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.


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.



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.

Bloody Sunday Film Shown in Derry

An appreciative audience packed Derry’s Orchard Cinema to watch Paul
Greengrass’s harrowing film “Bloody Sunday” . The film was preceded by a performance by the Screaming Blue Murder Poets group. The performance was a tribute to those who struggled for Civil Rights throughout Europe and the US in 68 and those currently in struggle.The film was introduced by Mr Ivan Cooper, a member of the Commemoration Committee.In his remarks he outlined how well the film has been received around the world, winning the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival and many other prizes in testament to its artistic and social integrity. Mr Cooper remarked that Bloody Sunday – January 30 1972- when 13 innocent civilians were murdered on the streets of Derry – was “a day of shame”.

The audience who watched the film in a gripped silence heard the line repeated in the closing minutes of the film by Mr Cooper’s “alter ego” actor James Nesbitt. The showing had been organised by the Magic Lantern Film Club as a result of a request by Commemoration Committee member Vinny McCormack thatthe Club show the film as part of the commemoration. The Committee wish to commend Magic Lantern for this initiative.

‘Freedom from division gave civil rights impact’

President Mary McAleese in Derry (by Trevor McBride)
President Mary McAleese in Derry (by Trevor McBride)

Andrea McKernon Irish News

THE Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement had such a huge impact because it was free from the divisions of sectarianism, Irish President Mary McAleese has said.

Mrs McAleese made the comments at a conference in Derry at the weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of civil rights campaign.

The conference was held in the Guildhall as part of a series of events organised by the Civil Rights 1968 Commemoration Committee.

The weekend seminar included a civil rights exhibition and attracted some of the main players in the movement including civil rights leader at the time, Ivan Cooper.

President McAleese said those demanding reform in the 1960s were inspired by the black civil rights campaign in the US, led by the Rev Martin Luther King.

“The early champions of civil rights came from right across the traditional religious and political divide,” she said.

“They believed that only when Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland, was freed from the politics of sectarianism would its truest and best potential be revealed. They believed in non-violence, in peaceful protest, in the politics of persuasion.”

The president said the foundations of the civil rights movement had provided the framework for the structures that exist in the north today.

“Today the institutions and structures of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements and the framework of human rights legislation which underpins them, provide a sound basis for that equality of citizenship and for relationships of mutual respect and good neighbourliness within Northern Ireland, between north and south and between Ireland and Britain,” she said.

The president noted that in a speech in Washington last year First Minister Peter Robinson quoted America’s civil war history to note that: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”

“Though to some it did not appear so, back in 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was about the business of ending wasteful sectarian divisions that had made Northern Ireland a house divided against itself,” Mrs McAleese said.

The president wished First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness well in their work to secure a new future.

“When we consider the extent of change already achieved, of sacrifices and compromises made on all sides, we take courage and hope,” she said

Bernadette McAliskey: Return of the Roaring Girl

Forty years ago today, a police baton charge signalled the start of the Troubles. One student on that march became an icon of rebellion. Where is she now? Cole Moreton meets… Bernadette McAliskey

The Indepenndent Sunday, 5 October 2008

Castro in a miniskirt, they called her. A “blazing star” and “an icon of the civil rights movement”. The female face of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Republican rebel immortalised in a huge mural on the side of a house in “Free Derry”. Tourists go to see it: wee, wild Bernadette Devlin shouting through a loudhailer as smoke billows over the barricade behind her. So who is this pensioner in a lilac cardie?

“There are people who think I’m dead,” she says cheerfully, sitting in an anonymous office on an industrial estate, in a small town west of Belfast. “I like that!”

But this really is the same woman who was elected to Parliament in 1969 aged 21, the youngest female MP ever. The one who was about to make a speech to marchers in Derry in January 1972 when the Parachute Regiment opened fire, killing 14 people on what became known as Bloody Sunday. The woman who was in the Commons the next day, to hear the Home Secretary, Reggie Maudling, say the Paras had acted in self-defence. She hurled herself across the floor of the House and slapped him hard on the face, yelling, “Murderous hypocrite!”

This diminutive 61-year-old is the same woman whose maiden speech was described – by opponents – as “brilliant” and “electrifying”. Listening to a broadcast of it, a young American scholar knew he wanted to be in politics. His name was Bill Clinton.

Even now, her legend is powerful: at the Cannes film festival this year a biopic of Devlin was announced, to be called The Roaring Girl. She will be played by Sally Hawkins, star of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, apparently. But not if Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (as she has been for years) gets her way. “The whole concept is abhorrent to me,” she says, revealing that her lawyers are challenging the film. “How dare anybody make a pretend life for me while I’m still living the real one?”

She hates dwelling on the past. “I am interested in now!” So she is unlikely to be among those marking the 40th anniversary today of the first major civil rights march ever to be held in Northern Ireland. “Why celebrate 40? You only do that if you’re so full of yourself you think something must be done before you die.”

McAliskey would rather talk about present-day issues, like the treatment of migrants who come to Northern Ireland looking for work. “Disgraceful,” she says, as the director of a charity that offers them advice and help. “People who know they’re not allowed to behave badly towards each other any more have found themselves a new target.” It is a question of human rights, she says. Most things are to Bernard, as she calls herself. Most other people are wrong too, it seems, as she rages among the case files and pot plants. The Good Friday Agreement led to “fleece and consternation, not peace and reconciliation”. The “smoke and mirrors peace” was bought with European money: “The decent unemployed couldn’t cross the road for being offered work!”

She says it all with the sly look of someone who loves a battle, just like the old days … but I asked to see her. Not the other way round. She cherishes her relative obscurity, and only agreed to talk about the work of the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (Step), the network of groups and campaigners she directs from this office in Dungannon. “I’m not interested in all that ‘those were the days’ stuff.”

She can’t help herself, though. McAliskey loves to talk. The march in Derry on 5 October 1968 was, she says, “the beginning of it all. I can still see, in my mind, the absolute hatred on the faces of police officers. My understanding of the society I was in was irrevocably changed.”

It had been organised by the newly formed Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, to protest at discrimination against Catholics. Some participants have admitted they were trying to provoke the authorities. Not her. “Until then I thought of policemen as the ones who kept the rowdy drinkers in line at my grandmother’s pub.”

Newspaper reports described a baton charge by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “This wasn’t a baton charge,” she says bitterly. “This was a pent-up hatred. This was naked violence. This was three or four men with long cudgels standing over someone on the ground and hitting and hitting them.”

This is the old Bernie Devlin, phrase-making through clenched teeth. “This was police following those who had dragged away the injured, and beating them up as well. This was a realisation that your worst enemy was in a uniform and had the power,” she almost spits it out, “to kill you.” She still feels deeply about it. “I hate them. Hate the police.” Surely she has to work with them now? “It’s not personal. But it is my deepest prejudice.”

In 1968 Devlin had just begun her last year studying psychology at Queen’s University. “I was a first-class honours profile student. Then it was all swept away. My degree and my career. It says something about the cataclysmic impact things had on me at the time that I just didn’t care.”

She started a radical student movement called People’s Democracy, and was taken up by the media. “I come from a long line of strong women,” she says. “My mother and grandmother were both widows. The level of poverty that I grew up in brings a degree of strength and creativity to women, because they have to manage.”

Remarkable things happened within a year. She was thrown out of university, but elected as a unity candidate for Mid Ulster. She wrote a book. She was carried on the shoulders of Irish Americans on a trip to New York. She was jailed for inciting a riot and served six months in prison. She also started to upset a lot of people who had voted for her. “I went away to London and knocked about with the socialists and the Gypsies and the feminists. Best education I could have. But people here said, ‘Confine yourself to our issues. And please cut your hair and lengthen your skirt. And don’t smoke.’ I said, ‘I think youse were looking for somebody else!'”

She horrified them further by having a daughter, Roisin, out of wedlock (although she married the father, Michael McAliskey. They are still together). She was defeated in the next general election, by which time Bloody Sunday had happened. “That was when the civil rights movement ended and the armed struggle began.”

How so? “That was the point of realisation for me that the penalty for demanding equal rights in your society was that your government would kill you. Then you say, ‘If it’s OK for the government to declare war on the people, the people have a right to declare war on the government.'” And on civilians? Children? She doesn’t flinch. “Right up until that point I would have openly argued all the time against armed defence, never mind armed warfare.” And then? “You couldn’t do that with any credibility after Bloody Sunday.” Many people would have taken her for an IRA apologist. “Yes they would. I never said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Because I had made that equation in my own head. That’s terrible … but that was real.”

The armed struggle hit her hard in 1981, when Ulster Freedom Fighters broke down the door of the remote family home and fired shotguns. Michael was shot twice. She was hit in the chest, arm and thigh as she went to wake up one of the three children. Roisin was nine, Deirdre five and Fintan just two. Paras happened to be watching the building, but did not prevent the loyalists going in. Three men were arrested.

“We could not go back to the house after that.” Instead they were moved to a troubled estate. “My kids would have survived the loss of their mother better than the loss of their physical security, which was home.” The damage allegedly done to Roisin was detailed in court last year, when the German government made a second attempt to extradite her for alleged involvement in an IRA attack on a British Army base in June 1996. It failed. “There was never any credible evidence against her,” insists McAliskey. “And yet a young woman gets destroyed in the middle of it.”

Destroyed? “Yeah. She battles valiantly against deep post-traumatic stress that has its origins in when we were shot, but also in the interrogation and incarceration they subjected her to [during the investigation]. They used the fear and trauma of what she went through as a child in an attempt to extricate information from her that she just did not have.”

Perhaps that was the most powerful reason for her mother’s retreat from the national stage: to recover and keep the family safe for a while. But it is also true that she never found the right party platform. Too headstrong, maybe. Too far out. So McAliskey chose to campaign locally, working with women on the estate. “We took over derelict houses, provided places to meet. Sixties stuff, really.”

It led in 1997 to the formation of Step. “We don’t confine ourselves to one area, such as housing, or legal rights, or water charges – we research and campaign across them all.” It is currently trying to help migrant workers who “just turned up here overnight in 2001”. Local farms and factories could not get enough workers. “So, one morning, 500 came from Portugal. People thought they were a peace delegation. Now, probably 20 per cent of the adults in this area were born somewhere else.”

Speaking up for them has led her into conflict again, with former allies. “People have said, ‘You were with us; now you’re with the foreigners.’ I say, ‘No. I am doing the same thing I have always done. It’s still about people having a right to fulfil their potential and not be excluded from that because of other people’s prejudice.'”

Her name still has influence, she insists. “I could call up the Deputy First Minister and tell him, ‘Straighten yourself up!'” Why doesn’t she, then? She laughs. Quarrels between Martin McGuinness and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, have left the executive unable to meet. “Nobody is making any decisions just now.”

Then why not try again to get elected and bang a few heads together? “What is the point of going into politics?” she says with a sigh. “Look at Gordon Brown. He doesn’t believe anything he used to believe in.”

Better to revolutionise lives one by one, perhaps, in the town she left to go on the march that changed her life, 40 years ago today. In the battered lobby of her office, a couple from Poland are waiting. They know little of the history of this place, or who she is. “Good,” she says briskly. “The icon was never me. People say the image has been tarnished. Do I care? I never made the image; I don’t care what happens to it. I’ve got my life to live.”

Derry, October 1968, and the march that became a spring for civil rights

Sunday Tribune – 5 october 2008
Forty years ago today, a Bogside demo sparked a huge campaign for equality. Suzanne Breen spoke to the movement’s unsung heroes. Sunday Tribune 5 October 2008

He remembers them gathering on the streets of Derry, full of naïve optimism, their banners lighting up the dismal streets. ‘One man, one vote’, ‘Jobs and houses’, and ‘End the Special Powers Act’, they declared. They were a motley crew of students, housewives, workers and revolutionaries.

Those who knew the words were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’. The civil rights marchers were chatting about which team would win the Irish league match at the Brandywell when the police laid into them. “They baton-charged us,” says Willie Breslin. “Charlie Morrison, a bricklayer, was so badly beaten, he couldn’t work for a month.

“Matt Harkin’s back was a mess. A policeman made a go for my testicles but I raised my knee in time so he only got my thigh. Four police officers beat a wee man until he fell to the ground, then they picked him up and threw him over a wall. He suffered a broken leg and arm. But it didn’t deter us.

“There were only 400 marching – far more people were at the Brandywell for the football. But when we held the same demonstration six weeks later, 20,000 were there. People were saying, ‘We won’t accept this, enough is enough.’ They were giving two fingers, with both hands, to the government.”

It’s 40 years ago today since the Derry march which brought the blatant discrimination and oppression in the North to world attention. Civil rights leaders – Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann, Ivan Cooper and Michael Farrell – became household names. Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt were already well-known politicians and others, like John Hume, became so.

But it was ordinary men and women who were the backbone of the movement. Even today, they remain the unsung heroes and heroines. Willie Breslin, a 28-year-old teacher on 5 October, 1968, describes himself as a “hod carrier” of the civil rights movement.

“Derry was 73% Catholic but it was run by unionists. There were 2,400 families on the housing list but in two years they built only 22 new homes. There was a policy to keep Catholics homeless or in rented accommodation because only householders had the vote in local government elections,” Breslin says.

“The Wilson family lived in a caravan. They had no electricity, running water or toilet. Mrs Wilson gave birth to a baby who died eight hours later. The doctor blamed the awful living conditions. A group of us pulled the caravan onto the middle of the Lecky Road in protest.

“The police came and everybody was arrested except myself and another fellow. He was a civil servant and I was a teacher. Arresting us would have backfired: they wanted to give the impression that all the protestors were unemployed layabouts.”

Dermy McClenaghan was a 26-year-old dental technician and Derry Labour Party member who helped John Hume carry some of those injured on 5 October into Cassoni’s Italian restaurant. His civil rights passion was intense.

“We lived in horrendous conditions in the Bogside,” he says. “Our house was riddled with damp and so badly wired that you got electric shock if you touched the wall. My father died of TB. I saw it as a family tragedy and as political – he wouldn’t have died had we decent housing.”

McClenaghan did what he could to help others who were living in slums or homeless. “I had my own housing list of the most desperate families. When I heard a house became available somewhere, I’d move a family in to squat. I’d an electrician, a joiner, a plumber, step-ladders and a bag of tools. We’d go along and do up the house to make it habitable.”

Despite the seriousness of the campaign, McClenaghan also remembers the crack and camaraderie: “Jan Palach burned himself to death in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest as Russian tanks rolled in. A man in Derry threatened to burn himself to death in Derry’s Guildhall Square if he didn’t get a decent house by a certain date. He was very hard to please. When the deadline day arrived, he woke up to find six cans of petrol placed by local people on his doorstep.”


Inez McCormack, a 21-year-old Protestant with strong security-force family connections, was an unlikely civil rights activist. “A cousin in the B Specials was shot dead during the IRA’s border campaign. I had no active knowledge of meeting or speaking to a Catholic until I was a teenager. I had no sense anything was wrong with the place I lived,” she says.

After finishing college in 1968, she spent the summer in London. There, she met and fell in love with Vinnie, a Derry Catholic and civil rights activist, and became involved in anti-Vietnam demonstrations. “After what happened the Derry marchers on 5 October, I came home. There was no point in protesting about events in foreign countries while ignoring the situation in your own.”

The first demonstration she took part in was a protest in Belfast’s Shaftesbury Square: “I looked over to RUC lines and saw my cousin who was a policeman. Our eyes met but we both made the decision not to acknowledge each other. He didn’t want to know me and I didn’t want to know him.

“On the Burntollet march [in 1969], there were loyalist counter-demonstrators with nail-studded cudgels. I saw the police and thought they would act but they started chatting amicably to the counter-demonstrators. I was witnessing what later came to be called collusion.

“I remember when we reached Derry being hit with something and running into the doorway of a unionist-owned department store, screaming as the blood ran down my face, and the shop assistants laughing at my terror. They’d dehumanised me.”

McCormack, who later became president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, recalls individual acts of defiance: “I can still see my father-in-law putting on his good suit to go on a march. It was his way of dealing with the humiliation he met in his daily life, of asserting his dignity and that of his family.

“I remain in awe of women like Sadie Campbell who marched into the mayor’s parlour in Derry to demand better housing and was arrested. There was such courage from people who owned nothing, who had nothing in the world but themselves. Women who endured rather than enjoyed life, who washed the dishes, and went out to protest on the streets, and went home and washed more dishes.”

Cathy Harkin, who left school at 14 and worked in a shirt factory, was in the thick of the civil rights movement. Her son Terry, who was six years old on 5 October, 1968, recalls her coming home from the march badly bruised: “We lived with my granny. My mother sold the United Irishman newspaper. Before 5 October, I remember my mother having to sit on the street waiting for it to arrive because granny wouldn’t let it into the house.

“After 5 October, my granny changed. All sorts of rebels and radicals were allowed to come and go from our house around the clock. Civil rights posters were made in our livingroom. The house was always full of the smell of ink and paint.

“Even though I was no age, I’d be carted to civil rights meetings in Dungannon, Strabane, and Belfast because there was no such thing as crèches or childminders. I remember making my first confession and then watching police drenching demonstrators with the water cannon.”


Harkin was 10 when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. “A few days later, my mother and I visited the home of civil rights activist Brigid Bond. I went to the bathroom and sitting there was one of the banners carried on Bloody Sunday. It was covered in bloodstains, and in the corner was a white goo which I later found out was part of the eye of one of those killed.

“I’d been an avid reader of British Commando comics. I went home, gathered them and my toy Action Men, put them into a biscuit tin and burned them all.”

Several months later, Harkin was hit with a rubber bullet while stoning the British army. While his mother went on to become one of the founder members of Women’s Aid and a staunch critic of the armed struggle, Harkin joined the INLA. Cathy Harkin died of cancer aged 45.

Her son is immensely proud of his mother and stresses that the civil rights movement wasn’t universally popular: “There were Uncle Toms in America and there were Castle Catholics here. There were plenty of fence-sitters and plenty who said the civil rights activists had brought all the trouble on themselves. But there were also more idealists than there are today. People have become less politicised and more complacent.”

Willie Breslin and Dermy McClenaghan acknowledge the North has changed significantly but insist there’s still more work to be done. “The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) is an improvement on the RUC, there are more decent people in the force,” says Breslin. “But there remains an old Special Branch element which exerts a hold at a senior level, and crime in nationalist areas isn’t tackled adequately because some of the criminals are informers.”

Breslin regrets there is no cross-community, left-wing party. McClenaghan says “DUP antics” at Stormont show sectarianism still prevails. He believes the Belfast Agreement institutionalised sectarianism. He regrets that most jobs created in Derry are “low-paid, mind-numbing ones in call centres or the service industries.”

The establishment of the North’s Housing Executive ended most housing discrimination but there are still injustices. In north Belfast, 83% of those on the housing lists are nationalists.

Inez McCormack recently visited Catholic women living in the Seven Towers flats. “It felt like I was back in the Derry slums,” she says. “There was damp on the walls, pigeon waste on the landings, and sewage coming through the sinks.

She is concerned about those remaining outside “the golden bubble of the new good times.” Nineteen of Northern Ireland’s top 20 most deprived areas are in north and west Belfast or Derry. Catholics make up 72% of those in the North’s 500 most deprived areas, and only 20% of those in the 500 most affluent.

McCormack’s civil rights days taught her much. “I learned when injustice exists, never accept the authorities saying ‘Now isn’t the right time for change’ or ‘We need to move slowly.’

“I discovered people can settle for reform when their own comfort is secured but you should never be satisfied until the most excluded in society get justice. I learned that injustice can provoke anger, and there’s nothing wrong with anger if used constructively. There is a great deal to be said for not knowing your place.”

October 5, 2008