‘No one imagined the violence that would follow’: Eamonn McCann on Derry in 1968

Civil rights march ‘created a spark which led on to conflagration’, veteran protester recalls, 50 years on

County Inspector William Meharg warning the demonstrators on the Derry civil rights march on October 5th, 1968, that any attempt to march along the prohibited route was illegal and would be resisted. Photograph: The Irish Times

County Inspector William Meharg warning the demonstrators on the Derry civil rights march on October 5th, 1968, that any attempt to march along the prohibited route was illegal and would be resisted. Photograph: The Irish Times

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Eamonn McCann walked through Derry’s Bogside the morning after October 5th, 1968, when a civil rights march heading for the city centre had been stopped with violence by the RUC on Duke Street.

Everyone said the same sentence: “Things are never going to be the same again.” McCann remembers the moment vividly: “They were saying the same sentence, the same clichéd sentence. People realised that something new had happened.”

Hemmed in between two lines of police, the marchers on Duke Street had been attacked; the presence of an RTÉ camera crew meant the images of the beaten, bloodied protesters were seen around the world. Today, Duke Street is seen as the start of The Troubles.

Fifty years on, McCann stands at the starting point of the march - a now derelict building but one which in 1968 served as the Waterside railway station. The most direct route to the bridge and the city centre was then, as now, via Duke Street.

Today, what was once a street lined with houses and shops has been replaced by a roundabout and a dual carriageway, but McCann, his energy undimmed by the years, is back in that moment: “Can I show you how all this happened?”

Pointing out Distillery Brae, a steep street leading away from the station, he says: “What happened - which was out of camera shot - was that when we marched up Duke Street, the police who had been at Distillery Brae came up behind us. We were trapped.

“The only people who hit me on the 5th October were the police at the back of the march.

“If you’re trying to disperse a march, you don’t block it off at the front and the back. Looking back on it, this wasn’t a crowd dispersal operation, this was a punishment operation.” McCann pauses. “Then the police started with the batons.”

Protest has been McCann’s life. Now a member of People Before Profit and a former Stormont MLA, he is a lifelong Marxist who, by 1968, was already a veteran of the Aldermaston “ban the bomb” marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam war; nearer to home, he was a member of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), which earlier that year had blocked one of the city’s roads in protest at discrimination in the allocation of housing.

Now in his seventies, he remains instantly recognisable in his t-shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. As we talk, we are interrupted by passers-by who greet him by name; motorists honk their horns and wave as they drive past.

He describes the “heady” days of 1968 with glee in his voice, and a glint in his eye. “It was in the spirit of the age. As [activist] Jerry Rubin in New York said, ‘Just do it’.”

‘We just did it’

And so they did. McCann and another DHAC activist, Eamon Melaugh, had been in the city’s Guildhall - “heckling the council” - and emerged to the news that a march for civil rights had taken place in Dungannon.

“We went to the phone box and we phoned the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

“Eamon said, ‘we’re holding a march in Derry, do you want to put your name to it?’

“We just did it.”

McCann remembers the time as “an age of marching” - in the US, in Paris, in Prague. “This wasn’t a little parochial campaign that we were involved in, we were part of something massive that was happening all over the world, and that was terrifically exciting.”

“There were a lot of late nights and there was a lot of laughter, and we did a lot of drinking - far too much drinking, but it was a really exciting time.

“Politics in Derry and Northern Ireland generally for the previous half-century since the foundation of the state had been absolutely static. Nothing changed and it seemed that nothing was ever going to change, so when you got that little glimpse of something it was a heady thing to happen to people in a way that it wouldn’t be today.”

A casualty of the police baton charges at the Derry civil rights march in October 1968 is led away after the clash in Duke StreetI. Photgraph: The Irish Times
A casualty of the police baton charges at the Derry civil rights march in October 1968 is led away after the clash in Duke Street. Photograph: The Irish Times

The march had been banned, and almost called off; McCann puts the numbers present at no more than 400.

“When we set off it was in the spirit of adventure,” he remembers. “When we reached the mouth of Duke Street and there was a solid line of RUC with shields standing across it, at that point it was clear there was going to be trouble.”

Among the famous images of the day is that of the MP Gerry Fitt, his head streaming with blood; McCann, by comparison, was not badly injured: “I was hit on the shoulders and the side”.

“I’ve got a retrospective sense of things being out of control,” he says. I’m not sure I felt it at the time, but it was an escalation compared to what had gone before.”

He admits to feeling “desperately disappointed; not quite ashamed, but uneasy, that we didn’t foresee what might happen.”

“In their wildest dreams”, says McCann, nobody imagined the years of violence that would follow.

“The poison that erupted in Northern Ireland subsequently was not caused by October ‘68. We were paying for history.

“We didn’t create the situation, but I think there was a spark, we created a spark which led on to conflagration. That has to be acknowledged and I don’t try to hide that, but I’d say in moral terms any responsibility which the organisers of 5th October have to bear is small, if not minuscule, compared to the responsibility of people who had gone before us and of the orange and green leaders at the time.”

Proud of his role

McCann points out that the civil rights movement was a success. Most of its aims - including the introduction of a points system for the allocation of housing and the abolition of Londonderry Corporation - were quickly achieved.

“Nobody subsequently has achieved anything remotely resembling the significance of the changes which took place in the late 60s and early 70s, and I include the Good Friday Agreement in that.”

The lesson, says McCann, is that “you can achieve things by masses of people coming together to demand them in a peaceful way.

He is proud of his role - “I’m pleased to be able to remember I was involved in something significant to the extent that we left some sort of trace on the history of Ireland and particularly Northern Ireland - yet also admits to “a hundred regrets”.

“I do think we were a wee bit lacking in taking time off and coming in off the streets,” he explains.

“The possibility that certainly I saw in 5th October was of changing politics in Northern Ireland generally and overthrowing the orange/green system, of conquering the history here and laying the basis for something else.

“I think we certainly could have come out of October ‘68 with a far stronger, left-wing, anti-sectarian, neither orange nor green party. I think that was a real possibility and that would have changed to some extent the politics which followed but we failed to do that.

Eamonn McCann in 2003.
Eamonn McCann in 2003

Fifty years on, he sees sectarianism as entrenched in Northern Ireland - a consequence, in part, of the Belfast Agreement.

“I think that is exacerbated by the Good Friday Agreement. I think it has deepened sectarianism or at the very least prevented a serious challenge to sectarianism.

“Twenty years ago, we had a constitutional arrangement introduced which lays down that Catholics should vote green and Protestants should vote orange and then they should agree to co-operate peacefully with one another, or at least to express their rivalries in a peaceful way.

“There’s not a slightest doubt the Good Friday Agreement did not conquer sectarianism. It built a constitutional edifice on the foundations of sectarianism, which is basically why it’s so weak and why in the long term it’s not going to succeed.”

“I would say the future of Northern Ireland is up for grabs at the moment in a way it hasn’t been for decades.”

By this he means the question of a united Ireland. “It is evident however the negotiations over Brexit work out, the constitutional arrangement on this island has been thrown up into the air,” says McCann.

“Hardly anybody on the Border wants a hard Border. We shouldn’t be appealing for Mr Barnier to stand up for us, we should be saying it won’t happen, we’ll tear down your [Border] installations with our bare hands.”

“That would be the people, north and south of the Border, through their own efforts, defeating it, achieving something.”

In 2018 as in 1968, for McCann it is the people who will bring about change. He cites the popular reaction throughout Ireland to the acquittal, earlier this year, of two former Ulster and Ireland rugby stars who had been accused of rape.

“Look at the success of the civil rights movement, all the progress that was made, all that was done in a couple of years. That was achieved by people on the streets.

“That’ll be how we see a united Ireland.”

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