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2 October 2017

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Memories of 1969, by Gerry Adams

For many, ‘The Troubles’ began with the Battle of the Bogside in Derry in August 1969 and the attacks on the Catholic area of the Falls Road in west Belfast and the Ardoyne area of north Belfast that same month

THE IMAGES coming from Catalonia of Spain’s Guardia Civil attacking peaceful voters will be strikingly familiar to all of us involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago and during the decades of conflict.

Last week we witnessed Catholic families forced from their homes in Belfast. The ongoing denial of rights for Irish-speakers and marriage equality and a Bill of Rights are fuelling the political crisis in Stormont.

We have yet to have an Executive based on equality and in which rights are guarantee and respected. The Good Friday Agreement provided for a peaceful pathway for constitutional change through unity referendums North and South – a pathway that remains blocked by the British Government.

Earlier this year I published a column in which I recalled the formation of the Civil Rights Association five decades ago.

I believe it is worth revisiting that today as we remind ourselves that here and now, in 2017, civil rights are still being denied to citizens in the North, in Catalonia, in the West Bank and Gaza, and in many other places.

Citizens, wherever they live, have fundamental rights and entitlements and there is a responsibility on all of us to support those struggling for equality and justice and fairness in their society.

From 10 August 2009

1968 Duke Street posterFOR SOME PEOPLE, the most recent phase of conflict or ‘The Troubles’ in the North commenced in October 1968 when a civil rights march was attacked on Duke Street in Derry by the RUC. 

For others, it was when the UVF carried out a series of bomb attacks on electricity lines and water pipelines in March and April 1969.

But, for many, ‘The Troubles’ began with the Battle of the Bogside in Derry in August 1969 and the attacks on the Catholic area of the Falls Road in west Belfast and the Ardoyne area of north Belfast that same month.

Battle of the Bogside

Battle of the Bogside

My memory of the Falls area at that time is very clear. Back then it was a multitude of small back-to-back red brick houses in row after row of narrow streets. Like many other parts of Belfast, they had been constructed in the shadow of the linen mills and housed the workers who slaved under the worst of conditions for the most meagre of wages. 

Most of those who worked in the mills were women and children, mostly girls. They started work at 6:30am each morning and worked until 6pm each evening. On Saturday they worked until noon. The quality of life was very bad. Wages were low. Disease was widespread. The diet was very poor. The death rate was high.

The summer of 1969 was a very tense period. 

The unionist regime at Stormont was resisting any meaningful reforms. Ian Paisley was leading counter-demonstrations to civil rights marches. 

And several nationalists – Samuel Devenny in Derry, Francis McCloskey in Dungiven and Patrick Corry in Fermanagh – had already died as a result of injuries received in beatings from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. 

Samuel Devenny in Derry

Samuel Devenny, Derry – died from injuries suffered during a beating by the Royal Ulster Constabulary

Civil rights marches had been banned from town centres for over a year and beaten off the streets. But in Derry the Apprentice Boys, one of the unionist marching orders, were granted permission to march through the city centre and along the walls looking down into the Bogside, a predominately nationalist/Catholic part of the city.

At the edge of the Bogside, young nationalists clashed with loyalists and the RUC launched baton charges. Fighting side by side with the loyalists, the RUC brought up armoured cars and – for the first time in Ireland – CS gas. 

For 48 hours, the mainly teenage defenders of the Bogside used stones, bottles and petrol bombs against the constant baton charges of hundreds of RUC and loyalists. Exploiting high-rise flats to great effect, they lobbed petrol bombs at their attackers and succeeded in keeping them at bay.

In Belfast, tension was at fever pitch.

There was an emergency meeting of the Civil Rights Association on 13 August, which I attended, and from which came an appeal for solidarity demonstrations across the North against the events in Derry.

I went from that meeting to one in Divis Flats, which I chaired. It was agreed we would march to the RUC barracks at Hastings Street and then to the RUC barracks on the Springfield Road. As we assembled in front of Divis Flats, our mood was defiant. We sang We Shall Overcome amid chants of “SS/RUC” and carried placards saying “The people of the Falls support the people of Derry”.

The RUC attacked the march and this led to heavy rioting in Divis Street.

I remember leaving Springhill for the Falls on the late evening of 14 August. There the situation was one of bedlam. A loyalist mob – including many members of the B-Specials armed with rifles, revolvers and sub-machine guns – had gathered on the Shankill Road and moved along the streets leading to the Falls.

They petrol-bombed nationalist houses that lay on their route, beating up their occupants and shooting at fleeing residents. This loyalist mob invaded the Falls and, as it reached the Falls Road itself, started to attack St Comgall’s School.

Patrick Rooney

9-year-old Patrick Rooney, killed by the B-Specials police

The IRA opened fire and a loyalist gunman was killed. Now the RUC, coming in behind the loyalist civilians and B-Specials, opened up with heavy-calibre Browning machine guns from Shorland armoured cars. They directed their firing into the narrow streets and into Divis flats itself, where they killed a nine-year-old boy, Patrick Rooney, and a young local man, Hugh McCabe, home on leave from the British Army.

Within a remarkably short space of time, the streets off the Falls Road and the Falls itself had been turned into a war zone.

The IRA’s armed intervention throughout Belfast was an extremely limited one. The real defence of the area was conducted by young people with petrol bombs and stones and bricks, though the IRA actions in the Falls and in Ardoyne were crucially important in halting the loyalist mobs at decisive times. 

However, Bombay Street, Dover Street and Percy Street were burned out and fighting continued all night in Conway Street. In Ardoyne, scores of homes were attacked and many destroyed in Hooker Street and Brookfield Street.

As dawn arose on the morning of 15 August, it did so over a scene of absolute devastation. Six people were dead, five nationalists and one unionist; about 150 had been wounded by gunfire and hundreds of nationalist homes had been gutted.

Bombay Street

Bombay Street

The unionist regime had also responded by introducing internment and 24 men from across the North had been arrested – all nationalists or republicans.

A pall of smoke rose over the Falls. The old familiar streetscape was shattered. The environment that I grew up in was gone. The self-contained, enclosed village atmosphere of the area and its peaceful sense of security had been brutally torn apart, leaving our close-knit community battered and bleeding.

The everyday world in which we lived our childhood had been destroyed. None of us knew what it presaged for the years ahead. But we did know that things had changed utterly.

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  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
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