Patricia Campbell reviews a crucial event in Irish history which occurred 40 years ago. This article first appeared in Fourthwrite (Summer 2009)

August 1969 was the year that transformed the face of the North forever. The civil rights marches of the previous year had launched a movement for change that the Stormont regime found impossible to cope with through normal democratic process.

Used for decades to having its every order obeyed, or at least having those who objected compelled to fall in line, the Unionist Party and its machinery of power decided to resort to the old tactic of subjugation through force. People demanding that antidemocratic practices end would be driven off the streets and battered into acquiescence – or pay a heavy price for challenging the authority of the regime. This method had worked in the past. In fact the very state had come into being through the bloody intimidation of that section of the population that had objected to its formation in the first place.

British governments in 1920/21/22 had allowed James Craig and his colleagues in the Unionist Party to use widespread sectarian violence in order to establish a 6-County state. Between July 1920 and July 1922, 453 people had been killed in Belfast, 37 members of the Crown forces and 417 civilians; 257 Catholics and 157 Protestants and two of no known religion. Of the city’s 93,000 Catholic inhabitants, 11,000 had been forced from their jobs and 23,000 driven from their homes. This was the environment in which the northern state was created.

During the early months of 1969, supporters of the unionist state had viciously attacked a series of peaceful demonstrations. A march by students in January was ambushed outside Derry and clearly identified among the attackers were numerous members of the police reserve, the ‘B’ Special. In incident after incident for the following few months, thus the level of violence increased. The RUC riot squad was responsible for a number of deaths when members of the force used their batons on civilians in Derry City, Dungiven, Co. Derry and Coalisland, Co. Tyrone.

When the Derry Citizens Defence Association (DCDA) was formed in July of 1969, it decided to organise a defence of the Bogside in order to prevent further lethal attack by the RUCC and ‘B’ Specials. The Stormont regime was unwilling to curb the activities of any of its supporters and made no attempt to prevent the Apprentice Boys parade taking place in Derry on 12 August. There was little doubt that rioting was going to break out when thousands of unionists began strutting along the city walls, reminding the inhabitants of their second class status in Northern Ireland. As the Apprentice Boys march was coming to an end the expected happened and fighting between the RUC and local residents intensified.

Unlike previous occasions, the RUC met with stiff resistance from the people of the Bogside and found it impossible to gain control of the area as the DCDA organisation proved effective. Key to the success of the defenders was their decision to occupy the high flats in the centre of the district and use is as a strong point to hurl stones and Molotov cocktails down on the advancing police below.

The struggle lasted throughout the night and into the next day and still the RUC was unable to penetrate the Bogside. Tension grew throughout the North as all sides watched the conflict develop. Nationalists and republicans were anxious to see what could be done to help the defenders while Unionism was becoming increasingly hysterical as it watched its absolute authority being challenged on the streets.

Grassroots unionism was demanding that live ammunition be used against the Bog-siders but Stormont’s cabinet knew that with the world watching so closely, it would be a gross mistake. With the situation under scrutiny, the Unionist regime understood that Britain would exact a very high price from the Belfast parliament if its police force were to be seen to carry out a Sharpville style massacre in Derry with the world’s press watching.

Under increasing siege

With the Bog-sider defenders under increasing siege, word was circulated in all nationalist and republican areas that it would be necessary to organise demonstrations to take pressure off the people in Derry. Demonstrations were organised in nationalist towns across the North and RUC and ‘B’ Specials were dispatched to contain the events. In town after town these events grew increasingly violent. Police and ‘B’ Specials began to use the live ammunition that their supporters had been demanding and gunshot casualties were inflicted on nationalist civilians in several towns. In Armagh city ‘B’ specials shot and killed a Catholic civilian making his way home from a local bar.

The greatest violence, however, broke out on the night of the 14th August in Belfast. A protest march had taken place on the 13 and in its aftermath the IRA exchanged gunfire with the RUC, wounding one constable. On the night of the 14th crowds of unionists gathered in the Shankill area and other unionist districts. As daylight began to fade, shooting broke out. Desultory at first and growing in intensity as time went by. As darkness fell, the RUC sent armoured cars equipped with heavy machine guns into the lower Falls and Ardoyne firing into houses and killing several of the occupants.

As the armoured cars raced through the narrow streets they had little difficulty winning control of these districts. Once in charge, the RUC started to systematically shoot out street lighting. With the streets in darkness and the inhabitants terrified, crowds of unionist arsonists supported by off duty ‘B’ Specials started to pour into the lower Falls and Ardoyne and other nationalist areas in Belfast. IRA units in Belfast were seriously under resourced in August 1969. The republican army’s head quarters staff had taken a decision to reduce its arsenal in Belfast in order to ensure that local unit commanders would not precipitate a sectarian blood bath by undisciplined operations. The decision was well meant and had a certain logic in light of the progress of the civil rights movement but in the context of Northern Irish reality it was a mistaken and naïve judgement.

Badly outnumbered they put up a spirited resistance to the counter revolutionary assault and joined by veteran members of the organisation prevented a much greater amount of damage being inflicted on the nationalist community.

It was nevertheless, beyond doubt that the nationalist communities in the Falls and Ardoyne areas had suffered greatly with a huge number of homes burned out and many families driven from their property. The trauma was enormous and evoked memories of the worst days of the 1920s. Within days efforts were being made to find arms and to organise military defence of these districts. The IRAwas to split over the issue and in practice this period signalled the end of peaceful, non-insurrectionary protest.

The British government sent troops into Derry and Belfast but refused to curb the powers of the Stormont regime. In time it became obvious that London had little interest in radically reforming Northern Ireland and the Home Secretary of the time, Jim Callaghan, told nationalist politicians that theycould have ‘reform’ but it had to happen within the parameters of a Stormont regime. This dictate of ‘any colour you like so long as it’s orange’ was to ensure that the very existence of the state had to be challenged if change was to occur and that is exactly what was to happen. Nothing was the same after August 1969. The Orange state was in free-fall.