Janet MCEVOY –
British troops deployed into Northern Ireland for the first time 50 years ago after days of rioting in a Catholic heartland that later spread to Belfast and beyond.
Initially planned as a limited intervention to restore order, Operation Banner would last 38 years and become Britain’s longest continuous campaign. Catholic anger over discrimination in voting, housing and jobs first exploded into riots in Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s only Catholic majority city, in October 1968.
Tensions boiled over again on August 12, 1969, when stone-throwing Catholics protested an annual Protestant march which skirted their Londonderry ghetto of Bogside.
For three days there were ferocious clashes between police, backed by militant Protestants, and mainly young Catholics. The police resorted to tear gas and live fire but were unable to stop the barrage of stones, molotov cocktails and firebombs.
The area resembled a “battlefield, littered with paving stones, glass debris, projectiles of all kinds and covered with a cloud of tear gas,” an AFP journalist wrote on August 13.
The unrest spread, including to the provincial capital Belfast where the first deaths occurred on August 15.
The Northern Ireland government on August 14 asked British Prime Minister Harold Wilson for help. That afternoon the first British troops rolled into Londonderry.
“Six armoured vehicles of which four belonging to the British army arrived at Waterloo Square in Londonderry where, since 4:00 pm, new violence has broken out,” AFP reported.
Numbering 300 by the end of the day, the troops surrounded the Bogside and laid barbed wire to prevent Catholic protesters from entering Protestant neighbourhoods.
Hundreds more British troops were sent to Northern Ireland the next day, their numbers eventually peaking at almost 30,000.
IRA militants killed the first British soldier in February 1971, going on to take the lives of more than 760 before the operation was over. Protestant paramilitary groups reciprocated. The three decades of unrest known as The Troubles drove a wedge between the communities.
British troops were regularly criticised and accused of heavy-handedness.
In the worst such incident, soldiers opened fire on a Catholic civil rights march in Londonderry on January 30, 1972, killing 13 with another person dying later. — AFP