Bernadette McAliskey, Sinn Fein and civil rights
10 February 2018
In early February, writing a platform piece in Belfast’s Irish News, Bernadette McAliskey reacted to Sinn Fein claims that they had led the early civil rights struggle. She was absolutely right to slap down these absurd claims by a group that was not formed until years later. However much of the debate around civil rights is as relevant today as it was then and Socialist Democracy member John McAnulty has added his own comments below.
Setting the record straight
Bernadette McAliskey in Platform (reprinted from Irish News 9/2/18)
In August 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organised its first march from Coalisland to Dungannon. On February 6 1972, Nicra organised what was effectively its last civil rights march, in Newry, to protest the State killing of unarmed civilians taking part in the Derry march on what became Bloody Sunday.
Nicra was formed by people who were members of political parties and groups who united, despite other differences, to collectively campaign for basic reforms which they believed would provide basic equality of citizenship within the political structures of the north.
Founding members were drawn from the Northern Ireland Liberal Party; N. Ireland Labour Party; Republican Labour Party; Communist Party of Ireland; Nationalist Party and the various Republican Clubs, which were the northern membership of Sinn Féin (headquartered in Gardiner Place, Dublin).
The Nicra ‘strapline’ was ‘non-violent; non-sectarian; non-political’.
At that time there was no Provisional Sinn Féin/IRA, no SDLP, no IRSP, no Alliance party, no TUV, no People before Profit, no Green Party, no DUP either. Except for the Unionist party all the political parties currently making up Stormont are post-Nicra and are a product of the fragmentation of the Unionist Party on the one hand, the Nationalist Party and Republican Movement on the other and the emergence of different political configurations whose starting point is not necessarily the constitutional status of N. Ireland.
Nicra’s basic agenda was one family, one house; one man (sic), one vote; one man, one job; an end to gerrymandering (electoral boundaries which created the housing/ voting problem) and an end to the Special Powers Act, which effectively criminalised any opposition, however peaceful, to Stormont policy and practice and to the constitutional position.
These demands for fair distribution and equal access were so modest that, while supporting them, the more radical and impatient voices of youth, including my own, pushed for more through the People’s Democracy and other small radical/socialist groupings. There was insufficient housing, so equality of distribution was not, to my mind, enough. There was insufficient work for decent wages, so distribution of existing work was not enough.
The response of the N.I. administration at Stormont and of the UK government in London to the demand for equality of access to democracy; equality of social and economic opportunity and an end to repression, was to increase repression in the hope of silencing the demand and to further reduce the opportunity to effect change through democratic and due process.
They bear the brunt of historic responsibility for the period between 1972 and 1998. From 1998 onwards responsibility, like power, lies closer to home and is shared by those with the duty of managing and administering shared government, a duty they actively sought, negotiated and seek to maintain, and from which, with deliberation, they seek to exclude others.
Fifty years on from 1968, emergency legislation remains on the statute books. People are still imprisoned without fair trial. The housing crisis – overcrowding, homelessness and social exclusion – are all greater now than in 1968.
The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, created in 1971 to address fair allocation of Social Housing based on need and to redress the shortage of affordable homes, has been decimated, starved of resources and stripped of assets.
There can be no equal opportunity in employment where those in work earn insufficient wages to adequately feed themselves and their families and pay rent to an on unregulated private sector or inappropriately regulated social sector.
An examination of collective conscience on how the damage done over 50 years by the actions of the State and those employed to do their bidding officially, and as we now know furtively, within the militarist organisations on all sides of the conflict is to be addressed and truth and justice extracted from and secured for those who have now girded themselves with the belt of peace.
Without openness, transparency, accountability and participation in decision making, leadership becomes no more than the power to control.
Power without accountability becomes corruption.
Those claiming bragging rights
from 1968 might reflect with greater humility on the price paid against
the degree of progress made since that first march and examine their actual
contribution to the reality of 2018 – a stagnant, sectarian dysfunctional
Stormont making the rich richer and the poor poorer; a damaged, demoralised
and divided community; justice denied; truth distorted; and controlled
management of conflict and corruption mistaken for peace.
The Civil Rights debate is alive today
10 February 2018
Bernadette McAliskey (Platform, Irish News, 9th February) is to be applauded for dismissing Sinn Fein claims of leadership of the Civil Rights Movement and for drawing attention to the unequal, dysfunctional and divided society that they have helped create. However there is much more to be said about Republican involvement in the early Civil Rights Movement and about disputes inside that movement that are still important today
First is important to accept that the Civil Rights Movement had a prehistory. The Republican of the time, in collaboration with the Communist Party, abandoned the military perspective of the 50s. The new policy agreed to look for reform within the northern state, a significant political retreat for a movement that had refused to recognise the statelet.
The Unionist administration, given carte blanche by Westminster, felt itself threatened by the new strategy. After all, the state itself rested on sectarian division and any lessening of that division could be a greater threat than a direct military assault. Their reaction was to criminalise and assault the new political opposition. I was present as a schoolboy at the 1964 Dave Street riots, sparked by the state reaction to republicans standing in election. The state, at the behest of Paisley, sent in the police to seize a tricolour from the Sinn Fein election headquarters. My first major political demonstration in 1967 was as a student when William Craig banned the Republican clubs. He argued that their political activity hid a strategy of subversion - a theme that unionism returned to again and again throughout the civil rights period and informs much of today’s unionist narrative
The question of reform or revolution dominated the early Civil Rights Movement. The more conservative section wanted to avoid street demonstrations, aimed to appeal to Westminster and wanted to restrict all politics to the five demands. Socialist, Republican and Housing activists saw direct action as the mainspring of the movement and many believed that the state would collapse under the pressure of reform.
With Bernie I was a founder member of People’s Democracy. From an early stage we argued that the northern state was irreformable. Individual reforms could be won, but they would not change the sectarian nature of the statelet nor its status as a colony of Britain.
The withdrawal of the Civil Rights Movement from the streets was an indication of the defeat of the reformist strategy. Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the peace process and involvement in a partitionist administration was in its turn an acceptance that their militarist campaign would not be successful either.
As Bernadette points out, the society we have today does not represent the accomplishment of civil and social rights or any form of justice and equality. Sinn Fein’s reform mark II has itself failed.
To represent the interests of working people socialists should oppose attempts to normalise sectarianism and background colonial rule by the British by Sinn Fein or by anyone else. As we argued all those years ago, a 32 County workers’ movement fighting capitalist and imperialism on both sides of the border is the only way we will finally end this ongoing misery.