In August of 1969 it can be said that the long-running conflict known as the Troubles truly began. That month events in Northern Ireland finally moved well beyond what the Belfast government and its security forces were in a position to maintain, and the missteps, intentional and unintentional, that occurred in that period set off the more than 30 years of violence that followed. Many of the things that happened that week, and especially the three days between the 12th and the 14th August, have passed more into the realm of folklore and legend in such a short space, but they deserve a more serious consideration. What started as a confrontational march turned into a small insurrection in one of Northern Ireland’s most divided cities, that would have people fearing that the Republic of Ireland was about to invade. How did things get to that point, and how did the so-called Battle of the Bogside usher in a chaotic period of violence all over Northern Ireland?
After May 1969 Norther Ireland had a new Prime Minister in the form of James Chichester-Clarke, but he would be no better placed to find a workable solution to the issue engulfing Northern Ireland than his immediate predecessor. As he got down to the business of wrestling the mutualyl exclusive demands of Westminster and more local hard-line unionists, things continued apace. Much of the attention over that year fell on the city of Derry. Despite an enormous nationalist/Catholic majority, gerrymandering and electoral exclusion laws ensured that the Ulster Unionist Party maintained a majority in the local legislature, a source of much unhappiness, as the council controlled the allocation of public housing, and of course favoured Protestants.
As we have already discussed, Derry was a hotbed of NICRA activity, and protest marches that took place there in late 1968 were one of the main flashpoints that marked the growing crisis. Violence between the Catholic community in the city and the local police repeated throughout the first half of 1969 with the death of one man, Samuel Devenny, after an RUC beating often credited as the first fatality of the Troubles. More would die after similar clashes around the “Twelfth” march in July, wherein the traditional unionist celebration of the Battle of the Boyne was, as it so often was, perceived as inordinately confrontational in terms of the chosen route, right by or through Catholic majority areas.
It was that last spate of violence that motivated the creation of the Derry City Defence Association, or DCDA. In Derry there were additional marches after the Twelfth to be concerned about, not least that of the Apprentice Boys that was due to happen on the 12th August, in commemoration of the Siege of Londonderry, and the relief of the city from the Jacobite encirclement in 1689. Though this march would not march through the heart of the city’s nationalist/Catholic community in the Bogside area, it was going to pass right next to it, in a route that was perceived by many, quite probably correctly, as a calculated insult. I’ve said it before about the unionist marches, but it bears repeating: it is simply naïve to the point of stupidity to view them as anything other than an effort to antagonise those of a different political affiliation and religion, even if they can also be deemed an outward expression of unionist identity in the same breath. The DCDA, an eclectic mix of NICRA activists, left-leaning youth, Republican Clubs and members of the local IRA, was formed to plan a response for what was seen as an almost inevitable confrontation. one where Catholics were more than aware that they could not rely on the RUC to offer them any protection. Preparations involved the stockpiling of materials that could be used to defend this portion of Derry, including smashed stonework and nails for for building barricades, and as missiles if the need called for it. The DCDA insisted that their first objective was simply to keep the peace, but that they would defend their community if the need called for it: there’s plenty of scope to say that they themselves were preparing for active violence against the marchers, though if pressed on who should bear the majority of blame for what happened I don’t think I could realistically cast it onto the DCDA.
On the day in question, the unionist march passed close to the borders of the Bogside, at the junction of the city’s Waterloo Place and William Street. It must be recorded that this was no small affair, the march attracted thousands of loyalists. There had already been recorded instances of either “side” of the divide throwing small missiles at the other, but here things got much more rancorous. Where it had started as coins and marbles, now it was stones and nails being thrown. The targets from the Catholic side were not just those of the loyalist fraternal organisation, but the accompanying RUC presence: after having had enough of the stone throwing, a group of these men moved against assembled Catholic in force. A barricade had already been thrown up by the DCDA to impede police movements, but the RUC were able to force their way through despite the constant attacks from thrown stones and other material. Several witnesses recorded the RUC supporting the marchers in throwing stones back at the nationalists and when one of the barricades was breached, Protestant marchers surged through. The result was a chaotic brawl on William Street and other areas, where Catholic homes were smashed up even as the police found their advance checked. The use of stones was soon superseded by the use petrol bombs previously prepared by the DCDA.
The RUC were completely unprepared for what was now happening, with only small riot shields and their batons for doing what they wanted to do: advancing through a wall of fire created by petrol bombs was more than any of them were realistically capable of doing. Figures like Bernadette Devlin, present near the very “front line” used loudspeakers to urge the Catholic community of the Bogside to reinforce barricades and throw up new ones, and that was only one of the most vocal examples of how the nationalist resistance was far more than uncoordinated riot behaviour. The DCDA was a clear directing force, establishing a HQ, and supplying eager youths in high-rise buildings overlooking the William Street approach with enough petrol bombs that the RUC was powerless to continue their operation. It got worse for the authorities in the reality that the Bogside was now essentially in a state of uprising, with “Radio Free Derry” established to encourage resistance, first aid posts set-up to help the defenders and every thoroughfare into the Bogside barricaded. For all intents and purposes, the government of Northern Ireland could no longer claim to have control over a significant portion of its second biggest city.
For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, police used tear gas on the “rioters” on that opening day, with over a thousand canisters used in the course of the fighting, and this managed to push them back for a time, before the wind blew the gas back in the direction of those that had fired it. The defenders held under the onslaught, and if anything it was the police that were more badly pressed, lacking flame resistant uniforms or equipment, and with no relief force readily to hand: some members of the RUC would collapse exhausted after serving for 16 straight hours or more in the firing line, and would be reduced to throwing their own rocks back at the nationalists.
The fighting continued on into the next day, the 13th, an extraordinary 24 hours when NICRA calls for nationwide protests resulted in the violence spreading throughout Northern Ireland and where the comments of the Irish Taoiseach almost turned the events into something approximating an international incident: I will give both instances their own future entry for expanded thoughts. At the same time the barricades around the Bogside held under repeated attack from RUC and civilian Protestants, with the DCDA’s grip on the area more and more looking like a state within a state, right down to the Irish tricolours flying from high buildings. The RUC’s use of tear gas did not gain them any ground, and the defenders supply of petrol bombs seemed inexhaustible. Building destruction was a common feature owing to fire and other forms of damage, and there were plenty of incidents of violence elsewhere in the city, such as when a Catholic crowd attacked an RUC barracks elsewhere in the city, intent on stopping the police inside from reinforcing the attack on the Bogside. By the end of that day it seemed as if almost the entire Catholic community of the Bogside area had been mobilised in some fashion by the DCDA, whether they were actively engaging with their opponents, manning first aid posts, or carrying material to reinforce barricades. Many RUC observers noted the change, seeing that the average age of “Bogsider” they were facing was now ticking upwards. Many Catholics were encouraged in their actions by rumours that Protestants had attacked and gutted St Eugene’s Cathedral elsewhere in the city, that turned out to be false. On the RUC side what firearms were available were not being employed, with two Catholics shot and wounded on Great James Street, while there had also been a mass mobilisations of the RUC reserve branches, the infamous B Specials.
There were genuine, and very understandable, fears from the Catholic community in Derry that the use of the B Specials would essentially result in sectarian massacre, and presumably some of those in power in Belfast and London were worried about such an eventuality as well. But there were very few options left to quell the rioting. The RUC had failed, and the service had been pushed to the point of exhaustion in the previous few days inside Derry, with a common sight on the streets now being officers sleeping in doorways. The government could hardly just withdraw and let the DCDA as they were without challenge. On the afternoon of the 14th, with the situation in Derry at a stalemate and with violence engulfing other parts of Northern Ireland, Chichester-Clark took the extraordinary step of formally requesting that the British government deploy military regulars to the streets of Derry. A battalion of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire had already been standing by for such a possibility, and had relieved the RUC on the borders of the Bogside by the evening of that day. They agreed they would not attempt to force their way past the barricades, and an uneasy peace prevailed.
It is important not to underestimate how meaningful the deployment of soldiers was. Northern Ireland was not some distant colony or territorial dependency, it was nominally a key part of the United Kingdom, a region of the British homeland. That the situation had gotten so bad that it now required that soldiers be deployed to undertake operations on such soil is very telling for the failures of the Belfast government. They now essentially outsourced their response to the growing crisis, and in so doing escalated things severely. Sectarian strife had torn the country apart, and made a mockery of the RUC in terms of its ability to stop it: now that strife had a singularly martial look with the arrival of British Army regulars, who would not be departing for some time. In the very short term the soldiers were welcomed by the Catholic residents of the Bogside, who saw them as a neutral force who were more likely to protect them than the RUC, but there were some, among them Devlin, who opposed their deployment from the beginning. It would not take all that long for the relationship between the local community and the soldiers to become tenuous, then hostile.
The Bogside was a seminal moment in Northern Ireland’s history, and for a lot of reasons. The defiance of the Bogside community ushered in a wave of violence elsewhere in Northern Ireland, and can be said to be the defining moment that marked the start of the Troubles. More than that, it was the successful defiance of the DCDA and the people it mobilised that was important. After several years where the RUC and Protestant groupings seemed to be able to assault Catholic and nationalists as they pleased, at the Bogside they were not only stopped dead in their tracks, but then essentially found themselves unable to halt and negate a major insurrection in one of the Northern Ireland’s biggest urban areas. The Bogside was not just a three day riot with serious political causes: it was example that many in the NICRA movement and beyond took note of.
Looking at the event from a more tactical level, it is a great example of how popular action can undermine and essentially defeat regular law enforcement entities. The DCDA recognised that weaknesses of the RUC – their lack of numbers, suitable equipment, inexperience in dealing with sustained resistance – and the strengths of their own side – their numerical superiority, their advantages of height in apartment buildings, community morale and the power of symbolic instances of resistance – and used the combination of these things to win a major victory for the civil rights movement. Something as simple as having a requisite supply of petrol bombs – a weapon that could be sued offensively against advancing enemy forces but also as an additional barrier in the narrow entranceways to the Bogside – was a major factor. At the end of the battle, the DCDA was left in control of the Bogside area and, while this would not be a lasting state of affairs, the fact that it happened at all was extraordinary. Those of a different political or religious persuasion may take an opposite view, that militant republican elements helped to stir up a needless amount of violence in the situation, but I can’t take that view. There had been months of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, years even, before the Bogside, and it was perhaps strange that it took as long as it did for an event like that which occurred that August to actually take place.
And the Battle of the Bogside was only the beginning. The fighting that broke out there on the 12th August rapidly led to a coordinated response from NICRA, which in turn provoked further violence all over Northern Ireland, albeit most especially (and bloodily) in Belfast. In the next entry we will turn to the wider spate of bloodletting that occurred in Northern Ireland that month, as the Troubles really kicked off, and the government in Belfast was left dealing with the wreckage of decades of sectarian prejudice.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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