Remembering the Start of “The Troubles” 50th Anniversary
Civil Rights March – Derry – 5th October 1968
It was just a couple of years after the fiftieth-anniversary of the 1916 Rising and I was a pupil at CBS, Hassett’s Cross. The Christian Brothers celebrated that event and I remember winning a bronze plaque of Pádraig Pearse for a poem I wrote about my native place…both poem and plaque have been lost. There is a thin line between celebration and commemoration and my education crossed that line. The signatories of the 1916 proclamation were our boyhood heroes. 1966 was a time before Revisionist history where one version of events was presented and no dissenting voice was ever heard. Along with my class we learned Poems by Francis Ledwidge and Pádraig Pearse’s speech at the funeral of Sinn Féin member Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. In that speech Pearse showed the oratorical skill that would make him the figurehead for the 1916 Easter Rising. I can still recite what I learned “by heart” in those days: In 1968 I was an eleven-year-old boy in Limerick. It was a time of innocence. We had just got a TV and we had one black-and-white channel – RTE 1. I remember watching The Flintstones with Fred and Wilma, Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm and Barney Rubble and his wife Betty. I wasn’t interested in “The News”, that was for adults. I remember my mother laughing out loud at the cartoon Mr Magoo and my father being critical of the Polish cartoon Bolek and Lolek, saying it was “boring.” TV was for entertainment, education and information.
“We stand at Rossa’s grave not in sadness, but in exultation of spirit… This is a place of peace sacred to the dead, where men should speak with all charity and all restraint; but I hold it a Christian thing… to hate evil, to hate untruth, to hate oppression, and hating them to strive to overthrow them… while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree, shall never be at peace.”
I was inspired to go to university and study English and History. When that time came there was no university in Limerick – the National Institute of Higher Education (NIHE) in Plassey was a fledgling third-level college that did not offer what I was interested in. So, I went to UCC – an exile from Limerick!
In my childhood days I knew that the Island of Ireland was divided, but the border was far away from Limerick. Then TV arrived. It has been said that a picture paints a thousand words and that is certainly true about one iconic black-and-white film-clip from Derry in 1968. When it was seen in the homes of Limerick we became eye-witnesses of history in the making – and what a terribly sad history it was to become.
Shocking images of RUC brutality (like that on the left) were sent around the world
Friday the 5th of October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 civil rights march in Derry which is often cited as the start of “The Troubles.” Marchers were protesting about the allocation of houses, jobs and the limited franchise in local government elections. It was a critical event in the civil rights movement in the North of Ireland.
The peaceful parade was planned by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) with the support of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in late September, 1968. However, when the march was announced, the Apprentice Boys (a Loyalist organisation) declared that they would hold a parade on the same day, following the same route.
On 3 October 1968, the Stormont government banned all parades. The Apprentice Boys called off their march but the Civil Rights Association continued with their plans.
On 4 October, the DHAC and the NICRA decided to go ahead with the march on the 5th. On the day of the protest march a labour party loudspeaker car was impounded by the police for encouraging people to march for civil liberties despite the ban imposed by William Craig, Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs
RUC caught red-handed
The RUC blocked the intended route of the march and baton-charged the crowd. Television cameras were present and the recorded images were broadcast around the world. The RUC forced the crowd back with indiscriminate use of batons and demonstrators were caught between two lines of police and 69 people were injured.
People in the Republic who are old enough to remember the event will recall seeing TV footage of unarmed and peaceful civilians being beaten mercilessly by the police. We were eyewitnesses to history in the making. It is still one of those iconic film-clips replayed on Reeling in the Years on RTE 1 and just as infuriating to all right-thinking people!
It would be naïve to think that this incident was the cause of the troubles – it was, rather, a symptom of a deep malady in the politics and policing policy of the time.
Denial and denouncement
One could not help but feel a sense of outrage at such blatant injustice. That sense of unfairness was fuelled by Craig in the aftermath of the civil rights march in Derry. He described the protestors in “Londonderry” as “extremely violent.” The British tabloid press sang from the same hymn-sheet, denouncing the protest as a “riot”.
Craig had nothing to say about the protestor’s grievances or the obvious discrimination which gave rise to the march. He dismissed charges against the police as unjustified and refused to hold an enquiry into the events.
In an interview at the time Craig argued that law and order depends on respect for the authorities. The fault-line was visible to all who would see – the British interpreted the issues in terms of security. However, the oppressed Catholic/Republican view was that the problems were inherently political. Failure to address the legitimate grievances of protesters made matters worse.
Ultimately the political vacuum was filled by radical Republicanism, and sectarian Loyalism, which heralded in a generation of violent incidents that became known as, “The Troubles.” Atrocities were committed on both sides of the Republican/Loyalist divide and the British could not be trusted as honest brokers in the context of the time – that had enduring and tragic consequences.
In many ways the events in Duke Street, Derry on 5 October, 1968 were a public relations fiasco for the British, but it had the opposite effect for the cause of the civil rights movement in the North of Ireland.
One might expect in such circumstances that the British government would try to defuse the potentially incendiary situation. Unabashed, however, Craig, at the time, said, “The protection of life and property was more important than the right to protest.” He contended that the civil rights marchers on 5 October in Derry were violent, and that future protests would require strengthening the power of the police.
The TV footage, together with the official position of the British establishment had the effect of garnering support for the civil rights movement. Other marches were planned for Belfast and elsewhere in the North and the situation escalated from there.
Fifty years later
Fifty years later and though the streets of Derry and other parts of the North of Ireland are peaceful there is still a political vacuum in that province. Reflecting on the current impasse that has led to the failure of politicians to function in Stormont for the past two years, one wonders if these elected representatives are actually capable of working together for the greater good of society.
The stalemate was brought about by controversy surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (which has become known as the “Cash for Ash” scandal) whereby for every £1 users spent on green heating systems, they got £1.60 in subsidies! The Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme was set up in November 2012, and run by the North’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when current DUP First Minister Arlene Foster was its minister. The non-domestic element of the scheme was designed to encourage firms, businesses and farmers to switch from fossil-fuel heating to biomass systems such as wood-burning boilers.
In the wake of that debacle between Sinn Féin and the DUP about the Cash for Ash scheme there has been a political vacuum. That void may soon be filled by returning to Direct Rule. The failure of politicians on both sides to reconcile their differences, for the sake of the people they allegedly govern, is mind-boggling.
Notwithstanding the complexity of the issues in the North of Ireland, mistrust is at the core of the matter. The long-suffering people of the North of Ireland deserve better than their politicians collecting their pay-cheques while not actually working. One hopes that political posturing and even engaging in low-key sectarian semantics in the media (apparently aimed to appease their segregated constituents) will soon come to an end.
There are decent politicians on both sides of the divide in the North but their efforts to get on with the business they were elected to do are being continually frustrated by the intransigence and belligerence of others.
The recent delegation of administrative authority to civil servants in the North of Ireland to conduct some of the business of Stormont may be a wake-up call for obstinate politicians who are being perceived, not merely as useless, but actually harmful to peace and prosperity. If the British parliament was not preoccupied with Brexit and if the DUP was not critical to the survival of the beleaguered Tory government there would likely be a more robust approach to the current deadlock.
The political stalemate only serves to give credence to those who still think that the Good Friday Agreement is a failed project. Let’s hope that we never see a return to the awful scenes of violence which began with police brutality on that day in Derry fifty years ago.
In Limerick as a youth there were a few directions one could take in terms of commitment and passion – sport (rugby, hurling, soccer), music (the rock sub-culture) and the revolutionary nationalist agenda. Many young men from Limerick and elsewhere in Ireland were politicised and that is in no small part due to images such as that of Derry on the 5th of October, 1968.
Kieran Beville is a former teacher of English (literature and language) and History and lecturer in Biblical Studies (Hermeneutics). He is author of the novel, Bohemian Fire (pen-name Austen K. Blake, Bohemian Books, 2017). In addition he has published fourteen non-fiction books and he recently completed a book of poetry – Songs of Sorrow. He has had a substantial number of articles published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in the UK, USA, Ireland and India. He was a tutor in the Irish History Department in UCC for a couple of years in the 1980s. More recently Kieran served for several years as Professor in the Intercultural Studies Department of Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, where he taught Master classes. He has lectured on Leadership Training Programmes in Eastern Europe (Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova) and Hermeneutics courses in the Middle-East (Amman, Jordan) and India (Kolkata and Assam). He has also spoken at conferences in Ireland, the UK and India (New Delhi and Nagaland). Furthermore, he has co-ordinated youth-work programmes and managed educational programmes for the disadvantaged in Cork and worked in Community Development. Separated with three adult children, Kieran currently lives alone in West Cork but has plans to relocate to Limerick city, his native place, in the near future. He plays guitar and paints, using various mediums – oils, acrylics.