Derry Civil Rights “Festival” shows how far we have come

Posted By: September 24, 2018

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. Belfast. September 24, 2018 
IN a world full of uncertainties, few people doubt that Michael D. Higgins will be re-elected as President of Ireland on October 26.

The only safer bet around is that when he addresses the Civil Rights Festival in Derry at 2 pm on Saturday, October 6 there will be a bigger crowd in attendance than at 1.30pm the following afternoon, when the present writer speaks at the same Guildhall event – even allowing for the fact that Professor Patrick Murphy, as well as journalist colleagues Martin Cowley and Ben Lowry, are also scheduled to take part in the same Sunday panel discussion, chaired by Leona O’Neill, which covers the role of the media in the dramatic days of 1968.

It shows how far we have come that the Derry event is described as a festival.

No-one would have associated such an upbeat, even joyous, term with ‘civil rights’ when the Royal Ulster Constabulary were beating protestors off the streets on that fateful October weekend 50 years ago.

No title for the Higgins address is given on the programme, but he will no doubt highlight the importance of the civil rights movement in the struggle for democracy and equality throughout the island.

Presumably, he will also refer to the manner in which the protests in The North were inspired by the example of Martin Luther King and his followers, on the other side of the Atlantic.

The President may also suggest that the struggle for justice in The North gave heart to campaigners in other parts of the world, such as Latin America, a region in which he takes a keen interest.

His oration will in all likelihood receive a standing ovation, motivated in part by the sentiments expressed but also by the fact of a President based in Dublin making a visit to the Fourth Green Field.

Yes, Michael D. is a popular man. Irish society is somewhat wary of intellectuals, but President Higgins also has the common touch, attributable perhaps to his modest family background.

His father, John, took part in the War of Independence and then, as the now-defunct Irish Press would have put it, ‘remained’ on the Republican side in the subsequent Civil War.

That wasn’t a great career move: disadvantage and deprivation were often the prices paid for taking such a stand.

Should Higgins be re-elected to Áras an Uachtaráin for a second seven-year term, that period will include the centenary of the Civil War, a miserable and heart-breaking saga where former friends and comrades – even members of the same family – fought each other in a manner that was so bitter and ugly it made the conflict immediately beforehand look comparatively restrained.

It would be interesting to observe Michael D’s approach, a hundred years on: the Civil War cannot be erased from history, but the challenge is to draw lessons from it, without reviving old antagonisms.

Given their rather slim prospects of success, one cannot help wondering why the other contenders for the  Presidency are putting themselves through what can be a grueling process.

At the time of writing, there are five other candidates, but the incumbent looks virtually certain to win by a large majority.

A Sunday Business Post/Red C opinion poll put Higgins at 67 percent, with Independent candidates Seán Gallagher second at 15 percent and Gavin Duffy third at six percent.

That was before we received confirmation that Liadh Ní Riada would be the Sinn Féin nominee.

Nobody was surprised at this and T-shirts urging support for her were even displayed at the same time that the announcement was made.

There are days when you wonder is Sinn Féin getting too slick for its own good?

The declaration of the Ní Riada candidacy was badly handled: refusing to take questions from reporters reflected poor judgment on somebody’s part.

Observing the response of a politician when challenging issues arise is a key part of the Irish public’s assessment of that person’s suitability for the office in question.

The Sinn Féin MEP for Ireland South is clearly a person of considerable ability whose talents include an impeccable command of the Irish language.

Her campaign will be judged by whether she matches or even surpasses the performance of the late Martin McGuinness in the raucous presidential race of 2011 when he came third with 13.7 percent of first preferences.

Nominations close on Wednesday, but Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not running anyone, which should constitute a plus for Sinn Féin.

There is enough time left to overcome the shaky start to the Ní Riada campaign, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Gallagher and Duffy, not to mention the other contenders, Joan Freeman, and Peter Casey.

The race is on, most likely just for second place to Michael D, but it is still important.