Battle of the Bogside
|Battle of the Bogside|
|Part of the Troubles and the|
1969 Northern Ireland riots
|Date||12–14 August 1969|
|Caused by||(see background)|
|Parties to the civil conflict|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of the Bogside was a very large communal riot that took place from 12 to 14 August 1969 in Derry, Northern Ireland. The fighting was between residents of the Bogside area (organised under the Derry Citizens' Defence Association), and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) along with local unionists.
The rioting erupted at the end of an Apprentice Boys parade which was passing along the city walls, past the Catholic Bogside. Fierce rioting broke out between local unionists and the police on one side and Catholics on the other. Rioting between police and Bogside residents continued for three days. The police were unable to enter the area and eventually the British Army was deployed to restore order. The riot, which sparked widespread violence elsewhere in Northern Ireland, is commonly seen as one of the first major confrontations in the conflict known as the Troubles.
Tensions had been building in Derry for over a year before the Battle of the Bogside. In part, this was due to long-standing grievances held by much of the city's population. The city had a majority Catholic and nationalist population. In 1961, for example, the population was 53,744, of which 36,049 was Catholic and 17,695 Protestant. However, because of gerrymandering after the partition of Ireland, it had been ruled by the Ulster Unionist Party since 1925.
Unionists maintained political control of Derry by two means. Firstly, electoral wards were gerrymandered so as to give unionists a majority of elected representatives in the city. The Londonderry County Borough, which covered the city, had been won by nationalists in 1921. It was recovered by unionists, however, following re-drawing of electoral boundaries by the unionist government in the Northern Ireland Parliament.
Secondly, only owners or tenants of a dwelling and their spouses were allowed to vote in local elections. Nationalists argued that these practices were retained by unionists after their abolition in Great Britain in 1945 in order to reduce the anti-unionist vote. Figures show that, in Derry city, nationalists comprised 61.6% of parliamentary electors, but only 54.7% of local government electors. There was also widespread discrimination in employment.
As a result, although Catholics made up 60% of Derry's population in 1961, due to the division of electoral wards, unionists had a majority of 12 seats to 8 on the city council. When there arose the possibility of nationalists gaining one of the wards, the boundaries were redrawn to maintain unionist control. Control of the city council gave unionists control over the allocation of public housing, which they allocated in such a way as to keep the Catholic population in a limited number of wards. This policy had the additional effect of creating a housing shortage for Catholics.
Another grievance, highlighted by the Cameron Commission (In March 1969, the O'Neill ministry appointed John Cameron chairman of a commission into the causes of "the violence and civil disturbance in Northern Ireland on and since 5 October 1968") into the riots of 1969, was the issue of perceived regional bias; where Northern Ireland government decisions favoured the mainly Ulster Protestant east of Northern Ireland rather than the mainly Catholic west. Examples of such controversial decisions affecting Derry were the decision to close the anti-submarine training school in 1965, adding 600 to an unemployment figure already approaching 20%; the decision to site Northern Ireland's new town at Craigavon and the siting of Northern Ireland's second university in the mainly unionist town of Coleraine rather than Derry, which had four times the population and was Northern Ireland's second biggest city.
In March 1968, a few activists in the city founded the Derry Housing Action Committee, with the intention of forcing the government of Northern Ireland to change its housing policies. The group's founders were mostly local members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, such as Eamonn McCann, and members of the James Connolly Republican Club (the Northern manifestation of Sinn Féin, which was banned in Northern Ireland). The Housing Action Committee took direct action, such as blocking roads and attending local council meetings uninvited, in order to force them to house Catholic families who had been on the council housing waiting list for a long time. By the middle of 1968, this group had linked up with the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and were agitating for a broader programme of reform within Northern Ireland.
On 5 October 1968, these activists organised a march through the centre of Derry. However, the demonstration was banned. When the marchers, including Members of Parliament Eddie McAteer and Ivan Cooper, defied this ban they were batoned by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The actions of the police were televised and caused widespread anger across Ireland, particularly among northern nationalists. The following day, 4,000 people demonstrated in solidarity with the marchers in Guildhall Square in the centre of Derry. This march passed off peacefully, as did another demonstration attended by up to 15,000 people on 16 November. However, these incidents proved to be the start of an escalating pattern of civil unrest, that culminated in the events of August 1969.
January to July 1969
In January 1969, a march by the radical nationalist group People's Democracy from Belfast to Derry was attacked by off-duty Ulster Special Constabulary members and other Ulster loyalists during the Burntollet bridge incident, five miles outside Derry. The regular police refused to protect the marchers. When the marchers (many of whom were injured) arrived in Derry on 5 January, fighting broke out between their supporters and the police. That night, police officers broke into homes in the Catholic Bogside area and assaulted several residents. An inquiry led by Lord Cameron concluded that, "a number of policemen were guilty of misconduct, which involved assault and battery, malicious damage to property...and the use of provocative sectarian and political slogans". After this point, barricades were set up in the Bogside and vigilante patrols organised to keep the police out. It was at this point that the famous mural with the slogan "You are now entering Free Derry" was painted on the corner of Columbs Street by a local activist named John Casey.
On 19 April there were clashes between NICRA marchers, loyalists and the police in the Bogside area. Police officers entered the house of Samuel Devenny (42), a local Catholic who was not involved in the riot, and severely beat him with batons. His teenage daughters were also beaten in the attack. Devenny died of his injuries on 17 July and he is sometimes referred to as the first victim of the Troubles. Others consider John Patrick Scullion, who was killed 11 June 1966 by the Ulster Volunteer Force, to have been the first victim of the conflict.
On 12 July ("The Twelfth") there was further rioting in Derry, in nearby Dungiven, and in Belfast. The violence arose out of the yearly Orange Order marches commemorating the Battle of the Boyne. During the clashes in Dungiven, Catholic civilian Francis McCloskey (67) was beaten with batons by police officers and died of his injuries the following day. Following these riots, Irish republicans in Derry set up the Derry Citizens Defence Association, with the intention of preparing for future disturbances. The members of the DCDA were initially Republican Club (and possibly IRA) activists, but they were joined by many other left-wing activists and local people. This group stated their aim as firstly to keep the peace, but if this failed, to organise the defence of the Bogside. To this end, they stockpiled materials for barricades and missiles, ahead of the Apprentice Boys of Derry march on 12 August, the Relief of Derry parade.
Apprentice Boys march
The annual Apprentice Boys parade on 12 August commemorates the relief of the Siege of Derry on 1 August O. S., a Protestant victory. The march was considered highly provocative by many Catholics. Derry activist Eamonn McCann wrote that the march "was regarded as a calculated insult to the Derry Catholics".
Although the march did not pass through the Bogside, it passed near to it at the junction of Waterloo Place and William Street. It was here that trouble broke out. Initially, some loyalists had thrown pennies from the top of the walls at Catholics in the Bogside below, in return marbles were fired by slingshot. As the parade passed the perimeter of the Bogside, Catholics hurled stones and nails, resulting in an intense confrontation.
The police, who had suffered a barrage of missiles, then moved in. Whilst the police fought with the rioters at William Street, officers at the Rossville Street barricade encouraged civilian Protestants slingshotting stones across the barricade at the Catholics. The police then tried to alleviate the pressure they were under by dismantling the barricade. The result of this was the creation of a gap allowing Protestant civilians through, convincing the Catholic residents that their homes were going to be attacked.
The police were unable to get into the Bogside. Nationalists lobbed petrol bombs from the top of the Rossville Flats, halting the police advance, with 43 of the 59 officers who made the initial incursion injured. As this happened the people of Derry, numbering in their hundreds, continued to fight each other, with petrol bombs and stones thrown between loyalists and nationalists.
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The actions of the Bogside residents were co-ordinated to some extent. The Derry Citizens Defence Association set up a headquarters in the house of Paddy Doherty in Westland Street and tried to supervise the making of petrol bombs and the positioning of barricades. They also set up "Radio Free Derry." Many local people, however, joined in the rioting on their own initiative and impromptu leaders also emerged, such as Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann and others.
Local youths climbed onto the roof of the High Flats on Rossville Street, from where they bombarded the police below with missiles. When the advantage that this position possessed was realised, the youths were kept supplied with stones and petrol bombs.
The police were in many respects badly prepared for the riot. Their riot shields were too small and did not protect their whole bodies. In addition, their uniforms were not flame resistant and a number were badly burned by petrol bombs. They possessed armoured cars and guns, but were not permitted to use them. Moreover, there was no system in place to relieve officers, with the result that the same policemen had to serve in the rioting for three days without rest.
The police responded to this situation by flooding the area with CS gas, which caused a range of respiratory injuries among local people. A total of 1,091 canisters, each containing 12.5g of CS; and 14 canisters containing 50g of CS, were released in the densely populated residential area. After two days of almost continuous rioting, during which police were drafted in from all over Northern Ireland, the police were exhausted, and were snatching sleep in doorways whenever the opportunity allowed.
On 13 August, Jack Lynch, Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, made a televised speech about the events in Derry, in which he said that he "could not stand by and watch innocent people injured and perhaps worse." He promised to send the Irish Army to the border and to set up field hospitals for those injured in the fighting. Lynch's words were widely interpreted in the Bogside as promising that Irish troops were about to be sent to their aid. Unionists were appalled at this prospect, which they saw as a threatened invasion of Northern Ireland. Although the Irish Army was sent to the border, they restricted their activities to providing medical care for the injured.
By 14 August, the rioting in the Bogside had reached a critical point. Almost the entire community there had been mobilised by this point, many galvanised by false rumours that St Eugene's Cathedral had been attacked by the police. The police were also beginning to use firearms. Two rioters were shot and injured in Great James Street. The B-Specials, a reserve quasi-military, mostly Protestant police force with no training in crowd control, were called up and sent to Derry, provoking fears of a massacre on the part of the Bogsiders.
On the afternoon of the 14th, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, James Chichester-Clark, took the unprecedented step of requesting the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson for troops to be sent to Derry. Soon afterwards a company of the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire (who had been on standby at HMS Sea Eagle) relieved the police, with orders to separate the police and the Bogsiders, but not to attempt to breach the barricades and enter the Bogside itself. This marked the first direct intervention of the London government in Ireland since partition. The British troops were at first welcomed by the Bogside residents as a neutral force compared to the police and especially the B-Specials. Only a handful of radicals in Bogside, notably Bernadette Devlin, opposed the deployment of British troops. This good relationship did not last long however, as the Troubles escalated.
Over 1,000 people were injured in the rioting in Derry, but no one was killed. A total of 691 policemen were deployed in Derry during the riot, of whom only 255 were still in action at 12:30 on the 15th. Manpower then fluctuated for the rest of the afternoon: the numbers recorded are 318, 304, 374, 333, 285 and finally 327 at 5.30 pm. While some of the fluctuation in numbers can be put down to exhaustion rather than injury, these figures indicate that the police suffered at least 350 serious injuries. How many Bogsiders were injured is unclear, as many injuries were never reported.
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A call by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association for people to stretch police resources to aid the Bogsiders led to rioting in Belfast and elsewhere, which left seven Catholics and two Protestants dead. That same night (the 14th) a loyalist mob burned all of the Catholic homes on Bombay Street, Belfast. Over 1,800 people (mostly Catholics) were expelled from their homes in Belfast. Taken together with events in Derry, this period of rioting is widely seen[by whom?] as the point in which the Troubles escalated from a situation of civil unrest to one of a three-way armed conflict between nationalists, state forces and unionists.
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- Boy with Petrol Bomb and Gas Mask (mural) Google street view
- Images from the booklet "Battle of Bogside" published in (1969).
- Wilson considered direct rule option as violence raged in North The Irish Times. 3 January 2000
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- Battle of the Bogside Documentary (2004)
- Extracts from "War and an Irish Town" by Eamonn McCann