Day the Troubles began

5 October 1968

When a banned civil rights march in Londonderry led to clashes between police and protesters, it sparked widespread disorder and rioting across Northern Ireland.

For many, this is the moment 30 years of violent conflict known as the Troubles began.

Photo: A civil rights protester meets the police line on Duke Street, 5 October 1968

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The Troubles
The Troubles

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Before the Troubles

The protest movements that broke out across the western world in 1968 had captured the imagination of many people in Northern Ireland, leading to the creation of a local civil rights movement that began a series of marches and protests calling for greater equality for the Catholic/nationalist minority.

The civil rights movement formed in Belfast in January 1967 drew inspiration from the campaign for equal rights in the United States led by Martin Luther King. Since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had held power. The UUP drew its support from the predominantly Protestant unionist/loyalist community and many of the policies it enacted marginalised and discriminated against the Catholic/nationalist minority.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) called for wide-ranging reforms: it demanded equal voting rights in local government elections; a fairer system for the allocation of public housing; an end to 'gerrymandering' (the manipulation of electoral boundaries to give one community an electoral advantage); an end to discrimination in employment; the disbandment of the 'B-Specials' (an all-Protestant auxiliary police force); and the repeal of the Special Powers Act (which allowed for internment of suspects without trial).

By 1968, the civil rights movement was beginning to gather support from local politicians as well as some prominent MPs in the British Parliament at Westminster. The Ulster Unionist government in Northern Ireland, led by Prime Minister Terence O'Neill, was under pressure from all sides for its hesitant approach to social reform. The reforms that were made were considered too much by many in the unionist/loyalist community and too little by many of those in the nationalist/republican community. Those on both sides of the debate agreed on one thing - opposition to O'Neill's regime.

Showdown on 5 October

After their first march on 24 August 1968 in County Tyrone, NICRA were invited by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) to hold a march in County Londonderry on 5 October. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal society, announced plans to march the same route, on the same day. Northern Ireland's Minister of Home Affairs William Craig responded by issuing a banning order on all marches within the boundaries of the planned route.

On the day of the march, a few hundred civil rights protesters planned to walk from Duke Street, in the predominantly Protestant Waterside area of Derry, to the Diamond in the centre of the city. Duke Street had been declared out of bounds by Craig's order and marchers were confronted by rows of police officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

The police used batons and water cannon in an attempt to disperse the marchers and violent skirmishes broke out. Among those injured in the clash were Gerry Fitt, a Republican and Labour MP, and three Labour MPs (Russell Kerr, Anne Kerr and John Ryan). Dramatic images were captured on camera by the media and broadcast around the world.

Fallout and reaction

Television news coverage of these events brought the situation in Northern Ireland to international attention and serious rioting broke out locally. More civil rights demonstrations and counter demonstrations followed in the weeks and months ahead, with many ending in clashes as the security situation slipped out of control. The next major civil rights march (organised by the People's Democracy) in January 1969 was ambushed just outside Derry by loyalists, with some of the attackers later identified as members of the security forces - in this case B-Specials. Serious rioting followed in Derry that evening and over subsequent days.

Tensions were not confined to the streets. Prime Minister O'Neill was under pressure both inside and outside his own government to take decisive action. O'Neill set up the Cameron Commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disturbances in Derry on 5 October 1968. He then called a snap election in an attempt to sideline his critics.

The move backfired. The Ulster Unionist Party retained power but suffered serious splits into pro- and anti-O'Neill factions. O'Neill himself even struggled to retain his own seat, only narrowly holding off the challenge of his political bête noire, Ian Paisley. On 28 April 1969, O'Neill resigned as prime minister of Northern Ireland.

The Troubles escalate

Rioting continued to be commonplace in Derry and Belfast through the summer of 1969, a period which also saw the first deaths of the conflict.

When an Apprentice Boys march in Derry on 12 August sparked rioting in the Catholic 'Bogside' area, two days of serious violence broke out across Northern Ireland. With the police unable to cope with the scope and scale of the disturbances, Northern Ireland's government at Stormont requested that the British Army be sent in to restore order. Initially envisaged as a brief intervention, 'Operation Banner' was to become the longest continuous campaign in the history of the British Army, only coming to an end in July 2007.

By the end of 1969, various 'no-go' areas had been established and 'peace walls' set up in Belfast and Derry. A large population movement began that saw once mixed areas become exclusively Protestant or Catholic, polarising not only people, but also opinions and attitudes. Paramilitary groups on both sides began to re-emerge, gaining in strength and status as widespread civil disorder quickly escalated into a bloody conflict that would last for nearly 30 years.

The Cameron Report, published in September 1969, concluded that there had been "use of unnecessary and ill-controlled force in the dispersal of the demonstrators" in Derry on 5 October 1968. Eamonn McCann, one of the organisers of the march, said that the thing he recalled most in the aftermath of the day was "the number of people who came up to me and said, using the exact phrase: 'Things will never be the same again'. And they were right."