Buoyed 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 organising 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.
As preparations began and the local press reported the proposed march, key organisers. including this 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, that the Minister of Home Affairs felt strongly that this march would be “highly ill-advised”.
The 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’.
An order banning the civil rights march was duly delivered to four key organisers, which included Eamonn McCann, and this correspondent, only a few days before October 5th. The proposed counter-demonstration, as anticipated, never actually materialised, yet the green light had clearly been given by the Orange/Unionist establishment to sectarianise the civil rights cause. All the organisers 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 worst.
Derry’s 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 organising 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 were of course excluded. About seventy were in attendance and bursts of applause occurred at intervals.
There 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 organisers 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. All the spokesmen, 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”.
In case of early morning arrests a few of the organisers 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 be Lord Fitt) 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.
At 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 a large eye on the back, suggesting that a certain well known agitator might need one.
Across the River Foyle at Brandywell some 7,000 fans had, regretfully, opted for the excitement of a football 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. Although seemingly non-accountable they 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, McCann and this writer, had no doubt whatsoever, that we would be stopped, by sheer numbers and sectarian brute force.
The 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 people from various creeds, classes and political outlooks. The demands for full civil rights and increased equality were the unifying element for all participants.
We half-dozen organisers 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, mobilised 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 march had grown to around one thousand strong.
The ‘Fifty Days Revolution’, which would end with the Six Counties’ biggest-ever programme of reform had begun. In 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!
Seconds 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. There he was X-Rayed by a twin sister of this writer, who, like our parents, was also on the march.
Some 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 nor British politicians could be any guarantee of protection. The lines of paramilitary police in front, as he had indicated previously to this writer, were commanded by ‘Ross the Boss’ -none other than D.I. McGimpsey himself.
On this historic occasion he carried his stout, particularly sharp-edged, black-thorn stick, not the one used for ceremonials. His attitude to peaceful protest was captured that day for posterity as he used this walking instrument 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. His delivery, to an unappreciative attendance, during that début performance, on a world stage, served the civil rights’ cause magnificently. Even those holding up, pointing to and waving their press cards were not spared his personal and brutal attention.
Civil 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 organise 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 broke loose.
Police 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.
The 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 historic march:
“As 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.
“The police water cannon were 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.
“The 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.
“Meanwhile 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”.
Elsewhere, on page 8, one reads:
“None 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.
“Mrs. 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.
One could finally conclude that on October 5, 1968, by courtesy of the RUC and an inflexible short-sighted 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 years previously.