Route ’68: to Burntollet and back

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2008), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 16

Burntollet bridge, January 1969—loyalist ambushers coming from the Ardmore road openly attack the front rank of the People’s Democracy march unimpeded by the RUC presence. (Belfast Telegraph)

Burntollet bridge, January 1969—loyalist ambushers coming from the Ardmore road openly attack the front rank of the People’s Democracy march unimpeded by the RUC presence. (Belfast Telegraph)

The January 1969 Belfast to Derry march was organised by People’s Democracy, a civil rights group that had come into existence only a few months earlier. We were dismayed at the poor turnout and were outnumbered by Loyalist counter-demonstrators.

International parallels

As the four-day march got under way, prisoner 46664 on Robben Island, an obscure South African lawyer called Nelson Mandela, had served six years of a life sentence imposed for attempting to bring down the apartheid regime by force. The future Nobel Peace Laureate had endorsed violence, and was subsequently to be denounced as a  ‘terrorist’ by Margaret Thatcher. In August of the previous year the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia had been brought to a juddering halt by a Soviet invasion. May of 1968 had seen the assassination of Martin Luther King as he prepared to organise sanitation workers, while the US supreme court had ruled in 1967 that laws outlawing marriage across racial lines, and still in effect in sixteen states, were unconstitutional.
These parallels show that a number of governments indulged in the grossest exclusionary practices at the time, so Northern Ireland was far from atypical in its denial of human rights; and, as in the other locations, its government was prepared to support the status quo with force. Unionists resented and generally rejected the validity of these parallels. Of course, the important thing about parallel lines is that they do not converge. Yet the practice of discrimination has similar characteristics whether its victims live in Soweto, Watts or North Belfast. What cannot be denied is that the move towards democracy, in Northern Ireland as elsewhere, required a recognition of the abnormality of exclusion and the development of norms based upon universal human rights. It is of some significance that 1968 also saw the twentieth anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

O’Neill’s response

Some of the c. 2,000 Queen’s University students sitting down outside Belfast City Hall on 5 October 1968 in protest against ‘police brutality’ in Derry. Following the events of that day, People’s Democracy, the organiser of the January 1969 march, was formed.

Some of the c. 2,000 Queen’s University students sitting down outside Belfast City Hall on 5 October 1968 in protest against ‘police brutality’ in Derry. Following the events of that day, People’s Democracy, the organiser of the January 1969 march, was formed.

The marchers subscribed to the non-violent principles of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA); in spite of claims to the contrary, and extreme provocation, there is no evidence of the use of violence by the marchers. Yet on Sunday 5 January 1968, following the Burntollet march, Northern Ireland prime minister Captain Terence O’Neill stated:

‘Some of the marchers and those who supported them in Londonderry itself have shown themselves to be mere hooligans, ready to attack the police and others . . . At times one in six of the entire force of the Royal Ulster Constabulary [RUC] was engaged in protecting the march to Londonderry . . . We are all sick of marchers and counter-marchers. Unless these warring minorities rapidly return to their senses we will have to consider greater use of the Special Constabulary [‘B Specials’] for normal police duties. I think we must also have an urgent look at the Public Order Act itself to see whether we ought to ask parliament for further power to control those elements that are seeking to hold the entire community to ransom.’

Thus Prime Minister O’Neill made no distinction between peaceful citizens marching in pursuit of fair treatment (‘hooligans’) and a mob that attacked them with stones, cudgels and petrol bombs. His statement came only hours after hundreds of police had rampaged through the Bogside/Lecky Road area of Derry. Was this what Captain O’Neill considered ‘normal police duties’? His statement indicated that one sixth of the total RUC force were on duty during the march. Such a force of trained police officers would have had no difficulty in escorting the march safely on its journey, had they been so inclined and so instructed. Instead, far from ‘protecting’ the marchers, they stood by while they faced an onslaught from the mob.
The most surprising aspect of the prime minister’s astonishing remarks was that the only policies he proposed in response to demands for fair treatment were to seek more repressive powers, and to make greater use of the B Specials, an exclusively Protestant force that had discredited itself only hours before O’Neill’s statement, as many of the organisers of and participants in the attacks on the march came from its ranks. It was so thoroughly discredited that just over a year later O’Neill’s successor as prime minister, his cousin Major James Chichester Clark, was forced to disband it.

Accountable to the mob

O’Neill’s response to the march provides the explanation for the turnaround in its fortunes. In a phrase, it was a result of lack of accountability on the part of the Northern Ireland authorities. More accurately, it was an inversion of normal democratic accountability. Unionist MPs, including the prime minister and his cabinet, and the RUC allowed themselves to be accountable to the mob rather than any set of equitably applied norms. Nor was this an abdication of their accountability: it was accepted that parliament and police were subject to the will of the Loyalist mob. Ironically, collusion between the forces of the Northern Ireland government and a mob of attackers was captured by the RUC themselves on their cameras. Fortunately, other media recorded the events, as the experiences of victims of and witnesses to the assaults on the march would otherwise have been discounted.
Had democratic mechanisms of accountability been in place things would probably not have been different, but the likelihood of more serious collusion in the matter of murder between the RUC and Loyalist paramilitaries in later years might have been lessened, collusion which still casts its shadow over the peace process and the new dispensation in Northern Ireland.

Less sex and drugs than we pretended but plenty of rock and roll

Marchers trapped in the river bed by loyalist ambushers. The white armbands signify membership of the B Specials, while one attacker (left foreground) is wearing what appears to be a police-issue steel helmet. (Belfast Telegraph)

Marchers trapped in the river bed by loyalist ambushers. The white armbands signify membership of the B Specials, while one attacker (left foreground) is wearing what appears to be a police-issue steel helmet. (Belfast Telegraph)

There have been attempts to fit events in Northern Ireland into the global revolt and the counterculture. I have to say that I recognise neither the time nor the place where I lived in some of these accounts. There was, to be sure, a good deal of discussion of Marxism. Some even claimed to find sense in the opacities of Althusser, even though their favourite Marxist intellectual went AWOL in May 1968. I recall that the Daily Mail published photos of those it claimed were the brains behind the Marxist conspiracy driving the Civil Rights movement. A vaguely foreign-sounding name, a beard and Cuban heels were all taken as evidence of dangerous revolutionary tendencies. As with Marxism, there was less sex and drugs than we pretended, although I am glad to say there was plenty of rock and roll. While nearly everybody toted the obligatory latest Bob Dylan album cover, we suspected that in some cases Val Doonican was in the sleeve.
We felt, certainly, that we were part of something larger, and we saw the civil rights campaign as a part of a wider struggle encompassing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War. The President Johnson who recognised the legitimacy of the demands for civil rights in the US was the same president who sent increasingly large numbers of US soldiers, disproportionately black, to Vietnam. One of our biggest errors was perhaps to underestimate the similarities between these events. As we watched US troops torch Vietnamese villages, we did not believe that our own government in Northern Ireland would permit anything like that to happen. Yet less than twelve months after our march, streets in Catholic areas of Belfast were ablaze and there was a forced movement of population on a scale not seen in Europe between the end of the Second World War and the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Leaving aside the fantasies of the British press, there were real conspiracies, and in some of these the parallels that I referred to at the beginning of this article did converge in ominous ways. Thus Balthazar J. Vorster, South African minister for justice, and subsequently prime minister, said that he would swap all the oppressive legislation at his disposal for a single clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. Some have speculated as to which clause he had in mind. He would presumably have been satisfied with the ‘blanket clause’ that conferred the power to take any measure required to maintain order. This, with the explicit power to suspend habeas corpus, made the North’s minister of home affairs the most powerful politician in the United Kingdom. Apartheid South Africa also figured directly at a later stage in the Northern Ireland story when there was a serious attempt by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) to assassinate South African-born political scientist Adrian Guelke in Belfast at the behest of South African intelligence. In 1989, when secret peace negotiations were at an early and sensitive stage, a South African diplomat was arrested in Paris—along with three members of Ulster Resistance, a cover name for the UDA—in possession of a British ‘blowpipe’ missile, parts for which were manufactured in Belfast. This was being traded by the UDA in return for South African arms.
The behaviour of the RUC in January 1969 was not an aberration. It was noted earlier that President Johnson deplored the death of a ‘good man’ at Selma. Although many of the Burntollet marchers had broken heads and broken bones, there were no fatalities. We did not have long to wait before we had our own ‘good man’, however. On 19 April 1969 a number of RUC men entered the home of Samuel Devenney, a few hundred metres from the Guildhall, the end point of the Belfast–Derry march, and beat him savagely with batons. He died some time afterwards as a result of his injuries. A Scotland Yard detective, Kenneth Drury, investigated the incident. While he was able to confirm that RUC officers had been involved in the attack, he claimed that he was met with a ‘wall of silence’ from the RUC and was therefore unable to identify any individual officers. Thirty-two years after Mr Devenney’s death, his family took their case to the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. She upheld their case that the RUC had not appropriately dealt with them during the investigations into his death. This brief memoir is respectfully dedicated to Mr Devenney’s memory.

Vincent McCormack is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Ulster at Magee, Derry.

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