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Sinn Fein must not be allowed to rewrite the history of the civil rights movement

Propaganda and political mythology should play no part when we look at the past, writes Alban Maginness


Declan Kearney’s attempt to hijack the civil rights cause drew scorn from those in the vanguard of the movement at its birth in the 1960s

Declan Kearney’s attempt to hijack the civil rights cause drew scorn from those in the vanguard of the movement at its birth in the 1960s

© Press Eye - Belfast - Norther

Brid Rodgers

Brid Rodgers

Eamonn McCann

Eamonn McCann

Declan Kearney’s attempt to hijack the civil rights cause drew scorn from those in the vanguard of the movement at its birth in the 1960s

The newly-released film Darkest Hour is a brilliant depiction of Winston Churchill as the new Prime Minister in May 1940 at the lowest ebb of the Second World War for Britain.

The film exposes the huge disagreements and chasms within Churchill's own Conservative Party and its desperate desire for peace negotiations with Hitler to bring the conflict to a speedy end.

In this film the real history of that vital episode in 1940 takes over from the usual temptation to portray a propagandist myth of the superhero Churchill, with steel-like determination and unwavering resolve rescuing the trapped British Army from Dunkirk in France. History in this film triumphs over political mythology.

In dealing with our own past in this decade of commemorations we also should strive to do the same and allow history to triumph over mythology, and give an accurate, fact-based account of what actually happened. Propaganda and political mythology should be avoided, so that people, particularly young people who have no recollection of events, are able to assess what happened here in a reasoned and objective fashion.

It was thus refreshing to attend the inaugural meeting of the 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights Committee 1968 at The First Presbyterian Church in Belfast's historic Rosemary Street.

The church - established in 1644 and rebuilt in 1783 - is an architectural and historic gem and steeped in the history of Belfast.

Dr William Drennan, a co-founder of the United Irishmen, is associated with the building.

The church itself reflects the liberal ethos of Belfast prior to the 1798 Rebellion and the super industrialisation of the city that brought prosperity, but also imported deep sectarian divisions from the rural Ulster hinterland among its new rapidly-expanding population. This legacy was cemented into the very brickwork of our fragmented city.

It was a gentle and uplifting introduction to a broad and inclusive programme of events, which seek to commemorate in a sober, inclusive and reflective way the history of the civil rights movement here.

The event was opened by the celebrated poet Michael Longley, reading some of his work stretching back over many years. Those poems reflected the hopes and excitement of the late 1960s, but also reflected the subsequent pain and tragedy of the 1970s and beyond.

The organising group, chaired by the distinguished political scientist Professor Paul Arthur, seeks to attract attention to the half-centenary of civil rights and to explore its significance and its actual history.

There is a very positive spirit in this imaginative venture, which is attempting to bridge old divisions and hopes to involve as wide a section of political opinion as possible. It aims to create a constructive dialogue with those who did not share the aim of the civil rights movement.

The greater the involvement of people of varying shades of political opinion, the sharper the critical analysis.

Unfortunately, civil rights has thrown up two opposing and wrong-headed mythologies.

The unionist mythology is that it was all an IRA plot to get a united Ireland by stealth and overthrow Northern Ireland.

The republican mythology is that civil rights demonstrators were shot and driven off the streets by the RUC and British Army and that the IRA were therefore forced to take up arms in order to defend the movement against the Army.

Of course neither of these two are true, but like all good mythologies contain fragments of truth that gives the political myth some credibility with the uninformed.

The quest of the commemoration committee is to dispense with the myths and allow the real story to emerge over the next year.

But the quest for a balanced and truthful history was not assisted by the claim from Sinn Fein chairperson Declan Kearney that the party and the IRA were the key drivers behind the formation of the civil rights movement.

This brought an angry reaction from former civil rights leaders.

Eamonn McCann, one of the outstanding leaders of the movement and a leading organiser of the October 5, 1968 march in Derry, said it was "an attempt by Sinn Fein to colonise the civil rights movement".

He added that it was "a blatant attempt to distort the narrative of our northern Troubles - all it is designed to do is to consolidate support for a political party".

A further denunciation came from retired SDLP politician Brid Rodgers, who was herself a former executive member of Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and a leader of the civil rights movement.

She said that the Kearney assertion was "outrageous and simply untrue".

Clearly this is yet another attempt by republicans to rewrite history to justify their futile campaign of violence.

Such a distortion of history is a grave disservice to our young people, who need to be educated in the truth - not fake history.

Belfast Telegraph