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You say you want a revolution: Malachi O'Doherty's new book, Fifty Years On charts radical social change during the Troubles

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Fifty Years On, Malachi O'Doherty says there was radical social change during the Troubles ... it just came from unlikely sources


Eileen Calder

Eileen Calder

Jeff Dudgeon

Jeff Dudgeon

Linda Irvine

Linda Irvine

Lesley Carroll

Lesley Carroll

Eileen Calder

Fifty years ago, a movement that had started out as a campaign for civil rights morphed very quickly into a grubby sectarian war. Yet, the struggle for rights continued. As a consequence, there was a real social and cultural revolution in Northern Ireland. It is just not the one you saw on television, or see celebrated on wall murals.

Many of the rights still being pursued were too radical even for the civil rights movement itself. The claim for British rights for British citizens did not include the most recent rights won in Britain at that time, the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality.

In the real revolution there were real heroes and I have interviewed some of them in my new book, Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland.

My personal hero from that time is Eileen Calder. Eileen worked for the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast. When political energies were being directed towards ending the bombings and the shootings, she was saying, "You people have no idea how common rape is in our society and you have no plan to end it."

I had seen her rage in interviews she gave, but she was right to be angry. She had heard the presumption that women bring rape upon themselves, seen how raped women had to prove their own innocence as well as their attackers' guilt and how cases failed.

She wasn't the only strong woman fighting for change. It's embarrassing when I count them and realise myself, as a journalist who covered the Troubles, how I overlooked them.

Because, if you think the IRA was more interesting than the social revolution that happened in the same time period, you are simply being sexist; you are taking an option for men in hoods with guns over women who took similar risks for change.

Northern Ireland's first Rape Crisis Centre opened in 1982. Eileen Calder started work there in 1984 after a close family member was raped. That attack had been what she calls "the standard nightmare"; a man taking hold of a woman on the street on a dark night. What she learned in the Rape Crisis Centre is that this is the rare type of rape; most of it happens in the family.

She believes that one of her achievements in those years was getting the media and the police to use that word "survivor", instead of "victim".

"I saw it as a war against sexual violence against women. And winning the war was about changing the laws and changing society.

"And the people who had been raped and sexually abused, they were the wounded in the war and they had to be looked after. But we were more than just the Red Cross; we had to be the Army, too."

Jeff Dudgeon secured the legal right for men to have homosexual relationships over the age of 21.

In Northern Ireland, as in Scotland, the change in the law that would spare gay men the threat of going to jail came later than it did in England and Wales.

Jeff did not stay in Northern Ireland through the year of tumult around civil rights agitation to point out that, if people wanted British rights, these should include the rights to abortion and same-sex relationships.

His decision to leave was partly triggered by a major prosecution of homosexuals in Bangor, Co Down, which gave him a sense of the danger he was in: not just that he might be imprisoned, but also that he could be sectioned and confined to a mental hospital.

He was already working on bringing a case to the European Commission of Human Rights to have the law against homosexuality in Northern Ireland quashed. The idea had come from Kevin Boyle, a lawyer who had had a leadership role in People's Democracy.

"I think I just bumped into him in the street and he had been involved in other cases at Strasbourg already on torture and such like. I don't know how he knew I was gay, because I don't think I had ever spoken to him about it. I wasn't out in those days. And then he suggested it could be done and it could be done easily."

But huge opposition rallied in Northern Ireland against the decriminalisation of homosexual acts. The most prominent campaign was led by the DUP, which raised a petition of 70,000 signatures.

Rev Ian Paisley was back on the street, urging his followers to "Save Ulster from Sodomy". The Catholic Church also opposed reform and no political party had the imagination, or the courage, to align itself with the campaign.

Many of my modern heroes in the book have links back to the civil rights movement.

Lesley Carroll recalls how her mother thought "those Currie brothers were lovely", though wrestled with her feelings about them when one of them, Austin, became a public figure in the vanguard of protest.

Lesley herself was motivated to oppose sectarianism when she saw how her Church kept silent about the murder of Catholic neighbours.

Gertrude and James Devlin were driving home with their daughter one spring evening in May 1974 when a soldier stood out in front of their car and ordered them to stop. This looked like a routine search, common enough in those days.

James stepped out of the car. Gunmen then fired on them. James fell beside the car. Gertrude died in her seat. Their daughter was wounded, but survived.

Lesley told me: "They were significant members of the SDLP, ordinary nationalists, not interested in violence at all. Gertie worked in Coalisland library with my aunt, so I knew her well; Jim not so well. And they were shot by the UVF simply because they were members of the SDLP and Catholics.

"And that was never mentioned in church. Never mentioned. So, the religious culture was such that we were very pious. We prayed about a lot of things and talked about religion all the time, but no mention of that.

"I could never get my head around why there wasn't mention of our neighbours in that way. And it may have been that there were UVF families connected to the congregation. Who knows?"

She trained to become a Presbyterian minister, took her PhD under the supervision of a Dominican nun and is an active champion for equality and rights. She served with Denis Bradley and Robin Eames on the Consultative Group on the Past.

Denis Bradley's first taste of protest in the year of protest, 1968, was among seminarians in Rome, who boycotted lessons. Later, as a priest, he chose to disregard the papal ban on contraception.

When Fr Bradley went back to Derry after his ordination, he had no intention of imposing this "nonsense" on his congregation.

"I went into parishes where it was clear that women were living with domestic abuse, with alcoholism and all kinds of poverty, who were trying to be upright and rear their families and still trying to live within this Catholic framework. I would have gone very quickly on the side of women.”

Denis later championed policing reform and served on the Policing Board, and remains a little contemptuous of the dilatory Catholic response to the challenge to join the police: “The logic of it is that Catholics are cowardly.”

He said that the Church should do more. “There is a carol service in Derry every year for the police. Always in the Protestant cathedral. Why isn’t it in the Catholic cathedral?”

One of the strongest advocates of an Irish Language Act is Linda Ervine, the daughter of Terry Bruton, a communist who sat on the executive of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

Linda, in adult life, became religious and joined a church. She also returned to education and got a university degree and became a teacher. It was through teaching that she met Brian Ervine. Brian took her on her first-ever visit to Donegal. She talks now of having “fallen in love” with the Irish language.

At the beginning of her interest, she struggled with the kind of inhibition that governs the attitude to Irish of many in the DUP: “There is a wee hump you have to get over, a feeling that this is a Catholic thing. One of my students actually asked if he was betraying something by learning it.”

She now runs Irish-language classes in east Belfast with the support of her church. And she is working against quiet resistance from people who feel that she is an embarrassment to loyalism.

“We got a bit of stick on Facebook. I remember one guy — he’s a local paramilitary, UVF I think. When I looked up his Facebook page, he had used my brother-in-law’s [former PUP leader David Ervine’s] picture; it was quite ironic.

“And he had a bit of a rant and at the bottom of it he put, ‘We are a separate people,’ meaning Protestants. He’s actually the uncle of my cousin’s grandson and his mother is a Catholic.”

Linda Ervine is a gentle and lightly built woman, who has made a personal journey from a difficult childhood and wayward teens, through a long period of marriage and child-rearing, to find her own bearings in life against powerful resistance. People scoffed at her when she wanted to study for GCSEs.

She told me: “If I think of somebody from my generation, how much attitudes have changed. My youngest daughter will be 40 this year; their attitudes in their marriage, where their husbands will be much more equal.

“I grew up in a world in which you got out of the way of the men and what was your role in life but to marry one of these men and have children?

“And these men could do whatever they wanted; they could be violent and drink and your place was to put up with that. That’s what your working-class background told you. And you looked around you and nobody seemed to be any different.”

She hesitated to work towards a university place, but eventually took an English degree. Now she has set up Turas, an organisation for the teaching and promotion of Irish, and is a regular campaigner on Irish-language concerns in the media.

Linda organised a discussion on the civil rights movement at the Skainos Centre in east Belfast.

“What struck me was that the rights my father was looking for in the 1960s were British rights. We have the same situation here now, only it is different rights: it is equal marriage, rights for women and it is language rights.

“One of the lines that struck me was, ‘British rights for British people.’ Well, these are British rights for British people. So, how far have we really moved when British people are still asking for the same rights as other people in other parts of the British Isles?”

Northern Ireland is a hugely different place now than it was at the start of the Troubles and much of the credit for that must go to the real revolutionaries, like Eileen Calder, Jeff Dudgeon, Linda Ervine, Sarah Ewart and many others, some of whom also feature in my book.

They have been the champions of change and more honour is due to them than to anyone who thought progress would come out of the barrel of a gun.

The book cites my many heroes, but also people I disagree with who have been adamant and imaginative in protest, like Jamie Bryson, the best media operator who ever came out of loyalism, and Bernie Smyth, whose anti-abortion campaigners cleverly tagged themselves onto a Sinn Fein march for civil rights last year.

We would have had less violence if Paisley and others had had the wit to do likewise 50 years ago.

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