Extracts from 'War and an Irish Town' by Eamonn McCann (1993)
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The following extract has been contributed by the author, Eamonn McCann, with the permission of the publisher, Pluto Press. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This extract is taken from the book:
This chapter is copyright Eamonn McCann 1993 and is included
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by Eamonn McCann
I have left the original text of this book, written in 1973, unchanged. Some of the predictions now seem naive, some of the judgments wrong-headed, some of the language inappropriate. But it’s an accurate account of how things seemed to me then, and I think most of it stands the test of time well enough.
I set out to ‘update’ the book but abandoned the project when it began to develop into an opinionated chronology. The new introduction included here is an account of how things seem to me now. It leaves a lot out: the changed role of the Catholic church, for example, now more important to the stability of the Northern state than the Southern state; the political import of the IRA’s armed struggle; the significance of the advance of the women’s movement, and much else.
I ended the book in 1973 by suggesting that the future lay with the small but steadily growing forces of Marxism. This was something of a cheek, since at the time I was doing little to encourage this growth. It wasn’t until 1983 that I joined a Marxist organization.
I can say now, more meaningfully, that I intend this publication of the book as a contribution to discussion of how best to build a revolutionary socialist party in Ireland.
Eamonn McCann, August 1993
Most accounts of the current trouble in Northern Ireland begin at 5 October 1968, which is as good a date to start from as any other. It was the day of the first civil rights march in Derry. Had all those who now claim to have marched that day actually done so, the carriageway would have collapsed. It was a small demonstration, perhaps four hundred strong — and a hundred of these were students from Belfast. Most of the rest were teenagers from the Bog-side and Creggan. The march was trapped between two cordons of police in Duke Street and batoned into disarray.
The march had been organized by a loose group of radicals who had been trying for months, with some success, to create general political mayhem in the city. Those involved were drawn mainly from the local Labour Party and the James Connolly Republican Club. In March they and some others had organized themselves, if that is not too strong a word, into the Derry Housing Action Committee, which set out with the conscious intention of disrupting public life in the city to draw attention to the housing problem. The DHAC introduced itself to the public by breaking up the March meeting of Londonderry Corporation. We invaded the public gallery of the council chamber with banners and placards and demanded that we be allowed to participate in the meeting. The mayor naturally refused, and made it clear that he was not going to tolerate hooliganism in the chamber. From the Nationalist benches Alderman James Hegarty voiced the opinion that we were ‘under the control of card-carrying members of the Communist Party’. Eventually the meeting had to be adjourned. The police were called and we were ejected. There was wide publicity in the Irish papers. It was a very successful demonstration. We repeated it at the April and May meetings of the Corporation.
The Housing Action Committee had immediate internal problems. It started with about twenty members. It split twice during the first few months of its existence. One group broke away because it was too political’, another because it was not political enough. Its first chairman, Matt O’Leary, resigned during the summer after a series of seemingly trivial rows. But through it all the Committee’s campaign continued to gather momentum. Its strength was that, unlike the opposition groups which hitherto had had a monopoly of anti-Unionist politics in the city, the HAC gave people something to do, even if it was only kicking the mayor’s car as he fled under police escort from another abandoned meeting of the Corporation, and thus it managed to siphon in behind it some of the gathering frustration of the Bogside and Creggan. And the decision to select the Corporation as the primary target and to set about the systematic disruption of its business was in itself a minor political masterstroke.
The gerrymandered Corporation was the living symbol in Derry of the anti-democratic exclusion of Catholics from power. The stated reason for our activities in the gallery was to highlight the housing situation, but they were generally regarded by Catholics as an attack on the whole political set-up; which, of course, they were. There were many in the Bogside who did not approve of our ‘extremism’ and were nervous of our ‘communistic ideas’ — but there were none who would defend the Corporation. In that sense it was the safest of safe targets. After the mayor abandoned his chair and adjourned one Corporation meeting, Finbar Doherty vaulted from the public gallery into the chamber, installed himself in the mayoral chair, declared himself First Citizen and issued a number of decrees. Finbar was a passionate Republican, much given to violent rhetoric. He was five feet tall, with double-lens glasses. It can be doubted whether more than a tiny percentage of the people would, given the chance, have actually voted for him as mayor, but there were very few in our area who failed to smile when they heard of the incident.
By early summer the group around the Housing Action Committee was beginning to be seen as a real challenge to the Nationalist Party in the Catholic working-class areas of the city. There was much muttering about communists and on Easter Sunday the bishop had abjured young people not to allow themselves ‘to be led by the mob’. The campaign of disruption was also bringing to the surface differences within both the Labour and Republican movements in the city. The local Labour Party was a branch of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, an eminently respectable body based on a markedly timid trade-union bureaucracy. Its local leaders were sternly disapproving of members roughing up the mayor. One of the party’s stalwart moderates, Mr Harry Doherty, warned a branch meeting around this time that ‘I can detect left-wing ideas creeping into this party’. More than that, there was vigorous opposition to any liaison with Republicans. The Labour Party prided itself — publicly and often — on the fact that it bridged the sectarian barrier and had in its ranks both Protestant and Catholic workers. Protestants, it was said, would be frightened off by the mere mention of Republicanism. Mr Ivan Cooper — now a member of the SDLP but then the best-known Labour Party personality in the city — demanded the expulsion of any member who appeared on a platform with Republicans, ‘especially with that fool Finbar Doherty’.
The situation within the local Republican movement was almost the exact obverse. Older members of the movement, exponents of ‘pure’ Republicanism, objected to cooperation with members of the ‘partitionist’ Labour Party. They were, anyway, angry at concentration on what seemed to them to be short-term bread-and-butter issues to the neglect of the ‘national ideal’.
The issues were never fully resolved in either organization. The ad hoc alliance between the left of the Labour Party and the left of the Republican Club continued, and continued to be frowned on by both local party establishments. But the leftists involved carried out no clear political struggle within either organization. We could not, because what we shared was not a common programme but a general contempt for the type of politics which prevailed in the city.
The only attempt to codify our ideas was made in May, when a ‘perspectives document’ was prepared by Labour leftists:
Insofar as we had a perspective, that was it. There were frequent discussions around the points in the document in various pubs and houses during the summer. These were attended by Johnnie White, Liam Cummins and Finbar Doherty from the Republican Club; Charlie Morrison, Dermie McClenaghan and myself from the Labour Party; Matt O’Leary of the Housing Action Committee; Eamonn Melaugh, a free-wheeling radical who had ten children and a bizarre vocabulary; and a few others. Little came of these discussions. There was always too much to do, because one of the results of our having made an initial impact was that people came in a constant stream with problems to be solved: people who wanted houses or wanted repairs done to houses, people who believed — correctly, almost always — that they were getting less than their full entitlement from Social Security, people who were in trouble with rent arrears. It seemed to them that the much publicized and more aggressive tactics we had brought to bear on the Corporation might avail them better than the official channels.
Indeed, up to then people did not use even the official channels for complaint. They knew that they were being treated badly and believed that there was little anyone could do to stop it. We began squatting people in empty houses, of which there were a considerable number in the area, in each case issuing statements that we would ‘physically resist’ any attempt to evict the family involved. Private landlords charging exorbitant rents were picketed. The local office of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust was subjected to a daily barrage of phone calls and personal visits about the cases of individual families on the housing list. We confronted landlords and officials with more aggression than they had ever met before. Dermie McClenaghan, on being told that the Housing Manageress was too busy to see him, said quietly (he always spoke quietly) that if she did not see him at once he would return with ‘a gang of hooligans’ and smash the office up. Electricity Department officials, come to cut off the supply from a Creggan woman who could not pay the bill, were, after a long argument during which a crowd gathered, told that the first man to put his foot over the threshold would be shot. In almost all such cases our tactics were successful. This was very satisfying, but it took a lot of time which meant that often we resembled a rather violent community welfare body rather than a, group of revolutionaries. Any perspective of building a clear-minded political organization in opposition to the dominant tendencies within the Labour or Republican movements was forgotten in the frenetic round of breaking into empty houses, organizing pickets and encouraging individuals to stand up to the landlords and local bureaucrats. And, anyway, such activities seemed to be bearing some fruit. There was a feeling gathering in the area that, however unacceptable our political ideas might be, we were at least getting things done. This in turn encouraged us to believe vaguely that we must be making some political progress.
At the beginning of June Dermie McClenaghan discovered John Wilson. Mr Wilson was living with his wife and two children in a tiny caravan parked up a mucky lane in the Brandywell district. The caravan was an oven in the summer, an icebox in the winter. One of the children had tuberculosis. Mr Wilson had been told by the Corporation Housing Department that he had ‘no chance’ of a house. Mr Wilson’s case was tailor-made. On 22 June, a Saturday, about ten of us manhandled the Wilsons’ caravan on to Lecky Road, the main artery through the Bogside, and parked it broadside in the middle of the road, stopping all traffic. We distributed leaflets in the surrounding streets explaining that we intended to keep the caravan there for twenty-four hours as a protest against the Wilsons’ living conditions and calling for support. We then phoned the police, the mayor and the newspapers, inviting each to come and see. The mayor did not come. We expected that the police would try to arrest us, or at least to move the caravan to the side of the road. But they merely looked and left.
We stood guard on the caravan all night, equipped with a loud-hailer with which we intended to try to rouse the district if the police made a move. But nothing happened. On the Sunday we hauled the caravan back to its original parking place. We had about two hundred supporters with us on the return journey. Reports of the incident were carried with some prominence in the Irish Sunday newspapers and on local radio and TV. We announced that next weekend we would repeat the performance, this time for forty-eight hours. During the next week we were visited by policemen who explained, almost apologetically, that if we went through with this they would ‘have to take action’, which greatly encouraged us. On the Wilson issue we now knew that if we were arrested we would have strong support in the area. The facts had been given wide publicity and no one could deny that a great injustice was being done. Few, therefore, could openly oppose vigorous protest against it. If we could force the police to act against us we could be certain of an upsurge of sympathy which would further weaken the Nationalist grip on the area.
We lugged the caravan on to the road again the following Saturday and waited up two nights for the police onslaught. But again nothing happened. We dragged it back to its laneway and resolved next week to take it into the city centre. Before the week was out the Wilsons had been guaranteed a house and ten of us had been summoned to appear in court for contravening the Road Traffic Act (N.I.). 1951. It was a perfect ending.
It had very publicly been made clear that outrageous tactics worked, that blocking roads worked better than an MP’s intervention — if the latter worked at all. The court proceedings provided us with a platform; fines and suspended sentences conferred on us an aura of minor martyrdom. At the first meeting of the Housing Action Committee after the court hearing we really began to believe ourselves when we said that we had the Nationalist Party on the run.
On 3 July the mayor, Councillor William Beattie, was scheduled to declare open a new lower-deck carriageway across the River Foyle. The opening was to take the curious form of Councillor Beattie’s ceremonially walking across the bridge. It was too good a chance to miss and, sure enough, as soon as he set off seven young men sat down in his path displaying placards, some of which bore the pardonably exaggerated legend ‘Hitler — Franco — Beattie’. Finbar Doherty intervened and, as he was seized by plain-clothes detectives, burst into ‘We shall overcome’. No one joined in. As yet they did not know the words. Two of the seven, Roddy Carlin and Neil O’Donnell, refused to sign bonds to keep the peace and instead went to jail for a month. The result was more press statements, more publicity and a further noticeable increase in what appeared to be our political support.
By this time our conscious, if unspoken, strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities. We assumed that we would be in control of the reaction, that we were strong enough to channel it. The one certain way to ensure a head-on clash with the authorities was to organize a non-Unionist march through the city centre. We decided to march in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of James Connolly. A ‘James Connolly Commemoration Committee’ was called into being, with Finbar Doherty as chairman, and a route through the city centre was submitted to the RUC. The march, on 21 July, was to end with a rally in the Guildhall Square. Mr Gerry Fitt, Miss Betty Sinclair, leading communist and chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and Connolly’s son Roddy were invited to speak, along with three of our own number. When the order banning the march was served it found the Committee in complete disarray. A dispute as to whether the Irish Tricolour should be carried at the head of the procession had reached deadlock. Some of the Republicans said that they would not march without it. To do so would be an insult to the memory of Connolly. For the same reason others said that they would not march with it. The march was abandoned in a welter of recrimination. The rally went ahead and was a significant success. About a thousand people attended. The Nationalist Party was strongly attacked. Mr Fitt said that he regretted the decision not to defy the ban. It was immediately suggested to him from the crowd that he should now lead the people through the city walls and into the outlawed Diamond. Mr Fitt did not answer the call. The Derry Journal said that Connolly’s memory had been ‘poorly served’ by the event.
The Nationalist Party was now running very scared indeed. We made our regular appearance at the next meeting of the Corporation. In March we had come thirty strong. Now we overflowed the council chamber out into the foyer of the Guildhall building and into the street. Before the meeting was abandoned Alderman Hegarty declared in stirring fashion that he was renouncing the party pledge to co-operate with Unionist members. The public gallery reacted to this announcement with a mixture of applause and shouts of ‘hypocrite’, there being different levels of consciousness present. And others were coming round. In the foyer outside Ivan Cooper closed a speech by paying tribute to ‘the great work being done by Finbar Doherty’. The police formed a cordon to allow the mayor to make a getaway. On leaving the Guildhall Eamonn Melaugh phoned the Civil Rights Association and invited them to come and hold a march in Derry.
The CRA had organized a march — the first civil rights march in Northern Ireland — from Coalisland to Dungannon in August to protest against discriminatory housing allocations in that area. About four thousand had marched, and it passed off peacefully despite being prevented by the RUC from reaching its objective, Dungannon market square.
A delegation from the executive of the Civil Rights Association came to Derry to discuss the project with us. The CRA had no branch in Derry. At that point it had few branches anywhere. We met in a room above the Grandstand Bar in William Street. Melaugh, as the man who had thought of the idea, delivered a pep-talk before we went in to meet the delegation: ‘Remember, our main purpose here is to keep our grubby proletarian grip on this jamboree.’ It was good advice. It was immediately clear that the CRA knew nothing of Derry. We had resolved to press for a route which would take the march into the walled centre of the city and expected opposition to this from moderate members of the CRA. But there was none. No one in the CRA delegation understood that it was unheard of for a non-Unionist procession to enter that area. The route we proposed — from Duke Street in the Waterside, across Craigavon Bridge, through the city walls and into the Diamond — was accepted without question. The CRA proposed that all political organizations in the city — including the Unionist Party — should be invited to attend. We argued down the proposed invitation to the Unionists, but accepted that the Nationalists should be asked. We knew that the invitation would put them in a very embarrassing position. If they accepted they would be seen as coming in behind us — a demeaning position for the elected representatives of the people. If they refused we could denounce them as deserters. It was agreed that in the absence of a CRA branch a committee — to be called the Ad-hoc CR Committee — should be set up with one representative from each supporting organization to attend to local details. 5 October was selected as the date for the march because we thought, wrongly as it turned out, that Derry City Football Club was playing away that Saturday.
In the end only five organizations committed themselves far enough to nominate a representative onto the Ad-hoc Committee. It consisted of Johnnie White (Republican Club), Eamonn Melaugh (Housing Action Committee), Finbar Doherty (James Connolly Society), Dermie McClenaghan (Labour Party Young Socialists), and Brendan Hinds (Labour Party). It was suspected that the James Connolly Society existed mainly in Finbar’s mind. The Young Socialists was the Labour Party under another name. Brendan Hinds was a local shop-steward of intermittent militancy who called everyone ‘kid’ and had a penchant for talking in aphorisms, a characteristic which was subsequently to unsettle many a television interviewer’s style. (‘Mr Hinds, can you explain the background to these riots?’ ‘Idle hands throw stones, kid.’)
The Ad-hoc Committee never functioned. It was not clear who was to convene it, and less clear what authority it had, if any, to make decisions without reference to the GRA in Belfast. By mid-September Eamonn Melaugh and I had taken effective control. We issued press statements daily, successively under the name of each of the five supporting organizations, calling for ‘a massive turn-out’, ‘a gigantic demonstration’, and so on. We churned out leaflets on a duplicator owned by the Derry Canine Club, the chairman of which had a son in the Labour Party, went fly-posting at night, and made placards. None of the placards demanded ‘civil rights’. We were anxious to assert socialist ideas, whether or not the CRA approved. We used slogans such as ‘Class war, not Creed war’, ‘Orange and Green Tories Out’, ‘Working Class Unite and Fight!’ The intention was to draw a clear line between ourselves and the Nationalist Party, to prevent pan-Catholic unity. We understood in general terms that the Nationalist Party, if we did not clearly differentiate ourselves from it, might be able to assume control of whatever movement arose out of 5 October, and no movement with the Nationalist Party at or near its head could hope ever to cross the sectarian divide.
During the previous months we had managed to make contact with some Protestants from the Fountain, a small working-class area which abutted the Bogside. They too had their housing problems, mostly concerned with hold-ups in a redevelopment scheme, and a few of them had approached us suggesting that we devote some of our agitations to their cases. This we had done, heartened that our non-sectarian intentions had been accepted. We knew that none of our Protestant contacts was going to march on 5 October — that would have been too much to expect — but we had real hope that the socialist movement we were going to build after, and partly as a result of, the march would engage Protestant support.
We had no doubt that 5 October was going to be a very significant day. (After the meeting at which the CRA had accepted our route Melaugh had remarked: ‘Well, that’s it. Stormont is finished.’) For six months we had been making steady and seemingly inexorable progress. We began as a small, disparate group and by simple direct action tactics we had month by month accumulated support. Despite all splits, confusions and inefficiencies everything that we did seemed to turn out right. Now we were in control of an event which was seriously perturbing the government and exciting concerned editorials in the Belfast papers.
There seemed no reason to suppose that 5 October would not be our most significant advance to date. There were one or two problems. The CRA was a liberal body with no pretensions to revolutionary politics. But then we were paying little attention to them. Their sponsorship of the march was nominal. We had no common political organization. But this had proved no real drawback in the last six months. Indeed the absence of organization, the fact that we rarely sought formal approval of our actions from the Labour Party, the Republican Club or anyone else, appeared to have been a positive advantage. The decision to block a road with John Wilson’s caravan, for example, had been taken in the name of the HAC at a street corner by Matt O’Leary, Dermie McClenaghan and me within a few hours of Mr Wilson’s contacting Dermie. And that had worked out very well.
Under the Public Order Act two people had to sign a document notifying the police of the route of the march, thus assuming legal responsibility for it. The CRA, in pursuit of respectability, approached Councillor James Doherty, businessman and chairman of the Nationalist Party, and John Hume, a factory manager who was prominent in the Credit Union Movement. Both refused point-blank. Two members of the CRA itself signed instead.
A week before 5 October the march had still not been banned. In an effort to force the issue Melaugh and I issued a statement saying that the march would go on ‘despite any undemocratic ban which might be imposed’. It was 3 October before the government rose to the bait and orders prohibiting the march, signed by Home Affairs Minister William Craig, were delivered in the late afternoon to Melaugh, Johnnie White, Finbar Doherty and me. The ostensible reason for the ban was that the Apprentice Boys had given notice of a march over the same route at the same time. We phoned the CR A and Mr McAteer. The CR A said that they would meet that night. Mr McAteer advised us to postpone the march for a week.
A CRA delegation came to Derry on the Friday night. At a meeting in the City Hotel they announced that the march was cancelled. In anticipation of this Hinds and McClenaghan were already touring the Bogside and Creggan with a loudspeaker car holding off-the-cuff street-corner meetings appealing to people to ‘come out tomorrow and show your contempt for the law’. For two hours the CRA representatives explained to us that it was their march, it was they who had formally notified the police, and that they, therefore, were the only people with authority to decide whether or not it should go ahead. We explained that we were marching anyway. It was some time before the Belfast delegation grasped the central point that they had no means of stopping us marching. Their Opposition collapsed when one of their number, Frank Gogarty, broke ranks and announced that ‘if the Derry people are marching I’m marching with them’.
We expected about five thousand people to turn out. There had, after all, been four thousand at Dungannon. Our calculation all along had been that a ban would encourage thousands of outraged citizens who would not otherwise have marched to come and demonstrate their disgust. Gerry Fitt arrived from Blackpool, where the Labour Party conference was in session, bringing three Tribunite M Ps with him as ‘observers’. Our loudspeaker van toured the streets from early morning with Hinds at the mike informing the populace that ‘when you gotta go, you gotta go and we gotta go today’. Police reinforcements poured into the city, and there were rumours that there were ‘dozens’ of Alsatian dogs in the Waterside police station.
Commentators afterwards were unanimous that the imposition of a ban had indeed doubled the number of marchers. If this is so. then without the ban the turn-out would have been pathetic indeed. About four hundred people formed up in ranks in Duke Street. About two hundred stood on the pavement and looked on. It was a very disappointing crowd. People may have been deterred not by the ban but by the expectation of violence. And our somewhat melodramatic advance publicity had probably done little to reassure them. The march would proceed. we had said. ‘come hell or high water’, and the overwhelming majority of people in the Bogside and Creggan were not yet ready for either. Moreover, the whole route of our march lay outside the Catholic ghetto. We were to learn in time that when organizing a march towards confrontation it is essential to begin in ‘home’ territory and march out, so that there is somewhere for people to stream back to if this proves necessary.
On the day, however. numbers soon became irrelevant. Our route was blocked by a cordon of police and tenders drawn up across the road about three hundred yards from the starting point. We marched into the police cordon but failed to force a way through. Gerry Fitt’s head was bloodied by the first baton blow of the day. We noticed that another police cordon had moved in from the rear and cut us off from behind. There were no exits from Duke Street in the stretch between the two cordons. So we were trapped. The crowd milled around for a few minutes, no one knowing quite what to do. Then a chair was produced and Miss Betty Sinclair got up and made a speech. She somewhat prematurely congratulated the crowd on its good behaviour and advised everyone to go home peacefully. Mr McAteer and Mr Cooper spoke along similar lines. Austin Currie, Nationalist MP for East Tyrone, was much less explicit about peace. I made a speech which was later to be characterized by the magistrates’ court as ‘incitement to riot’. It was an unruly meeting. Our loudspeaker had been seized by the police and it was difficult to make ourselves heard. Some of the crowd were demanding action. ‘There must be no violence,’ shouted Miss Sinclair. to a barrage of disagreement. But the decision as to whether there would be violence was soon taken from our hands.
The two police cordons moved simultaneously on the crowd. Men, women and children were clubbed to the ground. People were fleeing down the street from the front cordon and up the street from the rear cordon, crashing into one another, stumbling over one another, huddling in doorways, some screaming. District Inspector Ross McGimpsie. chief of the local police (now promoted), moved in behind his men and laid about him with gusto. Most people ran the gauntlet of batons and reached Craigavon Bridge, at the head of Duke Street. A water cannon — the first we had ever seen — appeared and hosed them across the bridge. The rest of the crowd went back down Duke Street, crouched and heads covered for protection from the police, ran through side streets and made a roundabout way back home. About a hundred had to go to hospital for treatment.
In the evening the lounge of the City Hotel looked like a casualty clearing station, all bandaged heads and arms in slings. In a corner Miss Sinclair was loudly denouncing the ‘hooligans and anarchists’ who had provoked the police and ‘ruined our reputation’. Later there was sporadic fighting at the edges of the Bogside which lasted until early morning. Police cars were stoned, shop windows smashed and a flimsy, token barricade was erected in Rossville Street. A few petrol bombs were thrown. By the next morning, after the television newsreels and the newspaper pictures, a howl of elemental rage was unleashed across Northern Ireland, and it was clear that things were never going to be the same again. We had indeed set out to make the police over-react. But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.
The Bogside was deluged with journalists. Some spent their time trying to identify a local Danny the Red. (The May events in France were fresh in the memory.) Others wandered into the area and asked to be introduced to someone who had been discriminated against. A lady journalist from the Daily Mail came to my front door asking for the name and address of an articulate, Catholic, unemployed slum-dweller she could talk to. Derry was big news. The prime minister, Captain Terence O’Neill, delivered a liberal homily appealing for moderation and restraint. Mr Craig praised the police for their tactful handling of the affair. Eamonn Melaugh, Finbar Doherty and I were arrested on Sunday afternoon and charged with contravention of the Public Order Act.
We had a mass movement, but no organization. The Housing Action Committee was obviously inadequate in the new situation. We called a meeting of ‘the local organizers’ for Tuesday night in the City Hotel. The index of our political and organizational chaos was that, having called the meeting, we were not at all certain who would have the right to attend. At the time that did not seem very important. We would as always muddle through. All seemed to be going according to plan — insofar as there was a plan. At a stroke we had shaken the governments fatally undermined the Nationalist Party in the city and made Derry world news. Who needed organization? Who needed theory? About fifteen people attended, the ‘regulars’ plus Ivan Cooper and a few members of the Labour Party and the Republican Club who had not until then played a very prominent part. It was agreed that we should march again the next Saturday over roughly the same route. We forecast a turn-out of ten thousand people. Ivan Cooper and Johnnie White agreed to sign the document notifying the police of our intention.
Another meeting was called in the City Hotel for Wednesday night. It was not, and still is not, clear who had organized it. But word got around during the afternoon that ‘all interested parties’ were meeting to ‘consider the situation’. In the nature of things there was no mechanism whereby our loose group could convene itself and arrive at a joint attitude to this. Some of us met in the foyer of the City Hotel in the evening and decided to attend the gathering, see who was there and perhaps participate in the meeting. We agreed, too, that nothing the gathering decided could be binding on us. In the room upstairs there were about a hundred and twenty people. The Catholic business community, the clergy, the professions, trade-union officialdom and the Nationalist Party were well represented. In the event I took the chair, flanked by McClenaghan and Johnnie White, and told the meeting that we, the organizers of the march. would be interested in what they had to say. Various speakers congratulated us on the marvellous work we had done over the past few months. A few expressed their regrets, apologies etc. that they had not ‘been as active in the past as I would have liked’. All urged that we now all work together. Finally it was proposed that the meeting elect a number of people who, together with the original organizers, would constitute a new committee. I explained that the meeting could elect anything it wished as long as it understood that the ‘original organizers’, as they had come to be called, would make up their own minds what status, if any, to accord those elected. Eleven people were elected from the floor and the meeting closed.
There followed immediately a short, bitter row between myself and the four other ‘original organizers’ who were present. I argued that we should immediately walk out, leaving the eleven persons just ‘elected’ to their own devices. ‘Without us they have no credibility. Why should we give it to them?’
White, McClenaghan, Hinds and Melaugh countered that we should join with these eleven, reasoning that since we held the initiative we would be able to force the pace, drag some of them along in our wake and force the others quickly to resign. (Finbar Doherty, who had not heard that the meeting was taking place, was absent.) In a fit of either pique or principle I then stomped out and denounced the persons elected at the meeting as ‘middle-aged, middle-class and middle of the road’. The other four stayed behind and joined in a meeting of the new, expanded body.
The organization called itself the Citizens Action Committee. It immediately elected five officers. They were: chairman, Ivan Cooper; vice-chairman, John Hume; secretary, Michael Canavan, owner of a chain of bookmaker’s shops, a pub and a salmon-processing factory; treasurer, Councillor James Doherty; press officer, Campbell Austin, Liberal-Unionist and owner of the biggest department store in the city. It was a far cry from the ad hoc committee of five days previously. The Committee’s first action was to call off the march scheduled for the following Saturday.
The Committee arranged a sit-down in Guildhall Square for 19 October. Campbell Austin resigned in protest. About five thousand people came on a wet day and sat down in the square to hear speeches. The emotional and political keynote was set by Paddy Doherty, a tough-minded and rigorously honest right-winger, when he asked the crowd, rather in the manner of a retreat priest inviting the congregation to renounce the devil:
A local solicitor, Claude Wilton, the usually unpaid advocate of every Bogsider in trouble, appealed to us to ‘Forget the past and live together for the future. I ask you to treat every person fairly and give employment fairly, provided always that you have your fundamental rights.’ John Hume conducted the singing of ‘We shall overcome’. All joined in the chorus.
It was that kind of meeting. The Citizens Action Committee declared at the outset that it was a ‘non-political’ body. It renounced violence. Its watchword was ‘Anti-Unionist unity’. No speech from its platforms was complete without a declaration of pacifist intent and an appeal for ‘the unity of all our people’. Unity was impressively demonstrated when fifteen thousand people assembled in Duke Street on 16 November to try again to march to the city centre. Craig had now banned all demonstrations within the city walls. The march faced a police cordon on Craigavon Bridge, and hundreds of stewards held back the younger and more aggressive elements who wanted to fight their way through. After a thirty-minute stand-off which threatened at any moment to erupt into the biggest riot seen in Derry in living memory, the crowd surged around the police cordon, which, perhaps with some foresight, was so positioned as to leave open an alternative route into the city centre, and made its way to the Diamond. The meeting was held in the outlawed area. This was considered a famous victory and it established the GAC as the unchallengeable leaders of anti-Unionism in Derry.
The CAC’s sudden strength did not lie in its having committed the Catholic masses to a new political programme. Its strength was that in a sense it had no programme. Certainly it made specific demands — universal franchise in local government elections, an end to gerrymandering, laws against discrimination and so on. But there was nothing in this that the Nationalist Party had not, in its own way, been campaigning for decades, nothing with which the Republican movement, the Labour Party, the Liberal Party and even a section of the Unionists did not agree. The CAC’s strength was that it struck an attitude which perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses in the aftermath of 5 October. John Hume was its personification: reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined. The average Bogsider wanted to do something about 5 October; he could go out and march behind Hume, confident that he would not be led into violence, in no way nervous about the political ideas of the men at the front of the procession and certain that he was, by his presence, making a contribution to the struggle. The CAC did not challenge the consciousness of the Catholic masses. It up-dated the expression of it, injected new life into it and made it relevant to a changed situation. And the tiny miracle which sealed their success in doing this was that they had contrived to contain within their ambit most of those who had, until 5 October, been leading a struggle designed specifically to destroy that consciousness.
Revolutionaries and reformers can unite only when the revolutionary agrees, temporarily at least, to suspend those items in his programme with which the reformer disagrees. There is no reciprocation. The revolutionary will agree with the reformer’s demands; his basic objection will be that they do not go far enough.
So for the time being a fractious alliance held together. And it seemed to be getting some results. The civil rights demonstrations which took place throughout Northern Ireland, but most frequently and dramatically in Derry, in the weeks after 5 October forced concessions from the Unionists. On 8 November a specially requisitioned meeting of the Corporation accepted a Nationalist motion setting up a three-man committee to allocate houses. Alderman Hegarty and two Unionists were elected to the committee. Shortly afterwards O’Neill announced a five-point package of reforms. These involved a plan to abolish Derry Corporation, universal franchise, and a promise that sections of the Special Powers Act would be ‘put into cold storage’ (but not so cold as to prevent rapid re-heating when the occasion arose).
Had such measures been announced in Stormont three months previously they would have been hailed as a dramatic advance. Now they were far too little far too late. What they did was to confirm to the Catholic masses that the power which they were beginning to feel was real. When on 16 November fifteen thousand people stood in a mass on Craigavon Bridge confronting the police they felt, being there in those numbers, real power in their grasp. That was a heady thing to happen to people from the Bog-side, something which no cabinet minister could ever understand.
There was a civil rights march in Armagh on 30 November. The Rev. Ian Paisley called a counter-demonstration. With hundreds of followers, most of them armed with sticks and clubs, he occupied the centre of the city, the march’s objective, from early morning. The march had not been banned, but the RUC blocked its path and prevented the two sides coming into contact. There was no clash, but the gruesome possibilities were not missed by many people. Dr Paisley protested loud and long about the weakness of O’Neill in the face of the rebel threat. Mr Craig repeatedly asserted his conviction that IRA men and Trotsky-ites were masterminding the Catholics. The CRA, the CAC and the Nationalist Party demanded that the government charge Paisley and sack Craig. Tension grew. Then on 9 December Captain O’Neill apparently had the biggest success of his career. He made a dramatic prime-ministerial broadcast immediately after the news on local television. It was ten minutes of emotional clichés delivered in the whining nasal drawl which is, apparently, his natural voice, He ended by asking ‘What kind of Ulster do you want?’ and appealing to ‘men of goodwill to come together’.
Immediately afterwards he sacked Craig from the government. This was generally regarded as a very courageous thing for Captain O’Neill to do. In his own terms it may well have been. The civil rights movement welcomed it triumphantly, and glowing tribute was paid to the principled liberalism of the prime minister. Both the CRA and the CAG called ‘a truce’ — that is they promised not to organize any marches in the immediate future. O’Neill’s broadcast was printed and reprinted in the press and generally touted as the keynote address of a new era. The majority of people in the Bogside, and in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland generally, believed at this point that the trouble was over. For a brief period we had gone marching mad. Reforms were on the way and, with the Unionist hard-liners ‘routed’ (Derry Journal), there was no reason why there should not be ‘steady progress’ (Irish News) towards a ‘society where all men live in dignity’ (John Hume).
Actually, what the Catholics had been given was a sense of achievement. It was a new experience, and for the moment it sufficed. Meanwhile, an ‘I’m backing O’Neill’ campaign was launched. The Belfast Telegraph printed forms bearing this legend with spaces for people to sign their names. The forms were taken round factories and distributed outside churches. At least one member of the CAC signed. Car stickers, even, were printed. The Parliamentary Unionist Party supported the sacking of Craig by twenty-eight votes to none with four abstentions. ‘His departure from the meeting, crestfallen and alone, was symbolic in itself,’ crowed the Derry Journal. Clergymen, trade-union leaders and prominent academics publicly pledged their support for the ‘O’Neill policy’. A casual visitor to Northern Ireland might have wondered who it was, apart from William Craig and Ian Paisley, who had ever been against reform. ‘His appeal met with an instant and voluminous response that soon amounted to a tide of support from the Protestant community,’ continued the Journal. ‘From the churches, the academics and the professional and commercial classes to a multitude of ordinary Unionists came striking testimony that Captain O’Neill could count on their backing for a policy of conciliation and reform.’ In a poll conducted by the Dublin-based Sunday Independent, which has an almost exclusively Catholic readership, Captain O’Neill was elected ‘Man of the Year’ by an overwhelming majority.
The ‘truce’ was broken when the People’s Democracy announced that it was marching from Belfast to Derry, starting on 1 January. The PD had been formed by the students at Queen’s University, Belfast, who had been in Derry on 5 October. It was a loose organization without formal membership and with an incoherent ideology comprising middle-class liberalism, Aldermaston pacifism and a Sorbonne-inspired belief in spontaneity. At its core was a small group of determined left-wingers who had been in close liaison with the Labour left in Derry before and after 5 October, most of whom retained simultaneous membership of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. The march was condemned by the Nationalist Party. Mr McAteer said that the ‘public are browned off with marches’ and that it was ‘bad weather’ for such activity. The attitude of the Catholic establishment was summed up by Frank McCarroll, owner of the Journal. ‘Let the truce stand. The difference between what they [the civil rights movement] demanded and what the government offered was certainly not sufficient to justify any risk of chaos in the streets.’ Neither the CRA nor the CAC would support the march, but neither felt sure enough of its ground to condemn it outright.
About eighty people, Queen’s students and half a dozen supporters from Derry, set off from Belfast City Hall at nine in the morning of 1 January. Dr Paisley’s right-hand man, Major Ronald Bunting, came with a Union Jack and a group of supporters to give it a barracking send-off. The march was a horrific seventy-three-mile trek which dredged to the surface all the accumulated political filth of fifty Unionist years. Every few miles groups of Unionist extremists blocked the route. Invariably the police diverted the march rather than open the road, so that much of the time it wound a circuitous way through country lanes from stopping place to stopping place. It was frequently stoned from the fields and attacked by groups of men with clubs. There was no police protection. Senior RUC officers consorted openly with leaders of the opposing groups. On the final day of the march, at Burntollet Bridge a few miles outside Derry, a force of some hundreds, marshalled by members of the B Specials and watched passively by our ‘escort’ of more than a hundred police, attacked with nailed clubs, stones and bicycle chains. Of the eighty who had set out fewer than thirty arrived in Derry uninjured. But they had gathered hundreds of supporters behind them on the way and were met in Guildhall Square by angry thousands who were in no mood for talk of truce. Emotion swelled as bloodstained marchers mounted a platform and described their experiences. Rioting broke out and continued for some hours.
The scene of the battle shifted from the city centre to Fahan Street, Rossville Street and William Street as the’ police tried to drive us into the Bogside. It died out in late evening when, having succeeded in moving us back into our own area, the police made no real attempt actually to come in after us. The area was peaceful and deserted at 2 a.m. when a mob of policemen came from the city centre through Butcher Gate and surged down Fahan Street into St Columb’s Wells and Lecky Road, shouting and singing:
Hey, hey we’re the monkees.
They broke in windows with their batons, kicked doors and shouted to the people to ‘come out and fight, you Fenian bastards’. Anyone who did come to his or her door was grabbed and beaten up. The only phone in St Columb’s Wells is in No. 37, McMenamins’. Roused from his bed and seeing the mob rampaging around the street Johnny McMenamin lifted the receiver and dialled 999. He had been put through to Victoria RUC Barracks before realization dawned on him that this was ridiculous. The police stayed for about an hour, roaming up and down the Wells and Lecky Road, shouting, singing, throwing stones through any upstairs windows at which a face appeared. When they had gone, people crept out to clear up the damage, tend to those who had been beaten up and comfort hysterical neighbours. Lord Cameron in his restrained report on these events recorded ‘with regret that our investigations have led us to the unhesitating conclusion that on the night of 4th/5th January a number of policemen were guilty of misconduct which involved assault and battery, malicious damage to property in streets in the predominantly Catholic Bogside area, giving reasonable cause for apprehension of personal injury among other innocent inhabitants, and the use of provocative sectarian and political slogans’.
By mid-morning the streets were filled with people discussing and arguing about what we should do. Hundreds of teenagers had armed themselves with sticks and iron bars and were of the opinion that we should march on Victoria Barracks and take revenge. At the corner of Wellington Street Gerry Fitt was saying that ‘it’s time to get the guns out’. Calmer counsels prevailed, and in the early afternoon the women of the area went in a body and told District Inspector McGimpsie that the RUC would not be allowed back into the area until those responsible for the attack on Bogside were named and disciplined. Vigilante squads organized themselves immediately afterwards. The Foyle Harps Hall in Brandywell and the Rossville Hall in Bogside were opened as recruitment and organizing centres. Vinny Coyle, an enormous man well known in the area, the violence of whose language and demeanour belied a genuinely peaceful nature, emerged as the energetic commandant of vigilantes. Barricades were erected across the three or four main entrances to the Bogside. By nightfall vigilante patrols complete with official armbands and carrying clubs were patrolling the streets. It was half-expected that the police would come. The atmosphere was exciting.
John ‘Caker’ Casey, who by dint of his dab hand with a paint brush was recognized as an expert wall-sloganeer, fetched out the tools of his trade and in a moment of inspiration wrote ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ on a gable-end in St Columb’s Street. In the middle of the night someone arrived with a radio transmitter. It was installed in an eighth-storey flat in Rossville Street with the aerial on the roof. We began broadcasting, describing ourselves as ‘Radio Free Derry, the Voice of Liberation’.
The only people more appalled than the government by the situation were the leaders of the CAC. They had never intended barricades. But blood was up and there was nothing they could do about it. By chance the radio transmitter had been presented to Dermie McClenaghan and me. We used it to make propaganda encouraging the people to keep the barricades up and the police out and to ‘join your vigilante patrols’. We were perhaps erratic. On one occasion Tommy McDermott, who believed in the revolutionary potential of underground music, was left alone with the transmitter, an opportunity which he used to treat the populace to two hours of the Incredible String Band interspersed with whispered injunctions to ‘love one another and keep cool’. But for the most part we played rebel songs, and White, McClenaghan, Melaugh and I and some others delivered regular harangues. Reception was good, the listening audience vast.
The police made no real attempt to enter the area. The barricades remained for five days, by which time the enormous implications of what was happening had seeped through. Keeping the barricades up indefinitely meant, in effect, to opt out of the state, and seemed to require some permanent institution separate from and opposed to the police to control the area. This had not been thought of. And rioting was one thing, but the police sooner or later were going to try to re-enter, and to keep them out would require fighting some sort of set-piece battle. That was another thing altogether. For a start, the police had guns and, Mr Fitt notwithstanding, we had not. Radio Free Derry nightly bombarded the area with pleas to ‘keep up the resistance’. We failed to swing the population round completely to this point of view, which possibly was not a bad thing because at the time we had neither the organization nor the means to put such resistance into effect. By the end of the week nervousness and uncertainty had replaced the excitement of Sunday night. The CAC had kept on the sidelines. Late on Friday night Hume, Cooper, Canavan and a few others descended on the area and with a series of perfectly pitched and brilliantly timed speeches convinced the vigilantes that the barricades ought to be dismantled. They were gone by the morning. Any attempt to re-erect them would have been a frontal challenge to the CAC, and the revolutionary disc-jockeys of Radio Free Derry were in no position to do that, most of them, after all, being members of that body.
There was rioting in Newry on 11 January and sporadic trouble in other areas. In Derry unemployed teenagers, of whom there were and are no small number, took to the casual stoning of any police car which came into view. Dr Paisley continued to stomp the country telling Protestants that ‘O’Neill must go’. Mr Craig was appealing to the rank and file of the Unionist Party. Captain O’Neill was being given almost weekly votes of confidence by various executive organs of the party, each of which was immediately interpreted by commentators as further evidence of the good sense and moderation of the Protestant people and the isolation of Craig and Paisley. In February Captain O’Neill put the matter to the test when he dissolved Parliament and called an election. He put up ‘O’Neill Unionists’ in constituencies where the local organization had selected a pro-Craig candidate. It was said that Captain O’Neill’s team was ‘very impressive’. It included the Duke of Westminster, the son of Lord Carson and the husband of Lady Moira Hamilton. They were slaughtered. For some reason it took months for press commentators, the British government and some other interested observers to realize this.
The announcement of the election threw civil rights organizations into some disarray. The PD, after some soul-searching about the corrupting influence of parliamentary politics, put up nine candidates, all of whom, in the end, polled well. The most common sight in the lounge of the City Hotel in Derry was that of leaders of the CAC who had hitherto been dogmatic about the ‘non-political’ nature of their activities circling one another, dagger in hand, wondering into which back it might most profitably be plunged. Ivan Cooper sought and accepted the Labour nomination for the rural area of mid-Derry, discovered quickly that the Labour tag was not popular in the constituency, resigned from the party and won easily as an Independent. Hume stood for the Foyle constituency, which includes the Bogside, against Eddie McAteer. I stood against the two of them as an official Labour candidate, with some tacit Republican support. We rejected the party manifesto and wrote one of our own. The election agent ran away with the deposit (one hundred and fifty borrowed pounds) the night before nomination day. He had taken a taxi to Norfolk to see his girl-friend. We lost another deposit when the result was announced. Mr Hume won handsomely.
After the election things went from bad to worse ‘for moderates of all hues. It had been hoped that the decision of the people expressed through the ballot box would be accepted by everyone in the proper democratic spirit and that politics would, as a result, return to the chamber at Stormont. The problem was that it was by no means clear what the people had, in fact, decided, and in such a situation all tendencies retain their hopes. O’Neill was still prime minister but most of his critics in the Parliamentary Unionist Party had won their way back to Stormont. Dr Paisley had run him close in Bannside and could justifiably feel that his star was still rising. The unexpected performance of the PD against both ‘liberal’ Unionist and Nationalist candidates showed that Catholic working-class resistance to the blandishments of O’Neill was stronger and deeper than had generally been supposed.
Rioting started again in Derry within a few weeks. It was on a small scale at first, teenagers stoning police cars at the edge of the Bogside. It built up and, on 19 April. erupted into the bloodiest violence the city had seen to date, with youths from the Bogside using stones and petrol bombs to hold the police off. The police burst into a house in William Street and, probably out of frustration, beat up everyone present. The man of the house, Sammy Devenney, was subsequently to die from his injuries. A policeman cornered in Hamilton Street drew his gun and fired two shots. No one was hit but the point was well taken. Afterwards the talk was of the next time and there were some who said that we ought to be prepared. No one doubted that there would be a next time. There was rioting on and after 12 July when the Protestants celebrated the result of the Battle of the Boyne.
The Derry riots were a minor affair, but around Unity Flats in Belfast and in Dungannon there were fierce clashes between Catholics and Orange marchers, with the RUC intervening on the Protestant side.
O’Neill had resigned in April and taken himself off, ennobled, to the boardroom of a merchant bank in the City of London, where he is believed still to be. He was replaced by Major James Chichester-Clark, a bumbling squire from the Maghera district. Chichester-Clark — or ‘Chi-Chi’, as he came to be called after an exotic animal in the London Zoo — announced that he believed in being ‘fair’. Mr Hume, Mr Cooper. the CRA and other leaders of moderate Catholic opinion counselled their supporters to give him a chance. But in the Bogside and elsewhere the rioting classes were not impressed. The unemployed youth of areas like the Bogside had, at the outset of the civil rights campaign, been regarded as marching fodder. Energetic and instinctively aggressive, they could be counted on to turn out for sit-downs, marches, pickets or any other protest activity which was organized. It was they who had turned out on 5 October. It was their impatience which had then impelled the GAG into more activity, and more militant activity, than its leading members would have wished. It was their energy and aggression which had powered the civil rights campaign through its first frenetic months. In the end it was they, not the RUC, who frightened organizations like the CAC off the streets. The CAC died in Derry after the riots of 19 April. It was difficult after that to organize a demonstration which did not end in riot, and the CAC was not about to assume such responsibility. But by ending demonstrations the moderates took away from the youth any channel for expression other than riot. The rage and frustration which lay just beneath the surface of life in the Bogside could no longer be contained within the thin shell of the CAC’s timid respectability. The ‘hooligans’ had taken over, and the stage was set for a decisive clash between them and the forces of the state. Everyone knew it would come on 12 August, when the Apprentice Boys were scheduled to march past the Bogside in their annual celebration of the Relief of Derry in 1689.
At the end of July the Republican Club announced that they had formed a ‘Derry Citizens Defence Association’, to protect the area against attack on the Twelfth. They invited all other organizations in the area to nominate two representatives to sit with them on this body. There was some annoyance that the Republicans, before inviting the co-operation of any other group, had parcelled out the leading positions among themselves. Sean Keenan was chairman, Johnnie White secretary, Johnnie McAllister treasurer. But most political groups in the area accepted the Republican initiative, reasoning that something decisive was going to happen on the Twelfth and it was as well to lay title to some of the action in advance.
The matter was clinched by what appeared to be a joint assault by the RUC and Orange demonstrators on Unity Flats in Belfast on 2 August. One man was beaten to death and many others were injured. Reports of this sent a frisson through the area. Obviously something similar might happen in Derry on the Twelfth. We had better be prepared. The CAC met, nominated two people to sit on the DCDA and quietly went out of existence. At the time no one noticed.
The stated purpose of the DCDA was to try to preserve the peace and, as soon as this failed, to organize the defence of the area. Maps were procured and we counted out the forty-one entrances to the area. Materials for making barricades were stored adjacent to each. Enthusiasm was high. The 12 August procession was regarded as a calculated annual insult to the Derry Catholics. There was a surge of resentment and much bitter muttering every year. But this time, after all we had come through in the last nine months, the attitude was very different. This year at last they were going to be shown that things had changed drastically. And if they dared to attack ... The first barricades went up on the night of the 11th in anticipation.
On the Twelfth stewards made a token effort to prevent the march from being stoned as it passed the end of William Street. Mr Hume, Mr Cooper and some others were at the front appealing for calm. Some of the stones tended to fall short and Mr Cooper was felled. As the volume of stone-throwing increased a mixed force of RUC and supporters of the Apprentice Boys made a charge into the area, which was the signal for the real hostilities to begin. The battle lasted for about forty-eight hours. Barricades went up all around the area, open-air petrol-bomb factories were established, dumpers hijacked from a building site were used to carry stones to the front. Teenagers went on to the roof of the block of High Flats which dominates Rossville Street, the main entrance to the Bogside, and began lobbing petrol bombs at the police below. This was a brilliant tactical move and afterwards there was no shortage of people claiming to have thought of it first. As long as the lads stayed up there and as long as we managed to keep them supplied with petrol bombs there was no way — short of shooting them off the roof — that the police could get past the High Flats. Every time they tried it rained petrol bombs.
The DCDA set up headquarters in Paddy Doherty’s house in Westland Street. Throughout the battle all doors in the area were open. Tea and sandwiches were constantly available on the pavement. The police started using tear gas after a few hours, which nonplussed us momentarily. A call to the offices of the Red Mole in London — they seemed the most appropriate people — produced an antidote involving vinegar and a series of instructions for lessening the effects.. Soon there were buckets of water and vinegar stationed all over the battle zone. As an alternative, Molly Barr was dispensing free Vaseline from her shop under the High Flats. Four walkie-talkie radio sets were taken from a television crew. One was installed in Doherty’s house and the other three used to report back on the state of play in the battle. Our possession of those instruments was later to be adduced as evidence of the massive, subversive conspiracy behind the fighting. When the batteries ran out after a few hours the sets were given back to their owners. On the evening of the 13th Mr Jack Lynch appeared on television and said that he could ‘not stand idly by’. Irish troops were to be moved to the border. This put new heart into the fight. News that ‘the Free State soldiers are coming’ spread rapidly. Three first-aid stations, manned by local doctors, nurses and the Knights of Malta, were treating those overcome by the gas or injured by missiles thrown by the police. The radio transmitter, now operating from Eamonn Melaugh’s house in Creggan, was pumping out Republican music and exhortations to ‘keep the murderers out. Don’t weaken now. Make every stone and petrol bomb count.’ The police were making charge after charge up Rossville Street.
Phone-calls were made to contacts in other areas begging them to get people on to the streets and draw off some of the police from Derry. We appealed through Telefis Eireann for ‘every able-bodied man in Ireland who believes in freedom’ to come to Derry and help us. ‘We need you, we’ll feed you.’ In the main battle area, Rossville Street, the fighting was being led by Bernadette Devlin, who had seemingly developed an immunity to tear gas and kept telling people, implausibly, that ‘it’s O.K. once you get a taste of it’.
On the morning of the 14th we heard reports of fighting in Belfast, Coalisland, Dungannon, Armagh and other places; we took this as encouragement. Other people were coming to our aid. The Tricolour and the Starry Plough were hoisted over the High Flats. Two people were shot and wounded by the police in Great James Street. A duplicated leaflet entitled ‘Barricade Bulletin’ appeared: ‘The enemy is weakening. They have been on their feet two nights. One more push.’ The tear gas came in even greater quantities until it filled the air like smog. People were running through it, crouching, eyes closed, to hurl a petrol bomb at the police lines and then stagger back. In William Street, a group breaking into Harrison’s garage to steal petrol was stopped by a priest who told them it was wrong. ‘But Father, we need the petrol.’ ‘Well,’ said the priest dubiously, ‘as long as you don’t take any more than you really need.’ And thus absolved in advance, they went at it with a will.
By three in the afternoon the police had been dislodged from their footholds at the bottom of Rossville Street and the battle lines, after two days, were being pushed back inexorably out of the Bogside and towards the commercial area of the city. Then, looking through the haze of gas, past the police lines, we saw the Specials moving into Waterloo Place. They were about to be thrown into the battle. Undoubtedly they would use guns. The possibility that there was going to be a massacre struck hundreds of people simultaneously. ‘Have we guns?’ people shouted to one another, hoping that someone would know, inching forward, more slowly now, as the police retreated, suddenly fearful of what was about to happen. We were about half way down William Street when the word came that British soldiers were marching across the bridge.
The Specials disappeared, the police pulled out quite suddenly and the troops, armed with sub-machine-guns, stood in a line across the mouth of William Street. Their appearance was clear proof that we had won the battle, that the RUC was beaten. That was welcomed. But there was confusion as to what the proper attitude to the soldiers might be. It was not in our history to make British soldiers welcome. A meeting started outside the High Flats in Rossville Street. (In every riot in Northern Ireland there is a man with a megaphone waiting for the meeting to start.) Bernadette Devlin, her voice croaking, urged ‘Don’t make them welcome. They have not come here to help us’, and went on a bit about British imperialism, Cyprus and Aden. It did not go down very well. The fight had been against the RUC, to ‘defend the area’. The RUC was beaten; the soldiers had prevented the Specials coming in and had not attempted to encroach on the area. They had deployed themselves around the edges. And, anyway, everyone was exhausted, clothes torn and faces begrimed, their eyes burning from the tear gas. It was victory enough for the time being.
Paddy Doherty struck the right note: ‘We have done well. We can rest on our laurels for a bit. Let us see how all this works out before we rush into anything we might regret.’ With Ray Burnett, a Scottish member of the International Socialists who had been hitch-hiking around Ireland and been given a lift into the middle of a riot, I drafted a leaflet which by seven o’clock was being distributed as ‘Barricade Bulletin No. 2’. ‘This is a great defeat for the Unionist government. But it is not yet a victory for us.’ People were not in the mood for political analysis and it didn’t have much effect.
Later we were able to listen to the news from other areas. The Specials had killed a man called Gallagher in Armagh. Belfast was desperate. Police, Specials and Protestant extremists had wreaked what appeared to be a mini-pogrom on Catholic areas. Tracer bullets had been used on blocks of flats. Whole streets of houses had been burned out and there were refugees living in school halls. There were some dead. And it went on the next day, burning and shooting. It sounded very different from Derry, inconceivably horrific. But by the afternoon of the fifteenth soldiers were deployed in all the troubled areas and it seemed that the situation had stabilized.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.
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