The People’s Democracy organisation, founded by Queen’s University Belfast students such as Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman, organised a civil rights march in January 1969 from Belfast to Derry.
Subsequent events, forty years ago this week, are seen by historians as marking a significant turning point in the recent conflict.
The departure on New Years Day 1969 of approximately 40 People’s Democracy supporters on the march to Derry was marked by a protest in Belfast by loyalists under the direction of Major Ronald Bunting, a close associate of Rev. Ian Paisley. It was the loyalist’s intention to harass the march along its entire journey.
On the first day of the march, after a colourful send off, the march made its way unhindered towards Antrim. Just outside Antrim the marchers ran into a police barricade, behind which several hundred loyalists were gathered, led by major Bunting The RUC refused to remove the blockade and after a lengthy delay, and minor scuffles, the marchers were driven in police tenders to Whitehall Community Centre where they spent an unsettled night interrupted by a bomb scare.
The next day, the marchers set off for Randalstown but again found their way blocked by Major Bunting and a crowd of loyalists. Once again the RUC refused to remove the loyalist protesters and the marchers were eventually transported to Toome by car. The marchers were welcomed at Toome and after taking lunch in the village they set out for Maghera. After 30 minutes the march was again halted and then rerouted away from the loyalist village of Knockloughlin. After two miles loyalist protestors, led by Major Bunting, again halted the march. Another stand off ensued by as locals gathered to support the marchers the RUC’s County Inspector Kerr asked the loyalists to stand aside, which they did. The marchers then made their way towards Maghera, where loyalists had gathered to wait their arrival. On hearing of this ‘reception’ committee, which was armed with clubs and sticks, the marchers decided to bypass the village and spent the night at Brackaghreilly. That night Maghera witnessed considerable violence from frustrated loyalists.
The next day the marchers set out for Dungiven and encountered little opposition. After lunch in Dungiven they travelled on to Feeny. A mile outside Dungiven the marchers were halted by the RUC with reports of a loyalist protest further along the road. A civil rights supporter then arrived along the road that was allegedly blocked and reported no obstructions ahead. The marchers decided to breach police lines and encountered no protest ahead. After reaching Feeny the marchers moved on to Claudy, where they received a friendly reception and settled down for the night. That night a loyalist attack on the hall the marchers were staying was repulsed by locals.
The same night in Derry a rally by Ian Paisley in the Guildhall led to serious disorder. Whilst those inside the hall were listening to Major Bunting call for loyalists to gather the next day at Burntollet a crowd of nationalists gathered outside the building in protest. During clashes as the rally dispersed Major Buntings car was destroyed. Later that night stockpiles of bottles and stones were left by loyalists in the fields at Burntollet.
The next morning the marchers, who now numbered approximately 500, set out on the last league of their journey to Derry. Just before Burntollet District Inspector Harrison stopped the march in order to investigate reports of loyalists ahead. DI Harrison, together with County Inspector Kerr, spoke of 50 loyalists ahead and claimed to be confident that there was no danger. With the RUC leading the way the marchers advanced. In the field overlooking the road the marchers observed approximately 300 loyalists, identified by white armbands, armed with cudgels and they came under a bombardment of missiles. Marchers sought to escape the bombardment by speeding up the road by there was to be no escape as they immediately encountered a second contingent of loyalists blocking their escape.
As many marchers fled into the fields they were pursued by attackers and the RUC made no attempt to intervene. Others were thrown into the nearby River Faughan.
As what was left of the marchers continued on to Derry they were also attacked twice in Derry’s Waterside before receiving a rousing welcome in Guildhall Square.
That night clashes occurred between the RUC and local people and the first Free Derry was born. At 2.00am members of the RUC attacked the Bogside, running amok in the Lecky Rd, St Columbs Wells districts. Windows were broken, residents were assaulted and sectarian abuse was directed at the people of the Bogside. The reaction to this ‘invasion’ ranged from the painting of the ‘Free Derry’ gable wall to the formation of vigilante squads in the area, based at the Foyle Harps Hall in the Brandywell and Rossville Hall in the Bogside. The barricades remained up for a number of days and relations between the community in the Bogside and the RUC, which had never been particularly good, grew steadily worse.
These events, together with the steady increase of conflict between local youths and the RUC as the year progressed, were to lay the foundations for the resistance that was to take place during the Battle of the Bogside in August of 1969.