Battle of the Bogside: A 50-year-old lesson in the fragility of Northern Ireland’s peace

In August 1969, British troops were sent into Northern Ireland to break up a riot in Derry. It was to become the British army’s longest war. As Brexit looms, Ben Kelly says the hard-won and fragile peace must be respected

Sunday 11 August 2019 20:33
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The Bogside, 12 August 1969: police watch from a distance as crowds gather around a fire (Getty)
The Bogside, 12 August 1969: police watch from a distance as crowds gather around a fire (Getty)

It’s been 50 years since British troops marched into Derry, in Northern Ireland, and proceeded to beat the life out of the fledgling civil rights movement. Just like flare-ups in Kashmir this week over autonomy and citizens in Hong Kong resisting tighter controls from China, the messy legacy of Britain’s colonial past continues to play out around the world.

Northern Ireland was established in 1921, and the British government left Stormont to be run primarily by Protestant unionists. In the decades that followed, the nationalist minority, which was largely Catholic, suffered systemic discrimination: they were disproportionately blocked from the electoral process, housing and jobs. By 1968, inspired in part by the African-American quest for equality in the US, a civil rights movement was set up to protest peacefully against the establishment. It was born with genuine cross-community aspirations, as veteran socialist Eamonn McCann recalls.

“I remember trying and failing to get across to people that while Protestants had slightly better chances of getting houses than Catholics, the majority of the Protestant working class was not living in good housing either.”

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