Nelson McCausland: The Civil Rights march and the placards of hate that no one seems to want to discuss
Footage of the NICRA rally shows slogans linking Ulster-Scots to the Nazis, says Nelson McCausland
The first march to be organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) took place on Saturday, August 24, 1968 between Coalisland and Dungannon.
It wasn’t the first ‘civil rights’ march because the Connolly Association had already organised ‘civil rights’ marches in England.
Neither was it the first time NICRA took to the streets because they had been out and about in Armagh in the spring of 1968 when they protested against the banning of a republican Easter Rising parade.
However, this was certainly the first ‘civil rights march’ organised by NICRA.
It was interesting for a number of reasons, including the fact that it was marshalled by members of the IRA. It was also interesting for the incendiary speeches by some of the speakers, especially Gerry Fitt and Austin Currie.
Then too it was interesting for the fact that some of the NICRA marchers heckled Betty Sinclair, a member of the Communist Party and secretary of NICRA.
The hecklers shouted ‘Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovakia’ because Sinclair and other Communists supported the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians.
The Communist Party, which was well represented in NICRA, was demanding ‘civil rights’ in Northern Ireland but supported the Russians after they sent their tanks into Czechoslovakia to put down a ‘civil rights movement’ there.
However, one of the other interesting aspects of the NICRA march was the placards that some of the marchers were carrying.
There are photographs and film footage of the march and some of the marchers were carrying placards with venomous slogans about ‘Ulster-Scots’.
This was drawn to my attention just a few years ago by an enthusiastic Ulster-Scot who had come across the film clip and the photographs on the internet.
But what was on those placards that were carried by the NICRA marchers in 1968, a full 50 years ago?
One of the placards had the message ‘ULSTER-SCOT SIEG HIEL’ (sic). Another read ‘BE WITH IT, BE ULSTER-SCOT, BE RACIALIST, BE UNIONIST’. The marchers were therefore attempting to portray Ulster-Scots as Nazis and racialists.
Well so much for the claims that the ‘civil rights movement’ was an inclusive movement that had only one agenda, a civil rights agenda.
This was exactly 50 years ago and it is significant because it demolishes the claim made by some republicans that “no one ever heard the words ‘Ulster-Scots’ until the last few years”.
That is obviously untrue because the Ulster-Scots Language Society was formed in 1992, more than 25 years ago, and the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council was formed in 1995.
The placards, however, take us back another 25 years to 1968.
Moreover this wasn’t the first time the term ‘Ulster-Scots’ was used in the context of the broader civil rights movement. The previous year Gerry Fitt, then the firebrand Republican Labour MP for West Belfast, had addressed a conference in London.
The conference had been organised by the Connolly Association, a Communist Party front group that was the intellectual origin of NICRA. Gerry Fitt’s speech was then included in a booklet published by the Connolly Association and it was one of the first political booklets I ever bought.
Fitt told the conference that “the trouble in Ireland” was due to Britain and the plantation of Ulster and then added: “They have been there quite a long time now. They have not been assimilated into the Irish race, though they do not call themselves English either. They call themselves Ulster-Scots.”
That helps to explain the venomous placards carried on that first NICRA march.
It also confirms that the descendants of those who settled in Ulster in the 17th century “call themselves Ulster-Scots” and “have not been assimilated into the Irish race”. According to Fitt that was what they called themselves and that was how they viewed themselves and the wording on the NICRA placards serves to confirm that.
Now that’s one part of the Coalisland march I have not heard mentioned at any of the commemorative events and as an Ulster-Scot, I just wonder why?