Lessons of Derry civil rights march relevant still, conference hears

 

THE MARKING of the 40th anniversary of the Derry civil rights march of October 5th, 1968, should help provide lessons for the modern era, a Belfast conference has heard.

Michael Farrell, a lawyer, author, rights campaigner and student activist in 1968 told a special seminar at Queen's University the anniversary should not be marked by triumphalism or a reopening of old wounds.

He told the conference, 1968: Civil Rights, Then and Now, that the NI Civil Rights Association was born out of anger at unionist corporations mainly in small towns across the North over issues such as housing, jobs, gerrymandering and local democracy. He denied it was sectarian or had anything to do with a united Ireland.

Placing it in an international context, he linked the anniversary with the 60th anniversary of the UN declaration on human rights. Civil rights activists in Northern Ireland in 1968 identified with blacks in the southern US and with "a Baptist minister named after Martin Luther", he said.

He contended that the Northern state was "too brittle" to accommodate the demands of the Civil Rights Movement, while the British government ignored it as best it could. The vast array of national and international tools and instruments which are now available for the purposes of seeking redress were simply unavailable in the late 1960s.

Simon Price, author of Northern Ireland's 1968, warned against reliance on memory of those involved to assess the impact of the Civil Rights Movement.

"The past cannot be remembered as it was," he argued. "All memories are of equal value; all historical sources, however, are not." He continued: "Collective memory reconstructs the past as myth rather than fact - to serve the interests of a particular group. It provides consolation, confirms and reinforces values and conjures up a wider political vision."

Queen's University academic Lord Paul Bew argued that an opportunity was lost sometime between the October 5th civil rights march in Derry and the attack on the People's Democracy march from Belfast to Derry at Burntollet the following January.

He felt the then unionist prime minister, Terence O'Neill, had taken on his hardliners and was preparing to reform the Northern state. "Burntollet changed it all," he argued, adding that the response to the challenge posed by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was amateurish.

University of Ulster academic Paul Arthur discussed the diversity of the original Civil Rights Movement, suggesting it was a broad organisation which suffered from having "too many chiefs".

Questions on Terence O'Neill's sincerity were not as relevant as his ability to deal with the challenge of change, he said.

Bob Purdie, author of Politics in the Street, doubted that Capt O'Neill "could have pulled it off", arguing that the former leader's determination was not enough. Like Dr Purdie, Edwina Stewart, a NICRA member, admitted that she and many of the 1968 generation had made "many mistakes". She told the conference of a sense of naivety which marked the early days of the movement and the first marches in Northern Ireland.

Kevin Boyle, of the University of Essex, said the Civil Rights Movement preceded "the human rights era" and argued that ideas were now transferred globally and rapidly thanks to the extraordinary development in information and communications technology.

Tom Hadden, of Queen's University, said those agitating for civil rights had to ask how best to do this without stoking terrorism.

Margaret Ward of the Women's Resource and Development Agency said the issue of civil rights now had to be "gendered". She argued that much of the intervening period was marked by a realisation of the need to recognise the division between Catholics and Protestants. Such determination had to be given to the separate needs of men and women.

The weekend's commemorations continue this weekend with a major international conference in Derry on the civil rights legacy.