Belfast Telegraph

Why unionists must ensure that the true origins of the civil rights movement are not forgotten

NICRA, which led the campaign, was in fact a creation of republicans and communists, says Nelson McCausland

The Sixties were a time of social and political change around the world and 1968 was a particularly significant year. It has been described as a "year of convulsions", a year of seismic change. On January 5, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia and we saw the start of the Prague Spring.

Later that month the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive against South Vietnam.

American soldiers were fighting alongside the South Vietnamese, but there were anti-Vietnam War protests across Europe, as well as in the US.

In London 10,000 protesters marched on the United States Embassy and there were hundreds of arrests, as well as many injuries.

It was also an important year for the civil rights movement in America and the year in which both the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr and presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy were assassinated.

Meanwhile, in Europe there were student riots in Paris in May 1968, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, otherwise known as 'Danny the Red', became a symbol of the New Left.

In Germany another young radical named Rudi Dutschke was shot, but survived and continued to advocate "a long march through the institutions of power".

This was also the year in which we had the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa.

The social and political changes were such that, after 1968, the world would never be the same again, and certainly after 1968, Northern Ireland would never be the same again.

We are in the midst of a decade of centenaries here, but we are also about to enter a period of semi-centenaries - the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), the birth of the Provisional IRA and the descent into decades of terrible violence.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland.

NICRA took to the streets, with marches in Tyrone and Londonderry, and soon they were joined by the People's Democracy.

Some of the veterans of that time are planning a series of events and initiatives to mark the anniversary and, more broadly, the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, but it is clear that there will be a particular focus on the NICRA march in Londonderry in October 1968.

People will look at this in different ways. Some will say that we should forget about the past, but that is an ill-considered approach, because already teaching materials are being prepared about that period, academics are studying it and veteran campaigners are planning their conferences.

The events of 1968 will be remembered, whether we like it or not.

Moreover, the civil rights movement is deeply embedded in the folk memory of Irish nationalists and republicans and, indeed, it has been used by republicans to justify and legitimise the later campaign by the Provisional IRA.

At the same time unionists have tended to view it as a republican socialist strategy to undermine Northern Ireland.

At present two issues overshadow our politics: the demand for an Irish Language Act and the legacy of the past. Our society may never be able to get to the bottom of every atrocity and every murder during the Troubles, but can we at least get to a better understanding of the start of the Troubles? In that context I would make just two suggestions.

The first is that we look at the events of 1968 in their context.

For example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association emerged on the streets in 1968.

But it was "conceived" in 1966 in the home of veteran republican Kevin Agnew in Maghera at a meeting involving members of the Communist Party, the IRA and the Wolfe Tone Society.

We need to look back beyond 1968 if we are to avoid a truncated and distorted narrative.

The second is that, in the course of commemorations, we must not allow the public square to be dominated by nationalist and republican voices.

There is a unionist story to be told and mainstream unionist voices need to be afforded the space to be heard.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph