August 1969 and where we are now

The beginning of trouble in Derry city centre on August 12, 1969.
The beginning of trouble in Derry city centre on August 12, 1969.
  • The Civil Rights campaign looked twoards the USA for inspiration
  • The perception was that the British had little undersatnding of the situation
  • Discrimination against Catholics was rife

On August 14, 1969, 300 British troops from the First Battalion Queen’s Own Regiment disembarked from the troop carrier Sir Tristan on Derry’s quayside and entered Derry city centre. Their arrival heralded the end of three days of intense sectarian rioting that has become known as the ‘Battle of the Bogside’-an episode that to an extent set in place the local political landscape for the next three decades. Almost half a century later, the Journal today takes the second of a two part look back through the eyes of Eamonn McCann. The first article concluded by asking about how the Stormont regime viewed civil rights demands and the British Army’s actions on Bloody Sunday.

Is it the case therefore that before the unionist regime at Stormont would accede to the demands, it demonised the campaign as a republican one and used the might of the British military to crush the campaign once and for all? In effect, did the civil rights campaign receive answer to its demands on January 30, 1972?

“I’m not sure that’s true at all. It’s common now for a lot of historians to say that the motivation for the British Army on Bloody Sunday was to put down civil rights. Look at what senior British officers were saying in the run-up to Bloody Sunday. One thing very clearly emerges from cabinet minutes and Army memos.

“Officers like Frank Kitson in Belfast and Major General Robert Ford and defence staff in Whitehall-what enraged them most about Free Derry was they perceived that ‘this mob of hooligans’ had taken over a part of a British city and had excluded the forces of order. It does not mention that they were fighting against republicans.

“At no point have I found a document, amongst the dozens that I have, some of them confidential, does any British officer say we are going to put down a rebellion against the UK. The documents do not say ‘it’s our job to keep Northern Ireland within the UK, our enemy here are united Irelander’s.’

“What you do find over and over again is Robert Ford, for example, clearly quivering with rage as wrote memos about regiments in Derry being humiliated by working class urchins. That’s what it was. It’s quite interesting. It’s transferable anywhere fundamentally. It’s a class attitude.

Eamonn McCann addressing a crowd  at Guildhall Square yesterday.  (0201JB83)

Eamonn McCann addressing a crowd at Guildhall Square yesterday. (0201JB83)

“It was about ‘how dare these ragamuffins challenge the writ of the British Government’. At the same time the political commentary from Heath’s cabinet shows they had no commitment to Northern Ireland as part of the UK. None whatsoever. Right after Bloody Sunday there was a meeting of the Northern Ireland Sub Committee attended by Heath, Lord Carrington, Alec Douglas-Home and Reginald Maudling-the entire top brass of the day and they called Brain Faulkner over to account for himself. If you read the transcripts you’ll see Faulkner is being treated like dirt.

“He’s told at one point by Douglas-Home, ‘OK, Mr Faulkner, how about we give Newry and Derry to the south’. Faulkner, very reasonably asks ‘what are we going to do about Belfast. What are you going to do about the Falls Road etc; it’ll just go up in flames.’

“It hadn’t occurred to the Brits. Heath himself says, ‘What we could do is issue a guarantee that Northern Ireland can remain within the UK for twenty years, that’ll give you loads of time for you all to negotiate and sort it out’.

“Faulkner tells Heath that he was under a lot of pressure from Bill Craig inside his own party and from Paisley on the outside and that he needed backing. Heath replies, ‘Mr Faulkner, I am far more worried about the position of Mr Lynch’s government in Dublin.’

“At the same time it’s contradictory because the British Army is heading for the North to stop the challenge to authority. And, throughout internment and every atrocity carried out by the British Army, you recruited more people to the IRA. But, behind it all, politically, there is a lack of interest in Northern Ireland. They didn’t know what they were doing you know.”

The actions of the British state in moving to ‘resolve their little local colonial difficulties’ were not confined to the North of Ireland of course. Politically, whilst the British administration under Edward Heath may have been ill-informed about here, the military solutions deployed the British Army had been well honed in other countries.

“They’ve done far worse elsewhere,” said Eamonn McCann.

“In the broad sweep of history what happened here was mild, not for those on the receiving end of course, but this isn’t Kenya for example where they publicly tortured members of the Land and Freedom Army.”

The Journal asked Eamonn McCann about his personal recollections of 1969 and how he processes his memories of it now.

He said: “1969 was a tumultuous year. Looking from the beginning to the end of it, it was quite staggering. People everywhere question things when they look back. They ask, how did that happen? Who made that happen? Who sent us on that particular trajectory?

“Quite frequently, it was no one. A lot of the time in the early years people didn’t know what they were doing. We put a coherence on it ourselves. I do it and everybody else does it. We remember things as they happened to ourselves. I remember having heavy arguments in the days after October 5, 1968 with three or maybe four different people have totally different memories of it. But, it occurred to me, all of the memories are correct. I remember what was happening to me on October 5, because that’s what I saw. Somebody else saw it very differently, but they are correct too.”

“We were in the situation of writing the history of a struggle as that struggle was happening.”

“The thing I remember most clearly about 1969, and this is what I am talking about, is that I came up with the slogan. The most influential thing that I ever wrote in my head, or stole-it was plagiarised. The slogan was based on the one used at Berkley University-’You Now Are Now Entering Free Berkley’. I knew a lot about that because of my background.

“My first really active politics was in London about 1966-67 in protests about the Vietnam War about conditions on building sites, it’s when I first drifted into Marxism and Trotskyite politics. I was coming from that background-what was happening in America with the Black Panthers, the student movement in Europe. I saw it in an international context and that’s where ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ came from.

In the decades following 1969, two inter-governmental attempts were made to ‘settle’ the constitutional question first with the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 and again in 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Again, Eamonn McCann contends that these were formulated by people who didn’t know what they were doing.

He said: “Shortly before internment, there was a Labour government in at the time. I travelled with Bernadette Devlin and a couple of union stewards from a chocolate factory in Victoria Bridge about potential job losses. We met with Tony Benn who was Minister for Technology at the time. Benn was somebody, quite rightly who would have been seen as someone with an interest in Ireland. He may have had a big interest, but he knew very little about it.

“This was around the time when people thought that peace was just about restored. Bernadette said to them, ‘this might seem like a very small thing, but we are dealing with a society that could explode any minute.’

“Tony Benn’s reply was ‘oh, do you think I should bone up on it again?’

“I thought that was very interesting because he would have been seen as one of the better informed MPs. The ignorance about what was actually happening in the North was absolutely shocking. The majority of MPs had no interest whatsoever. There were no votes in it for them.

“Going back to the cabinet discussion after Bloody Sunday when the Prime Minister spoke about 20 years to withdrawal, or re-partitioning the North-what ignorance is revealed by this?

But, what of now, 46 years after British troops entered Derry?

Eamonn said: “There is peace of a relative sort, but even then in the most conventional sense, we can’t be sure that peace has been restored. Yet, can we say that about anywhere?

“Look at the issue of the Confederate flag in the USA being raised again 150 years after it had any real significance.

“My sense of the period we are in now is that we have never been more divided in terms of where people live. We are divided in Northern Ireland, not forcibly but we are living separate lives. The electoral figures reveal that the vast majority of people still vote either orange or green.

“In terms of social attitudes, increasing numbers of people are not identifying consciously themselves as orange or green. Look at 1969, there was discrimination against Catholics and it was rational to believe that if you lived in the Bogside. I lived at number 10 Rossville Street, and I am not complaining about that. We lived in a house, two up, two down. There were five children, my mother and father and my aunty Kathleen who had died some years earlier, had also lived there.

“My father a lot of the times was unemployed. He was a great man for work, he hunted jobs. People all around us were unemployed and living in the same conditions. Everyone knew that the reason for this is because we were Catholics. It was reasonable in that situation for people in the Bogside to sat that, if we want to make an advance here, if we want to go against economic oppression, what we need is equality between the two communities.

“Fast forward to 2015 and ask, what sense would that make? Go into the Bogside and ask about housing problems-they haven’t gone away. There’s still mass unemployment-that hasn’t gone away either. Can you say to anybody that what we need here is to rebalance the Catholic and Protestant areas? It just isn’t true.

“There is no solution to economic problems, to housing, welfare payments or anything else in the Bogside which would also apply to Irish Street and vice versa. You cannot change this in the Bogside unless it changes in Irish Street too. That’s a very significant comparison between 2015 and 1969.

“Because of that situation, you have two counter acting tendencies here. One is towards the consolidation of the orange-green division, and of course the Good Friday Agreement is based upon allocating everyone in Northern Ireland to one camp or the other. So you have that coming from above-for everyone to designate themselves as orange or green and it’s against that that there is more and more pressure coming upon people to fight against austerity and so forth and that has to be in a cross community way.

“You here sometimes, at the same meeting, people making the point that what we need is more unity needed amongst working-class people, that what we need to is to get rid of sectarianism and concentrate on things that unite us. Then there’s a round of applause. then the next person stands up and says that really, our problem comes from imperialism and the British presence here, blah, blah, blah....

“It’s a wonder we see the sky here when it is dark with complexities. Which of these ideas is going to prevail in the end? None of us knows. Some of the political parties are wavering between one and the other. They are class militants one minute and the next they’re linking themselves to ancient Irish traditions. They may think they can meet both of these, but they can’t.”

“It is my dream if you like, when people break from communal politics, and I think it will happen in an avalanche and not just trickles coming from one side or the other.

“So, we will wait and see. But, of course we don’t have to stand by and observe all this. We are all rational human beings and we all have a bit of influence and we should all try to affect it. In my own inadequate way, that’s what I try to do.”