Civil rights campaign highlighted need to keep political show on the road

Posted By: July 03, 2017

Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, July 3, 2017


My skill-set, if you’ll pardon the expression, does not include the ability to be in two places at once. So it was with considerable regret that because of a prior engagement I was unable to attend an event in the Linen Hall Library earlier this year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

It may have been half a century ago but some of the issues that led to the foundation of NICRA in January 1967 remain highly relevant. A handout promoting the Linen Hall event put it well: “The political framework established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is in some ways a return to the approach and values of the civil rights movement.”

It is difficult for anyone who wasn’t around at the time to appreciate the inspiring and uplifting influence of the civil rights marches and protests by the African-American community and their supporters in the US, under the courageous leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Check out his glorious “I Have a Dream” speech on YouTube to get a flavor of it all.

The Linen Hall handout points out that all shades of political opinion in The North were represented on the first executive of NICRA: “Liberal, Labour, Nationalist, Republican, Communist and Trade Unionist; a Young Unionist was co-opted.”

One of the keys to the initial success of NICRA was that it left partition and the “national question” aside, for the time being anyway. The governments in Belfast and London were used to dealing with traditional republicanism. They tackled the IRA head-on, locked them up and engaged the support of the Dublin administration in the process, even though the latter was prone to an occasional bout of nationalist rhetoric at the same time.

Instead of ineffectual and, in the short term at least, futile calls for a United Ireland as a means of achieving equality, NICRA adopted the far more effective approach of demanding British rights for British subjects. What better way to undermine the sectarian basis of a statelet which London had set up and then promptly forgotten about for almost five decades? If you wanted to end partition – and not everyone in NICRA shared that aim – then the best way to do so was a mass campaign against its consequences, not a guerrilla war which could never get sufficient popular support.

Among those present at NICRA’s foundation was Anthony Coughlan, better-known for his long-standing opposition to the European Union project. He has written in the Dublin-based Village magazine that the civil rights protests succeeded in dividing unionism between the more liberal element and the hardliners and, even more importantly, putting the British government on the spot.

Substantial gains were made and for a time it seemed that a more egalitarian society could develop which might even agree in due course to get rid of the border on a peaceful and voluntary basis. Sadly there was a lack of foresight in different quarters and a failure to appreciate the potential for long-term horrific violence. The Belfast-to-Derry march of January 1969, leading to the dreadful Burntollet episode, was well-intentioned but naive and, apart from the likes of Terence O’Neill, the unionists failed to understand the crying need for compromise.

The relevance of all this today is that it highlights the necessity to keep the political show on the road. A forced marriage between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin will never become a beacon of sweetness and light but they need to be together for the sake of the children, namely, those future generations who must never have to endure a renewal of the Troubles.

It’s an awesome and unenviable responsibility. Both parties are clearly under continuing pressure to gain as much as possible for their respective communities and give minimal concessions to “the other side”. Yet many of the leaders in the two organizations have personal knowledge of the terrible times that their small corner of our tiny island has gone through in the recent past.

Politics is a challenging profession and we can see how even fairly cohesive societies like the south of Ireland and the UK have problems setting up a stable government. It is of course far more difficult for parties in a situation where divisions between communities go back for centuries.

In that context, it was encouraging to see leaders of different churches issuing a united call for the restoration of the power-sharing executive. Perhaps we should have some form of common invocation: a joint prayer for the victims of, say, Bloody Sunday, Enniskillen, Omagh, Greysteel, Bloody Friday, Loughinisland, Birmingham, Warrington, Dublin, Monaghan, and Loughgall.

The list is virtually endless, so perhaps a bilingual plea in Irish and English would suffice: “Síocháin Dé inár measc/The peace of God be among us.”