Fifty years ago, the Battle of the Bogside in Derry between Catholics and police, combined with the attacks on Catholic areas of Belfast by Protestants, led to two crucial developments that were to define the political landscape for decades: the arrival of the British army and the creation of the Provisional IRA.
An eruption in Northern Ireland was always likely after half a century of undiluted Protestant and unionist party hegemony over the Catholics. But its extreme militarisation and length was largely determined by what happened in August 1969.
An exact rerun of this violent past is improbable, but the next few months could be equally decisive in determining the political direction of Northern Ireland. The Brexit crisis is reopening all the old questions about the balance of power between Catholics and Protestants and relations with Britain and the Irish Republic that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 had provided answers with which everybody could live.
The occasion which led to the battle of the Bogside came on 12 August when the Apprentice Boys, a fraternity memorialising the successful Protestant defence of Derry against Catholic besiegers in the 17th century, held their annual march. Tensions were already high in Derry and Belfast because the unionist government and its overwhelmingly Protestant police force was trying to reassert its authority, battered and under threat since the first civil rights marches in 1968.
What followed was closer to an unarmed uprising than a riot as the people of the Bogside barricaded their streets and threw stones and petrol bombs to drive back attacks by hundreds of policemen using batons and CS gas. In 48 hours of fighting, a thousand rioters were treated for injuries and the police suffered unsustainable casualties, but they had failed to gain control of the Bogside.
Its defenders called for protests in other parts of the North to show solidarity with their struggle and to overstretch the depleted Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). In Belfast, Protestants stormed into the main Catholic enclave in the west of the city, burning houses and forcing Catholics to flee. The RUC stood by or actively aided the attacks. The local MP Paddy Devlin estimated that 650 families were burned out in a single night, many taking refuge in the Irish Republic
I was in Bombay Street, where all the houses were burned on the night of 14-15 August, earlier this year. The street was long ago rebuilt but still has a feeling of abnormality and menace because it is only a few feet from the “peace line” with its high wall and higher wire mesh to stop missiles being thrown over the top from the Protestant district next door.
The most striking feature of Bombay Street is the large memorial garden, though it is more like a religious shrine, to martyrs both military and civilian from the district who have been killed by political violence since 1916. A high proportion of these were members of the Provisional IRA who died in the fighting during the 30 years of warfare after Bombay Street was burned.
The memorial is a reminder of the connection between what many local people see as an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1969 and the rise of the Provisional IRA. It split away from what became known as the official IRA because the latter had failed to defend Catholic districts.
Pictures of the ruins of Bombay Street on the morning of 15 August show local people giving British soldiers cups of tea. But this brief amity was never going to last because the unionist government in Stormont had asked the prime minister of day, Harold Wilson, to send in the troops not to defend Catholics but to reinforce its authority.
It was the role the British army were to play in one way or another for the next 30 years. It was one which was bound not only to fail but to be counterproductive. So long as the soldiers were there in support of a Protestant and unionist political and military establishment, the IRA were always going to have enough popular support to stay in business.
British governments at the time never got a grip on the political realities of the North. Soon after the troops were first sent there, the cabinet minister Richard Crossman blithely recorded in his diary that “we have now got ourselves into something which we can hardly mismanage”. But mismanage it they did and on a grotesque scale. The Provisionals were initially thin on the ground, but army raids and arrests acted as their constant recruiting sergeant. Internment without trial introduced on 9 August 1971, the anniversary of which falls today, was another boost as were the hunger strikes of 1981 which turned Sinn Fein into a significant political force.
What are the similarities between the situation today and 50 years ago? In many respects, it is transformed because there is no Protestant unionist state backed by the British army. The Provisional IRA no longer exists. The GFA has worked astonishingly well in allowing Protestants and Catholics to have their separate identities and, on occasion though less effectively, to share power.
Brexit and the Conservative Party dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for its parliamentary majority since 2017 has thrown all these gains into the air. DUP activists admit privately that they want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic because they have never liked the GFA and would like to gut it. Sinn Fein, which gets about 70 per cent of the Catholic/nationalist vote these days, is pleased that the partition of Ireland is once again at the top of the political agenda.
“I am grappling with the idea of a hard border which I would call a Second Partition of Ireland,” Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein veteran and former lord mayor of Belfast, told me. He is baffled by British actions that appear so much against their interests, saying that “they had parked the Irish problem, but now Ireland has moved once again into the centre of British politics”.
Would Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to get rid of “the backstop” evaporate if he wins or loses a general election and the Conservatives are no longer dependent on the DUP for their majority? Possibly, but his right-wing government has plenty of members who never liked the GFA and their speeches show them to be even more ignorant about Northern Ireland politics than their predecessors in Harold Wilson’s cabinet half a century ago.
An example of this is their oft-declared belief that some magical gadget will be found to monitor the border by remote means. But any such device will be rapidly torn down and smashed where the border runs through nationalist majority parts of the border.
Northern Ireland may be at peace, but in a border area like strongly Republican South Armagh, the police only move in convoys of three vehicles and carry rifles, even if they are only delivering a parking ticket.
Catholics are no longer the victims of economic discrimination, though Derry still has the highest unemployment of any city in the UK. There has been levelling down as well as levelling up: Harland and Wolff, the great shipyard that once employed much of the population of Protestant east Belfast, went into administration this week.
Irish unity is being discussed as a practical, though highly polarising, proposition once again. Political and economic turmoil is back in a deeply divided and fragile society in which the binds holding it together are easily unstitched.