Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2121

Northern Ireland 1968: Derry’s days of rage

This article is over 15 years, 8 months old
On 5 October 1968 a few hundred demonstrators assembled in the mainly Protestant area of the Waterside in Derry in Northern Ireland.
Issue 2121
The headline on Socialist Worker, 12 October 1968
The headline on Socialist Worker, 12 October 1968

On 5 October 1968 a few hundred demonstrators assembled in the mainly Protestant area of the Waterside in Derry in Northern Ireland.

They carried placards saying “Class not Creed’ to promote their demand for civil rights. Their movement sprang up to challenge the discrimination against Catholics – which was rife in housing and employment – and the loaded electoral system that gave business owners extra votes.

The demonstration had been banned by the Unionist government. Marching into Derry was a privilege that was bestowed mainly on the loyalist bigots of the Orange Order.

When the march reached Duke Street, police laid into the marchers. For the next few nights barricades were erected. The responce of the Unionist state and the British created what became known as “the troubles”.

Here we reprint the front page article from Socialist Worker at the time by Eamonn McCann, one of the march organisers

Derry is a city under siege. Riot police patrol the fringes of the Catholic ghetto area in armoured cars. Barricades have been erected and Molotov cocktails, bricks and other improvised weapons are being used by the people.

Police are making sporadic sorties into the area. At 3am this morning an armoured car smashed a barricade on the Lecky Road and established their first foothold in the city.

This is the third day of violence in Derry. On Saturday police stopped a peaceful civil rights march with unbelievable brutality.

Men were beaten in the testicles. Water cannons drove demonstrators from the area, back into the police lines. In Duke Street, two double lines of police with drawn batons boxed in a thousand people and started a systematic and sickening bludgeoning.

An 18-year old reporter, Martin Cowley, vainly displaying his press credentials, was repeatedly beaten to the ground by District Inspector Ross McGimpsie and left lying in a bloody mess. One middle aged man was seized by two policemen and flung over a wall. He was found there later by Labour Party officials. His leg was broken.

Fighting spread to the centre of the city during the evening as police beat the people back into the Catholic ghetto. Houses were turned into casualty centres as the injured were carried from the barricades.

This is not a riot. It is an uprising. It is an elemental outburst of rage by a class that has been denied jobs, homes and fundamental human rights by a regime that is as near fascism as makes no difference.

Derry has a male unemployment rate of 21 percent. It is only maintained at that level by massive emigration. The City Corporation, controlled by the Unionist Party because of a gerrymandered electoral system which permits 33 percent of the voters to elect 60 percent of the councillors, has built 15 houses in three years.

It has allocated them to its Protestant supporters while Catholic working class families (who are the majority in Derry) live in conditions which would turn the stomach of an Islington slum-dweller.

A unique voting system in municipal elections gives the rich extra votes according to the rateable value of their property. Sir Basil McFarlane, for example, has 26 votes in a municipal election. I am a 28-years old worker. I have none. The Northern Ireland Special Powers Act gives the police the right to arrest without warrant and intern without trial.

In Derry some of the restrictions on the Catholic population are so petty as to be incredible. For example Catholic bands are allowed to march down Abercom Road, but not, under any circumstances, to march up.

A small example, but it illustrates the majority by a clique of anti-democratic gangsters.

Such discrimination inevitably produced a sectarian consciousness among the Catholic working class. They saw the state as being biased against them as Catholics and they were easy meat for nationalist demagogues. Militancy for many years meant an hysterical consciousness of the religious divide.

The beginning of a new phase was marked by the formation of the Derry Housing Action Committee in February. It is a self-appointed body comprising Republicans, leading members of the Labour Party and a number of unattached radicals.

It began a campaign of civil disobedience. It disrupted corporation meetings and organised rent strikes. In June it blocked a main bus route for 48 hours with the caravan home of a family of four. Landlords’ homes were picketed, official ceremonies broken up. By August some 20 members had been in court for various offences.

A newssheet, Reality, was published and displayed an admirable disregard for the law as it detailed the activities of Rachman-type landlords and the inactivities of nationalist politicians.

The local Labour Party joined with the Action Committee in an informal united front on the housing issue. The Derry Republican Club (an illegal organisation) came into the open and proclaimed its existence with banners at housing demonstrations.

The result was a decisive realignment in which, for the first time in Derry, a militant, if ill-defined, political campaign got off the ground without arousing any sectarian feeling. The most vital and significant fact about the present situation is that there has been no Catholic-Protestant confrontation. It is this that frightens the Unionist authorities.

They – and their Green Tory counterparts in the Nationalist Party – have always been content to see workers tearing each other to pieces.

The politicians are happy in the knowledge that worker-against-worker warfare shored up the two-tone Tory state by obscuring the class basis of religious discrimination.

The Protestant working class is passive at the moment. Since the police have sealed off the Catholic area it has been impossible to get through to appeal to them.

But Labour Party and Young Socialist speakers at the barricades denounced attempts by fringe hooligan elements to use “get the Protestants” as a slogan.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance