There was little sense of Northern Ireland being on the brink ahead of key 1968 civil rights march

Months before the civil rights disputes of October 1968, Northern Ireland seemed increasingly modern, for example above, with sport leading the newspaperon the front page for the first time in May (George Best and Manchester United winning the European Cup)
Months before the civil rights disputes of October 1968, Northern Ireland seemed increasingly modern, for example above, with sport leading the newspaperon the front page for the first time in May (George Best and Manchester United winning the European Cup)

Tomorrow I will be at an event in the Guildhall in Londonderry to mark the 50th anniversary of civil rights.

Given that I was not born in 1968, I have been examining the three Northern Ireland daily newspapers from October of that year.

Different starting points are used for the start of the Troubles, such as the killing of John Patrick Scullion in June 1966, or the civil rights march in Duke Street, Londonderry of October 5 1968, or the Burntollet Bridge incident of January 1969, or the increase in killings and arrival of the British Army that summer.

It was sobering therefore to begin my research with the October 1, 1968 editions of the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter.

You get a view into a bustling and what must then have seemed very modern world.

All three papers (of 10 to 16 broadsheet pages per day, equivalent to 20 to 32 pages of a tabloid edition) are beginning to resemble big 2018 newspapers in a way that the grey papers of the 1950s did not.

There is local and international news, TV listings, features and large ads of fashionable clothes modelled by young women, as well as pages of property and classified and ads (that you see much less of today).

There are two pages or more of sport at the back (only a few years before that there was no such a concept of a major position for sports at the back of the paper).

Only months previously George Best’s European Cup success was probably the first time in the then 231 years of the News Letter that sport led the paper on the front (prior to 1963 the front was all adverts and prior to 1900 there was almost no sport in the paper at all).

The papers of early October 1968 are filled with exciting scientific developments such as the birth of sextuplets in England and progress towards a lunar landing (man did not stand on the Moon until 1969).

There are reports of disputes about sex education and stories on economic developments, and plenty about the Vietnam war and the looming US presidential electoral contest between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey.

And there is next to nothing on civil rights.

Of the three papers, the Belfast Telegraph has an innocuous brief report about a coming march in Londonderry which is “awaiting acceptance of the proposed route,” which ends in a way that is, with hindsight, poignant, “but they don’t anticipate any objection”.

The next day’s paper and the one after that, Wednesday and Thursday, are similarly low key, albeit with increasing references to the march (and news on October 2 of two people being fined for disorderly behaviour in a civil rights march in Dungannon).

Then Duke Street erupts on to all three front pages on the Friday, the day before it took place and the day after William Craig banned it.

The march and the fallout from it in Londonderry, Belfast, Dublin and London dominates all three papers until the end of month.

By late October the turbulence in the Province is on the front page of the News Letter a little less often than the others, and the main angle taken by the Irish News and News Letter on certain days is different (for example the former might go big on a speech by someone such as Gerry Fitt, on rights demands, while the latter goes big on comments from Brian Faulkner about republican agitation).

On some of the most dramatic days the Belfast Telegraph runs ‘on the one hand, on the other’ editorials on its front page. But it is clear in all three titles that the situation is serious.

Even so, through October 1968 there is little hint that within a few years, in 1972 (the worst year of the Troubles), Northern Ireland would be on the brink of civil war.

Most of the newspapers of late October 1968 are still largely filled with the world of the Beatles and sport and politics and commerce and agriculture and entertainment and weather.

Looking at the papers reminded me of the opening passages in a book The Great World War 1914 to 45, which describes life in spring 1914. It was a time of prosperity and exhibitions and emerging technology such as cars and phones and movies. There is no sense of looming global catastrophe.

Similarly today is a time of prosperity (albeit unevenly shared) and new technology and lots of interest in celebrity and trivial things.

I do not think we are on the verge of either a fresh outbreak of the Troubles or a global war. My sense is that there is so little stomach for conflict at this time of western affluence and comfort that there will be almost no capacity to fight it until it is imposed on us by a hungrier, leaner aggressive external power such as China.

But while it is hard to foresee war, these are the strangest, most chaotic times politically in my life, stranger even than the Cold War, the end of which I remember.

I wonder if our prosperity and technology increases our expectations and magnifies our fury over small deprivations and differences.

It is also a time of deep polarisation in Northern Ireland. If one thing has become clear in the last three years it is that the underlying divisions between the two communities have barely healed at all.

Also, Brexit is the manifestation of, or perhaps the trigger of, a major realignment in Europe the final shape of which is unclear for the continent but will be huge for relations within the British Isles.

The UK has shown only a limited willingness to stand up to the demands of the EU and Ireland.

If a sudden agreement is reached to the satisfaction of Dublin but with a small constitutional loss for unionism, such as a partial regulatory Irish Sea border, will unionists react with rage?

Or will it all be so complex that very few people even realise the scale of what has happened?

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor