By Eamon Sweeney
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney was released from prison in 1994 having served 17 years as a republican prisoner. He was in his early 20s when he entered Long Kesh and has previously spoken candidly about his reasons for joining the republican movement.
Between October and December of 1980, he spent 53 days on hunger strike.
On January 30, 1972 Raymond McCartney was on the banned civil rights march in Derry the aim of which was a mass protest set against the British policy of internment. When what became known as Bloody Sunday concluded, the teenager learned that his cousin Jim Wray was amongst those gunned down by the Parachute Regiment.
At some point soon after that, like many hundreds more in Derry, he joined the Provisional IRA.
Even though he was just 14-years-old three years earlier in 1969, Raymond McCartney vividly recalls the events that culminated in the Battle of the Bogside.
“I was 14. On the 5th of October 1968 I was in the Brandywell at the football match, but I can remember that more marches started to happen after that.
“I have said that you weren’t marching, but you were there on the fringes as you were young. I remember when it was coming up to what became the Battle of the Bogside, there was a big expectation that it was going to be different.
“I remember the actual day of the march, I used to hang about with a guy from the street called Leo McCloskey from the top of Orchard Row and his family had a bit of a farm at Ardmore. And me and Leo were sent out that day. It was nearly as if it was to get us away from the area.
“So, the actual day that the rioting broke out I wasn’t there. In those days Ardmore seemed a hundred miles away, but then we came back into Derry.
“I did a paper round and I think the Belfast Telegraph wouldn’t have been published on the 12th of August. I remember then a couple of days of rioting and my granny lived adjacent to Free Derry Wall on the Lecky Road. So, I remember going down there but there was a caution given by my father and mother that you are too young and shouldn’t be there. But you went down to watch what was happening,” Raymond said.
The Battle of the Bogside concluded after three days of fierce fighting when an appeal was made by Stormont to Westminster to send troops in stand between the rioters and the beleaguered RUC.
Raymond McCartney continued: “I remember the British troops coming in. I was actually delivering newspapers and I was in Bishop Street. Obviously by this stage, they were already in down in William Street, but they were up around the Fountain too.
“I remember the Fountain at that time with Barr’s and Hippsley’s shops were burned by loyalists coming out of the Fountain, there was a bit of rioting around Bishop Street and then the soldiers were there.
“There’s a tendency to exaggerate and we all do it about big events and put yourself closer to it than you actually were. But, I was a 14-year-old. Now, I’m sure they were very active 14-year-olds actually down rioting and on top of the Rossville flats, but I remember going down later that night and physically seeing British soldiers on the streets.”
We asked Raymond McCartney if he found that situation a strange one?
“It was because my recollection was that these guys came in with tin hats. It was that sort of look from the Second World War. You look back now and the distance between the Second World War ending and 1969 was only a matter of 20 odd years. So, you had this idea of the ‘British Tommy’ from war films.
“I always remember over the unfolding days, because this was new, there was a notion of what do we do next? That’s when people like Paddy Doherty came to the fore. They were the leaders of the area, of Free Derry and all that came with that.
“My mother’s father was a man called James Gallagher and he worked for the Catholic Registration Association. He had been interned in the 1920s. As a matter of fact, the Belfast Telegraph did a series of articles about an escape from Derry jail and the IRA volunteers who took part in it and my grandfather was one of the people named.
“He was sort of well-known in Derry as a man who had a lot of political wisdom. He knew the electoral register inside out because a big part of his job was to make sure Catholics got on the register. My father always told the story that my grandfather not only knew everyone on the register but who was dead, so the dead would have voted for as long as it took to be caught out.
“He was the person that would have told my father-he wouldn’t have said it to me because I was only a teenager-to use caution. I remember Sean Keenan possibly saying the same that when the British soldiers came in, the bayonets were facing up William Street, not away from it.
“I think it’s fair to say that those involved in 1969 had no sense of the achievement they reached, but at the same time when British soldiers came onto the streets that Westminster was going to have a bigger input on a day-to-day basis.
“Before that they could have been ‘accused’, and as a republican you wouldn’t want them near the place, of turning a blind eye to what was happening in the North. Therefore, the Westminster government allowed the unionists to do what they wanted. But, that no longer was going to be the case because they were forced to take action because of the Battle of the Bogside.
“It’s also very interesting when you reflect over time at that period, a debate starts about the use of armed force. You have people, who I think sometimes, in attempt to oppose republicans being involved in armed struggle nearly loose the run of themselves and claim that armed force is never justified in any circumstance. That the use of violence for political ends is never justified.
“It’s an absurd thing to say, because the history of the world shows that people use force. Sometimes it has been used correctly, sometimes they used it wrongly. You get those contradictions coming out when for example it’s pointed out that Nelson Mandela used violence and you get the answer, ‘but, oh that was different,’” he said.
The Derry News asked Mr McCartney that aside from the moral and ethical considerations of the use of violence to consider instead whether in the case of Northern Ireland, physical force republicanism was inevitable?
He said: “I think it was unavoidable. In hindsight you can look at anything and say ‘what if?’ if there had been a better political leadership, if you had done this and you had done that things may have been different. But that’s hindsight.
“If you look at the split between republicans into the Official’s and the Provisional’s-I remember Gerry Adams saying the split was the right thing to do for the wrong reasons. In other word’s people would have said it was because the Official’s wanted to go political, but it wasn’t just about that.
“In the handling of it, I think Britain didn’t know what to do. Therefore, they resorted to type which means they tried to suppress.
“So, I didn’t have a sense as a 14-year-old that there was going to be an armed struggle. My recollection of armed struggle at that age was it was something that happened in the dark and was done by a small group of people in the 1950s.
“In Derry amongst a certain group of people their names were whispered, but in revered tones. People like Tommy McCool, Eamonn Timoney and Sean Keenan were people you grew up with, but you whispered their names.
“As things started to unfold, for me personally, things like the curfew on the Falls Road, you would have known about it, but it wasn’t as big a thing for me as it was for people in Belfast. To me, the big turning point in it all was internment.
“Even though the IRA was on the streets, it was still that small number of people. It may have been viewed by some as people carrying on that tradition and exploiting every opportunity. But, I think with internment people thought, this is the state and this is what they do.
“Bloody Sunday was the classic example. Bloody Sunday is the end of it. The IRA would have been significant enough in Derry, but again for someone like me it was a big step, a step too far. It’s grand what they are doing, let them get on with it.
“But, for me Bloody Sunday was the finish of whatever hope or aspiration you had, military might faced it down. So therefore, a simple analysis was that you fight back. How do you fight back? You fight back with the same thing. That became the very blunt analysis. I don’t think there was another option.
“To me what the situation was saying, particularly in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, was look at history and as drastic as it may be, the severity of it, the brutality of it, the unnatural aspect of it, because I don’t believe any of us are born to be part of a conflict where people are hurt. It’s not in your nature, but that’s where war puts you.
“But, how did every other place under colonial rule get their independence or freedom? It wasn’t by nice talk. And, that’s if you like, where the Gerry Adams analysis comes in. You see, from day one republicans should have been organising politically as well. Because, somewhere along the line, you were going to come a conclusion that irrespective of how strong and vibrant a force any military organisation was, if it’s fighting a political conflict there’s going to be a political end to it. And, if you look at other conflicts, they usually ended around a table.
“I would have had that simplistic analysis for a long time. Look at Vietnam, the Americans were beaten, but at the same time they were still in negotiations. It wasn’t as black and white as it looked from a distance.
“So, I think Adams’ analysis was right. The wrong reason after the republican split, was ‘that was the end of politics,’ the word politician in inverted commas was something that wasn’t for us. But, what you were saying was that you were a political activist. The extension of that is that you don’t have to be a politician, because even to this day the word politician is a very narrow definition of what you are about. I’m a political activist who happens to be a public representative, not the other way around. That’s the complexity of it.
“Then, when it happens, there’s no doubt that war takes a dynamic of its own. It’s cliched and hackneyed, but you don’t hear each other because of the sound of gunfire. Then somewhere along the line, someone plots a course that says, ‘irrespective of how good a guerrilla army is, they aren’t going to defeat the British Army.’
“Apart from anything else the British Government is too complex of a problem to revert back to the same situation of facing Michael Collins across the table in 1920. That’s not the way it’s going to be. Even though, in 1972 the republican delegation going to London may have given confidence that that’s how it was going to be resolved-that we were doing well. But, that’s not how it worked out.
“Then over the years came a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. I remember someone asking me before, if you had done this and that in the 1970s, it could have been different. Nobody could have, because we didn’t know what way it was going to go.
“Hindsight doesn’t work, because at the end of the day, the decisions you make are made in the circumstances of the times you are in.
“If someone had said in the midst of the no-go areas in 1972 that we were capable of defending them…the British put in thousands of soldiers, it would have been over. Why would even 200 people try and take on an army of 20,000, it just doesn’t make sense. So, the people even from a republican point of view that said the no go areas were over, made the right decision. But, the week before you would have been saying ‘to the last man standing’ type of thing. Then reality kicks in.”
The Derry News also asked Raymond McCartney that if he believes that 50 years after 1969, he thinks some of the issues that reached a pitch in the Battle of the Bogside are still resonating?
“Absolutely. And, for me as an Irish republican 50 years on, I think we are on the cusp of the biggest debate that we’ve all wanted to have and perhaps we haven’t had and that’s about the future of Ireland.
“In a very strange way it’s come about in circumstances we thought it would. I went to my bed the night of the Brexit referendum saying to myself ‘I’m not staying up until watch this because it’s a done deal. It’s over.’ I did the same the night that Donald Trump was elected.
“Fifty years the issues are the same. We have to now, and I think we have an opportunity, because I think people north and south are saying we live in a world where there’s enough resources, but we don’t spread it.
“Hopefully, because of that, if there is a discussion around unity that we can help resolve some of these issues. Now, I am not sit here and be as idealistic or silly enough to say that all the issues can be realised to everybody’s satisfaction. That’s not the world we live in. But, we can certainly create circumstances where there’s a more equitable society.
“There’s enough wealth in Ireland to have a good health service, a good education service and give people a reasonable prospect of a living wage. We can create a circumstance where nobody should be homeless, nobody should be at foodbanks, nobody should be without the ability to send their children to a half decent school.
“I think people here, across the political spectrum, are starting to realise that the interests of Westminster are not the interests of the people that live here.
“Obviously someone who is very much of the view that they are part of the United Kingdom will find it difficult to give that up. I don’t want this to sound disingenuous, but I can understand why someone doesn’t want to give up their national identity, even though you might say you are going to do better in a new society.
“I think we have to find ways like dual citizenship. Even looking at the last ten to fifteen years and developments like the North West Cancer Centre, all Ireland health initiatives, all Ireland economic programmes, the road between Dublin and Belfast…50 years ago there would have been massive opposition because these things would have been seen as ‘Dublin rule’ creeping into the North.
“People are much more pragmatic now and we have to bring that to our politics. How can you say to somebody, your identity can be protected? You can say your right to remain British, your culture and identity can be protected.
“The only thing that will change is jurisdiction and every decision made about us all will be made here rather than somewhere else who even in your own mind are starting to say, it’s not in your own interests.”
CAPTION: Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney says it was a 'strange' sight to witness British soldiers on the streets of Derry.
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