Civil Rights: Then & Now (SDLP Event)

Queens University, Belfast and Students Union Building where the SDLP Youth hosted a panel discussion “Civil Rights: Then & Now”. (Monday 19th February).

SDLP was of course not formed until 1970, after the Civil Rights Movement began. But founder members, John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Paddy O’Hanlon were first elected to Stormont as Independents in February 1969, on the basis of their involvement with the movement. Other founder members, Austin Currie (elected prior to 1969 as a Nationalist), Gerry Fitt (elected prior to 1969as Republican Labour), Paddy Devlin (elected first in 1969 as NI Labour) . Paddy Wilson (Republican Labour) and Claude Wilton (Liberal) were both senators who had been involved.

Members of other parties, specifically Sinn Féin will claim that they were involved in the Civil Rights movement …they have a Forrest Gump-like capacity for air-brushing themselves into History. But serious observers will generally regard SDLP as the “civil rights” party.

Some observations. My first march for Civil Rights was from QUB to the city centre. It was Monday 7th October 1968. I was just 16 years old and my Politics class bunked off school to go see the excitement. It was two days after the RUC brutality at a march in Derry.

The QUB march was led by an English student who would later become famous as a BBC journalist. If I ever meet you privately, we can discuss him.

The march never got past Dublin Road. My part of the march never got past Shaftsbury Square and with a loada Sandy Row loyalists watching, I and others thought it best to slip away.

There was maybe three distinct phases to the Norn Iron Civil Rights story. While everyone can recall the slogan “One Man, One Vote” it was much broader than that. It was about discrimination in the distribution of council housing, jobs etc to Catholics. It was about being a second class citizen. Brid Rodgers, who celebrates her 83rd birthday today was a member of the NICRA Executive and she recalled examples of discrimination in housing. And jobs. She came to Lurgan in 1960 ,a 46% Catholic town with a gerrymandered council …all unionist. A place where ONE Catholic was employed at the swimming pool and just another 25,all  in “outside” jobs. I think most poignantly she spoke about the acceptance, a cowered and beaten population who just accepted thats how things are.

As a teen in West Belfast in the 1960s, I am familiar with that. So was former Irish President, Mary McAleese in North Belfast, who has spoken about it…that strange acceptance of it all. I can never fully explain it to younger people. Half a century ago but it seems like several lifetimes.

Brid was dismissive of the revisionism and especially Sinn Féin’s claiming a role. SF are of course as shameless as they are ruthless. But simply put, they were not there. NICRA had nationalist, lefty, independent, even communist membership. “Republican Clubs” which was an Official Sinn Féin cover name (they later morphed into the Workers Party) were involved. Personally I have no time for the Stickies….due to an incident in 1974, involving their armed wing, the Official IRA, a revolver and my mouth.

So to be clear the “Provisional Sinn Féin” movement which emerged after 1969, had nothing to do with NICRA. Indeed veteran physical force republicans had left the movement in the early 1960s because it had gone “too political”. They are Gerry-Come-Latelys.

As I see it the first phase is probably the marches, mostly peaceful occasionally not so peaceful. It is about baton-wielding RUC men and loyalist counter demonstration. All against a background of a so-called liberal Unionist Prime Minister taking tea with mother superiors in convent schools  and battling against the hard-line element in his own Party.

O’Neill had gone in February 1969. He called a General Election to get the backing for his reforms but lost. The Unionists were split between pr0 and anti O’Neill. The Nationalist Party was eclipsed by the Civil Righters who would form SDLP.

In August 1969, the Troubles broke out. For me, the Civil Rights campaign ended there. The genie was out of that bottle.

Internment in August 1971 and Bloody Sunday (that was a Civil Rights march led by Ivan Cooper)  in January 1972 emphasised the point that we were beyond both street marches and parliamentary procedures.

The Official Sinn Féin/Republican Clubs element in the movement were discredited by their Official IRA violence. The Peoples Democracy “student” element just graduated and started playing golf or whatever young lefties do when they graduate.

Does Provisional Sinn Féin (in early 1970s really nothing more than the non combatant relatives of IRA prisoners) trace their involvement in Civil Rights to that period after Bloody Sunday?

Dominic Hannigan was the first openly gay member of the Irish Parliament. The former Labour TD for Meath East spoke briefly about his own coming out, his acceptance within politics, his election and the gradual acceptance of LGBT Rights within Irish Society, culminating in Ireland being at the forefront of these rights with the 2015 Referendum on Equal Marriage.

He noted that the wave built up has faltered and that this years Referendum on Abortion (Repeal the Eighth) may lose that momentum.

It was a curious contribution. Not least because he claimed that there were 2,000 members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party members anxious to join with SDLP to develop progressive politics. It was a ridiculous statement and should have been challenged from the floor, rather than in private conversations afterwards. But SDLP have a depressing record in inviting speakers from outside the Party to talk nonsense.

Paul McCusker, the impressive SDLP councillor from North Belfast spoke about the homeless situation as an abuse of civil rights. His constituency has the highest suicide rate in Britain and Ireland and a lot of drug related deaths. Life Expectancy, quality of life suffers.

Along with Equal Marriage, which DUP opposes, Homelessness is the civil rights issue of our times.

After all, the event was called “Civil Rights: Then and Now”.

Surprisingly perhaps, I recall no mention of the American Civil Rights movement, especially as 2018 marks fifty years since the murder of Martin Luther King. Maybe its just me but in 1968, I saw our local problem in that tradition.

Yet old men like me in Newry and Derry or slightly older men in Alabama and Mississippi had very precise ideas about the nature of civil rights THEN. A strong religion-based sense of morality influenced the Baptists in the Old South and the strong tradition of Western European Christian and post-Christian morality influenced NICRA and certainly SDLP.

The marchers from the 1960s in Newry, Derry, Alabama and Mississippi have no real problem with Civil Rights evolving. Few if any would have a problem with Equal Marriage….it is just generational.

Few sloganising “One Man, One Vote” (it implied women of course) on the Falls Road in 1968 would have believed wewould be talking in 2018 about extending the franchise to 16 year olds. Sometimes the best thing for 65 year old men to do is accept it all.

But one thing that is central to SDLP thinking… is a “pro-life” party and we are moving towards the point where the issue of Abortion or “Womens Reproductive Rights” has to be grasped.

Politics is increasingly generational. Only the ex-Labour TD mentioned it but to me it was the elephant in the room.

It is a difficult issue, not just for Catholics but for people of any faith.

The collapse of Catholic Church authority in the Republic of Ireland has allowed a mature debate to take place later this year. As a Republican, I believe in the primacy of the State over any special interest, including a Church. But equally I see the dilemna of perceived conflicting rights.

Norn Iron lacks the maturity for that debate.

The church-based DUP and conservative UUP will never agree to Abortion. Alliance Party (not my favourite Party by any means) has to its credit a better kind of liberal churchiness. SDLP cant alienate its socially conservative Catholic vote….while Sinn Féin and Greens are pro-choice.

The younger socially liberal element in SDLP scored a major success a few years ago with getting Equal Marriage into party policy. In fact, they were pushing at an open door. Few oldies really have a problem with it.

But youthful impatience to get a pro-choice agenda into mainstream SDLP thinking might be counter-productive. It might be tempting for young party member to take a minibus in Dublin to wave pro-choice placards and get selfies with leading progressive figures. In so doing they might claim to be acting in a personal capacity. But really that would be a hard sell. Better to sit this one out. Last year, SDLP lost three Belfast councillors over an “abortion-related” issue.

Sometimes Discretion is the  better part of Valour.

As we possibly move towards Direct Rule frrom Westminster ….the issues of Equal Marriage and Abortion might be solved by a stroke of a pen by a British politician. DUP would not be the only party to be glad to pass responsibility and blame.

Thats where SDLP is with “Civil Rights: Then and Now” .

Civil Rights 1968 made the Party. Civil Rights 2018 could break the Party.





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5 Responses to Civil Rights: Then & Now (SDLP Event)

  1. Vince says:

    Civil rights apply equally to the unborn child, perhaps even more so given the vulnerability and inability to speak for themselves. And so for others – the ill, infirm, elderly, those with disabilities, and yes, the poor and homeless. A society should surely be judged by how it treats the most vulnerable in its midst? I hope the SDLP don’t change their pro-life stance – it isn’t easy, trendy or populist but it is right.

  2. Deborah in Dublin says:

    Thank you for that account. Most interesting.

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