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The Derry March - Background Information

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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
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Background Information

For much of the period between the establishment of the Northern Ireland state and the outbreak of 'the Troubles', Derry had been governed by a city Corporation which was dominated by Unionist councilors. This was despite the fact that Derry had a Catholic / Nationalist majority amongst its population. This outcome was only achieved by blatant gerrymandering of the electoral boundaries. In addition Derry had suffered particularly high rates of unemployment and there was a chronic housing shortage. Few people believed that the Northern Ireland parliament based at Stormont near Belfast, and under Unionist control for almost fifty years, would address any of the grievances felt by the people of Derry.

There were many in Derry who felt that the Stormont government was deliberately under-investing in the area 'west of the Bann' (the west of the region) because of the high proportion of Catholics living there. Indeed sections of the Protestant / Unionist population of Derry also questioned some aspects of government policy in relation to the city. There were a number of examples of this during the 1960s, for example, the closure of the Great Northern railway line; the failure of any government schemes to tackle unemployment particularly following the closure of British Sound Reproducers Ltd., a major employer in the area; the establishment of a new town at Craigavon with the subsequent investment in housing and industry in that area as opposed to Derry; and the decision, which caused the most controversy, to site the New University of Ulster at the town of Coleraine instead of building it in Derry.

Prior to the first of the civil rights marches in Northern Ireland there had been a number of left-wing radical activists campaigning in Derry for more investment in employment and housing. In the two years prior to the 5 October 1968 march these radicals, under the auspicious of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), had staged a number of non-violent direct action protests to try to force the local Corporation to address some of these issues.

Following the Civil Rights march in Dungannon the DHAC contacted the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) with a proposal to hold a civil rights march in Derry. The NICRA agreed to the proposal without fully appreciating the special circumstances in Derry. The proposed route would take the march into the walled city centre which was considered by unionists as Protestant territory. This, coupled with the level of resentment felt by Catholics in the city, was the backdrop against which events were played out.

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