Northern Ireland’s second civil rights march, like the first, was a protest against discriminatory public housing policies that allocated houses to Protestants but not Catholics.

The march, organized by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), took place in Derry on October 5, 1968.

Unlike the first which went off peacefully, the Derry march was marred by police brutality. The day’s events were a “defining moment” in Northern Ireland’s descent into the Troubles, and many consider them to be the spark that “lit a fire that burned for almost 30 years.”

After the civil rights march was scheduled, the Apprentice Boys announced they would hold their own at the same time, on the same day and along the same route as the civil rights protesters. This provided Northern Ireland’s Home Affairs Minister, William Craig, an excuse under the Public Order Act to ban the marches. During the 1960’s, officials throughout the U.S. South employed a similar strategy to disrupt civil rights demonstrations.

Demonstrators in Northern Ireland adopted the non-violent direct action and civil disobedience tactics that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s movement used to end segregation and secure voting rights. Their goal was to pressure Westminster into granting “British rights for British citizens” in Northern Ireland. The protesters sought equal treatment and a “fair deal” in housing, employment and voting.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese said “as a teenager . . . I had to make a choice between violence and non-violence and Martin Luther King was the person who said it very simply that non-violence was the way.” She described the civil rights movement as an attempt “to create a Northern Ireland where every man, woman and child, Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist . . . would share full equality of citizenship.”

The reforms demanded by this movement were modest. They included ending discrimination in housing and employment, redrawing electoral districts and instituting a “one-man-one-vote system, repealing the Special Powers Act and disbanding the Ulster Special Constabulary (B-Specials).

On the day of the march, approximately 400 non-violent protesters ignored the ban and lined-up on Duke Street. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) positioned itself in-front-of and behind the demonstrators, hemming them in. When the organizers concluded their speeches, the RUC moved-in before the march began.  

The RUC indiscriminately attacked protesters and observers with baton charges. Fleeing people were struck by baton blows from a gauntlet of officers. Water cannons were used for the first time in the United Kingdom. People, including John Hume, were shot down by a firehose of water. Using a blackthorn stick instead of a baton, the District Police Inspector joined in the beatings. Police conduct was eerily similar to the malevolence exhibited in Birmingham, Alabama by Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor.

The march, like the civil rights movement, was non-sectarian. Ivan Cooper, a Protestant, and Eamonn McCann were two of its organizers. McCann was instrumental in selecting an “inflammatory” route through unionist areas. He wanted to increase publicity by setting the march through the Waterside area, across Craigavon Bridge and into city center. The police asked Cooper to call it off, but he refused. Describing what happened, Cooper said it “was a completely non-violent march. All of the violence was used against the marchers.”

Dozens were injured and hospitalized, including Members of Parliament (MP) in Westminster. Labor MP Gerry Fitt brought three Labor MP’s to the march. They planned to report back to the British Prime Minister. Fitt was one of the first struck down. He was held by two RUC officers while a third repeatedly hit him in the head. An Irish RTE newsman captured the bloody incident on camera, and the scene was broadcast world-wide.

Two days of rioting between Bogside residents and the RUC followed the event. Yet interest in the non-violent civil rights movement remained strong. A non-sectarian Derry Citizen’s Action Committee was formed under Cooper and Hume. Also, Queens University students in Belfast formed the Peoples Democracy civil rights group under Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin) and Michael Farrell.

The Peoples Democracy conducted a Belfast-Derry march in January 1969 that was intended to emulate the 1965 Selma-Montgomery voting rights march. Outside Derry, approximately 100 non-violent protesters were ambushed at Burntollet Bridge by a mob of about 200 that included off-duty members of the B-Specials. The RUC turned a blind-eye as the civil rights demonstrators were viciously attacked with “sticks, iron bars, bottles and stones.” Riots ensued afterward in Derry, and “a myth was born” as a gable at the end of the Bogside was painted to read: “You are now entering Free Derry.”

Craig praised the RUC for how they behaved on the streets of Derry on October 5th. But the Cameron Commission Report issued a year later vindicated the civil rights movement and found that the “police handling of the demonstration in Londonderry on 5 October 1968 was in certain respects ill-coordinated and inept.”

Others involved in the march were highly critical of the RUC behavior. McCann said “a howl of elemental rage was unleashed across Northern Ireland. . . We had indeed set out to make the police overreact. But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.” Hume said “he would never forget the hate he saw in the faces of the police.”

Another organizer, Dermie McClenaghan, described how police “beat people to the ground viciously,” in order to teach them a lesson. For us, “it was about civil rights. [W]ell they were showing us they thought we had no right to exist. They were doing it with an arrogance that could only have come from the state.”

The lesson for Northern Ireland’s minority community was that they had no right to equality. The province’s first Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, famously boasted that “we have a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state” in Northern Ireland. On Duke Street, the RUC made it clear that the sentiment undergirding the statement was incontestable.    

In retrospect, former Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble acknowledged that local councils who awarded housing did in fact discriminate. But at the time, he said, unionists viewed the civil rights movement as illegitimate, sectarian and a “republican front.” To them, it was not about the activists’ demands for equality and justice but about a united Ireland. In lumping together groups who held antithetical philosophies - armed struggle versus non-violence – they got it disastrously wrong.

Government officials supported their decision to ignore the movement’s moderate demands and avoid instituting reforms by linking civil rights activists with the IRA. This corrupt indifference made further protests “inevitable.”

Something fundamental to Northern Ireland’s future happened that day. The government’s answer to the civil rights movement was now established. The solution was security force violence and brutality. The violent response seen on Duke Street would intensify until the movement was finally extinguished by the British Army’s First Battalion Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972.

By the end of the civil rights era, the British Army patrolled the streets in Northern Ireland, and the IRA emerged as defender of the minority community. In crushing the movement, the government blocked a path for those seeking constitutional reform. In doing so, the government sowed seeds of enmity, stoked sectarianism and fomented “the revival and recruitment of the IRA.” In explaining the growth of the Provisional IRA in Derry, its commander at one point who later became Deputy First Minister at Stormont - Martin McGuinness - said it was “[t]he British [who] developed republicanism.”

Tragically, what followed the second civil rights march was “spirals of violence and counter-violence” that resulted in over 3660 deaths.

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