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'Burntollet' by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack

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Text: Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

'You cannot go through! You cannot go through !'

LESS than a mile outside the village of Dungiven, a police cordon once again barred the progress of the march. District Inspector W. G. Harrison spoke to the organisers and explained that hostile crowds were gathering at the small town of Feeney. This meant that the march must be diverted along another road.

The kind of popular discussion that had become customary now began. Marchers asked Harrison for full details about the crowd waiting in Feeney. It was "very sizeable", he said. Exactly how many? "A great lot" was the reply. Would he disperse it? This was beyond his power. Would he clear the crowd to let the legal march past? He was not prepared to try. Would he guarantee the safety of the alternative route? This question seemed to worry him, and he quite explicitly told that he could not do so. From the outset, the marchers had reservations about Harrison's suggested alternative route. They remembered their experience after leaving Toome, and how the police had diverted them straight into the path of an organised, hostile mob. Now local people from the Dungiven area told how the alternative route suggested by the district inspector was ideal ambush country. Asked again, even more explicitly, Harrison said he could not say that the alternative route was safe. His men had not had any opportunity of reconnoitring. One marcher pointed out, that it was ludicrous to stipulate a particular route that must be followed if the police had no knowledge of its safety or otherwise. Harrison retreated behind the police lines.

When the march was leaving Dungiven, Malachy Carey and another People's Democracy member had driven on along the prepared route. Carey reports:

"We drove to Claudy, through the town, and turned about a mile further on. There was no assembly of any sort at any point on the road. On the way back we stopped at various houses and asked people if there were any gatherings in the area. They said not. When we were again nearing Dungiven, we came upon a police cordon blocking the march. A vote was being taken whether to go through the police cordon which was three rows deep. I announced that the route ahead was completely clear."
Hearing this clear statement, the organisers asked to speak to District Inspector Harrison again. They requested details about the exact situation and numerical strength of the supposed hostile crowd. He could not tell. They asked the source of his information. He would not tell. They asked if he would check the route himself. All the man seemed able to do was reiterate, "You cannot go through. You cannot go through". One marcher suggested that Harrison and a group of marchers should drive to the area where the supposedly hostile crowd had gathered. This he refused. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to proceed along the agreed route. Michael Farrell spoke, saying that their action must be wholly peaceful. Rows of marchers were to link arms and walk slowly ahead. Malachy Carey describes what followed:
"We formed up in ranks with arms linked. So did the police. We moved up to the cordon and continued walking. Some of the marchers noticed an unguarded open space to their right-hand side and a group moved round and along the previously agreed route. The cordon broke and the marchers continued through with many police trying to get in front of us. A senior officer called them back after about a hundred yards - it was almost a light-hearted affair."
There were a few less frivolous aspects which Carey did not witness. One of the crowd pushing through the ranks produced a quantity of pepper which he flung towards the police, temporarily blinding five of them, and also a fair number of marchers. Fortunately, no serious injury was sustained. The smarting victims, Constables Craig, McDonald, McKnight, Stevenson, and Walker were ready for duty protecting the march on the following day. At another place a young girl, Ann Gillan of Dungiven, was punched in the face by a policeman who then trampled over her. And there was another, more curious, incident. The original marchers had been supplemented by local people from along the route, and as the discussion with Harrison continued, four men took up positions on a clay bank just beside the police, to the marchers' left. As the demonstrators pushed forward, a girl was crushed to the ground and Seamus Doran of Dungiven bent down to pick her up. One of the group standing on the bank punched him in the face, smashing his glasses and cutting his eye. This attacker, whose identity is known, and who has a record of service as a special constable, was to reappear at Burntollet on the next day, together with his companions.

Once through the cordon, the marchers re-formed, spreading to block the entire road so that police tenders could not overtake and form another obstruction. Dealing with the marchers' decision to move through this police cordon, Malachy Carey explains: "Many people felt that there had been a deal between the police and Bunting to block or re-route us again." Alternative theories have been offered. One is that an obstruction or ambush had been planned along the prepared re-route road, and this had been frustrated by the action of the marchers. Whatever the explanation, one point is well established. There was no sign of a hostile crowd in Feeney, there was none at the precise time District Inspector Harrison spoke of it, and exhaustive enquiries in the town indicate that no such group was in evidence, either earlier or later in the day. The district inspector had no grounds for claiming that there was evidence of imminent attack along the agreed route. Questioned about his action shortly after, he could only say that he acted to instructions. Whose instructions he was not prepared to say.

The march passed through Feeney to a favourable reception, with applauding groups lining the pavements. In the miles intervening before there and on the way to the village of Claudy, there was only one incident. A local girl, who had joined the march, Margaret O'Neill was hit by a stone thrown from the roadside. Her wound required medical attention. The police, who were directly placed between her and the roadside thrower, made no attempt to arrest or identify him. Just as darkness came down, the march arrived in Claudy to a very friendly reception. On the outskirts of the town there were a few shouts of "Paisley", but in the streets all seemed welcoming, and the group of marchers moved to the hall at the top of a hill towards the other side of town.

But Claudy was not quite so receptive and hospitable as it appeared to be. The reason that opponents did not appear in force was that other plans were under way. A small example indicated the existence of a hostile element. Four marchers went to the Beaufort, the only local hotel, for a drink. Leaving the lounge about half-an-hour later, they were accosted by a gathering of men. This group recognised their visitors as being associated with the Civil Rights movement, and warned them in the most direct, obscene, and loud-mouthed terms to take themselves off from Claudy if they valued their lives.

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