Rioters running for cover Bogsiders run for cover, 1969. Photo: CAIN

In deploying troops to Derry, Downing Street was propping up the Unionist government to shield itself from blame, argues Chris Bambery

Fifty years ago a Labour government in London took a crucial decision, to commit the British Army onto the streets of Northern Ireland. The story spun by ministers was that troops were being sent in to keep the peace and to stop sectarian conflict between the Catholic and Protestant populations. Both were lies and those same ministers knew that full well.

British troops were being sent to Belfast and Derry because the Unionist government, which had ruled the one party state of Northern Ireland since its creation in 1921, had requested them. They required them because their own heavily armed police had not just failed to put down an urban insurrection of the Catholic people of Derry but were on the verge of defeat. That was unthinkable.

British ministers had also been warned that given the long history of Ireland’s fight for independence, involving guerilla war against the British Army, there was a strong likelihood that if troops were sent to police Northern Ireland they would become involved in repression aimed at the Catholic population and that would lead to retaliation.

Those documents released in 2000 on discussions in the British Cabinet and Whitehall are fascinating because they reveal how aware the administration of Harold Wilson was of what could unfold (other documents remain secret until 2050).

So Whitehall officials privately warned ministers that “history demonstrates the failure of English intervention in Irish affairs”.

What became the Northern Ireland Troubles began in Derry in October 1968 when the Royal Ulster Constabulary batoned a peaceful Civil Rights March off the streets. TV viewers were shocked to watch scenes which were so similar to those they’d seen in the Southern States of the USA a few years ago. The Northern Ireland civil rights movement was inspired by that fight and used its anthem, We Shall Overcome.

Many of those same TV viewers were shocked to discover that Derry, a city with a Catholic majority, had its local government boundaries gerrymandered to give the Unionists permanent control, that businessmen (this gender use is deliberate) got extra votes and the police were permanently armed backed up by a Unionist militia, also armed.

Northern Ireland was one big gerrymander. Sometimes called Ulster it excluded three counties historically part of the province of Ulster. It did so because when Ireland was partitioned in 1921-22 the aim was to create a large area within the UK but also one with a two thirds Protestant or Unionist population to one thirds Catholic or Nationalist.

The new state instutionalised discrimination against Catholics, who were branded disloyal, and used repression against its opponents – internment without trial was introduced in every decade of Unionist rule.

Yet in 1968 and 1969, years of global revolt young Catholics would not lie down. When the police tried to force a march of Protestant bigots through Derry’s Bogside it exploded. The police were driven back with stones then petrol bombs until they were on the verge of collapse.

The Unionist government requested the British Home Secretary for troops to be sent to Derry to maintain “order”. The Wilson government agreed. On 14 August they were deployed, too late to stop Protestant mobs burning out Catholic streets in West Belfast and the RUC murderously using heavy machine guns fired from armoured cars on the Catholic population. 

The decision to send in the troops flew in the face of previous opinion in London.

In April 1969 Wilson had warned his Cabinet:

“If it became necessary for the troops to intervene, they would be thought to be doing so in order to maintain the Orange faction in power. The constitutional consequences might be very grave, and once we were involved it would be difficult to secure our withdrawal.”

In that same meeting Callaghan states:

“There was a good deal of corroboration for the view that the Catholics had acted largely in self-defence, and there was little evidence to support the view of the Northern Ireland government that the I[Irish] R [Republican] A [Army] were mainly responsible.”

Home Office officials openly stated that the Unionist government had restricted local government votes to “their” People, had gerrymandered electoral boundaries and blocked Catholics from getting council homes.

As early as October 1968 Home Office officials wrote a report which argued:

“There are legitimate grievances in Northern Ireland and it is entirely legitimate that they should be ventilated by demonstration.”


“History demonstrates the failure of English intervention in Irish affairs … The situation is explosive; civil war is not impossible.”

The then Defence Minister Denis Healey, warned prophetically that

“troops were likely to be required in Northern Ireland for a considerable time; little confidence would be placed in the local forces by Catholics until they were seen to be working efficiently and fairly.”

In 2000 he recalled:

“All the violence was coming from the Protestants at the time.”

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, warned Wilson:

“If we cannot ensure that Ulster will be able to put their own house in order without involving us, should we not try to escape from … an involvement from which we would find it difficult and expensive to withdraw?”

So why did the Wilson government agree to the Unionist government’s request that troops be sent in?

They knew reforms were needed and, faced with urban insurrection had to be granted, but shied away from taking the obvious step: abolishing the Unionist regime and taken direct control over Northern Ireland state. Instead they kept the Unionist government in place as a buffer so Downing Street was, hopefully, out of the blame. In reality they gave the Unionists control over the pace of reform, a pace which was painfully slow. The Labour government had chosen to prop up a Unionist government which ran Northern Ireland as a sectarian, one party state.

In 1972 the Tory government did end Unionist rule but by then it was too little too late. Over the years we were told Britain aimed to remove the gun from Irish politics. Yet in 1969 the only guns were in the hands of the RUC, and they used them readily. The IRA was tiny and sidelined and split in 1969. But British actions would create the Provisional IRA and ensure it had popular support in the Catholic population.

In July 1970 the British imposed an illegal curfew on the Lower Falls Catholic area of Belfast. They sealed the area off, saturated it with riot gas and shot four unarmed civilians dead. Unionist MPs were toured round the streets in army Land Rovers. It wasn’t until February 1971 that the IRA killed its first British soldier.

On 9 August 1971 the army swooped into Catholic areas at dawn dragging off 346 men to be interned without trial, often for years. Few were IRA activists. No Loyalists were taken. Nine civilians were shot dead as rioting spread in response. By now the IRA was recruiting widely.

In its own analysis of operations in Northern Ireland the British army stresses it opposed internment and only acted under orders. This did not stop the army secretly taking 12 men away and subjecting them to a grotesque experiment in “sensory deprivation techniques”.

Repression peaked with the Bloody Sunday killings of 30 January 1972 in Derry. A month before, General Harry Tuzo, the army commander in Northern Ireland, told the then Tory government that,

“A choice had to be made between accepting that Creggan and Bogside were areas where the army was not able to go, or to mount a major operation which would involve, at some stage, shooting at unarmed civilians.”

The government raised no objections. 

On 7 January 1972 General Robert Ford declared in a memo to Tuzo, 

“I am coming to the conclusion that the minimum force necessary is to shoot selected ringleaders among the Derry young hooligans after clear warnings have been issued.

I am convinced that our duty to restore law and order requires us to consider this step.”

At Downing Street four days later prime minister Ted Heath told his cabinet,

“As to Londonderry [Derry], a military operation to reimpose law and order would be a major operation necessarily involving numerous civilian casualties.”

Accordingly, the paratroop regiment was sent to the city on the eve of a protest march against internment. The paratroops were sent into the Bogside following a minor riot. They shot 14 unarmed protesters dead. This was a massacre similar to ones British troops had committed around the world. Killings by the army would continue. In response, the IRA became the most effective guerilla movement of its day.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s the British policy was to use force to contain the Northern Ireland problem. Over time they became convinced they could not defeat the IRA. Its leaders came to a similar conclusion, leading the way to the subsequent peace deal. Having once labelled the IRA as “murderers” who they could never talk to, the British government was finally forced to negotiate.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.