Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Promise of civil rights was lost in violence of State response, which in turn begat 30 years of terror

Brief, bright hopes for a fairer Northern Ireland ran aground on rocks of sectarian hatred, writes Alban Maginness

Austin Currie MP (right) and two colleagues squatting at a house in Caledon in June 1968
Austin Currie MP (right) and two colleagues squatting at a house in Caledon in June 1968

The Troubles did not begin on October 5, 1968 despite what is now commonly claimed. What began on October 5, 1968 was the bright but shortlived hope of a reformed Northern Ireland. For people at the time, despite the shocking police violence on the streets of Derry, there was a sense of liberation. A political dam had been breached and a surge of optimism had poured out. Maybe it reflected the optimism and spirit of renewal in France and throughout the world in 1968. However, this surge of optimism was not to last for very long.

Unintentionally, it was Bill Craig, the Stormont Minister for Home Affairs, who really made the October 5 march into the historic event that it became. It was Craig, as minister in charge of policing, who personally ordered the banning of the march despite the advice of the Derry commander of the RUC not to do so. If it hadn't been banned it would not have become the seminal political event that it became.

It should be remembered that, two months previously, the first civil rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon took place peacefully and without being banned. The instigator of that march was Austin Currie, a young nationalist MP in the Stormont parliament.

Austin Currie, that previous June, had squatted in a house in Caledon, Co Tyrone, and had thereby highlighted the systematic discrimination against Catholics in public housing. Instead of a Catholic family being allocated the house, it went instead to a young, single Protestant woman. There could hardly have been a more blatant case of discrimination in public housing allocation.

Riding high on the success of the squatting incident, Currie realised the need for further direct action to take place and embarked with two local councillors in organising the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24. A cautious Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) reluctantly agreed to back it.

Craig was a young, ambitious politician, who had advanced quickly through the talentless ranks of the Unionist Party. He vied for Prime Minister Terence O'Neill's job and was distrusting of O'Neill's reformist approach.

In the inert atmosphere of the unionist monolith at Stormont, one could comfortably plot and plan without serious repercussions.

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By his hardline approach to the Derry civil rights march he triggered the biggest political earthquake in the history of Northern Ireland.

Eamonn McCann, who played a pivotal role in the march alongside Ivan Cooper, then the chairperson of the Derry Labour Party, has given detailed accounts of what happened. His accounts of the preparations for the march and the march itself are authentic and historically invaluable.

It was, in his opinion, a genuine protest, organised in particular by the Derry Housing Action Group of socialist activists, together with the diverse political coalition that made up the non-party NICRA.

Within NICRA there was a wide mixture of people involved, including some republicans - who had abandoned violence - united in an attempt to create a new type of politics here; one that would end systematic discrimination in jobs, housing and voting.

They wanted to create a new form of politics based on Left/Right divisions, not Orange and Green. Not a word about the border or Irish nationalism.

The events in Duke Street were dramatically televised throughout the world, making a huge impact, particularly in Harold Wilson's 'Swinging Sixties' Britain and caused great embarrassment in Westminster, which had studiously ignored this place for about 50 years.

The civil rights campaign was outstandingly successful in achieving institutional reforms within a short period of time. Its core demands - 'one man, one vote', a new housing system and so on - were conceded, albeit reluctantly, by the short-sighted unionist government under pressure from Wilson.

However, what the civil rights movement failed to achieve was the transformation of our politics, leading to something better and brighter.

Within a short period of time society became convulsed by street violence and bitter sectarianism that culminated in the disturbances of August 1969 and the real start of what we have euphemistically named the Troubles.

The brief, bright promise of the civil rights movement was eventually destroyed by both the violence of the State and the brain-dead reaction of those traditional republicans who organised the emergent Provisional IRA and started a thoughtless campaign of violence against the State that entrenched even further the historic political and sectarian divisions within our society.

But, even if there had not been that violence, the probability is that the civil rights movement would have sadly floundered against the brick wall of endemic sectarianism, which is at the very heart of our political culture and which continues to paralyse politics to the present day.

Belfast Telegraph


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