Belfast Telegraph

Politicians now could still be taught equality lesson by civil rights leaders

As Sinn Fein plans a parade along the original march route in Co Tyrone, Tom Kelly recalls how republicans had little to do with the campaign for equality, and IRA violence extinguished the movement

Much attention has been given to the fallout within the unionist political establishment following the Peter Robinson article and his arguments that now is the time for unionists to put forward a strong case for the Union with Britain. It's both an admirable and laudable argument. Unfortunately, it's an argument that is lamentably undermined by the dogged insistence by the DUP and others to deny citizens living in Northern Ireland full and equal rights with citizens in the rest of the UK.

This has always been the case since the establishment of Northern Ireland, which has always been and remains a place apart from the rest of the UK. Unionists under the old Stormont regime were always allowed to plough their own furrow, even when it meant excluding fellow Catholic citizens from some basic civil rights.

And for its part, Westminster has always been happy to maintain a political border down the Irish Sea when it comes to this place.

To this day nothing has changed.

Though, 50 years ago, the tide against the hegemony of unionism and its sectarian polices was challenged by the emerging civil rights campaign.

Young Catholics, some of whom were fresh out of university, and liberal Protestants saw that Northern Ireland couldn't be allowed to remain a political and cultural backwater within the UK.

The indefatigable team of Dr Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia deserve much credit, recognition and thanks for their roles in the civil rights campaign.

I was too young to remember much about the 1960s, however I do recall the world's media descending into Newry like a plague of locusts for the January 9, 1969 civil rights march.

The scenes at Derry and Burntollet in the previous weeks meant that emotions ran high, and unfortunately the Newry civil rights march, much to the dismay of its organisers, became a riot after a section of the crowd broke away from the stewards.

That said, the civil rights campaign was successful - it had in the words of the then Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) brought "a government to its knees". The civil rights campaign also had most of its demands met within a very short period of time. Non-violent protest worked.

For some within unionism, and more pointedly within the republican movement back then, it was too successful.

The late James Young, a comedian of that time, had a series of comedic songs about Northern Ireland, though betraying his own roots he spoke of it as Ulster.

The civil rights protagonists, as he saw it in his lyrics, were Austin Currie, Eamonn McCann, Bernadette Devlin, John Hume, Ivan Cooper, Michael Farrell, Paddy Devlin, Paddy O'Hanlon and Gerry Fitt.

Of course, there were many, many more, and in each area across the North there were local leaders such as those in Newry - Tommy Keane, Rory McShane, Sean Hollywood and Joe McNulty.

Many organisations were also involved in the initial civil rights committee and they were from trade unions, republican and NI labour parties, young unionists, the Ulster Liberal Party, the Communist Party, Wolfe Tone Societies, and a single member of the IRA.

Six of the nine most prominent names and recognisable faces in the civil rights movement across Northern Ireland went on to become leading members of the newly formed SDLP.

While the civil rights campaign was not in the ownership of any single political party or individual, there is no mistaking the fact that the political spawn of the civil rights movement was undoubtedly the SDLP. Others like McCann and Farrell became prominent campaigners for civil liberties.

So, it was with more than a wry smile I noticed that Sinn Fein is organising a civil rights commemorative march along the original route from Coalisland to Dungannon later this month.

Sinn Fein's links to the civil rights movement are fairly tenuous. As a matter of fact, the most prominent civil rights leader of that time, Bernadette Devlin, recently branded Sinn Fein's claims that it and the IRA helped set up the civil rights movement as "delusional" and nothing more than "silly ramblings".

Even the poor old Imperial War Museum got its links wrong when in an exhibition it claimed that the figure in a photo at the head of the civil rights march in Newry was Gerry Adams, when in fact it was Tommy Keane of the PDs (People's Democracy).

But in fairness to Sinn Fein, it has never let truth stand in the way of a good political hijacking - something that the SDLP can testify to.

In fact, the Sinn Fein leadership appears to have the amazing skill of having perfect recall on matters in which they played little to no role but complete amnesia on those matters for which they were completely culpable.

Yet when it comes to this march, it will be executed with the type of ceremonial pageantry that can be only matched on royal occasions. If anyone can do commemorative marches well, it's Sinn Fein.

The truth about the civil rights campaign was, while IRA violence did extinguish it and certainly cost it the support of liberal unionists and trade unionists, it was also of its time.

The civil rights movement was just that, a movement, and being such a broad church its members would want to find a political home more suited to their individuals leanings.

The SDLP bore the greatest fruit from the civil rights movement but it was also hampered at birth by the weaknesses of that same movement - strong personalities with little discipline and even less organisational cohesion.

Northern Ireland was lucky to have the talented generation of leaders it had on the creation of the civil rights movement, because these days they could give lessons to both unionists and nationalists on the meaning of equality.

Civil rights are universal, not party political.

Dr Tom Kelly is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph

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