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A Civil Rights march in Derry was attacked by the RUC

On Saturday the 5th of October 1968, a civil rights march in Derry was stopped by the RUC at its starting point in the Waterside and marchers were attacked with batons. The RUC assault led to rioting in the city, and is often cited as the starting point of “the Troubles”.

The march was ostensibly organised by an ad hoc committee drawn from the Derry Labour Party, Young Socialists and Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), and supported by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), though it appears it was effectively organised by Eamonn McCann and Eamonn Melaugh. It had been proposed to march from the Waterside to the Diamond in the city centre, but the march was banned by the NI Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, on the 3rd of October.

The organisers decided to proceed despite the ban. As they gathered, the marchers were surrounded by a large number of RUC officers, who then drew their batons and beat several marchers as they moved up Duke Street, including Gerry Fitt (then a Republican Labour Party MP), Eddie McAteer of the Nationalist Party, and other MPs. As the RUC had also blocked the other end of the street, marchers were penned in and those trying to escape the violence were met by this second RUC group who also attacked them. Water canons were also used on marchers and bystanders.

Fitt said to the press: “I was a marked man before the march started. These were stormtrooper tactics at their worst. They hit me once, but that wasn’t enough - they had to have another go, and this was the cause of the wound which had to be stitched.”

The Northern Irish state’s own report, commissioned the following year, concedes the police violence was unprovoked and unjustified, noting that “police broke ranks and used their batons indiscriminately on people in Duke Street”, “the District Inspector in charge used his blackthorn with needless violence”, “[t]here was no justification for use of the water wagons” and “[w]e regret to say that we have no doubt that both Mr. Fitt and Mr. McAteer were batoned by the police, at a time when no order to draw batons had been given and in circumstances in which the use of batons on these gentlemen was wholly without justification or excuse.” (Cameron Report, 1969).

The RUC violence was followed by two days of rioting in Derry. A large media presence at the march meant that images and footage of the police violence were widely viewed internationally, drawing attention to the civil rights issues in the North.

Text: Twenty years ago a march for Civil Rights was banned in Derry. Those who defied the ban were batoned off the streets by the RUC. It was a spak [sic] that set the North alight against bigotry and repression. Here EAMONN McCANN, one of the original organisers of the march and now a member of the Derry SWM, looks at the role that socialists played in the fight for Civil Rights and draws the lessons for today.

[An image shows RUC with riot shields and batons drawn coming around a street corner.]
An article from Socialist Worker by Eamonn McCann looks back on the events of 5th of October 1968 on the 20th anniversary.
What happened in Derry is typical.  Although Catholics are in a majority of two-to-one, they are denied any share of power. The civil rights marches started in Dungannon, in August 1968, in protest against housing discrimination. The Minister of Home Affairs, using his Special Powers, ordered the march re-routed into the Catholic quarter, away from the town centre. The Minister (William Craig) then proceeded to slander the organisers, calling them Communists and I.R.A. dupes.

The Derry march, organised for October 5, 1968, also came up against the Special Powers Act. The line of march was re-routed as in Dungannon. Up to then the campaign
had attracted no outside attention and little following in the North itself. But when a number of British Labour M.P.s, with Gerry Fitt and Eddie MacAteer, agreed to head the
procession in Derry, the situation changed. Television and the press came. Police batoned the marchers. Russell Kerr, M.P, said it was as bad as Chicago. Ninety-six men and
women were injured. Craig blamed it all on the Communists and the I.R.A. “who were planning to attack American (NATO) installations" in the area.

But the Derry affair was not to be dismissed as easily as that. Prime Minister Harold Wilson had told Captain O'Neill and his colleagues in July that "we cannot continue
indefinitely with the present situation". He now demanded that Ulster “clean house". O'Neill made promises. Craig and some of the more extreme Orangement baulked. And the
Minister was summarily fired.

The British government made it clear that it would not tolerate discrimination or sectarian strife in the North of Ireland. It never cared very much how Belfast governed as long as there was no trouble. If the subsidy died, the Orange house of cards would collapse. So O'Neill and the moderates complied up to a point.
Seán Cronin on the civil rights march in Derry on 5th October 1968. From his 1969 pamphlet, _The Rights of Man in Ireland_, published by the Wolfe Tone Societies.
An article in the first issue of People's Voice, from November 1968, on the march in Derry on 5th October that year.
An article in the first issue of People's Voice, from November 1968, on the march in Derry on 5th October that year.

External links:

The order banning the march from Craig 
The Cameron Report 
Archive footage and images from RTÉ