Battle of the Bogside: August 1969 - just the grim prelude to years of terrible tragedy in NI

RUC men face rioters at Rossville St.
RUC men face rioters at Rossville St.

Yes, it will go down in history because it was when British troops arrived on active service on the streets of Derry and Belfast.

But its greatest significance was that, far from signalling the restoration of peace and stability, it proved to be merely the prelude to the Northern Ireland tragedy.

The Journals front page on August 15.

The Journals front page on August 15.

From the previous October, the city of Derry had been in a state of tension. The banning of the October 5, 1968 civil rights march resulted in the greatest manifestation of nationalist frustration, disgust and impatience at the unyielding men who controlled the edifice of unionist discrimination.

The brutality of the police on October 5, world-wide documented, had left a legacy of alienation from the forces who were supposed to represent and administer law and order.

The situation only deteriorated further when, first, Dungiven farmer, Frank McCloskey, injured during a police charge in Dungiven, died of his injuries and, second, when the police closed ranks in what one very senior police officer denounced as a “conspiracy of silence” to thwart all investigations into a murderous attack on Derry man, Sammy Devenny, in his own home.

More than 20,000 people attended Mr Devenny’s funeral but the police, with unbelievable insensitivity, proceeded that same day with charges of rioting against five young local men.

Neither they, nor the Resident Magistrate who sent all five to jail, demonstrated the least appreciation of the need for moderation in a red-hot atmosphere.

Three weeks before the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march through the city centre was due to take place, members of the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC) met the RUC Inspector General, Anthony Peacock, and his deputy, Graham Shillington, and told them that to permit the traditional march would be “an error of incalculable proportions”.

Of course, in the Northern state, the police didn’t have the last word about a decision of that sort. The executive power was invested in the Minister of Home Affairs.

But the ministry, which had so quickly banned the October 5 march, acted true to form. The right of the loyal orders to march where they liked and when they liked in unionist-dominated Northern Ireland could not be denied.

MP John Hume put the issue thus: “The Apprentice Boys have a perfect right to march; but it is a matter for them to exercise that right. It is on their shoulders and the government’s that will rest the final responsibility if trouble does arise.”

A survey conducted by the unionist newspaper, ‘The News Letter’ showed that 90 per cent of people in NI would be glad to see an end to marches and demonstrations for some months. Even Ian Paisley’s then right-hand man, Major Ronald Bunting, said he would be happy to see no parades to allow communal disorder to subside.

Throughout Monday, August 11, talks took place between representatives of the two Derry communities. But the Apprentice Boys were implacable. They were going through with their celebration. If there was trouble, that would not be their responsibility; it would be the duty of the authorities to deal with it.

August 12 was a warm, dry day; a splendid day for a march; a grand day for people to enjoy themselves and, ironically, a good day for a riot.

By midday, a strong police presence and steel barricades separated an ever-growing nationalist crowd in William Street from Waterloo Place where the march was routed to go through.

Perhaps the police thought the barricades and their presence in strength would deter any attempt to interfere with the procession’s progress. They were soon disillusioned. At about 2.30pm, the stones began to fly.

The police made their first offensive up William Street but, once Rossville Street was reached, they were driven back. By sheer force of numbers, the youths counterattacked every time the police tried to surge into the Bogside.

By 5pm, the first petrol bombs were hurled at the police. Just before 7pm, a police jeep nearly ran down ex-MP Eddie McAteer who had to dive between two parked cars to escape injury or worse. The incident further inflamed an already simmering atmosphere.

Through the night, the police were given no respite and, by Wednesday morning, it was obvious that they could not control the situation.

They introduced CS gas. It created havoc for a while but the young rioters quickly manufactured rough and ready protection, many of them wrapping scarves around their faces.

A change in the wind direction also sent CS gas wafting back into the police ranks. By twilight on Wednesday, the police were weary, dispirited and anxious.

In Belfast, meanwhile, hardline members of the government were considering extreme measures against what they by then regarded as an insurrection.

It was obvious that there was a temptation to restore order with guns.

So, by the morning of August 14, the unarmed Catholic community waited with a combination of determination and real apprehension to see what the next government move would be. Armed ‘B’ Specials were already parading through the streets.

But in Dublin and London, government ministers had been in touch. The Irish spelt out to the British the necessity for immediate action to protect the Catholic people.

At 5pm, British troops crossed Craigavon Bridge and moved smoothly into strategic points in the city.

A reluctant police were ordered away from Butcher and Magazine Gates. As they moved away sullenly, someone shouted ‘three cheers for the British Army’ - a proposal that was loudly endorsed by a crowd which then dispersed quietly, happy that a ring of steel protected them from any incursion from police or ‘B’ Specials.

At 2am on the morning of Friday, August 15, the printing press began to roll at the offices of the Derry Journal on Shipquay Street and the paper with the banner headline, ‘British Troops on Streets of Derry’, looked like a proclamation of final victory over the Stormont state.

The danger was over. Another relief of Derry had been achieved. Or so it seemed. Little did we realise that this wasn’t the end of the trouble but only the beginning.