‘Elders of the Rebel Alliance’ remember the day everything changed

The civil rights march of 1968 is seen as one of the starting points of the Troubles

In the cafe inside Derry’s Waterside railway station, three old friends meet. They have come to remember October 5th, 1968, and the civil rights march which changed everything.

"I think if I had missed October 5th I'd probably have missed the whole thing, and my life would have been incredibly different," says Bernadette McAliskey, then 18-year-old student Bernadette Devlin.

“Nothing was the same again politically, I don’t think, and for most of the people who witnessed that march nothing was ever the same again.”

What happened is well known. The marchers gathered at the station and were stopped at nearby Duke Street by the RUC. The pictures of the policemen attacking the unarmed marchers with batons and blackthorn sticks were viewed around the world, and it would come to be regarded as one of the starting points of the Troubles.

McAliskey is now 74; Dermie McClenaghan and Eamonn McCann, 80 and 78 respectively, are believed to be two of only three surviving organisers of the march (the third is Eamon Melaugh).

The three are lifelong campaigners and comrades-in-arms. McCann is a former Assembly member for People Before Profit and was a councillor until he had to stand down earlier this year for health reasons; McClenaghan is frustrated his health makes it hard to attend demonstrations "but I'm as interested as ever I was", he emphasises, while McAliskey is the founder and chief executive of rights-based community organisation Step in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.

By the time she and her school friends arrived in Derry that October Saturday morning, she was already a veteran; McAliskey had been on the first Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march from Coalisland to Dungannon that August, a demonstration which inspired McCann and McClenaghan – both active in housing protests in Derry – to organise the march in the city.

Both use the same phrase as McAliskey. “The next morning... at least a dozen people stopped me and said those words, those exact words, ‘things would never be the same again’. People knew,” says McCann.

More than 50 years on, even Duke Street itself is different. As they talk over tea, coffee and Kit Kats they look out over the roundabout and dual carriageway which has replaced the narrow, terraced street.

“We were supposed to go up Distillery Brae but it was blocked off by the cops, so we went straight up Duke Street,” says McCann. “So, the RUC helped to draw the traditional route.”

McClenaghan adds: “Since then, any sort of good march, for want of a better word, has always started here. That says a lot in itself.”

McAliskey remembers how “you could feel the tension” and a speech from McCann: “We had never heard the like of it... It was like something when you hear it, you know you always knew it, but you hadn’t actually put it together until that moment.”

She points at McCann. “That was our memory, of standing rooted to the spot, listening to that man.”

As they talk, passengers coming and going glance in their direction in recognition; a friend who stops to say hello to McCann stays to listen to the conversation, and then asks if he might take a photo.

“You know Trevor held the whole Troubles back by approximately eight or nine seconds,” says McCann, of Trevor McBride, who photographed the march and who is here to take photographs for The Irish Times.

“We came to the top of Duke Street, the cops were all lined up with their batons and shields, and we came right up against them and there was a standoff at very close quarters, 18 inches, pushing and shoving.”

McBride was standing on a chair between the two lines. “As everything was about to happen, there came a shout, ‘Hold it, hold it!’ and everybody did.” He got his photograph.

“All of a sudden it was run for your life,” says McAliskey. “It was life-changing... I remember seeing this young fella who I recognised from Queen’s taking such a kicking off the police.

“There’s no doubt that the RUC on that day created the civil rights movement.”

McCann agrees: “If the RUC had attacked the march in Dungannon and that had been on the news, that would have been marked as the first day of the civil rights movement, and there’s a lesson in that.

I think that Derry is the most beautiful place in the world and it's a great place for dreaming, of dreaming about the way things might be and also dreaming about the way things were, in the way that people dream about October 5th

“The only time you get on the front page of the papers, the only time you make a mark of any kind on history, is when you say ‘f**k it’, and when the cops attack you... that’s the thing that is remembered, that’s the thing it is dated from.”

Much can be dated from October 5th, 1968. In the short term, the marchers’ key demands – around housing, jobs and votes – were quickly conceded, but all three are in no doubt its consequences are still being felt, above all in Derry.

“I think that Derry is the most beautiful place in the world and it’s a great place for dreaming, of dreaming about the way things might be and also dreaming about the way things were, in the way that people dream about October 5th,” says McCann.

“It’s very difficult to let go of dreams when they have defined your life and yourself, but I think the influence of 53 years ago and the civil rights movement is still there.

“We’ve had wars, we’ve had elections. The only advances that we made were made by masses of people on the ground.”

McClenaghan says: “I think October 5th provided people afterwards with a space to do things they would never have dreamt of doing. It gave them great confidence.” He gives as an example Derry’s Pride march, which has grown from about 150 participants to about 9,000; in 2018, McCann, McClenaghan and McAliskey were at the head of the march.

It is, says McAliskey, a “progressive city... a legacy has been created and continues”. At the “radical heart of it, the idea is still there saying activism is what moves it... in its council, in its civic life and in its self-image”.

This is “the gift from Derry” to the world, says McCann. “The way that we have legitimised, have made mass action the common sense of politics, of radical politics.”

Of the battles ahead, he says “one of the biggest problems is overwhelming discrimination against women... what we need now is the streets jam-packed with women”.

They outline continuing problems around housing, high unemployment, mental health, discrimination against ethnic minorities, poverty, and a disconnect between mainstream political narrative and the reality on the ground.

Who is going to create the future? It's not Dermie and me and Bernadette, it's not people our age

Yet they feel a change. "At the same time as there's consolidation of orange and green blocs in Northern Ireland, underneath, simmering away, there is something different, something transformational, emerging," says McCann.

“It’s very hard to believe that particularly with all the young women who have come out onto the streets over the last few years over a woman’s right to choose and women’s equality generally... I don’t think they can be herded back into their communities as easily as people were herded back before.”

Brexit, too, has “changed everything”; the conversation about “what should our all-Ireland society look like” is “real and widening and it’ll be interesting to see where it ends”, says McAliskey.

“You may not see it now but just as people didn’t see the 5th of October coming, all the ingredients that made it were there and all the ingredients that challenge the present orange green dichotomy of the State are all there... it is still within the lifespan of my generation, of this generation of reprobates to see change.”

That generation is still campaigning, not least McCann, who last week stood on the steps of Derry’s Guildhall on the 20th anniversary of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan.

Earlier this year he stood down as a local People Before Profit councillor for health reasons. A neurological condition, ataxia, made it “very difficult to stand at times, and you can’t have that as a councillor”, he explains. “But I would still see myself absolutely as an activist. I don’t feel any different at all from what I felt in October 1968, and my general perspective hasn’t changed.

“In 1968 we were looking forward to making something different, and we should be looking forward now.

“Who is going to create the future? It’s not Dermie and me and Bernadette, it’s not people our age.

“It’s going to be young people, and there is no question in my mind, overwhelmingly, that it’s going to be the young women of Ireland who are going to shape the future, and I’m very happy about that.”

“And they will not necessarily be white,” adds McAliskey.

Canvassing in Co Donegal during the 2018 abortion referendum, McCann "suddenly realised I was the only man, I was the only person over 30, and I thought, this is terrific, this is the future".

“Come on sistas,” he cries, fist in the air. “Let’s go get ‘em – and they will.”

McAliskey tidies up the coffee cups – a lifelong habit, she explains. As she does so, she tells of her six-year-old grandson Iollann and his love of Lego Star Wars.

"He discovered his granny had a history, so he said to me, 'I think you are in the Rebel Alliance, Granny.'

“Of Derry, he asked, ‘Is that the centre of the Rebel Alliance?’” “Yes!” exclaims McCann.

The friends look at one another, laughter in their faces. “And here we are,” says McAliskey. “The elders of the Rebel Alliance.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

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