Famously, on 13th August 1969, Taoiseach Jack Lynch said “It is clear, also, that the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.” (you can watch the full speech here). While he didn’t actually say ‘stand idly by’, a phrase often ascribed to him, those words had been hanging around in the ether all year as the Irish government was subject to constant criticism for its failure to make a meaningful response to ongoing events north of the border. In April 1969, both Stormont MP for Mid-Derry Ivan Cooper and a Fianna Fail Senator Bernard McGlinchey had separately used that actual phrase when accusing the Irish government of “standing idly by’. By December, Lynch’s speech was being remembered by the likes of Neil Blaney as being that the Irish government ‘cannot stand idly by’ (see Irish Press 9th December 1969).
[Update thanks to Ed Moloney: his memory is that ‘stand idly by’ was actually in the original wording of the statement initially issued to the press but that Lynch left the word ‘idly’ out during the television broadcast and it was omitted from later copies of the press release.]
The wording ‘stand idly by’ did appear in a communique from Sinn Féin to the United Nations (calling for a peace keeping force) on 14th August but became immediately associated with Lynch’s speech within days. A Thames TV reporter quoted the phrase back to Lynch himself a few days later, in a doorstep interview that was broadcast on 21st August 1969. You can watch that interview with Lynch below, along with footage and speeches from a Citizen’s Committee meeting outside the GPO.
Lynch’s speech was made during the Battle of Bogside, which had erupted after the anticipated violence that had accompanied the Apprentice Boys march in Derry on 12th August 1969 (although barricades had already been erected in the Bogside by 2 am the night before following bottle and stoning throwing by unionists attending nearby bonfires). I set out the wider backdrop to these events in a recent post. Of course the events in August 1969 followed a succession of violent episodes in Derry since 1968. It is clear that the Unionists were facing the prospect of direct rule on two fronts, for their failure to address the civil rights issues and for having received military assistance from the British government.
To give some different perspectives on events – here are four front pages from the 12th through the 15th August 1969 [clicking on the images should enlarge them making them easier to read]. The first is the evening edition of the Belfast Telegraph on the 12th August with initial reports on the violence in Derry. Next is the Irish Press (13th August), then Irish Independent (14th August) and then Donegal Democrat (15th August).