The rioting which gripped Londonderry for 50 hours in August, 1969 quickly spread to other parts of Northern Ireland. Brian Walker reflects on how those events shaped life for decades
At around 3.45pm on August 12, 1969 I stood in Waterloo Place, Derry, when the first stones were thrown in what became known as the Battle of the Bogside. I watched events in the city over the following days of rioting until late afternoon on August 14, when the British army arrived to take control and the fighting stopped.
This conflict, however, had not remained a localised affair. As a consequence of what happened in Derry, serious disturbances broke out in many other places, in particular Belfast, leading to burning of houses, expulsion of populations, many hundreds injured and eight deaths. These events pushed Northern Ireland to new depths of confrontation and violence which took decades to resolve.
I was witness to a number of key events in Derry, which help to cast a light on what occurred. Evidence which emerged later about those days allows us a better understanding of what happened.
At the time, events were interpreted very differently. On the one side there were many convinced that what happened was part of an IRA plot to overthrow the Northern Ireland state, while on the other many who believed that forces of the state and others were involved in an unprovoked assault on the Catholic and nationalist community. In fact, both were wrong, although, subsequently, such views would have considerable influence.
In the months before August 1969 there had been a strong rise in communal tensions throughout Northern Ireland, due to civil rights demonstrations and loyalist opposition to these demonstrations. There had been riots in both Derry and west Belfast but what happened in August was of a much more extreme character than anything before.
In early August there was concern about a forthcoming Apprentice Boys parade on August 12 in Derry. Many were worried that members of the Apprentice Boys would attack the Bogside and other nationalist areas. There were calls for the parade to be banned, but these were rejected by the Government.
At the beginning of August, I attended a meeting of the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) of people who wished to volunteer as stewards at the parade. All were informed that they would not be needed because the the Derry Citizen’s Defence Association (DCDA), established on July 20, under the chairmanship of republican Sean Keenan, would be responsible for stewarding.
On August 12 the Apprentice Boys parade took place and was virtually trouble free. However at around 3.45pm stone throwing began in Waterloo Place. I was present and the trouble started with youths from the Bogside throwing stones at the end of the parade. Police moved in to protect the marchers, and a violent confrontation began between the stone throwers and the police. There was no effective stewarding from DCDA, and the efforts of a few individuals such as John Hume and Ivan Cooper were unable to stop the fighting.
Fierce street fighting continued in Derry for over 50 hours, day and night. While the DCDA had failed to provide stewards on August 12, it had organised for the erection of barricades and a large supply of petrol bombs.
From a conflict that began between mainly youths and police, the fighting involved a much wider section of the Bogside population, who saw their area as under attack.
The police used tear gas and B Specials were brought in but not used in the Bogside. Finally, at 5pm on August 14 the British army arrived and the fighting stopped.
These events had caused reaction elsewhere. Once the rioting had begun in Derry on August 12, Frank Gogarty, chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), received telephone requests from a number of people in the Bogside, including Eamon McCann, Bernadette Devlin and Sean Keenan, to organise diversions. That evening he called for Civil Rights people to hold demonstrations , ‘to take the pressure off Derry’. This led to small scale demonstrations in a few places that night. The following day NICRA organised more demonstrations to prevent reinforcement of the police in Derry.
On the next day these demonstrations led to extensive rioting in Dungannon, Coalisland, Dungiven, Newry and Armagh. B Specials were mobilised to assist the beleaguered police. Rioting continued on the 14th and led to a death in Armagh.
There was now an extra dimension to matters with a broadcast at 9pm that evening by Taoiseach Jack Lynch. He deplored the ‘tragic events’ in Derry. He declared that the Irish government could ‘no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse’. He stated the Irish army had been directed to set up field hospitals on the border.
The matter was raised in the United Nations and, ‘recognising that the reunification of the national territory can provide the only permanent solution for the problem’, he proposed to enter into negotiations with the British government over the constitutional position of the ‘six counties of Northern Ireland’.
This statement had considerable effect. Scarman described how it was regarded ‘as provocative in Protestant and unionist circles and as an encouragement by some Catholic activists’. Nationalist MP Paddy Kennedy, recalled how on August 13 the tension on the Falls Road had been heightened by Lynch’s speech, which caused many people to think the Irish army would intervene in Northern Ireland.
In unionist circles the speech was regarded differently. The Prime Minister, Major James Chichester- Clarke, stated his ‘intense anger and resentment’ at Lynch’s intervention.
On the evenings of August 14/15 large crowds of Catholics and Protestants gathered in Divis Street and some of the other streets running between the lower ends of the Falls Road and the Shankill Road. The police were reinforced by B specials.
The high tension in the area now led to sectarian clashes, which escalated into serious fighting. In the bedlam which followed, pubs, shops, factories and houses were burned. As well, this conflict resulted in the use of guns by some IRA members and by police, which caused three deaths.
The police were later criticised for their use of Browning machine guns in built up areas: having come under grenade and gun attack, some officers believed they faced an armed uprising.
One of the most notorious incidents of this night involved the destruction of some 48 houses in the predominantly Catholic Conway Street. Initially, the police attempted to keep separate the two hostile crowds which gathered at opposite ends of this street.
The end result of this week of mayhem and destruction was the loss of eight lives, the injury of many hundreds of people, the widespread destruction of commercial property and the loss of hundreds of homes whose residents were forced to flee. Most of those who were killed or lost their houses were Catholic.