Michael D Higgins lauds civil rights protestors

The Irish president has said the reconciling vision and courage of Northern Ireland’s civil rights leaders should be embraced on the 50th anniversary of protest bloodshed.

For some, the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s use of violence at Duke Street in Londonderry marked the start of decades of conflict.

President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D Higgins

Peaceful protesters seeking rights like one man, one vote, and the fair allocation of public housing were assaulted with batons.

President Michael D Higgins gave an award to one of the founders of the movement, Ivan Cooper, and applauded after St Columcille’s Ladies Choir sang the protest songs of the time.

He said: “The 5th of October march galvanised the movement for civil rights in Ireland.”

He added: “I add my own thanks to Ivan, as President of Ireland, for the courage, the leadership and the dedication to the cause of justice - justice in all its forms - that he has demonstrated throughout his political career.”

Derry in 1968 was a Catholic and nationalist city, administered for decades by a Protestant and Unionist majority, the President noted.

Dozens of people, including the MP Gerry Fitt, were injured when the protest march backed by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association entered an area declared prohibited by then unionist minister of Home Affairs William Craig.

Nobel peace prize winner John Hume rescued the wounded and went on to become a statesman who helped end the IRA’s violent campaign decades later.

Mr Higgins said: “As we assemble today let us, above all, recall the vision of John Hume, so rooted in the experience of the Civil Rights movement.

“A vision of a shared Ireland, one that recognises the unionist and nationalist traditions, one that is capable of reconciling communities, one that, North and South, preserves human dignity and vindicates and expands fundamental human rights - in the economic, cultural and social spheres.

“If we remain true to that vision, we can not only sustain peace on our island, but can, together, confront the shared challenges of the future with confidence and courage.”

He said the Civil Rights movement was the crucible from which Mr Hume emerged as a national and international politician.

“He dedicated his political life to realising its programme, and later, its wider emancipatory potential.”

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association’s leadership came from a diverse and broad cross-section of backgrounds, including Catholics, Protestants, unionists and republicans, socialists and trade unionists.

The president said they were united in their determination to combat the deep inequalities which scarred Northern Ireland - inequalities in housing, voting, and policing.

The association demanded the principle of “one person, one vote”, an end to gerrymandering, elimination of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs and housing, the repeal of the Special Powers Act, and the disbandment of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Police violence against the Duke Street civil rights march prompted “euphoria” among participants, one of the organisers said.

Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh said the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s (RUC) use of batons in Londonderry 50 years ago helped galvanise the movement and brought about far-reaching change.

The “bubble” of rising resentment surrounding perceived injustices against Catholics in areas like the allocation of public housing had burst in Derry.

He said: “After the batons came out things could not be the same again.”

Mr O’Dochartaigh said he knew that there was going to be trouble at Duke Street, on the eastern bank of the River Foyle which divides the city.

“I certainly expected it, I wore a crash helmet.”

He added: “The bubble was going to burst somewhere and it broke here in Derry.”

He took part in a debate on the legacy of the march for rights like one man, one vote, which was held at the city’s Guildhall.

Mr O’ Dochartaigh said: “I knew that we were no longer defeated, I knew inside me despair would dissipate and I hoped possibly the civil rights movement could not just change the laws but help to change the economy and men would no longer be on the dole.”

Veteran socialist and former Stormont Assembly member Eamonn McCann said nobody consciously or deliberately prompted the trouble, or expected events to take the trajectory which they did.

He recalled: “I knew that something huge had just happened but I was not sure what it was.”

Erskine Holmes, then a teacher without any criminal convictions and a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, said the police were wrongly convinced the protesters were associated with the IRA.

He said the RUC cordon was initially thin and the officers stood with arms linked. It did not take long for batons to come out.

He ended up under a police officer’s arm and only avoided being hit with a baton because an RTE camera crew was present.

Mr Holmes recalled: “Once that door bangs, you are inside a police cell, you realise you are in a different position to where you have ever been in your life.”

Mr Holmes speculated that an insult hurled at police by then MP Gerry Fitt during a previous protest in Co Tyrone had marked him out for trouble.

He said Northern Ireland was different from protests in Paris and elsewhere.

“It is that primal feeling that the police represent the state and they want to live in a different state,” he said.

Meanwhile, a parade organised by Sinn Fein recreated the original march carrying banners and singing songs. They carried placards protesting against Brexit and calling for LGBT rights.