Gregory Campbell on the beginning of the Troubles
‘It felt like a very real, existential threat to our existence’
Gregory Campbell in Derry: ‘Jack Lynch made the statement about we won’t stand by, and for the unionist community that was tantamount to virtually an Irish invasion.’ Photograph: Trevor McBride
On August 12th, 1969, 16-year-old Gregory Campbell was marching through the centre of Derry on his first Apprentice Boys parade.
As he reached Waterloo Place, adjacent to Derry’s Bogside, he saw a crowd and lines of police. “There were a few stones coming over,” he recalled, “and people ducked.”
It was the beginning of what would become known as the Battle of the Bogside – a 48-hour struggle between rioters in the nationalist Bogside and the RUC. It would end with the deployment of British troops; for many, it marked the start of the Troubles.
Among the Catholic community in Derry, tensions had been steadily building since the previous October 5th, when civil rights marchers were attacked by the RUC on the city’s Duke Street.
However, Campbell’s perception was that the events of August 12th, 1969 “came completely out of the blue”.
“My recollection isn’t that there was some sort of impending crisis looming at all for the Protestant community.”
For him, the only indication of trouble had come with discussions over the parade’s route.
In the Bogside, the situation changed rapidly. The RUC staged baton charges into the Bogside; petrol bombs were thrown down on them from a block of flats. CS gas was used for the first time.
The following night, Campbell and his friends found themselves standing on Great James’ Street, on the edge of the Bogside.
“The jungle drums started to beat,” says Campbell, “and people heard then that the Presbyterian church was under attack.”
They were beside the church; the opposing crowd were at the top of the street, and the RUC were in between. A huge tyre was set alight, and came rolling down the hill towards them.
“It’s a steep hill, and it was coming down towards us at speed, and I remember everybody scattering. It was like something out of a horror film.”
The church closed in the early 1970s during the exodus of Protestants from the predominantly Catholic west bank.
“Up until that point it was a very mundane, almost quiet existence with no trouble, and for a 16-year-old now the adrenalin was going, the blood was up, and there was excitement, plus fear, plus anticipation about what was going to happen.
“Then [the then taoiseach] Jack Lynch made the statement about we won’t stand by, and for the unionist community that was tantamount to virtually an Irish invasion.”
In a televised address, Lynch had said his government could “no longer stand by” in the face of the growing violence in the North.
In those few days, Campbell said, everything changed: “In 72 hours you go from relatively peaceful co-existence . . . to what seemed at the time an almost virtual state of civil war.
“The Battle of the Bogside, as it came to be known, was seen as direct threat against the police, and there were Protestants moving out by the score in the early days and then by the hundreds afterwards, and then you have the Irish premier saying what he said.
“You could roll up the centuries of threat and insecurity into those three days.”
Campbell’s own home was in York Street, a street of terraced two-up two-down houses across the River Foyle on the Waterside – all with outside toilets.
“I saw people campaigning for civil rights, for better conditions, but they were blaming me for them not getting it, and I felt like saying come over to York Street, I’ll show you discrimination, I’ll show you disadvantage.”
From his front door, he could see flames and smoke from the Bogside. His mother’s cousins were among those who fled the trouble; petrol bombs had been thrown at the door of their house and Campbell’s mother took them in. The following month a Protestant, William King, was beaten to death in the city centre.
“I remember going over and manning the barricades in Wapping Lane [in the unionist Fountain area of the city].” It felt, he said, “like a very real, existential threat to our existence”.
“People were petrified. It felt like the forces were closing in on us.” The years 1969-72 were “a fork in the road for many in the unionist community”.
“Some people saw what I saw and decided to join paramilitary groups, some people decided to join political groups and I took the political route, but I could probably just as easily have taken the paramilitary route.”
Campbell joined the DUP; he was first elected as a councillor in 1981 and has been the MP for East Derry for 18 years. He insisted he does not see even a remote prospect of the North going back to the sustained violence of the Troubles.
“I think the mistake that Sinn Féin and even wider nationalism makes is that they keep . . . talking about what they have to do to make the island of Ireland a more welcoming place to unionists. That’s the wrong question.
“Can the Republic or can an all-Ireland be amended to include me and almost a million others? No, because no matter what you do, you can make it an orange state rather than a green state and we still wouldn’t want to be part of it because we’re not Irish. What part of that do they not get?”