up by the fact that the Coalisland to Dungannon march
on August 24th had been, in the main, peaceful, and
deemed to be highly successful, the Derry Housing
Action Committee formally requested the Civil Rights
Association executive to consider holding its next
demonstration in the city to highlight the need for
democratic reforms, and specifically the plight of
hundreds of local homeless families. The NICRA executive
responded, a few weeks later, indicating their approval
with the proviso that any organizing committee should
be as broadly based as possible. The date for the
next march was scheduled for Saturday, October 5th,
at 3 PM, with the agreed assembly point being the
Waterside railway station.
preparations began and the local press reported the
proposed march, key organizers (including the writer),
were frequently 'taken in' by police to the upstairs
back office of District Inspector Ross McGimpsey.
It became crystal clear, almost delicately over coffee
and Jaffa Cakes, within Victoria Barracks, that the
Minister of Home Affairs felt strongly that this march
would be "highly ill-advised".
Minister's excuse, if one was needed, came with an
announcement by an alliance of the Liverpool Monday
Club, the local Murray Club and the Apprentice Boys
that they would march the same route. Such could not
be viewed as a traditional parade as October was never
part of their usual 'marching season'.
order banning the civil rights march was duly delivered
to the key organizers, only a few days before October
5th. The proposed counter-demonstration, as anticipated,
never actually materialized, yet the green light had
clearly been given by the Orange/Unionist establishment
to sectarianize the civil rights' cause. All the organizers
were on the Left, and our appeal was directed at all
sections of the working-class who were victims of
the society in which we found ourselves. The Orange/Unionist
reaction, although expected, was deeply regretted
as Protestant friends would certainly stay away, fearing
subsequent intimidation, or worse.
first civil rights march should be remembered as the
march that nearly never happened. Within hours of
the ban being imposed the NICRA executive were communicating
their concerns at the likely consequences and instructed
the local organizing committee to convene an emergency
meeting at the City Hotel for the evening of October
4th. They too were taking everything right up to the
line. At this meeting the proceedings were at times
heated and lasted for around two hours. The press
was of course excluded. About seventy were in attendance
and bursts of applause occurred at intervals.
were a few adjournments as NICRA leaders went into
conclave. The respective Derry groups, asserting their
independence, followed their example and held their
counter-conclaves. The Derry organizers were of one
mind and held firm. The NICRA executive broke ranks
after it was made abundantly clear from the Derry
delegates that we would march, with or without either
NICRA's blessing or participation. Derry's key spokespersons,
like seasoned politicians, emerged from the angry
meeting saying that although there had been "minor
disagreements", in the final analysis, it was
"'unanimously decided to proceed, from the railway
station to the Diamond on the route scheduled".
case of early morning arrests a few of the organizers
did not sleep in their own beds on the night of October
4th. Early next morning the delighted Member for West
Belfast, Gerry Fitt (later to sit in the House of
Lords) was on the phone confirming that three British
MPs had answered the call from Derry. They were Mr.
Russell Kerr, Member for Feltham, Middlesex, His wife
Anne, Member for Rochester, and Mr. John Ryan, Member
for Uxbridge .
the railway station the crowd of some 400 gradually
gathered. This correspondent, surprisingly, was the
only one who took the precaution of adorning a crash-helmet,
kindly provided by an Englishman who taught woodwork
at the local technical college. It had arrived the
evening before, with him worriedly pointing out that
the RUC "are not like our Bobbies back home".
He joked about having painted an large eye on the
back, suggesting that a certain well known agitator
might need one.
the River Foyle at Brandywell some 10,000 fans had,
regretfully, opted for the excitement of a soccer
match, which we had not figured in our planning, when
fixing the date for the march. Some 250 police were
on duty in the immediate vicinity of the station.
Their tactics became transparent. They had blocked
off Distillery Brae with a rope, making it obvious
that this first part of the route into Spencer Road,
was being denied us. To re-enforce this point a barricade
of police tenders were soon drawn up behind the rope.
It was evident they wished the march to move off and
flow along Duke Street, which in those days offered
neither a lane or an alleyway as a potential exit
point. Recalling to mind D.I. McGimpsey's sarcastic
parting remarks, at our last meeting - " Saturday
may be a day we'll remember"- the organizers,
had no doubt whatsoever, that we would be stopped,
by sheer numbers and sectarian brute force.
civic rights supporters, however, remained calm, while
expressing concern, yet all were determined to participate
regardless. The tension increased as the RUC made
an eleventh-hour appeal. County Inspector William
Meharg read the prohibition order to the crowd, adding,
ominously, but no doubt for media purposes: "We
want to give a warning especially to those who are
not interested, for their own safety and the safety
of women and children". No one moved or thought
his apparent concern was worthy of thanks. His had
been an ago-old message for those seeking change,
which required no elaboration for those socially-committed
people who had made a conscious decision to assemble
at Duke Street on that particular afternoon. There
was nothing sectarian in the make-up of the marchers.
They included humanists, people from diverse creeds,
classes and political outlooks. The demands for full
civil rights and increased equality was the unifying
element for all participants.
half-dozen organizers took a last minute decision
to switch the route from Distillery Brae and Spencer
Road to Duke Street, which was not originally intended.
The police must have assumed that we would take "the
Brae" for when our new route became obvious to
them as we moved off, there was a hasty change in
police strategy also. The riot squads, mobilized for
a peaceful march, jumped into tenders and drove off,
yelling, "Block off the mouth of Duke Street",
which they did at its junction with Craigavon Bridge.
By the time the Civil Rights' banner reached those
lines of heavily armed police, the demo, I recall,
had been swelled by just a few hundred more "later
'Fifty Days' Reformation', which would end with the
Six Counties' biggest-ever programme of reform had
begun. Several organizers, had no doubts that within
the "Ulster" context, this was to be a truly
as orderly a fashion as possible we had moved slowly,
while keeping up our spirits, and strengthening our
individual and collective resolve by singing "We
Shall Overcome". We were frighteningly conscious
that immediately behind us the police on foot, and
their large water cannon, moved menacingly forward
at the tail end of the march. Essentially, Duke Street
became like a long tunnel, with both ends blocked,
and in between the marchers were trapped, and at the
mercy, or otherwise, of a one-party police state.
In more ways than one, for the common people, there
was no going back ! From the point of view of the
Stormont regime this demo had the potential for creating
real revolutionary change.
after drawing up against the police lines there was
brief scuffling, during which Gerry Fitt MP, suffered
a head wound from a baton. He was instantly pulled
under police barriers, whisked away, first, strangely,
to Victoria Barracks, and after questioning, and verbal
abuse, to hospital.
of the other politicians were struck, but none as
seriously as the first selected target. These police
actions were so swift that the majority of the crowd
were unaware of what was happening at the front lines.
Such had lasted only a brief few seconds. NICRA leaders
were now aware that neither Irish or British politicians
could be any guarantee of protection. Even media personnel
would not be safe. The lines of paramilitary police
in front were, as he had indicated previously, commanded
by 'Ross the Boss' - none other than D.I. McGimpsey
this historic occasion he carried a stout, long, sharp-edged,
black-thorn stick, not the usual one used for ceremonials.
His attitude to peaceful protest was captured that
day for posterity as he used this walking aid for
other purposes, becoming so energetic that his peaked-cap
was dislodged in the exercise. Unwittingly, he was
now a prime representation of 'Ulster' policing for
a previously unenlightened international viewing audience.
However, his vicious deliveries, to an unappreciative
attendance, during that début performance,
on a world stage, unwittingly served the civil rights'
rights leaders tried to restore calm before that main
police assault. The historian, Fred Heatley and the
Labour leader Erskine Holmes were seized by police
and placed under armed guard in a tender. Attempts
to break through police lines proved impossible. Marchers
began to chant "Seig Heil", and for a half
an hour the situation remained static. Police took
advantage of hurried attempts to organize a panel
of speakers, and get a public meeting under way, by
forming yet another barricade at the rear of the parade.
The crowd became more tightly packed between the lines
of black uniforms, tenders and water cannon. After
the last speaker addressed the gathering all hell
clashed with marchers brutally and bloodily as people
tried frantically to escape. There was, as the police
had planned, no line of retreat, and so, symbolically,
we could only but move forward.
following reports and comments are taken from "The
Derry Journal" of October 8, 1968. These reveal
just some of the details of what happened at that
police attempted to drive the marchers back the
injured were removed from the front of the conflict.
Young men with blood streaming from head wounds
were led away by onlookers and taken into nearby
shops for attention before removal to hospital.
Women caught up in the crowd screamed as they tried
to get away and Mr. Mc Ateer later said that he
saw a woman being struck in the mouth with a baton.
police water cannon was then brought into action.
And it drove through the crowd with both jets spraying
at full pressure. It was followed into the crowd
by a large number of steel-helmeted police with
batons swinging. The police charged from both ends
of the street as the marchers broke up in a bid
to find a way through the barricades.
water cannon swept both sides of the street and
at one stage on its way back elevated its line of
fire to direct a jet through an open window on the
first floor of a house where a television cameraman
was filming. It then continued over Craigavon Bridge,
with its jets hosing both footpaths. Hundreds of
afternoon shoppers, many of them women and some
accompanied by young children were caught in the
deluge as the water carrier travelled to the Derry
side of the bridge and continued round the roundabout
at the foot of Carlisle Road, more than a quarter
of a mile from the scene of the trouble.
the bitter clash continued at Duke Street, as a
result of which about thirty people were treated
in hospital for head wounds, before the marchers
were finally dispersed".
on page 8, one reads:
of the British MPs were hurt and after paying a
visit to Altnagelvin Hospital, where they watched
the injured being brought in, one of them, Mr. Kerr,
said he was shocked by what he had seen. He said
he would not care to comment further until he had
made a full report to Mr. Callaghan.
Kerr said she dashed into a café when the
violence started and while there she saw two young
girls being brought in. They had been drenched and
were in a very distressed condition, The police
were grinning and appeared to be enjoying their
work," she said.
could finally conclude that on October 5, 1968, by
courtesy of the RUC and an inflexible shortsighted
Minister of Home Affairs, the Civil Rights Association
was transformed from being a mere pressure group into
a mass movement for reform. This happened almost immediately.
At the turn of a switch millions heard of a place
called "Northern Ireland" and learned a
lot from actually seeing its method of policing in
their very living rooms. They may have forgotten the
name of that street where it all happened, but not
the name of that Irish city. Thereafter, when Derry
cried out for reform, the whole world was listening.
Even Westminster could no longer afford to conveniently
ignore what had been happening in this one-party state,
which it had established by imposing partition, forty-eight
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