The RUC used CS gas for the first time in their history in the Bogside of Derry on the 12th August 1969. It invisibly covered the streets while seeping into every room of the houses, causing choking, vomiting and irritation eyes and skin. The British army’s first used the gas in April 1970 when they indiscriminately fired 104 gas canisters into Ballymurphy in West Belfast during a night of rioting.
Máirín Keegan suggested to Butch (Frank) Roche an original member of Peoples Democracy, that they mount a publicity campaign to highlight the use of CS gas, because they were convinced it had done considerable harm. What’s more Keagan acquired two CS gas canisters that were photographed with the intention of using them in a publicity campaign. Roche decided on a symbolic action that wouldn’t injuring anyone and bring it home to the British establishment about its use against the civilian population in Belfast and Derry.
On 22nd July, 1970 he arrived in London bringing two CS gas canisters with him. The next day he entered the public gallery of the House of Commons and stood there with a newspaper to cover the bulkiness in his pockets. He threw the gas grenades onto the floor of the House, shouting “if it’s all right for Derry and Belfast, it is all right for here. How do you like it”? In doing so he gave MP’s first-hand experience of what life was like for the Northern nationalists.
Roche was charged with being in unlawful possession of prohibited weapons, two CS gas bombs and conspiring with others to disrupt the proceedings of the House of Commons. He was remanded to Brixton Prison where the newly elected MP for Mid Ulster Bernadette Devlin visited him.
When the trial took place at the Old Bailey in 1971, Roche said he had done it as a protest against the use of CS gas in the North of Ireland. “I didn’t want to cause any body injury, I took considerable care to get the two canisters onto the open space of the floor”. The use of CS gas in the North disturbances is like throwing petrol to put out a fire, it made people very hostile to the British troops. Telling the Judge that his ambition would be the unification of Catholic and Protestant workers against the ruling class and eventually the re-unification of all Ireland in a Workers Republic. He related how in 1969 he went to the Bogside of Derry as a result of an appeal made by the Citizens Defence Committee for people in the South to come to the aid of the besieged people of Derry. Butch was found guilty and received a one and a half years prison sentence, Peoples Democracy member Bowes Egan accused with him was found not guilty and discharged.
Butch suffered a heart attack in the 1970s and had to retire from active politics. He resumed his academic career at Ollscoil Na hÉireann, because like many of his generation he had left university studies to become a political activist. His degree in history at Ollscoil was obtained on the 1798 rising in Co, Wexford. (1) In 1993 came the sad news that after an operation for a by-pass he died suddenly just 24 hours after leaving the hospital.
We must never forget it was comrades like Butch Roche and Máirín Keegan who volunteered to help the besieged people in the Bogside of Derry in 1969 when others stood idly by.
In ar smaointe go deo
(for ever in out thoughts)
Copyright: Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo. (CS Gas Bombs in the Commons)
(1) Rayner Lysaght O’Connor.