'Burntollet' by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack
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Text: Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
The police openly join the mob
BY early afternoon the public meeting in Guildhall Square ended and the battered marchers moved to the City Hall. A meal had been provided by Derry Citizens' Action Committee, and nurses and local doctors had transformed dining rooms and bedrooms into impromptu first-aid clinics. But, out in the streets, trouble was mounting. Contingents of attackers from Burntollet, and from Irish Street swarmed into town. On arrival, they were allowed ready access to the area behind the city walls which had been barred to the marchers some time earlier. This had a single and inevitable result; a growing mob of armed people was concentrated in the high town centre, and stones and bottles were showered by them into Guildhall Square, among the dispersing crowd that had greeted the People's Democracy. The police provided human barriers to prevent this militant crowd from moving down the steep hill into the square, but several observers took a cynical view of this manoeuvre. One Civil Rights steward who has detailed knowledge of the city said:
"They are in line only to baton us if we retaliate against the mob. Look at how they have chosen their ground. The Paisleyites can shower stones right down on our meeting. Yet they are wholly protected by police with riot sticks."According to numerous accounts, by the end of the afternoon the last semblance of police impartiality vanished. The officers of law and order joined openly with the Protestant mob, hurling bottles and bricks at people in the Guildhall area. Groups of policemen armed with riot sticks roamed through the city, attacking passers-by at will. Mrs. Mary Cassidy, a counter assistant in a Wellworths department store, gives this account:
"The doors burst open, and about twenty policemen came in. They just started batoning all the customers. They took runs at people and smashed the glass of the counters. They struck a boy to the ground, and kept on hitting everyone unmercifully with their batons. I saw them beat a man who was carrying his groceries."This was no isolated incident. By now the constabulary had abandoned their ordinary regard for the force of public opinion; clear photographs show this armed group storming into Wellworths.
Now began a storm of police devastation that may have been spontaneous, but has many characteristics of action designed to subjugate people roused to an appreciation of their democratic rights by the Civil Rights campaign. The philosophy of "reprisals" against Catholic groups which display any militant tendency is well known to the R.U.C. And the theory has been put in practice on many occasions in the past. A series of reported and authenticated incidents that took place on January 4th and 5th are listed here:
One man was taken to hospital unconscious. His wife describes what happened:
"I think he was hit with a stone first, for he fell to the ground. The police rushed down on us, and swept on past. But a number trailed behind and kicked and batoned him as belay on the ground."According to a local newspaper, the Derry Journal, Mr. Patrick Quigley, of 26 Central Drive, said that on Saturday afternoon at 2.20 he left a public house and walked up Holywell Street. A crowd of police came running towards him and asked him: "Are you one of the boys?" Two policemen started to hit him and he had to have four stitches on the crown of his head. He received bruising on his left arm also.
On January 7th, the Irish News published a number of accounts offered by victims:
"Mr. Neill Nash of Mura Place, said that at 5.15 p.m. on Saturday police threw stones at the windows of a block of flats. 'As a result of their activities my seven-year-old daughter went into convulsions. I had to call my doctor for my daughter and my wife, who had got into a very nervous state.'Gradually the situation simmered down. Then, shortly after one o'clock in the morning, a force of several hundred policemen rushed into a depressed Catholic living area, and a wholesale attack on houses started. A typical account is given by Mrs. Sheila Tite, wife of a U.S.A. serviceman, who was spending a holiday with relatives in Derry:
"I was in bed when I realised something was going on. I went to the window, pulled up the blind, and looked out. A policeman came over, and hit the window with his baton. I went to the door and was spoken to by a policeman, who said, 'You Fenians will have no windows left tonight.' There was another policeman throwing bricks through every window. I told the policeman that I was an American citizen. He said: 'You're a Fenian Bitch'."Another local account tells how one citizen was roused by uproar in the streets during the early morning, and went to his front door to discover the cause. He saw about 70 members of the R.U.C. approaching Quarry Street. One of his neighbours, Mrs. Feeny, was standing at the bottom of Quarry Street. About four policemen struck her. He saw her son going towards her. Then there was a scuffle and a policeman hit her son and she was pushed. They went towards her house.
"I myself was then approached by a constable, who spoke to me. Another constable charged at me like a madman. I got inside and closed the door. The constables then kept banging on the door with pick handles. It is my impression that this policeman was under the influence of drink. They stayed for a while, smoking and singing."
Following these outrages, the Derry Citizens' Action Committee gathered more than a hundred statements from people directly affected. Here are a few extracts:
"At quarter to three in the morning, a crowd of police in our street were shouting, 'Hey, hey, we're the Monkees. We'll Monkee you around 'till your blood is flowing on the ground... .' I looked out the window and one shouted, 'Come on out you Fenian, 'till we rape you'." - Mrs. Teresa Donnelly.Let it be clear that these statements are representative examples, and not examples of a selective sort. Sunday morning of January 5th saw furious meetings of the citizens of Derry, and story after story of outrage was recited.
Just returned from holiday in England, where he had spent the last days, Prime Minister Terence O'Neill issued a statement on Sunday afternoon:
"I want the people of Ulster to understand in plain terms the events which have taken place since January 1st. The march to Londonderry planned by the so-called People's Democracy was, from the outset, a foolhardy and irresponsible undertaking. At best, those who planned it were careless of the effects which it would have; at worst, they embraced with enthusiasm the prospect of adverse publicity causing further damage to the interests of Northern Ireland as a whole.It would be difficult to exaggerate the outraged feelings that this statement inspired in the city of Derry. First-hand witnesses of police behaviour were amazed to learn that the fault lay with unarmed people styled as "hooligans", and equally astonished to learn that the Prime Minister's remedy was to call up more members of the Special Constabulary for active service. Eamonn McCann, of Derry Labour Party, remarked:
"At least it meant an end to the fiction that O'Neill was a fair-minded liberal, dedicated to solving social problems. No one in Derry could place any further trust in promises and assurances made by him or by people like him - or at least I thought so at the time."Michael Farrell, of the People's Democracy, replied to the Prime Minister with a pithy analysis:
"Captain O'Neill has devoted about ninety per cent of his statement to condemnation of our march as being irresponsible and foolhardy, and about ten per cent to distaste at the manner in which opposition to the march was expressed. He has described our marchers as hooligans and extremists, while reserving no such terms of abuse for those who blocked our path. After four days, during which we were continually harried and attacked by a highly-organised and mobile squad of thugs whose tactics finally escalated into a series of well-planned and vicious ambushes on the outskirts of Derry, I am astonished by the Prime Minister's statement.Such was the outcry against the statement, and its implications, that on the following day, January 6th, the Minister of Home Affairs announced that County Inspector Henry Baillie, a senior police officer, had been appointed to investigate popular allegations about police behaviour in the city of Derry. This meant that the Burntollet and Irish Street attacks were not within his terms of reference. This investigation of police conduct by a policeman was received without great enthusiasm, though some individuals in the city of Derry still felt confident that it would document what had occurred.
In the months following Burntollet, it became increasingly obvious that the government and the police force, which is responsible to the Ministry of Home Affairs, were not making realistic investigation of the Burntollet incidents. In April 1969, the North Derry Civil Rights Association decided to organise a march from Burntollet Bridge into Derry. This was conceived primarily as a protest against the authorities which had failed to take steps to identify attackers.
The new Minister of Home Affairs, Robert Porter, made a hasty tour of this contentious area some days before the proposed demonstration was due. He discussed the project with local Orange leaders. He heard reports from the police. Then he issued a Ministerial order prohibiting the march. The reasons he gave for so doing were that he was unable to guarantee that there would be no opposition, and information given to him indicated that firearms might be used to stop the procession. Under protest, the Civil Rights' group decided to respect this ban. But local Orangemen, having succeeded in subjugating the Minister, were taking no chances. Three hundred men, armed in the customary fashion, assembled at the bridge. This group consisted almost precisely of the same individuals who had been involved in the attack on January 4th. Again the special constabulary was well represented.
Once again the behaviour of the police gave rise to serious alarm. Photographers tried to picture the would-be assailants. Comparison of such photographs with those taken at "the first Burntollet" would have been instructive and useful in identifying attackers. The cameras were taken from these photographers by the police, and the film was destroyed by exposure. Car-loads of passers-by were stopped by vigilante patrols in full view of the regular police, on this main road. A number of people were attacked. Cars were smashed up. No action was taken. Part of the mob assaulted some young girls who live near the area and had come to see what was happening. A senior policeman refused to record a complaint. Since then he has denied that such was ever made, despite quite persuasive evidence to the contrary.
In Guildhall Square a crowd gathered to protest about prohibition of the march. While this meeting was in progress, information reached the crowd at Burntollet, and the men, already prepared for action against any Civil Rights group, piled into cars and headed for the city.
Meanwhile, the crowd in Guildhall Square had moved in a body towards Victoria Barracks to protest against failure to act against the policemen responsible for the attack on individuals and houses on January 5th. The barracks has a certain emotive significance to Derry citizens; they associate it, not with a foreign garrison, but as housing place for a gang of licensed thugs. Skirmishes broke out, and a wholesale attack began. Paving stones were dragged up, objects hurled and police driven into the building. Police reinforcements poured into town, and a full-scale battle developed through the streets of Derry. Police, aided by Protestants strategically placed within the city walls, fought with Catholic crowds. Casualties exceeded two hundred, a majority of these being police. Then as the situation seemed about to quieten, the police repeated the medicine used to quell the popular spirit on January 5th. A force a hundred strong rushed through Catholic slum areas smashing windows and doors, batoning, beating and stoning. On one occasion shots were fired. The pathetic Minister of Home Affairs issued a public statement telling how these had been fired by a police sergeant and directed into the air to deter possible attackers. He has never tried to contradict this statement, nor explain how a bullet was discovered lodged in the interior of an inhabited dwelling house. So the connivance of the government with the Orange extremists detonated another explosion. The real, primary, and justified cause of public discontent in Derry-police attack on people in their own houses-was repeated as a cure on April 19th.
Nothing has been done by the government to discover the policemen responsible. No enquiry similar to that established under County Inspector Baillie has been set up. Soon after this Captain O'Neill fell, and the new Prime Minister announced an amnesty for all political offenders; in answer to a parliamentary query he confirmed that this clemency extended to the regular police, and to the special constabulary. The main beneficiaries are the policemen from both forces who have been engaged in criminal activities.
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