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Editorial 30 years ago

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Thirty years ago this week, a small group of civil rights marchers gathered on the east side of Derry, intending to march across the Craigavon Bridge into the city center, hoping to draw attention to the discrimination in jobs, housing and voting rights from which Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority suffered. But it was meant to be a non-sectarian demonstration. That was why they chose the city’s east side, which was mainly Protestant, for their starting point. And crossing the bridge, of course, separating the Protestant streets from the mainly Catholic areas of the Bogside and Creggan, would be a symbolic journey bringing the two sides together.

Instead, the event turned out to be the first steps on a nightmare journey of violence, destruction and despair that came to be known to the world as "The Troubles".

The march was held under the auspices of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded in January of the previous year. NICRA had already held its first march, between Coalisland and Dungannon, in County Tyrone, in August 1968. In fact, the NICRA had been reluctant to sponsor the Derry march, believing that it was in danger of being hijacked by local left-wing militants. These fears increased when the minister of home affairs, William Craig, banned the march and that of the local Apprentice Boys — hastily scheduled to conflict with that of the demonstrators — on Oct. 3. The NICRA did not want confrontation. But the Derry organizers did, as they themselves admitted. After all, they were imbued with the fires of the Summer of ’68, when the French students joined with the working class to challenge the might of the Gaullist state with the threat of revolution.

The television news pictures of what happened on that afternoon in October 30 years ago has been played over and over. Television became an important activist in the situation, and the pictures of the police with their batons wailing into peaceful demonstrators had as shocking an impact on the British as television pictures from the front line in Vietnam had on Americans. Northern Ireland would never be the same.

Many people were alive that day who would soon be dead as a result of what happened in Derry on Oct. 5. No one foresaw the consequences of the marchers’ defiance of the police order. Thirty years later, we are still trying to evaluate them. But few would argue that many, if not most, were unnecessary. Unionists demonized the civil rights movement as an IRA front partly because they did not want to deal with the legitimate demands that it raised. In doing so, they created the very thing they feared most. Civil rights activists pushed the moderate Unionist leader, Terence O’Neill, into a direct confrontation with his own right wing. He lost, precipitating the crisis of August 1969. These actions hardened attitudes on both sides, and exploited communal fears, making compromise more and more difficult. The result was three decades of bloodshed and a mauled and mutilated society, out of which the Northern Irish people are still trying to emerge.

It is always easy to find lessons in history, and to make wise judgments on events long after they have occurred. But in the end, those who wanted to maintain injustices and those who wanted to engineer confrontation conspired to bring about the Troubles. As a result, far greater wrongs were perpetrated in the years that followed than were ever imagined by that little band of civil rights marchers, huddled together on that gray autumn afternoon in Derry. It is to be hoped that the peace process, in the spirit of compromise that was so lacking in 1968, will now ensure that those tragedies will never be repeated.

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