It was forty years ago today…

It wasn’t Bunker Hill nor Bastille Day nor yet Easter Monday because there was no victory, not many were hurt nor was there a clear outcome. But October 5th 1968 has to be the landmark day of the death of a kind of innocence when the civil rights march in shabby little Duke St in Derry was batoned by the police, launching more or less continuous violence that never really stopped for thirty years. It was too an early example of the power of television. Northern Ireland was suddenly famous. We could all pile in and create our own nasty little Truman Show. The civil rights were to come tumbling in right enough, but too little too late, and disastrously dismissed as a sign of weakness in the State not only by the beneficiaries but by the State’s own supporters. Each side brought about the other’s worst fears. The best hummed and ha’d, the worst were full of divilment. The movement of “ too many chiefs” (right Edwina), they had tactics but no strategy and even worse, neither had the government, beyond affronted arrogance and total ineptitude.

Adds Bernadette is still in struggle, wants to remain a living icon not a celluloid one. “At the Cannes film festival this year a biopic of Devlin was announced, to be called The Roaring Girl. She will be played by Sally Hawkins, star of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, apparently. But not if Bernadette Devlin McAliskey (as she has been for years) gets her way. “The whole concept is abhorrent to me,” she says, revealing that her lawyers are challenging the film. “How dare anybody make a pretend life for me while I’m still living the real one?”

On the “might have beens”

“Lord Paul Bew argued that an opportunity was lost sometime between the October 5th civil rights march in Derry and the attack on the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry at Burntollet the following January. He felt the then unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, had taken on his hardliners and was preparing to reform the Northern state. “Burntollet changed it all,” he argued, adding that the response to the challenge posed by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was amateurish.”
“Amateurish” is too kind. On the other hand, “the jackboot heel of the of unionism” is an absurd exaggeration. The RUC had only 4000 officers and the B Specials of the post war, post 1956-62 IRA campaign were barely in existence as a disciplined force. It might have been John Bull’s political slum, but it was a sleepy slum most of the time. And as for the downtrodden? Who am I to deny them, but as a student at the time I had learned the maxim of Tocqueville, the peerless early historian of both the French and American revolutions, that revolutions happen among people on the rise.

We all have our preferred version of the political reform that never was. My dream counterfactual question is: Had O’Neill gone into the February 69 election offering a temporary grand coalition with the nationalists or the young civil righters who became the SDLP, could he have gained a majority of the 52 Stormont seats? It would have been worth a try, better than hoping that his threadbare charisma could have pulled it off with “O’Neill Unionists” alone. Instead, incited by the paranoid Paisley, the unionist split opened wide and never healed. Nothing has so far taken its place, not even an empowered civil society.

And so today at an anniversary event, the former chief of staff posing as an inheritor of the civil rights movement, scolds the successors of the supposed unionist monolith for their pusillanimity.

Two last thoughts. Some lessons have been learned, at enormous cost. The governments whose agents attacked demonstrators in the US, France and Northern Ireland in that era all paid a heavy price. Governments are cannier now. And two: the superstructure of the Northern Ireland state collapsed quite quickly into the chaos of three decades, but the infrastructure proved surprisingly durable, surviving to be recast, albeit with painful slowness today. Nowhere better than NI provides a better example of the wisdom of political evolution over revolution. The terrible pity of it that it took nearly 40 years to learn it , and even now, not everybody has fully grasped the point. It wasn’t a terrible beauty. It was a terrible bloody waste of time and no one should dignify it as some great international object lesson for the sake of some politician’s ego.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London