Sunday 20 October 2019

Eoghan Harris: John Hume rightly refused to march on October 5th

Eoghan 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 Belfast-based 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 over-reaction".

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.

Sunday Independent

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