Nelson McCausland: Republicans were preparing for conflict long before Battle of the Bogside began
The disturbances in Londonderry in August 1969 are often cited as the beginning of the Troubles but that is a myth, says Nelson McCausland.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1969, Ulster was descending into turmoil and violence. It is often portrayed as beginning on August 12, 1969, in the wake of the annual parade in Londonderry by the Apprentice Boys of Derry. This was followed by the Battle of the Bogside and a television broadcast by Jack Lynch in which he said that the Dublin Government could not “stand by”.
There were calls by some nationalist politicians and civil rights leaders to start protests elsewhere. The call went out to “take the heat off Derry” and stretch the capacity of the RUC.
The resultant violence was particularly intense in Belfast, and Herbert Roy, a young Protestant, was shot dead by an IRA gunman. He was the first of five people to be killed in just 24 hours.
By that evening there were soldiers on the streets in Londonderry and that was the beginning of Operation Banner.
More than 3,000 people were to die in the Troubles and it is right that we should reflect on the events of that summer 50 years ago.
The popular myth is that the IRA had ‘dumped’ its weapons at the end of the Border Campaign in 1962, had turned to politics and that the violence in 1969 all stemmed from that parade in Londonderry. It is a popular myth — but it is a myth.
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As early as 1965 former IRA members in Dublin, who went on to form the terrorist group Saor Eire, were robbing banks in order to purchase guns.
Even then they were preparing for another phase of their “struggle”. They also stole weapons to build up an arsenal, but their main activity was a series of bank robberies which continued throughout the lifetime of the organisation.
Meanwhile, senior Fianna Fail politicians such as Neil Blaney and Kevin Boland were making militant speeches about ending partition.
In March 1969 members of Saor Eire robbed two banks in Newry and made off with £22,000, the largest single haul from a robbery in Ireland at that time.
They escaped back across the border after an exchange of gunfire with the RUC.
In April the Belfast IRA commander authorised the firebombing of post offices and a bus station and the IRA began to take up the fundraising methods pioneered by Saor Eire.
In May there was an arms raid in Dagenham when IRA members from the Republic attempted to steal 450 Sterling sub-machine guns. At their trial in September the court was told that “they wanted the weapons in time for the Apprentice Boys march on August 12”.
Also in that month there was a meeting of northern units of the IRA to discuss the availability of arms, and in Ardoyne the IRA formed a “defence committee”.
In June Frank Gogarty, chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, visited the headquarters of the IRA in Dublin and sought assurances that civil rights activists would be protected by the IRA if the violence escalated.
There was a very public display of republican militancy at the start of July when the bodies of two IRA terrorists were returned to the Republic. The Coventry bombers had been hanged after they were convicted of killing five people with a bomb in Coventry in 1939.
The reburial of the bodies in Mullingar, which involved IRA gunmen, provided a platform for a bitter and militant speech by Jimmy Steele, a veteran IRA man who was one of the founders of the Provisional IRA.
On July 30 Sean Keenan, the IRA commander in Londonderry, formed the Derry Citizens Defence Association, on the model of the earlier Ardoyne “defence association” and Neil Blaney, a member of the Fianna Fail Government in Dublin, was hovering in the wings. According to the nationalist politician Eddie McAteer: “Blaney was never far from our city in those fateful days of July and August.”
The scene was being set long before August 12.
Republicans often speak about “time for truth”, so is it too much to ask for the truth about the bombings, the bank robberies, the procurement of guns and the political machinations which preceded that fateful day in August 1969?