Sixty years ago yesterday the St Patrick’s Day parade in Derry was attacked by the RUC in scenes which exposed the institutionalised sectarianism of the state to an international audience.
The incident began when members of the Anti-Partition League (APL), including several elected members of Derry Corporation, carried a Tricolour at the head of the parade, which was illegal at the time. RUC officers moved in to seize the flag and two councillors, James Doherty, James Hegarty, and APL member James Lynch were arrested.
Troubled flared after the flag was taken as the RUC baton charged the marchers, many of whom were injured in the fracas.
The following year, despite a ban on parading, another St Patrick’s Day march was held in the city centre and was again attacked by the RUC. A Derry Journal photographer captured an image which would define the day, and the era, of an RUC man with his baton raised over the head of a young girl, Helen Kelly, as he prepared to strike her.
The photo was used on the front page of the ‘Journal’ and was also carried in a popular English newspaper. In an unusual step, the same photograph was reprinted in the following edition of the ‘Journal,’ - also on the front page. The photo was also the basis for a debate at Stormont.
Derry writer professor Seamus Deane has said the incident was the first time he noticed the attitude of the nationalist community changing. “That was the occasion on which a photograph was taken by a Derry Journal photographer of a policeman batoning or arching over a tiny little girl who could have been no more than five or six.
“That photograph I remember was sent to all the Dublin newspapers and London newspapers but the only newspaper that carried it, other than the Derry Journal, was the Manchester Guardian. That was the first time that I felt just how close off we were; that there was no chance of having the injustice of the Protestant sectarian state or its militant and paramilitary apparatus exposed.”