Belfast Telegraph

Why an Irish Language Act is not the same as one man, one vote

To say that calls for the official recognition of Gaelic are on a par with the demands of the civil rights movement in the 1960s is an oversimplification

By Malachi O'Doherty

My first civil rights march started out from in front of the Students' Union building at Queen's on a drab October afternoon.

I felt a little out of it because I wasn't a Queen's student and all the people lining up around me seemed to know each other. But I felt it was important to be there.

I understood the issues and I cared about them. I didn't want to come into my professional life in a Northern Ireland that discriminated against Catholics in jobs and housing, a region in which the local government franchise was weighted in favour of property and education. Local government mattered then for councils had far more powers than they have now.

So I was going to have my say, even if it was just another soft voice chanting with the others: "Craig out! One man, one vote!"

Home Secretary William Craig had exacerbated tensions over civil rights by banning parades, not that there weren't a lot of people on the parades who were up for a ruck with the RUC.

As the parade moved off stewards moved us along, briefing us on what to do if arrested, assuring us that free legal support was available, relaying to us the locations of the police and the counter-protest organised by "the Paisleyites", as we called them then.

The atmosphere was low carnival, a little elated but tempered by the dull weather and uncertainty about how this would end.

It ended with a sit-down in front of the police lines on the damp tarmac of Linenhall Street and a few speeches, and another round of chanting "Craig out!" and "One man, one vote!".

There was no riot that day.

I was remembering this last week when I was on the Nolan show with another journalist, Eamonn Mallie, whose memory goes back as far as my own.

Mallie said that the current deadlock over a stand-alone Irish Language Act was comparable to the dispute over local government franchise - one man, one vote.

He said the broad nationalist community had agreed on a core demand for equality once again, and that demand would have to be met.

So, was he right?

There are certainly similarities between then and now, but there are differences too.

There was no demand for an Irish Language Act from the original civil rights movement. I don't think it occurred to anybody then that there should be.

Irish had been a school subject most of us had left behind along with the quadratic equations and the third declension.

The concept of cultural rights was not part of the debate.

The equality call today also includes a demand for same-sex marriage, another issue that had no traction at the time. We were not even asking for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. That would have seemed especially outré.

Eamonn said that demand for an Irish Language Act was iconic for the nationalist community, that it represented for them a confirmation that their culture and heritage were respected. But the demand for an equal franchise in local government wasn't iconic; it was a material concern. The demand for same-sex marriage is not iconic.

Those who voted for Sinn Fein last March may have expected its MLAs to take their seats and deliver that demand to them.

The story of the campaign for civil rights is complicated, but similarities are there.

People came to the protests with different aspirations. The campaign worked because of the diversity of positions within it. Many wanted ordinary British rights for British citizens. They were concerned that their demands should not be seen as factional or sectarian. As today, they were glad that some Protestants were supporting the demands too.

Others saw the civil rights campaign as leverage that would weaken the Stormont administration, with its huge unionist majority, and advance the cause of republicanism.

Gerry Adams has been mocked for describing himself as a founder member of the civil rights movement, but this misses the point that republicans under Billy McMillen did form one of the original elements.

So also did the Communist Party.

A similarity with those times is that some unionists fear the protest has a hidden agenda, to break the state.

This was said then, and scoffed at then.

Adams said in his later writings that the point was to demand reform in order to expose the injustices of the state. If you believed that Northern Ireland was set up to oppress nationalists then you could bring it down by demanding reforms that it would not be able to survive granting.

So, there was republican militancy with its agenda inside the civil rights movement.

There was also the left-wing student movement that would become People's Democracy. And there was a sizeable section of the Catholic middle class who believed that the state was structured to their disadvantage and who would have settled for practical reform. They didn't want a revolution.

Today a demand is made for equality and the majority of nationalists support it.

The civil rights movement had nothing like the numbers behind it that Sinn Fein has in demanding an Irish Language Act.

But neither is it confronted by a paranoid state on the streets.

Unlike 1968, the police are not cracking heads and incompetently raising tensions towards mayhem and warfare.

And that is in part because the Catholic/nationalist/whatever community is far bigger than it was then and Northern Ireland cannot be governed without its consent and participation.

And that suggests the biggest difference between then and now. If Northern Ireland cannot be governed without nationalists then that imposes a responsibility on them to make it work.

The civil rights movement did not have the power to crash devolution.

That was done by the British Government in March 1972.

Certainly the withdrawal of the SDLP over internment in 1971 compromised the legitimacy of Stormont but it did not make its operations functionally impossible.

And the gamble for those who use the denial of government to enforce their claim for an Irish Language Act risk the possibility of support for it drifting away if they feel that the price of protest is too high.

The most awful development out of the civil rights campaign and its oppression was the escalation of violence.

That seems not to be a danger now, at least not in the same way.

But another parallel is that a small and not especially belligerent IRA was in the background, trying to rearm and anxious for a moment that would make it politically relevant again.

And to most of us sitting in Linenhall Street that damp day, that was the least of our concerns.

Malachi O'Doherty's unauthorised biography of Gerry Adams is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph