'Burntollet' by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack
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Text: Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Paisley, prayers, and preparations
During the night several truckloads of newly-quarried stones were brought to the Claudy area and distributed along the high ridge of a field marking the marchers' route on their final day. Each of the people involved in these preparations has served with the Ulster Special Constabulary. This picture shows some of the stones left behind after the attack.
SMALL, hostile groups gathering spontaneously in public houses round Claudy were not the only indications of trouble to come. Much grander preparations were already under way. Dr. Ian Paisley had announced and advertised his intention of holding a "Prayer Meeting" in the Municipal Guildhall in the centre of Derry. To those who understood the vernacular, there was no doubt what the ecclesiastic intended. Paisley systematically used these religious meetings to whip up the sectarian fury on which he so relies. Even his military advisor, Major Bunting, uses this kind of verbal pretext to disguise the tom-tom functions which render the fanatics more frenzied than before. Thus, for example, when people from around Randalstown gathered, obedient to the "Loyal Citizens" order that the march must be halted, Bunting conducted a crazed and incoherent sermon to convince his listeners, proclaiming that God was on his side.
The rather clandestine nature of this particular meeting was underlined by the vigour with which stewards tried to establish the identity of each who sought to attend this "public" meeting. The Belfast Newsletter of the next morning tells:
"A newspaper reporter, who did manage to get inside the Guildhall, was forcibly removed by stewards, assaulted, and thrown down the stairs into the street."At the same time as the Guildhall gathering, a much more serious function was held at Killaloo Orange Hall. This was of a strategic and much more practical kind, and the hall was used as meeting place for carloads of men who arrived all through the evening, summoned by telephone and word of mouth. One prominent citizen had boasted publicly that plans had been made to stop the march if it should ever reach Claudy. These arrangements were now under discussion. And further up the mountains, at Kildoag Orange Hall, another function was taking place. Again this gathering was used to advise and instruct on strategies for the next day. Meanwhile, Derry Guildhall filled up to bursting point, and the publicity already given to the march ensured a substantial audience. The meeting chamber which can accommodate 500 people in comfort, now held about twice that number, and "the great big Godly man" began his meeting. Ironically, in another part of the same building a group of members of the Derry Housing Action Committee continued their occupation of an office that represented to them the inhuman housing policies of the corporation.
Through hymns and prayers and recitations Paisley proceeded, inexorably, to the burning question of whether Civil Rights supporters, who were just disguised I.R.A. men, should be allowed to march openly and unmolested into the city. Derry, he reminded them, had been a bastion of support for King William; through the heroism of its apprentice boy defenders it had withstood a sustained Papist seige. Derry holds a particularly emotive position in the loyalist mind. Would the spirit of Protestant Derry capitulate next day he asked? His audience vigorously shared his opinion that such cowardice ought not to be allowed, and sporadic shouts of "hallelujah brothers" from members of the audience identified the more militant spirits.
How should they prevent insurgent entry? Dr. Paisley's secular adviser, Major Ronald Bunting, rose to speak. He felt there might be some among the audience who were prepared to play a manly role. To these he addressed his remarks. Next morning, they should assemble in the Brackfield area, prepared for a long day's activity. He suggested that they bring picnic lunches to sustain them through the day. What else should they bring? Here the gallant gentleman was less than clear, and accounts differ. The virtual absence of press representatives has contributed to the uncertainty.
Mr. Robin Chichester-Clark, brother of the present Prime Minister, has indicated his belief that the Burntollet attack was planned in the Guildhall, though he was not present himself, and relied on secondary accounts. It seems likely that he is wrong in a strict sense. Bunting did not say that the loyal citizens of the area should come armed with sticks and other weapons; he did indicate, that the question of "protective measures" should be left to individual discretion. Some rather lurid accounts of the Guildhall meeting have been circulated. Several witnesses have claimed that official speakers advised in detail, on the kind of armament that might be required. But the balance of evidence rather indicates that this was a standard tom-tom meeting of the Paisleyite sort, whipping up hatred but avoiding direct incitement.
While these deliberations took place, a large crowd of hostile Catholics from Derry had filled the Guildhall Square. These people, outraged at the persistent harassment of the People's Democracy marchers, and activated themselves by the Bunting-Paisley attitude that "intruders" were not welcome, massed in a threatening crowd. The great majority of the population of Derry is Catholic, and they regarded the Paisleyite meeting as deliberate provocation. The crowd grew to more than a thousand. Committee Members of the Derry Citizens' Action Committee, a local group involved in some aspects of the campaign for civil rights, summoned out their corps of stewards to prevent the Catholic crowd from attacking the Guildhall. These stewards are enrolled for use, to restrain the violent and over-enthusiastic at times of public demonstration. Meanwhile, detachments of police also took up positions to protect the prayer meeting from interference.
Over a period of three hours, speaker after speaker in Guildhall Square exhorted the outside gathering to disperse in quietness and leave the Protestant meeting quite unmolested. Violence, these leaders emphasised, would go far to negate the moral force of the uniformly non-violent student march. One speaker persuasive in the cause of restraint was Ivan Cooper, then chairman of the Citizen's Action Committee:
"You can gain nothing by causing trouble here tonight. You'll put yourselves in exactly the same category as the people who have already attacked the student march. Spare all your efforts for tomorrow when we give welcome to these courageous young people and join with them in peaceful public demonstration to show the disciplined determination of all the deprived people."
ABOVE: One of the spiked sticks picked up after the Burntollet attack.
Ivan Cooper comes of Protestant background and is very well acquainted with sectarian problems in the area. Because he has given support to the Civil Rights movement, he is probably more disliked by extremist Protestant elements than is any other individual. In some instances their view of him is pathological. Witness the account of this same speech given by Major Ronald Bunting to the writers:
"When we heard Cooper was speaking outside the hall, we all sat still and listened. Do you know what he said? 'We have taken too many backward steps in the past and have been too peaceful. Now we have got Paisley and Bunting where we want them, right in the Guildhall. Now is the time, not for one step back, but twelve straight steps forward. Let's go and get them boys. . .' Only the bravery of the police saved our lives from massacre by Cooper's mob."Both the sense and detail of Bunting's account are quite inaccurate. Cooper's efforts, both in public and private, have been directed towards minimising and avoiding the traditional religious hatreds.
Then spoke Eamoan McCann, a vigorous campaigner who had taken part in the last three days of the march, and travelled in to his native Derry for that night. He expressed the philosophy which he has consistently maintained:
"You know I am not a moderate. I want to see a lot of radical changes in our society, and I want them as soon as possible. Tonight I would achieve these if it could be done. But nothing, nothing whatsoever, can be gained by attacking or abusing the people in the Hall. Don't you see, that this kind of action is precisely what the clever and unscrupulous organisers expect and hope will happen? Paisley and Bunting will be delighted if there is uproar and disturbance here tonight. It will give strong support to the idea that the Civil Rights movement is anti-Protestant, set on destroying one section of the population on sectarian grounds.
A number of others spoke, and the great majority of the crowd dispersed. About two hundred people persisted, still howling rage at the effrontery of those who had taken possession of the Guildhall in the centre of "their" town.
While the prayer meeting continued, a fire was started behind the hall. A group had managed to identify Major Bunting's car which was burnt out. About the same time some of the more maniac groups in the square managed to involve themselves in the electric wires connecting ornamental lighting on the giant Christmas tree and on the ninth night of Christmas this symbol of seasonable goodwill came tumbling down with a number of young men tangled in the debris. The Belfast Newsletter of January 6th published this outline of events:
"Repeatedly on Friday night leaders of the Citizens' Action Committee-the chairman, Mr. Ivan Cooper, the chief steward, Mr. Paul Grace, and committee members such as Mr. Finbar O'Doherty and Mr. Eamonn McCann, who had travelled into the city at the end of the Maghera-Claudy stage of the People's Democracy march-all pleaded with the crowds in the area of the Guildhall to go home peacefully. The leaders pointed out that the people attending the meeting in the Guildhall were entitled to enjoy Civil Rights, but still the crowd refused to move-the first time that the leaders had not received spontaneous reaction.Some witnesses regard this account with some scepticism. On purist grounds they repudiate the assumed connection between any Catholic mob and the Civil Rights movement. But in particular, the explanation offered of police behaviour in the penultimate paragraph, was not accepted by Civil Rights stewards on the spot. According to them, Bunting and a group of other men broke up furniture in the Guildhall and, by pre-arrangement, charged in unison with the police, attacking the hostile rump of protesters. Certainly a number of people who had just left a cinema and were waiting quite innocently in bus queues were beaten, some of them by police. And one television cameraman, who tried to take some pictures of the disturbance tells:
"I kept the camera as hidden as best I could because I know how much they fear identification. But a group caught me in the centre of the road and I was beaten down with sticks. I turned to police for protection but could get no help. I was at last brought to the safety of the hotel by Civil Rights stewards."Back in Claudy, the marchers were preparing for sleep in the crowded hall at the Derry end of the village. News of violence in the city quickly reached there, and rumours circulated of an intended attack on the hall. Groups of local people had come together to guard the marchers. And down in front of the Beaufort Hotel another group was massing in strength. Fortified by recruits after the public houses closed, this crowd moved towards the main street and a barrage of stones and bottles was directed towards Catholic shops and houses. Catholics, who had already gathered in some apprehension, returned the attack. The people gathered to defend the hall also retaliated, and a number of scuffles occurred. A police vehicle, driven by Sergeant Jones of Claudy, was stoned. When he was interviewed, the Sergeant agreed that he knew the people who had organised this raiding party, and quite specifically named the particular young man who had started the attack on Catholic shops and houses. Why had he not been prosecuted? "Oh, the rascal went to England," Mr. Jones explained, smiling quite amiably, not a bit disturbed at his failure to deal with the culprit he so freely and blandly identified. This particular individual continued his belligerent activities on the next day at Burntollet. Account after account tells how, wearing a military-style white armband, he attacked various people with a cudgel, studded with nails. The Minister of Home Affairs however, shares if he does not precisely repeat the complacency of Sergeant Jones. Answering a parliamentary question he told how his police officers knew of no reason to proceed against this man.
Just after midnight, a bus, empty save for driver and conductor, pulled up at the roadside some miles outside Claudy, and engaged in the curious exercise of unloading several crates loaded with empty bottles into a field where, coincidentally, a group was waiting to receive these and other missiles. And rather later on, over a period of hours, several truck-loads of newly-quarried stones packed in eight-stone sacks were brought to the same area and distributed along the edge of a high field marching the road along which the marchers would pass. The quantity of stone, and the time taken for distribution, are described in a later chapter. But the identities of those involved in making the arrangements is well known in the locality. Each one has a record of service with the Ulster Special Constabulary.
Claudy is a small village, meriting only a purely automatic telephone exchange. People living in houses close to this building tell a near-incredible story. During the night a number of G.P.O. vans arrived and workmen embarked on some activities at a time long past normal working hours. The local official in charge of this area refuses to confirm, deny, or comment on this story. But, true or not, the emergency telephone services suffered an almost unprecedented lapse. On the morning of January 4th, 1969, as the Burntollet attack commenced, all direct emergency contact with police and ambulance services in Claudy became impossible. Numerous people who dialled the 999 emergency number at various times over a period of several hours, got neither a response, nor the engaged tone. There seemed to be no connection whatever. And developments, in and around Claudy, put considerable pressure on members of the police force. Thus, in answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister of Home Affairs exemplified Constable Ronald Crawford, who performed orderly duty for a continuous period of fourteen hours on January 3rd and 4th. Later we explain how this did not conclude his obligations in respect of the march. He was called out again next morning, on an informal basis, to perform more special police duties.
All through the night, the marchers were disturbed by mobs calling threats from the darkness, repeated information that explosives had been planted, and that detachments of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a clandestine military organisation closely associated with the Orange Order and the police force, were preparing to march on the hall. But nothing more serious happened than the discharge of a number of airgun slugs through the windows of the hall. The marksman was a young man from Irwin Crescent, Claudy. It is likely that the accuracy of his shooting owed something at least to the probationary time he spent in the Royal Ulster Constabulary Training Depot in Enniskillen.
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