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The Derry March - Main Events of the Day

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Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
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Main Events of the day

The march in Derry on 5 October 1968 was notionally organised by an ad hoc committee comprising representatives of the Derry Labour Party, the Derry Labour Party Young Socialists, the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), the Derry City Republican Club, and the James Connolly Society. In reality the ad hoc committee never functioned as expected and the practical organisation of the event was undertaken by two people, Eamonn McCann and Eamon Melaugh. The night before the march there was a final meeting between representatives of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the organisers in Derry. The NICRA wanted to call off the march because of the banning order imposed by William Craig, then Home Affairs Minister at Stormont. After some discussion it was decided to go ahead with the march.

Estimates of the number of people who took part in the march vary widely. For many such events the organisers tend to inflate estimates of the numbers who took part while official figures tend to be a more conservative estimate. Surprisingly therefore one of the main organisers, Eamonn McCann, stated that "about 400 hundred people formed up in ranks in Duke Street. About two hundred stood on the pavement and looked on." (McCann, 1993; p.97), while the official estimate was approximately 2,000 people (Cameron Report, 1969; p.27). Among those who were present at the march were: representatives of the five local groups who were part of the ad hoc committee and members of the NICRA; a number of Nationalist Members of the Northern Ireland Parliament (NIMPs) including Eddie McAteer and Gerry Fitt and three Westminster Labour MPs; individuals such as John Hume; and many ordinary citizens of Derry. The fact that the organisers had miscalculated and planned the march for a day when the Derry City Football Club was playing 'at home', the fact that the march was starting in the Waterside, or the expectation that there might be an outbreak of violence, all probably contributed to the low numbers. The march was however about to achieve a significance far beyond its size.

Those intending to take part in the march assembled at the train station in the Waterside close to Duke Street. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) had brought extra reserves of police officers into Derry and about 130 officers were deployed in the streets around the train station. In addition two water canons were also deployed and this was the first occasion they had been seen on the streets of Derry. As the march formed up the notified route was blocked by members of the RUC and the demonstrators were informed by the County Inspector of the conditions of the banning order. More ominously he also warned that women and children should not remain. The demonstrators then appeared to have taken the police by surprise by beginning to move up Duke Street against the flow of traffic. RUC officers quickly regrouped to block the top of Duke Street. As the marchers moved towards the new front police line another line of officers blocked the road behind them, effectively sealing the demonstrators into a section of the street.

As the march approached the front line a number of RUC officers drew their batons and, without provocation, clubbed those at the head of the march, including two Nationalist MPs.

    It appears to us established on the evidence that at this stage batons were used by certain police officers without explicit order, although this is denied by the police. We regret to state that we have no doubt that both Mr. Fitt and Mr. McAtteer were batoned by the police, at a time when no order to draw batons had been given and in circumstances in which the use of batons on these gentlemen was wholly without justification or excuse. (Cameron Report, 1969; p.28)

While the injured were being taken away to hospital an impromptu meeting was held in front of the police line and the crowd was addressed by a number of speakers. A short time later the County Inspector of the RUC gave an order to his officers to disperse the march. The two police lines drew their batons and moved towards the marchers. Even the official report concluded that the police broke ranks at this point and "used their batons indiscriminately on people in Duke Street" (Cameron Report, 1969; p.29). The crowd scattered and made their way across Craigavon Bridge having first run the gauntlet of the police lines. On the bridge the water canons were used on the dispersing marchers and Saturday afternoon shoppers making their way home.

The official report put the number of casualties as 4 RUC officers and 77 civilians. The organisers of the march estimated that the total number of people who went to hospital for treatment was approximately 100, although many others would have received first aid on the street and not attended the casualty department of the hospital.

As a result of what happened at the march there were further disturbances in the centre of the city and on the edges of the Bogside. Riots developed and the fighting lasted until the early hours of the 6 October. During the riots a barricade was erected in Rossville Street and a few petrol bombs thrown (McCann, 1993).

The events of 5 October 1968 were recorded by press and television reporters. These reports appeared in newspapers and on television the following day and were seen not only in Ireland and Britain but around the world. The scenes were to prove shocking to many people across the United Kingdom but they had a profound impact on the Catholic / Nationalist population of Northern Ireland.

    One of the consequences of the break up of the demonstration in Duke Street was that press and television reports ensured that some very damaging pictures of police violence were seen throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. This produced a violent reaction of feeling in many places ... (Cameron Report, 1969; p.31).

Until this point in time consecutive British governments had been content to ignore how Unionists in Northern Ireland had governed the region. The events in Derry on 5 October 1968, and those which followed as a direct consequence, were to meant that the British government would be forced to take a more active involvement in the running of the state.

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