Most historians concur that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was focused on the protection and advancement of civil rights, regardless of religion or sectarian positions. But many Unionists opposed NICRA, suspecting it of being a front for Catholic and Republican groups. They also rejected Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill’s political reforms and housing allocation concessions in late 1968. NICRA’s decision to ignore a government ban and conduct a series of marches and protests in late 1968 and early 1969 caused growing unease between Nationalist and Unionist groups. Catholic groups and communities, already filled with a strong sense of injustice, resolved to fiercely protect areas they considered to be theirs. Nationalist suspicions increased further when a People’s Democracy awareness march (January 1969) was violently ambushed by Unionists near Burntollet, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) doing little to protect the marchers. If the government and the police were not going to defend Northern Ireland’s Catholic population, then Catholics would have to defend themselves. One visible sign of the hardening of attitudes towards their areas is the 1969 Lecky Road mural, “You are now entering Free Derry”, a reminder that the area was Nationalist.
Northern Ireland’s marches have a long history of inciting trouble and serving as a flashpoint for violence. Marches and parades are an important aspect of the country’s culture; they serve to commemorate significant events in history and celebrate and reinforce political and religious identity. The majority of marches are conducted by Loyalist and Protestant groups like the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys of Derry and the Royal Black Institution. During the ‘parading season’, which runs from early June until mid July, these groups organise and conduct hundreds of marches and parades across Northern Ireland. They culminate in marches on July 12th to commemorate the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Though criticised by some as triumphalist and provocative, most Loyalist marches have occurred without serious incident. Trouble has mainly arisen where these marches employ routes that go near or through Catholic and Nationalist strongholds. The annual Orange Order march in Portadown, for example, follows the same route used since 1807, however this route now traverses Catholic residential areas. The Orange Order’s refusal to change the route of the march – and the Catholic community’s refusal to tolerate it – has led to tension, unrest and conflict almost every July.
These Loyalist marches contributed to sectarian violence during the Troubles, particularly in the summer of 1969 when tensions were already approaching boiling point. Nationalists were incensed that the Northern Ireland government, now led by James Chichester-Clark, had banned civil rights marches organised by NICRA, People’s Democracy and other groups – however Loyalist parades were allowed to continue, deemed to be “customary” rather than political. On August 12th around 15,000 Apprentice Boys, a Derry-based Protestant group, ignored police warnings and marched through the city, along a route that took them dangerously close to the Bogside, a Catholic stronghold. Bogside residents responded by taunting the marchers; as might be expected the Apprentice Boys responded in kind. As the situation intensified marchers began throwing pennies, an insulting gesture. Before long both sides were hurling stones, leading to the outbreak of a violent riot.
As additional RUC units arrived, Bogside locals erected barricades around the area using old furniture, wire and other scavenged materials. A company of RUC officers entered the Bogside and attempted to dismantle a barricade on Rossville Street; what the RUC intended to achieve by doing this is unclear. The officers were followed by a small but belligerent group of Loyalists, who had broken away from the Apprentice Boys’ march. But on entering the Bogside both the Loyalists and the police were pelted with stones, projectiles and Molotov cocktails (homemade fire bombs) and quickly driven back. Of the 60 or so policemen who entered the Bogside, 43 were injured, some of them badly burned by petrol bombs. The RUC was inadequately equipped to cope with this escalating violence: its officers had armoured vehicles and water cannons but no authorisation to use them, while there was a lack of adequate riot gear. Many RUC officers ended up fighting hand-to-hand with Catholic rioters. On the evening of August 12th a contingent of ‘B-Specials’, the much-despised Special Constabulary, was deployed in the Bogside, a move that further infuriated Nationalists. The RUC also bombarded the area with almost 1,100 canisters of tear gas, a move that affected the young, the elderly and infirm much more than the rioters themselves.
Peter Taylor, historian
The sectarian violence in the Bogside soon spread to other parts of Northern Ireland. The worst was in Belfast, where Catholics and Loyalists traded blows, missiles and gunfire for several days. NICRA hastily organised demonstrations in central Belfast, to draw police away from Derry. On August 13th around 1,500 Nationalists marched along Springfield Road while a small group, possibly made up of IRA volunteers and youth members, attacked a RUC station with petrol bombs. The following day RUC officers, under fire from snipers, fired a Browning machine-gun into the Divis flats, hitting and killing nine-year-old Patrick Rooney. Riots, destruction and gunfighting also erupted in other parts of Belfast, as well as Dungannon, Dungiven, Coalisland, Newry, Strabane, Armagh and Crossmaglen. In the Irish republic, taoiseach Jack Lynch described the situation as dire. His government ordered ambulances to be stationed at the border with Northern Ireland, while Lynch condemned the RUC as partisan and dangerous and called for intervention by the United Nations. Lynch’s comments raised the ire of Loyalists, who interpreted any interference from the Republic as a dangerous concession to Nationalist demands and a stepping stone to separation from Great Britain.
After two days of rioting and violence the Northern Ireland government requested military support from London. The British Army was deployed in Northern Ireland on August 14th under Operation Banner. British troops entered Derry on August 14th and Belfast the following day. The soldiers were warmly welcomed at first: Catholics considered them more neutral than both the RUC and the ‘B-Specials’. Many believed the Army’s strong but temporary presence would arrest the violence and protect Catholics from Loyalist persecution. Arriving British soldiers were greeted with cups of tea and hearty cheers from locals. The optimistic relationship continued until Christmas 1969 when some British troops were showered with gifts. But this spirit of hope did not last long. While the British Army was non-sectarian and largely apolitical, its mission was to assist the Northern Ireland government to restore order – not to protect Catholics from the police or government. In the first months of 1970 the Army assisted the RUC in anti-rioting operations. The Falls curfew (July 1970) – a three-day British Army search-and-arrest operation in the Falls district of Belfast, where four civilians were shot dead – marked the end of the honeymoon between Catholic civilians and British soldiers.
1. Bogside is a Catholic-dominated area of Derry, to the west of the city centre and just outside the city walls.
2. In August 1969 around 12,000 Protestant Apprentice Boys marched dangerously close to the Bogside perimeter.
3. Taunting between marchers and residents soon escalated into violence and rioting, and the RUC was deployed.
4. The RUC entered the Bogside to dismantle barricades but were driven back. They later flooded the area with CS gas.
5. The unrest in Derry, along with continued marches and protests elsewhere, stretched the RUC critically thin. The Northern Ireland government responded by requesting the deployment of British soldiers.
This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “The Battle of the Bogside”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/northernireland/battle-of-the-bogside/.