Veterans question civil rights legacy

 

JOHN HEWITT SUMMER SCHOOL:PROF PAUL Bew and Eamonn McCann discussed the civil rights movement and its influence on subsequent developments.

Prof Bew said that many of the things which are taken for certainties today were anything but, 40 years ago, and went on to question sombrely whether what resulted from those initial momentous events ultimately justified them.

"I have never felt self-congratulatory in any way about my involvement because it did precipitate a conflict which eventually claimed 3,500 lives, and that is inescapable," he said.

"It would be very cruel to say that what we have ended up with is a twilight home in east Belfast for retired gunmen, but are relations today between the communities really that different?" Referring to the seeming possibility of a modest reform programme having been carried out by Terence O'Neill's government, Prof Bew said: "I'm just not convinced that the outcome we do have is any better than what we would've had, had the march not went ahead."

On the subject of regrets, Eamonn McCann said he wished the movement had been more coherently class-based, but reaffirmed that it was founded on ideals he retains to this day. Recalling the remarkable events of 1968, including the Tet offensive in Vietnam and the general strike of 10 million workers in France, he said he saw the relatively little things in Northern Ireland as part of a wider, international shift.

"The thought that this would lead to a re-emergence of militant Irish nationalism, which would in turn bring about the resurgence of militant loyalism, would simply never even have occurred to us," he said. "What this was about, and what it has returned to, was equality of citizenship. History will record the Provisional IRA's campaign as a continuation of the civil rights movement by inappropriate means."

Chairing the event, Malachi O'Docherty told the audience that Bernadette McAliskey, who was unable to attend due to a family bereavement, had accepted the invitation by saying jokingly that "between the pomposity of Bew and the extravagance of McCann, I might look like the sane one".