Malachi O’Doherty’s excellent analysis of Catholic memories of the early days of the Troubles was the first of the Belfast Telegraph’s 1969; 40 years on. Tracking down a dead tree copy is going to be tough two days later (Ithought until Malachi kindly put the copy on his own blog): it is worth reading in full. Typically, O’Doherty pulls no punches. The two big lessons, he says, that many Northern Irish Catholics took from these early days were:
“…that the Northern Ireland state was hostile to them and that the IRA, which had failed to defend them would have to be beefed up so that it could do a better job the next time the Prods went doo-lally and descended on them.”
The seminal exposition of such truths being the routing of Catholic families the subsequent destruction of their homes in Bombay Street. An act of vandalism so focused that at least one of the families returned to discover their toilets had been filled with cement to prevent them from even considering an early return. But according to O’Doherty, the focus first appeared on the nationalist side, with a strategic attempt to tied dow a tiny police force already stretched to near breaking in Derry (where according to some who served there, none escaped injury)…
Of course, violence had been building since October 68 when a Civil Rights march in Derry was broken up by the police wielding clubs and a succession of marches had turned into major riots since, particularly in Newry, Armagh and Derry. The rioting in August was part of a plan to overstretch the police who had been drawn into a huge riot in Derry after the Apprentice Boys parade on August 12th. No shots had been fired in Derry.
I watched the Falls Road part of the operation on the second night of rioting, August 14th. The plan there was, apparently, to burn down a redbrick police station at Hastings Street, situated just where the Westlink now comes off Divis Street. The rioters would chuck stones and petrol bombs. The police fought with a combination of baton charges and whippets, Shoreland light armoured cars with mounted Browning machine guns, designed for use against an open field cross border attack.
As the rioters inched closer, the whippets would prance out of side streets to scatter them and then the baton charge would go forward and try to grab a couple of them. The other part of the rioters plan was a squad at the top of Divis Flats with petrol bombs. I saw them drop a milk crate of unlit bombs onto the road and when the police ran after the rioters, someone dashed a proper petrol bomb on to this to set the whole lot alight.
This was entirely a Catholic attack on the police. It was clever and it was dangerous.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty