A DUP MP who was a teenager in Londonderry in 1968 believes working-class Protestants didn’t join the civil rights campaign 50 years ago because they “feared what it would become”.
East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell was living in the Bond’s Hill area of the Waterside when on October 5, 1968, just a few hundred metres away from his family home, there was a showdown between a civil rights protestors and the RUC at Duke Street.
The police used batons in an attempt to disperse the marchers and violent skirmishes broke out.
Footage captured by Irish broadcaster RTE had a major impact on the public consciousness, and the following month the Northern Ireland prime minister Terence O’Neill appealed for calm in his ‘Ulster at the crossroads’ speech.
Mr Campbell is due to speak at an event organised by the Ulster History Project in Stranmillis tomorrow to give his perspective of the momentous events 50 years ago.
He told the News Letter that, aside from notable exceptions such as Ivan Cooper, Protestants and unionists decided against joining the civil rights protestors.
Mr Campbell said memories of the IRA’s border campaign, which ran from 1956 to 1962, were still fresh in the minds of working-class Protestants when the movement came to prominence in 1968.
“You have to remember, 1968 was only six years after what was called the ‘56 campaign by the old IRA,” he said.
“It was a sustained campaign and it was a direct attack on Northern Ireland’s border installations. In fact, because of that, whenever the civil rights campaign came on to the streets and then violence took over, it was because of the relatively recent history that border installations were put back in place. Many people thought this was a resurrection of the campaign that had just finished a few years ago.
“It was in people’s minds in ‘68 when the civil rights movement came on. They were campaigning for issues like housing conditions, jobs and votes – which the Protestant working class didn’t have either. Because of the very recent IRA campaign there were many in the unionist community who viewed that (civil rights) movement with extreme suspicion.
“Then, obviously, once riots started in ‘69 – and that was before the murders, I’m talking about August of ‘69, the Battle of the Bogside and all that – people’s memories were quite fresh in terms of the previous IRA campaign.”
Mr Campbell believes subsequent events show those suspicions were justified.
“So within a short period of time, any reservations that the broad mass of working-class Protestants had about what the make up would be of the civil rights movement, and what its aims and objectives were, there was no doubt in the mind of 99% of the working-class unionist community that this was a resurrection of previous IRA campaigns.
“And that’s how things panned out thereafter,” he added. “Even though many of the demands that people in the nationalist community made were equally applicable in our community.”
The DUP MP described how, aged 15, he became politicised by the events that followed the civil rights march at Duke Street.
“I had no interest in, nor did I have any inclination towards politics,” he said. “We weren’t a political family. Before ‘68-69 political issues didn’t cut much mustard with ordinary working people. There wasn’t much trouble. Voting came and went on a sporadic basis.
“We lived on a street just off Bond’s Hill called York Street. It was about 700 metres from Duke Street. I would say I lived closer to Duke Street, as a guess, than the vast majority of the people who took part in that march.
“The house that I lived in was a two-up-two-down terraced house and we didn’t have a bathroom. We didn’t have an inside toilet. We didn’t have hot running water. We didn’t have a kitchen, we had what we called a scullery – it had cold water and you could heat up a kettle to either bathe or wash. The scullery was about ten feet by ten feet, a tiny little box.
“My living conditions were probably similar to the people on the march and I lived beside the march, so people might say ‘well why on earth then did you not join in?’.
“But you’ve got to look at what the marchers were saying, what the placards were saying, what the aims and objectives of those in the march were, and how did it turn out a few short weeks and months after. And then you see why the likes of me didn’t join in.
“As I say I had no interest in politics but I became interested very quickly. I worked in the city centre and I could see all these demonstrations. And the more I could see this going on, the more angry and irate I was getting.”
He added: “I could see people demanding these rights that I didn’t have, which was fair enough, but they were blaming me for them not having these rights. And I didn’t have them either!
“Then you get this view that ‘well you should’ve been out and you would’ve been had your betters not told you this was all a communist plot designed to overthrow Northern Ireland’. That just didn’t enter the equation.
“The bottom line was the working-class Protestants had similar conditions to the working-class Catholics but, because they saw what the campaign was like, they didn’t join in.
“They feared what it would become, that it would evolve into an all-out campaign against the state.
“And so it became.”