Irish president Michael D Higgins is to address an event in Londonderry today for the 50th anniversary of a pivotal civil rights march that historians believe marked the beginning of the Troubles.
On October 5, 1968, a crowd of civil rights protestors demanding electoral, housing, and employment reform were met at Duke Street in Londonderry’s Waterside with a baton charge by RUC officers.
Further demonstrations and counter demonstrations followed in the weeks and months ahead, and the security situation in Northern Ireland began to slip out of control.
A series of events to mark the 50th anniversary have been planned.
Sinn Fein have organised a march along the original route to take place today that they say will “carry on the march for civil rights”.
The pro-life campaign group Precious Life, however, have announced a plan to picket the Sinn Fein-organised rally over the party’s stance on abortion.
Precious Life director Bernadette Smyth said: “They claim they are marching for civil rights and equality. Yet Sinn Féin want to deny any equality or any rights for unborn children in Ireland.”
Sinn Fein has also faced criticism for what one of the leading organisers of the 1968 march, Eamonn McCann, described as “their claim on the civil rights movement and the civil rights demands”.
Mr McCann said: “I know that many people who were involved in the civil rights movement 50 years ago are deeply resentful of the fact that these people can come along, after all this time, and parade through the town as the inheritors of the civil rights tradition.”
President Higgins, meanwhile, is to deliver the keynote speech at an event organised by the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee at Londonderry’s Guildhall.
He is expected to argue that the civil rights movement’s emphasis on non-violence and collective action was an example then, and can be an example today.
The Irish president is also expected to place the events in Londonderry 50 years ago within the context of other campaigns in the late 1960s around the world.
Throughout the weekend there will be talks from figures such as Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Lord Alf Dubs, and Michael Mansfield.