The spark that lit the Troubles is still smouldering in the embers

AN Irish Press reporter was watching a police water cannon vehicle moving into position. He had never seen one in action before.

A heavy woman was looking into a shop window. Suddenly her legs were taken from under her by a blast of the water cannon. She was left sitting on the pavement with her hands up in the air asking, “what happened?”

Forty years on we might all ask the same question: what happened? Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968. It turned into a police riot and, in the words of John Hume, this was “the spark that lit the bonfire”.

There had been trouble simmering in Northern Ireland for the previous couple of years. Some blamed it on the 1966 celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

The first victim of the Northern Troubles was Martha Gould, a Protestant woman who died in a fire after a petrol bomb — thrown by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) at the Catholic-owned pub next door — hit her home by mistake on May 7, 1966.

The following month the UVF set out to murder a local republican but they could not find him so, instead, they murdered Peter Ward, a Catholic barman on his way home after work. Three people were convicted of Ward’s murder.

“I am terribly sorry I ever heard of that man (Ian) Paisley or decided to follow him,” Hugh McClean told police when charged. “I am definitely ashamed of myself.” (McClean died in jail, but his colleague Gusty Spence emerged, after serving 20 years, to take a leading part in organising the loyalist ceasefire.)

“There is no time for delay in facing up to the problem which exists in Northern Ireland,” Gerry Fitt told a London conference on February 25, 1967. Catholics were being treated like second-class citizens, so he warned reform was needed urgently.

“The day for talking has gone,” Fitt told a gathering in Derry in July 1968. “The day for action has arrived. If every individual here today goes home and rededicates himself to change the system as it operates in Derry, then we will change the system as it operates in the Six Counties and in the whole island of Ireland. If constitutional methods do not bring social justice, if they do not bring democracy to Northern Ireland, then I am quite prepared to go outside constitutional methods.”

In August 1968, Austin Currie, a young nationalist member of the Stormont parliament, protested against the allocation of houses in a new council development in Caledon, Co Tyrone. All 14 houses were allocated to Protestants.

One of those was given to Emily Beattie, a 19-year-old unmarried sister of an RUC constable. The message was clear there was no room for Catholics.

Currie and others occupied the house allocated to Beattie, but they were removed. This gave rise to the formation of the Civil Rights Association (CRA). A protest march was organised from Coalisland to Dungannon and some 2,500 people turned up. But the march could not be completed because Ian Paisley organised a counter-demonstration in Dungannon and the rival groups had to be kept apart.

Paisley contended that the CRA was just a front for the IRA, but at that point the IRA was no more relevant that the Animal Rights Association. Organising counter demonstrations became a loyalist tactic to stifle the CRA. When a civil rights march was called for Derry on October 5, a rival demonstration was similarly organised so that both would be banned.

The CRA insisted on going ahead with the march. About 400 people showed up, many simply because the march was banned. Marchers included Eddie McAteer, John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devin, Eamonn McCann, Paddy Devlin, Austin Currie and Michael Farrell. On Duke Street they were blocked by a police line.

Comparatively few would have seen what happened next but for RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien who filmed the scene as Paddy Douglas pleaded with police to allow the march to proceed. At that point a policeman struck him in the groin with his baton. The resulting cry of anguish was heard around the world.

The police then rioted. Viewers were appalled at the sight of the Insp Ross McGimpsey hitting an unsuspecting man on the back of the head with his baton and frantically flaying just about anyone he could hit.

Gerry Fit was filmed with blood streaming down the side of his face. “I knew that they were going to beat me up,” he later told a reporter. “I wasn’t going to retaliate. I wasn’t going to throw stones. I got pins-and-needles and I felt the blood running down. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to let that blood run because the cameras are there’.”

The report of the Cameron Commission, set up to investigate was happened, was critical of the police and Fitt’s behaviour, but he was unapologetic. “I make no apology for my action on that day,” he stated on September 12, 1969, following the publication of the report. “I am glad I have lived to see the day when the oppressed people of Northern Ireland finally got off their knees to throw off the yoke of unionist oppression.”

Next day Fitt met with Capt James Kelly, an Irish intelligence officer who was in Belfast to assess the situation for Irish military intelligence. John Kelly, a Belfast republican, and his brother, Billy, also attended the meeting, which took place in Fitt’s home. Fitt told Capt Kelly the nationalist community needed arms to defend themselves.

“Fitt made clear the urgency of the situation and that it was of paramount importance to get in arms immediately,” Capt Kelly reported next day. “I suggested there might now be a short period of calm in which to organise.”

Fitt replied: “No, you have it all wrong. It could happen anytime. It could happen this minute.” Then Fitt’s wife, Anne, shouted as she burst into the room: “It’s on, Gerry. It’s on.”

IN THE following weeks and months Capt Kelly undertook to purchase arms on the continent and transport them back to Ireland, with the help of Finance Minister Charles Haughey. While those plans were being hatched, Fitt went to Derry on January 5, 1970.

“At the corner of Victoria Street, he was saying ‘it’s time to get the guns out’,” Eamonn McCann noted in his book, War and an Irish Town. Fortunately on that occasion, McCann added, “calmer counsels prevailed.”

Terence O’Neill, the Stormont prime minister, tried to stop the drift towards the Troubles by calling a general election in February 1969. Paisley ran against him.

O’Neill won 47% of the vote, while Paisley got 38.6% and Michael Farrell of People’s Democracy, 14%. Yet the media somehow depicted O’Neill as the loser. Paisley, behaving as a bigoted demagogue, was credited with a moral victory.

This judgment was crazy. The pundits had underestimated Paisley’s appeal, and then they explained their poor judgment by exaggerating his performance.

With the current impasse in the North, the events of October 1968 should be a grim reminder of the dangers of political posturing in a volatile situation.

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