By Eamon Sweeney
Tuesday, August 12, 1969 was the day that the Battle of the Bogside began. It was also the day that the then 16-year-old Gregory Campbell first paraded as a member of the Apprentice Boys of Derry.
50 years on from one of the seminal events at the outset of the Troubles, the now DUP MP says that recalling the events of half-a-century is never easy.
“Remembering what happened 50 days ago can often be a challenge, so I have a great deal of affection for people who have a crystal-clear memory of what happened 50 years ago.
“But, I do remember the parade. It was the last occasion that it went through the city and, by that I mean through Waterloo Place and the Strand Road.
“I was towards the back of the parade so when I passed the junction of William Street it was just about to start. There was a bit of jostling and there was tension amongst the crowds.
“As with all these things, I think you can only get a clearer picture of what happened by putting it in context. Nobody now can claim to have seen then that what was happening 50 years ago would lead to what it did.
“From my viewpoint that day, it was just a bit of trouble. While the situation was increasingly exacerbated from October 1968 through to August 1969, the violence was sporadic. It didn’t happen every night and the parade went ahead,” he said.
The Derry News asked Mr Campbell, although he was a teenager at the time, did he carry out any initial serious analysis of the events that led to the Battle of the Bogside?
He said: “No. As a 16-year-old working-class Protestant, I had a lot more in common with working-class Catholic teenagers than anyone else. We were experiencing discrimination in housing and employment, and yet up until October 1968 I was totally unaware of any impending political crisis.
“From October ’68 through to the following August there was no indication, then things quickly escalated within a few days, beyond a few stones being thrown, into the Battle of the Bogside. People were on top of the flats throwing petrol bombs and young unionists interpreted that as an attempt to overthrow the state.”
We also asked Gregory Campbell if his viewpoint of that period of 1969 still holds true now?
“Looking back with the benefit of hindsight is easy. People can say that if certain things had been done it would have changed the course of history.
“To me, that’s a big mistake and very few people can look back that length of time and say that if ‘a, b or c had been done it would have stopped an escalation in violence,” he said.
What is undeniable however, added Mr Campbell, was that the events of 50 years ago to this exact date played a central role in transforming his viewpoint.
He continued: “From October 1968 until the following August, as a non-political youth, I don’t recall predicting what would happen or that things would escalate so badly within a 48 period.
“I was a young boy from York Street, just yards from Duke Street where the October 5th march had started. I was oblivious to the fact that we were deprived, simply because everyone was. By and large I wasn’t aware of grievances because everyone was in the same boat. Once it spiralled out of control in August and again by 1969, I didn’t expect that it would last for decades. It was like World War I-everyone thought it would be over by Christmas.
“Politically speaking I was pretty much an agnostic in that 10-month period. But, once I began to feel like I was being portrayed as a perpetrator of the issues as opposed to a victim, I was transformed in political terms.
“My circumstances were that we lived in a typical terraced house in a street that’s partially still there, with no bathroom, no hot running water and a scullery. These were the standard conditions for 95 per cent of people on both sides of the community.
“I left school and went to work in retail in the city centre and there were fairly muted parades, marches and demonstrations that began to escalate into ending in violence. Part of the civil rights movement began to be about nationalism portraying that unionism and unionists were part of that problem.
“I thought, now how can I be a problem when I am in the same position? This was said by figures such as Gerry Fitt, Eddie McAteer and John Hume-some of the main activists at the time. They wanted rights, but I wanted those rights too. That was the beginning of a vicious circle.
“It was around then that I joined the Young Unionist Movement, there was no DUP at that time.
“Yes, all those things fuelled my sense of anger, because I was in the same boat as those saying that unionists were perpetrators of the problems.”
The senior unionist politician however added, that two specific incidents, as the street disturbances descended into deaths being caused as a result, had a major personal effect on him.
In September 1969, William King (49) from the Fountain was kicked to death during street disturbances in London Street. Then, in November 1975 Bobby Stott, a 22-year-old part-time member of the UDR and also from the Fountain was shot ten times in the back by the IRA as he returned home from work.
Gregory Campbell said: “These two things had a very profound political and personal impact-a very bad effect on me. You found yourself at barricades with a very genuine belief the Fountain was under threat. I recall that thousands from both sides attended these funerals. At this early stage in the Troubles there was still empathetic outpourings.”
However, as the years progressed and the conflict spiralled ever downward each year onwards from 1969, even those redemptive human qualities such as showing mass public unity in grief began to fade. Then, as the violence deepened and deepened, they disappeared.
We asked Gregory Campbell if he thought that by this stage, the genie well and truly out of the bottle?
“It was too late. We didn’t know how slow the blue touch paper was burning. But everyone knew it was lit.
“As I’ve said, no one saw a decades long conflict. We thought it would peter out or trundle along for a while in 1969 and 1970. I remember as well in the early 70s all sorts of protests against violence when it was thought that two or three years was far too long for this to go on,” he said.
The DUP MP was also asked how the events of August 1969 have resonated down the decades and what bearing the ensuing three-and-a-half decades of violence had upon unionist thinking as the peace process began.
Mr Campbell answered: “We viewed the talks between John Hume and Gerry Adams with extreme suspicion. I remember talking to journalists from overseas at that time and saying that whoever the Provisional IRA were, some of them were neighbours and citizens in the same place that we came from.
“They weren’t from New York or South America, they were my co-citizens, although obviously they were at the completely opposite end of the political spectrum. Some of them were known to me. Here were people in the same broad area to us, who for 20 years were trying to murder us by shooting and under car bombs. All of a sudden people were saying there was going to be a ceasefire.
“Unionists thought, hold on, after all that they are saying ‘we should all be one?’ I think most people would say there will be trust when we see it happening. That’s the view I took anyway.
“Then at the onset of the peace process there were so many setbacks. There were killings and shootings and all of those things pointed to the fact that we were right to be suspicious.”
Finally, we asked Mr Campbell what he thinks we, as a society have learned over the last 50 years?
He said: “The best thing that all our communities can do is learn from what happened then. Sadly, I think we are probably more divided now and that’s a sad reflection on us.
“We have reached accommodation that we’ve all broadly accepted but there’s no doubt that some form of overall resolution is required. It hasn’t been reached yet and that’s why Stormont is absent. But, more than 3,000 people died and it cannot be allowed to happen again.
“However, I believe in an outlook that says that a glass is half-full, not half empty. Every so often, something repugnant happens, not in the sense of people being killed perhaps. But, the recent example of Tyrone GAA players singing a republican song as the parade passed at Aughnacloy and other things like that are the sort of thing that cause people to say ‘this country will never change.’
“We can backwards steps, but I believe that 50 years later people have moved on a considerable way. Even if we take two steps back and three steps forward, we are still one step ahead of where we were. In another few years, I believe we will be farther ahead again.”
CAPTION: In August 1969 Gregory Campbell was 16-years-old and on his first Apprentice Boys of Derry parade.
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