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Peter Hadden

Bogside – Saturday 19 April

(Spring 1969)

From Escalate, journal of the Sussex Revolutionary Socialists Student Federation, a special edition called To revolution in Ireland, Spring 1969.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

At the present moment it seems as though the crisis in Northern Ireland can only resolve itself in violence of some. sort. Demonstrations have become more militant than ever as demonstrators have had to face quite blatant police brutality, heavy fines and long prison sentences. The government have no answer to the civil rights movement except repression. They use their specially trained riot squad, which like all police organisations, is a mainly protestant body, to forcibly crush any activities which might represent a threat to Unionism. The papers cover only the violence. Neither they nor the government make any attempt to examine the causes of unrest. The Prime Minister makes speeches about groups of shaggy haired people who take to the streets and substitute slogans for arguments, whereas it has been his government which has refused to provide any debate. They condemn the workers for taking to the streets and being physically violent, but if they ever took it upon themselves to visit the slum areas of their towns they would realise that violence can assume more than one form.

Unionist rule depends upon the working class remaining split by their religion. By stirring up religious hatred, and the entire system is orientated to do just that, they ensure that the workers blame each other, and not the government or their bosses, for their economic gloom. Reactionaries like Paisley are really the people on whom the system depends. His allegations that civil rights is a sectarian movement whose aim it is to reunite Ireland under a Catholic Government are used by extreme Unionists to discredit the movement. The more moderate Unionists attempt to do this in other ways. They say that it represents a minority viewpoint or that a few of its members may be sincere while all the rest are simply hooligans.

Such allegations in the face of the economic facts are monstrous. They are merely means by which Unionists can avoid the issues and also they serve to make issues which are non-sectarian into sectarian ones. When the police force a civil rights march to retreat into a Catholic area they make it appear that the movement is only a fight between Catholics and police. They try and arouse religious hatred amongst the Catholics by attacking and provoking them or by shouting religious insults. The real suppression of the Unionist attitude is shown by the following remark made by Mr Burns M.P. for North Derry:

“The police are not half brutal enough. Instructions must be given to them to carry out their duties and if they need extra men then we have that excellent force the B Specials.”

The “excellentܞ B Specials are no more than an armed group of Paisleyites. They were formed for definite political reasons during the IRA troubles when it was their job to combat the Catholic I.R.A. They would patrol the country roads at night and search cars at gun-point. Now their night patrols are to begin again. If Mr Burns does not think that his riot squad are brutal enough I only wish he had stood behind the barricades in Derry and faced one of their baton charges.

Certainly the real brutality is not that which is shown by the police but is the brutality of the system which the Unionist severe brand of Capitalism has created. Most Ulster towns outside Belfast have suffered total neglect so that Derry now faces the problem of having 19% of its population out of work. The Bogside has become almost a symbol of the overall economic exploitation and neglect. It is a large and depressing slum area inhabited entirely by Catholics who are crowded into rows of small, dilapidated houses which, in England, would have long been condemned and replaced. The Protestant workers also have Ghettoes of a similar nature and the two groups are taught to blame each other for the poverty in which they live. It is difficult for people living in England to understand how the bigotry produced by Paisley can attract support. Religious violence is, however, nothing new. Children living in protestant areas are taught to hate from an early age. Their parents indoctrinate them with the bigoted politics of their religion and teach them to march behind the banners of their local Orange lodge. Catholics and Protestants attend separate schools so that no early contact with children of the opposite sect can eliminate the bigotry. Local football is oven wound up in the religious conflict. The arch protestant team, Linfield, wear red, white and blue. The team that was most strongly catholic, Belfast Celtic, was disbanded when, during a match with Linfield, the two opposing factions in the crowd began firing shots at each other. Although such violence has long been a part of Ulster life the Unionists see no deeper cause of trouble than that people are now taking to the streets.

My personal experience of the violence has been mainly in the Bogside. Here discontent is so great that the people are 100% behind the most militant groups. They are not revolutionary socialists in the sense that their demands have been influenced by socialist philosophy. Yet their aims are in themselves revolutionary, being demands for one man one vote, one man one job, and one family one house. They, like all members of the civil rights movement, fear the emergency measures such as the Special Powers Act and the mobilisation of the B Specials. What the people of areas like the Bogside need above all is a movement which can give their discontent a political expression and keep it above the level of mere senseless and undirected violence. This has been partly provided by the civil rights movement but because the aims of this group have been mainly concerned with the injustice faced by Ulster Catholics there is a danger that the struggle of these people will be represented as sectarian and only short term.

The first occupation of the Bogside was peaceful. It began after a day of rioting in the streets of Derry. By night the disturbances had ended but at two o-clock the peace was shattered by the police who had entered the Bogside and ran shouting through the streets. In one particular street they broke the windows of all the houses and forced some people out of their homes to be beaten up. The street was inhabited almost entirely by old age pensioners.

On Saturday 19th April a civil rights march from Burntollet bridge to Derry was banned. No civil rights activity was planned in Derry but spontaneous demos occurred throughout the center of the city in protest against the ban. Paisleyites throwing stones at the demonstrators incited an afternoon of violence. The police simply threw stones back at the crowds before they moved in and forced the civil rights group into the Bogside. The police surrounded the area. Meanwhile the Paisleyites were allowed to go home.

The riot squad stayed out until one o-clock. During that time John Hume, MP and member of the civil rights movement, warned that if the police invaded the area there would be civil war. Meanwhile the demonstrators attempted to build barricades but there was not enough material to block all the streets. By this time most of the people who lived outside the Bogside had gone home and the few hundred left were no longer demonstrators but simply people trying to protect their homes. At one o’clock the riot squad outflanked the demonstration and moved in. There was little resistance to the final charge and wave after wave of police poured over the flimsy barricades and ran in rows of about eight abreast shouting and terrifying all the residents. People were arrested and beaten up irrespective of age or sex. The riot squad with their shields, batons and helmets seemed quite unnecessary in terms of the resistance that was shown. But they were not concerned about resistance. They even entered homes and assaulted people in their front rooms. Housewives would come into their gardens and shout “Gestapo” at them before retreating into the comparative safety of their homes. The police also burned two shops. Their tactic is often to do quite a bit of damage themselves and blame it on demonstrators. Yet I fail to see how they could argue that the residents of the area burned their own shops. I escaped only because a woman gave myself and some others refuge. She had locked her children at the back of the house and was preparing to stay up all night behind her barricaded door.

Now as the situation moves towards violence of some sort these people face further repression. Sooner or later the police will shoot someone, or failing that, a demonstration will result in the death of either a Paisleyite or a civil rights member. This seems even more likely since the Paisleyites are now reputed to have fairly sophisticated fire-arms. Whatever happens the Unionists rely on support from the British army. Already troops are being moved and the B Specials are being used more often and the government are still demanding more aid. All this makes the blowing up of key installations a mistake because it moves the activity away from its political objectives and reminds the people too much of the IRA.

There are two possibilities in terms of what can happen. There can be a civil war on a religious basis or there can be a socialist revolution. The second is much less likely at the moment. Not even the most militant group, Peoples Democracy, are socialist. Their aims are limited and short-term. However, all civil rights groups have assets in their unity and their command of great working class support from both Catholics and Protestants. Only a few workers are strong Paisleyites and the vast majority could easily be won over if a class struggle were to emerge. The civil rights movement must counter the government tactic of making them appear sectarian by widening their political horizons. At the moment they are in great danger of losing vast areas of support. The Catholic Bourgeoisie are already seeing the dangers of the movement developing towards class struggle and are beginning to withdraw their support. The Catholic Church is telling the workers to get off the streets. A much greater danger is that the violence will be allowed to become more sectarian so that the protestant workers will move towards the Paisleyite side. The civil rights leaders must stop condemning the violence and must understand that it is inevitable. If they do not do this the movement will fail for the same reason the Chartist movement failed. It will be split between the violent workers and the leaders who refuse to condone violence. They must understand that it is not in the interests of the authorities to grant total civil rights and that they will not acquiesce peacefully.

The attitude of the civil rights leaders makes civil war a much more real possibility. Violence will continue whether it is condoned or not, but if it is not condoned it will become non-political and sectarian. The Government, with the aid of British troops, could easily curb a civil war and would probably strengthen their own position by doing so. It would place them in such a safe position that they could say, as they have said in the past, “Ulster will not be ready for any religious reform for another 50 years”.

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Last updated: 17 January 2017