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Northern Ireland debate focuses too much on ‘terrorists’ – what about the peaceful civil rights activists?

RICHARD RUDKIN explains why people were marching in Derry on the fateful day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday

THROUGHOUT the campaign by the families in the north of Ireland fighting for truth and justice, much has been written within the pages of the right-wing media about their struggle, which, for many of them, has taken almost five decades. 

Somewhere within the text, reference may well be made to this fact. If it is, it will be in passing only. 

There will be no apportioning blame for this cruel wait for justice nor finger-pointing at those responsible, such as the agencies of the British government. 

No, for although the evidence is there to be exposed and reported on, that would be a step too far for the British media.

Likewise, while the press will happily report on the investigation of crown forces for the death of an innocent civilian, they will not do so without somehow linking the death to terrorism. 

They achieve this by singling out politicians or high-profile former soldiers for comment, in the full knowledge that those chosen will most certainly make the link to “terrorists.” 

A prime example of this is in action is the media coverage of the decision to charge a soldier with murder in relation to Bloody Sunday. 

While the key story should have been about unarmed innocent civilians marching for civil rights being shot dead, the focus was moved to “What about the terrorist?”

Today, I move the focus back to those who died and ask why were they at the civil rights march?

While it would be wrong to suggest that only Catholics faced unemployment or were poor, it is evident that as a Catholic, you were more likely to face being jobless. 

At interview, the employer only had to ask the applicant for the name of the school she or he attended to discover all they needed to know. 

Therefore it isn’t surprising that as late as 1969 in the north of Ireland, a little over 6 per cent of those working in the professional and technical grades of the Civil Service were Catholics, within the higher administrative grades a little over 7 per cent were Catholics, while only 14 per cent of people nominated by the government for service on nine public bodies were of Catholic faith. Discrimination, however, did not just apply to employment. 

In 1966 Derry, nationalists outnumbered unionists two to one, yet the city’s corporation was unionist controlled. 

This was achieved because the voting in the local election (unlike the general election) was restricted to ratepayers and their wives, resulting in the nationalist population, which was generally poorer, losing out as a consequence of having less opportunity to vote. 

Businesses also profited from the voting system. Depending on the rateable value of their property, a business could expect to receive up to six additional votes. With the scales already balanced in favour of the unionists, a third element, in the form of gerrymandering within the local authorities and Stormont governments, ensured boundaries were drawn in such a way to concentrate the nationalist vote to one constituency. 

Again, taking unionist-controlled Derry as an example, eight councillors were returned to office from the 10,000 nationalist votes from one ward. 

However, the unionist vote that had been split between two wards returned a total of 12 councillors to office.

When it comes to discrimination in the allocation of housing and concrete proof that the religion and politics of the applicant took precedent over their housing needs, no better example could be found than the incident that became a major event in this chapter of Irish history. 

In 1968, a house in Co Tyrone was allocated by a unionist councillor to an unmarried, 19-year-old Protestant woman ahead of two Catholic families with children. 

The woman in question just happened to be the secretary to the councillor’s solicitor, who was also a unionist parliamentary candidate. 

The nationalist MP at that time Austin Currie, having failed to successfully raise the matter with local council officers and Stormont, took direct action by occupying the woman’s house until he was removed by RUC officers. 

By coincidence, one of the police officers involved in his removal just happened to be the woman’s brother who later moved into the house too.

The RUC too was overwhelmingly Protestant and was already seen by nationalists as sectarian and a glance through the historic events from that period will prove the case in point. 

For example, a civil rights march in Derry in October 1968 left over 70 civilians injured as police baton-charged marchers. 

By the time British soldiers had set foot in Derry in August 1969, the RUC had already been responsible for the deaths of six civilians that year including 42-year-old Samuel Devenny, who died three months after sustaining a beating by RUC officers in his Bogside home.

When the decision was proposed by the Northern Ireland government and approved by the British government, for the security forces to step outside the rule of law, ignore legal proceedings and round up “suspects,” although both republican and loyalist paramilitaries were carrying out sectarian killings, internment only applied to republicans. 

By approving internment in that format, the British government contributed to the sectarianism, for while it is likely that all republican terrorists were of the Catholic faith, the British government completely ignored the fact that not all Catholics were terrorists, but nevertheless treated them as such. 

This was just one of the reasons why the civil rights march was taking place on that day, and why 14 innocent people with no links to terrorists or terrorism lost their lives. 

Finally, Lord Saville stated in his 2010 report that the actions on that day by the British army were “unjustified and unjustifiable.” No ifs, no buts or “What about the terrorists?” Just innocent civilians.


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