I started going to Derry from Galway in the mid-1980s and was struck by the familiarity and ordinariness of so many aspects of life in the city. This made it even more difficult to understand the more unusual aspects of life; the army patrols, the watchtowers, the high levels of popular involvement in paramilitary organisations, particularly during the early stages of the conflict. When I started to do research about Derry it was to answer a question I couldn’t find a good answer to anywhere else. How could such extreme events happen in a place which was so familiar and ordinary?
I started by looking for evidence of tension and change before the Troubles in the 1950s and 60s, looking for an explanation for the sudden eruption of violence in 1968.
There had been earlier eruptions of violence. In 1951 and 1952 the Nationalist party attempted to stage a St. Patrick’s day march into the walled city centre. These marches were succesfully dispersed by baton-charges and the riots which followed were short-lived and had no political sequel. In subsequent years a heavy RUC presence on the streets of the city on St. Patrick’s day deterred any further attempts to march. The challenge had been successfully repressed. The eruption of violence around a banned march in 1968 was not a novelty therefore. But the sequel was. The baton-charge and subsequent riot in 1968 provided the spark for a major civil rights campaign with massive popular support which proved impossible to repress by traditional methods. The crucial difference between 1968 and the early-1950s was not the violence but the political mobilisation which followed it.
At the end of the second world war in 1945 the bulk of Derry Catholics were the tenants of private landlords. By 1967, after a major post-war house-building programme, the bulk of Derry Catholics were tenants in new public housing estates where it was much easier to act collectively to exert pressure on the public agencies responsible for housing. Organisation and agitation on housing issues was spurred on by the small-scale successes achieved in dealings with the housing authorities.
There was a steady growth in community organisation and local political activism in Derry in 1967 and 1968 as tenants’ associations were set up in Catholic areas all around the city for the first time. Radical activism and the activism of a new Catholic middle-class began to focus increasingly on the issue of housing.
At the same time there was a continuing housing shortage, attributed to the Unionist-controlled Corporation’s determination to maintain Unionist control of the city by restricting the building of new houses. The perceived centrality of the Unionist corporation to the continued housing crisis provided a direct and obvious link between a basic material issue and the issue of Unionist political control. It was clear that the urgent and immediate housing crisis in Derry could only be solved by major political change.
The change in housing tenure facilitated new forms of collective organisation while the direct link between housing-need and Unionist political control made it possible to focus discontent with housing onto an immediate political goal, the toppling of the Unionist corporation in Derry. By 1968 the development of low-level collective action around housing had helped to build the strong networks and tactical experience crucial to the success of the civil rights campaign in the city.
Niall O Dochartaigh
(1999) ‘The Politics of Housing; Social Change and Collective Action in Derry in the 1960s’ in Derry and Londonderry: History and Society. Dublin: Geography Publications.
(1997) From Civil Rights to Armalites: Derry and the Birth of the Irish Troubles, 1st edn. Cork: Cork University Press.
The full text of Chapter 4, The British Army , is available through CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet).
Excerpts from reviews of From Civil Rights to Armalites
(1989) Before the Troubles: Derry in the 1960s. MA thesis, University College, Galway.