porter for authorising the use of cs gas. I didn’t.

    The “Battle of the Bogside” which I observed for three days was about more than that. Like everything else it had a context. In this early period of CR marches and growing Protestant reaction the police psychology throughout was that (quite limited) force would pay off.

    The psychology of demonstrators was divided. Veterans still argue to this day whether the “Burntollet” march was a fair assertion of rights or an irresponsible provocation.

    On Derry Eamonn McCann got it right. There was deliberate provocation to see how far it could go for the hell of it.

    But plenty of people worked for restraint even in the emerging Defence Committees. Others were spoiling for a fight.

    For the 12 August Apprentice Boys celebrations a great deal of effort on both sides went into keeping the peace. Lots of us wore little Give Peace a Chance flags. It was only at the end that the parade was attacked. The visitors got off peacefully. There were reports never substantiated that ABs had thrown pennies down into the Bogside from the city walls and this was enough to provoke a reaction.

    What was clear was that petrol bombs were stockpiled with bottles highjacked from the Old City Dairy and petrol from Marcus Harrison’s garage.. There’s no doubt in my mind that many people wanted a fight with the police to get revenge for entirely gratuitous police attacks culminating in the death of Samuel Devenney from a beating by police who were chasing a rioter who entered his home.

    The police obligingly played into their hands. At only 4000 strong to cover the whole province they never stood a chance of containing the rioting and yet they charged futilely a few yards into Rossville St hour after hour, day after day firing CS gas and throwing back rocks which had been broken up by the Bogsiders..

    The whole affair was a piece of staggering and tragic incompetence. For the record the very few Prods involved soon took off .It was a battle between police and people. The Belfast Prods turned out to take the heat off Derry and we were away to hell in a handcart.

    No point whatever in claiming virtue for one side or the other.

  • Harry Flashman

    Brian your analysis of the Battle of the Bogside and mine tally precisely.

    The myth has long pervaded that the battle was one of resistance and defence of the Bogside by attacking mobs of RUC men and loyalists. The truth is precisely the opposite.

    The first stone wasn’t thrown until the tail-end of the ABOD march was leaving Waterloo Square, the stones were thrown at the marchers and police by the Bogsiders and was the opening salvo of an extremely well-organised trap for the peelers. The Bogsiders were justifiably furious with the police after January 4/5 and Sammy Devenney and they were ready for payback time.

    For two hours the RUC came under attack (Paddy Bogside is on record as saying “Fair play to the cops they took the stoning for two hours without reacting”) and it wasn’t until five pm that the main sally into the Bogside was made where it foundered on the massive concrete barricade of Rossville Street. The police withdrew with the handful of foolhardy loyalists who had run in behind them.

    From then on the Battle of the Bogside was one of the police trying to protect the commercial heart of the city from a mob of arsonists.

    I think it’s fair to say that from then on, whatever about what happened in Belfast (and again it must be made clear that the Nationalists kicked off the aggro in Belfast too) the RUC had the more claim, if any claim there was, to “virtue”, there is nothing virtuous about burning down people’s homes and businesses, in Bombay Street or William Street.

    Porter’s instruction to use CS gas was perfectly justified in the circumstances and a hell of a lot more humane than spraying the Rossville Flats with a Browning machine-gun on a Shorland, which the Derry RUC’s colleagues were to do later in Belfast.