Free Derry Protest and Resistance

Adrian Kerr's history of protest and resistance in the maiden city 'is a valuable addition to the Troubles canon'

Today tourists stream to the Bogside in Derry~Londonderry, where the gable wall with the famous slogan ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ still survives.

In Free Derry: Protest and Resistance, Adrian Kerr tells us that it was in January 1969 that the journalist and activist Eamonn McCann devised the slogan, modelling it on one used by the American student protest movement: ‘You Are Now Entering Free Berkeley’. That serves as a reminder of international influences that helped enliven the early and heady days of Free Derry.

McCann wrote War in an Irish City (1993) about the conflict in Derry~Londonderry, and, great survivor that he is, re-surfaces here with a foreword in which he eloquently describes how ‘the revolutionary flourishes which had found some resonance in the first flush of Free Derry gave way to a grimmer reality'.

He notes that it is ‘startling’ that Kerr’s book is ‘the first to focus on Free Derry’ specifically, and to give it ‘the centrality and significance which history demands’. Kerr, as manager of the Museum of Free Derry, is well placed to do it.

There was no historical indication that the miniscule territory of the Bogside, Brandywell and the Creggan, with its mere 888 acres and 25,000 inhabitants, would play a pivotal role in Irish history.

Rather the heritage of this overwhelmingly Catholic community was one of marginalisation. Geographically they lay outside and beneath the walls of the city’s citadel, a metaphor for their powerlessness.

Kerr suggests that the first gerrymander in local government took place in 1895, yet Nationalists achieved fleeting control of the Corporation in 1920.

Following partition systematic gerrymandering certainly ensured renewed Unionist dominance, as evidenced in the last election under the old system in 1967 when Unionists secured 60% of the seats with 32% of the vote.

Because the right to vote was dependent on house ownership or tenancy, the future Free Derry was allowed to languish with an appalling housing crisis. Meanwhile mass unemployment, especially for men, was the norm.

A conservative Nationalism rather than Republicanism was the main and impotent political expression of the community. Various issue related protest movements which emerged in the 1960s suggested alternatives, though initially without effect.

The batoning of the October 5, 1968 Civil Rights demonstration in Derry, and the attacks on the January 1969 People’s Democracy march at nearby Burntollet and in Derry itself, had a profoundly radicalising effect.

One is struck nonetheless by the unplanned trajectory of events in August 1969, and the amateurishness of the forces involved. Youths rioted in opposition to an Apprentice Boys march; the RUC pursued them into the Bogside backed up by Loyalists and were unable to cope with the reaction they provoked.

It seems extraordinary now that the forces of the Unionist state were repelled by no more than petrol bombs (a receipt for some of the petrol is reproduced here) and rocks. Sympathetic disturbances launched elsewhere, in fact, played a pivotal role, and the contrast between the nature of events in Derry and in Belfast, where the guns came out amidst communal mayhem, is stark.

It is also remarkable how easily the barricades of the first Free Derry were removed, with normalisation proceeding as far as the tentative re-introduction of the supposedly ‘reformed’ RUC.

The traction of limited reforms was fatally undermined by a tough law and order policy and mandatory sentences, the most high profile casualty of this being Bernadette Devlin, by then MP for Mid-Ulster, jailed for her role in the original battle of the Bogside. Derry riots followed, and increasingly the young rioters answerable to no-one propel events.

Free Derry was still no Republican fiefdom. When Internment was introduced in August 1971 only 16 were arrested in the city. The barricades re-emerged as part of province wide resistance.

‘Bloody Sunday’ and the killing of 14 civil rights marchers in January 1972 brought Free Derry centre stage again. Given the massive available literature on this seminal event, Kerr can add little that is original, but gives a succinct and well illustrated summary.

This was the point at which armed struggle obliterated other possibilities in Derry in particular. A deadly tide afflicting innocent civilians, Republicans, and members of the security forces followed. Kerr, in describing circumstances, largely draws on the standard work Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles, compiled by Chris Thorton, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and David McKittrick.

Free Derry came to an end with overwhelming British force applied in Operation Motorman in July 1972. It had been well signalled in advance and Republican forces melted away to fight for many another day.

Kerr’s workmanlike narrative substantially relies on the Nationalist Derry Journal . One wonders what the rival Londonderry Sentinel had to say?

There is incidental evidence of the role of Ian Paisley in exacerbating tensions, and of Unionist and DUP hard line proposals for finally solving the Free Derry problem. Kerr does consider the fate of west bank Derry Protestants, and justifiably dismisses talk of ‘ethnic cleansing’, but their numbers fell from 18,000 to 500 during the Troubles. As Kerr accepts, it may have felt little different to those who moved.

Free Derry: Protest and Resistance is a very well illustrated history, though it is a pity that posters reproduced in full colour are not better captioned. Despite its narrow focus on that small but pivotal area, this is a valuable addition to the Troubles canon.

Free Derry: Protest and Resistance is out now, published by Guildhall Press.