AVISION OF PROGRESSIVE NATIONALIST POLITICS IN IRELAND

 
Margaret Ritchie MP MLA, Leader SDLP, speaking at the McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School in Carlingford, Co Louth on the topic of the future of constitutional nationalism, said the key traits of progressive nationalism namely a successful economy and reconciled people can lead to the ultimate goal of a united Ireland – a goal unreachable by ‘resentful nationalists.’

 She said: “Those who mark Sinn Fein moving onto the traditional SDLP ground of ‘constitutional nationalism’ should try to see the broader picture. With their disavowal of violence, Sinn Fein are merely rejoining the mainstream of Irish Nationalism. Meanwhile the SDLP will continue to occupy the principled social-democratic ground at the centre of nationalism on the island. Time will tell if the authoritarian Sinn Fein can ever join us there.

“I would tend to categorise the nationalism of the SDLP as progressive nationalism. The progress we have made in recent years with the Good Friday Agreement allows us to develop a progressive nationalism that could not have been developed before.  Because the legitimacy of the political pursuit of Irish unity is now accepted on a par with the legitimacy of maintaining the Union, then that surely allows us to look forward and to be more progressive. 

“There is no longer a justification for a nationalism that is categorised by resentment or bitterness.  That is why I have said recently that we want to make Northern Ireland an economic success.  Resentful nationalism says we don’t care about the economy; we are just biding our time until Northern Ireland is over.

“But the old nationalist ambivalence about the Northern Ireland economy cannot be justified. In the coming weeks the SDLP will set out in detail an economic vision for Northern Ireland which recognises that notwithstanding our political goal of Irish unity we must make this place as good as it can be for the people who live here now. The other nationalism remains ambivalent on the Northern Ireland economy. Indeed it cannot bring itself to utter the words Northern Ireland. It remains suspicious of investors and entrepreneurs, and resentful of profit.

“But perhaps the biggest difference between progressive nationalism and resentful nationalism is the view they take of society itself.  SDLP progressive nationalism says we want a shared society.  That means a society that is not only non-violent, but which welcomes, cherishes and embraces different traditions and actively sets out to end segregation and division.  Our vision of a shared society is one where people with different religions and races can live side by side in the same areas, sharing the same communities totally at ease with each other. 

“Other nationalists reject this vision, largely because they feel it may reduce their control in their single identity communities. 

“Then there is the question of Irish unity itself.  Progressive nationalists see a unity that is a coming together of the two traditions on the island and not a hostile take over.  Our strategy is to provide assurances about the continuation of the institutions of Northern Ireland in any new United Ireland. And also an acknowledgement that the challenge for Irish nationalists is to make the case to unionists in a way that has never been done before.  What happens to the National Health Service in our vision of a United Ireland?  What happens to our Social Welfare System?  What happens to our Police Service?  These questions have to be answered. And we will try to answer them in a positive spirit.”

All Our Futures Must Be Shared

Roy Garland Irish News 30 August 2010

The McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School addressed serious issues at Carlingford on Saturday.

The most contentious revolved around “armed struggle”.  I chaired this session feeling somewhat like a referee between opponents whose antagonism was reminiscent of the enmity between the UUP and DUP.

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie depicted her party as progressive nationalism moving towards Seamus Heaney’s “farther shore”.

The freedom for this became possible when the pursuit of unity was accepted as just as legitimate as the pursuit of maintenance of the union.  There was “no longer a justification” for “resentful nationalism”.  NI was to be made an economic success but “resentful nationalism” didn’t care but waited “until Northern Ireland is over”.

Resentful nationalism, she claimed, had difficulty with the word “Northern Ireland” and were suspicious of entrepreneurs, investment and profit.

The SDLP had a vision of a shared society in which different religions and races could live together “totally at ease with each other”.

The SDLP was “more confident, more optimistic and more ready to engage wholeheartedly with unionists”.

However, Sinn Fein in practice did engage with unionists since as far back the late 1980s and often on a regular basis and at greater depth.

The SDLP engaged but apparently less so and most unionists remained reluctant to so engage.  But some of us felt impelled to do so to help end the conflict.

The SDLP leader said progressive nationalism saw Irish unity being created through a coming together of two traditions not through a hostile takeover. NI institutions would remain but the SDLP had a credible plan for persuasion on unity.

“The battles of the past are over.  The only battle now is the battle of ideas”, she said.

 Much of this was gratifying.  I could not envisage any unionist leader offering similar words.

Too many are still defending the union against real or imaginary enemies.

Austin Current, former SDLP politician famous for squatting in Caledon, sat on my right, while Danny Morrison – Daniel in the lions’ den – sat on my left.  Inevitably sparks would fly.  The topic boiled down to whether Danny Morrison could justify past violence.

But he insisted that he was never at ease with violence but like other nationalists felt oppressed for many years.

Morrison was involved in civil rights and managed to convey the sense of nationalist alienation on the streets.  It was a failure of civil rights that led to violence which was easier to start than finish.

This was true also for loyalists, some of whom shared feelings of alienation while identifying with a state that treated them as “cannon fodder”.

I said I had not been aware of the “oppression” of nationalists.  This prompted Austin Current to question me.

I replied that I grew up on the Shankill Road in a strongly religious non-political family.  My dad said politics was a “dirty fame”.  He voted for independents hoping they were less corrupt.

Dad left school aged 12 years while I was “privileged” to remain until aged 14.  I was vulnerable to propaganda suggesting that Nicra was not more than an IRA conspiracy to destroy.

Austin Currie grasped what I meant so I felt gratified.  I had never been able to convey this to nationalists before.

Danny Morrison said his united Ireland could take different forms including a unitary state or confederation.  The latter is not too far from where we now are.  Degrees of autonomy, including independence, now exist across these islands.

 The day was enlightening but served to heighten my regret that unionism in all its forms is in a terrible mess.

I deeply regret that the PUP, which espoused progressive thinking on behalf of the working class, now seems in decline.  But I also expressed frustration with all shades of unionism at a time when, as Margaret Ritchie said, the battle is over.

In my view, until unionist can acknowledge that we belong together on this island, we will stumble along rather than lead our people to a better future.

Professor Arthur Aughey referred to recent articles on the future of the union in which he detected much confidence.

 I agreed but not long ago the UUP/Conservative link was being sold as a means of strengthening the Union.

 This suggests that at the highest level siege mentality either dominates or remains a tool with which to manipulate the “cannon fodder”.

The reality is that all our futures must be shared together or damanged by the remnants of siege and victim mentalities.

THE 3rdnd McCLUSKEY CIVIL RIGHTS SUMMER SCHOOL

“The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement”

Saturday 28 August 2010

in

Holy Trinity Church, Carlingford, Co Louth

Speakers include:

  • Margaret Ritchie MP MLA
  • Dr. Martin Mansergh TD
  • Austin Currie
  • Danny Morrison
  • Tom Elliot MLA
  • Roy Garland
  • Alex Attwood MLA
  • David McKittrick

To RSVP or for further information contact:
Tim Attwood 07802 279939 or Email: attwoodt@belfastcity.gov.uk

PROGRAMME

9.30am             Registration and Refreshments

10.30-12.00

I.  How might the Civil Rights campaign have developed,   had there been no “armed struggle”?

Chair: Dr. Brendan Lynn

Austin Currie

Danny Morrison

12.00-1.30

II.  What is the Future of Constitutional Nationalism?

Chair: Dr. Eamon Phoenix

Margaret Ritchie MP MLA

Dr. Martin Mansergh TD

3.00-4.30

III.  What is the Future of Progressive/Liberal Unionism?

Chair: Prof. Arthur Aughey

Tom Elliot MLA

Roy Garland

4.30-6.00

IV.  If the present Executive falls…. is there an alternative?

(Can we go back to the centre?)

Chair: A.N. Other

Alex Attwood MLA

David McKittrick

6.00pm

Presentation of the Con McCluskey Civil Rights Award

“THE LEGACY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGN”

The turmoil of the civil rights campaign 1968/69 changed the course of Northern history.  It reordered and redefined the political agenda, and completely reshaped our political party structures.  For instance, many of those involved became convinced of the need for a new political approach to the issues raised in the civil rights campaign, and went on to found the SDLP — 40 years ago this summer — which quickly eclipsed and replaced all previous “Constitutional Nationalist” groupings.  Others discerned a need for armed defence of the nationalist population, and some saw an opportunity for an armed assault upon the Northern Ireland state.  The result was the division of Sinn Fein and the IRA, with the majority becoming known as the “Officials”, and the minority founding Provisional Sinn Fein, and the Provisional IRA, (and going on to become much the stronger grouping) — 40 years ago last winter.  At the same time, the problems and pressures generated by all this upheaval, caused serious strains and fissures within political Unionism.  The problem of responding to Civil Rights demands for change, led to deep divisions within the venerable Ulster Unionist Party which had ruled Northern Ireland from the foundation of the state.  Ultimately it led to the splintering of Unionist politics, with a number of new Unionist groupings being formed, the most lasting being the “Official” Unionist Party (now, simply the UUP), and the Democratic Unionist Party.  Ominously, however, some in the Unionist community felt a need to respond to the situation with force, and loyalist paramilitary groupings mushroomed.  The consequent threat of all out sectarian conflict persuaded many of the need to build cross-community politics and structures, giving rise to the New Ulster Movement and ultimately the Alliance Party.  The political groupings formed out of this upheaval have dominated northern politics ever since.

Forty years later, an awful lot of water has passed under the bridge:- the Sunningdale Agreement, the 73-74 Assembly and the first Power-Sharing Executive;    the Constitutional Convention, the Atkins Talks, the Hunger Strikes, and the 82-86 Assembly;    the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Brooke-Mayhew talks, Hume-Adams and the Good Friday Agreement; the Trimble-Mallon Power-Sharing Executive;   and various refinements of the GFA, elaborated at Leeds Castle,. St Andrews, and Hillsborough Castle leading to the current DUP/SF-led Power-Sharing Executive.  The first two power-sharing executives were based on the so-called “centre parties” of moderate Unionism and moderate Nationalism, along with the Alliance Party.  Both failed to bed down and take root, the first lasting barely six months, the second lasting for a rocky three years.   The present Executive, however, is led by parties notionally representing the polar “extremes” of the two communities, and was represented by many as the “ultimate agreement”.  Yet, it has failed to produce the promised consensus on many important issues, and has also experienced a number of serious wobbles.

The McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School will, this year, examine the long-term legacy of the Civil Rights agitation, and where it has brought us today. We ask a number of serious questions.  How might things have turned out had there been no recourse to violence?  What is the future for moderate nationalism and moderate Unionism, now that each has been eclipsed within its own community, by the supposedly more “extreme” parties on both sides?  Can the present Executive survive, and bed down?  And if it falls, can the “centre parties” take the weight again, and regain the necessary voting strength?  The four sessions of the Summer School are devoted to discussion of these questions.  In each session the Chair will open the discussion with a short address, setting out the main issues needing debate, and perhaps offering a personal view in brief terms.  The chair will then introduce the contributors who will speak for about 15 minutes each, leaving an hour for audience participation, (moderated by the Chair), by way of questions, or the offering of viewpoints,.

Tribute to the late Paddy O’Hanlon

Co-founder of SDLP for whom the courts were a fitting forum

Irish Times Obituary 11 April 2009

PADDY O’HANLON , who has died aged 64, was a civil rights activist, a founder member of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the party’s chief whip during the ill-fated powersharing administration at Stormont in the 1970s.

In later years, he practised as a barrister in Northern Ireland and the Republic. He had been ill for some months and died in Dublin’s Mater hospital.

Born in Drogheda, Co Louth, in 1944 and educated at UCD, Paddy O’Hanlon was closely associated with south Armagh, an area he represented in the old Stormont parliament in from 1969 until its prorogation in 1972.

As an Independent MP, he was active in the civil rights movement in the heady days of the late 1960s, but he was also a committed sportsman and teacher with an deep love of the arts.

Politically he was committed to the unity of Ireland by consent and he was vociferously opposed to violence, state repression and sectarianism. He used his considerable powers of eloquence to argue for a new democratic model in Northern Irelandand between North and South.

He was among those who opposed the entrenched injustice of the old Stormont regime as much as he confronted the violence of republican paramilitaries and the state’s authoritarian response.

The term conviction politician applied especially well to him. He was among the diverse group of people, including John Hume, Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt, Eddie McGrady and Paddy Devlin, who rejected the old Nationalist party at Stormont and in August 1970, founded the SDLP.

In those early turbulent years, he was an architect of the fledgling party’s new-style political philosophy. His influence behind the scenes was key. He was a delegate to talks with the Irish government in 1973 and was successful in standing for a seat in the new powersharing Assembly for Armagh from 1973 to 1974. He was chief whip of the party.

However, his career as an elected representative was marked by some narrow failures and significant setbacks.

He stood unsuccessfully for his constituency in the first of the two British general elections in 1974 and was narrowly defeated by party colleague Hugh News in the elections to the Constitutional Convention in 1975 and again in 1982 to the Assembly set up by then Northern secretary James Prior in the aftermath of the republican hunger strikes. He lost both times on transfers.

With Séamus Mallon the established SDLP candidate for his constituency and the party deputy leader, O’Hanlon stepped back from full-time politics.

He studied law and was called to the Bar in 1986. Colleagues say his sharp mind and love of debate particularly suited his new-found vocation. Party leader Mark Durkan, who joined John Hume’s staff in 1983 and helped organise Séamus Mallon’s victory in the Newry and Armaghbyelection in 1986, claims that O’Hanlon’s influence was always felt.

“Even when standing well back from the political frontline his compelling political insight, and the integrity of his commitment to social justice was apparent in all the activism and advice he offered.”

Durkan believes the courtroom was an apt place for a man with O’Hanlon’s skills.

“In the legal vocation which he found he was able to give . . . expression to his sense of justice, his instinct for challenge and his love of able argument. So much of Paddy O’Hanlon’s contribution epitomises the debt which this society owes to the activists of the civil rights movement who never deviated from non-violence and who sustained the quest for a new agreed democratic order,” said Durkan.“He was sharp in his observation and straight in his counsel. Whether in his private conversation or public speaking he always impressed with the purity of his principle and the clarity of his case and the sincerity of the advice he offered.”

Paddy O’Hanlon was predeceased by his wife, Dr Ann Marley, and he is mourned by many, including his cousin Dr Rory O’Hanlon, the former ceann comhairle and Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan.

Among the many political tributes paid was that from Newry-Armagh Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy. “He was entirely dedicated to achieving his political goals by exclusively peaceful means, and as a public representative he worked hard to achieve better living and social conditions for a great many people,” said Mr Kennedy.

Paddy O’Hanlon: born May 8th 1944; died April 7th 2009

Civil Rights Then and Now, 1968-2008 QUB Seminar Michael Farrell

Paper to seminar in Queens University, Belfast

On 3rd October 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement

This seminar has been organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland but this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I would like to begin with a quote from the Preamble to that Declaration:

 

 

 

“Whereas it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

I am speaking today as someone who was actively involved in the Civil Rights movement as a member of the Peoples Democracy and NICRA and is currently a member of the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee.  And I am nowadays a practising lawyer working for the Free Legal Advice Centres in Dublin and working with a lot of the human rights mechanisms I am going to mention later on.

The Civil Rights Commemoration Committee has set out to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement here, but not in a triumphalist way and not to nurse old grievances, settle old scores, or dwell too much in or on the past; but to try to draw some lessons from that movement to apply to the civil and human rights challenges that face us at the present time, and that is what I hope to do today.

However, it might seem a bit odd when speaking in Queens on this weekend not to say something about the role of Queens students in the events of October 5th 1968 and its immediate aftermath.

Forty years ago this weekend a busload of students and young people, organised by the Young Socialist Alliance, set off from outside the Students Union to go to Derry for a Civil Rights march, the second one to take place under that name.  The march, which was in protest at the discriminatory housing policy of Derry Corporation and the gerrymandering of its electoral boundaries, had been banned on spurious grounds by the Minister for Home Affairs, William Craig.

We arrived a little late to find the marchers hemmed in in a narrow street by rows of RUC men and Eamonn McCann addressing the crowd.  We moved up to the front of the crowd, facing the RUC, not intending to attack them but to make sure that if they tried to disperse the crowd they would have to physically remove us.  It was what US Civil Rights activists called ‘assertive non-violence’.

I even, rather naively, addressed the RUC men urging them to let us through.  A few placards were thrown at the police, over our heads, and suddenly a policeman rammed his baton into the belly or the groin of the man beside me and they began batoning everybody in sight, including me.

After that my memories are pretty hazy except that I ended up on the ground being beaten by a District Inspector with his blackthorn stick while he tried to hold onto his cap with his other hand.  One of my more streetwise colleagues pulled me up a lane, switched jackets with me and got me a lift to Altnagelvin Hospital.  Meanwhile the RUC brought out water cannon, the first time they had been used in the UK, and hosed the rest of the demonstrators – and the Saturday shoppers – off the street.

All this was captured on film by an RTE cameraman and shown extensively all over Britain and the Republic as well as here.  It caused uproar.  This was 1968 and it seemed as if the Paris student uprising and the beating of anti-war protestors by police at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago had suddenly arrived on our doorstops in Northern Ireland.

Queens opened on the following Monday or Tuesday and there was a mass meeting in the Students Union.  Students who had been in Derry told their stories and a protest march was called for Belfast on the Wednesday.  Around 2,000 students took part and when it was blocked from reaching the City Hall there was a three-hour sit-down in Linenhall Street.  When the students eventually trudged back to Queens, there was another mass meeting and a new protest organisation called the Peoples Democracy was set up.

**********

How did the marchers and march organisers deal with the ban on the Derry march and the violence with which the police broken it up?  Had they tried to judicially review the Minister’s decision to ban the march?  Did they complain to the Police Ombudsman about the behaviour of the RUC?  Did the Human Rights Commission protest about the use of the water cannon and its indiscriminate effect on shoppers and passers-by?

Did the injured marchers sue the police?  And what did the Committee on the Administration of Justice do about it?  Did they contact the UN High Commissioner’s office or the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights?

Of course, the answer to all these questions is no.  None of these watchdog institutions existed at the time and it simply never occurred to the marchers or the march organisers at this stage that they could or should look to the courts to overturn a ban by the Minister for Home Affairs or to censure the behaviour of the police.

 

This little digression was partly to illustrate the differences between campaigning for rights in 1968 and today.

***************

The Civil Rights movement arose directly out of frustration and anger about discrimination in the allocation of houses and jobs by Unionist-controlled councils mainly west of the Bann and particularly in Derry and Dungannon, and the hardship this was causing to young Catholic families who were desperate to get homes and jobs.  Some 300/400 families had squatted in abandoned US Army huts in Springtown Camp in Derry in the late 1940s and despite periodic agitation over the years, many of them were still there in the early 1960s.

In Dungannon homeless families took over and squatted in pre-fabricated bungalows that the Council wanted to demolish in the mid-1960s.

The allocation of jobs was, if anything, worse.  Notoriously in Fermanagh, a county with a small Catholic majority, only 3 out of 77 school bus drivers were Catholic.

And intimately linked with all of this was the restricted local government franchise and the gerrymandered electoral boundaries that kept Unionist councils in control even in areas with Catholic/nationalist majorities.  A fairer franchise, it was hoped, would put an end to much of the discrimination.

This was not a nationalist agenda and it had very little to do with a united Ireland.  These were down-to-earth, practical, bread and butter demands.  They were largely made by Catholics because they were the ones who were systematically discriminated against, but their demands of “One Man One Job”, “One Family One House” and “One Man One Vote”, while they may have been sexist, were not sectarian, and would eventually have benefited working class Protestants as well.

These were not new complaints.  They had been made repeatedly by Nationalist and Labour MPs in the old Stormont Parliament but had simply been ignored.  By the early 1960s, however, there was a new mood in the Catholic population. A generation had grown up who weren’t prepared to leave all these matters to be resolved when Ireland was united, if only because that was not going to happen any day soon.  They were less concerned about Partition and more about practical everyday problems, and because of the establishment of the Welfare State in the UK, they had higher expectations of the services that public authorities should provide.  And television was beginning to show them other ways of organising and campaigning politically apart from the dead end experience of serving on gerrymandered councils or at Stormont.

A group of Catholic professionals set up the Campaign for Social Justice in Dungannon in 1964 to collect facts and figures about discrimination and use them to lobby British politicians about the situation in Northern Ireland.  They did so quite successfully and even got a commitment of sorts from the British Labour leader Harold Wilson in 1964 that a Labour government would deal with their complaints.  However, when Wilson came to power shortly afterwards nothing was done.

Two years later Wilson won again, this time with a sizeable majority, and Gerry Fitt was also elected for West Belfast and used his position at Westminster to publicise the abuses in Northern Ireland.  But still nothing happened.

There were other groups seeking practical change within Northern Ireland as well: elements in the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the trade unions, and in the Republican movement, which was turning from the use of violence to social agitation, and many of these strands came together to set up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in February 1967.  They were all, to varying degrees, influenced as well by the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

We had grown up with images of what was happening in the southern United States.  American news reels, which were shown in cinemas before the ‘big picture’, had good coverage of the Civil Rights protests.  I was too young to remember footage of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, sparking a year long bus boycott, which is often regarded as the beginning of the US Civil Rights movement.  However,  I do remember a couple of years later dramatic pictures of the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where federal troops and police had to escort the first black students to enrol there in 1957-8.

It was a striking thing that people in small towns in mid-Ulster 40 years ago were so interested in and identified so readily with the struggle of black people in the American South and were prepared to learn from them, and especially perhaps that a largely Catholic group was prepared to adopt as a hero and mentor a black Baptist minister called after Martin Luther.

The proto Civil Rights movement was particularly interested in two aspects of the US movement; its strategy of trying to force the US federal government to intervene and enforce change on the segregationist white state governments in the South; and its use of non-violent protests, civil disobedience and marches when conventional political methods were not delivering results.

But there was a third and very important element to the strategy of the US movement: its use of the courts.  For many years and well before the development of the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1950s, the black movement and especially the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NAACP, had developed a legal strategy – initially to defend black people railroaded through the courts on criminal charges and tried by all-white juries, but later to try to challenge segregation and discrimination.  They did this by relying on the US Constitution and taking cases through the federal courts which operated across the country alongside the often racist state courts.

The most famous example of this strategy was the decision by the US Supreme Court in Brown v The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools.  In fact the judgment was so cautious and qualified that it required a lot of campaigning and protesting to get it implemented, but using the law was a very effective element in the strategy of the US movement. It meant that where they were successful, Civil Rights organisers could call on state governments to implement the law and then press Washington to intervene when the states refused to do so.  And it gave a sort of legal sanction to the movement’s marches, pickets and sit-ins.  And they did use the courts to challenge bans on marches and demonstrations.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement did not use the law as part of its strategy, at least in the early days.  The Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) did explore the possibility of a legal challenge to Dungannon Council but did not pursue it.  The lawyers they consulted were not enthusiastic.  There was no written Constitution like in the US with guarantees of justice and equality and Judicial Review was still in its infancy in the British legal system so that administrative decisions could only be overturned for procedural errors, bad faith – which was almost impossible to prove – or complete irrationality, which was also almost impossible to prove.

The CSJ was refused legal aid for its Dungannon case and they did not take it any further.  They had no confidence in the local, politically appointed judiciary and there were no federal-type courts in Northern Ireland which they might have seen as more likely to give them a fair hearing.

In the US the courts were seen as an avenue of redress where the political system was unresponsive, even though they were slow and not entirely satisfactory.  In Northern Ireland that avenue was not open to those seeking civil rights reforms, or was not seen as open to them.  This led to the relatively rapid move from frustration with political lobbying and localised pickets and sit-ins, which had been going on in Derry and Caledon during the summer of 1968, to street demonstrations.

Paul Rose MP, the Chair of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, a lobby group of backbench Labour MPs, had written to Austin Currie, then the youngest Nationalist MP at Stormont, in January 1968, saying:

“I have lost hope that this or any British government will put pressure on the Unionists unless it is forced to do so.  Unless you and others like you can create a situation where this government will be forced to intervene in Northern Ireland, nothing will happen and the position will remain unchanged”.

The Civil Rights movement felt it had nowhere else to go and the RUC reaction to the October 5th march meant that there was no turning back from then on.

And that, I think illustrates the essential truth of the quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with which I began:

“Whereas it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

The Civil Rights campaign was not, of course, a rebellion but simply a resort to extra-parliamentary methods but the principle is the same.

And, in my view, the Northern Ireland system was too brittle to be able to respond to a campaign of protests on the streets.  It did not have the confidence or flexibility to take peaceful protests in its stride or to make the sort of dramatic and generous concessions that would have satisfied the Civil Rights movement at that time.

But I do not want to talk here about the downward spiral into violence and the armed conflict that caused such suffering and hardship to all sections of the community over the succeeding years, nor to apportion blame for it, other than to say that we must all look back upon that period with humility and sorrow and a strong determination to ensure it must never happen again.  I think the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement puts it well where it says that

“the achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence”.

************************

Things have changed enormously from the point of view of someone seeking to assert their rights since that Saturday afternoon in Derry 40 years ago.  Today the victim of discrimination or oppression is faced with an almost bewildering array of legal and human rights instruments to choose from.

These tools or instruments were hard fought for.  As the conflict developed and more and more draconian security measures were adopted, lawyers and what would now be called human rights activists began to fight back, not in support of the armed conflict but of the rule of law.

The first major change was probably the case taken by the Irish Government against the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights over the treatment of persons arrested on the introduction of internment in 1971.  Probably only a government would have had the resources to take the case, though I must pay a belated tribute here to Kevin Boyle, who with a number of others, gave very generously of his time and expertise in that and other cases.  The Strasbourg process was very slow and internment had ended before the European Commission of Human Rights gave its verdict in 1976, saying that the treatment of certain of the detainees amounted to torture.

Even though that verdict was later reduced to “cruel and inhuman treatment” by the Strasbourg Court, it sent out the message that even in the midst of war it was possible to challenge the British government and call it to account if it breached the law.

After that, lawyers in Northern Ireland, who had had so little confidence in the courts as a venue for challenging unfair decisions in the 1960s, became among the most frequent and experienced visitors to the Strasbourg Court and significant changes in emergency laws and practices resulted.

On the civil side, there was some recognition from an early stage that there was a need for a mechanism that would allow citizens to challenge discriminatory decisions, but the earliest attempts were ineffective and even when the Fair Employment Commission was set up in 1974, it was pretty toothless.  It took a long struggle, including campaigning in the US for the MacBride Principles, before the Fair Employment Agency was eventually given powers to really make a change.

Similarly with the police.  There was a recognition of the need for some change as early as James Callaghan’s reform package in August 1969 but it was not until the Patten Report in 1999 as part of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, that sweeping changes were made and the PSNI became something of a model of accountability for many other police services – which does not of course mean that they never do anything wrong, but that they can now at least be held accountable when they do.

And then there are all the international instruments.  A whole series of new treaties and conventions were adopted by the UN and the Council of Europe and eventually signed up to by the UK, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture (ECPT).  These had a new dimension.  States which ratified them had to report to the monitoring bodies on how they were implementing the treaty provisions and be examined about their reports in public in Geneva.  And the Convention on the Prevention of Torture went one step further, assuming the power for its monitoring committee to inspect prisons and police stations for itself.

And then there was the Human Rights Act, passed in 1998 and effective in 2000, making the European Convention on Human Rights directly applicable in the UK and doing away to some extent with the long delays which had made access to the Strasbourg Court fairly meaningless for a lot of applicants.  And, of course, there is also the Human Rights Commission with powers to comment on and criticise government policies, to carry out certain types of investigation, to intervene in legal cases and to fund some cases itself.

This may be beginning to sound like a publicity hand-out from the Northern Ireland Office but I think the point is clear.  For people or groups who believe that they are discriminated against on political or religious grounds or are harassed by the security forces, there are now mechanisms available to secure redress.

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Are those mechanisms needed any more?  Especially now that there is a political settlement involving all the significant political parties, cannot all grievances be addressed through the Assembly and the Executive?

Some weeks ago that might have seemed a more serious argument.  Today, given what is happening at Stormont between the two main parties, it is less likely to be seriously argued.  But if the Executive remains deadlocked or if it breaks up, then the human rights instruments become much more important because they could provide a mechanism for the ventilation and resolution of grievances and conflicts which would otherwise fester and sour the political climate, making it even harder for the political structures to work again; or worse still, allow a drift back to the conflict it has taken us so long to emerge from.*1

And, ironically, even if as I sincerely hope it does, the Executive starts to function properly again, that would not spell the end of the useful life of the legal and human rights structures.  In some ways the more closely the Executive works together, the more need there may be for independent human rights bodies.  Between them the Executive parties totally dominate the Assembly and in time complacency and party loyalty may mean that there will be precious few voices to speak out on awkward or inconvenient issues – abortion and gay marriage suggest themselves as issues where there may be very few dissident voices in the Assembly.

Already there are alienated groups in Northern society; working class Catholics and Protestants in the most disadvantaged areas complain that there has been little peace dividend for them, and dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries have not, unfortunately, all gone away yet.

Not that reports from UN Treaty bodies and such like are likely to cut much ice with such groups.  And that is where there is a missing piece in the equation as I have outlined it so far.  All these mechanisms I have mentioned will only work if added to the mix there are active NGOs like the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and a vibrant civil society made up of local community groups and grassroots organisations.  They are needed to voice the concerns of the disadvantaged and to channel them towards the mechanisms that can address their grievances – and to take to the streets as well from time to time when those mechanisms prove too slow or are ineffective.

There may be a tendency to feel that NGOs and civil society are no longer needed now that there is a settlement in place and apparently a redress mechanism for every grievance.  There is some evidence that this happened in South Africa when majority rule was at last achieved with a new and radical constitution; there was something of a drop off in support, funding and enthusiasm for the NGO sector.  But NGOs and civil society are needed as much as ever to cope with that country’s new problems as well as those inherited from the past.

And equally CAJ and NICEM (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities) and WRDA (Women’s Resource and Development Agency) and the Northern Ireland Law Centre and the whole network of community and voluntary organisations that has developed here over the years are just as necessary as ever if the whole elaborate human rights infrastructure is to have any relevance for the disadvantaged and marginalised people whom it is supposed to help.

 

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I have couched this paper largely in terms of the traditional political/religious divide here and the grievances that flowed from that, and indeed still flow from it, in that there are still areas where Catholics in particular are significantly under-represented in the workplace.  I have stressed the need to provide channels for resolving these grievances so that we never return to the conflict that has thankfully ended.

But that is too narrow a perspective.  This society was never divided exclusively on religious/political grounds.  It was divided as well on gender grounds, between rich and poor, between disabled and non-disabled and, although we did not acknowledge it until recently, between gay and straight.  And today Northern Ireland, like the Republic, has changed very significantly as a result of the influx of large numbers of migrant workers, who have completely transformed the complexion – if you will pardon the pun – of some of the towns in Mid-Ulster where the Civil Rights movement began.

There have already been racist attacks and intimidation in a number of areas of Belfast and elsewhere.  We must ensure, while the opportunity is still there to do so, that these new citizens or residents are not forced into ghettos and victimised with the result that old community divisions are replaced by new ones and one disadvantaged minority is replaced by another one.

That has already occurred with the Travelling community, the most disadvantaged group in our midst, for whom the proliferation of human rights instruments has not so far delivered much change.

The gay and lesbian communities have also come under both verbal and at times physical attack in recent times and need clear and unequivocal public support.

And in the meantime, the struggle for women’s rights is by no means over and the struggle for the rights of the disabled is only beginning.

A more ambitious target than just ending the old politico-religious division here would be to actively use the wide array of human rights protections and mechanisms that are now in place to build a society that not only resolves its old conflicts but is truly inclusive and seeks to protect the rights of all minorities and vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

 

 

 

*1  This rather pessimistic outlook was the product of the lengthy stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein which led to a suspension of meetings of the Executive for five months in the summer and autumn of 2008.  Happily that row was eventually resolved and the Executive resumed meeting in November 2008, but that supports the second argument made above for the importance of human rights NGOs – that with no effective political opposition left in Northern Ireland, there is all the more need for bodies that can tell awkward, inconvenient truths and speak up for the voiceless and marginalised.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Lessons for Today

Labour Party Conference, 29th November 2008, Michael Farrell

I very much welcome the decision of the Labour Party to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland and I am honoured to be asked to speak about it tonight and to try to draw some lessons for the present day,

And, of course, we will also be commemorating on 10th December the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that brave attempt to create a new world order based on respect for the dignity of women and men throughout the world.
You could say that the Civil Rights movement in the North did not begin in 1968 or even in Northern Ireland, but in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, when a black woman called Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That simple action started the Civil Rights movement in the US and brought to prominence a young Baptist Minister called Martin Luther King.

My generation in Northern Ireland grew up with newsreel pictures of Civil Rights protestors in the US being beaten off the streets by racist police and were inspired by Rev. King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963, when he set out his vision of an inclusive and multi-racial society even at that time of bitter division in the US.

Northern Ireland in those days was a deeply divided and unjust society with widespread discrimination in housing and jobs by the old Stormont government and local councils. In the early 1960s hundreds of homeless families were living in abandoned US Army huts in Derry and others were squatting in condemned pre-fabricated bungalows in Dungannon because the local councils refused to give them houses. When they began to picket the councils demanding housing, they carried placards comparing their situation to that of the black protestors in the United States.

It was a striking development that a white working class community 5000 miles from Alabama or Mississippi should identify so readily with their black sisters and brothers in the US and maybe it carries a lesson for our society today.

And then there was 1968, that extraordinary year of protest. It was marked by massive demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam – another lesson for today? – by the Prague Spring, when the old Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia collapsed and was replaced by a reformist government that gave hope of a new “socialism with a human face”. Students and workers rose up in Paris in May 1968 and nearly overthrew the government.

Civil Rights, 1968, and all that…

History Ireland Articles PDF

Please click the link above to download the pdf file of the articles…

These three articles appeared in History Ireland September/October 2008, volume 16 No. 5

An accompanying editorial said:

The difference in 1968 was the advent of a university-educated generation fired up by the example of Selma Alabama, Paris ’68, agitation against the Vietnam war and an inchoate counter-culture (although Vinny McCormack admits that there may have been a few covert Val Doonican fans  amongst student radicals!).
The other difference was the violent unionist response (both official and unofficial). Even after the numbing effect of 30 years of violence it is difficult not to be taken aback by the calculated viciousness of the Burntollet ambush. Where did such hatred come from? Roy Garland’s memoir provides a clue.He paints an honest but disturbing picture of a deeply insecure community, easy prey to irrational and contradictory conspiracy theories (both Romanist and Communist). And of course, like all conspiracy theories, their tendency to self-fulfil gives them a veneer of veracity.
Simon Prince controversially points out another difference: the provocative tactics of the civil rights demonstrators. But those other apostles of non-violent protest, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Daniel O’Connell, were equally provocative. In any case, there is no moral equivalence between the (subjective) perception of provocation on the one hand and the (objective) dishing out of physical retribution on the other.

The editorial ends by saying that readers can judge for themselves, and that the strong moral foundations of the civil rights campaign do not make the movement immune to balanced and objective historical investigation. This is the spirit of the 40th anniversary commemoration, and we invite visitors to the site to comment on any of the articles in that spirit.

Screening of “We Shall Overcome”- Recalling Nov. 16th 1968

On Sunday November 16th, the 40th anniversary of Derry’s largest-ever civil rights march, will be marked by the screening of the film “We Shall Overcome“, prior to which the audience will be addressed by civil rights leaders such as Nobel Laureate, John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Denis Haughey and a 1967 co-founder of the movement, local author and historian Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh. This cross-community event will be held at the Criterion Ballroom, 23Foyle Street, commencing at 8 p.m.The documentary was commissioned by the Civil Rights 1968 Commemoration Committee to mark the movement’s emergence on the streets, across the Six Counties, which began with the Coalisland to Dungannon demonstration in the summer of 1968. Besides those already named it features interviews with Austin Currie, Anne Devlin, Michael Farrell, Ken Maginnis and Edwina Stewart, and includes television and radio material from the RTE Archives. A special feature includes bonus 1968 footage supplied by UTV.

This will be one of the last 1968-69 commemorative events to be held in Derry and is being referred to as a civil rights re-union. Local veterans and others from further afield are expected to attend, many of whom have not met personally since those dramatic days which were pivotal in politically transforming the local status quo, on diverse fronts, as well as having a major impact amongst Irish-Americans which in turn dramatically changed Anglo-Irish relations.

Admission is free of charge but as seating is restricted, and demand has been so intense over recent days, those wishing to obtain the limited number of invitations currently available are requested to collect such at 23 Foyle Street or ring the local civil rights’ veterans’ office, any evening after 6 pm on 028-71-286359.

A buffet supper, music and bar will be provided at the close of this historic commemorative event. Civil rights memorabilia will also be sale so as to defray expenses incurred. The local print, radio and TV media have also been invited to attend.

Newry Peoples Democracy Civil Rights Commemoration Event

Newry Peoples Democracy Civil Rights Commemoration EventFriday 14 November 2008 at 8 pm in Newry Arts Centre.

The Debate is`That the Civil rights movement was not allowed to succeed`

Proposing is Finbar Doherty, Derry citizens action committee and Margo Collins, Sec. Newry PD.

Opposing is Austin Currie, former M.P andT.D. and leader of Caledon squat and first Civil rights march; seconding is Tom Keane, Chair, Newry PD.

The Public are invited and can participate in debate.