Trouble was long before October 5 [1968

Posted By: October 12, 2018

Alex Kane. Irish News.Belfast.Friday,  October 12, 2018 

Simon Prince finishes his just updated book, Northern Ireland’s ’68, with this quotation from Anne Devlin’s The Long March: “I still remember that time when we thought we were beginning a new journey: the long march. What we didn’t see was that it had begun a long time before with someone else’s journey; we were simply getting through the steps in our own time.”

In one sense there is nothing new in Northern Ireland. The people who say that October 5, 1968, was ‘the start of the Troubles’ are talking nonsense; for to say that is to ignore the IRA’s 1956-62 campaign; or the re-emergence of the modern UVF in 1966; or the efforts of those in the mid-1960s who began to gather evidence of the ‘unjust attitude’ of the unionist government towards Catholics here; or the partitioning of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland; or the failure of nationalism to properly challenge unionist rule; or the efforts of Terence O’Neill to shift unionism in a new direction from 1963 onwards.

That particular day, in that particular October, in that particular year, deserves to be remembered as a turning point; but it wasn’t the start of the Troubles. And nor, as it turns out, was April 10, 1998, the end of the Troubles. In both 1968 and 1998–and indeed, now, in 2018–the past remains in front of us. There are no official beginnings or endings when it comes to Northern Ireland: and even if there is ever a united Ireland, I’m pretty sure there will still be constant squabbling between unionism (which will survive in one form or another, even if it cannot be properly accommodated) and nationalism.

To isolate a specific date or event as the ‘beginning’ or ‘start’ of what we now call the Troubles is to presuppose that we have some collective, jointly agreed definition of what we mean by the Troubles. We don’t. And we never will have that agreed definition. Anyone who ever thought that it was ever going to be possible to bring nationalism and unionism together in some sort of comfortable realignment will have had those hopes shattered by the events commemorating October 1968. Even now, 50 years on, there is no agreement about what happened; or why it happened. The picture painted by the SDLP and Sinn Féin is not recognized by unionists. And the defense put up by unionists is not recognized by nationalists.

There isn’t even agreement on the original purpose of the Civil Rights campaign. Was it about creating a Northern Ireland in which Catholics would be treated as equal citizens; or was it about re-energizing nationalism and replacing the Nationalist Party which, in the eyes of many non-unionists, was regarded as lazy, complacent and ineffective?

It’s clearly no coincidence that the SDLP (which soon adopted the mantra of an ‘agreed Ireland’) was founded less than two years after the October 5 March; and nor, I would argue, is it a coincidence that the Provisional IRA/Sinn Féin emerged just over a year later. In turn, of course, the ‘moderate’ unionism of Terence O’Neill was replaced by a new generation of hardliners; while loyalist paramilitaries like the UDA and Red Hand Commando emerged.

While the governance of Northern Ireland has clearly changed since 1968,  I’m not sure that much else has changed in terms of how both sides view each other. The political and constitutional divisions of 1968 remain the same: indeed, judging by the electoral evidence, we are more polarized now. We don’t trust each other any more than we did. There is a clear reluctance to accept responsibility for wrongdoing on our own side. We continue to write our own narratives. At every level, you can point to we remain a us-and-them society. A new survey suggests that there is very little interaction and intermixing among the young (a point I first made about 15 years ago).

I hear journalists and politicians refer to the Good Friday Agreement as ‘ending the Troubles.’ It may have ended the terrorism, but it certainly didn’t remove the source of the Troubles–the long-standing demarcation line between Unionism and Nationalism. My view of the Union hasn’t shifted one iota since 1968: and I’m pretty sure the views of nationalists/republicans haven’t shifted, either. We are in the same political places we were 50 years ago.

And that, as I keep arguing, is why it is impossible to have anything resembling an impartial overview of 1968, or 1998, or 1921, or 1972; or, indeed, almost any year you care to pick from the 12th century onwards. Nothing is ever settled. We’re still in O’Casey’s ‘state of chassis.’