When CS gas came to the floor of the House of Commons
by Mick Healy
The RUC used CS gas for the first time on August 12, 1969, in the Bogside of Derry. It invisibly covered the streets and seeped into every room of the houses, causing choking, vomiting and irritation of the eyes and skin. The British Army first used the gas in April 1970 when they indiscriminately fired off 104 gas canisters in Ballymurphy in West Belfast during a night of rioting.
Máirín Keegan of Saor Eire suggested to Butch 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. She also acquired two CS gas canisters that were photographed with the intention of using them in the publicity campaign. Roche decided on a symbolic action that wouldn’t injure anyone but bring home to the British public and establishment the impact of its use against the civilian population in Belfast and Derry.
On July 22, 1970, Butch arrived in London with the two CS gas canisters. The next day he entered the Public Gallery of the House of Commons, 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 MPs a 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 Mid Ulster revolutionary MP 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 anybody injury, I took considerable care to get the two canisters onto the open space of the floor,” he told the court.
Butch stated his revolutionary politics boldly in court, telling the judge that his ambition was 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.
Sadly, 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.
In 1993 came the sad news that, after a bypass operation, 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.
Posted on July 1, 2019, in Bernadette (Devlin) McAliskey, British state repression (general), British strategy, Civil rights movement, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Ireland and British revolution, Mairin Keegan, Partition, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Republicanism 1960s, Revolutionary figures. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.