From the walls of Derry

Steve Hedley from the Colin Roach Centre witnesses the RUC attack

ON AUGUST 12 four members of the Colin Roach Centre delegation to Ireland demonstrated in solidarity with around 200 residents of the Bogside against sectarian marches through nationalist areas.

August 12 is when loyalists ‘celebrate’ the lifting of the siege of Derry. The annual apprentice boys’ march was scheduled for the first time since 1969 to march past the section of the Derry walls adjoining the republican Bogside area.

Orange parades have always been a source of tension, but with the year-long ceasefire now in force it was extremely provocative to march past the Bogside.

Local residents showed their displeasure by mounting an all-night vigil on the controversial section of the walls. This was needed because the RUC (a sectarian police force known for its covert death squads) had threatened to deny republicans their right to peacefully protest.

Bogside residents stressed that they had no objection to loyalists marching in their own areas, but did not want them in Bogside where their triumphalist anti-Catholic behaviour would cause offence.

The night of August 11 was marked by the RUC cordoning off the city walls and by drunken loyalists chanting sectarian songs from behind the safety of RUC lines. Such songs included jeering the 13 civilians murdered in Derry on Bloody Sunday by British paratroopers. The republicans remained calm in the face of this.

The next day a massive police presence attempted to isolate the republicans occupying the walls by refusing access to hundreds of Bogside residents who wished to join the protest. At 10.30am armed police dressed in riot gear began to remove the republicans one by one.

Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuiness appealed for calm as the RUC threw a 60-year old woman down a flight of steps. In a display of discipline the protesters remained peaceful despite being kicked, punched and having their hair pulled by the police.

The RUC thus exposed its own brutality and sectarianism in front of the world’s media.

After about half an hour the walls were cleared, but in a final gesture of defiance republicans stood with their backs to the RUC and the sectarian marchers, giving a clenched fist victory salute.

At around 2pm a gang of loyalist thugs attempted to attack the Bogside. Local people were forced to defend themselves and chased the loyalists (some who gave fascist salutes) out of the area. The RUC retaliated by charging through Butchers Gate in riot gear. Around 50 police were met with a hail of bricks, bottles and petrol bombs from incensed local youth, many of whom had not attended the demonstration on the walls, but had seen RUC brutality on their TV screens.

The RUC had to retreat and one of its armoured jeeps was completely burnt out. Rioting continued into the night despite numerous plastic bullets being fired and despite Sinn Fein’s calls for calm.

The lessons are clear:

  1. The RUC is a sectarian police force which uses every opportunity to brutalise nationalists and will never be accepted in nationalist areas.
  2. Despite the self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ elements appearing among the loyalists - ie, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party - most are caught in a sectarian triumphalist time warp.
  3. The peace process is coming under increasing pressure from rank and file republicans because their elected representatives - Sinn Fein - are still not included in all-party talks.

If the British government wants to salvage any hope of peace, it must as a minimum allow unconditional all-party talks now.