More than 50 years ago, in August 1969, the Northern Irish Troubles began in earnest with the battle of the Bogside. For three days, from 12–14 August, large crowds armed with stones and petrol bombs, loosely coordinated by the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association, battled successfully to keep the Royal Ulster Constabulary out of the Bogside area of the city after violence broke out during the annual loyalist Apprentice Boys march.

The civil rights campaign had begun with a great sense of optimism a year earlier, but from October 1968, when police baton-charged a march in Derry’s Duke Street, civil rights protests had been surrounded by increasing tension. Derry – or Londonderry, as it is officially known – was the North’s second largest city. It was a chiefly nationalist city, but gerrymandering and discrimination had long ensured that the unionist party maintained control of local government in the city with only a third of the vote.

The riots marked the start of 30 years of violent conflict

The battle of the Bogside only ended when British troops marched into Waterloo Place in the city centre and stretched out concertina barbed wire and barricades across the roads and replaced the exhausted RUC at the front lines. Army commanders agreed not to try to enter the Bogside, and ‘Free Derry’, as it was dubbed, was administered for the following two months by a broad-based local defence association. The British government now forced the unionist government at Stormont to implement reforms aimed at conciliating the Catholic and nationalist minority that made up one-third of the North’s population, including disarming the police force. For many on the left, Free Derry represented a great victory of popular mobilisation over the forces of repression, and it received large-scale and sympathetic media coverage across Europe and North America.

But the rioting in the Bogside had also triggered a dangerous escalation. No one had died in Derry, but in Belfast there was widespread sectarian rioting and battles with the police. Shooting broke out and seven people were shot dead on 14 and 15 August. A day after the soldiers were deployed to Derry, they were sent on to the streets of Belfast. They would remain there for more than three decades.

More like this
A group of formerly enslaved African-Americans around the time of the US Civil War

The battle of the Bogside was an important catalyst for change, triggering a determined British government intervention that ended the unionist monopoly on power. But it also marked the beginning of 30 years of violent conflict that would claim the lives of more than 3,600 people and bring untold suffering.

It was only finally brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a delicate compromise between unionists and nationalists and the British and Irish governments. It is a measure of the potential for renewed political tensions in Northern Ireland that this agreement is now at the centre of debate on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Niall Ó Dochartaigh is a professor of political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway

This article was first published in the August 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine