Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Fifty years after the Battle of the Bogside, we are still unleashing forces we have no control over

Whether in Londonderry in 1969 or north Belfast last week, policing must be able to adapt, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Patrick Rooney
Patrick Rooney

By Malachi O'Doherty

This is the anniversary week of the trauma that energised the Troubles, which had been building up for nearly a year. On August 14, 1969, IRA members led an attack on a police station at Hastings Street in the lower Falls area of Belfast. They used petrol bombs and stones mostly and burnt surrounding buildings, including the Isaac Agnew car showrooms.

Loyalists came down onto the Falls from the Shankill to attack the rioters and exchanged gunfire with them. The bullet marks are still visible on the front of the old St Comgall's school. One of the loyalists was killed.

Brendan Hughes later said that he had been ordered to fire over their heads and wished he had been allowed to shoot directly at them.

The police responded with Browning machine-guns, mounted on armoured cars, killing Patrick Rooney, a little boy, in Divis Flats.

They appear to have believed that they were under much greater threat than the IRA and the rioters actually posed, possibly spooked by the sound of their own guns.

The rioting in Belfast was an extension of the Bogside rioting, nostalgically remembered by many otherwise responsible and level-headed Derry people as a great lark altogether.

Nobody died in the Bogside. The carnage followed the call from the Bogside for others to protest and seek to overstretch the police. This they did.

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Ruairi O Bradaigh, who was on the IRA army council at the time, told me that he and others, who later formed the nucleus of the breakaway Provisional IRA, had come to think of Stormont as a rotten door that might be kicked in.

The IRA had initially stayed out of the civil rights campaign, leaving it to the ard chomhairle of Sinn Fein to direct republican involvement. There was a clear strategy, then, to promote peaceful protest for the purpose of building a broad front campaign.

Around the spring of 1969 the IRA changed its thinking. In my book, Fifty Years On, I quote a diary entry by IRA adviser Desmond Greaves of March 4, 1969, in which he says: "I was trying to head them off this move that is being planned for creating a breakdown of law and order that will compel England to abolish Stormont."

The rioting of this week in 1969 is remembered by many as a pogrom against the Catholic community by the massed ranks of loyalists, the RUC and the B Specials.

This misses the point that it was people in the Catholic community who started the rioting both in Derry and in Belfast. Yet, innocent people were burnt out of their homes by loyalists. Two bars my father managed on the Crumlin Road were also burnt out.

On the afternoon of August 15 my sister Brid and I walked around the wreckage in the lower Falls and up Northumberland Street, across the Shankill and up Agnes Street to the bars, where my brother Brian was in charge. The mood among the customers was grim. Brian decided to close early. Brid and I walked back to the Falls and watched the soldiers arrive with fixed bayonets and helmets and wondered what sort of battle they thought they were going to.

Researching my book, I also found a report from the Legion of Mary on the scale of the violence.

The report said that St Peter's parish had lost 130 homes during the disturbances and in the relief centre on the nights of August 13 and 14 over 300 people were attended to, 70 of whom had serious gunshot wounds.

The report said: "Medical opinion confirmed that 50-60 of those would have died had it not been for the efforts of legionaries and members of the Knights of Malta."

There are lessons to be learned from that week. The main one is that when you live in a divided society you have to make an effort to understand the perspective of the other side. There's no sign of much of that happening.

Unionism misread the civil rights campaign from the start as a republican uprising, a sectarian challenge to stability and then that is what it turned into.

It makes much the same mistake today, seeing a growing interest in a united Ireland and presuming that the aversion to Brexit is just a sneaky plot to break up the UK, missing the point that but for Brexit, the Union would be much more secure.

Yet another lesson is that organisations can take hold of the public mood. We too easily accept that violence emerges here as a consequence of community feeling. But people emerge to lead that violence and to manage it.

They also manage the propaganda afterwards to justify themselves. And often the people who are most likely to be lied to are the ones these organisations claim to represent and serve.

The simple "pogrom" account of August 1969 is an injustice to those who were burnt out of their homes, because it ignores the huge effort that some of their own neighbours put into stoking up that violence.

Another lesson is that trauma produces lasting consequences. The violence of August 1969 need not have reached the peak that it did and the Troubles that followed would not have gained as much momentum if the rioting had been efficiently contained.

One of the biggest lessons of that period is that the police were too weak to cope. They were successfully overstretched and resorted to firing machine-guns in city streets.

A stronger and more competent police force would have responded to the violence more strategically and ended it quickly.

I was among those who had joined protests shouting out "SS RUC", accusing them of being fascist thugs.

They hadn't it in them to be fascists. Ill-trained and ill-equipped, they were easily made ridiculous and thereby more dangerous.

In my book I say that one of the groups that shows signs of having learned from the last 50 years is the police. Faced with a chaotic and dangerous invitation to riot in the New Lodge last week, they withdrew, as perhaps the RUC should have withdrawn from Derry and simply walked away from the stone-throwers who coaxed them into the Bogside.

But on Thursday night they simply left the streets to feral mobs, and that shouldn't have happened.

Damned if we do and damned if we don't, they will say. But if the art of policing can't cope, then it has to evolve to a point where it can.

It is 50 years now since nights of chaos that no one could control, but which many, by negligence or deliberation, had generated. If we don't learn from that, it will happen again.

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