Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Duke Street, Derry, 5 October 1968

A RaHN meeting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the
CIVIL RIGHTS MARCH, IN DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND, 1968
 was held on Wednesday  8  Oct. 2008, at Wood Green Social Club.

Pre-meeting notes were circulated as follows:-

On the afternoon of Saturday 5-10-68 a march was held in Derry (a.k.a. Londonderry) to demand an end to discrimination against Catholics in the matter of housing, jobs and the local government electoral system, and to protest against the state repression (Special Powers Act) in force in Northern Ireland.  The allegedly illegal route was blocked by police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who after a stand-off charged the marchers with batons and drove them off the street, inflicting numerous injuries and finishing the job by bringing in water-cannon. This led not only to riots in the Bogside Catholic ghetto that night, but to a great deal of publicity; the presence of Labour MPs from Westminster and camera crews ensured that the event was headline news on TV and in the Sunday papers.  This sort of thing might happen in Paris but wasn't supposed to be seen on the streets of cities in the UK; it was a wake-up call to the Wilson government which, the files show, realised that changes would have to be made to sort out the anomalous situation in the 'province'.
Press coverage was extensive
On the Monday it was the main topic of conversation in the students' union at Queen’s University Belfast, resulting in follow-up protests, mass meetings and the formation of the 'People's Democracy' movement, which tried against increasing odds to maintain a non-sectarian left-wing political perspective.  We may want to discuss why this sort of attempt failed, and if its failure (along with the resurgence of the IRA, nationalism, paramilitary violence etc.) was inevitable.

Queen's University Belfast Student Newspaper
A later PD leaflet with cover photo
of the sitdown in Linenhall St.


Reading list (selected - there's lots more on subsequent events, background etc.)
Paul Arthur, The People’s Democracy, 1968-1973. (1974)

Owen Dudley Edwards, The sins of our fathers : roots of conflict in Northern Ireland. Dublin : Gill & Macmillan, (1970)

Mike Farrell, Struggle in the North. (1969)
John McGuffin, Internment. Anvil Bks. (1973)

Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion: Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland.  Hutchinson Radius, London, (1989)

Political Background [Official version as at March 1998 from N. I. Office website]: “Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom [...] It has a population of some 1,577,836 (April 1991 Census) of whom the majority are descendants of Scots or English settlers who crossed to the north-east of Ireland, mainly in the seventeenth century. As a result many are Protestants who have traditionally been committed to the maintenance of the union with Great Britain. The remainder - a little over a third - are Roman Catholic, many of whom are nationalist in political aspiration, favouring union with the Irish Republic.  #From 1921 until 1972 Northern Ireland had its own Parliament in which the Unionists, primarily representing the Protestant community, held a permanent majority and in consequence formed the regional Government.  #The present unrest began when the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and reactions to it led to serious inter-communal rioting between the late 1960s and early 1970s. From August 1969, militant nationalists (principally the Provisional IRA) and also "Loyalist" terrorist groups sought to exploit the historical divisions in the community and engaged in campaigns of violence. This then led to the Government authorising the deployment of units of the Armed Forces in support of the civil power [...]”

Cover of People's Democracy magazine (1971)


and p.1: the Editorial condemns “the disgraceful record of both Irish governments”.

In the student milieu, the "People's Democracy" movement made real efforts to emphasise class politics across the sectarian divide and also took inspiration from the French experience in trying to link struggles of workers and students. On some occasions, however, demonstrations were decreed to be for "students only", as in a march and sit-down at Belfast City Hall in the aftermath of Duke Street; the idea was to avoid accusations of there being outside agitators directing events (i.e. of being Republican pawns, perhaps).  An often forgotten episode was the People's Democracy march from Belfast to Dublin at Easter 1969 which combined civil-rights slogans with a protest at the border against censorship in Eire. 
QUB students held a mass meeting in response to the Duke Street events and organised a march to Belfast City Hall, which culminated in a sit-down in Linenhall Street.

The Times (London)
Sunday News (Belfast)

The Observer






1 comment:

  1. Further to the above, a little-known postscript: a Committee of 100 banner survived the attack as did two people who had come on the bus from Belfast and escaped the batons and water-cannon. They made their way to the intended destination of the march, to unfurl the banner and carry it round the Diamond inside the city walls - so there was actually a demonstration there, albeit tiny, brief and unnoticed, before the banner-bearers were shoulder-charged into the railings by police. (Luckily they got off with some bruises.)

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