Different responses to civil rights reflected in weekend events

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Fifty years ago this weekend the history of Northern Ireland changed radically.

Disorder at a civil rights march at Duke Street in Londonderry on October 5 2018 was broadcast around the world.

The RUC was seen hitting protestors with batons as they tried to stop the event, which had been banned.

The reputation of that police force never fully recovered, even though it went on to prove its credentials as a world class service with a particular expertise in lawful and restrained anti terrorist capabilities.

Almost everyone now agrees that there was a degree of discrimination by a minority of councils with regard to housing allocations. But that is about the only point on which there is agreement.

The scale of the discrimination was rightly disputed at an event in south Belfast on Saturday, where alternative perspectives on civil rights were discussed. Gregory Campbell, who has long been a vital voice in challenging assumptions about Protestant bigotry, talked about the disadvantage that he saw in his own community in the Northwest growing up.

Other speakers, including the highly respected economist Dr Graham Gudgin, spoke about the good work of the Northern Ireland Housing Trust building tens of thousands of houses in the postwar period, and the higher percentage of Catholics who were in receipt of social housing.

Meanwhile, at Londonderry’s Guildhall over the weekend there was a different mainstream view, when a range of speakers, including President Michael D Higgins and Eamon McCann, recalled the events of 1968. This was a celebration of the civil rights movement, but it included other voices such as Lord Maginnis. And it did not have a Sinn Fein speaker.

That party was holding a march on Saturday to mirror the 1968 one. But republicans at that time were not intent on peaceful protests. They soon were to launch an ‘armed struggle’ that has greatly increased division on the island.