The first stones in the Battle of the Bogside


Sir, – At around 3.35pm on August 12th, 1969 I stood in Waterloo Place, Derry, and watched the first stones thrown in what became known as the Battle of the Bogside. I stayed in the city until the arrival of the British army on August 14th.

On September 11th, 1969 The Irish Times published a letter of mine about events a month earlier. I observed the civil rights movement began as a non-violent non-sectarian movement. I regretted that such aspirations had now collapsed.

On August 12th, 1969 the Apprentice Boys held their annual parade in Derry. This parade was provocative to many in the city, but the right of free procession was one upheld by the civil rights movement.

During the last stages of the parade, as I witnessed, stones were thrown at the marchers and the police in Waterloo Place by young people from the Bogside at the bottom of William Street. A torrent of stones and eventually petrol bombs were directed at the police, until, after two hours, the first baton charge took place and from there the fight escalated.

During the fighting I moved around both sides of the barricades. On one side there were Catholics while on the other there were Protestant civilians in support of the police. I wrote “And so the two sides were drawn up: Protestant and Catholic’.

What happened was disastrous for efforts to promote civil rights and to challenge sectarianism in our society. Ideas of non-violence had been rejected and the conflict had emerged along sectarian lines with dire consequences for elsewhere.

On November 12th, 1968 I had served as one of several hundred stewards at a peaceful rights march in Derry which attracted nearly 20,000 people. Stewarding was organised by the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) run by responsible individuals, such as John Hume.

In early August 1969 I attended a meeting of the DCAC at the City Hotel, Derry, to consider the forthcoming Apprentice Boys parade. Along with others I went there to volunteer as a civil rights steward on the day.

We were informed, however, that the DCAC would not provide stewards for August 12th. Such work would be done by the new Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA).

This organisation, led by veteran republican Seán Keenan, was formed only in July. Its stated aim was “peace and defence”, but it was mainly concerned with defence, in expectation of an attack on the Bogside.

At meetings in early August, speeches were often strident. On August 4th, Keenan referred to the “good old petrol bomb”. Days before the parade many petrol bombs were prepared.

Such language and preparations greatly increased tension. This organisation now came to supersede (undermine) the reputable DCAC. In the event there was no significant body of stewards present when the stone throwing started, as I observed. Ivan Cooper and a few others tried but failed to stop the fighting.

The DCDA did not initiate the conflict in Derry but its complete failure at this early stage and its subsequent actions were important factors in the disastrous events in the city in August 1969.

After fighting started calls for assistance went out from leaders in the Bogside. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) urged widespread demonstrations, a course of action for which the NICRA leadership would later express regret.

These demonstrations led to violence in many places such as Armagh and Dungannon. Originally, NICRA expressly opposed demonstrations in Belfast because of the risk of provoking sectarian violence.

In spite of this, certain activists went ahead with marches in West Belfast on August 13th, leading to serious sectarian clashes and extensive violence over several days. There were no deaths in Derry but in Belfast seven people were killed and thousands lost their homes.

In the end, efforts of the civil rights movement to promote non-violence and oppose sectarianism were unsuccessful. In the summer of 1969 it proved unable to maintain its original values and to provide a solution to the problems of a deeply divided society. – Yours, etc,