'Burntollet' by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack
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PD MARCH: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] ['Burntollet'] [Sources]
Text: Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
'A fine disregard for marchers' safety'
WHILE the events of the last two chapters were taking place, what was being done by the policemen officially designated to protect the march? According to the Minister of Home Affairs, two county inspectors, two district inspectors, seven head constables, seventeen sergeants and one hundred and sixteen constables were present to ensure against interference. Incidental mention has been made already of how some of the people designated to protect the march behaved. Readers may recall the curious story told by Dympna Hasson about the constable who sought applause from Bunting and his followers by his witty reference to the verdant colour of Catholic blood.
This story is no eccentric invention by Miss Hasson. A number of other people arriving on that part of the Ardmore road in different groups and over a period of time report how they were regaled by the same jibe, or by a variation. Thus Bridie Sweeney, of Dungiven, tells how one constable exclaimed: "Bad and all as you are, I don't see you bleeding green." Others repeat this story, and descriptions given of jeering officers, the raconteurs indicate that this was a remark used by members of a group of policemen, and not merely an example of some individual derangement. But jibes apart, what did the police force do to protect the marchers? Paddy McGrath, a student at Queen's University, writes:
"The police vanguard, which was just in front of me, made no effort to stop the violence being offered by the hostile crowd. They ran up the road, and when we appealed to them to go back and help the rest of the marchers, they refused point blank."Talking about what happened after the ambush started, Mrs. Eileen O'Kane, of Dungiven, tells: "I saw a vanload of policemen, but they did not come out to our assistance." And it is certain that by far the greater part of the police force supposedly on duty stayed firmly inside their vehicles or even clambered inside as soon as trouble started. Pauline Toland, of Claudy, was injured at an early stage, and taken to a police tender:
"It had a number of policemen in it. They were worried about where their friends in the police force were. There were six policemen in it when I went to hospital, although the attack was still going on."Corroborating stories of a similar sort indicate that more than fifty policemen remained inside tenders for the duration of the attack. Photographs, which contain sufficient detail to allow identification of individual policemen, sustain the impression that only about fifty men played any active part. And succeeding paragraphs show that these men did not uniformly consider their function was to protect marchers. Kiaran Clifford, of Belfast, was following the march in his car:
"A police sergeant, who was supporting an injured man, waved me down to take the man away. I opened the door to take him in, but the man said he saw his own car coming. Just then one of the attackers who was standing at the bridge shouted, pointing to the car with sticks. The sergeant who had beckoned me to stop immediately stepped back out of the way saying: 'You shouldn't do that lads,' but he made absolutely no attempt to stop them. I managed to get going and made off across the bridge. The damage done was dents in the roof and scratches on the boot. I think we got off lightly!"John McGuffin, whose account of the attack has already been quoted, recalls:
"Suddenly the hedge on my right came to an end and the first thing I saw was the helmeted police who had been with us running away. They fled to the tenders which were up ahead, abandoning the defenceless marchers to a horde of people armed with iron bars, clubs and bottles."James O'Kane, of Dungiven, who was injured at an early stage, reports:
"While I was waiting for an ambulance I saw a full tender load of police sitting, about halfway across the bridge on the left-hand side . . . not one of them ever got out." This well-populated vehicle appears, time and again, in photographs taken over a period of at least ten minutes. Patrick Bradley, of Maghera, tells:
"The only members of the R.U.C. that I saw at this stage were two who were sheltering - with their shield, helmets and sticks - behind ourselves. I asked them why they were not protecting us and requested that they escort us through the mob up ahead. My only reply was that I was struck on the shoulder by one of them and told to run. I then had to run the gauntlet of the people who were armed with an assortment of clubs. I emerged at the other side luckily unscathed. Many marchers were still being attacked. We asked several policemen who were walking away from the trouble to assist. One stuck out his tongue at us, then walked on. Later, a police tender passed us with the constables making signs at us with their two fingers through the back windows."Michael Farrell, as one of the first-rankers in the march, passed through with the accelerating riot-clad police. Once through himself, he wondered for the safety of his comrades, and reports:
"I went back to the bridge to see if any were left behind. I saw a group of people, armed and dishevelled at the other end of the bridge. I was told by a policeman, sitting calmly in a quite full tender, that these were some of the ambushers, and I had better clear off. I asked for immediate action to protect those left behind. But no attempt was made to arrest or deter these ambushers."Farrell's description is corroborated in minutest detail by a number of witnesses who are not personal acquaintances of his. And, once again the photographic evidence demonstrates the precision of his account. Later, we deal in detail with the senior police officer responsible for supposed protection of the march at this stage.
Michael Ormonde Hall, of Belfast, did not leave Claudy with the main body of the march, but sought to overtake it by catching the Derry bus. Some aspects of his account belong to a later part of the story. He took up a waiting position on Burntollet Bridge itself, and writes:
"The march appeared. Though the movement of the crowd showed unmistakeable signs of ambush, the police beside me did not make a move. As I watched, lines of people came running down the hill throwing a variety of stones, bottles, etc., on the now stationary marchers, I even saw one policeman handing his baton to a helmeted ambusher. Suddenly, the police came charging towards us, chasing us and the cameramen away from the ambush scene. There were so many police and so fast were they running that I assumed that a splinter group of ambushers were chasing the police. The police, however, on arriving at their tenders, leapt inside and stayed there. Not one vehicle moved towards the ambush."Magella Tracey, of Dungiven, describes how he, and his brothers saw "a policeman lift a bag of stones over a gate, then hand this to the attackers".
Ivan Barr, from Strabane tells:
"I was near the end of the march. We were being followed by two tenders containing police constables wearing steel helmets. When the attack started, the fusillade of stones and bottles was so intense that several marchers and myself ran to the offside of the tenders. I was amazed to see the police still sitting inside, and I shouted to them to come out and give us some protection. The only reply was a smile from one constable.The sanguine attitude of this senior officer is the subject of further examination later in the story.
These rather distressing comments made by some citizens reflect the more favourable among opinions expressed by those who, during the height of the attack, were offered little protection. One girl, Brigid Leonard, of Dungiven, tells how the police, who eventually rescued her from the river after the attack had died down, reviled her, saying it was her own fault for being in the march. Elizabeth Burke crossed over the Burntollet Bridge then, fearing for the safety of a sister left behind, persuaded a fellow marcher to go back with her.
"He approached a number of policemen who were standing on the road, asking help to find her. They told him to 'go home, you Fenian bastard'."Complaints of a much more substantial sort have been made. When John McGuffin went back to seek out his wife and discovered her bleeding profusely he sought the aid of a constable. He was greeted with a succession of obscenities.
"Throughout the ambush," he writes, "the police allowed the attacker free rein to club the unarmed marchers and, in some cases, even assisted them to do so."This last remark is no throwaway line by a man naturally disgruntled by police disinterest. Magella Tracey, whose account has already been quoted, tells how he saw two men attack a marcher:
"A policeman came along and pushed the two attackers aside. He then caught the marcher by the hair, bent him over, and hit him a number of times on the back of the neck with his baton. He then threw him on the ground and left him lying by the side of the road."
District Inspector Harrison and a dozen attackers wearing white armbands on the road near Burntollet. Many of those wearing armbands - and carrying weapons - came from Harrison's own area, Limavady and district.
Even more direct evidence comes from Eugene O'Hara, of Muldonagh:
"When the attack started we tried to go across the bridge. The police prevented us, and drove us back with their batons. Constable Jackson, of Dungiven, struck me on the shoulders and across the back with his baton."The same constable features in a number of other statements all in rather similar vein. Lawrence McGonigle recalls:
"When I reached the Land-Rover, I got in and asked Liam McCloskey how he was. His face was covered in blood from a cut in his head. He was the only person in the back of the vehicle which was moving at about five miles an hour. Constable Jackson, of Dungiven, ran up caught Liam by the coat, shouting obscenities and saying: 'You got what you deserved. You shouldn't be here.' Liam got out and Jackson kicked him about four times on the leg."This event was witnessed by a number of others, and in reply to parliamentary questions the Minister of Home Affairs has said that disciplinary proceedings against this constable are being considered. Further queries have produced the kind of procrastinatory and irrelevant replies which have become Mr. Porter's stock-in-trade.
Malachy Carey, of the People's Democracy, was also subject to police attack:
"All the attackers round me carried clubs which they used on every person passing them. I was hit with what appeared to be a white table leg, but I ran on up the road about twenty yards and turned around to call others to come on through. Two policemen attacked me with batons, one of them shouting: 'You are not going back to fight with them,' although this was clearly not my intention."Judith McGuffin tells that, after being battered with a chair leg:
"I did manage to run forward towards what I took to be a helmeted policeman but, to my horror, saw that he was also hitting a defenceless marcher."Michael Farrell also records how "as we cleared BurntoIlet Bridge, I saw one policeman facing back towards Claudy, and striking a marcher". And a number of statements tell either that policemen handed their batons or riot sticks to attackers, or assisted them in other ways. One preliminary analysis reads:
"In many cases, marchers testify to seeing the police hand to the attackers, or return to them, sticks or batons which, perhaps, had been dropped. As policemen watched, men beat girls and boys with iron bars and clubs. Their strongest condemnation was a polite: 'Come on now boys, these ones have had enough.' As girls approached police for help, these sturdy men shrugged shoulders at best, or treated the victims to obscenities. Stereotypes were: 'Fenian bitch' and 'Fenian whore'."
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