Belfast Telegraph

Brian M Walker, Eyewitness to history: IRA leaders key role in undermining civil rights movement

Historian Brian M Walker experienced at first hand many of the seminal events at the start of the Troubles 50 years ago. And he says IRA leaders played a key role in undermining the civil rights movement

The aftermath of the riots in Derry’s Bogside
The aftermath of the riots in Derry’s Bogside
Rioting in Belfast in August 1969

Last month, we marked 50 years since the events of August 1969, which are widely regarded as the beginning of our Troubles. For many at the time and today, these events have been seen as part of an IRA plot to overthrow the Northern Ireland government.

This view was investigated closely by the Scarman Tribunal. It observed that, of course, the IRA always had a plan to subvert the Northern Ireland state. On this occasion, however, Scarman judged that there was no IRA plot to overthrow the government, or mount an armed insurrection.

At the same time, it is clear that republican activists played an important part in events of August 1969, which not only caused serious disturbances, but also undermined the civil rights movement. We can now identify some who played a key role in these events.

At around 3.30pm on August 12, 1969, I stood at Waterloo Place in Derry. During the last stages of the Apprentice Boys parade, as I witnessed, stones were thrown at the marchers and the police in Waterloo Place by young people from the Bogside at the bottom of William Street.

Then a torrent of stones and eventually petrol-bombs were directed at the police, until, after two hours, the first baton charge took place and from there the fight escalated.

During the fighting, I moved around both sides of the barricades. On one side, there were Catholics, while on the other there were Protestant civilians in support of the police.

What happened was disastrous for efforts to promote civil rights and to challenge sectarianism in our society. Ideas of non-violence had been rejected and the conflict had emerged along sectarian lines, with dire consequences for elsewhere.

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On November 12, 1968, I was one of several hundred stewards at a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, which attracted nearly 20,000 people. Stewarding was organised very effectively by the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC), run by responsible individuals, such as John Hume and Claude Wilton.

In early August 1969, I attended a meeting of the DCAC at the City Hotel, Derry to volunteer as a civil rights steward on August 12. We were informed, however, that the DCAC would not provide stewards for the parade. Such work would be done by the new Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA).

This organisation, led by veteran republican Sean Keenan, and involving other republicans, was formed only in July. Its stated aim was "peace and defence", but it was mainly concerned with defence, in expectation of an attack on the Bogside.

At meetings in early August, speeches were often strident. On August 4, Keenan referred to the "good old petrol-bomb". Days before the parade, many petrol bombs were prepared.

Such language and preparations greatly increased tension. This organisation now came to supersede (undermine) the reputable DCAC.

In the event, there was no significant body of stewards present when the stone-throwing started, as I observed. Ivan Cooper and a few others tried, but failed to stop the fighting.

The DCDA did not initiate the conflict in Derry, but its complete failure at this early stage and its subsequent actions were important factors in the disastrous events in the city in August 1969.

After fighting started, calls for assistance went out from leaders in the Bogside. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), at a meeting in Belfast on the morning of August 13, urged widespread meetings to protest about the situation in Derry.

Later, Scarman criticised the NICRA for calling for these protest meetings, which all ended in violence. In Belfast, they helped to cause the Protestant backlash of August 14/15. Frank Gogarty, chair of NICRA, accepted this criticism.

In his evidence to Scarman, however, he recounted that at the NICRA meeting on August 13, members were strongly opposed to public demonstrations in Belfast, because of the risk of provoking sectarian violence.

In a report in the sixth edition of the Belfast Telegraph, printed in late afternoon on August 13, Kevin Boyle, secretary of NICRA, called for widespread meetings, but said explicitly that none would be held in Belfast.

In spite of this, certain activists went ahead with a meeting and marches in west Belfast on August 13, with serious consequences. A meeting was held in Divis Flats, after which marches were held to Hastings Street and Springfield Road RUC stations. These led eventually to heavy rioting and violence.

Scarman was very keen to find out who organised and addressed this meeting and who organised the marches. He was unable to do so.

We now have information on those responsible for these crucial events, which first brought crowds onto the streets of Belfast and which were contrary to the directions of the NICRA.

In their 2009 book, The Lost Revolution, Brian Hanley and Scott Millar write that IRA member Billy McMillen ordered republicans to organise demonstrations to "get the people on the streets" and "take the pressure off Derry".

They state that republicans Joe McCann and Anthony Dornan led the initial march to Hastings Street.

In his 1986 book, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Gerry Adams claims that he attended the NICRA meeting and, after hearing appeals from Derry for help, he informed the meeting that a protest meeting and march would be held on the Falls Road.

Then, he says, "we left the meeting to make petrol-bombs".

Later, however, in his 1996 autobiography, Before the Dawn, petrol-bombs are not mentioned, but he writes that he chaired the protest meeting at the Divis Flats and then took part in the consequent marches.

These marches ended in great violence. Both RUC stations were attacked by rioters with missiles and petrol-bombs. A battering ram was used to attempt to smash the door of Hastings Street station.

Commercial properties on, or near, the Falls Road were torched and barricades were erected.

Jack Lynch's broadcast greatly increased the tension.

Two fire officers were badly injured after a petrol-bomb was thrown at their car by rioters, who thought that they were police. (Deputy fire chief William Whyte was a parishioner of my father's.)

Assaults on the police included a hand grenade attack and small firearms fire. One police officer and two civilians received gunshot wounds. The Belfast police now believed, incorrectly, but understandably, that they faced a major insurrection.

Originally, this fighting involved only nationalist rioters and police. However, with tension at a new high due to these events, the next few days witnessed violent conflict between large crowds of nationalists and loyalists around the Falls and the Shankill, which spread to other areas.

There were no deaths in Derry, but in Belfast seven people were killed and thousands lost their homes. A majority of the victims were Catholic.

Any assessment of what happened in 1969 must take into account many factors, such as the refusal of the unionist government to introduce reforms in timely fashion, the violent actions of loyalist militants and serious failings in policing.

At the same time, efforts of the civil rights movement to promote non-violence and oppose sectarianism proved a failure.

Actions of republican activists in Derry and Belfast seriously undermined their attempt to meet the challenges of our deeply divided society.

Professor Brian M Walker is a former member of the Politics School at Queen's University Belfast. His new book, Irish History Matters: Politics, Identitie s and Commemoration, is published by History Press Ireland

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