The stone that broke the North’s dam of violence

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

Even the footnotes to history rarely record who the ‘first stone-thrower’ was.

Sometimes I suspect that the ‘first thrower’ is not aware either. But whoever it was who threw the first stone at the Apprentice Boys march in Derry city on August 12 - forty years ago this week - can be certain at least of their impact on history.

What followed was an explosion that in many ways continues to shape all of Ireland, north and south, up to the present day. Interestingly, while there has been much commemoration recently of the events of 1968 in the North, little attention is being paid to the place in history of this extraordinary August weekend had in August 1969.

The rapidity and consequences of the sequence of events of August 1215 continue to astonish. On August 12, the annual Apprentice Boys march in Derry was attacked. Within hours, what later became known as the Battle of the Bogside had begun.

A policing operation quickly descended into near anarchy, as a punitive RUC determined to enter the tiny Catholic enclave under the city walls.

Led by the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association, the Bogside residents were equally determined to stop them.

Throughout the previous week, there had been widespread appeals for the march to be stopped or at least diverted from some parts of the city, given the tension following previous RUC excursions into the Bogside - including one the previous April which had resulted in deaths. But in 1969, the Loyal Orders were still the wind beneath the wings of unionist political and financial power structures -and their ascendency rights for triumphalism were inviolable.

Meanwhile, the Bogsiders were only too ready and willing for the battle that followed. Ominously for what was to occur in the years following, a significant sea-change had occurred within the nationalist population, especially among the younger generation -in the face of traditional state repression, this was a generation prepared to fight back. The previous year of civil rights agitation, since August 1968, had radicalised a whole generation.

The attack on the Apprentice Boys essentially acted as the bait, drawing the RUC into the Bogside, where supplies of petrol bombs and barricade material had been prepared. Derry on that fateful Saturday was not going to be just another brief riot following a loyalist march -it soon began to look more and more like some sort of people’s insurrection.

The next fatal mistake made by the unionist government was to call up the B-Special Constabulary to assist the police. Despite the fact that the only difference between the B-Special Constabulary and the Apprentice Boys was the uniform, it seemed that the old six-county partionist state - still trapped in all its sectarian modus operandi -was responding to the growing crisis with a breathtaking historical inevitability.

Even the RUC high command seemed to sense its wider part in this rapidly developing historical tableau when, within minutes of arriving at the edge of the Bogside, its policemen fired the first-ever snaking, billowing CS tear-gas canisters into the Bogside. CS gas transformed a riot into a revolution.

In response that Saturday night, the civil rights movement had called for its supporters across the North to picket police stations to lessen RUC reinforcements being sent to Derry.

In stark reality, despite the new civil rights idiom, this essentially amounted to a call to nationalists in areas where they had sufficient numbers to protest outside their local police station, which inevitably turned into a series of riots.

Within hours, from Derry to Belfast to Newry, the conflict was joined. Out of the shadows too that night came the tiny corps of what was left of the Republican movement -but it was a new IRA essentially armed for left-wing politics rather than gun battles.

In time, the events of these days were to fracture all of that too. By late Sunday afternoon, James Chichester Clarke’s Stormont government was being warned that the RUC was now exhausted and the prospect of a province-wide and Balkanlike sectarian conflict involving the B-Special Constabulary and the wider nationalist population was looming.

Within hours, an historic decision was made in London. To the astonishment of the Bogsiders, soldiers of the Prince of Wales regiment were surrounding them on Derry streets as the police withdrew. Certainly the Bogsiders recognised that they had won a victory of some sort, but of what type exactly? Equally, were the troops here to keep others out or keep them in?

The confusion was spreading elsewhere too. In London, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was poring over the legal complexities of a scenario where British troops were acting under the apparent aegis of a Stormont government. Meanwhile, in Dublin, the sense that everyone was now in unknown political and security territory was growing.

That night, Taoiseach Jack Lynch, after a heated cabinet meeting, during which all the inner tensions of his Fianna Fail party surfaced, went on television to say his government could no longer stand idly by, and he moved field hospitals manned by troops to the border. Essentially, Lynch’s move was about southern priorities -calming Fianna Fail and protecting his own position -but it was interpreted by some loyalists as a signal that the south was about to invade.

In Belfast, still without British troops, despite desperate appeals by nationalist leaders, a third night of violence resulted in concerted attacks by loyalist mobs and RUC, where large sections of Catholic streets in the Ardoyne and the Falls were burned out. The RUC in armoured cars even took to machine-gunning the high-rise Divis Flats.

By the next morning, as the refugees were heading for Dublin, and British troops were marching through the smoke up in the Falls Road, the 1920 partition settlement was back on cabinet tables in Belfast, London and Dublin. Astonishingly, within three days of that first stone being thrown in Derry, Ireland was on the brink of a potential civil war.

In the years that followed, it has been possible to map how the events of that August weekend 40 years ago acted like some underground earthquake, fracturing so much of the post partition political consensus in Ireland and in Britain. Suddenly, not only was the historic problem back at the heart of the political agenda north and south but, increasingly, almost all of the established political institutions on the island felt the impact of the political instability of the North.

There, a new nationalist generation reacted along class lines, with much of the ‘eleven-plus’ middle class creating the SDLP (to replace the old Nationalist Party) and much of the working class joining a resurgent Republican movement. As the SDLP and the southern political establishment argued that the six-county state could be reformed, the republicans argued that it could only be reformed by its destruction. Unionism also began to split in ever rightward directions, as the process of Paisleyite cannibalisation within it accelerated.

Within the Republic, the political impact was far-reaching. Eventually, the political fault-lines were to run right across the entire political spectrum, from the arms trial that nearly devoured Fianna Fail on one side, to the emergence on the other side of a new neo-unionism, complete with a new revisionist view of history. Down the years that followed, the question of the North was to pare southern attitudes increasingly bare -often much to its discomfort.

Forty years ago this weekend, the dam broke and the generational political failure that had deepened since partition washed over all the Irish political institutions -and it has taken most of all the following 40 years to repair it.

That first stone-thrower in Derry that Saturday long ago could hardly have imagined the cataclysm they were unleashing.

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