Jan 4, 1969 Burntollet Bridge
Summary of Main Events
The People's Democracy decided to go ahead with a four-day march from Belfast to Derry, starting on 1 January. The march would be the acid test of the government's intentions. Either the government would face up to the extreme right of its own Unionist Party and protect the march from the 'harassing and hindering' immediately threatened by Major Bunting, or it would be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster would be forced to intervene, re-opening the whole Irish question for the first time in 50 years. The march was modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama in 1966, which had exposed the racist thuggery of America's deep South and forced the US government into major reforms.
Michael Farrell (1976) Northern Ireland The Orange State London: Pluto Press. (p.249)
Available police forces did not provide adequate protection to People's Democracy marchers at Burntollet Bridge and in or near Irish Street, Londonderry on 4th January 1969. There were instances of police indiscipline and violence towards persons unassociated with rioting or disorder on 4th/ 5th January in Londonderry and these provoked serious hostility to the police, particularly among the Catholic population of Londonderry, and an increasing disbelief in their impartiality towards non-Unionists
(paragraphs 97-101 and 177).
Cameron Report. Disturbances in Northern Ireland. September 1969. (Cmd 532) (Summary of Conclusions; paragraph 15)
The People's Democracy March left Belfast on 1 January and arrived in Derry on 4 January 1969. The march had been organised by a group called People's Democracy which had been formed on 9 October 1968 and mainly consisted of students from the Queen's University of Belfast. The march was intended to increase the pressure for social justice and to draw attention to events in Northern Ireland since the Derry March on 5 October 1968.
Loyalists viewed the People's Democracy and the march as another attempt to undermine the Unionist government of Northern Ireland. A number of leading Loyalists, including Ronald Bunting and Ian Paisley, had indicated in advance of the march that they would be calling on 'the Loyal citizens of Ulster' to 'harrass and harry' the four-day march.
On each day of the march groups of Loyalists confronted, jostled, and physically attacked those taking part in the march. At no time did the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), who were accompanying the march, make any effort to prevent these attacks. The most serious incidents occurred on the last day between Claudy and Derry. The march was ambushed at Burntollet Bridge by approximately 200 Loyalists, including off-duty members of the 'B-Specials', and 13 marchers required hospital treatment.
The march was again attacked as it passed through the Waterside area of Derry. Later in the evening members of the RUC attacked people and property in the Bogside area of Derry sparking several days of serious rioting.
The way in which the police mishandled the People's Democracy march confirmed the opinion of many Catholics that the RUC could not be trusted to provide impartial policing in Northern Ireland. The events also further alienated many in the Catholic population from the Northern Ireland state. The march also marked the point where concerns about civil rights were beginning to give way to questions related to national identity and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
As what was left of the marchers continued on to Derry they were also attacked twice in Derry’s Waterside before receiving a rousing welcome in Guildhall Square.