By Eamon Sweeney
For well over a year before the Battle of the Bogside inter-communal tensions on the ground in Derry had been simmering to boiling point.
Long standing nationalist grievances had been consistently ignored in Derry and were perpetrated by both the unionist regime at Stormont and locally by the Londonderry Corporation the political control of which was falsely manufactured via gerrymandering that had been formulated after partition in 1921.
Unionism’s control over the city was maintained in two main ways. Derry had a majority Catholic-nationalist population. Census data from 1961 shows that the city’s population was 53,744 with Catholics accounting for just 36,000 people and Protestants for just over 17,000.
However, Derry’s electoral wards were designed to give unionists the lion’s share of political representation. The Londonderry County Borough, which took in the city had been lost to nationalist control in 1921, it was however claimed back by unionists after the electoral boundaries were redrawn by the regime at Stormont.
Added to this was the fact that only owners or tenants of property and their spouses were allowed to vote in local elections. These practices had been abolished in the rest of the UK in the wake of WWII, but their retention in Northern Ireland helped to preserve the political status quo and in itself, this too was a source of frustration for nationalism.
In the city of Derry, nationalists made up roughly 61 per cent of parliamentary electors but just 54 per cent of local government voters.
So, whilst Derry’s population was 60 per cent nationalist in the early 1930s, the manipulation of local electoral boundaries meant that unionists held a twelve to eight seat majority in the council chamber.
When it appeared that a unionist seat was under threat, the boundaries were swiftly tampered with again to ensure unionist supremacy. This level of control meant that unionists controlled the allocation of public housing which was controlled in such a way that it kept the majority population inside a limited number of electoral areas. In turn, this created a huge housing shortage for the Catholic population. There was also widespread discrimination in employment.
Further grievances for nationalists in Derry were that regionally, despite being the second largest city in Northern Ireland, Stormont decisions repeatedly favoured Belfast and therefore the majority Protestant population in the eastern part of the state.
This discrimination was exemplified by decisions such as siting a new town at Craigavon as opposed to investing in Derry where unemployment was already at 20 per cent and siting a new university at Coleraine when Derry already had an ideal base at Magee College.
In March 1968, a small number of political activists formed the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) with the aim of forcing Stormont to change its housing policies. The founders of the group were mainly linked to the Northern Ireland Labour Party and members of the James Connolly Republican Club which was so named because Sinn Fein were banned in Northern Ireland. Direct action such as blocking roads and uninvited incursions at council meetings was taken in order to force the accommodation of Catholics who had been on the housing list for a long time.
By the summer of 1968, the DHAC was linked to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and therefore was now involved in a broader programme of reform.
On October 5, 1968 these activists organised a march from Duke Street in the Waterside to Derry city centre. The demonstration went ahead in defiance of a government ban and when the crowd, including MPs Eddie McAteer and Ivan Cooper, were batoned by the RUC in the full glare of TV cameras it ignited widespread anger across Ireland.
The following day an estimated 4,000 marchers demonstrated an act of solidarity with the marchers at the city’s Guildhall Square. This march, and another that November attended by an estimated 15,000 people, passed off without violence. But as the months went passed and incidents of civil disobedience and unrest increased and intensified the countdown to the Battle of the Bogside had well and truly begun.
Events between January and July 1969 are also instrumental in understanding what was to happen in August that year.
At the beginning of 1969, a People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by loyalists and aided and abetted by the RUC at Burntollet on the outskirts of the city.
In April, fighting broke out in the Bogside between NICRA marchers, loyalists and the police. This came after the RUC entered the home of Sammy Devenny in William Street and assaulted him, members of his family and others inside the house. Mr Devenny died from his in July 1969.
On July 12, during the Orange Order annual parades further rioting took place in Derry, Dungiven and Belfast. During the fighting in Dungiven, 67-year-old Francis McCloskey was beaten by the RUC and died the following day.
As a result of these riots, in Derry the Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA) was formed in preparation for future trouble. The core of the DCDA was republican but they were joined by many other left-wing activist’s and local people.
The stated aim of the DCDA was to maintain the peace, but failing that, to organise the defence of the Bogside area. With the pressure point of the annual Apprentice Boys Relief of Derry parade due on August 12 materials for barricades and missiles were quickly stockpiled.
The annual loyal order parade was regarded by many in the nationalist community in Derry as a festival of social and political triumphalism. The parade itself did not pass through the Bogside but it did pass by the junction of Waterloo Place and William Street. As they walked along the city’s walls some members of the Apprentice Boys had tossed pennies down on the Bogside as a token display of the financial and supposed superiority afforded to them in the unionist dominated northern state.
Nationalists retaliated by firing stones and petrol bombs as the parade passed the edge of the Bogside.
The police who had taken a barrage of missiles openly encouraged Protestant supporters to fire missiles across barricades at nationalists on the edge of the Bogside as a back up to them and also dismantled a barricade allowing Protestant rioters to edge closer to the area.
Convinced that a full-scale incursion by the RUC and their supporters was imminent an intense battle ensued with over 40 police officers receiving injuries, but the police failed to get into the Bogside. Petrol bombs hurled from the top of the Rossville Flats put pay to the RUC advance and when it was realised this was completely effective they were kept supplied with a steady stream of Molotov Cocktails. Overall, the actions of those in the Bogside was partially co-ordinated by the DCDA who established a HQ at the home of Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty at Westland Street and Radio Free Derry was established.
Many more people however from across the city joined in the fighting on their own initiative and it became clear that the RUC were poorly prepared to deal with such a situation. The police riot shields were too small and did not cover their entire bodies. Uniforms were not flame retardant and many RUC men were badly burned by petrol bombs. Furthermore, whilst the RUC did have guns and armoured cars, they were not allowed to use them and adding to their situation there was no system in place to relieve them of duty. So, the same policemen had to remain on duty for the entire three days of the battle.
The RUC saturated the entire area with CS gas. In excess of 1,000 canisters of the gas, containing various levels of the substance were fired by the police in the space of 72 hours as reinforcements were drafted in from all over Northern Ireland. Exhausted, the RUC were reduced to grabbing sleep in doorways when they could.
In Dublin on August 13, Taoiseach Jack Lynch made a televised speech during which he said that he ‘could not stand by and watch innocent people injured and perhaps worse.’ He promised to dispatch the Irish Army up to border positions to set up field hospitals for the injured. Nationalists misinterpreted Lynch’s words as a pledge to send the Irish Army into tackle the RUC. But, the anticipated invasion of the North was never going to happen and the Army was restricted to providing medical assistance.
By August 14, fighting in the Bogside had reached a critical point and galvanised by rumours that loyalists and the RUC were going to attack St Eugene’s Cathedral almost the entire nationalist community had been mobilised. The police were also beginning to use weapons and two rioters were shot and injured at Great James’ Street.
The feared B-Specials, a quasi-military branch of the RUC, were called up and were packed off towards Derry. They had no riot control but were highly proficient in the use of firearms and this exacerbated fears that a massacre of the Bogsiders was impending.
On the afternoon of August 14, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Chichester-Clark made a phone call to London and asked British Prime Minister Harold Wilson to send troops into Northern Ireland to bring a halt to the rioting. The 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales’ Own Regiment arrived in Derry to relieve the RUC but had orders not to enter the Bogside. It was the first direct intervention by Westminster in Northern Ireland since the partition of Ireland almost 50 years before.
Whilst over 1,000 people were injured during the Battle of the Bogside, remarkably no one was killed.
During the battle, NICRA had called on other nationalist areas across the North to come to their aid. The rioting that broke out in Belfast saw seven Catholics and two Protestants lose their lives. On the night of the 14th in Belfast Catholic homes were burned out by loyalist mobs and as a result over 1,800 were displaced.
The Battle of the Bogside may have ended, but the Troubles had just begun in earnest.
CAPTION: The RUC in Rossville Street during the Battle of the Bogside-Picture courtesy of Barney McMonagle and the Museum of Free Derry.
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