The People's Democracy was formed in the October of 1968 by students from Queens's University Belfast - to some extent it grew from the Events of May in Paris earlier that year - and its historian, Paul Arthur quotes Daniel Cohn Bendit (Danny the Red)
"In its first few months of existence it was to reflect the militance of the European student movement - direct action, sit-ins, sit-downs, pickets, marches, spontaneity. Like its French counterparts'... the emphasis was on spontaneity: "Bourgeons d'abord; nous ferons la theorie du mouvement apres" was how Daniel Cohn-Bendit described it (roughly translated it means "let's give things a shove first: we'll compose the theory of the movement afterwards")."
It was decided to go ahead with a 4 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 loosely modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama in 1966, which, including journalists and photogrpahers had exposed the racist thuggery of America's deep South and eventually helped to force the US government into major reforms.
A leaflet had been produced at the very first march in October Belfast in which 3,000 people eventually marched (including many academics), which made these brief demands
One man, one vote
Houses on Need
Jobs on Merit
Repeal of the Special Powers Act.
The principal demand had been for 'One Family, One House - and that a decent house - and all houses allocated by a fair points system.'
Egged on, it is said by Harold Wilson, the Northern Irish Prime Minister, a hard headed, farmer, realist and reformer Capt O'Neill did not attempt to evade his responsibilities. On November 22 he introduced his 'reform package.' He promised an Ombudsman, the introduction of a points system in the allocation of houses, the reform of local government elections, the repeal of parts of the Special Powers Act and the suspension of Derry Corporation.
Only about forty to eighty people , mainly young students, set out from Belfast on January 1 under the twin banners of 'Civil Rights' and 'Anti-Poverty.' It received the active assistance of the Londonderry branch of the NILP and the Radical Socialist Alliance (a small extreme left-wing splinter group from Derry). During the march itself, an Anarchist and a Republican banner were hoisted, and Republicans and NICRA supporters housed and fed the marchers along the route.
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.
At Burntollet bridge, across the shallow River Faughan , about six miles outside Derry was the scene of a carefully staged ambush by about 400 Protestant extremists. Armed with bricks and nailed cudgels and wearing white armbands as a means of identification, they laid into the defenceless marchers, many of whom were badly injured and whose only escape route was a swollen and freezing river. The remnant of the march fled on towards Derry, convinced that the RUC had offered little or no protection. This was the first blood spilt in what has become an unending conflict. (For a full description )
The way in which the police mishandled the People's Democracy March confirmed the opinion of many Catholics (if it was needed) 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.
Lord Patel once had a 50/60 page pamphlet "The Battle of Burntollet Bridge" long since lost, or finally lent, never to return, in which photographs showed the active and central role of Ian Paisley with his supporters, many of them off duty 'B' Specials from the RUC.
Oswald Mosley, a discredited man and politician but a sensible one, wrote a letter to the Times suggested that the main greivance about housing should be approached as a military operation, house should be built, and their allocation be seen to be fair and the legitimate greivances of the working class addressed - reflecting the points in the original People's Democracy leaflet quoted above.
Northern Ireland at the time was administered as a part of the Home Office and little time was spent on it in the House of Commons, Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was at the time fraudulently filling his bank account with a "little pot of gold" from Poulson, the crooked and unqualified architect along with Dan Smith the Labour spiv from Newcastle.
There was no enthusiasm in Westminster to deal with the bone headed Unionists, who followed O'Neill who had lost his seat to Paisley .
The rest is history.
Today, Paisley who could be seen waving his hefty Blackthorn stick at Burntollet is triumphant as the First Minister and has collected £1Bn. (at least) from Westminster as a peace offering.
It is a commonplace to say that if the advice of Oswald Mosley had been taken on board, if the grievances of the working classes had been addressed, the cost would have been negligible and decades of violence and death would never have happened.
PS : It is a curious fact that In 1970 the youthful (he was 21) Ronnie Flanagan (who cannot remember anything about what the Special Branch may have done) joined the RUC while still at Queen's University where he was studying physics. On the advice of the RUC he switched his degree to psychology and was initially stationed at Queen St RUC barracks during university vacations. In 1995 during an RTE interview, he denied the interviewer's suggestion (Sean O'Meoloid, Policing in Northern Ireland, 9.3.1995) that there had been 'collusion' between the RUC and loyalist attackers at Burntollet Bridge during the January 1969 People's Democracy march. Ho.Ho.Ho. ...as if...
The picture shows how the marchers were forced into the River Faughan (this was January) by stick wielding assailants and the white arm bands amongst them worn by the 'B' Specials.