Analysis: the civil unrest that broke out in Derry 50 years ago this week is viewed by many as heralding the start of the Troubles

By Stephen KellyLiverpool Hope University

Televised around the world, the Battle of the Bogside represented a total breakdown of law and order on the streets of Derry 50 years ago this week. The crisis commenced following the holding of an annual Apprentice Boys' march in the heart of the city on the afternoon of August 12th. Following skirmishes between young Catholic youths mostly from the Bogside and members of the procession, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) intervened to end the violence. 

After enduring an onslaught of missiles and stones, a cohort of RUC officers retaliated that evening, throwing stones at the Catholic protesters. The RUC officers were soon joined by a Protestant mob, which supported the police force in their quest to gain access to the Bogside area. Equipped with armoured cars and water cannons, the RUC then made the ill-fated decision to permit the use of CS gas. This was the first-time that CS gas was used in the United Kingdom. 

In retaliation, a large crowd of Catholics, under the auspices of the recently formed Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, built numerous barricades around the entranceways to the Bogside. The Battle of the Bogside, as it subsequently became known, was underway. 

From RTÉ Archives, an RTÉ News report broadcast August 12th 1969 on the riots in Derry

From this relatively minor incident, a riot developed which enveloped the city of Derry for over two days and nights and was not brought under control until the arrival of the British army into Derry on the evening of August 14th.

Fianna Fáil look north

As the battle continued on the streets in Derry and quickly spead throughout other parts of Northern Ireland, notably in Belfast city, the Fianna Fáil government in Dublin tried desperately to deal with the unfolding political crisis. 

The Irish cabinet first met to discuss the unfolding events on the afternoon of August 13th. At this meeting, a consortium of vocal anti-partitionist ministers, led by the Minister for Finance, Charles Haughey and the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Neil Blaney, bitterly argued with Taoiseach, Jack Lynch and his cabinet supporters over what constituted official Fianna Fáil's Northern Ireland policy. 

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report from Derry in August 1969

Haughey and Blaney demanded that the Irish Army be sent into Derry or Newry or both to offer, at the very least, support to the beleaguered Catholic populations. Haughey maintained that the use of physical force, in the appropriate circumstances, had always represented official Fianna Fáil policy and that the outbreak of the violence was an opportunity to undermine partition and force Britain to concede to a united Ireland. 

As the raucous cabinet meeting ended following several hours of heated discussions, the Haughey/Blaney request to send the Irish Army into Northern Ireland was rejected by the pragmatists, led by Lynch. Instead, the cabinet agreed that the Taoiseach would deliver a statement later that evening on national television declaring Ireland’s right to reunification and denouncing the actions of the Ulster Unionist government and the RUC.

From RTÉ Archives, Jack Lynch's address to the Irish nation in August 1969

Lynch's televised address to the Irish nation from RTÉ's studios in Donnybrook was calculated to offer the illusion that the Fianna Fáil government was doing all it could to defend Northern Ireland Catholics. Not only did he attack the very legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state, but he said that the Irish government could no longer "stand by" and continue to tolerate the Northern Ireland government’s habitual persecution of the Northern Catholic minority. 

Patrick Hillery 

The following morning, the cabinet held its second meeting in as many days. To Lynch’s relief, the minister for external affairs, Patrick Hillery, had returned from his holidays on Achill Island and was present at this meeting. On arriving at the cabinet meeting, Hillery was aghast to find that the Haughey/Blaney caucus was still calling for the Irish Army to intervene in Northern Ireland, describing the meeting as ‘a ballad singing session’. Hillery subsequently noted that "frankly, the [Irish] Army was not equipped or capable of doing what some people would like it to do". 

From RTÉ Archives, a 7 Days profile of Patrick Hillery from 1972

As at the previous cabinet meeting, most ministers firmly opposed military intervention or covert support for political violence in Northern Ireland and instead sought to place diplomacy at centre stage. To placate the Haughey/Blaney argument, a decision was made to establish field hospitals along the border and to authorise the mobilisation of approximately 2,000 of the first-line reserve of the Irish Defence Forces. 

The British Army

Following the conclusion of the Irish cabinet meeting, events in Northern Ireland dramatically altered. Under mounting pressure and faced with a depleted RUC force, the Northern Ireland authorities were forced to make the fatal decision to request the assistance of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Under the operational name Operation Banner, they would remain in Northern Ireland until 2007. 

At 5pm on August 14th, a company of the First Battalion of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment arrived in Waterloo Place, in the heart of Derry. The Bogside Catholics initially welcomed the arrival of the British Army, with many residents making cups of tea for the young and mostly inexperienced troops. This decision was to have severe long-term implications for the stability of Northern Ireland and, in hindsight, was the first nail in the coffin of the Stormont regime (the Northern Ireland government was shut down in 1972 and direct rule was introduced).

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News' report about more British troops arriving in Derry to take over security duties in the Bogside in August 1969

News of the British Army's arrival to Northern Ireland caught the Irish Government by surprise. Although the British Army’s presence had calmed tensions in Derry, Lynch soon received reports of fierce gun battles occurring across Northern Ireland. On the night of August 14th, a total of six people, including a child, were killed in Belfast and Co. Armagh. 

In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Army went ahead with the Irish cabinet’s orders to establish several field hospitals, under the control of the Medical Corps, along the Irish border. The field hospitals were situated at Castleblaney, Cavan, Dundalk, Fort Dunree on Lough Swilly and Letterkenny.

News that the Northern Ireland government had also decided to send out the notorious B-Specials, a quasi-military police reserve, to police the streets only helped to add fuel to the fire. It seemed clear for all to see that Northern Ireland was on the brink of anarchy.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' report on the aftermath of rioting in Belfast in August 1969

Repercussions 

Looking back on the events 50 years later, the Battle of the Bogside had major and long-lasting ramifications for the history of modern Ireland, north and south of the Irish border. In Northern Ireland, the violence unleashed in Derry was the catalyst for a bitter war of attrition between Republican paramilitaries and the British Armed Forces. 

In the Republic of Ireland, the Battle of the Bogside signalled the outbreak of an anti-partition virus which spread like an epidemic throughout Fianna Fáil . By the autumn of 1969, it had infected every strand of the organisation from cabinet ministers to grassroots supporters and would eventually lead to the sacking of Haughey and Blaney, for their involvement in the so-called "Arms Crisis" of 1969-1970.

The contents of this article are sourced from 'A failed political entity': Charles Haughey and the Northern Ireland question, 1945-1992 (Merrion Press, 2016) by Stephen Kelly

Dr Stephen Kelly is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the Department of History and Politics at Liverpool Hope University. In 2020, Bloomsbury Press will publish Dr Kelly's forthcoming monograph, Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party and the Northern Ireland conflict, 1975-1990


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ