Politicians in North urged to recapture spirit of civil rights movement

People of different traditions ‘can be united by our common rights’, SDLP leader says

Politicians must demonstrate the same level of courage as the leaders of the civil rights movement half a century ago to ensure that powersharing government is restored in Northern Ireland, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said in Derry on Thursday evening.

Mr Eastwood said that “just as in 1968, the job of this generation is to break free from the deadlock with which we are now faced”.

“That will require the same level of courage and creativity and it will require the development of new movements and new momentums,” said the SDLP leader.

“At the heart of that challenge is the understanding that we may be a people divided by history but we can be a people united by our common rights.”

Mr Eastwood was speaking at a civil rights commemorative seminar at the Glassworks in Derry on Thursday. It is a part of a series of events being held by the SDLP to mark the 50th anniversary next year of the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland in 1968.

"As politics in the North once more retreats into old trenches and divides into old battles, the establishment of the Civil Rights Association offers a reminder that it is possible for politics to be united in the pursuit of the common good," he said. "That coalition for change was possible 50 years ago and it remains possible now."

Status quo shattered

Mr Eastwood said that 50 years ago a "generation of young people burning with young political ideas in the shape of John Hume, Austin Currie, Bernadette Devlin, Ivan Cooper and Eamon McCann shook and shattered [the] status quo forever".

“It is important to say at this point that I fully and freely acknowledge that the anniversary of the civil rights movement in the North belongs to no one individual and to no one political party,” he said, adding that it has “a special place in the life of the SDLP”.

The civil rights movement “gave birth to a movement which took on a unionist government that denied people the most basic of civil rights and disregarded the most basic of human decencies”, he added.

"It was a Stormont administration backed up by a British government in London who deliberately designed a political state giving them the free reign to do so."

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times