Northern Ireland’s 1968 at the epicentre of the French ‘Maydays’

As the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s 1968 approaches, we can be hopeful that the accompanying commemorative interest will provide the necessary platform to enable a long-overdue and detailed reflection of what was an unquestionably seminal moment in our recent past. One particular area that requires a more comprehensive examination is how the events in Northern Ireland are to be understood within the broader (and rather exceptional) international context of the time. The term ‘1968’ has become a byword for a wave of revolt that swept the globe in the period of the late 60s and early 70s. However, within this increasingly consensual transnational narrative, Northern Ireland is only very rarely included.

Understanding this erroneous marginalisation and making a case for Northern Ireland’s integration into how this period of transnational revolt is remembered is the focus of Chris Reynolds’ 2015 study entitled Sous les pavés…The Troubles. Using the paradigmatic French events of 1968 and comparing them to what happened in Northern Ireland, Reynolds demonstrates just why the streets of Belfast and Derry merit a place alongside Paris, Berlin, Rome and beyond. The explanation for this absence lies, as with many things in Northern Ireland, with the Troubles that effectively buried the memory of this period and therefore played a pivotal role in marginalising Northern Ireland from the transnational narrative.

Since the publication of this study, and importantly in the post-conflict context of peace, Reynolds has been working with the Ulster Museum to help develop a new approach to dealing with this period, drawing on the findings of his research. To date this has led to a redevelopment of the section of the permanent gallery dedicated to 1968 as well as the creation of educational resources used to facilitate dedicated (and very popular) GCSE study days at the museum. This collaborative project will reach it culmination in this 50th anniversary year with an expanded, touring exhibition entitled ‘Voices of 68’ and a programme of related events. This new material draws on 30 filmed interviews from a wide range of standpoints to tell the story of Northern Ireland’s 1968. As well as demonstrating the diversity of perspectives that this period continues to solicit, the importance of the international zeitgeist of protest will come through as an extremely important consideration.

The Ulster Museum project team has been assisting the 50th Anniversary Civil Rights Commemoration Committee in its extremely rich and thought-provoking programme of events. Indeed, a number of those involved in the committee have been interviewed for the ‘Voices of 68’ exhibition. While such commemorative interest in Northern Ireland’s 1968 is a relatively new phenomenon, the events of France’s 1968 par excellence has been the focus of intense commemorative fervour since its first decennial anniversary in 1978. Each subsequent decade has witnessed an-ever-expanding surge in interest in this period with the anniversaries characterised by an increasingly prolific outpouring of publications, media interest and conferences. The current 50th anniversary is seeing a strong continuation of this now traditional commemorative zeal. One only has to take a cursory glance at the number of recent publications on 1968 and the extensive range of events taking place right now in France to take stock of the place these events have acquired in the French collective memory.

One such event took place on 2-4 May at the heart of the French University system, la Sorbonne. The event’s title was ‘The Imprints of 1968’s Students Movements in the World’ and the programme featured a dedicated roundtable on Northern Ireland’s 1968. This roundtable was led by Chris Reynolds and included the contribution of former People’s Democracy activists Anne Devlin and Paul Arthur. The symbolism of taking such a session to the heart of the University system and the very place that was the epicentre of student protest in France’s 1968 was accentuated by an extraordinary twist of fate. On day 1 of the conference, an attempt was made by student protestors to occupy the Sorbonne as part of an ongoing movement in opposition to President Macron’s reform agenda. Just as was the case in 1968, the Sorbonne was duly evacuated by riot police and shut down. The conference organisers, whilst taken aback (and even pleased) by such an incredible historical coincidence managed nonetheless to find another space within the walls of the Sorbonne for the event to continue.

The roundtable on Northern Ireland went ahead with Reynolds outlining the broad thesis of his project before leaving Anne Devlin and Paul Arthur to recount their reflections on this period. As well as discussing the connectedness of their experiences with what had happened in France and elsewhere, both speakers’ papers were able to open up a fascinating discussion on issues such as the importance of culture, memory, violence and the role of commemoration. Having concluded the roundtable to very positive feedback, Reynolds, Devlin and Arthur were then, over the course of the next three days, able to soak up the plethora of papers on offer with interesting perspectives on 1968 from around the world as well as witnessing some examples of the commemorative industry of ‘May ’68’ in full swing.

Bringing this project to Paris, during this 50th anniversary period, at an event in the Sorbonne where it was so positively received, is confirmation of just how Northern Ireland does indeed have its place alongside Paris in the story of 1968. However, even more significant, this conference exposed how the commonalities with Northern Ireland are not limited to the paradigmatic French events; the transnational connectedness between Northern Ireland and so many other areas was very much in evidence and only further underscores just why this must be a central consideration in how this period is remembered.

Post by Chris Reynolds, Associate Professor, School of Arts & Humanities, Nottingham Trent University

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.