Battle of the Bogside: The Siege of the Bogside

Micheal Canavan.
Micheal Canavan.

August 12 - October 12 1969: veteran civil rights activist Micheal Canavan of Derry Citizens’ Defence Association recalls the days, weeks and months which followed the battle.

On the afternoon of August 14, I went to No. 10 Westland Street which was the headquarters of the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association (DCDA).

A meeting was in progress to discuss the arrival of British troops in Derry. It was decided to go to Victoria Barracks to ask the military what role they were fulfilling. Paddy Doherty (vice chairman) and myself were appointed to go.

At the barracks, a deputy chief constable of the RUC introduced himself. However, when we asked for the real rulers of NI, Colonel Todd, commander of the troops in Derry, came to meet us. He said troops were in Derry to restore order and, then, to maintain peace impartially.

We offered to try to do that ourselves, with the authority of the DCDA on which we served, provided the RUC and the ‘B’ Specials - the immediate cause of the unrest - were withdrawn from contact with the Bogside, leaving only the army to secure the perimeter. Col. Todd authorised us to proceed on that basis and suggested a further meeting within 48 hours.

We returned at once to Rossville Street and called a public meeting to explain that, if fighting stopped, the RUC and the B Specials would be withdrawn from the area and the army would maintain law and order impartially from the perimeter. This point of view was vigorously disputed by others including Bernadette Devlin who maintained that nothing had changed.

We asked everyone there to return to their homes in support of peace and the DCDA objective and the majority slowly dispersed.

That night, and for many nights thereafter, DCDA spokesmen visited meetings in all parts of the city to inform the population of the action taken and to ask for delegates to be appointed to the defence association so that peace could have a broad base of support.

When Paddy Doherty and myself again met Col. Todd, the DCDA had fulfilled its commitment to restore order and we submitted our proposals for peace in the long-term which included the abolition of Stormont as it then was, the disbandment of the ‘B’ Specials and a non-paramilitary role for the RUC.

The DCDA, which met every two hours during the period of active defence, now met every day. Many observers predicted disaster because of the diversive affiliations of its membership but, in truth, all decisions were democratically arrived at and implemented under the wise and experienced chairmanship of Sean Keenan.

The virtual autonomy of the Bogside lasted from August 12 until October 12. The objective of the DCDA, after restoring order and maintaining peace, was to maintain authority over the Free Derry area which, in the end, comprised 880 acres and 25,000 souls within which only the writ of the DCDA ran until the British Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, returned to the Bogside with the package of substantial reforms which he had promised on his first visit.

To do that meant undertaking the massive work entailed in manning and maintaining the barricades, establishing a Peace Corps and carrying out the multitude of tasks associated with the day-to-day concerns of the Free Derry citizens, all administered by a hard working executive responsible to a committee of about 40.

None of this would have been possible without the support and understanding of the men, women and children of the Bogside who, having borne the brunt of the turmoil of the previous nine months, now faced life behind the barricades with courage and equanimity.

Overall, there was constant pressure from the British military and political authorities to cede control of the barricaded area which was resisted in every peaceful and ingenious way possible. In the end, all the barricades had been removed but the white lines which replaced them allowed the army to claim environmental advantages while the DCDA used them to retain the integrity of control as before.

Jim Callaghan returned to Derry on October 11, accompanied by the new RUC chief, and a significant package of reforms. In response, the DCDA, which had completed its arrangements for disbanding, ceased its system of control at midnight on October 12 and the Siege of the Bogside was finally over.