Sorting through what was left of the new republic
Red rag to the party? Civil-rights marchers in 1969. photograph: pacemaker
POLITICS:The Communist Party of Ireland 1921-2011: Volume I, 1921-1969, By Matt Treacy, Brocaire Books, 428pp, €20
Some arguments never die, and the debate about the reaction of left-wingers and republicans to the unfolding crisis in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s is likely to go on forever.
For anyone who was not around at the time, it is difficult to comprehend the prevailing mood. The civil-rights movement in the North was based on the template established in the Deep South of the US by the likes of the Rev Martin Luther King jnr.
Although the American civil-rights struggle was marked by violence and turmoil, US society was eventually able to resolve many of the issues and move on from conflict to a situation where an African-American has now been elected for a second presidential term.
Another major influence, though little spoken about nowadays, was the student upheaval in France. The dramatic and at times violent events of May 1968 and the running battles between students and police constituted a major upheaval. Eventually, however, the society adjusted and adapted and the French moved on, just as the Americans did.
Not so with Northern Ireland, where the discontent manifested in protests and clashes with the police was not absorbed by the political system and the rebels were not turned into rulers, or at least participants, in fairly decorous electoral and constitutional arrangements.
The Paris events lent currency to the concept of protesting students as “detonators” who would set off a wider upheaval involving the working class and other oppressed groups, leading to the establishment of a socialist society.
In the North, youthful idealists cherished an egalitarian dream in which Catholic and Protestant would make common cause against their capitalist masters to build a brave new world.
The January 1969 attack at Burntollet Bridge, about eight kilometres outside Derry, on young protesters marching to the city from Belfast was a seminal moment in our recent history. Unlike similar events in the US and France, however, it was not a catalyst for a fairer and more just society but acted instead as a curtain-raiser for 30 years of horror and sectarian strife.
This very useful book recalls the debate that raged at the time in left-wing and republican circles. Should the march have gone ahead? Fiery and in some cases charismatic young protesters insisted at the time that it should. Older and more experienced voices counselled caution.
Strange to relate, perhaps, but the chief restraining voice in the protest movement at the time was the Communist Party of Ireland, principally Betty Sinclair (1910-81), founder member and first chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. The author of this book has unearthed her diaries in a treasure trove of archive material recently deposited by the communists with the National Library of Ireland. Someone should publish them in a separate volume because, agree or disagree with her perspective, she was right at the heart of events.