And here’s to you Mrs Mary Robinson

By Susan McKay Irish News Columnist

There’s something about Mary Robinson. As one of the world’s leading human rights activists, she is a formidable woman and an outstandingly brave one. She moves among world leaders and is a personal friend of Nelson Mandela’s. But she has not lost her belief in the importance of the local and the power of the individual to change the world. She has, above all, a rare ability to inspire.

After the former president addressed the McCluskey Summer School in Carlingford at the weekend, a young woman in the audience spoke about how she’d taken part with thousands of others in marches in Dublin against the war in Iraq but felt that these protests had just been ignored. “I feel helpless and disillusioned as a young person,” she said.

Mrs Robinson urged against despair. The marches had been an important corrective to what the majority of Americans now recognised as “a huge mistake”, she said, a mistake for which we would be paying the price for decades. It had never been more important or necessary for young people to be politically aware and active, she said.

Referring to a forthcoming Oxfam report called ‘Climate Wrongs and Human Rights’, the former president said that a sense of urgency was required.

“Our world is hurtling towards destruction,” she said. “By 2055 we may have 100 million environmental refugees fleeing desertification and flooding.” We had at most two decades before climate change became irreversible.

“All we’ve learned about human rights will be challenged as never before,” she said. “That is the way I will be moving forward.”

The personal is the political.

Mary Robinson has been looking after her grandchildren in Mayo this summer, and said that in 2055 they will be in their fifties.

She was speaking at the McCluskey Summer School to mark the 40th anniversary of the civil rights movement, with a focus on challenges to civil rights in Ireland today.

Mrs Robinson explicitly criticised the Irish government for its plans to “pare down on the cheap” bodies set up to fight inequality and poverty. There was still much to be done. The Travelling community in particular was “still suffering”.

When Austin Currie raised the issue of those who were “disappeared” by the IRA, she agreed that this was a “terrible crime against international humanitarian law”. Then she broadened it out from the local, likening it to the use of “extraordinary rendition” by the current US regime. This involves the abduction of those deemed to be terrorist suspects who are then taken to countries where they can be tortured with impunity.

Mrs Robinson said she was concerned about “European complicity” in rendition. Amnesty International has recently reported that Ireland is engaged in such complicity, by allowing CIA planes involved in rendition flights to use Shannon airport for refuelling.

A young northern man asked Mrs Robinson if she felt the Special Criminal Court in Dublin was engaging in “a form of internment”. He referred to the remand of northern republicans who were opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

“I am very sympathetic to the critique of the Special Criminal Court given,” the former president said.

She said there was a potential for corruption in the powers given to the court which needed serious analysis.

Inevitably, given her past association as a lawyer with the cause of Irish women campaigning for the right to choose abortion, there was a question about the “pre-born”. She replied that too little attention was paid to the thousands of women who die across the world each year because of “botched abortions”. It might be better if women always felt in a position to proceed with pregnancy, she said, “but at least women should have the right to safe terminations.”

She was diplomatic in response to a comment from civil rights veteran Anne Carr, who said that in her work with “the Protestant unionist loyalist community,” she was finding it difficult to convince people of the need for a bill of rights. Mrs Robinson said that she had “sensed that the early vibrancy of the movement for a bill of rights had gone” and urged further dialogue.

She praised the courage and passion of those who were regarded as “troublemakers” when they set out to fight discrimination and to get civil rights here. At this end of the “long, anguished road to where we are today” there was still a compelling need for “concerted citizen action” and for passionate belief in human rights. She’s brilliant, this woman.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson.

Robinson criticises plan to merge human rights bodies

Robinson criticises plan to merge human rights bodies
Mary Robinson: human rights bodies “need to be invigorated”

CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT COMMEMORATION: FORMER PRESIDENT Mary Robinson has sharply criticised a Government proposal to merge a number of human rights agencies.
Speaking yesterday, she said bodies like the Equality Authority were set up to fight for and defend human rights in Ireland and “need to be invigorated, not pared down on the cheap”.
“There should be no erosion of the powers of these bodies,” she said. “They should never be reduced by merging or in any other way.”
She was responding to a Government proposal to merge the Equality Authority, the Equality Tribunal, the Irish Human Rights Commission, the office of the Data Protection Commissioner and the National Disability Authority into a single agency.The bodies have been given until September 12th to respond to the proposal.
Ms Robinson said human rights “belong to the people and are to hold those in power to account”.
The former president, who was the UN high commissioner for human rights until 2002, and is one of the world’s leading human rights activists, was speaking at a commemoration for the 40th anniversary of the North’s civil rights movement.
The conference, the Civil Rights Challenges in Ireland today – Tackling Poverty, Sectarianism, Racism and Inequality, took place in Carlingford, Co Louth.
Ms Robinson said the Belfast Agreement made a “solemn commitment” to upholding human rights and to maintaining human rights commissions in the North and the South.
“This was agreed and sanctioned by the British and Irish governments and accepted by the international community,” she said. Such bodies represented an “extraordinary gain that must be preserved. We still have many struggles for human rights,” she said. She said Travellers in particular were “still suffering”.
During question time, a young Northern man suggested that the Special Criminal Court in Dublin was operating “a form of internment” in its treatment of remand prisoners, including anti-Belfast Agreement republicans.
“I am very sympathetic to the critique of the Special Criminal Court given,” Ms Robinson said. “There is a need for serious analysis of the potential for corruption in the powers given to the court.”
She agreed with Austin Currie, the former civil rights activist, and politician for the SDLP and Fine Gael, that the use of “disappearance” as practised by the IRA in the North, was “a terrible crime against international humanitarian law”.
Ms Robinson compared it with the use by the US of “extraordinary rendition” – the illegal and secretive transfer of persons suspected by the US of involvement in terrorism to be tortured in countries that permit such practices.
The UN was taking this “very seriously”, she said, adding that she was “very concerned about complicity in the European context” with such abuses. The Iraq war was now recognised by the majority of US citizens as a “huge mistake,” she added.
The most urgent human rights issue today was climate change, she said. “Our world is hurtling towards destruction. By 2055, we may have 100 million environmental refugees fleeing desertification or flooding.”
Her grandchildren would just be in their 50s by then, she said. She said she was a “full-time grandmother” in Mayo this summer. “In just under two years, I will be back in Ireland and I won’t move again.”
Ms Robinson paid tribute to former SDLP leader, John Hume, who introduced her, and to other leading figures from the civil rights movement present. “I am very proud of these courageous men and women who were seen as troublemakers but had a passion and knew what they were about,” she said.


THE PUBLIC are being invited to attend the unveiling of a mural at Free Derry Corner this Friday, August 29th @ 2.30 pm which will commemorate the 40th anniversary of Derry’s first civil rights march on October 5th 1968. Civil rights veterans, some of whom became prominent politicians, former residents of Springtown Camp, trade unionists, community groups, and individuals from further afield, in addition to the media, are being invited to attend.

The 40th anniversary commemoration committee, chaired by Denis Haughey, a former Nicra chairman include Nobel Laureate John Hume, Austin Currie, Ivan Cooper,  Michael Farrell, Frank McManus, former Labour spokesman on N. Ireland Kevin McNamara, MP and a  Nicra co-founder in 1967, Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh. Patrons include several leading academics, former Labour MP Paul Rose,  Dr. Conn and Patricia McCluskey, founders of the Campaign for Social Justice in the early 1960s, the well-known lawyer Claude Wilton, Michael Canavan, Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty, Paul Grace, Jane Coyle the widow of ‘Vinny’ Coyle who was an iconic leader of hundreds of stewards and Bernadette McAliskey (nee Devlin).

This week a 2-day programme of events at Derry Guildhall, scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 4 and 5, will be released to the media, as well as trade unions and community groups in additions to interested members of the public. One of the highlights of the weekend events will be a address from the President of Ireland, Mrs. Mary McAleese, who will share a platform with Prof. Kader Asmal a member of the ANC government in South Africa, who sought sanctuary in Ireland over several years during the Apartheid era.

Programmes and invitations relating to all events will be available on request from the Derry civil rights office which can be contacted via 028 71286358 or  The 40th anniversary website, recently launched at an event attended by the Mayor of Derry, Gerard Diver, can be viewed on

Presentations From The Summer School

Below are copies of some of the presentations from the McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School. Please note they are available in both Powerpoint and PDF formats. For printing and ease of use the PDF is probably the best one to download.

Seamus McAleavey, NICVA, Poverty In Northern Ireland:



Racism in the North of Ireland
Eileen Chan-Hu, Chief Executive, Chinese Welfare Association, N.I




Coming to live in Northern Ireland in 1960 was for me a culture shock.
My first experience of democracy Northern Ireland style was when I went to vote.  The choice was between abstentionist republican, labour and Ulster unionist.  Seeing abstentionism as a wasted vote I had decided to vote labour.  On presenting my voting card I was informed that I had already voted.  I then noted that Antoin’s name beside mine was also crossed off although he had not voted at that stage. I was given a pink ballot paper.  This would count in the event of a tie, I was told.  All the polling officials were unionist and only the unionist party had agents present.  In a state of frustration, anger and helplessness I voted for the republican!  In those days, Westminster elections were left to abstentionist republicans and Stormont elections to the Nationalist Party.

Lurgan, a town with over 40% catholic population, was run by a 100% unionist Council. – the result of a system of gerrymandering called the block voting system.  In Derry with a catholic majority gerrymandering was done by manipulating the wards to ensure a unionist majority   In Lurgan with its unionist majority block voting ensured that nationalists were totally excluded.  A split within unionism in the early sixties resulted in four independent nationalists being elected.  In the immediate aftermath, a young unionist councillor, subsequently Mayor of Craigavon and presently MLA, Samuel Gardner stated “ This must never be allowed to happen again”

Discrimination against the catholic community in the area of jobs and housing was the order of the day.  Unionist representatives appeared on television programmes and rubbished claims from nationalists that this was the case.  They got away with it, in the words of the late Paddy Mc Grory, the Belfast solicitor “Southern politicians thundered from the backs of lorries at election times about the fourth green field” but that was the height of their contribution to the situation in which northern nationalist found themselves.  Intermittent IRA campaigns served only to strengthen the unionist grip on power.  The late Patsy Mc Cooey in his foreword to Conn Mc Cluskey’s book, “Up off Their Knees” put it in a nutshell – “That was just the way it was and what cannot be cured must be endured, as the Tyrone woman put it ‘what bees, biz’ Those who suffered the injustices smouldered on, their resentment unchannelled and made even keener by their impotence.”

Into this hopeless situation stepped two people with a social conscience, a burning desire to see justice done and a deep and extraordinary commitment to that goal.  It will not be possible for me in the time allocated to cover half of their contribution.  I will simply give you a flavour. You could say that Conn and Patricia Mc Cluskey were an unlikely couple.
Conn, a general practitioner in Dungannon and his wife, Patricia, comfortably off with three daughters reared.   In 1960’s Northern Ireland such people kept their heads down and ploughed on minding their own business.

But the Mc Cluskeys were no ordinary couple.   With tongue in cheek Conn opines that if the theory advanced by a few American psychologists that babies in the womb can be influenced by events around them then his involvement in civil rights received an early push.  When he was on the way, his parents rented as their first home Cohannon House near Dungannon, until then always let to Protestants.   The local Orangemen assembled at the gates beating their drums in protest, eventually forcing his parents to move to the mainly nationalist area of Warrenpoint.  Patricia Mc Shane was reared on the main street in Portadown where her father owned a drapery shop.  Drumming, intimidation, smashing of windows got so bad during the July marching season that year after year the young Mc Shane family had to be sent away for safety.

It was however the heartbreaking experiences revealed to Conn in his daily surgery and on his rounds that brought Conn and Patricia to the conclusion that something had to be done about it.  Young married couples with small children were forced to live in cramped conditions, often husband and wife having to live apart, each with their respective parents. In one particularly bad case a private house had been converted into eight flats, one of which housed a couple with eight children living in one room.
No medical treatment could alleviate the health consequences of such intolerably stressful conditions

Something had to be done.  The Homeless Citizens League was formed by a group of women led by Angela Mc Crystal and Patricia Mc Cluskey. They picketed the Council offices.  A delegation from the League was received by the Council.  To no avail. The 142 new council houses were allocated mainly to Protestant newly weds.

And so the very first, if rarely acknowledged, protest march of the civil rights movement, organised by the Homeless Citizens League took place in Dungannon in June 1963.  Still the Council refused to budge.  It was put about that the protesters were a bunch of rabble rousers.  A group of homeless young women pushing prams and led by the smartly dressed wife of the local doctor.  An unlikely group of rabble rousers!

At this time an estate of prefabs in reasonably habitable conditions were about to be sold off by the Council for outhouses.  On the night of August 27th, 1963, almost exactly forty five years ago to this day, seventeen families moved in to squat.   The Council illegally cut off electricity and water supplies.  Forced to reconnect these they threatened to take the families off the waiting list. The Press and TV cameras arrived and eventually the Minister for Health and Local Government, William Morgan agreed to receive a delegation from the squatters. (Conn Mc Cluskey, the late Maurice Byrne, local dentist and the late Chris Mallon, local solicitor).

At this stage thirty five houses had been taken over. The Minister had no option but to allow them to remain.  A new housing estate in the nationalist ward was to be quickly completed and the squatters were promised houses there.

What a dramatic demonstration of the power of dignified peaceful protest!  A small group of local women in Dungannon, dogged and determined, had taken on the unionist controlled Council and won.

Yes, change was possible after all.

The following year, Patricia and six colleagues contested the local elections. On a 97 % turnout across the board, Patricia, John Donaghy, Patsy Mc Cooey and James Corrigan were elected.  The nationalist community in Dungannon had got up off their knees.

Let me stress that all this was happening at a time when the unionist party was in full control in Stormont and the British Government continued to shirk its sovereign responsibility for the situation in Northern Ireland, maintaining it could not interfere in the affairs of the Stormont government.

50 years of republican rhetoric, with intermittent bouts of IRA violence had changed nothing for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

Again the Mc Cluskeys realised that something had to be done.

Since Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom they would seek the ordinary rights of British citizens which were denied them.  This of course subsequently became the mantra of the Civil Rights Movement.  And so they set about establishing the Campaign for Social Justice.  In the words of the late Patsy Mc Cooey, a man of integrity and commitment to justice, this development was “the single most important one in the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Like the Mc Cluskeys, those who formed the Campaign Committee with them showed enormous courage and commitment in the climate of that time.  With a strong Unionist Party in complete control, backed up by the RUC and the B Specials, with the British Government resolutely turning a blind eye to the situation, “Whatever you say, say nothing” was very much the order of the day.

The press release at their first press conference in the Wellington Park Hotel in January 1964 stated:

“The Government of Northern Ireland’s policies of apartheid and discrimination have continued to be implemented at all levels with such zeal that we have banded ourselves together to oppose them……Our first objective will be to collect comprehensive and accurate data on all injustices done against all creeds and political opinions, including details of discrimination in jobs and houses and to bring them to the attention of as many socially minded people as possible.”

And so began the hard, grinding and unspectacular work of the Campaign.  The world of Conn and Patricia Mc Cluskey was turned upside down.  They were threatened and slandered, even cajoled by surrogates of unionist politicians, misunderstood by those who suspected them of ulterior motives – political ambitions perhaps.  Their feet firmly on the ground, they never wavered.

Their home in Dungannon became the headquarters of the Campaign. All of this while Conn ran a busy practice and on many occasions had reason to fear for his life as he travelled the country roads at night responding to emergency calls.  The facts of discrimination along with outrageous statements by unionist politicians were meticulously collated and dispatched in the first and second editions of “The Plain Truth” and in Newsletters nationally and internationally from Washington to London and further a field where influence could be brought to bear and indeed shame reflected on the British Government and unionists.  For the first time there was incontrovertible and incontestable evidence of blatant discrimination against the nationalist community.

They travelled to London and Washington, informing the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, The British National Council for Civil Liberties, The British Society of Labour Lawyers, The American Committee for Ulster Justice which included Paul O’Dwyer and of course Ted Kennedy, always armed with their leaflets and pamphlets setting out in stark terms the facts of discrimination in Northern Ireland and garnering support for their cause.   They supported Fr. Denis Faul in exposing the biased nature of the courts in Northern Ireland.   The unavailability of legal aid to those seeking to oppose discrimination through the courts was highlighted in a leaflet outlining their own experience.

They were founder members of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967 and Conn served as an Executive member in the initial years.

There was never a hint of sectarianism.  Speaking to a rally in Manchester organised by the CDU in November 1966 Patricia said “There are thousands of fine Protestants whose emotions have been so worked upon that they are a frightened people.  We want to change all that.  We want to live with our Protestant neighbours as equals, as fellow Christians and as fellow Irishmen and women.”

I have no doubt that the seeds of the change that we have witnessed in recent years were sown by Conn and Patricia Mc Cluskey with the help of their colleagues in the Campaign for Social Justice in those early years of protest.  It is entirely appropriate that in this, the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement we should applaud and acknowledge the courage, the commitment and the foresight of two extraordinary people.
It has been indeed a privilege to have worked with them in those early years and to have enjoyed their friendship for the past four decades.

Many of the younger generation may not realise that in some measure they owe the status of equality that they now take for granted to the sacrifices of a general practitioner in Dungannon and his wife.  For in the hopeless and dark world of second class citizenship inhabited by their grandparents Conn and Patricia mc Cluskey lit a candle which grew into a mighty flame.

On behalf of the Civil Rights Committee and of all of who were involved in that struggle,

We thank you.  Go raibh mile maith agaibh.

The original Committee of the Campaign for Social Justice was as follows:

Peter Gormley, ear, nose and throat surgeon and Conor Gilligan, general surgeon, both in the Mater Hospital;
Maurice Byrne, dentist in Dungannon; J.J. Donnelly, Enniskillen Councillor; Hugh Mc Conville, Lurgan teacher;  Tom Mc Laughlin, wealthy businessman, Armagh; Leo Sullivan, Science professor, Omagh; Olive, Scott, Maura Mullally and Patricia Mc Cluskey (Chairperson)

Former President Praises The Pioneering Civil Rights Activists

Click on a photo to see a larger version

Remembering 1968 – 40th anniversary of civil rights movement
By Ashleigh McDonald Irish News 25 August 2008

FORMER president Mary Robinson has paid tribute to those who took part in a Civil Rights march 40 years ago, saying their actions “took us out of the shadows and into the sun”.

She was speaking yesterday at the McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School in Carlingford, Co Louth, which commemorated the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Civil Rights movement.

The two-day event was held at the weekend in Carlingford’s Heritage Centre, where a number of guest speakers including Bernadette McAliskey and former SDLP minister Brid Rodgers – who both played active parts during the campaign – addressed issues of civil rights both past and present.

Mrs Robinson, who now lives in the US, was key speaker at the summer school and was introduced by Nobel Peace Laureate and former SDLP leader John Hume as a woman known for her “unflagging and tireless commitment to human rights and social justice”.

The former president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was fitting to speak on the 40th anniversary of the first ever civil rights march when people took to the streets and walked from Coalisland to Dungannon.

“If I look back at 40 years ago today, I think of 2,000 people beginning a tidal sea of change that would lead to the fact that we are now out of the shadows and in to the sun,” Mrs Robinson said.

Thanking the Civil Rights 1968 Commemoration committee for highlighting the importance of what happened 40 years ago, she said: “There is a need for memory and for reflection.

“I believe we must always remember to pay appropriate tribute to the men and women who for many years fought in the shadows for rights and dignity.”

Mrs Robinson also addressed the issue of racism against migrant workers in Ireland – a subject which Mrs McAliskey spoke about during Saturday’s session of the summer school.

The McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School was named after the Dungannon doctor Dr Con McCluskey and his wife Patricia who formed the Homeless Citizens League in Co Tyrone in the early 1960s.

The work they undertook recording and compiling statistics highlighted the nature of discrimination in jobs and housing against Catholics under the then Unionist regime.

Also present at yesterday’s event was former Stormont MP Austin Currie, who said the “worst violation of human rights” during the Troubles were those of the Disappeared.

Telling those gathered he was a friend of one of

the Disappeared, Columba McVeigh, Mr Currie said: “His mother went to her grave having spent 30 years mourning for Columba.

“Her headstone has Columba’s name on it, without the appropriate final date.

“We should take every opportunity, when human rights are being considered, to remember this category of people who have been denied a Christian burial.”

Memorial Stone Commemorates March

By Ashleigh McDonald – Originally Published: Irish News 25 August 2008

A MEMORIAL stone to commemorate the first ever civil rights march in Northern Ireland was unveiled this weekend in the centre of Coalisland.

Around 300 people attended the unveiling, which took place in the Co Tyrone town on Saturday afternoon.

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the march, when people took to the streets and walked from Coalisland to Dungannon to highlight civil rights abuses against Catholics.

Speakers at the event were Mid-Ulster MLA Francie Molloy and Bernadette McAliskey.

Mr Molloy, who acted as a steward in the 1968 march, said the memorial stone was a tribute to all those who have played a part in the civil rights movement in the last four decades.

“Forty years ago Coalisland was at the birth of the civil rights movement,” the Sinn Fein politician said.

“It is fitting that we commemorated the original march in the town.

“In 1968 there was a huge optimism that here in Ireland we would challenge the corrupt unionist state and bring about real change.

“Sadly the civil rights movement and its basic demands for housing, jobs and democracy were met with all the violence of the unionist state.”

During Saturday’s event Mrs McAliskey spoke of the problems of racism against migrant workers in Ireland today.

“People who campaign for human rights should also recognise the issues around racism,” she said.

“Migrant workers have the right to live and work here and people should not be discriminated against because of their race or nationality”.


“40 Years On – The Civil Rights Challenges in Ireland Today – Tackling Poverty, Sectarianism, Racism and Inequality”

Saturday 23 – Sunday 24 August 2008
in Holy Trinity Church, Carlingford, Co Louth

Speakers include:

  • Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland
  • Bernadette McAliskey
  • Michael Farrell
  • Brid Rodgers

and others from the political and voluntary sectors North and South

To RSVP or for further information contact:
Tim Attwood 07802 279939 or E:

This word file contains the agenda and booking form, click the link below to download it: