A new book on the central role played by Derry in the events of the late 1960s which led to the outbreak of the Troubles has just been published.
“Belfast and Derry in Revolt - A new history of the start of the Troubles’ by Simon Prince and Geoffrey Warner focuses on the turbulent years leading up to 1969 in both cities.
It features detailed accounts and analysis of some of the major events of the period including the October 5th civil rights march in 1968, the Battle of the Bogside, the burning of Bombay Street, and the Battle of St Matthew’s.
Dr Simon Prince is a visiting lecturer at King’s College, London and has already written about the civil rights movement and the beginning of the Troubles.
Professor Geoffrey Warner is a supernumerary fellow in modern history at Brasenose College, Oxford, and has also written extensively about the North in the past.
The book tells the story of the myriad of groups active in Derry from the beginning of the 1960s which would eventually lead to the formation of the Civil Rights Movement.
The authors discuss at length what they describe as the “self-help” tradition in Derry which spawned several popular movements and led to the establishment of the Credit Union in the city.
“In Derry before 1968, direct action and self-help played key roles in reshaping the city - within, of course, the limits set by Unionist control,” the book states.
It also reveals that the principles of a non-violent movement for social change in Derry were set out as early as 1948 by Nationalist leader, Eddie McAteer.
It also recounts how these groups, largely made up of Catholics, faced opposition from the Derry’s unionist elite who were concerned that their hold on the city was weakening.
The book looks at the range of groups set up in Derry in the 1960s, from those dominated by young professionals like John Hume and Michael Canavan, Catholic Church-led organisations like Fr Anthony Mulvey’s Derry Housing Association, to groups led by radical socialists and republicans, like Eamon Melaugh’s Derry Unemployed Action Committee.
The various campaigning group briefly united, along with liberal unionists, in the campaign to secure full university status for Magee. The book charts that the Unionist government at Stormont were worried by this rare display of unity.
“Derry had a problem to be solved rather than a place of history, memory, and identity,” the authors state.
The pair also argue that the uneasay alliance began to fragment as the various interests tried to take the campaign, and the people, in different directions. “There was no such thing as a single Catholic protest agenda,” according to the book.
Expanding on this argument, the book states: “The Derry movement was less a hierarchy and more a network, one in which everyone was equal (though some were more equal than others), so leaving it much weaker on discipline and tragedy. From early 1969 onwards, with all the would-be leaders fumbling towards new strategies, such discipline as there was went into deep decline.”
The book devotes considerable attention to the first civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, which is dealt with in a chapter titled, ‘The day the Troubles began.’ “The fifth of October 1968 has a strong claim to being the second most significant date in twentieth-century Irish history,” the fist being the Rising, according to the authors.
The academics argue that the police actions on October 5th, when they attacked peaceful marchers, changed nationalist attitudes. “A new context and new relationship had been created in which people were much more willing to act and much more willing to oppose the authorities than they had previously been,” it states.
The book states that the wave of public protests and strike action which followed the march politicised the people.
“Politics in Derry was no longer an elite pursuit, but instead a game open for all to play.”
As the number of protests, and clashes with the police increased, the book argues that the ground for the moderates was reduced.
From early 1969, “power had shifted and the space for republican politics was growing.”
‘Belfast and Derry in Revolt - A new history of the start of the Troubles’ by Simon Prince and Geoffrey Warner is published by Irish Academic Press and is available in local bookshops.