On January 4, 1969, during the first stages of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the civil rights group People’s Democracy is attacked at Burntollet Bridge on the final day of a four-day march from Belfast to Derry by 200 loyalists and off-duty Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers armed with iron bars, bricks, and bottles.
The People’s Democracy organizes the four-day march from Belfast to Derry, starting on January 1, 1969. The march is to be the acid test of the government’s intentions. Either the government will face up to the extreme right of its own Unionist Party and protect the march from the ‘harassing and hindering,’ or it will be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster will be forced to intervene, re-opening the whole Irish question for the first time in 50 years. The march is modelled on the Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama in 1965, which had exposed the racist thuggery of America’s Deep South and forced the United States government into major reforms.
The departure on New Year’s Day 1969 of approximately 40 People’s Democracy supporters on the march to Derry is marked by a protest in Belfast by loyalists under the direction of Major Ronald Bunting, a close associate of Rev. Ian Paisley. It is the loyalist’s intention to harass the march along its entire journey.
On the first day of the march, the group makes its way unhindered towards Antrim. Just outside Antrim the marchers run into a police barricade, behind which several hundred loyalists are gathered, led by Major Bunting. The RUC refuses to remove the blockade and after a lengthy delay, and minor scuffles, the marchers are driven in police tenders to Whitehall Community Centre where they spend an unsettled night interrupted by a bomb threat.
The next day, the marchers set off for Randalstown but again find their way blocked by Major Bunting and a crowd of loyalists. Once again the RUC refuses to remove the loyalist protesters and the marchers are eventually transported to Toome by car. The marchers are welcomed at Toome and after taking lunch in the village they set out for Maghera. After 30 minutes the march is again halted and then rerouted away from the loyalist village of Knockloughlin. After two miles, loyalist protestors led by Major Bunting again halt the march. Another stand off ensues and, as locals gather to support the marchers, the RUC’s County Inspector Kerr asks the loyalists to stand aside, which they do. The marchers then make their way towards Maghera, where loyalists have gathered to await their arrival. On hearing of this ‘reception’ committee, which is armed with clubs and sticks, the marchers decide to bypass the village and spend the night at Bracaghreilly. That night Maghera witnesses considerable violence from frustrated loyalists.
On January 3, the third day of the march, the marchers set out for Dungiven and encounter little opposition. After lunch in Dungiven they travel on to Feeny. A mile outside Dungiven the marchers are halted by the RUC with reports of a loyalist protest further along the road. A civil rights supporter then arrives along the road that is allegedly blocked and reports no obstructions ahead. The marchers decide to breach police lines and encounter no protest ahead. After reaching Feeny the marchers move on to Claudy, where they receive a friendly reception and settle down for the night. That night a loyalist attack on the hall in which the marchers are staying is repulsed by locals.
The same night in Derry, a rally by Ian Paisley in the Guildhall leads to serious disorder. While those inside the hall are listening to Major Bunting call for loyalists to gather the next day at Burntollet, a crowd of nationalists gather outside the building in protest. During clashes as the rally disperses, Major Bunting’s car is destroyed. Later that night stockpiles of bottles and stones are left by loyalists in the fields at Burntollet.
On the morning of January 4, the marchers, who now number approximately 500, set out on the last league of their journey to Derry. Just before reaching Burntollet District Inspector Harrison stops the march in order to investigate reports of loyalists ahead. Harrison, together with County Inspector Kerr, speak of 50 loyalists ahead and claim to be confident that there is no danger. With the RUC leading the way the marchers advance. In the field overlooking the road the marchers observe approximately 300 loyalists, identified by white armbands and armed with cudgels. They come under a bombardment of missiles. Marchers seek to escape the bombardment by speeding up the road but there is to be no escape as they immediately encounter a second contingent of loyalists blocking their escape.
As many marchers flee into the fields they are pursued by attackers and the RUC makes no attempt to intervene. Others are thrown into the nearby River Faughan. As what is left of the marchers continue on to Derry, they are also attacked twice in Derry’s Waterside before receiving a rousing welcome in Guildhall Square.
That night clashes occur between the RUC and local people and the first “Free Derry” is born. At 2:00 AM members of the RUC attack the Bogside, running amok in the Lecky Road and St. Columbs Wells districts. Windows are broken, residents are assaulted and sectarian abuse is directed at the people of the Bogside. The reaction to this ‘invasion’ ranges from the painting of the Free Derry legend to the formation of vigilante squads in the area, based at the Foyle Harps Hall in the Brandywell and Rossville Hall in the Bogside. The barricades remain up for a number of days and relations between the community in the Bogside and the RUC, which has never been particularly good, grows steadily worse.
These events, together with the steady increase of conflict between local youths and the RUC as the year progress, is to lay the foundations for the resistance that is to take place during the Battle of the Bogside.
(From: “People’s Democracy march, January 4, 1969” by Jude Collins, http://www.judecollins.com, January 4, 2016)