The day the RUC appeared on TV
The day the RUC appeared on TV

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

The filming of RUC violence towards civil rights marchers 40 years ago today could have had a radically different outcome.

Does history turn more than we imagine on who was in the right place at the right time or in the wrong place at the wrong time? No doubt there are deep underground streams of historical cause and effect, but where and when these waters ebb or break can often be determined by the most mundane of circumstances.

Forty years ago this week, on October 5, 1968, a small civil rights protest march of about 400 people in Derry was first ambushed and then bashed up by an RUC riot squad. It was a totally unexpected event which, for most people across Ireland, seemed to have dropped out of the blue of history. Few knew about the planned march, media coverage was tiny and even the vast majority of Derry’s citizens had chosen to ignore it.

I suspect, too, that, as the RUC climbed into their tenders afterwards, they must have felt secure in the knowledge that what had occurred was not much more than another day of imposing the North’s unique style of law and order. In retrospect, their response was the beginning of Unionism’s great mistake: to doggedly misinterpret the political crisis at the heart of Northern society as merely a crisis of law and order.

As insignificant an event as the march seemed then, 40 years on it is incredible to think that nothing was ever to be the same again in modern Irish history.

Events in Derry’s Duke Street that afternoon - for all their storm-in-a-teacup dimensions - were to be magnified out of all proportion by the arrival of a new witness to Irish history: the television news camera.

There were some right men in the right place at the right time that day. One of them was RTE’s newly-appointed head of news, the late Jim McGuinness - who, as it happened, was born and bred in Derry and who had instructed that the event be covered.

The other right man in the right place was the RTE cameraman, the late Gay O’Brien, and sound man Eamon Hayes, whose film sequence of the police beatings has become a classic in television news archives.

Shooting with an Auricon 16mm film camera, O’Brien and Hayes were not only brave enough to remain filming throughout the police baton-charge, but the old news hounds - anticipating what might happen afterwards - were shrewd enough to conceal the magazine containing their 12-minute film with the car’s spare wheel before setting out immediately for Dublin.

Luck would have it, too, that RTE news was also in the right place, having just joined the new European Broadcasting Union news-film pooling system. Within 24 hours, RTE’s black and white battle of Duke Street was playing to astonished audiences across the globe, from London to Los Angeles.

It took all sides some time to realise the implications of that global eye observing everything. The historic Irish question suddenly had a new context and setting on television.

It was 1968, a violent and tumultuous year, and, to everyone’s amazement, an incident in Derry had followed the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the May Paris uprising and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia onto the world’s television screens.

Was Terence O’Neill the right or the wrong man in the right or the wrong place? If civil rights had been quickly established, would we have avoided what followed? The tragedy was that, as a political entity, unionism was probably incapable of delivering civil rights.

In the first instance, it was hardly an organised political party at all, more a collection of ferocious local fiefdoms dominated by the Orange Order. Its instinctive reaction was to regard any minority demand as potentially subversive. Given Unionism’s determining sectarian subtext and the rise of Ian Paisley - then in his early Frankenstein years - how many Worshipful Grand Masters could be got through the eye of the proverbial needle?

The political battle for civil rights became a political battle within unionism itself, as O’Neill’s enemies closed in on him. The long march to the right that was to end in the triumph of the DUP a generation later was beginning.

The other problem was that unionism for 50 years had traditionally regarded its discriminatory treatment of the nationalist minority as an essential device for maintaining the one-party state; it was even seen as patriotic.

Job discrimination made nationalists emigrate and therefore maintained the sectarian numbers game, while housing discrimination maintained local electoral hegemony.

Over and beyond all that, there was the seminal lesson of the state itself, the ultimate calculated act of electoral discrimination that drew a state around the largest number of Protestants it could find.

South of the border, the events of 40 years ago in Derry were also to send out tremors that would eventually consume the dominant ruling party, Fianna Fail, in a crisis of redefinition.

Two years previously, Eamon de Valera had gathered the old comrades around him to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 1916 with great self-congratulation and more than an air of revolutionary finality. All political eyes were turned inward, rather than northwards.

For Northern nationalists, the signals were unmistakable - partition was continuing into another generation and it was as essential to the maintenance of the southern political establishment as it was to the Northern one.

The stratagem of demanding full British citizenship rights under the civil rights banner within the North was all that was left, and there were few left who had hopes of either constitutional or armed struggle changing the political status quo.

But even 40 years on, the sense of what might have been still lingers. Who knows who were the right or the wrong people in place, but it is hard not to believe that a unique political window had opened briefly.

Since partition, the minority had smouldered in the North and a different response to the civil rights moment could well have doused that fire. Instead, the spontaneous combustion that followed was to kill and injure thousands.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News