The Battle of the Bogside and Free Derry: An Example of A Proto-Urban Base and the Struggle for It.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “Battle of the Bogside” which helped resulted in the establishment of a substantial chunk of Derry, one of Ulster’s major cities, as a “no-go” area for Protestant reactionaries and the British Army that was sent to occupy the region for a substantial period of time. For reference, the population of the city was predominately Catholic yet the city was controlled by Unionists tied to the imperialist British government who disenfranchised the majority and robbed them of adequate housing, jobs, and public services that their taxes paid for. Residents were also denied access to the polls because gerrymandering and other tricks ensured that the franchise was only in the hands of those who owned property, which meant that Unionists and their lackies held supreme political power. This was a quintessential colonial situation, and bred both illegal armed and unarmed, legal resistance. This was the structural motivation for the Battle of the Bogside. We can see parallels in the gerrymandering and systematic disenfranchisement of Black neighborhoods in the US, forced unemployment/underemployment/lumpenization of whole communities, and systematic denial of basic rights such as quality housing, healthcare, trash pickup, clean water, and healthy food. The New Afrikan communities in places like Detroit, Baltimore, New York City, Saint Louis, Atlanta, Jackson, and countless other cities bear stark resemblances to the Bogside area of Derry. Slum housing, killer cops, vermin, overflowing dumpsters, and overcrowded emergency rooms breed spontaneous resistance of many forms and flare into open rebellion with increasing frequency. It’s important for Communists in the imperialist metropoles to study situations like the Ferguson Uprising and the Battle of the Bogside to realize the truth that the masses have ingenious ways to make rebellion, but revolution must be systematized, organized and disciplined because exploitation and national oppression is systematized, organized and disciplined. In Ulster, there was a tradition of militant youth engaging in violent struggle with both reactionary paramilitary organizations and the RUC, or Royal Ulster Constabulary, the colonial police force that has jurisdiction over occupied Ireland. This tradition is mirrored with colonized youth in the US fighting Nazis and the police.
The immediate trigger for the Battle of the Bogside was a march by the Apprentice Boys, a reactionary Protestant fraternal organization. There were and are many reactionary organizations of this type in Ulster, many are paramilitary. The Orange Order is probably the most famous. Their main activities are drinking at pubs, taunting Catholics, and staging parades with flutes and drums to commemorate battles that took place two centuries ago. It was one of these parades on August 12th, 1969 that served as the first spark that lit the powder keg. British loyalists began throwing pennies at Catholic counter demonstrators in the Bogside vicinity, mocking their poverty imposed by the British state and its helpers, and the Catholics rightfully retaliated with marbles. The police encouraged the Loyalist mob to attack Catholics, and the Catholics in the Bogside responded with escalating militancy. The community organized to defend their neighborhood from fascist looting and arson, and also expelled the police. Molotov cocktails, stones, and various other projectiles flew for three days and the police were forced to cede control to the British Army which occupied the area. There were errors of political line — many activists made the mistake of welcoming the British Army which began killing residents, activists and militants beginning in July of 1971, the most egregious being the bloodbath on Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972, where British troops gunned down 14 unarmed civilians and wounded over 14 more during a peaceful protest march. This bears stark parallels to the Ponce Massacre in 1937, where colonial police in Puerto Rico murdered 19 people during a peaceful Nationalist march in Ponce, or the routine bombings, snipings, and massacres by the Israeli military in Palestine. One of the key characteristics of imperialist occupation forces is their callous disregard for the lives of the people whose land they occupy. As fascist repression sharpens and grows in the United States, we should be prepared for events like this to become commonplace. Peaceful protests are not exempt from police and National Guard bullets, and it is a fool who believes that the United States military is above the level of shooting at American civilians if they are black, brown, or revolutionary.
Bloody Sunday was yet another spark that lit a powder keg, and the Bogside this time was defended by the Official and Provisional IRA (there had been a split, a common habit of the IRA, the wing with the most international prestige and which most people refer to when they speak of the IRA was the Provos) both of which had mass support from vast swathes of the population of what had come to be known as “Free Derry”. Neither faction could claim 100% control over the area, but both conducted armed patrols and helped man the barricades that served to prevent Army, Unionist and RUC incursions. The IRA was unable to defend the area during the Battle of the Bogside due to lack of arms and personnel, but now, due to the spike in recruitment after the battle and the hatred of the masses for the presence of armed foreign soldiers in their neighborhood, they were able to wage a sharp resistance, supported by the masses of the Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods. IRA soldiers routinely shot at British patrols, and there was an entire structure of administrative organs to deal with the day to day concerns of the working class people in the area. Radio Free Derry provided updates and news, and neighbors came together to patrol the streets and take care of children and the elderly. The area became a no-go zone, where British Army personnel could not operate without fear of being shot at and even killed. Bloody Friday was an IRA bombing offensive in Belfast on July 21, 1972, which killed 9 civilians and was staged to demonstrate the potential of the Provisional IRA to “turn Belfast into a financial desert” if its demands weren’t met. The British countered these tactics with both hard and soft methods. The hard was begun with Operation Motorman on July 31, 1972, a massive incursion of British troops into Republican no-go zones backed up by armored cars, followed up by dismantling of barricades, stationing of large numbers of troops in the area, setting up of observation posts, and massive searches which confiscated weapons and arrested suspected IRA members. Almost 22,000 British troops were involved in this operation. The soft was the extension of universal suffrage and other reforms which did not change the character of Ulster as an occupied part of Ireland. The ultimate demand of all Irish Republican revolutionaries throughout the struggle was the expulsion of British forces and governing authorities from Ulster and reunification with the rest of Ireland, preferably under a socialist order.
The lessons from the period 1969–1972 in Derry are many. The masses are capable of spontaneous resistance, usually provoked by a spark such as a reactionary parade or the police killing of a local resident. In the United States, such situations and flareups have happened in Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, Los Angeles, Miami, Cincinnati, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and countless other cities in the past 40 years. The two most prominent were the LA Uprising of 1992 and the Ferguson Uprising of 2014. Both uprisings were directly triggered by the actions of the colonial police. In LA it was the recorded brutal beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the officers that beat him nearly to death, in Ferguson it was the acquittal of the police officer that shot Michael Brown, Jr. to death and left his body in the street for several hours. The main ingredient missing in Derry, Ferguson, and Los Angeles was the absence of a principled, disciplined, revolutionary, united, uncompromising Marxist-Leninist (Maoist) revolutionary party capable of directing, guiding, and channeling the most revolutionary sentiments of the masses. There were of course armed groups operating in all three instances. In Derry, there were the two IRAs, in Los Angeles there were Crips and Bloods, in Ferguson there were various New Afrikan self-defense organizations and individuals who showed up to various actions with weapons openly displayed and loaded. Mao taught that the party guides the gun, not the gun guide the party. The eventual fratricidal incidents and sectarian killing among various armed groups claiming to be the “real IRA” bear this out in truth.
Second, revisionism, capitulationism, and opportunism in their various forms must be identified, dealt with appropriately, and inoculated against through political education and study of the past errors and defeats when revisionist, capitulationist and opportunist lines were allowed to gain hegemony. Electoralism, reformism, and bourgeois “economic development schemes” are sugar coated bullets that come behind the real bullets and many an erstwhile comrade has fallen prey to them. We have to keep in mind the ultimate goal, national liberation, socialism, and the victory of communism all over the world. We should not tail or allow ourselves to be carried away by spontaneous actions or fall prey to “leaders” raised up by the reactionaries but consistently adhere to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to guide and lead.
Third, we should remember that making revolution and rebellion will bring down retaliation. 22,000 troops were sent into Derry to deal with the proto-liberated zones of the Bogside and surrounding areas. We should be prepared for the enemy to fight tooth and nail to defend what they see as their territory. Comrades should hone technical skills to enable construction, food production, water purification, electricity, and other necessities to continue in the event of reactionaries terminating these services or putting the base area under blockade. We should develop solid, in person connections to comrades engaging in various forms of base building/networking activities in various cities across the country, and if you live in a border city you should link up with comrades across the border to enable back and force transfer of people and resources if necessary.