By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Monday marked the 30th anniversary of the civil rights march in Derry that is generally accepted as the start of the Troubles.
About 200 Derry people, Protestant and Catholic, some of whom were there 30 years ago, retraced the steps of the original march on Saturday, in a demand this time for the right to work and a proper wage.
In 1968, the march was held under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded the year before. Its aim was to highlight discrimination against Catholics in housing allocation and jobs. As well, the marchers wanted the reform of the local voting system, which gave extra votes to business and property owners — mostly all Protestant — and a repeal of the draconian Special Powers Act. At the time, NICRA was known to be worried that local left-wing activists such as Eamon McCann, who were the actual organizers of the march, would use the occasion to provoke a confrontation with the police.
All the citizens of Derry were invited to join the 1998 march, as they were in 1968, although Gregory Campbell of the Democratic Unionist Party complained that it was a “nationalist” march and demanded to know why the Parades Commission had not banned it.
Thirty years ago, the organizers had given notice to the RUC that they intended to proceed across Craigavon Bridge from the Waterside to the city center. The Apprentice Boys gave notice they intended to march the same day.
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The then minister for home affairs at Stormont, Bill Craig, banned both marches. He later admitted he would have banned the civil rights march even had the Apprentice Boys not announced its parade, but would have allowed the march to proceed had not the civil rights marchers previously put in an application.
The civil rights marchers decided to defy the ban. The police had instructions that the parade was not to reach the city center and blocked its route with batons and blackthorn sticks drawn and water cannon at the ready.
There were Protestants on the march, although after intimidation from within their own community they gradually became less numerous in the civil rights campaign.
Austin Currie, now a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West but then a young civil rights marcher, has described the day as the “beginning of the end of Unionism.” It’s now known that labor prime minister, Harold Wilson, began contemplating direct rule after Oct. 5, 1968.
The subsequent Cameron Report concluded that the RUC broke ranks and used their batons indiscriminately. Only RTE was there to film the scene as Gerry Fitt was batoned repeatedly until he bled from the head.
On a BBC Radio Ulster “Talkback” phone-in program to commemorate the march, both Fitt and Eamon McCann, the Derry socialist and writer, expressed concern that every Unionist caller continued to deny the existence of civil rights abuses in 1968.
Back then, Craig claimed the RUC had used no more force than was necessary, and had showed great restraint, denying eyewitness reports that they had aimed blows at men’s groin area.
Terence O’Neill, then prime minister, also defended the RUC. He said the force was a “very reputable body” and “certainly hadn’t” been involved in using brutal force against the marchers.
It has not gone unnoticed that 30 years later, the marching issue remains unresolved.
(Jack Holland contributed to this story.)