A transforming moment in Irish history, 40 years on


ANALYSIS:Events in the North will mark the anniversary of the iconic civil rights march in Derry in 1968, writes Gerry Moriarty

STALWARTS OF the Northern Ireland civil rights movement - older, greyer, perhaps even wiser - are currently reminiscing about October 5th, 1968, a Saturday 40 years ago that turned out to be a transforming moment in modern Irish history. Some believe it was the day the Troubles officially began.

It was a heady, exciting time for sure in many corners of the world, what with the Vietnam War protests, the US presidential election, Martin Luther King and the American civil rights marches, the rioting in Paris, and let us mention too the music: Dylan, Hendrix, the Beatles, Cream.

Even the dreary steeples couldn't escape the hope and exhilaration of the period. As Barack Obama might say, it was a time for change. In Northern Ireland in 1968 the change was real and dynamic.

The memories this weekend will be of Duke Street in Derry when the RUC turned on the marchers, a place that is rather like the GPO on Easter Week 1916: if all the people who said or thought they were there were there you would cram Croke Park, or the Brandywell in Derry, several times over.

The agitators are 40 years older now. Some are dead.

You'll be familiar with the names who were there or thereabouts on October 5th, 1968, or on other key dates around that frenetic time: John Hume, Austin Currie, Ivan Cooper, Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann, Nell McCafferty, Michael Farrell, Paul Arthur, Paul Bew.

Some are taking part in events marking the anniversary this weekend, the biggest of which is a three-day commemoration in the Guild Hall in Derry, which President Mary McAleese will address.

A conference, Civil Rights - Then and Now, is taking place in Queen's University, Belfast, tomorrow. The Workers' Party will also reflect on October 5th, 1968, at their Northern regional conference in Belfast on Saturday. Other events are also taking place recalling the day.

Glasses will be lifted to former Irish Timesjournalist Mary Holland, who reported from Derry on the day for the Observer, and to the RTÉ cameraman Gay O'Brien, whose footage of the RUC batoning marchers was flashed across the world, and to former West Belfast MP Gerry Fitt, the image of him with blood streaming down his face after he was truncheoned being part of the iconic impressions of October 5th. All dead now.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in early 1967 to protest against discrimination of Catholics and to campaign for five key demands: "one man, one vote"; an end to gerrymandering of council boundaries; an end to housing discrimination; an end to discrimination by public authorities; and the abolition of the B Specials police reserve.

The following year nationalist MP Austin Currie, later an SDLP minister and later still a Fine Gael minister, staged a sit-in in Caledon, protesting that Catholics were being discriminated against in the allocation of housing.

That August he was the central figure behind a march from Coalisland to Dungannon. Some 4,000 participated but it did not gain significant coverage. The world was more concerned with the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia a few days earlier.

October 5th in Derry attracted some 300-400 marchers. Currie remembered the day as being like "The Charge of the Light Brigade: policemen to the front of us, policemen to the back of us, no way out".

Historian Paul Arthur, then a 23-year-old just back from an Israeli kibbutz, had a similar memory of being hemmed in on both sides by the police. "There was a huge innocence about the day," he said, recalling the prevailing youthful fervour of 1968. "Beforehand no one had any sense that the police would attack us," he added.

Arthur said similar incidents had happened previously "on a much more minor scale" with the RUC wading in with batons when, say, Irish Tricolours were displayed at St Patrick's Day parades. "But the huge difference was that Gay O'Brien captured what happened. His presence was what made the 5th of October."

The reports by Mary Holland also had a significant impact. Previously the British government, to its great relief, left what happened in Northern Ireland to the unionist Stormont administration, as was the Pontius Pilate political protocol of the day, but not any more.

At the debates this weekend in Derry and Belfast the likes of Farrell, Currie, Arthur and fellow historian Lord (Paul) Bew will discuss that past. One can expect that the predominant opinion will be celebrating the civil rights movement but there will be other views. Gregory Campbell will be there.

Paul Bew had just begun college in Cambridge in October 1968, having been involved in the socialist movement in Northern Ireland with the likes of Farrell and McCann. At the Belfast event he may also offer a cautious divergent take on the period.

He missed the Derry march but was marching at Burntollet when it was attacked by loyalists in January 1969, precipitating a period of rioting and disturbances across Northern Ireland that culminated in the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and the arrival of British troops on the streets of Derry to try to restore civil order.

Subsequently, there was the IRA split and the formation of the Provisional IRA, and all the toxic history and 3,700 deaths that came afterwards.

Bew wonders was an opportunity lost between October 5th and Burntollet. If Burntollet could have been avoided, could unionist prime minister Terence O'Neill have succeeded with his moderate and modest programme of reform when he appeared willing to take on his hardliners?

Bew, with a raft of caveats, may enter his "what if" into the debating mix this weekend and no doubt will be politely but robustly challenged by the likes of Currie and Arthur, who argue that O'Neill was just too weak to implement reform.

Currie said O'Neill was regularly warned of the inevitability of the floodgates opening if Catholics were not accorded civil rights, but that he just didn't have the political strength to prevent the damburst.

He feels too that more precipitate action by the British government could have prevented a hopeful enterprise being overtaken by a violent sectarian conflict, which was the antithesis of what civil rights was about. There will be plenty to talk about.

• Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor of The Irish Times