Lessons of Derry civil rights march relevant still, conference hears

Dan Keenan, Irish Times 4 October 2008

THE MARKING of the 40th anniversary of the Derry civil rights march of October 5th, 1968, should help provide lessons for the modern era, a Belfast conference has heard.

Michael Farrell, a lawyer, author, rights campaigner and student activist in 1968 told a special seminar at Queen’s University the anniversary should not be marked by triumphalism or a reopening of old wounds.

He told the conference, 1968: Civil Rights, Then and Now, that the NI Civil Rights Association was born out of anger at unionist corporations mainly in small towns across the North over issues such as housing, jobs, gerrymandering and local democracy. He denied it was sectarian or had anything to do with a united Ireland.

Placing it in an international context, he linked the anniversary with the 60th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights. Civil rights activists in Northern Ireland in 1968 identified with blacks in the southern US and with “a Baptist minister named after Martin Luther”, he said.

He contended that the Northern state was “too brittle” to accommodate the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, while the British government ignored it as best it could. The vast array of national and international tools and instruments which are now available for the purposes of seeking redress were simply unavailable in the late 1960s.

Simon Price, author of Northern Ireland’s 1968, warned against reliance on memory of those involved to assess the impact of the Civil Rights Movement.

“The past cannot be remembered as it was,” he argued. “All memories are of equal value; all historical sources, however, are not.” He continued: “Collective memory reconstructs the past as myth rather than fact – to serve the interests of a particular group. It provides consolation, confirms and reinforces values and conjures up a wider political vision.”

Queen’s University academic Lord Paul Bew argued that an opportunity was lost sometime between the October 5th civil rights march in Derry and the attack on the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry at Burntollet the following January.

He felt the then unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, had taken on his hardliners and was preparing to reform the Northern state. “Burntollet changed it all,” he argued, adding that the response to the challenge posed by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was amateurish.

University of Ulster academic Paul Arthur discussed the diversity of the original Civil Rights Movement, suggesting it was a broad organisation which suffered from having “too many chiefs”.

Questions on Terence O’Neill’s sincerity were not as relevant as his ability to deal with the challenge of change, he said.

Bob Purdie, author of Politics in the Street, doubted that Capt O’Neill “could have pulled it off”, arguing that the former leader’s determination was not enough. Like Dr Purdie, Edwina Stewart, a NICRA member, admitted that she and many of the 1968 generation had made “many mistakes”. She told the conference of a sense of naivety which marked the early days of the movement and the first marches in Northern Ireland.

Kevin Boyle, of the University of Essex, said the Civil Rights Movement preceded “the human rights era” and argued that ideas were now transferred globally and rapidly thanks to the extraordinary development in information and communications technology.

Tom Hadden, of Queen’s University, said those agitating for civil rights had to ask how best to do this without stoking terrorism.

Margaret Ward of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency said the issue of civil rights now had to be “gendered”. She argued that much of the intervening period was marked by a realisation of the need to recognise the division between Catholics and Protestants. Such determination had to be given to the separate needs of men and women.

The weekend’s commemorations continue this weekend with a major international conference in Derry on the civil rights legacy.

DUP element trying to undermine NI power-sharing – SF

Irish times 4 October 2008

Elements of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) hark back to the days of unionist rule and hope to undermine Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, Sinn Féin claimed today.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness used a speech at a major event commemorating the 1960s Civil Rights Movement to launch an attack on the DUP.

He called on DUP leader Peter Robinson to agree a deal to secure the government and warned that failure to share power would see unionists robbed of any political control.

The Civil Rights movement protested against anti-Catholic discrimination by the then unionist government, but it was attacked by loyalists and police in scenes that preceded the outbreak of the Troubles.

Mr McGuinness told an international conference in Londonderry marking the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights campaign that some unionists still believed the period of unionist rule was a “golden age”.

“That mindset – of no surrender and not an inch – still exists in some elements of political unionism today, and especially within the DUP,” said Mr McGuinness.

“The fact is that there are still those within the DUP who do not agree with power sharing as a concept or as a matter of political practice.

“They do not accept that the days of unionist majority rule are gone and gone forever.

“They believe that by stalling and delaying they can hollow out the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements. And that is what is at the heart of the current crisis.”

The DUP and Sinn Fein are divided over a range of issues including the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly. The dispute has seen republicans block meetings of the Executive since June.

But Mr McGuinness said: “If one party does not believe in partnership government and power sharing on the basis of equality then it is they who are placing the political institutions at risk.

“The Unionist political system needs to understand and come to terms with the reality that life has changed for everybody.

“The only way any unionist politician will ever hold any semblance of real political power now or in the future is in partnership with nationalists and republicans.”

Mr McGuinness said he had attended the British-Irish Council meeting in Edinburgh last week despite the deadlock, but was disappointed the DUP blocked yesterday’s North-South Ministerial Council after an Executive meeting was cancelled.

He said that since Mr Robinson emerged as leader of the DUP in June his party had yet to engage in meaningful negotiation and had cherry-picked from the St Andrews agreement.

Mr McGuinness claimed this analysis was supported by recent comments from former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Gordon Brown

“If partnership government is beyond the DUP then it will fall to the two governments to take the necessary decisions and implement the necessary policy changes to ensure political progress in the all-Ireland context envisaged in the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements,” he said.

Mr McGuinness added: “The resolution is DUP agreement to work the partnership arrangements and to agree a timeframe for the transfer of power on policing and justice.”

The DUP has said there is a lack of confidence in the unionist community for a move on policing, but Mr McGuinness said this was a bogus argument.

“I believe that an agreement forged between myself and Peter Robinson would send out a powerful and hopeful message for the future,” he said.

“But if we are to move forward it will take political courage and political leadership. It will need real and meaningful partnership government and power sharing.”

His comments came as Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said both governments remained ready to help, but believed the parties could yet find a way out of the deadlock.

A transforming moment in Irish history, 40 years on

Events in the North will mark the anniversary of the iconic civil rights march in Derry in 1968, writes Gerry Moriarty

STALWARTS OF the Northern Ireland civil rights movement – older, greyer, perhaps even wiser – are currently reminiscing about October 5th, 1968, a Saturday 40 years ago that turned out to be a transforming moment in modern Irish history. Some believe it was the day the Troubles officially began.

It was a heady, exciting time for sure in many corners of the world, what with the Vietnam War protests, the US presidential election, Martin Luther King and the American civil rights marches, the rioting in Paris, and let us mention too the music: Dylan, Hendrix, the Beatles, Cream.

Even the dreary steeples couldn’t escape the hope and exhilaration of the period. As Barack Obama might say, it was a time for change. In Northern Ireland in 1968 the change was real and dynamic.

The memories this weekend will be of Duke Street in Derry when the RUC turned on the marchers, a place that is rather like the GPO on Easter Week 1916: if all the people who said or thought they were there were there you would cram Croke Park, or the Brandywell in Derry, several times over.

The agitators are 40 years older now. Some are dead.

You’ll be familiar with the names who were there or thereabouts on October 5th, 1968, or on other key dates around that frenetic time: John Hume, Austin Currie, Ivan Cooper, Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann, Nell McCafferty, Michael Farrell, Paul Arthur, Paul Bew.

Some are taking part in events marking the anniversary this weekend, the biggest of which is a three-day commemoration in the Guild Hall in Derry, which President Mary McAleese will address.

A conference, Civil Rights – Then and Now , is taking place in Queen’s University, Belfast, tomorrow. The Workers’ Party will also reflect on October 5th, 1968, at their Northern regional conference in Belfast on Saturday. Other events are also taking place recalling the day.

Glasses will be lifted to former Irish Times journalist Mary Holland, who reported from Derry on the day for the Observer , and to the RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien, whose footage of the RUC batoning marchers was flashed across the world, and to former West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt, the image of him with blood streaming down his face after he was truncheoned being part of the iconic impressions of October 5th. All dead now.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in early 1967 to protest against discrimination of Catholics and to campaign for five key demands: “one man, one vote”; an end to gerrymandering of council boundaries; an end to housing discrimination; an end to discrimination by public authorities; and the abolition of the B Specials police reserve.

The following year nationalist MP Austin Currie, later an SDLP minister and later still a Fine Gael minister, staged a sit-in in Caledon, protesting that Catholics were being discriminated against in the allocation of housing.

That August he was the central figure behind a march from Coalisland to Dungannon. Some 4,000 participated but it did not gain significant coverage. The world was more concerned with the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia a few days earlier.

October 5th in Derry attracted some 300-400 marchers. Currie remembered the day as being like “The Charge of the Light Brigade: policemen to the front of us, policemen to the back of us, no way out”.

Historian Paul Arthur, then a 23-year-old just back from an Israeli kibbutz, had a similar memory of being hemmed in on both sides by the police. “There was a huge innocence about the day,” he said, recalling the prevailing youthful fervour of 1968. “Beforehand no one had any sense that the police would attack us,” he added.

Arthur said similar incidents had happened previously “on a much more minor scale” with the RUC wading in with batons when, say, Irish Tricolours were displayed at St Patrick’s Day parades. “But the huge difference was that Gay O’Brien captured what happened. His presence was what made the 5th of October.”

The reports by Mary Holland also had a significant impact. Previously the British government, to its great relief, left what happened in Northern Ireland to the unionist Stormont administration, as was the Pontius Pilate political protocol of the day, but not any more.

At the debates this weekend in Derry and Belfast the likes of Farrell, Currie, Arthur and fellow historian Lord (Paul) Bew will discuss that past. One can expect that the predominant opinion will be celebrating the civil rights movement but there will be other views. Gregory Campbell will be there.

Paul Bew had just begun college in Cambridge in October 1968, having been involved in the socialist movement in Northern Ireland with the likes of Farrell and McCann. At the Belfast event he may also offer a cautious divergent take on the period.

He missed the Derry march but was marching at Burntollet when it was attacked by loyalists in January 1969, precipitating a period of rioting and disturbances across Northern Ireland that culminated in the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and the arrival of British troops on the streets of Derry to try to restore civil order.

Subsequently, there was the IRA split and the formation of the Provisional IRA, and all the toxic history and 3,700 deaths that came afterwards.

Bew wonders was an opportunity lost between October 5th and Burntollet. If Burntollet could have been avoided, could unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill have succeeded with his moderate and modest programme of reform when he appeared willing to take on his hardliners?

Bew, with a raft of caveats, may enter his “what if” into the debating mix this weekend and no doubt will be politely but robustly challenged by the likes of Currie and Arthur, who argue that O’Neill was just too weak to implement reform.

Currie said O’Neill was regularly warned of the inevitability of the floodgates opening if Catholics were not accorded civil rights, but that he just didn’t have the political strength to prevent the damburst.

He feels too that more precipitate action by the British government could have prevented a hopeful enterprise being overtaken by a violent sectarian conflict, which was the antithesis of what civil rights was about. There will be plenty to talk about.

• Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Marching through Derry to the sound of ‘We Shall Overcome’

It’s 40 years since police broke up the Civil Rights protest in Derry. Martin Cowley Irish Times, 30 September 2008,recalls his part in an event that flashed around the world

BLACK AND white news film of Derry in the 1960s coats the city in a sickly pallor.

But it was exhilarating time for a teenager gripped by twin bugs of politics and news.

Political tension on the doorstep, turmoil in international capitals, East-West confrontation, impending epochal change worldwide. That was 1968.

Anybody worth their salt was radical then. Derry Labour Party chanted “Tories Out North and South” and demanded nationalisation of banks.

The Establishment gave them the brush-off with a sniffy smile. No one’s laughing now, comrade.

October 5th, 1968 heralded the bloody baptism of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement, which took its inspiration from the struggles of black America. The movement’s guiding principle was non-violence and its leaders stuck to it.

Many other forces and influences quickly bore down on the sorry state of Northern Ireland, however, and that peaceful and dignified demand for equality was overtaken by a nightmare of strife that lasted 35 years.

When I heard last week that Claude Wilton had died, I rummaged among the detritus of a reporter’s past – such as dog-eared notebooks, Stormont press gallery tickets, a rubber bullet and Christmas cards from 10 Downing Street.

I unearthed a 1966 diary that confirmed a vivid recollection of Claude in those early days of street politics. Claude was a good soul.

Highly principled and respected by all, he was a solicitor of Protestant stock.

He instinctively practised civil rights long before the term was coined, and long before legal aid. He loved Derry well and helped all who sought his aid, especially the men and women of no property.

The diary also confirmed – though unrecognised then – what could even have been a minor scoop for a budding reporter; a report of what must have been one the North’s first public airings of the Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome .

The year 1968 was marked by international turmoil. Student riots in Paris, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Soviet Union’s humiliation of Dubcek and its crushing of the Prague Spring, and much more.

On October 5th the world saw the ugly face of Northern Ireland, and Britain had to open its eyes to excesses on its western reaches. The course of this island’s history, and British-Irish relations, was changed forever.

“Gentlemen, please,” pleaded a protester facing a phalanx of Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers as they blocked civil rights marchers who were calling for wholesale reform of voting and housing allocation procedures, and an end job discrimination.

Batons flailed as the police broke up the demonstration after some early scuffling. The police had the marchers hemmed in on both sides. Protesters tried to dodge blows to the body and head deliberately aimed or doled out gratuitously to anyone within reach.

News cameraman Gay O’Brien of RTÉ shot the famous footage that flashed around the world.

I happened to be in his line of sight, and was filmed being sent sprawling by a burly policeman wielding a blackthorn stick after I had taken other baton blows to the head.

I had deliberately walked on the pavement and was among the crowd on the footpath as the police charged.

I was a young reporter with the Derry Journal and had not been assigned to cover the march, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss it.

The marchers’ grievances were shared by Catholic nationalists and liberal Protestants: demands for an end to a system that gave business-owners extra votes in council elections and demands for houses for hundreds of families crowded into crumbling, unsanitary flats.

Some time before October 5th, my editor sent me to speak to an old woman who lived alone in a tiny run-down house that had an outside lavatory with cracked bowl.

A Protestant, she lived in a unionist enclave. Her plight was sad. Working-class Protestants also endured rotten housing, too silently, perhaps, for the greater cause of unionist unity.

Unionist Party apparatchiks had ward boundaries sewn up so that they controlled the corporation, despite the nationalist voting majority.

The ruling forces turned their backs on the homeless and helped to perpetuate job discrimination.

Derry was out on a limb. Vital shipping and rail links had been axed.

A second city was earmarked – “Craigavon”.

The galvanising factor that uniquely united Derry’s citizens was a decision to locate the North’s second university in Coleraine.

This host of issues drove Claude Wilton into politics, in two unsuccessful attempts to win seats from incumbent unionists.

My friends and I joined the campaigning for him and in 1966 I took note of the craic in the small green diary.

It was then that I heard the civil rights anthem sung on the streets of Derry for the first time.

May 14th, 1966: Went down with Seamus Coyle to Claude Wilton’s HQ. Delivered election addresses for two hours. I delivered to Sir Basil and Lady McFarland (local unionist grandees).

May 18th: Went to Claude’s final rally with (my cousin) John Healy. Johnny Hume and Ivan Cooper spoke. While John Hume was speaking . . . (unionist) supporters and bands passed by. Claude, etc, sang We Shall Overcome.

May 19th: Was out knocking up people all day. McLaughlin’s (more cousins) was . . . area HQ.

The next page reads: “Claude was beaten by 443 votes. After result, all supporters sang We Shall Overcome walking down the Strand Road.” Stirring times.

• Martin Cowley was a reporter on The Irish Times from 1971 until 1989. He was the newspaper’s London editor in 1978-81. Later he joined Reuters as Ireland correspondent

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