On the anniversary of 5 October 1968, when Civil Rights activists marched to Derry and were brutally attacked by the RUC, precipitating the birth of The People’s Democracy, Matt Collins has written an extensive piece exclusively for Rebel, covering the events of 50 years ago and the whitewashing of history which followed.
1968 was a seminal year. A year when a mass movement exploded onto the streets of Derry and Belfast demanding an end to the institutionalised discrimination that was endemic to the Unionist state, in areas of jobs, housing and voting rights. The violence and repression that met the civil rights campaign was transformative, laying the basis for protracted period of conflict in the North. Interpretations of this period, then, speak directly to the causes of the “Troubles”, and 50 years on from the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the period of violence that raged in its aftermath, we have witnessed a widespread assault on the history of the civil rights campaign, in an effort to denigrate the memory of the movement. This effort is deeply ingrained in academic historiography; it is categorised by a downplaying of the systemic nature of violence and repression central to the Northern state at this time, alongside a focus on the role of civil rights activists in “provoking” violence. 1
Among an academic community that was strongly shaped by the violent conflict that raged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, much debate has ensued over the causes of the “troubles” and historians have been keen to attach culpability to those seen to have caused sectarian violence; toward this end, the students on the left of the civil rights movement, ‘The People’s Democracy’ (PD), present an easy target. The narrative essentially goes that the civil rights campaign was a well-meaning movement that took up genuine grievances, but was ultimately wrecked by a cabal of radical militants, who pushed too far ahead in pursuit of unrealistic goals, and in doing so provoked sectarian violence. This approach involves a certain level of victim blaming, whereby civil rights demonstrators who had significant levels of violence inflicted upon them are essentially held responsible for bringing about conflict. But it also involves a more specific assumptions, which view the role of radicals within the civil rights movement as one that impeded the possibility of more gradual reform of the Northern state at the beginning of the troubles. 2
The main historical focal point for this debased kind of analysis comes at the beginning of 1969, when against appeals by Terence O’Neill’s Unionist government to cease civil rights mobilisation, the PD, who were the militant left of the civil rights movement, pressed ahead with a march from Belfast to Derry, which was subject to a heightened level of violence and repression. Criticism of the “Burntollet” march is widespread in historiography, which is reflective of the British establishment’s official interpretation of events at this time, forwarded by the Cameron Report (1969). The Cameron Report essentially whitewashed the history of the early civil rights movement, by ignoring the role of state forces in abusing civil rights activists at key moments, and instead holding elements of the movement responsible for bringing about violence and wrecking the possibility of reform, in an extremist effort to precipitate a radical uprising. The major problem, however, is that a close examination of events in the 1968-1969 period illustrated that even limited reforms were consistently met with violence and blocked by the Orange machine, as the history of the Burntollet march clearly testifies.
The People’s Democracy
The civil rights movement erupted in October 1968 and in the space of a few short weeks it had delivered more advancement for the minority community than decades of political stalemate. In Derry, Belfast and further afield, a mass people power movement had fraught increasing pressure on the Unionist government to enact reform. The PD was formed at Queen’s University amidst these heady days. A radical civil rights organisation that reflected the “spontaneous” student revolts that were gripping many parts of Europe in the late 1960s, the PD became the most notable militant current of civil rights activism in the North. Students activists from the Young Socialist Alliance at Queen’s had attended the 5 October demonstration in Derry, which was brutally batoned by the RUC, and on return to their campus, amidst anger and outrage, the PD was formed. In the days and weeks that followed mass student demonstrations were launched in Belfast and the PD joined wider civil rights demonstrations across the North.
The turning point came in November 1969, when Terence O’Neill was forced to announce a five-point reform package that sought to quell civil rights demonstrations and stabilise the Northern state. The package included a points system for housing allocation, a complaints ombudsman and the abolition of the “company vote”, which allowed business owners extra franchise. But although it was a significant climb-down by O’Neill, the package fell short of the programme of reform envisaged by the civil rights movement; in particular, the fundamental grievance of ‘one man one vote’ would not be addressed, as the manipulated electoral boundaries remained intact. Furthermore, the notorious SPA was to remain for all intents and purpose. The reforms were enough to enrage loyalist opposition while failing to satisfy the civil rights movement at all, of whom all major bodies, including the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC), rejected as insufficient.
Ulster at a crossroads?
Loyalist opposition mounted after even limited reforms were announced, and in articulating a traditional unionist response to the civil rights movement, militant loyalists began to win the support of members of the police force. In Dungannon, on 23 November civil rights demonstrators were attacked by a mob of loyalists who were led by members of the B Specials. On 30 November a large crowd of Paisleyites armed with sticks and cudgels virtually took over Armagh town in order to prevent a NICRA demonstration, with no opposition from the RUC. It was in this context, then, that Terence O’Neill took to the airwaves on 9 December, declaring “Ulster at the Crossroads”, he appealed to the civil rights movement to call off marches, arguing for a cessation of activity and an acceptance of a time frame to implement the November reforms.
O’Neill’s call for calm had a resonance. It matched the mood of many of the moderates inside the civil rights movement, some of who had been cautious of action from the very beginning; both NICRA and the Derry Citizens Action Committee declared a suspension of civil rights mobilisation. In early December the PD had met at Queen’s, and after a long and contentious meeting it was agreed to call off a demonstration in Belfast and a “Long March” that had been planned for Derry, on 21 December. For the socialist left of the PD, the call to cease mobilisation was a capitulation to the Unionist Party, who had given no commitment to fundamental reform. In effect, the civil rights movement was being asked to help stabilise the Unionist state by putting their faith in O’Neill. Michael Farrell and other members of the Young Socialists, who had already stated their intention to carry on with demonstrations, called another PD meeting on campus on 20 December, which agreed for a march immediately in the New Year. The whole affair reflected the nature of the PD; it was a movement with no real fixed programme or objectives, in which any decision could easily be overturned in the next meeting and the most militant ‘leaders’ could set the agenda.
The decision to march on 1 January has been presented by historians as one that had the support of a tiny minority of students, who were warned against marching by the great and the good of the civil rights movement. For example, Henry Patterson has stated that the PD march was, ‘Criticised by the mainstream leaders of the civil rights movement and with the support of only a few dozen students…’ 3 It is a frequent misrepresentation. The only public caution came from Eddie McAteer, leader of the Nationalist Party, who had a track record of opposing civil rights mobilisation. Certainly, there was private disagreement within NICRA and other civil rights bodies, with Betty Sinclair and John Hume undoubtedly among the most wary of marching. Yet much of the criticism of the march was only revealed in hindsight. At the time there was significant support. NICRA and the DCAC had committed to a month’s long truce, until 11 January, and therefore, physically joining the march was ruled out, but they did support the students in other ways. NICRA financially contributed to fund supplies for the march, and its general secretary, John McAnerney, publicly supported the PD, stating, ‘…we are wholeheartedly behind the People’s Democracy in this.’ 4 The DCAC, under the leadership of John Hume, announced that it would meet the marchers when they arrived in Derry, and the Dungannon Civil Rights Committee urged its supporters to take part in the PD march. Both the Falls Divisional Labour Party branch in Belfast, and the Derry Labour Party voiced support for the students.5 NILP Chairman Paddy Devlin, too, supported the march and organised food for the marchers along their journey. Thus although a small crowd embarked on the march on New Year’s Day, 1969, they could claim wider support.
On the eve of the march the PD released a statement, which conveyed a message that is as relevant to contemporary interpretations of the march as to whom it was originally addressed. Its opening lines read, “To those of you who talk of provocation we can only say that a non-sectarian protest against injustice can offend only those who uphold injustices… It is, perhaps, as well to repeat that we are demanding not privileges but rights and that in marching to Derry we are merely exercising another fundamental democratic liberty.”6 The march was modelled on the Selma to Montgomery march, led by Dr Martin Luther King, in Alabama in 1965. A pivotal moment in the US civil rights struggle had inspired what would become the most eventful march in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
Violence at Burntollett
The events that confronted civil rights marchers from 1-4 January 1969 have been well documented. PD marchers faced obstruction, intimidation, harassment and violence throughout the course of the next four days, which exposed the deep backlash that was developing against the civil rights movement. The major source of violence came from supporters of Ian Paisley and his right hand man, Major Ronald Bunting, who declared their intent to ‘harry and harass” the students along the way. The march faced a number of blockades by loyalists armed with weaponry and cudgels, most notably at Antrim Town, Randalstown and Maghera. The violence reached a crescendo, however, at Burntollet Bridge outside Derry, where a large crowd of loyalists, made up of many off duty B Specials, descended onto the march and violently beat the civil rights activists. When the march re-gathered after running the gauntlet of violence at Burntollet, it was again attacked on the outskirts of Derry by a crowd brandishing bricks, bottles and petrol bombs, which reigned down at the marchers before another violent attack on the demonstration. The PD march began with some 40 students in Belfast. By the time it reached Derry hundreds swelled its ranks and thousands gathered to greet the civil rights activists at a mass rally. That evening the B Specials brutally attacked the Bogside in a clear act of reprisal. Barricades were erected to defend against the police, and residents began measures to take control over the area. A makeshift piece of graffiti was dabbed on a gable wall entering the Bogside, ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’; it was a slogan inspired by the campus revolt in Berkley College during the US civil rights movement. Free Derry was born.
In the immediate aftermath of Burntollet a backlash developed against the radical left, which ignored the glaring way in which state forces were involved in the attack and instead blamed the PD for bringing about violence. Terence O’Neill released a wholly one-sided statement that denounced the “arrogance” of “foolhardy and irresponsible students”. O’Neill’s statement cast him further out of touch with those sympathetic to the civil rights cause, who had witnessed a peaceful demonstration brutally beaten, seemingly with the support of elements of the state. Later, the Cameron Report (1969), the British government’s official investigation of events, laid down the now conventional interpretation of the march regarding the PD, stating that elements in the PD had explicitly “sought” violence and that “their object was to increase tension”.7 The findings of the Cameron Report are of significance because of the way they have set the acceptable terms of academic interpretation of Burntollet, and the role of the radical left during the civil rights movement. The report presents the civil rights movement as a genuine movement for reform that was wrecked by a cabal of radical militants, who set out to provoke violence in pursuit of a radical agenda. Particular fire is directed at the PD and the Derry Left. By contrast, Cameron goes on to essentially exonerate the RUC as an institution during the same events 8 It is highly problematic that this perspective has been accepted so uncritically throughout historiography, particularly in regards to the Burntollet march, since any feasible reconstruction of events regarding Burntollet shows that PD marchers went to great lengths to maintain non-violence and press for the reform programme laid out by the wider civil rights movement.
The role of the RUC and establishment politicians
Further, an examination of the evidence, including previously unseen evidence from the Cameron Inquiry itself and police reports from the period, indicate that the RUC led civil rights activists into the ambush, which was, at the very least, acquiesced in by important figures in the Unionist Party. This was always the claim of civil rights activists after the attack, yet historians have not investigated such claims with any rigour and Cameron rejected them as ‘wholly unjustified… baseless and indeed ridiculous.’9 Immediately after the attack the RUC officers charged with policing the march themselves went out of their way to misrepresent what had happened at Burntollet. The official police report of the ambush was penned by District Inspector Harrison, on 6 January, after news of the attack at Burntollet Bridge had exploded throughout the media. Harrison explained that no arrests were made because ‘the police were fully engaged with getting the marchers through and crushing the attack’, and he also claimed that, ‘the loyalists were attacked and baton charged by the police.’10 The credibility of the RUC reports are highly questionable, as no other source testifies to a police baton charge against the loyalist attackers, or anything that resembled a ‘crushing’ of the attack. The overwhelming evidence testifies that the violence at Burntollet was directed at PD marchers with no resistance from the RUC; some activists even claimed that the RUC joined in at certain moments. Testimonies from the Cameron Report itself indicate that the RUC were aware of the location of the attack. In one revealing interview with a Unionist MP, Cameron himself states that undercover police infiltrated a meeting of Paisley and his supporters in Derry’s Guildhall on 3 January, where the final details of the attacks were arranged:
We know that there was at least one Special Branch officer, if not a number of others, in the audience that night taking a note of what was being said and the position then was that they regarded the situation as being so serious that they carried out a reconnaissance in the vicinity of Burntollet Bridge. The obvious idea of which was to spot any snipers that there might be in the area on the day in question. Obviously they were afraid, or must have been afraid, that people would not only concentrate there with something like scatter guns, but that there would be something there which would be much more lethal. At this time there was information available to the RUC of possibly very serious consequences.11
The fact that the inquiry tasked with investigating Burntollet revealed that the police knew of the location of the attack is highly significant; particularly since the inquiry would later go on to publicly deny RUC culpability in the ambush. Other testimonies show that Unionist politicians who joined loyalist opposition along the route knew of the location of the attack, and also the attackers. Both Robin Chichester Clark, MP for Londonderry, and William Anderson, former Mayor and then MP for the City of Londonderry, were open about their opposition to the march. The testimony given by both men to the Commission reveals much about their knowledge of the attack, Anderson admitted that ‘I had heard there was likely to be trouble for the march and I and Chichester-Clark went out to Burntollet, where we heard there was going to be some trouble.”12 More revealing were Chichester Clark’s comments, who knew of ‘more extreme Protestant groups’ in the community who had began counter activity, adding ‘I have no intention of naming them…”13
One does not need to engage in speculation surrounding these comments to draw two conclusions; firstly, that high-ranking Unionist politicians were aware of an attack and its location, but also, that they were privy to the identities of those who carried out the attack. Taken alongside the evidence already presented that suggests the police knew about the planned attack, it seems feasible to conclude that the ambush happened with the knowledge of key elements of the security forces and the government. Such evidence is rarely considered among historians who focus on the “provocative” actions of civil rights activists and their decision to march. Indeed, the actions of PD marchers, which were consistently non-violent throughout the course of the four days, stand in contrast to both loyalist counter demonstrators and state forces.
The “Long March” to Derry was by definition a conscious attempt to challenge sectarian division through the power of Catholic and Protestant self-activity, and the PD were among the most anti-sectarian and non-violent forces of the period. Burntollet was indicative of the wider experience throughout 1969; a non-violent movement violently attacked and subsequent repression unleashed against significant sections of the Catholic community. The violence and repression, however, did not simply come from the fringes of the hard-line Loyalist right, but from the state apparatus itself, laying the basis for a protracted period of civil unrest and violent conflict.
- Dan Finn provides an excellent critique of this latter tendency in, ‘The Point of No return? The People’s Democracy and the Burntollet march’, Field Day Review (Dublin, Field Day Publications, 2013).
- Finn, ‘The Point of No return?’ p. 7.
- Patterson, Ireland Since 1939, p. 209.
- Sunday News, 29 December 1968.
- Irish News, 31 December 1968.
- Irish News, 31 December 1968.
- Cameron Report, para, 100.
- Thus, while the RUC are at criticized, particularly during 5 October (1968) and 5 January (1969) in Derry, they are on the whole exonerated for having ‘acted with commendable discipline and restraint under very great strain and provocation from various quarters’, Cameron Report, Para. 168.
- The best activist account of the march is found in Egan and McCormack, Burntollet (London, LRS Publishers, 1969). Cameron Report, para 183.
- Letter from District Inspector Harrison to County Inspector: Civil Rights March from Belfast to Londonderry, 1—4 January 1969, PRONI, CAB/9B/312/5.
- Evidence submitted to the Cameron enquiry by Robin Chichester-Clark, MP, PRONI, GOV/2/1/252.
- Evidence submitted by Commander A. W. Anderson MP, to the Cameron inquiry, PRONI, GOV/2/1/102.
- Evidence submitted to the Cameron enquiry by Robin Chichester-Clark, MP, PRONI, GOV/2/1/252.