Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Friday, 3 October 2008 10:16 UK

The day that the Troubles began

By Freya McClements
BBC News

A poster advertising the march in Derry on 5 October, 1968.  Pic courtesy Museum of Free Derry
A poster advertising the march in 1968. Pic courtesy Museum of Free Derry

On 5 October, 1968, a civil rights march in Derry in protest at the allocation of houses, jobs, and restrictions on the right to vote ended in violence when the RUC turned a water cannon on, and then batoned the marchers.

Often regarded as marking the start of the Troubles, the Duke Street march was a crucial turning point in the campaign for civil rights in Northern Ireland.

Planned by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) with the support of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), its 40th anniversary this weekend will be commemorated with an international civil rights conference at Derry's Guildhall.

Derry Labour Party member Dermie McClenaghan was one of the committee who organised the march.

"The situation in the 1960s in Derry was that there was high unemployment, no housing programme at all, electoral boundaries which hadn't been expanded, and there was no such thing as one man one vote - there were all sorts of things wrong.

"I was standing outside the Guildhall at a housing demonstration with Eamonn McCann and Eamon Melaugh, and we decided that Eamon Melagh was going to phone up NICRA and ask them to come and hold a march in Derry," he said.

"The civil rights march was organised for 5 October.

Passed out placards

"I remember that particular morning, I had all these placards in the house, and I brought them along with me and passed them out as I walked to the start of the march at Duke Street.

"The marchers were stopped just at the end of the [Craigavon] bridge, with the police all lined up in front of them.

"Ivan Cooper and some others were making speeches, and I think the police must have thought there was no way out, and attacked them.

"They beat people to the ground viciously," he said.

Civil rights march
'One man one vote' was one of the aims of the civil rights campaign

"I thought, there's more to it than just keeping order, this is about teaching them a lesson.

"It was about civil rights - well they were showing us they thought we had no right to exist.

"They were doing it with an arrogance that could only have come from the state," he said.

Dermie said he escaped serious injury because he was standing so near the RUC lines.

"The blood was awful, and the violence was awful.

"John Hume, Eamon Melaugh and myself lifted the injured people and brought them into a restaurant and laid them on the tables.

"I eventually made my way back to the Bogside and I met Eamonn McCann.

"We looked up and saw the first riot of the Troubles beginning, at the top of Fahan Street.

"We couldn't quite believe the extent of it

"Imagine that was the start of the Troubles," he said.

Another of the organisers was Ivan Cooper.

Ivan Cooper
Ivan Cooper became a founder member of the SDLP and an MP

"It wasn't a big march, there were only about 500 people there.

"I was arrested that morning, along with Charlie Morrison and Eamonn McCann.

"We were taken to the police station, and they told us that they were going to enforce the ban at all costs.

"But they released us 20 minutes before the march.

"To this day, I don't know why they did that."

He made his way to the head of the march at Duke Street.

"The policeman was addressing the crowd with a loudhailer.

"I asked him if I could have a loan of his loudhailer - I don't know why he agreed - but he let me have it and I read out the civil rights demands."

Water cannon

The RUC turned a water cannon on the marchers before beating them with their batons.

"This was a completely non-violent march. All the violence was used against the marchers," said Ivan.

"I was in the middle of it, and in the front row of the police was a neighbour of mine from home.

"He asked me what I was doing there with a bunch of Fenians."

Ivan said that the marchers achieved a victory of sorts.

"All of the civil rights demands were conceded within three months, but it marked the beginning of a cycle of violence which eventually led up to Bloody Sunday, which then kick-started the IRA campaign.

"By 1972 people were going round saying to hell with civil rights, violence was the only way, which was the complete antithesis of the civil rights movement."

Forty years after the march, Ivan said his great disappointment is that sectarianism still exists in Northern Ireland.

"There is still sectarianism and strife between the two communities.

"It doesn't matter about power-sharing if there is still sectarianism at grass-roots level," he said.

The International Conference on Civil Rights takes place in the Guildhall, Derry, on 4 and 5 October 2008.

Speakers will include Nobel Laureate John Hume, the Irish President, Mary McAleese, and MPs Martin McGuinness, Mark Durkan and Gregory Campbell, as well as civil rights leaders, activists and others who attended the march on 5 October, 1968.

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