OPINION: The Battle of the Bogside 50 years on - Elisha McCallion MP

Troops charging young people from the Bogside at Rossville Street in 1969.
Troops charging young people from the Bogside at Rossville Street in 1969.

To talk about the Battle of the Bogside and the intervening years it is necessary to set it in context. And although it was before my time I learned much about it through stories recited by those who were there and also through my own interest in learning about the causes of the conflict that followed. I read everything I could access about the formation of the Civil Rights Association and the events leading up to the Battle of the Bogside and its aftermath.

In the late 1960s, Civil Rights struggles in the US, and student protests in France and Germany inspired those campaigning for reform and social justice in the North of Ireland. The civil rights movement (NICRA) was formed in the mid-60s seeking to achieve reform and demand an end to gerrymandering, discrimination in employment and housing and repeal of the Special Powers Act. Unionists opposed reform believing that it would lead to a United Ireland and were and still are instinctively opposed to the very concept of equality. This opposition to equality may perhaps offer the best rationale for the conflict that was about to engulf the North for the next quarter of a century.

Foyle MP Elisha McCallion.

Foyle MP Elisha McCallion.

Following the RUC attack on the Duke Street Civil Rights march on October 5th 1968, the Burntollet ambush of the Peoples Democracy march in January 1969, the subsequent invasion by the RUC of the St. Columbs Well’s and in particular, the deaths of Francis McCloskey, in Dungiven, 14th July 1969 and Sammy Devenny 17th July 1969 in William Street, who were the first fatalities of the ‘Troubles’, batoned and beaten by the RUC, the scene was set for the Battle of the Bogside in August ’69,

The Battle of the Bogside will of course be seen first for the extensive use of the noxious CS Gas by the RUC and was the catalyst for the British Army deployment onto the streets of the North. As that year’s Apprentice Boys parade passed the bottom of William Street rioting erupted. In the ensuing battle the RUC accompanied by a unionist mob used armoured cars and water cannon to drive the rioters back into the Bogside.

After three days of fierce rioting the Bogside defenders eventually succeeded in forcing the RUC, who had been reinforced by the hated B-Specials and the loyalists out of the area. As it became obvious that the RUC could not contain the Bogside Defenders and that Stormont was losing control of the situation, as more nationalist areas around the North rose in support of Derry the British Government sent its Army onto the Streets of Derry.

In late afternoon,of August 14 the word spread that the British Army had been deployed at William Street and the rioting had stopped. Shortly after the British Army appeared the RUC and B-Specials were withdrawn. The British government propaganda machine was simultaneously deployed telling the world that it deployed troops to protect the ‘beleaguered’ civilian population. But one recurring question asked about that day, is that if, as was reported, the British Army were brought in to protect nationalists from unionist mobs and the sectarian RUC and B-Specials, why were their guns pointed into nationalist areas!

It was only later that people became aware of the price that Belfast and other areas had paid and continued to pay in the days and weeks that followed the Battle of the Bogside. At the height of the Battle, appeals had been made for other areas to come out and to draw the RUC away from Derry. Calls had also been issued by various spokespersons for the Bogside residents on the Irish Government to act.

The then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch made a television address announcing that ‘field hospitals’ would be set up in border areas. He went on to say that: “... the present situation is the inevitable outcome of the policies pursued for decades by successive Stormont governments. It is clear also that the Irish government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.”

It’s a pity that successive Irish governments went on to not only stand by and watch, but to actively collaborate with British governments in attempting to criminalise the fight for Irish self-determination and freedom.

It should be remembered that in Derry, despite the intensity of the unrest and over a thousand casualties plus, the fact that the RUC had used live rounds, no-one had been killed. Unfortunately it was a different story in other areas that came out in support of Derry. In Armagh a local man, John Gallagher was shot dead by the B-Specials during a protest. He was the first fatality of August 1969 but in the following two days another seven people would die.

In Belfast, after nationalist protests about the RUC actions in Derry; vicious sectarian riots erupted and continued throughout the following day. In Divis Street the RUC opened fire from an armoured car with a heavy machine-gun on the Divis Flats and Towers killing a young Catholic boy (Patrick Rooney, 9 years old) while he lay in bed.

The next day (15th August) six people were killed and countless more injured during escalating sectarian pogroms in Belfast. Despite the heroic efforts of a small band of IRA volunteers, dozens of families were burned out or forced to move from their homes.

During the next quarter of a century, following the Battle of the Bogside and the introduction of British troops onto the streets of the North we witnessed an escalation of hostilities between Irish Republicans and British security services and unionist paramilitaries. Internment, Bloody Sunday, Operation Motorman where among the watershed moments.

After many years of struggle we have now created the basis for peaceful and democratic means to pursue our goal of National Self-Determination. No one can seriously deny that change has been delivered and that the Orange state of 1969 no longer exists.

But while we have progressed significantly in dismantling gerrymandering, discrimination in employment and housing and other areas, there is still a way to go to achieve full equality in all aspects of life and for all sections of society.

We have new battles to fight in the context of Brexit and of course the changing demographics and political atmosphere has put the debate on Irish reunification squarely on the table.

So there are interesting and challenging times ahead and I encourage as many people as possible to let their voices be heard on these important issues which will forge the future of this island for generations to come.