NINETEEN sixty eight was a dramatic and memorable year. The Vietnam War was at its height. In January. the Tet offensive, perhaps the turning point of that dreadful conflict, took place. In March, Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. Two weeks later, Enoch Powell, with impeccable timing, chose to make his infamous "rivers of blood" speech on race relations. In May, the students' uprising took place in Paris and continued for most of the month, causing the National Assembly to be dissolved and threatening the presidency of Charles de Gaulle. In June, Bobby Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles, while campaigning in the California primary election. In July, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical "Humanae Vitae" that was to generate more controversy and discussion than possibly any other papal document in the history of the Church. And in August, the Red Army tanks rumbled into Prague to crush the quest for freedom of the Czech people in a ruthless manner. All of these events received world wide media coverage. Most people in the world, however, remained unaware of the province of Northern Ireland and its problems.
Even so. the victims of the various injustices that underpinned the very existence of Northern Ireland were very aware of what was happening in other parts of the world. Many people in Derry suffered cruelly under a City Corporation that was corrupt, unrepresentative and arrogant. Catholic people — Irish nationalists, who suffered cruel discrimination in the allocation of housing and in employment — watched these events in faraway places with particular interest. They were also keenly aware that few people outside Northern Ireland were aware of or interested in their problems.
Some people here became conscious of the fact that. unless we could somehow get our problems highlighted on the international media — especially television, like Martin Luther King's people in the United States or the students in Paris or the Czech people in Prague — nobody outside Northern Ireland would show much interest. At that point, only a few Westminster MPs showed any interest in the problems of Northern Ireland, notably Stan Orme and Paul Rose. Northern Ireland was not considered newsworthy by the international media, nor was it considered worthy of concern or serious debate by either the Westminster government or the government in Dublin. The rule of the Stormont government was rubber-stamped. There are few things more frustrating and infuriating for a victim of injustice than the realisation that nobody seems to care. It was essential, if our problems were to be resolved, to make people outside Northern Ireland aware of our problems and then to get them interested in helping us to solve them.
It was from this background of discontent that the idea of Civil Rights demonstrations or marches took root here. While there had been demonstrations in Caledon and Dungannon and some relatively small protests in Derry and elsewhere, there had not been protest marches of any great significance in Derry prior to October 1968. The organisers were a mixture of all kinds of people — as well as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association there were also some radicals such as Eamonn McCann, the Deny Housing Action Committee, some
veteran Republicans and others who were socially concerned. like John Hume and the local Stormont MP and leader of the Nationalist Party, Eddie McAteer. There was never any sinister plot or cunning master plan to overthrow the Northern state, as some commentators would have it. The leadership was not made up of "reds under the bed" or the IRA. The civil rights demonstrators merely
sought to highlight injustice and seek reforms. They highlighted such matters as housing, employment and local government as primary areas of concern.
The Catholic community in Deny was not sympathetic towards militancy at that time. There was no culture of protest here. Originally, very few local people planned to attend the march on 5 October. But that was to change. The Stormont Government, in the person of the Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig, banned the demonstration a few days beforehand. That was widely perceived as the ultimate injustice and it transformed everything. As a result of the ban, several thousand attended the march.
The RUC enforced the Stormont ban with enthusiasm and extreme brutality. Despite the fact that, apart from a few chants of "Sieg Heil", no violence was used against them, the police used their batons with rare abandon and obvious enjoyment, injuring many people. including Gerry Fitt, a Westminster MP at that time, and Eddie McAteer. Many of the marchers were injured and almost all of them were drenched by filthy water from water cannon. The police, including senior officers, were patently out of control.
All this was covered graphically by one television cameraman from RTE, the late Gay O'Brien, and subsequently received widespread coverage here and abroad. The pictures generated concern both in Dublin and Westminster.
Local people were infuriated by the banning of the march and the brutality of the police. However, they were also quietly satisfied that their problems were, at last, being acknowledged by people in high places. In the subsequent weeks. there were further demonstrations and marches with larger and larger numbers of participants. These were also banned, but on Saturday 16 November 1968 almost 20,000 people took part, and this march was covered by television crews and journalists from all around the world. Our problems were becoming known and acknowledged outside Northern Ireland, and we began to feel that we, too, had joined the class of '68 as an international news story worthy of note. With the Czech people and the followers of Martin Luther King in the United States, we had succeeded in drawing the attention of other people around the world to our desperate plight.
It is often forgotten that the civil rights movement ultimately achieved all of its objectives: local govennnent in Northern Ireland was reformed. the Derry Corporation was prorogued. the construction and allocation of public housing was taken out of the hands of local government and made the responsibility of an independent statutory body. Housing was subsequently allocated on the basis of need, rather than political patronage. and fair employment legislation was introduced.
But these reforms did not come quickly enough. When just and moderate demands are met by unjust force and violence, there is a terrible price to pay. And everyone here, sadly, has paid the price many times over.
The Good Friday Agreement wa_s 30 long and agonising years and more than 3,000 daths away.
One month after the first civil rights march in Derry. one more significant event of 1968 took place, which would also have lengthy repercussions. In November. Richard Nixon was elected as President of the United States.
1968 was indeed a dramati c and memorable year.