50 years on we must reflect on lessons of the civil rights campaign

Posted By: January 25, 2018

The civil rights campaign is being remembered 50 years on

Professor Paul Arthur. Irish News. Belfast.Thursday, January 25, 2018

IT was Enoch Powell who noted that everything ‘has a pre-play’.

The civil rights marches of 1968 did not come suddenly out of the blue. There were antecedents.

The O’Neill premiership with its desire for modernization removed the complacency of a stagnant regime and created the conditions for the collapse of a one-party system.

It widened the debate beyond the constitutional issue to a desire for radical social reform.

This manifested itself in the creation of the Homeless Citizens League in Dungannon by three tenacious working-class women in 1963; the Campaign for Social Justice the following year; the Derry Housing Association[DHA] in 1965 and the (more radical) Derry Housing Action Committee [DHAC]in 1967 – the same year that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed.

Politically,  opposition politics was represented by the growing irrelevance of the Nationalist Party at Stormont and the more consistent and rights-based approach of the Northern Ireland Labour Party after 1958.

It signaled, too, the futility of armed struggle and the redundancy of traditional Republicanism and led to a backlash from the wider shores of Unionism and Loyalism.

The outcome was an increased (if belated) interest in Northern Ireland by the Labor government and elements of the British media and public.

But 1968 was significant in geopolitical terms. The Cold War was in full flow. On the same day as the Coalisland-Dungannon civil rights march the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

It was a year too of generational protest with a sharp rise in student activism. The activities of the People’s Democracy (founded at Queen’s in October 1968) was similar to that denoted by an observer in Mexico, Colombia, Japan, India, Egypt and the USA as a manifestation of impatience with the status quo.

‘Europe’ was largely at peace and the EEC (then composed of six states) did not impinge on the domestic politics of the UK and Ireland.

The Civil Rights Movement (and opposition to it) represented all these strands. It sought a combination of civil, social and political rights.

The means to acquire these differed radically. For instance, the difference between the DHA and the DHAC was more than an upper-case initial. It represented two different worldviews that were to play out over subsequent years. It was a melange of generational, class, gender and ideological struggles.

While most of the mainstream sought a non-violent approach it was not to be. We had not imbibed the message from Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. He maintained that before embarking on direct action civil resistance demanded self-purification.

Fifty years on we need to reflect on the lessons of the civil rights campaign and to place it in the context of the current political climate.

On the one hand, we are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. In that period there has been an attempt to create a climate conducive to human rights. One academic has described it as a ‘democratic process that seems to many a crucial rejoinder to mass violence’.
It has broadened our concept of rights and of the need to address the concerns of the marginalized whether they be the LGBT, migrant or traveling communities.

On the other[hand]we face very uncertain times. The historian Tony Judt warns that the role of political philosophers may be one ‘of facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones’.

There may be some lessons to be learned from the decade of commemorations and from what appears to be a growing maturity in civil society.

We can embrace the concept of ethical remembrance and the doctrine of inclusivity built into the 1998 agreement. At the very least there is an urgent requirement for a dialogue with all the stakeholders to achieve what Martin Luther King called a society ‘that can live with its conscience’.

It is his spirit of fortitude we should celebrate. When he reached Montgomery in March 1965 in the famous journey from Selma he wondered how long it would take to achieve their rights: ‘Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.’