A few hundred people assembled in the mainly Protestant area of the Waterside in Derry in Northern Ireland on 5 October 1968. It seemed unlikely they would have much effect.
But the protest was to spark one of the biggest revolts against the British state.
The civil rights protesters carried placards with messages such as, “class not creed”. Their demonstration had been banned by the Unionist government.
Marching into the walled city of Derry was a privilege that was only available to the sectarian bigots of the Orange Order.
Some thought the ban on the march had doubled the size of it up to about 600.
When they reached Duke Street, two double lines of police drew their batons and laid into the marchers. It wasn’t really a police charge as the cops walked slowly through the crowded hitting people hard over the head.
Across the world’s TV stations an image appeared of a middle aged man crying out, “For God’s sake, man” and then crumpling up in pain from a police attack.
Police in armoured cars fought to drive the people back into the Catholic ghettoes. Soon it wasn’t a riot but an uprising. For the next few nights barricades were erected against the police. Petrol bombs made their appearance in the streets of Derry.
Key activist and one of the march organisers Eamonn McCann wrote, “The day after there was a palpable sense of excitement around the Bogside. There were crowds of people everywhere debating what to do next.
“Politics buzzed. And coming clear was a conviction, a certainty, that nothing was ever going to be the same again. No one knew exactly what was possible, so everything was.”
The grievances were many. After partition of Ireland and after the British were pushed out of the South in 1921, the North remained under British rule. The Stormont regime was dependent on London for money.
The politics of the new entity quickly took on a rigid, frozen form. For half a century, the Unionist party won every election, formed every government, supplied every cabinet minister, and took every decision.
Membership of the party was Protestant, and virtually every government minister was a member of the Orange Order.
Voting patterns followed religious affiliation so predictably that large numbers of constituencies and local councils were uncontested for decades. Little effort was made to co-opt even the most amenable elements in the Catholic middle class.
The Unionist government had large numbers of public appointments at its disposal but was proud of not hiring Catholics.
The state was based on exclusion and discrimination and there were disproportionately high levels of Catholic unemployment and emigration. This seemingly impregnable, self-reproducing system had a weak spot—mass opposition. And the crack that could open things up for the opposition was housing.
Housing discrimination provided an issue in which the connection between material disadvantage and Unionist political control was immediately apparent.
Derry, like many Northern Irish towns, had a deliberately discriminatory voting system in local elections. Rich businessmen could get as many as 25 votes while the unemployed had no vote.
The city council elections were “gerrymandered”—drawn up—to ensure a Unionist majority in a predominantly Catholic town. Housing lists were static to keep the electoral fraud secure.
Derry was a microcosm of Northern Ireland as a whole. Here was an artificial state designed to ensure a permanent Unionist majority.
Local activists in Derry and Dungannon, two of the most discriminatory of the local authorities, had been agitating on these issues since 1963.
In Derry, activists had staged sit-ins, pickets, and protests through 1967 and 1968.
The Civil Rights Association was established in 1967 and provided a focus for mobilisation on a broad range of issues.
The first march, from Coalisland to Dungannon in County Tyrone in August 1968 saw about 2,000 marchers.
The turnout of about 600 at the next march, in Derry in October 1968, was smaller. Partially this was because of a fear of being attacked. It was also organised by the more militant elements in the movement.
By the late 1960s, the stability of the North began to be undermined by developments within capitalism itself.
For most of its existence the bigotry and sectarianism of Northern Ireland was rarely mentioned in the House of Commons. Both the Tories and the Labour Party were content to leave the Unionist Party to their own devices.
Within a week of the original march in Derry, two distinct wings of the movement had crystallised.
A Citizen’s Action Committee led by factory managers Ivan Cooper and John Hume was formed. It brought together the leading Catholic businessmen, teachers and priests.
It aimed to use the anger of the masses to create new openings for the Catholic middle class in the Northern state.
To achieve this, however, it needed to head off the militant protests and reach an accommodation with the Northern Ireland state.
Within weeks it was condemning “hooligans” and the “ultra left”. In truth the state wasn’t prepared at this stage to compromise.
On 8 October People’s Democracy (PD) was formed. This organised the left of the movement and according to its founder, Michael Farrell, was inspired by the 1968 student revolt in Paris “and by the concepts of libertarianism as well as socialism”.
For over a year the PD, alongside those grouped around Eamonn McCann in Derry, were the most active force.
This left stood for direct action. Sit-ins, invasions of council chambers, provocations of the police became their stock and trade.
There were attempts to link this militancy with a clear appeal to the Protestant working class. That’s why the 5 October demonstration had left from the Waterside.
The demand was not for more jobs for Catholics and less jobs for Protestants—but better conditions for all workers.
According to key activist Bernadette Devlin, “The basis on which we can communicate with the Protestants is by being honestly socialist.”
When the civil rights leadership called a truce in 1968, the PD organised a Belfast to Derry march to expose the sectarianism and thuggery of the RUC police.
In January 1969 off-duty B-Specials (para military police) and other loyalists attacked the march repeatedly as it passed through Buntollet on the outskirts of Derry.
The police escort made little effort to stop the attack. Intense, large-scale rioting broke out in Derry that evening after the marchers arrived.
Barricades were erected again where the working class nationalist Bogside District met the city centre, and the police were again excluded from the area for three days.
Following the “Free Berkeley” slogan of student protesters in the US, the barricaded zone was dubbed “Free Derry”. The slogan, “You are now entering Free Derry” was painted on a wall in the Bogside.
This territorial exclusion of state forces was a watershed. It illustrated the fragility of the sectarian state’s control of many of the predominantly Catholic areas under its authority.
A few months later Derry was also the site of the “Battle of the Bogside.” This was large-scale rioting in August 1969 after police and the B-Specials attempted a pogrom through the Bogside.
The police lost control of the city and, by the third day of clashes, the coercive capacity of the Northern Ireland state was running out. The British Labour government responded by propping it up by sending troops onto streets.
The Achilles’ heel of PD was its belief in simply reflecting the spontaneous moods of struggle. With troops on the street that became a less tenable position. The assaults of the B-Specials and later the British army taught that there would be no civil rights until the sectarian state was smashed.
The state responded to mobilisation with more and more repression—internment and massacring civilians on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Without organisation looking to mass mobilisation North and—importantly—South, the space of resistance was filled by armed struggle against Britain.
The Republicans were a tiny force in Northern Ireland in 1968. But their message began to connect with thousands who faced the bullets of the British army and the naked terror campaign of Loyalist death squads.
The depth of resistance meant that the British state could not repress Northern Ireland to stability. But the repression did weaken the potential for mass resistance that could have ended the sectarian state.