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5 October 2011

On this day in history: Police baton-charge civil rights marchers in Derry, 1968

In the late 1960s, a civil rights movement appeared in Northern Ireland. Borrowing language and tactics from the American Civil Rights Movement, organisations such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) began campaigning for civil rights for various groups, particularly for Catholics who felt discriminated against by a Stormont government dominated by Protestant Unionists. They called for an end to the gerrymandering of election wards that preserved Unionist rule; the end of unequal allocation of housing and discrimination in employment; and repeal of the Special Powers Act, which gave the Royal Ulster Company (RUC) repressive powers.

Local groups also formed to protest against particular problems, such as the Derry Housing Action Committee, which sought to draw attention to the plight of the homeless and tenants of unscrupulous landlords by organising peaceful protests. In September 1968, this committee planned a march through the city on behalf of the NICRA to be held on Saturday 5th October 1968. On the 1st October, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal society, announced that they would also be marching on the same day, along the same route, at the same time.

The Home Affairs Minister, William Craig, decided to ban the civil rights march, but around four-hundred demonstrators defied the ban, including members of both Stormont and Westminster parliaments. As the protesters gathered to set off the RUC broke-up the march with a baton charge. In the melee many marchers received injuries including some of the MPs.

The violent prevention of the march angered Catholic communities not only in Northern Ireland but also around the world following the transmission of television footage of the police action. Some residents of Nationalist areas in Derry were so incensed that they took to the streets in three days of riots. Elsewhere in the province, the baton-charge radicalised civil-rights supporters setting the scene for over thirty years of sectarian violence.

The University of Ulster web-site includes information about the Derry March.

Related posts
Night of the Barricades: 10th May 1968
Belgrade student revolt: 2nd June 1968
Buffalo Nine arrested: 19th August 1968
Tlatelolco Massacre: 2nd October 1968
Rodney Riots: 16th October 1968


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