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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

Prelude: 'Say your rosaries'

AFTER this unsatisfactory night, the marchers' rising times were staggered by individual inclination, and a state of nervous exhaustion, but by nine o'clock all had breakfasted and were assembled. Discussion started. Michael Farrell called for accounts of what had happened in Derry on the previous night. Various speakers gave information that showed likelihood of interference with the marchers on their progress into Derry. By dint of some curious argument, a number of speakers suggested a cessation or diversion of the march in case the student contingent should be swamped by a too large and enthusiastic contingent of supporters from Derry. A general and rather incondusive-seeming discussion was crystallised by Eamonn McCann:

"In the last three days we have come more than sixty miles. I will not remind you why we embarked on this activity. We knew from the beginning that this was a protest of a most serious sort. We decided to march as a gesture of solidarity with the deprived, and with those who are subject to discrimination under the present social system. We cannot even consider abandoning our protest now, in face of opposition, which may be strong, but which is irrelevant in the strict sense, to our objects.

"Let us be very clear about our policy today. For three days we have been harassed and abused without any retaliation on our part. Today we may face provocation far beyond anything yet seen. We said at the outset that we would march non-violently. Today will see the test of that pious declaration. And we prepared, individually and collectively, to run the risk of serious injuries without taking the slightest retaliation?

"I am afraid this is the policy we must support to a lunatic extreme. We must agree that not one single person will retaliate even to save himself from injury. Physical intervention by a marcher must only be employed in order to save another whose life is in danger or who may suffer serious injury without your help. And even then your intervention must be confined purely to giving aid to those in danger, and not to retribution.

"Comrades, this may sound insane and absurd. But it is necessary. We will be opposed, make no mistake of that. And any trust you may still have in the R.U.C. is, in my opinion, quite misplaced. We are on our own and our only weapons are the principles we have adopted. The People's Democracy is a radical movement. Its members hope to change the consciousness of the great mass of the people of this part of the country, charging them with an awareness of the real problems of the exploited and oppressed, Catholic and Protestant alike. In all logic we cannot attack or retaliate when attacked by Protestant working people. Remember the nature of those who have hindered us during the last few days. They are not our enemies in any sense. They are not exploiters dressed in thirty-guinea suits. They are the dupes of the system, the victims of the landed and industrialist Unionists. They are the men in overalls who are on our side, though they do not know it yet.

"The Protestant poor have been bullied and bribed to the stupid belief that they are in some way privileged beyond other people, beyond Catholic people. And to maintain imagined privilege they will fight. Retaliation by us will only confirm what they believe. Like a nail protruding from a piece of wood, the harder you strike, the more firmly it adheres. Let me make my own position quite clear. I am not a pacifist. I am not scared into a pacifist position because a more vigorous policy would place me outside the social system. But today I am pacifist in a different sense just because I can be nothing else. I have no enemy on the road to Derry, except those in influential positions who have created this false hatred of us. And today our pacifism will be quite different from that kind of pacifism which is nothing more than an excuse to avoid positive action. Today a policy of non-violence calls for far more courage than we would need to march in any armed band.

"We are led to an inevitable decision by events. Our first decision to march was seriously taken. Some of us, perhaps, have only now recognised just how explosive are the issues we have raised. I hope we will not weaken in the face of any personal danger, but will respect the commitment we have undertaken. We must, some of us at least, walk into Guildhall Square today and speak in explanation of our policies. And we will achieve this even if it means adopting a policy of non-retaliation and taking this to lunatic extremes."

Michael Farrell takes over the account:
"At about 10-15 a.m., I helped to assemble our marchers in Claudy, on the Claudy-Derry Road. Before moving off, I stressed to them the non-violent nature of our march, and asked anyone who did not accept this, not to come with us."
Again in response to Farrell's directive, the student marchers moved to the front lines to bear the brunt of any attack that might follow. The procession set out, police tenders and television cameras in front, then the banners, the People's Democracy marchers, and various supporters from the locality. The pavements on the outskirts of the town were lined with watchers. Not all of these were well-disposed towards the marchers. A group of men, centred round Samuel Leslie, a local farmer, shouted threats and abuse, and there were repeated warnings of an ominous sort. "You'll never see the end of this morning," and "you've half-an-hour to say your rosaries.

Local information indicated that a very likely trouble-spot was at a crossroads not far out of the town. A hundred-and-fifty yards down a side road to the right is a large housing estate peopled by vigorous opponents of the march. Many of these had been involved in the disturbances in Claudy on the night before. But the march approached and passed Gulf Cottages, Killaloo, without incident. For all the sign of opposition, or indeed of life, the houses could have been deserted. Subsequent events showed that very few indeed of the residents of Gulf Cottages would have been found in their homes that morning. The men were actively engaged elsewhere, and even a strong amazonian contingent had abandoned their domestic duties for active service. The procession continued until the route joined with the main Dungiven-Derry road at a right-angle. Cumber Presbyterian Church, just opposite, provided background to the T-shaped junction. Michael Farrell writes:

"We were asked to halt by the police. I was told by District Inspector Harrison that a group opposed to our march was assembled on some high ground about three hundred yards ahead on the right-hand side of the road. There was a possibility that some of these might throw some stones at us. He estimated the number of potential throwers as between forty and fifty. He told me that County Inspector Kerr would go up to examine the position, and while we waited for this man's return, I relayed the message to the marchers. At no time did the police suggest a re-route."
This last point also struck another marcher. Kevin Loughian was present at all stages of the march, and in a statement gives the various times when the police called a halt, reaching, at last, what happened at Cumber crossroads:
"With the exception of the last-mentioned occasion, all these police cordons were established with the explicit purpose of barring any further progress by the marchers along their intended route."
At this stage it is important to understand that a number of alternative routes into the City of Derry could have been chosen had the police wanted to avoid the Burntollet area. The scouting trip undertaken by County Inspector Kerr took about twenty minutes. In this interval, Malachy Carey fell into conversation with a policeman with whom he was acquainted:
"What he said seemed unimportant at the time, but afterwards seemed more significant. When I said I did not think there would be any real danger he replied that what we were coming to was 'worse than anything I had seen before'. What if armed people came through the hedge? he asked. He advised me to slip out of the march at that stage."

The Orange Hall at Killaloo, used as an "H.Q." for the planning of the assault at Burntollet.

Kerr returned after a period of time that would have allowed a most exhaustive examination of the route for some miles ahead, and confirmed the situation was as Harrison had outlined-about fifty people were situated on high ground, three hundred yards ahead. Once again Farrell relayed his message to the marchers:

"Some stones may be thrown from high ground. There are about fifty hostile people three hundred yards ahead. The district inspector, however, guarantees to get us through in safety, though some people might be hit by flying stones. He advised me that the march should keep close to the bank on the right-hand side of the road, which will afford protection from any chance of flying stones."
District Inspector Harrison intervened to make correction, and Michael Farrell spoke again:
"The district inspector asks me to say he doesn't guarantee to get us through safely." This raised some merriment. Farrell remarks: "Later, this remark seemed most significant. He made this qualification about what he could or would try to do. In this he could be said to have covered himself against any accusation that he had failed to warn of danger. But he made no query, offered no alternative information when, just before we started, I quoted him publicly as speaking of fifty people, three hundred yards ahead. And what I said, relayed by loud hailer, must have been clearly heard by all the other policemen who had seen the build-up. These included County Inspector Kerr."
For those who felt sanguine about the prospects of a quiet passage, there was one stern corrective. For the first time in the course of the march, a substantial number of policemen took the lead. About forty of these preceded the march, each clad in a broad-brimmed steel helmet and heavy coat, and each carrying a large oblong shield with a top sector made in wire so that it was possible to see the source of flying stones. But even before the march restarted, one violent incident occured. Three newspaper reporters, Neil Johnston, Cyril Thackaray and Patrick O'Flaherty, were travelling by car from Derry to Claudy. As they approached Cumber crossroads, where the march was halted, they saw a number of men on the roadway, one carrying the Union Jack. This fellow waved the flag, according to the reporters, and held it level with the windscreen, causing the driver to swerve. About the same time, a young man close by threw a large stone, shattering the windscreen of the car.

The driver immediately approached the police and identified the thrower. According to his evidence this was Andrew McLean, of Faughan Crescent, Drumahoe. Later the case came to court. Sergeant O'Hare said that McLean had been taken into custody following the reporters' identification, and was found to have a stone in his pocket. The magistrate said there was reasonable doubt whether McLean had, in fact, caused the damage, whether he had thrown the stone that broke the windscreen of the car. And so McLean was acquitted.

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