Having left school in 1968 and taking a gap year before going to university, Terry Wright was working for the Londonderry Development Commission during the period October 1968 to September 1969. He was also Chairman of the Waterside Young Unionist Association.
By Terry Wright
By August 1969, Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon and Scott Mac Kenzie had been singing about love and peace in San Francisco. In the USA, James Earl Ray was on trial for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Vietnam Peace talks were beginning in Paris and post Six Day War tension in the Middle East remained high.
Locally, there was an air of unease fed by rumour and the civil unrest which flowed from 5 October 1968, not just in Londonderry but in other areas. The events of April and the rioting which followed the return from Limavady of members of the Orange Order accompanied by bands on the 12 July 1969 and denounced by some Roman Catholic clerics as hooliganism and vandalism, produced a foreboding that it could be repeated during the 12th August march by the Apprentice Boys which would follow a route where rioting was at its most intense. 89 people had been injured. The majority were members of the RUC. As the 12th August approached, intra-community talks were initiated to reduce tension and appeal for calm but these served to an expectancy of further unrest.
Within the local Civil Rights organisation there was disagreement which pointed to lack of any central strategy or purpose. Following a public meeting in Strabane, John Hume had referred to some activists as being more interested in revolution than reform and a few days before the march on the 12th August he was urging that the marchers should be extended the same rights for which the Civil Rights had been protesting. All of this was happening against a background where mistrust of the police within the Nationalist community remained high, Defence Committees had been established and there had been ongoing sectarian attacks on individuals and neighbourhoods.
These were proving divisive and hardening boundaries and mindsets. When it was suggested, even by Major Ronald Bunting, who had been implicated in the events at Burntollet, that the 12th March should not take place, the Governor of the Apprentice Boys, Dr Abernethy, stated that for it not to do so, would be: “acknowledging insurrection and bowing to what had been happening of late.”
His stance enjoyed widespread support locally and elsewhere amongst the broad unionist community which saw continuing attacks on the police and civil unrest as unjustified in the light of political reforms and changes in the local government of the city. The common perceptions were that the leaders who had brought people on to the streets had now lost control or that the continuing violence had the ulterior motive of de-stabilising the state to force the collapse of the Stormont government.
In the mid-1960s the leading unionist Stormont MP William Craig had warned of this. When political activists like Michael Farrell called for action to end the Orange State, Craig’s warnings resonated within a unionist community, mainly accepting of reform, but, whilst feeling vulnerable, developing a will to resist militant politics even to the point of direct action where the police could no longer provide security and protection. This feeling was especially strong in areas which had been targeted by groups and individuals many of whom voiced sectarian abuse and political threats.
By August 1969, the situation in Derry was clearly volatile. It would take cool heads and strong non-partisan leadership on all sides to maintain stability and give politics a chance to work. The first stones thrown around 2.30pm in Waterloo Place, as the Apprentice Boys marched through, took the community in a different direction.
A local diarist coming off the boat from Stranraer and about to travel to family in Co. Donegal rang to check what was happening in Derry. He was told that all was quiet. By the time he reached the city, in the late evening, after spending time with friends in Belfast, Waterloo Place and other adjacent areas were strewn with stones, bricks and broken glass, commercial premises were on fire and CS gas hung heavy in the night air.
Unlikely to have kept diaries, most will have to rely on memory of a time which, given choice and the benefit of hindsight, we would hopefully choose to live differently.
Unconscious prejudice and absence of memory come into play when looking back as over time the web of connectivity can break. It is not unsurprising then that the unusual is the first to come to mind, namely the almost surreal chimes of an ice cream van as it burned at the top of Great James Street. It had been set alight and, driverless, directed towards police lines near a local church.
By this time, the violence which had flowed from the outbreak of stone-throwing in William Street during the march had been going on for a couple of days and nights. Individual members of the police had been injured. Others were exhausted and lying in the nearby doorways of shops and businesses in Sackville Street and Little James Street. Sandwiches and other refreshments brought by groups of individuals helped to compensate for the hopeless inadequacy of the RUC’s mobile canteen facilities.
During the course of the violence, buildings had been set alight and due to the difficulty which the Fire Service had experienced in entering the area, some of them had burned to the ground and silhouetted the night as darkness came. There were rumours that people had died inside the buildings. Bakeries had been burned down and in the midst of the noise and chaos there was the smell of baked bread mixed with the oil of the delivery vans.
The mainly unionist Fountain Street area, including streets like Albert Street and Albert Place, had come under sectarian attack. Due to lack of numbers the police were unable to offer adequate protection. Rightly or wrongly, people from the unionist community which believed that it was witnessing an attempt to bring down the state against the will of the majority and began to envisage the destruction of the city, their homes and livelihood, took matters into their own hands
At first the police took strong action against these self-defence initiatives. Mostly young people, incorrectly labelled Paisleyites by the local Nationalist press, were threatened with arrest if they got involved. As the days of violence wore on, the police, badly reduced in numbers, lost the inclination.
By the third night of violence it was some of those young people from the unionist community who were carrying the black shields left lying on the ground by injured police personnel. In their eyes, they were defending the centre of a city which they saw as being in danger of being destroyed. Like the people of the Bogside they had improvised suitable protection against the effects of the CS gas which, when first used by the police, blew back into the eyes of those gathered behind them.
Some of the many journalists who had gathered in the city were also victims but they drew little sympathy from a unionist community which saw them as unsympathetic to their understanding of events.
Foolishly, the unionist community made little attempt to engage with the press in marked contrast to leaders of the nationalist community who gave them briefings in the City hotel or welcomed them into nationalist communities.
It is a moot point if it would have helped in achieving a more balanced coverage of events but it would surely have been more productive than the hostile reaction which the press sometimes received in unionist communities. The rumour that an RTE press car containing cameras and other equipment had been pushed into the river Foyle by young people drawn from the unionist community served only to accentuate the problem.
By this time, Taoiseach Jack Lynch, in a speech on 13 August 1969, lent support to the perceived insurgency and there were rumours of officers from the Irish Army in the Bogside. Field hospitals appeared on the border. On the 12th August the leader of the Nationalist party Eddie McAteer voicing a fear that the nationalist population was going to be attacked had been reported in the local nationalist press as calling for Dublin intervention. The direction of sympathy in Dublin was clear.
Writing of the period, Conor Cruise O’Brien said of Lynch’s speech:
‘Catholics interpreted it as meaning that their hour of liberation was at hand.’
Word on the ground indicated that the Derry Citizens Defence Committee, in the event of violence on 12th August and an ‘attack’ on the Bogside had decided that a call for support would be made to the ‘people of Ireland’ and in response violence had broken out in other areas like Armagh, Dungannon, Coalisland and most notably Belfast where following attacks on police stations and streets in the Shankhill area, the terrible events of Bombay Street and the Ardoyne unfolded.
Given the support from Dublin and the orchestration of violence on a grander scale aimed at stretching the RUC, the unionist community became convinced that this was an attack on the state. Even those who had sympathised with calls for reform and change no longer believed that this was the prevailing agenda. Reports were filtering through of tricolours and Citizen Army flags appearing in the Bogside. There were calls for Irish troops to cross the border take over the city and cut away the ‘cancer of unionism.’ This was a threat to a community of people and the city wad dividing on sectarian lines.
On the one hand there was the unionist view that the violence was about insurgency. This was what Civil Rights had been about all along.
On the opposite side was the view that the RUC was determined to defeat nationalist and catholic resistance in order to protect unionist privilege and was using unionist protestant mobs to assist its cause.
This was a view shared by most of the press and communicated world-wide. If propaganda was a battle-field, unionism remained on the training ground.
Leaders on both sides, who shared and encouraged these respective perspectives found a receptive audience. Old fears fed by myth and selective history were awakened afresh. These served to inform viewpoints and determine actions, planned and instantaneous.
In Londonderry, there was little meeting of minds across the barricades which ran across Rossville Street as the atmosphere became polluted with gas and the fumes of petrol bombs being hurled from the roof of the high –rise flats on to the streets below.
It seemed as if a momentum which had been building was now in itself shaping events and carrying the community along. Violence was becoming too easy.
It was people who were shaping events but they were not necessarily in control of them as the community, in particular those two main groupings which it contained, seemed to be headed on a collision course.
Working for the Londonderry Development Commission, a fellow worker who lived in the Bogside came into the office with his head heavily bandaged. Could it have been an injury obtained on the streets the night before? If so, what were his motives and his politics? It didn’t seem to matter before.
Later the Scarman Tribunal was established to probe the origins of the trouble.
During the violence of August 1969, petrol bombs had been thrown at Rosemount Police station.
At the Scarman hearings, the Secretary of the DCDA, Michael Canavan was asked by counsel if the action had been defensive and was asked by Scarman himself if he realised’ ‘the damage petrol bombs could do to individuals and property ‘and ‘was this taken into consideration before the use of petrol bombs was authorized?’
In reply, Michael Canavan said: ‘These considerations were important but I suppose you can’t have a cake without breaking eggs.’
Some cake, some eggs!
As reported in the press, areas of the Bogside resembled a munitions factory as women and children filled bottles with petrol. Pavements were being torn up to make ammunition.
In fact, there had been rumours since July that stores of milk bottles were being stored in the Bogside and Creggan areas. Workmen going into the areas claimed to have seen the ‘ammunition.’
Fear had been feeding both communities.
There seemed to be a feeling on the nationalist side that there would be a full-scale invasion of the Bogside by marchers and the police on the 12th August. Leaders of the Apprentice Boys gave an assurance that this would not be the case however tension persisted.
In fact, the parade passed off peacefully apart from a small number of hotheads who were quickly dealt with by stewards. Most of the visiting Apprentice Boys, as advised, left the city after the march. There was no invasion and yet the violence erupted.
The real trouble started after the march and it this that lends weight to the view that there were elements for whatever reasons, and they can only have been political, intent on confrontation with the police.
Certainly, there were some who would welcome violence if it led to intervention - especially of the military dimension – from Dublin and this view, as recorded, had sympathy from within Jack Lynch’s cabinet in the persons of Neil Blaney and others.
Between October 1968 and August 1969 Northern Ireland had moved, from civil disturbances aimed at achieving social reform to attacks on forces charged with maintaining law and order, was edging closer to sectarian warfare on a wide scale. Things were not helped by political unionism using the police as cudgel.
It was a mix which was to ebb and flow for the next thirty years, leaving a legacy of conflict which continues to have an impact.
It had seemed in the mid-1960’s that, with a Unionist government acting from growing conviction of a need for change and the promptings of a new Labour government at Westminster, Northern Ireland was moving to address its problems but it had to do so against a backdrop of social, political and communal division and unyielding opposition from those whose sole aim it was to exploit the difficulties.
The more reactionary elements of unionism made their opposition clear. Threatened by change and an inability to realise that change doesn’t in itself have to undermine values and can in fact reinforce them, their fears were fuelled by the street politics and tactics of a Civil Rights Movement some of whose leading personalities began to couch their demands for social and civil reform in the context of a 32 county Ireland.
This, coupled to the street violence of a movement which claimed to be non-violent, seemed to lend weight to a growing argument that civil rights in Northern Ireland, unlike the United States where change was demanded within the context of a nation state, had as its main focus the future of the state itself.
‘WE SHALL OVERCOME’ the anthem of street-protest seemed more of a threat than a positive challenge to radical reform. Even a perceived moderate within Unionism, Roy Bradford MP described the Civil Rights movement as a political rather than a social force.
Another unhelpful factor was the absence of any meaningful or constitutionally committed opposition for such, as existed, was embryonic and stumbling.
Undeniably there were those Unionists who were quite happy that nationalism should exclude itself from politics. They could exercise power unchallenged and need not even feel accountable to their own electorate.
As the decade of the1960s progressed street politics and direct-action politics manifested themselves in a variety of ways in Europe, the United States of America and Northern Ireland.
The failure of the IRA violence of the 1950s and early 1960s left a legacy of fatigue and mistrust whilst remaining an element of the politics of Northern Ireland.
Although without any democratic mandate, it is a matter of historical record that the IRA remained implacably opposed to Northern Ireland’s existence and explored ways of rendering the country unstable. To what extent it latched on to the Civil Rights Movement and NICRA is arguable.
The Cameron Commission, set up to provide a report into civil disturbances, acknowledged the role of IRA members in stewarding street protests
Members of Wolfe Tone Societies and Dublin-based IRA sympathisers, whilst not ruling out a return to military activity, played a role in the activities of NICRA.
It seems likely that these individuals would be tempted by the prospect of social agitation and the possibility of nurturing a coalition that would de-stabilize Northern Ireland.
Where such a scenario to materialize, perceived social injustices would be used not as an issue for demanding reforms but as a means of demonising unionism and of legitimizing demands for the dismantling of the state itself.
As the 1960s unfolded and various direct- action groups emerged within the Nationalist community such must have seemed attainable.
Prompted by the desire for reforms in the allocation of housing, employment and voting, groups like the Campaign for Social Justice sought to highlight their grievances and agitated for change.
Elected nationalist politicians engaged in civil disobedience and operated outside the law. They walked a thin line between challenging the actions of the government and the legitimacy of the government itself. More importantly they lost the high moral ground from which they would have to rein in later activists and rioters driven not by a desire for reform but sectarian bigotry.
The events of August 1969 and the politics of anger finally shut out those unionists who had been active in supporting opposition to the Lockwood Report in Londonderry and who were willing to argue for change and improvement in the city.
Like the broadly-based Civil Rights Association itself, in failing to address underlying division and in identifying the grievances and political aspiration of only one side of a divided community, nationalist and catholic leaders rendered themselves avowedly partisan.
As events unfolded, unionism mirrored this and barricades which were erected were not solely of a physical dimension
Protests on to the streets were almost bound to unleash communal violence and re-ignite underlying communal tensions which had never been eradicated.
This type of violence was already present in the mid – 1960s as arguments ensued over flags and the visits of politicians from the Republic of Ireland.
The defiance of the NICRA marches and the disposition of the Unionist government to meet demands for reform with denial, intransigence and insensitivity served to ratchet this up.
After August 1969 and the events in the Bogside which were probably the result of a cocktail of motives and political struggles for power and influence within the nationalist community, Londonderry spiralled into communal violence and intimidation. The culmination of this was an exodus of unionists from the west bank of the city – a development which drew little comment from NICRA or the Derry Citizens Action Committee which had now taken over operational planning in the city but now under the influence of the DCDA.
Evidence collected at the time by members of the Young Unionist Association for the Scarman Tribunal from unionists living behind the barricades on the ‘emotionally –charged’ city side spoke of the fear and physical and verbal intimidation experienced whilst living in areas where they had no voice within a community from which they now felt alienated.
Whilst individuals who lived in areas like the Creggan, Rosemount and Marlborough Street spoke of good relations with and the kindness of neighbours, they also voiced feelings of intimidation and vulnerability as they had to walk through brick-strewn streets and listen to nightly attacks on police stations by rioters.
Unionists living in the middle of such felt ‘marginalised’ within a community where they had once felt at home and dared not make their opposition to events public for fear of retribution. No one seemed to be interested anyway.
The international press who descended upon the city expressed little interest in unionism or unionists and in truth, unionists disgruntled by what they perceived as partisan reporting continued to show little interest in the press.
The arrival of the troops brought the violence to an end for a time. Both sides welcomed their arrival for different reasons.
Unionists believed that they had come to relieve an exhausted RUC which for a short time had the help of the B-Specials. Nationalists believed they had come to save them from state-orchestrated violence.
In a sense both were to be only partially satisfied.
The police and the B ‘Specials were removed from the streets as the Army, many of whose soldiers looked wary and unsure of what to expect, positioned itself between both sides. As they unrolled the barbed wire to keep antagonists apart, no one anticipated that it would take so long for their presence to come to an end.
Unionists were satisfied that calm had been restored but were discontent that the rule of law was not being restored to areas like the Bogside. Discontent would turn to anger when the Downing Street Declaration, the Cameron and the Hunt Reports followed. None of these lent any credibility to the unionist interpretation of events.
Nationalists were content that they had ‘defeated ‘the police and prevented its restoring control in nationalist areas. Yet, there were elements discontent that they were still subject to the governance of an authority which to their mind had no mandate or justification for being in that position.
After the summer of 69, violence was never far from the surface and frequently found expression in factional, communal and sectarian violence in addition to attacks on the army and forces of law and order as they found themselves drawn into confrontation.
Whatever the causes, and interpretations differ, there can be no disputing the legacy.
The bombings, killings and failed political initiatives were not inevitable but they flowed from the events of August 1969 and before. In the ensuing debate in Stormont called to discuss Public Order comments are peppered with enraged charge and counter-charge. No leader was inclined to walk in. the other’s shoes and speak beyond an appeal to their own constituency. Whilst unionist spokespersons spoke of ‘carefully prepared and calculated resistance’, and anarchy, nationalist representatives complained of an ‘orgy of terror carried out by B Specials’ which had prompted ‘doctors, nurses and school teachers and not just hooligans to join in the resistance.’
In the NI Senate, the Rt. Hon. John Andrews DL called for ‘jobs, houses, schools and hospitals’ and cautioned that ‘every barricade made it harder to deliver these.’ He spoke of a need for mutual tolerance, respect and harmony.’
For now, the sounds of streets politics were speaking louder.
The ‘summer of peace and love’ in San Francisco had, it seemed, passed by Northern Ireland. Its subsequent history is a great deal sadder and tragic as a result.
CAPTION: Terry wright speaking at Committee for the Administration for Justice meeting on Brexit in 2018.
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