Forty-six years ago today, on August 14, 1969, 300 British troops from the First Battalion Queen’s Own Regiment disembarked from the troop carrier, ‘Sir Tristam’ on Derry’s quayside and entered the 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 first of a two part look back through the eyes of Eamonn McCann.
A few days after the troops arrived in Derry a delegation of local representatives, amongst them, Eamonn McCann, found themselves at Victoria RUC Barracks on the Strand Road. By his own admission McCann says that they were largely unsure of what to expect. The collective feeling of unease felt by the four representatives was not diminished by the discovery that the British Army were treating the meeting as a pretty formal occasion. Behind the desk sat a Brigadier Colonel surrounded by his staff officers.
The uncomfortable silence between both parties was, however, quickly shattered when one amongst the local grouping, Paddy Kirk, spoke up.
Mr. Kirk’s opening remarks were, in fact, a demand that the British Army at once stop flying their helicopters over Creggan and the Bogside. In reply the Brigadier sneeringly asked why the army should do so.
“Because . . . it’s our territorial air space!” exclaimed Paddy Kirk.
Eamonn McCann said: “Paddy hadn’t told us beforehand that he was going to say this, so we thought we’d better not contradict him.”
When the army officer then asked, in his uppercrust English accent tempered with a degree of condescending laughter, what exactly was planned to counteract their flights, the following response came from Paddy Kirk: “We could garotte yous with piano wire!”
After a lifetime of involvement in what could be broadly termed as left-wing political activism, Eamonn McCann can look back now in wonderment at the whirlwind of events in his native city in the late 1960’s.
The incident in the barracks as it transpires in retrospect, went only to prove that both parties were acting with more than a little naivety.
McCann commented: “When this Brigadier heard this from Paddy Kirk he seemed to take things a bit more seriously and he said ‘it’s been a very fraught situation over this last few weeks, it may well be you people have acquired material that you aren’t going to need any more. If you want to get rid of it, take it over the border-just tell us and there will be no checkpoints or anything.’
“It suddenly occurred to me, he’s talking about guns! That’s when I realised very vividly that in their minds, they hadn’t a clue what was actually going on here. British Army memos just referred to nationalists and unionists-there was no understanding at all that anything else was involved.”
Now, with the benefit, or perhaps not, of over four decades of hindsight, McCann says: “We can look back and my take on it is that, in 1969,things were moving forward. It’s very difficult for people who weren’t there to realise the hectic pace of development at that time. I remember a very concentrated period in Derry, from late summer, 1968 through to mid-1972.
“We had got a government which seemed absolutely immovable - discrimination of a very blatant and grotesque manner; electoral boundaries which a child could have worked out were utterly unfair and oppressive and housing in the hands of the unionist mayor, who personally allocated the houses.
“For example, in 1967, the Council, despite the horrible housing conditions, built precisely no houses - not one! There was a whole series of things like this. But, by the middle of 1972, most of these things had been addressed. All of these were reformist issues, none of them at all were about overthrowing the State. These were the demands being made by people marching on the streets on October 5, 1968 and at other times.
“Londonderry Corporation was abolished. The electoral boundaries were abolished and replaced by Boundary Commissioners. Councillors were just kicked out of having control. Housing issues were taking out of the hands of the Council and the Housing Executive was put in place.
“So, I don’t believe that there was any time since partition when there was such a rapid advance in so many areas. And nobody now would look at these things and want to reverse them-nobody at all. Significant changes were brought about by the mass of the people. They weren’t won through parliamentary action, they were not won through armed struggle. The ‘armed strugglers’ weren’t remotely interested in the sort of reforms we were talking about. I think it was a big lesson.
“The armed struggle didn’t develop organically from the events of 1969, 1970 or 1971. It wasn’t that a few evil people came in and rejected reform. The context was historically provided by the British state. It didn’t mean armed struggle was inevitable - that someone had to come along and take up that option.
“It didn’t mean that armed struggle had to be propagandised and belittle and disrespect every other option in order to bring armed struggle forward. But the point is, that armed struggle, it appears to me, achieved absolutely nothing. It achieved significant political advances for the party most associated with it, when they called it off.
“It gave some people, some sense of satisfaction I suppose in that the idea of fighting back was an attractive one. I think if people want to look back at the early part of the Civil Rights Movement and take lessons from it, they should not look at significant political figures then or now, but at where the mass of the people were - those struggles were won on the street and that is a lesson for us today.”
McCann also asserts that during the demands for equality in employment, housing and voting rights that the expression of a republican desire for a united Ireland was nowhere near the top of a ‘wish list’ for the Catholic-nationalist population.
“It wasn’t even a consideration,” he maintains.
“This reflects historical reality. I mean people talk now, people in the South in particular, about the Catholic population in Northern Ireland being republican - an up for an insurrection type of people. Well, it wasn’t true in the late 1960’s, even in the 1970’s, it has never ever been true. For example, on electoral performances, the key election for republicans was in December, 1918 and the least republican constituency on the whole island of Ireland was West Belfast. Gerry Adams was the first republican ever elected there in 1983.
“So, the idea that the Catholic community has been defined by support for armed action against Britain is simply untrue. I have many relatives in Ardoyne, Short Strand in New Lodge and The Markets, so I would have known Catholic Belfast better than most in those days. I was struck by the fact there was a euphoria in Derry about the Civil Rights campaign there was much more nervousness in Belfast. I remember my aunt Cissy in New Lodge saying to me ‘it’s alright for you son, but in the end, the loyalists will come and burn our houses.’
“I said what are you talking about aunt Cissy. I was very naive as to what was going on in Belfast, what the feelings were there. The sense of frustration, isolation and justified rage people felt in North and West Belfast in August, 1969, gave birth to the Provisional IRA, or at least produced a potential audience to be recruited into the IRA.
“In ordinary terms, the sociological basis for the Provisional IRA was provided in discrimination and British misrule. Republicans are absolutely right about that. But that’s just the beginning of wisdom, just a description of what was happening. It didn’t point to any particular way forward. And, of course now, the perspective of the republican leaders in 1970-72, when they emerged as a formidable organisation has been proven utterly wrong.
“I can remember literally being laughed at in the streets for saying we still had to talk about jobs and houses. It was a case of ‘wise up Eamonn, call yourself an anti-imperialist - we’ll deal with that after we have a united Ireland. That happened over and over again, by people who are now advancing themselves as anti-austerity militants. Maybe they’ve changed their minds, maybe they’ve seen the error of their ways, but it would help if they’d say that.
“Instead they are twisting history to devise a narrative that they were right then and they are still right now. Everybody twists history I suppose, but boy, are they good at it.”
However, whilst by 1972, as Eamonn McCann says, a lot of the reforms demanded by the civil rights campaign had been achieved, they came after 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?
In next Tuesday’s ‘Journal,’ Eamonn McCann evaluates developments up until the present day.