How a phoenix lit the troubles flames

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times 5 October 2008)

A senior British civil servant reviewing Republican News – strictly in the line of duty – was surprised to see a picture of himself, hair a little longer, paunch a little shorter, being lifted bodily by the RUC from a civil rights demonstration in the late 60s. The man, who went on to join the police reserve and held many sensitive posts throughout the years of conflict, was proud to be reminded of his active role, generally seen as the launching pad for the Troubles.

Others now familiar in quite different contexts were also involved. Lord Bew, a former adviser to David Trimble and Professor of Politics at Queens University, has been prominent in the commemorations. Bew was one of forty members of the People’s Democracy movement whose march from Belfast to Londonderry was attacked by loyalist mobs and off duty police in January 1969.

Despite the diversity of the civil rights movement, which for a time caught the imagination of a generation, there is a determined effort by Sinn Féin to claim it as part of the pre-history of the Provisional IRA. A T-shirt on sale in Sinn Féin’s bookshop carries the slogan “1968-2008 The Struggle Continues” above the rising phoenix symbol of the IRA.

The precise date and time they are thinking of is 3.30 pm on October 5th 1968 and the place is Duke Street in Derry. There, a civil rights march which is frequently regarded as the starting point of the troubles took place. But was it inevitable? Or did a series of errors and wrong moves result in events that could not have been predicted?

In a pamphlet entitled “Civil Rights – Reform or Revolution” historian Ultan Gillen recently examined the period in the context of the republican movement’s “new direction” which was launched after the collapse of the border campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

After the campaign failed to attract sufficient support, the IRA and Sinn Féin concluded a non violent form of struggle which could build broad popular support for limited demands was the way forward. In co-operation with the Communist Party of Ireland and various local groups agitating on housing and human rights issues, they tried to create a broad alliance which would bring working people and the liberal left together on a reform programme.

The meeting which launched the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was held in Belfast’s International Hotel on January 29th 1967. Every political party in Northern Ireland was represented at the meeting and although Liam McMillan, the Officer Commanding the IRA in the city at the time, admitted he had enough members there to pack the executive, he held back to ensure that the movement remained broadly based.

The first executive included trades unionists, members of civil liberties groups like the Campaign for Social Justice, a representative of the Young Unionists, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, Gerry Fitt’s Republican Labour Party and the Ulster Liberals. Few of these groups are popularly remembered as founders of the civil rights movement, and a good many no longer exist.

Objectives agreed were irreproachably reformist and moderate in tone. They would defend the basic freedoms of all citizens, to protect the rights of the individual, highlight all possible abuses of power, demand guarantees for the freedom of speech, assembly and association and inform the public of their lawful rights.

Disaffected republicans – those who would soon form the Provos – regarded it with disdain and young radicals attempted to push the NICRA leadership into more radical action which would bring things to a head by confronting the Stormont government and exposing its shortcomings.

The organiser of the Duke Street march was Eamon Melaugh, later an Official republican but then a non aligned housing activist, who worked closely with Eamon McCann and the Derry Labour Party. They invited the Belfast-based NICRA leadership to sponsor the march and settled a route which would go through Derry’s walls, where normally only unionist parades were held.

NICRA, represented by communist trade union veterans like Berry Sinclair and Edwina Stewart, didn’t know Derry and missed the significance until the march was banned. Locally, John Hume advised against it and declined to attend.

NICRA tried to call it off but were forced to acquiesce when McCann and his colleagues said they would march regardless. Ivan Cooper, one of the organisers who had left the Unionist Party to join Labour, recalls that when he and McCann were briefly arrested that morning, the police warned them that they were determined to enforce the ban but then released them in time to attend.

At Duke Street, the RUC even handed Cooper a loud hailer which he used to read out the Civil Rights demands to the demonstrators. Betty Sinclair, a communist trade union official, jailed for sedition in the 40s for publicly supporting the IRA, congratulated the crowd on their good behaviour, said they had made their point and asked them to go home. Her remarks, which were echoed by other speakers including Cooper. Buit McCann says the strategy of some local activists was “to provoke the police into over reaction” and this was easily achieved.

After placards were hurled at police lines, the RUC responded with water cannons and baton charges. Melaugh remarked prophetically: “This is the end of Stormont”.

The episode was caught on film by Gay O’Brien, an RTE cameraman, whose images went round the world. Gerry Fitt, then an MP, was seen with his shirt covered in blood. Paddy Douglas, besuited Tyrone businessman, was shown being dug in the groin by an RUC baton moments after remonstrating with an officer.

Mickey Devine, who joined the INLA and eventually died on hunger strike in 1981, said his life was “turned upside down” by O’Brien’s images. “I didn’t even know there was a Civil Rights march; I saw it on television. But that night I was down the town smashing shop windows and stoning the RUC … Within a month everyone was a political activist. I had never had a political thought in my life but now we talked of nothing else.”

Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister at Stormont and a strong supporter of the return of policing powers, concluded that reform was impossible and took the paramilitary path. He said he was soon convinced that “justice could only be achieved in the context of a 32 county united Ireland”. The unionist regime and loyalist paramilitaries, claiming that they faced an IRA and communist takeover, responded viciously. IRA dissidents seized their chance to recruit youths like McGuinness and Devine, and within months, the promising cross community alliance forged by NICRA had been replaced by sectarian paranoia and violence.

This outcome was neither inevitable nor even likely. Sinclair and Cooper might have been obeyed, the police might have held back and the Stormont government might have kept a cooler head in the months that followed. Nobody could have predicted that a movement for equal rights would spark 30 years of violence.

Ironically, NICRA was one of the most successful political movements in the history of Ireland. Its demands were all met by the mid 70s and now no party would suggest that measures it championed, such as equality of opportunity and one man one vote, should be rescinded.

Former members of NICRA are proud of their roles; many who poured scorn on it are now scrambling to claim its legacy.

Yet, thanks to a series of flukes and misjudgements, the short lived movement will always be remembered as the spark which lit the bonfire that claimed more than 3,000 lives.

The deepest irony of all is that the IRA campaign, far from being the culmination of the civil rights project turned out to be its grave-digger.

October 6, 2008

One thought on “How a phoenix lit the troubles flames

  1. To suggest that a few minor incidents flashed around the world were the reasons the northern Ireland state almost came crumbling down is ridiculous. The state was completely rotten ever since its foundation, it was only a matter of time before violence took over from peaceful demonstration. Where there is no justice there is violence. I agree the IRA slowed downed the basic human rights that would have had to be granted, especially after Britain joined the EEC, they would have been forced by European parliament to do this, I do feel though that if it were up to the sectarian bigots that ran/run that state, then catholics would still be “peacefully” demonstrating for their rights. When leaders of certain parties, now in power, are calling the pope the anti christ and calling for all catholics to be burned, referring to 35% of his own population as terrorist bog dwellers, well that just says it all. Do you really think his kind would hand over power peacefully?

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