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Ed Curran: Duke Street in Londonderry, where the RUC baton-charged civil rights protesters 50 years ago today, is widely seen as the crucible of the Troubles...

The events of Saturday, October 5, 1968 were a watershed in the history of Northern Ireland. But satisfying the marchers' demands was straightforward compared to the intractable problems we face in 2018.


Austin Currie addressing the crowd in Derry in 1968

Austin Currie addressing the crowd in Derry in 1968

Austin Currie addressing the crowd in Derry in 1968

Northern Ireland is where it is now because of what happened 50 years ago today on the streets of Londonderry. Life has never been the same since that band of civil rights marchers were stopped in their tracks in Derry's Duke Street, baton-charged and water-cannoned in full view of the outside world.

The civil rights campaign signalled the end of unionist majority rule at Stormont.

It also changed the face of nationalist politics and internationalised the story of Northern Ireland.

Overnight, an obscure protest on the periphery of Europe made global headlines, and from that day until now Northern Ireland has been in the spotlight of attention.

Drawing the interest of the outside world to the Derry march was a key factor.

Much of that was down to the swaggering, bespectacled figure of Gerry Fitt, then the MP for West Belfast, who frequented the upstairs lounge of McGlade's, a watering-hole for many journalists, next door to the Belfast Telegraph.

I well remember him, standing at the bar, glass in one hand, constantly adjusting his spectacles with the other, as he grabbed the attention of reporters.

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At Westminster he did the same, persuading not only journalists, but also Left-wing MPs, to cross the Irish Sea to witness what was happening on the streets here.

Then, and still to this day, unionists have resented such intrusion. Their leaders have failed time after time to get their message across in the propaganda war that has raged for half-a-century over the future of Northern Ireland.

In 1968 the RUC had no idea how to counter the accusations of heavy-handedness which arose from images of officers batoning marchers in Derry, while unionist leaders committed media suicide by implying that the civil rights campaign was a plot to destroy the state and to drive everyone into a united Ireland.

Of course, within the ranks of the marchers on that October Saturday the scent of revolution was in the air. The violence of the IRA over 30 years is brutal testimony to the indisputable fact that, no matter how justified the civil rights campaign, it was swiftly corrupted by the unrelenting terror of the Provisionals in the 1970s.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have gone to their graves revered and lauded for peace-making. Fifty years ago this weekend, Paisley had the image of a sectarian pariah, organising opposition at every step of the way to the campaign for civil rights.

McGuinness, then a teenager in the Bogside, was soon to embrace the Provisional IRA, which would deny many of his fellow citizens the most basic civil right of all - the right to live.

The civil rights campaign split the monolithic structure of unionist and nationalist politics. Nationalism in Northern Ireland was radicalised by a new Left-of-centre political order. The complacency of the Nationalist party at Stormont until the 1960s was replaced by a new generation which argued for social reform in Northern Ireland, formed the Social Democratic and Labour Party and set about challenging the unionist state on matters beyond the narrow ground of the constitution.

Looking back to those heady days of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, we journalists were writing explanatory guides on how proportional representation might work in elections, how fair employment legislation could take effect and how a new impartial housing authority could allocate homes to Catholic and Protestant alike on a points system.

Much of what we were trying to explain is now taken for granted and widely accepted, but in 1968 such issues were enough to cause increasingly dangerous street protests and confrontations across Northern Ireland.

Within a year internment without trial was introduced, hundreds imprisoned, the Army introduced, thousands intimidated from their homes and, eventually, Stormont rule suspended and the unionist community in turmoil.

The civil rights campaign split unionism as never before. Five decades on the split seems permanent. The legacy of 1968 for unionism is irreconcilable differences between those who were then prepared to accept reform and power-sharing in the 1970s and others, whose message then, if not still today, was: "Not an inch."

In July 1971 I reported on the mood in the Bogside: "In 1968, they felt inferior. In 1971, they feel superior. Catholic men no longer consider themselves the minority in Northern Ireland, but rather the majority in Ireland. Any respect for the system has foundered."

On the morning after Bloody Sunday I was back in the Bogside reporting: "By noon, the ice had not yet melted on rubble-strewn William Street. The bitterness of the Bogside is frozen solid. Today, it is a place of deep grief, but also vengeance. It is hard to understand what takes priority. Some wear black armbands and some draw down window blinds, a kind of final curtain on relations with the Army. There is nothing left to say. There is in this place an O'Casey tragedy being played out in real life."

Fifty years on the lessons of Derry 1968 have not been learnt yet. Northern Ireland is in another impasse. The major civil rights demands and social reforms were addressed and settled by the mid-1970s. Even a short-lived power-sharing Executive was established, in which Gerry Fitt, John Hume and other civil rights politicians co-operated with unionists led by Brian Faulkner.

Today Northern Ireland is dominated by two parties, whose foundations half-a-century ago were based on intransigence and militancy. Even though both have mellowed, their dominance of politics here in 2018 reflects the continued depth of division in this society.

Today, despite all the waters which have flowed down the River Foyle in 30 years of violence and 20 years of peace, one side is facing off against the other, just as it was all those years ago in 1968.

If there is a chink of light it is that, in stark contrast to 1968, hardly anyone bothers to march in protest on the streets any more. Few across the community seem to care. They may have plenty of questions to ask, but there are no answers. That's just the way it is.

A few months after the October march Northern Ireland was in flames and thousands of people were forced from their homes as sectarian conflict took hold. I was reporting from St Aidan's Primary school in Andersonstown, where a mother and her nine children were among dozens of homeless families taking refuge.

A man pointed to the mother's nine-year-old son. "Do you really think that young fella is a rebel," he asked me, bitterly. "I'll tell you something. That wee boy is the next generation and the way he has been treated, he will be a rebel. That's the tragedy of all this."

I have no idea what befell that boy. As a consequence of our collective failure to agree for so long, his generation lived through some dark decades. The consequences of the civil rights campaign were far-reaching and painful in so many ways. Violence bred in a political vacuum.

In 1968, what one side wanted, the other was reluctant to accept, but somehow change and reform did take place eventually. In 2018, a raft of new issues are unresolved, which is why the corridors of Stormont echo in emptiness. At the heart of the current deadlock is the question of nationality and cultural recognition. Striking an acceptable balance between being British and being Irish in Northern Ireland looks a lot more challenging compared to satisfying the demands of the marchers in Derry on that Saturday afternoon in 1968.

Ed Curran is a former Editor of the Belfast Telegraph. He joined the paper as a reporter in 1966

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