October 5 1968 was indeed a sort of Bastille Day for Northern Ireland when a single event triggered a “ bliss it was to be alive” moment. Like the French Revolution it was followed by a long and darkening era of violence when “ things would never be the same again”. Of course it had deep roots in the past. It emulated a wave of street actions in the US, Paris and Prague, all with different outcomes. Whole volumes of recent story can be hung on it. As a contemporary Derryman who was far away at university in England at the time, I’ve just one observation in response to reflections from two very different veteran commentators who uncannily end up almost in the same place on the lessons they draw.
Eamonn McCann, a prominent participant of these events whose book War in an Irish Town is still the most vivid, witty and frank account of those events insists it was the civil rights campaign that forced the unionist government to grant almost the full portfolio of reform demands. He has always been adamant in refusing a share in the credit claimed for the IRA by the Sinn Fein of today.
Another instance of Sinn Fein trying to hijack history. I know that many people who were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago are deeply resentful of the fact that these people can come along, after all this time, and parade through the town as the inheritors of the civil rights tradition. They are no such thing. It is a march of cynicism – cynicism and dishonesty. We’ve had enough distortion of history in Northern Ireland over the years.The winning of civil rights and equality in the north was not the aim of the long campaign of armed struggle which took over 3,000 lives. The Provos fought to get the Brits out of Ireland. That’s just a fact. The idea that the IRA was fighting for equality is just nonsense.
On a daily basis, the leaders of unionism were telling their own followers that the civil rights movement was an IRA plot. That’s absolutely untrue, but the Protestant people were invited by their leaders to believe that to give an inch to the civil rights movement was to compromise their own beliefs.
This High Noon of the civil rights movement barely made it to one o’clock. Early in the New Year it died the death on the banks of the river Ness at Burntollet, when guys in B Specials uniform and others I’d been in Sunday school with attacked the People’s Democracy march which had gathered on its way supporters including a sprinkling of IRA veterans of the fifties and mounting loyalist hostility. The wisdom or unwisdom of that march still provokes fierce tactical and ideological argument today over which side was more responsible for the plunge into sectarian conflict.
Eamonn’s class analysis has survived in splendid isolation from events in the certain knowledge that class struggle never stood a chance of disentangling from sectarian struggle. Down the years he’s remained the eternal mature student, viewing the world rooted in Derry and making his own tacit pact with the local IRA not to go too far. Evidence of his limited impact rests in what he complains of , that the IRA and Sinn Fein stole his analysis and patted him the head with a patronising word of thanks.
Ed Curran was a young reporter of the Belfast Telegraph school of liberal unionism and later the paper’s editor. He concludes:
Striking an acceptable balance between being British and being Irish in Northern Ireland looks a lot more challenging compared to satisfying the demands of the marchers in Derry on that Saturday afternoon in 1968.
I agree with the Good Friday Agreement in so much as that it brought about an end to paramilitary violence-well most of it. That’s a good thing, but it came at the expense of institutionalising sectarianism and with the addition of letting the British Government off the hook.
Is Ed right? Is Eamonn, when he implies that the institutionalising of sectarianism has created an insurmountable barrier? Concentrating on Derry where unionists are thin on the ground, neither dwelt on the violent loyalist reaction or even the police attacks on the Bogside the same night, which quickly set the battle lines for what was to come.
Today, we have the benefit of hindsight. I’d say the end of institutionalised violence and institutionalised sectarian discrimination created an inviting space that still remains to be adequately filled. Even hard line unionists like Gregory Campbell don’t hanker after the old political order. Bernadette MacAliskey is one of few prominent veterans of the 1960s to completely denounce the the shaky new order. On 5th October 1968, the sense of being the natural order of things conceded reluctantly even by nationalists, deserted the Unionist government overnight. The space for accommodation grew smaller and smaller as violence increased and what had seemed to be a monolith gradually disintegrated before our eyes. Is this what’s really happening to power sharing?
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