10 January 2006

Today in history: Civil rights protesters defiant


10 January 1969

The quiet border town of Newry where the march is due to take place

Civil rights leaders in Northern Ireland are defying police orders and refusing to abandon their planned march through Newry in County Down, Northern Ireland.

The People's Democracy movement say it is a non-sectarian organisation that just wants to be allowed to march through a protestant area of this quiet border town.

Orders from the Northern Ireland Government in Stormont are to re-route the march away from the area "in the interests of the preservation of peace".

Catholics and protestants normally live happily side by side in Newry - but the town is just five miles from the Irish republic and there are fears militant catholics might cross the border to join the march.

Local schoolmaster Tom Keith is leading the demonstration. He insists they are committed to peaceful protest.

He said: "We certainly realise our civic responsibility in this matter, but we blame any damage to life, limb and property that may be caused, first of all on the government and secondly on those people who will cause it and that won't be us, of course.

"Any guilt we might feel about such damage will be assuaged by the fact that those people who take part on our side will be very responsible people who won't be provoked to retaliate no matter what the pressure on them is."

Newry has a police force of just 30 officers. Heavy barricades of steel fencing and parked cars are being moved into strategic points along the planned route.

In Context

The march did go ahead and did turn violent. Six police trucks were set on fire, and two others pushed into a canal.

Sixteen people were taken to hospital with head cuts. Five police were knocked down. Twenty people were arrested.

The trouble erupted at the point in the march where police were trying to divert protesters away from the protestant area of the town.

The Times newspaper said the violence broke out between the "most belligerent civil rights marchers yet seen" and the police. It called the march "a turning point in the current unhappy chapter of Ulster history".

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