Many civil rights histories will be bu

Posted By: August 18, 2018

Not all accounts of the history of the Civil Rights Association can be equally trusted
Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast.August 18, 2018.

HENRY Ford nearly had a point when he said that history was bunk. He might have more reasonably suggested that only some versions of it are.

This week we witnessed some selective bunk and there is probably more to come.

As we wade our way through the decade of centenaries, we are developing a parallel decade of half-centenaries, to mark events 50 years ago.

Its next commemoration will be the RUC’s attack on peaceful civil rights marchers in Derry on October 5, 1968.

There have been two recent analyses of the influences leading to that attack. One was very insightful. The other was bunk.

In this newspaper, Bríd Rodgers provided a valuable description of the rise and role of the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) which was formed in 1964 by Con and Patricia McCluskey of Dungannon.

It led the way in documenting discrimination and was a positive influence on the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967.

The bunk came from an RTE documentary which suggested that the civil rights movement here was inspired mainly by similar events in America.

It was bunk for three reasons. The first is that our civil rights campaign resulted from several influences, including organizations like the CSJ, most of which were ignored by RTE.

As Ms. Rodgers pointed out, there was a march against housing conditions in Dungannon in June 1963. This was two months before the first USA civil rights march to Washington.

At the same time in Britain, the Connolly Association held a number of civil rights protests, which culminated in a civil liberties conference in London, in March 1965, which the McCluskeys attended and John Taylor – yes, John Taylor – represented the Unionist Party.

The pre-split IRA’s left-wing views influenced Republicans to reform rather than abolish the state, leading it to play a key role in the formation of NICRA.

The role of the Brantry Republican Club – the name Sinn Féin was banned at the time – in the Caledon housing squat was part of this new development.

When NICRA asked me to write a history of their origins and first ten years in 1977, no-one I interviewed mentioned America.

The second reason is that RTE failed to see the real American influence on the north in the 1960s.

This was the anti-civil rights campaign, in which Ian Paisley was radicalized by American right-wing, religious fundamentalists.

He frequently visited the US bible-belt throughout the 1960s, where he learned to copy militant clerics who believed that God’s plan for the world was under attack from civil rights, communism, and liberal clergy.

In the days before Martin Luther King was shot, Paisley was at a Bob Jones Bible Conference in South Carolina.

Two days after the assassination, he [Paisley] said that “citizenship of the new Jerusalem” was imperiled by the US civil rights movement.

In April 1968, he wrote that King’s “so-called non-violence produced the worst sort of violence.” That was four months before he opposed the first civil rights march here.

Paisley’s extremism did not just attack the civil rights movement; it paralyzed unionism into not conceding on equality, an attitude which has survived to this day.

Unionists who might have supported civil rights became Paisley’s prisoners. Hence the attack in Derry on October 5. Now, there was an American influence worth investigating.

The third reason for believing RTE’s history was bunk is that the two civil rights campaigns were different.

In America, it was about rights for blacks. Here it was about democratizing the state. For example, Protestants were denied one man, one vote just as much as Catholics.

The difference is illustrated by the fact that while the US civil rights campaign eventually led to peace, ours led to war and the emergence of a new nationalist party in the SDLP and a new IRA in the form of the Provisionals.

The SDLP may soon become the northern wing of Fianna Fáil and what used to be the IRA’s political wing now hopes to become an extension of Fine Gael.

Neither the SDLP nor the IRA advanced the political agenda beyond the narrow confines of nationalism, and oddly they are now lined up along the two opposing sides in the Irish civil war – and not in the way you might have predicted.

So when we marched and sang, “We shall overcome,” we were wrong regarding creating a non-sectarian society, based on equality and normal politics.

Through nationalist opportunism and unionist intransigence, we were overcome.

But that will not turn up in all the civil rights histories, because many of them will be bunk.