‘Denial of rights as wrong today as it was in 1968’

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The following is the full text of the speech at Sinn Fein’s commemoration of the North’s first civil rights march, by the former party chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin.

 

Fifty years ago, likeminded people from all communities - outraged by the routine injustice and sectarianism of the 6 county state - came together to form the Civil Rights movement.

Inspired by the bravery and determination of the black civil rights movement in the USA, they took to the streets and marched for rights and against inequality, and the very first march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon.

It can be tempting to think that this was an historical event - something to be commemorated and remembered but not really all that relevant in the here and now.

But that would be a mistake.

Because it is still very much part of who we are and where we have come from. It is still relevant and still resonates today.

The most blatant excesses of State violence, discrimination and sectarianism may have now been eradicated, but the conditions which compelled the Civil Rights campaign are all around us.

In very tangible ways, we are still dealing with the legacy of discriminatory policies that were deployed by the Unionist government and which the Civil Rights movement emerged to fight.

The deliberate discrimination in Employment, Housing and Infrastructure of communities perceived to be Nationalist for example has taken generations to repair and remains an unfinished work in progress to this day.

And of course, the State’s violent response to the very moderate, just and reasonable demands of Civil Rights campaign sparked a conflict which lasted for decades and which we have now thankfully put behind us.

Peaceful marchers, from all walks of life and all communities, who were demanding an end to the discriminatory and sectarian practices that underpinned the northern state - were ruthlessly and viciously beaten at Duke Street, Burntollet, Magilligan Strand and many other places.

Loyalist mobs, supported and encouraged by the RUC and the sectarian B Specials unleashed a pogrom against catholic communities that saw whole street burnt to the ground.

Determined to crush any and all opposition - no matter how peaceful and reasonable - the forces of the State reinforced by the British Army beat, interned and murdered campaigners who were seeking nothing more seditious than equal votes and equal rights.

But in 1968, for the first time, such scenes were beamed into homes across Ireland and the world via television. What many here knew was the reality of life for northern nationalists was laid bare internationally for all to see.

But the state had no intention of reforming. As far as the Stormont regime was concerned this was a unionist state for a unionist people and would remain so and they would crack as many skulls as need be to reinforce that point.

On the streets of my home city the parachute regiment gave the British governments answer to peaceful protests when they murdered 14 of my fellow citizens. For the nationalist people there would be no turning back.

It is important to be clear that the Civil Rights Movement was not some sort of republican plot as unionists would like to believe. Of course, republicans were involved at all levels as they were entitled to be.

But it was never a republican conspiracy. It was an instinctive and largely spontaneous response to decades of unionist misrule, abuse and sectarianism.

Thankfully, the Orange state is now gone and we now have a peaceful and democratic way forward. But we still have inequality, the denial of rights, bigotry and disrespect towards whole sections of our society.

And let me say clearly and loudly here - the denial of rights, equality and respect is as wrong today as it was fifty years ago.

The changes since 1968 are remarkable and the smashing of the Unionist monolithic Government and their dominance of Policing and the judiciary are all testimony to the courage and strategic vision of those stood up to be counted. The RUC, the B-Specials and their successor, the UDR, are gone never to return.

We have made massive progress in terms of Civil Rights. This is a very different place than it was in 1968 and I am convinced that we are now on the verge of another seismic shift towards a new, agreed and united Ireland that will provide a prosperous and shared future for all our citizens.

But my deep concern when I look back at that period in our history is that there are still in this society those who still want to deny rights and equality to their fellow citizens.

Citizens today 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.

Today, we are experiencing an unacceptable blockade on rights, imposed by the DUP and facilitated by the British government.

Whether it is language rights, marriage equality, women’s health, or the rights of victims this discrimination is simply untenable in 2018.

Rights are also under threat by a right-wing Tory Brexit and there are unwelcome echoes of gerrymandering and the hollowing out of democracy by the recent Boundary Commission proposals.

So, there are still big challenges ahead, but as in 1968, we will continue to stand up in defence of civil rights for all citizens.

And when I look around this crowd today, just like five decades ago, I have absolutely no doubt that ‘We Shall Overcome’.

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