Tomorrow, January 4th, marks the fiftieth anniversary of a notorious loyalist ambush of a civil rights march at Burntollet Bridge in Co Derry. The attack happened just three months after the brutal Royal Ulster Constabulary attack on marchers in Derry City – an attack which was captured on film by RTE and subsequently beamed to television screen’s around the world.
The public reaction to the sight of RUC men smashing the heads of peaceful protesters with batons caught the Orange State off-guard. Heretofore the violent suppression of the nationalist community had been a common, but under-reported, occurrence. The unexpected publicity arising from the presence of the television camera crew at the march had given vital encouragement to the young protest movement.
The civil rights movement in the Six Counties was a collection of groups and individuals that came together to tackle structural discrimination and injustice in the Six Counties. It was a time of new ideas and impatience with the old order across the Western world. The civil rights movement in the United States had given hope to a new generation of third level-educated nationalists here in Ireland.
Younger radicals like Bernadette Devlin, Eamon McCann and Michael Farrell were eager to directly challenge the state whilst other older activists like John Hume, Gerry Fitt and Austin Currie were advocating a more cautious route.
The fundamentalist preacher, Ian Paisley had been organising counter demonstrations to civil rights events since 1964. Like his modern counterparts he was a firm believer in conspiracy theories, most often involving secret pacts between some or all of the IRA, the Catholic Pope and the Dublin government. His movement gathered support among rural and urban working class unionists.
Members of the RUC and the B-Specials, an armed state militia recruited from the unionist community, mixed freely among the Paisleyites. The two forces struck terror into the hearts of a nationalist community that remembered the terror of the repeated pogroms that had occurred since partition.
Despite the dangers a newly formed civil rights group called People’s Democracy announcement it’s intention to march from Belfast to Derry, leaving Belfast on New Year’s Day. The march was modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama in 1966, which had exposed the racist thuggery of America’s deep South and forced the US government into major reforms.
Paisleyites prepared their plans to obstruct and harass the marchers along the long route. Retired British Army Major Ronald Bunting led the loyalists in blocking roads and staging counter demonstrations. Unknown to the young student civil rights marchers he had something quite different planned to receive them at Burntollet.
At Burntollet Bunting had organised the mobilisation of an estimated 400 loyalists including appropriately 100 off-duty B Specials to ambush the young students in a brutal punishing attack. Local farmers delivered trailer loads of rocks from a nearby quarry. Piles of stones and rocks were prepared. Loyalists wearing white armbands for self identification armed themselves with bars and makeshift clubs and waited for the arrival of the unsuspecting and unarmed marchers.
As the marchers approached Burntollet they were met with a barrage of stones and rocks from the higher ground of the adjoining fields . When they tried to make a run for it they found their escape blocked by another crowd of unionists backed up by the RUC. They then found themselves being charged and beaten by the club bearing unionists. Protesters were chased into the fields, beaten down and thrown in a river. Some students at the front managed to break through and ran up the road to the RUC who then ignored the students pleas to intervene.
Bernadette Devlin recalls the moment when she faced the wrath of Orange anger at Burntollet.
“As I stood there I could see a great big lump of flatwood, like a plank out of an orange-box, getting nearer and nearer my face, and there were two great nails sticking out of it. By a quick reflex action, my hand reached my face before the wood did, and immediate two nails went into the back of my hand. Just after that I was struck on the back of the knees with this bit of wood which had failed to get me in the face, and fell to the ground.”
After being twice again attacked going through the Waterside are of Derry City the remnants of the march eventually arrived at The Guildhall to a rousing reception. Later that night the nationalist youth of the Bogside defended their area following further RUC provocation, prompting the first painting of the slogan ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ on a soon-to-be world famous gable wall.
In the immediate aftermath of the ambush Terence O’Neill, the ‘Prime Minister’ of the Six County state, ridiculously blamed People’s Democracy for the violence, causing further resentment among the Catholic community. The Burntollet march exposed the violence of the Orange State to the world. The interconnected pillars of the state in the form of the Stormont parliament, the RUC, the B-Specials, the Orange Order and the Paisleyite mobs all played their part in attempting to violently suppress the modest demand for basic civil rights.
The Orange state, deliberately constructed as a ‘protestant state for a protestant people’, was shown to be incapable of reform in the months that followed the Burntollet Bridge ambush. The scene was then set for the next phase of the republican struggle as a generation of remarkable young women and men joined an armed and unarmed insurrection against the Orange State and British rule in Ireland.