Civil Rights anniversary: Sinn Fein trying to hijack history, says Eamonn McCann

One of the leading organisers of a pivotal civil rights march in Londonderry 50 years ago has hit out at Sinn Fein for “trying to hijack history”.

Eamonn McCann, a leading figure in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, was speaking about an event organised by Sinn Fein to commemorate the events of October 5, 1968 in Londonderry.

Police and demonstrators at Duke Street in Londonderry's Waterside on October 5, 1968

Police and demonstrators at Duke Street in Londonderry's Waterside on October 5, 1968

On that day, a few hundred civil rights protestors demanding electoral, housing and employment reforms assembled at Duke Street in Londonderry’s Waterside. The protestors intended to walk to the Diamond in the city centre, in defiance of a banning order issued by Northern Ireland’s minister of home affairs William Craig.

They were met with a baton charge by RUC officers, and the violent clashes were captured by television cameras and broadcast around the world.

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 as the conflict known as the Troubles took hold.

Eamonn McCann was a leading member of the Derry Housing Action Committee who had invited the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association to Londonderry for the protest.

A young Eamonn McCann addresses crowds in Londonderry's Waterloo Place in the late 1960s

A young Eamonn McCann addresses crowds in Londonderry's Waterloo Place in the late 1960s

“I think the civil rights movement had a huge effect,” he said. “Many of the civil rights demands – for a fair voting system, the abolition of the Special Powers Act, laws against discrimination in jobs, laws to ensure houses were allocated fairly – these things were achieved in short order. They were achieved in the midst of tumult and so forth, but there is no doubt that these advances were achieved by the strategy of the civil rights movement, of people power.”

Mr McCann described a planned march by Sinn Fein tomorrow as “another instance of Sinn Fein trying to hijack history”.

The veteran campaigner and former People Before Profit MLA 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.

“They are no such thing. It is a march of cynicism – cynicism and dishonesty. We’ve had enough distortion of history in Northern Ireland over the years.

“The winning of civil rights and equality in the north was not the aim of the long campaign of armed struggle which took over 3,000 lives. The Provos fought to get the Brits out of Ireland. That’s just a fact. The idea that the IRA was fighting for equality is just nonsense.

“Trying to reshape their history now to pretend that they were just a civil rights party forced to adopt violent means to achieve the demands of the civil rights movement – this is a nonsense.”

Mr McCann added: “The truth is not one party’s truth, it is not one person’s truth, and the truth in all its complexity should be told.

“But the one thing we can say absolutely clearly is that Sinn Fein’s claim on the civil rights movement and the civil rights demands is absolutely without foundation.”

He also reflected on the failure of the civil rights movement to attract broad support from working-class Protestants and unionists.

“On a daily basis, the leaders of unionism were telling their own followers that the civil rights movement was an IRA plot.

“That’s absolutely untrue, but the Protestant people were invited by their leaders to believe that to give an inch to the civil rights movement was to compromise their own beliefs.

“That was a big factor. But it was also true that people involved in the civil rights movement back then did not give enough thought to a whole series of questions. You have to admit where you got it wrong. One of the things we got wrong is that we didn’t campaign hard enough to disassociate the socialist view from the nationalist view. We should have fought harder to make it more of a matter of class than of community.”

Responding to Mr McCann’s comments, a Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “Sinn Féin have organised this march to commemorate the work of the Civil Rights movement and to mark the 50th anniversary of the 5th October march in Derry along the original route.

“Key to this march is carrying on the march for Civil Rights today. People in the north still face attacks on their electoral and civil rights, alongside the continued denial of rights to LGBTQ couples, women, Irish language speakers, and bereaved families seeking a coroner’s inquest.

“The denial of rights, equality and respect is as wrong today as it was fifty years ago and we would welcome anyone who feels the same to join us on Saturday at Duke Street.”