We forget lessons of Northern conflict at our peril


It is just 30 years since I first set foot in the city of Derry. It was a few days before October 5th, 1968, the date of the banned civil rights march which was to explode in images of violence across the world.

I didn't want to go to Derry, but then I didn't particularly want to go to Northern Ireland at all. Like most people, I'd been to Belfast a couple of times as a child on shopping trips from Dublin. Later, as a journalist, I'd travelled to the North to interview a brilliant young poet named Seamus Heaney and, as I remember, to write a glowing report of the then very new Belfast Festival.

I knew nothing about the politics of the place. When, once or twice, I asked people, they replied that there used to be a lot of tension but that all that was changing.

At that time, in 1968, I'd been working for the Observer in London writing features under the title "Them and Us", about how so-called ordinary citizens deal with the many bureaucratic faces of the state - young people picked up on drugs charges, protests against new motorways, halting sites for travellers. That kind of thing. But I'd just been given a new job, about which I was delighted, writing a column about the arts.

The trip to Northern Ireland was an inconvenient hangover. As part of the "Them and Us" brief I had written to Gerry Fitt, suggesting that if he came across a case of discrimination in his constituency, he might like to send me the details. I added that I knew, from experience of reporting on discrimination in Britain, that such cases were notoriously difficult to prove.

Within days, Gerry had arrived at the Observer with an attache case full of files, and gave me a crash course on the politics of Northern Ireland. He insisted, and would brook no resistance, that I should travel to Belfast.

There we met a young MP at Stormont, Austin Currie, who had recently occupied a council house in his constituency because it had been allocated to a single girl who was a Protestant, rather than to a much more needy Catholic family. He explained that this was a common occurrence and the political reasons for it.

We'd finished this part of our business when Gerry said: "Right, now we're going to Derry." I protested that I had plenty of material for my article. Besides, I wanted to get back to London for a first night at the Old Vic. Some chance. We had to go to Derry, he said, it was the very heart of discrimination. We set off across the Sperrins, across Craigavon Bridge, and landed at the old City Hotel.

Gerry swaggered off into Guildhall Square and rounded up a group of people involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. They told us there was a march planned for the following Saturday, but it would almost certainly be banned.

Derry being Derry, and not at that time known for its militancy, it was most unlikely that people would defy the ban. As we were leaving, one of the group said: "Come back on Saturday. There'll be something to write about."

I already knew that there was something to write about. Back in London, at an editorial conference in the Observer, I tried to describe the poverty I had seen, to explain how Catholics in Derry and elsewhere were deprived of houses in order to rig the voting system.

This was a great liberal newspaper where Neal Ascherson wrote of political oppression in Eastern Europe and Colin Legum reported on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Not one of them knew about the discrimination which existed in this part of the United Kingdom, just an hour's flight from London.

It is almost impossible now to convey the totally effective barrier of ignorance which surrounded the North. The convention in Britain was that parliament could not intervene. This meant that even Gerry Fitt's valiant attempts to arouse political interest were confined mainly to Labour MPs.

Government ministers knew of the situation but thought it best to leave relatively well alone. Northern Ireland was looked after by a small subsection of the Home Office which, among its other responsibilities, dealt with the allocation of licences to London taxis.

The main demand of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement was the same rights for the citizens of Belfast as for the citizens of Birmingham. It gave the march on October 5th a brilliantly simple focus. Those were still innocent days and most people like myself had never seen a police baton raised in anger.

Now, in Derry on October 5th, there were truncheons crashing in sickening fashion on to unprotected skulls and the water cannon rolled like tanks down the narrow streets. Even now, 30 years and so many deaths later, I can still remember the terrified face of a young man who was brought into the cafe in Duke Street where I was trying to phone copy, blood spurting from a wound in his head.

Some people believe that October 5th, 1968, in Derry was the spark which lit the conflagration that was to follow. It certainly broke the barrier of silence which had maintained Northern Ireland as a political isolation ward since the foundation of the state.

It also allowed a brief breathing space which, if the British government had moved with sufficient resolution to push through reforms, just might have averted the tragic conflict that followed.

There isn't space here to ponder that conundrum, to consider the paranoid intransigence of the unionists and the re-emergence of militant nationalism. But we do know that the politicians in London and Dublin, who knew the scale of injustice that existed, faltered at the enormous challenge of instituting reform.

The media failed to exert the campaigning pressure that just might have helped to bring about change. In those early days, contrary to what many people think now, Northern Ireland was not fashionable.

There were more important events happening in the world than the weekly civil rights march in Northern Ireland, even when followed by a small riot. The TV cameras moved on. Before a dinner party in London the hostess said to me, gently but firmly: "You're not going to spend the evening being an Ulster bore."

Some of my more faithful readers may be tempted to reply that I've done little else for the past 30 years. If so, I beg their indulgence for this latest piece of self-indulgent nostalgia. Just very occasionally, perhaps, it is permissible for us to remember how long the conflict in the North has been with us and the burden of grief it has left behind, in order to strengthen our resolve that there must be no going back to the past.