Reform or Revolution? Civil Rights Debated

Reform or Revolution? – that was the question debated at The Workers’ Party Northern Ireland Regional Conference on October 4th. The conference saw a panel discussion and question and answer session involving Des O’Hagan (WP), a founder member of NICRA, Professor Paddy Murphy, one of the organisers of the student protest marches against the ban on the Republican Clubs in 1967 and the author of NICRA’s official history from 1978, and Mary Gray of the Communist Party, standing in for Edwina Stewart, who was unable to attend.

Paddy Murphy opened the debate with an analysis of the origins and the effects of the Civil Rights campaign. He saw its origins in two disparate elements. The first was the 1947 Education Act, which opened the way for the rise of a new and more articulate generation, better able to challenge the unionist regime than the old Nationalist Party. It was the students of this generation who mounted the first protest march for civil rights, when they marched to City Hall (at the request of the police instead of Bill Craig’s house) in protest at the march 1967 ban on the Republican Clubs, and secured the support of 1,500 out of 5,000 students for the rigt of the QUB Republican Club to exist. The other element was the failure of the Border Campaign, and the turn towards socialism and political and social agitation by the Republican Movement under Cathal Goulding. The new strategy required that republicans be able to organise politically, and so they followed the civil rights strategy as meeting both these aims. He also talked about the oher influences on the civil rights campaign, such as the Mc Cluskeys and the Campaign for Social Justice, the British Parliamentary Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, and the culture of the time, with protests in America, France and elsewhere.

Addressing the question of reform or revolution, he urged people to look at where we are now. The civil rights movement had been killed by the sectarian violence. He argued that the state had not been reformed, but re-formed, into a different sectarian state – with two sectarian parties, not one. He argued that though things were different, and in some senses better, we got counter-revolution as opposed to the progressive aims of NICRA.

Mary Gray read a statement from Edwina Stewart, and recalled her own experiences of being involved in NICRA marches in Armagh, and in the discussion raised the question of civil rights for women in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK, especially regarding the issue of abortion, and she spoke about the activities of the Alliance for Choice.

Des O’Hagan also talked about the Butler Act allowing working-class children such as himself better access to education, the importance of non-violence and anti-sectarianism to NICRA and for today, and condemned the ultra-leftist adventurist element in the civil rights movement. He also recounted how those interested in terrorist violence regarded NICRA as an obstruction, and wanted it out of the way, explaining their opposition to it in things like the Northern Resistance Movement. The civil rights movement he reminded the audience was about democratising the state, and thus utterly changing its nature.

Eamon Melaugh was the first speaker during the debate. He spoke of how he had been determined that something like October 5th was always going to happen, and that he would not leave the legacy of apathy and indifference to his children that had been left to him. He talked about how his family had been the victims of sectarian intimidation in Belfast in 1933, and of how the poor conditions he was agitating against affected Protestants as well as Catholics. He described how he selected the route of the march into the Diamond knowing that it would be banned, and that it was likely that the marchers would be attacked by the police – but he stressed at the time and again at the conference that the marchers would not be responsible for the violence. He believed that the arrogance and strength of the unionist regime would prove its achilles heel. And so it had. He spoke of the attempts made to write him and others like Brigid Bond out of the anniversary and the story of the civil rights campaign. He also spoke of his pride in combatting sectarian unionism and nationalism in the years after the civil rights campaign, and of how sectarianism remained the main problem in our society, a point echoed by the other speakers in the debate and by the panellists. Paddy Murphy made the telling point that there is no right not to hold a religious view in the current set-up in NI, and that this was a violation of civil rights.

The morning of the conference had begun with a discussion of the future of the left in NI ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, with a panel of Justin O’Hagan (WP), Martin Stroud (British Labour group in NI), and Ciaran Mulholland of the Socialist Party. A good deal of the debate naturally focused on the current economic crisis and its possible implications for the left. The panellists and those participating in the debate stressed the need for as much left cooperation as possible, while recognising that differences would remain. The possibility of a left candidate in the European elections was discussed, and Ciaran Mulholland spoke about the SP’s vision of how a new left party could come about in the future. The panel debated the role of the trade unions, and whether it was time for them to become more politically engaged. All agreed that left cooperation around strong social democratic demands at the least were essential to engage working people in left politics, and to reactivate the old Northern Ireland Labour Party constituency. The conference was also addressed by Noel Carillo, Cuban Ambassador to Ireland, who spoke about the devestation wrought by the recent hurricanes, and the government’s efforts to restoer the country, and the need for solidarity. A social night in aid of Cuba will be held in the Lower Falls Social and Recreational Club on October 18th.

The conference was a wide-ranging one, dealing with issues of both historical and immediate importance for progressive politics in NI, and on the island as a whole. It finished with presentations by Tomás Mac Giolla to some of those involved in the civil rights campaign – Eamon Melaugh (see photo above), Eugene Little, Edwina Stewart (accepted by Mary Gray), and in memory of Brigid Bond and Paddy Douglas, the footage of whom being struck unprovoked by the RUC on October 5th became emblematic not only of the day itself, but of the nature of the unionist regime.

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6 Responses to “Reform or Revolution? Civil Rights Debated”

  1. Redking Says:

    Interesting post Garibaldy-sounds like a great conference. Good to see oul Eamonn looking well. What he said about stalwarts like Brigid Bond and himself being written out of the history of the civl rights era is only too true and is outrageous.

    For me, I think there has to be more scrutiny of the role of the proto-Provos in undermining the non-sectarian ethos of civil rights. As we know their actions were counter-revolutionary and set a pattern for subsequent events. I feel the possibilities of 1966-70 have not been fully debated widely. The question posed “revolution or reform” is a central one for the Left. The revolutionary potential of the reform of the state was widely dismissed by the proto-Provos at the time, but it was the correct way forward. Instead we had a reactionary sectarian campaign the proponents of which are now ensconced in Stormont as “our” leaders. Galling isn’t the word….

  2. garibaldy Says:

    It was a very enjoyable conference, and as usual some great politics both from the various people on the panel and from the floor. There has indeed been a lot of writing people out, though a short pamphlet has just been published on the Republican role in the civil rights movement by The WP.

    I think that the role of the proto-Provos is worth scrutinising, but the problem with the current emphasis on writing and speaking about NICRA is that the reactionary nature of much of unionism is being written out. For example, we hear a lot about civil rights people being provocative, and next to nothing from the same people on Paisleyite attempts to rachet up the tension, by trying to ensure civil rights marches were banned by organising counter-demonstrations, which began well before October 5th, with the student marches in favour of the right of the QUB Republican Club to exist. Paddy Murphy said something vital that echoes your point about 1966-70, when he said that during 1970 and much of 1971, the United Irishman was the main way people in working class areas of a non-unionist persuasion found out what was happening. This was of course reflected in the harassment of UI sellers by the forces of the state, with pressure coming from the very top (and of course harassment from reactionary elements in nationalism too). A reformist programme destroyed the old Stormont regime. Health care in America would revolutionize millions of lives. We cannot understimate the importance of reform, I agree. Marx was very clear on this very question, even if some of his supposed followers have been much sillier.

  3. “Makes Me Ashamed to be an Academic”. Harsh. But Fair? « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] Melaugh has spoken just this weekend of the attempts to write him and others out of the story of October 5th. And […]

  4. Baku26 Says:

    Good blog

  5. garibaldy Says:

    Cheers Baku.

  6. mark melaugh Says:

    eamon was right from the sixtys the ira got it wrong after advice from eamon good on you

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