John Hume rightly re­fused to march on Oc­to­ber 5th

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis - Har­ris Eoghan Har­ris

MOST of you don’t know John Hume de­clined to take part in the Oc­to­ber 5, 1968, march in Derry which is now ac­cepted as the start of the civil rights strug­gle.

Most of you also don’t know he did so for the best of rea­sons, sur­mis­ing pre­sciently that rad­i­cals like Ea­monn McCann would not re­strain ri­ot­ers.

Thanks to his po­lit­i­cal and rhetor­i­cal skills, not to men­tion his end­less en­ergy, McCann’s nar­ra­tive of the civil rights move­ment has blurred the bat­tle for con­trol of the civil rights move­ment from 1966-70.

On one side was the lead­er­ship of the North­ern Ire­land Civil Rights As­so­ci­a­tion (NICRA) who wanted peace­ful marches to re­form the state of North­ern Ire­land without chal­leng­ing its con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion.

On the other side were rad­i­cals like McCann, of the Derry Hous­ing Ac­tion Com­mit­tee (DHAC), and Michael Far­rell, of Peo­ple’s Democ­racy, who be­lieved the state was sec­tar­ian be­yond re­form and wanted to bring it crash­ing down.

But at least Ea­monn McCann is en­ti­tled to claim credit — as he has done with some gusto — for the suc­cess­ful provo­ca­tion of the po­lice in Duke Street and the ba­ton charges that sent bloody tele­vi­sion im­ages all over the world.

He is equally en­ti­tled to de­ri­sively dis­miss De­clan Kear­ney’s re­cent at­tempt to re-write his­tory and claim a role in civil rights for the Pro­vi­sional IRA.

McCann rightly re­called that the repub­li­cans who pro­moted a peace­ful path to civil rights were those led by Cathal Gould­ing who loathed those who be­came the Pro­vi­sion­als.

“It’s sim­ply a mat­ter of his­tor­i­cal record that peo­ple like Eoghan Har­ris and the then chief of staff of the IRA, Cathal Gould­ing, were ad­vo­cat­ing the three-stage the­ory of the Ir­ish rev­o­lu­tion — the first stage of which was win­ning democ­racy in the North,” he said.

Cathal Gould­ing was a ma­jor pres­ence at the meet­ing of Wolfe Tone So­ci­eties in Au­gust 1966 at the farm of Kevin Agnew in Maghera, Co Derry.

At the meet­ing, I read a doc­u­ment set­ting out the strat­egy for a civil rights cam­paign that would not chal­lenge the con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion of North­ern Ire­land so as to se­cure pro­gres­sive union­ist sup­port.

Gould­ing warned that this peace­ful strat­egy would fall apart “at the first sound of a bomb or a bul­let”.

Apart from Gould­ing, the most im­por­tant per­son present was the Belfast IRA leader, Liam McMil­lan, a real repub­li­can (later mur­dered by the INLA) who loy­ally im­ple­mented Gould­ing’s in­struc­tion to keep the IRA back from NICRA lest it be ac­cused of hav­ing a hid­den agenda.

A few months later, the first meet­ing of the North­ern Ire­land Civil Rights As­so­ci­a­tion was held in Belfast’s In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel on Jan­uary 29, 1967.

The late Liam Clarke of The Sun­day Times re­called that Liam McMil­lan had enough mem­bers to pack the ex­ec­u­tive but held back so it would be broadly based.

Broadly based it was. As well as lead­ing com­mu­nists like Betty Sin­clair it in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Young Union­ists, Cam­paign for So­cial Jus­tice, the North­ern Ire­land Labour Party, and the Ul­ster Lib­er­als.

Sadly, like the de­ranged Peter Berry in the Repub­lic’s Depart­ment of Jus­tice, stupid union­ism saw Gould­ing’s non-sec­tar­ian repub­li­cans and Sin­clair’s mod­er­ate com­mu­nists as dan­ger­ous rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies when they were sim­ply so­cial­ists seek­ing civil rights.

Gould­ing and Sin­clair were also sym­pa­thetic to the work of the Con­nolly As­so­ci­a­tion in the UK which, un­der Des­mond Greaves and Tony Cough­lan, had ed­u­cated the Bri­tish Labour Party on the case for civil rights in North­ern Ire­land.

The re­sult of their pa­tient lob­by­ing was seen when Gerry Fitt was elected MP for West Belfast in 1966.

Fitt was wel­comed to the House of Com­mons by a large co­hort of Labour MPs who wanted Stor­mont re­formed, not abol­ished.

In sum, both the Gould­ing repub­li­cans and Sin­clair com­mu­nists who backed NICRA had a mod­er­ate de­mand: Bri­tish rights for Bri­tish cit­i­zens.

Not so the Derry rad­i­cals and Trot­skyites led by Ea­monn McCann who had a rev­o­lu­tion­ary agenda.

The ten­sions be­tween them and the NICRA lead­er­ship came to a head in Duke Street, Derry, on Oc­to­ber 5, 1968.

Ear­lier, Ea­monn McCann and the DHAC had per­suaded the Belfast­based NICRA lead­er­ship to spon­sor a march which would provoca­tively go through Derry’s walls, seen as Protes­tant turf.

This was a bit of a fast one as Betty Sin­clair from Belfast didn’t know Derry and missed the sig­nif­i­cance of the route un­til the march was banned.

John Hume saw the dan­ger of rousing sec­tar­ian dragons, ad­vised against it and de­clined to at­tend.

Betty Sin­clair and the NICRA lead­er­ship tried to call off the march but were forced to give in when McCann and his com­rades said they would go ahead.

At Duke Street, the RUC gave Ivan Cooper a loud-hailer to read out the civil rights de­mands to the demon­stra­tors — but said the march could go no fur­ther.

Betty Sin­clair, a brave Protes­tant who had been jailed for sedi­tion in the 1940s, was no faint heart. But she knew the dan­gers of open­ing the Pan­dora’s box.

She con­grat­u­lated the crowd on their good be­hav­iour and asked them to go home. Too late.

Be­cause, as McCann re­cently re­called with pride on tele­vi­sion, the aim of the Derry rad­i­cals was “to pro­voke the po­lice into over­re­ac­tion”.

The RUC made that easy. Af­ter a few plac­ards were thrown at the po­lice, they re­sponded with ba­ton charges and wa­ter can­non.

Gay O’Brien, of RTE, recorded the in­deli­ble im­ages that went around the world. But even then the sit­u­a­tion might still have been saved.

In De­cem­ber 1968, Ter­ence O’Neill, the union­ist prime min­is­ter, squeezed be­tween the rock of NICRA and the hard place of Harold Wil­son’s Labour govern­ment (well briefed by the Con­nolly As­so­ci­a­tion), con­ceded most of NICRA’s de­mands — and asked for breath­ing space.

The NICRA ex­ec­u­tive re­sponded re­spon­si­bly by call­ing for a mora­to­rium on marches while O’Neill’s re­forms were re­viewed.

But at this crit­i­cal point Peo­ple’s Democ­racy, a Trot­skyite stu­dent group led by Ea­monn McCann, Ber­nadette Devlin and Michael Far­rell, de­cided to march from Belfast to Derry in Jan­uary 1969.

The NICRA lead­er­ship rightly saw the march as a point­less provo­ca­tion.

Liam Clarke summed up: “The stu­dents’ courage was un­de­ni­able, but their ac­tions helped raise the sec­tar­ian tem­per­a­ture.”

On the back of Burn­tol­let, the Peo­ple’s Democ­racy put the mod­er­ate NICRA lead­ers un­der pres­sure, Michael Far­rell and Kevin Boyle were elected to the NICRA ex­ec­u­tive — and pro­posed march­ing through Protes­tant East Belfast!

Betty Sin­clair saw this could only end in sec­tar­ian ri­ot­ing and she and two oth­ers re­signed from the NICRA lead­er­ship.

The fol­low­ing year the Pro­vi­sional IRA rose from the sec­tar­ian ri­ots and NICRA was pushed aside.

Could civil rights have been con­ceded without blood­shed? Prob­a­bly not: nei­ther side wanted peace enough. The Peo­ple’s Democ­racy got it wrong. The so­ci­ety, not the state, was sec­tar­ian.

‘The Provo IRA rose from the sec­tar­ian ri­ots and a peace­ful civil rights agenda was pushed aside’

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