Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: There's been a revolution in Northern Ireland in the past 50 years... just not the one you think

And for Malachi O'Doherty, the author of a forthcoming history of the period, its heroes are people like Jeff Dudgeon and Angela Courtney who fought for gay rights and women's rights

A civil rights march in 1969
A civil rights march in 1969
Angela Courtney
Eileen Calder
Jeff Dudgeon

History doesn't repeat itself, but it echoes. For the past year I have been writing a book about the changes we have seen in the last 50 years since the start of the Troubles.

In 1968 the civil rights movement confronted the police and a year of escalating tension led to the horror of a UK police force in a UK city deploying Browning machine-guns against rioters.

I was there to watch the riot that night, August 14, 1969.

I dissent from the common lore about what happened. I don't use the word pogrom, but I still retain a sense that the world changed and the context in which I lived - and my faith in a stable future - had become untenable.

This was what happened when people didn't hear each other.

One of the echoes of the civil rights period is in the attitude of many unionists today to the Irish and nationalist anxiety about Brexit.

When the civil rights campaign got under way, the Minister for Home Affairs at William Craig judged that this was a republican plot to foment revolution and ordered the police to enforce his ban on protests, a job they were ill-equipped to perform.

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True, there were members of the IRA in the civil rights movement's leadership, as there were Trotskyites, but many Catholics and nationalists at the time were professing a willingness to accept partition and to support the state in return for full UK rights, an end to discrimination in employment and a fair franchise in local government.

Back then, 50 years ago, republicans were seen by some as the puppets of the Pope working to create a Catholic Ireland. This is such a bizarre reading of things that it is slightly embarrassing to remind people of it today for fear they wouldn't even believe that.

The parallel with that now is the perception that opposition to Brexit, and a revival of interest in a united Ireland, is as devious and insincere as Craig and Paisley thought the civil rights demands were.

It is the small 'n' nationalists who don't vote for Sinn Fein who can make an actual difference in a border poll and their prior inclination has been not to do that. But try explaining that to some unionists.

I came across a quote from Seamus Heaney in The Listener which is slightly shocking, given the bland and routine assumption that toxic sectarianism has prevailed consistently throughout the history of Northern Ireland. Heaney wrote after the October 1968 riots: "We were all afraid, and still are, of returning to the old polarisation of public life…"

Heaney was astute. He knew this place and his community, and yet in 1968 he could refer to an "old polarisation" that we might return to.

He was speaking in a time in which it seemed that the polarisation was a shadow from the past, rather than a present problem.

The IRA had ended its border campaign six years earlier on the grounds that the people weren't interested, distracted, apparently, by The Beatles and Elvis.

There was a wave of student protest that even included a strike by seminarians at the Irish College in Rome.

Northern Ireland had invited Taoiseach Sean Lemass for a visit and Paisley had thrown snowballs at his car.

And there was a hippie culture in Belfast, believe it or not. There were more than a dozen busy dance halls in the city centre and Catholic and Protestant youths were meeting and mating.

The tilt towards civil war can certainly be blamed to some extent on vicious and paranoid paramilitary cultures in the loyalist and republican communities, but also on bad government and calamitously stupid policing.

At a time when the middle ground is opening up again in Northern Ireland, it would seem paranoid to fear that the Troubles could return, yet this period feels like that period, the few short years before the balloon went up.

One of the things that struck me about the civil rights period is that the major demands in play by rights campaigners today had no place in the concerns of the marchers.

Had the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association included legalised abortion in its demands, it would have been condemned by the Church and deserted by most of its Catholic following.

Yet it was arguing for UK rights for UK citizens in Ulster.

It even used the word 'Ulster' in many of its publications. And abortion had been legalised in England the year before.

A socially liberal Labour Government had legalised homosexual sex between consenting adults over 21 and had criminalised racism.

None of this had found significant traction in Northern Ireland then.

Even women's rights were of no particular concern to Nicra. The Irish Women's Liberation Movement wasn't formed until 1970, and that was in Dublin.

But Eamonn McCann could go into The Fountain in Derry and stand on a chair with a loudhailer and urge people to vote for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and he could get a hearing and win votes.

When his relatives in Belfast warned him that his activities could lead to sectarian warfare, he thought they were fretting irrationally.

So for my book I looked at how our rights have evolved and I asked who had won them for us and I came to the conclusion that we have had a revolution, though it was not the revolution we saw on the evening news.

Its heroes, for me, include Jeff Dudgeon, who brought a claim before the European Court for the legalisation of homosexuality, having already faced arrest and interrogation.

Another is Eileen Calder, who went to jail, if only for a weekend, through her campaigning for the Rape Crisis Centre and for better policing of a convicted paedophile.

Yet another is Angela Courtney, who was one of the founders and leaders of Women's Aid.

She had been stitching curtains in the house that was being prepared as a refuge for women fleeing violent partners when a man brought in his bruised daughter and her child and suddenly the refuge was open and in business because they could hardly turn this woman away and say they weren't ready.

And I have a whole chapter on the police arguing that one of our better safeguards is that they learnt the lesson of their experience and are highly unlikely to repeat the folly of 1969.

But I also spoke to republican purists who reject the peace process and look forward to a return to war, when the people have woken up again.

They seem eccentric and out of touch. But so too did the few IRA members in Belfast in 1969 who were keeping the faith alive despite the almost universal lack of interest all around them.

Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland by Malachi O'Doherty will be published in August by Atlantic Books, priced £18.99

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