From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 12 – The Battle of the Bogside

 

Given the trouble that had erupted earlier in January and April the Apprentice Boys annual parade on 12 August in Derry, along the walls that look down on the City’s Catholics in the Bogside, was bound to lead to violent clashes. John Hume had visited London in July to warn of the ‘powder keg’ that had developed while the Irish Government’s Minister for External Affairs had used the same words.  The Government in London was concerned, and there were many meetings, letters and calls attempting to work out a position in advance of the parade.  Representatives of the Bogside met those from the Apprentice Boys on 8th in order to discuss arrangements for the day but the loyal order representatives said that it couldn’t be stopped, although they did make some minor changes to the route of the parade.

A Defence Committee had been created and barricades erected.  Stewards attempted to prevent attacks on the 15,000 strong march, but Catholic youth were in no mood to accept any symbolic reminder of their second-class status, and they had become increasingly incapable of control by organised political forces.

Attempts to prevent attacks by these youth failed and they began throwing stones at the Apprentice Boys marchers.  The RUC then attacked the Catholic crowds who had gathered at the entrance to the Bogside and the siege of the area – the ‘battle of the Bogside’ – had begun.  Armoured cars, and CS gas in vast quantities were employed in repeated attacks on the area by the RUC and loyalists over three days, while the Catholic defenders employed petrol bombs that held their attackers at bay

Voluntary medical support treated 373 people for the effects of the gas which seeped into every pore in the area, severely affecting everyone but especially the old.  Live rounds were fired by some RUC while loyalists expressed their frustrations by trying to burn out the foreign press based at the City Hotel.

The whole population of the Bogside took part in the defence with Bernadette Devlin, the recently elected Westminster MP, taking a prominent role.  She and McCann called on Westminster to act, and Devlin then also called Dublin to ask for the intervention of the Irish Army, although it was neither equipped to do so, nor did its political masters have any intention of getting embroiled.  Irish troops were moved to the border and a militant-sounding speech was made by the Taoiseach Jack Lynch, stating that “the Irish Government can no longer stand by”, but while this encouraged the Bogside defenders, it also seemed to encourage off-duty B Specials to decide to march on the Bogside.

The Republican Sean Keenan, McCann and Devlin all appealed on the first night to NICRA and other defence committees to stage distractions to limit the capacity of the attacking police and loyalist forces, and over the following days demonstrations were held in Belfast, Dungiven, Strabane, Toomebridge, Omagh, Lurgan, Armagh, Newry and Enniskillen.

The greatest fear was that the B Specials, armed, undisciplined and bigoted, would be let loose on the Bogside causing a massacre.  The Unionist Prime Minister held a meeting on the second day of the battle with Ian Paisley, who demanded that the B-Specials be mobilised and that a ‘people’s militia’ be recruited to restore order, resulting in Chichester-Clarke putting his name to a newspaper advertisement encouraging people to join.

The Defence Committee had already decided not to use guns nor permit their use – there were very few and half of these were apparently useless.  The IRA was in no position to defend the Bogside if the police or loyalists decided to use arms, and if the worst came to the worst it was hoped the Irish Army would intervene, something that couldn’t be contemplated in Belfast.

Jack Lynch’s speech claiming that the Irish Government ‘could not stand by’ raised unionist fears, but despite some use of guns by the RUC, the Irish Government at this point only promised field hospitals across the border to take any casualties.  In the event, the situation in Derry developed very differently from that in Belfast, where in the space of two days seven people were to be shot dead.

By 14 August the RUC were exhausted, were complaining of a shortage of men and were apparently preparing to take a more defensive posture.  On the afternoon of that day Stormont broadcast a call for all B-Specials to mobilise but at 4:35 pm made the formal request for British troops to intervene after the British decided it for them.  The RUC and B-Specials withdrew and the British Army took over at 5.15.

For the Bogside defenders it appeared that they had won.  The attacks had been repulsed and the Specials had not been allowed to initiate a massacre.  The General Officer Commanding the British Army, Lieutenant-General Ian Freeland, let it be known that he would fire to defend the Victoria Barracks and city centre but that he and the Government would not enter the Bogside.

Bernadette Devlin warned of the need to continue the fight, because she had been informed by Chichester-Clarke that Stormont was still in control and the British Army was there to support the RUC and B-Specials.  However, the view that victory had been achieved appeared to prevail.  A message was given to the Colonel of the Army regiment in place by two Bogside representatives that their demands included the abolition of Stormont, the disbandment of the B-Specials and the granting of a legal amnesty. ‘We remain at war with Stormont until these demands are met.’

These were demands that the Unionist regime could obviously not meet, but they weren’t directed to that regime because as far as the Bogside was concerned, that regime had just been defeated.  There was as yet however no demands for the British Army to get out.  British rule was not yet the issue and the key objective of favourable British intervention was continued, albeit with more radical demands placed upon it.  The civil rights movement had wanted Westminster intervention, despite denials by the left that this was the objective, and the Irish Government also wanted the British to take control over events.  Now this was happening.

In itself, the battle of the Bogside did not make ‘the Troubles’ inevitable, in that the British still had room to manoeuvre.  However, since their intervention was designed to stabilise the existing situation and protect the fundamentals of the prevailing political arrangements, this room was limited.  The British stood in the way of the potential for a much greater eruption of violence by the Unionist regime but this eventually led only to their inflicting the violence themselves.  The limits of a British intervention that would deliver the demands of the civil rights movement and limit the radicalisation of the Catholic population would be set by the mobilising power of the most rabid loyalist bigots who had now begun to attack Catholics in Belfast.  These attacks in turn exposed the complicity of the state forces and the leadership of the Unionist regime.

This formed the political situation that the civil rights leaders needed to confront.  Michael Farrell has written that in the Battle of the Bogside ‘the Tricolour and James Connolly’s Citizen Army flag – the Starry Plough – flew, while the moderate leadership of the Citizen’s Action Committee, like Hume and Cooper, were ‘swept aside’.  McCann records that the Committee dominated by ‘moderates’ had ‘died’ after the riots in Derry in April and lacked authority, certainly with the youth, and that republicans had then taken the initiative by setting up a defence committee.

However he also noted that a speech by Bernadette Devlin opposing the newly arrived British Army and denouncing imperialism ‘did not go down very well’, while the issue of the ‘Barricade Bulletin’ saying it was a defeat for the Unionist Government ‘but not yet a victory for us’,  ‘didn’t have much effect’ – ‘people were not in the mood for political analysis.’

He noted that the militancy exhibited in the battle did not lead to any qualitative development in political consciousness, despite the agitation for weeks by left activists with ‘well attended and enthusiastic’ public meetings, which applauded calls to ‘smash the rotten capitalist system’.  ‘What the people were applauding was not so much what we said but the way we said it.  We were great ones for violence of the tongue.’  McCann noted that ‘we never got down to defining with any precision what British imperialism was.’

The problem however was not simply, or mainly, lack of precision, such precision would not have significantly changed the mass consciousness of the Derry Catholic population, however much it might have assisted the left in its further development.  It would be a mistake therefore to believe now that more clarity on this, however beneficial it would have been, would have made the difference.

What the events had demonstrated was that militancy in itself did not develop socialist consciousness, although it is impossible without it, and that the Catholic population in Derry in 1969 was occupied with the immediate need for security and longer term guarantee of it, along with satisfaction of the other original demands of the civil rights campaign.

How a socialist programme and political intervention could provide these was necessary, but the tide that McCann and the left were trying to turn back was the product of a political identity and consciousness for whom the nature of imperialism was an abstract question and immaterial outside these concerns.  The lack of class consciousness reflected a lack of class unity while the strength of nationalist and sectarian consciousness reflected the cohesion of community defined in these terms, as well as the dominating political forces within and without that were organised on these lines.

The Bogside received many political visitors following the battle, including Lord Hailsham from London and ‘a procession’ of political notables from Dublin, with the most important being James Callaghan from the Labour Government.  A delegation to him repeated the first demands of the Bogside to the British Army but McCann notes that the ‘demands’ were no longer taken very seriously, and Callaghan had both impressed the Defence Committee and the people, who considered the arrival of the British as symbolising victory over the RUC

In effect, the maintenance of the barricades was no longer about defence but about these demands, but maintenance of the barricades could not deliver them.  And there were other things that barricades could not deliver.

The Yong Socialists in Derry called on the Defence Association to control rents, ensure that overtime and minimum wage rates were paid, equal pay for women was implemented and free bus travel implemented for the old, students and unemployed.  But the inability, even discounting any unwillingness, of any defence committee to deliver on such demands would have been immediately obvious to any socialist force the least acquainted with Marxism.  For Marxists it is axiomatic that the terms and conditions of distribution are a function of the ownership of the means of production, and what means of production did the Derry Defence Committee own? What state functions did it perform that would have allowed it to make and implement such decisions?

The Defence Committee wanted to bring down the barricades, the people could no longer see much purpose to them and the left were swimming against the tide.   It was not the first time that they had gone up or that they were to come down.  In the weeks leading up to this McCann writes that ‘depression was slowly setting in . . . nothing ever happened’, and the barricades eventually came down in mid-September when a British Army landrover went through with the local Bishop perched in the passenger seat.  The latest period of ‘Free Derry’ was over.

The day after the last barricade came down rioting erupted between Catholic and Protestant youths who clashed with the British army.  When the dust cleared a middle-aged Protestant man, William King, was found dead, having suffered a heart attack while being beaten.  Protestant anger grew as Catholic anger had grown following the earlier death of Samuel Devenney.

The British army then introduced a ‘peace-ring’ that encircled the Bogside and Creggan areas with barriers and checkpoints, introducing a ‘near-curfew’ from 8pm to 6am.  Army control replaced any notion of army protection.  The Catholic population began to take on a relationship with the British army more akin to a native population and a foreign armed force, one that would police them in the way colonial forces always do.  And they were going to have to stay until local policing became acceptable, which was the problem before they had arrived.

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

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