An Irishman’s Diary: ‘No Pope Here!’ – A protest march in Armagh in 1968

Rev Ian Paisley, a militant Protestant leader, on one of his many anti-Catholic protest marches.

Rev Ian Paisley, a militant Protestant leader, on one of his many anti-Catholic protest marches.

 

It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that when rumours circulated some months ago that Pope Francis was not only going to visit Ireland at some future date, but might include the North in his itinerary, the interest was real but short-lived, and the apparent absence of outrage in some quarters in the North was noteworthy.

Almost half a century ago things were different. As a reporter, I had been sent by this newspaper regularly to report on the Presbyterian General Assembly and the Methodist Conference (both normally held in Belfast), and the Church of Ireland Synod in Dublin. At many of these meetings the growth of ecumenism in the Catholic Church after the Vatican Council evoked many passionate debates.

This was especially true of Presbyterianism. The rafters of Church House would ring with passionate contributions, some of which demonstrated – on one side of the argument – an unshakeable attachment to the terms of the 1646 Confession of Westminster, which had bluntly described the Pope as “the anti-Christ”.

On the other side of such arguments in that assembly were doughty warriors such as Prof J, M Barkley, and the late and much lamented Terence McCaughey, both representative of a part of Presbyterianism that political unionism has never managed to colonise.

McCaughey, in particular, helped to persuade the General Assembly that, as an all-Ireland church, they had to meet at least occasionally in Dublin. In due course they did.

In politics, too, old moulds were being broken. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formally established in Belfast in January 1967. Its steering committee of 13 included members from a wide spectrum of organisations and, although it included republicans, did not adopt an antipartition stance.

A series of protest marches was planned for late 1968 in Dungannon, Derry and Armagh. After film by the RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien of the October 5th march in Derry attracted worldwide publicity, many unionists took fright and a loose coalition of the more unruly elements of that persuasion, led by Ian Paisley and Ronald Bunting, decided to blockade the centre of Armagh at the end of November to prevent the march going through.

I joined the march to report it, but the RUC had set up a double cordon on the narrow street leading up the hill to the town centre – one line of police held back Mr Paisley and his forces; the other kept the civil rights march at a safe distance. Just before the situation congealed into immobility, I left the march and, after following a circuitous route through small side streets, managed to insert myself into the city behind Mr Paisley’s lines.

The centre of Armagh was fully occupied by a defiant but not particularly ill-humoured, and entirely male gathering, ebullient at the thought that they had triumphed – although both Mr Paisley and Mr Bunting were to be later convicted of public order offences for their part in what happened.

Cudgels

As I wandered through the streets, careful to keep my mouth shut, I noticed that I was still to a degree conspicuous, but for quite a different reason: I was virtually the only person present who was not carrying some kind of makeshift instrument of mayhem.

Outside one of the pubs (many of which were open) I noticed a line of sticks and staves lined up neatly against the wall, while their owners celebrated inside. I quietly appropriated one of these and then, suitably disguised as a potential rioter, made my way down through the crowd until I ended up a few rows from the front, where Mr Paisley was marching up and down, rallying his followers with various slogans, scriptural and otherwise.

One of these, frequently repeated at maximum volume, was “No Pope Here”. I did not hesitate. Fiercely brandishing my newly-acquired cudgel and doing my best to disguise my southern accent, I added my voice and the same slogan to the general cacophony around me.

My sincerity was unalloyed. In truth I could not then, and could not even now, think of anyone whose presence on that occasion would have been less likely to calm and more likely to inflame the emotions of those present, than the quiet, intellectual, Giovanni Battista Montini.

Pope Paul VI was doubtless, at that very moment, serenely unaware of the almost medieval tumult aroused by the mere mention of his name in a small city on an island at the outer edge of Europe.

I hope that Pope Francis, if he comes, and especially if his itinerary includes Northern Ireland, will have been adequately prepared.