During the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland's civil rights movement shaking off the paradigm of "good activist v bad terrorist" and finding a more balanced way of looking at the interplay between the republicans and civil rights.
As Northern Ireland moves cautiously through the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, Sinn Fein has largely spearheaded the commemoration surrounding key events, causing some individuals (including both nationalists and unionists) to accuse it of attempting to expropriate a movement for which it was not responsible—an attempt, they say, to rewrite history and merge the legacy of civil rights with that of militant republicanism.
The civil rights movement sprang from several similar (but mostly independent) social campaigns active in the early to mid-1960s. After a series of relatively small-scale demonstrations, these groups coalesced into the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, an umbrella organization which aimed to capture the breadth of target issues under a single banner. While civil rights activists claimed indifference to politics (and by all reliable accounts, they were), their movement helped to inspire and mobilize radical elements in Northern Ireland. This included socialists and, importantly, republicans.
It was not the intention of activists to include republicans in the movement, but two fundamental flaws inherent to the structure of mid-twentieth century Northern Ireland society helped create the conditions that not only mobilized republicans, but also incited a violent loyalist backlash which made militant republicanism a more attractive ideology to the Catholic nationalist community.
First, Catholics faced vicious degrees of discrimination, and they were far less likely than Protestants to acquire adequate housing, decent jobs, or to participate politically. The nature of 1960s Northern society and the Catholic community’s particular place within meant that Catholics—whose political tendencies typically aligned with nationalism/republicanism—were attracted to the civil rights movement in disproportionately high numbers. Naturally, this imbued civil rights with a green hue that was most outwardly expressed through overt displays of Irish state symbols and the singing of the Irish national anthem. Unsurprisingly, the attachment of nationalist symbols to the civil rights movement gave it the appearance of a nationalist political movement—a coloration that alienated Protestants who might have agreed with the movement’s social objectives but disagreed with its perceived political aims.
Second, the Catholic community’s virtual exclusion from power ensured that a Catholic-dominated social movement would occur outside the established institutions of state and inside public spaces to which Catholics still had access. Combined with the use of anti-British symbols and rhetoric, the street marches and demonstrations characteristic of the civil rights movement gave it the appearance of an Irish rebellion against the state, rather than a citizens’ movement for social justice. Republicans recognized these associations and anticipated that the movement might serve their political objectives. While those republicans that participated probably genuinely believed in the merit of its social aims, their principal objective was to use the movement as a vehicle to realize their ultimate aspirations. These developments were known to reactionary elements in the Protestant loyalist community, causing them to fear that the IRA was hijacking civil rights in order to launch a new campaign of violence.
Finally, the civil rights movement was directly responsible for inciting the violent loyalist backlashes that caused nationalist communities to demand protection in the form of militant republicanism. It must be remembered that the IRA existed in a nascent and powerless form during the defining sectarian clashes that occurred in October 1968 and January 1969, and while one cannot dismiss the reactionary role loyalists played initiating these riots, one similarly cannot disregard the role civil rights activists played in planning, organizing, and staging the marches that set the scene for these episodes. It was almost solely these events which dramatically escalated tensions between Protestants and Catholics, enflamed deeply-held suspicions and fears in both communities, and allowed the IRA to stake its claim as the only organization with the means and with the will to use armed force to protect the Catholic communities, allowing it to push civil rights to the margins and initiate its thirty-year campaign of violence.
Nationalists today are justified in their criticism of Sinn Fein’s apparent attempt to seize ownership of the legacy of civil rights. Indeed, these efforts appear part of a broader internal strategy to soften public attitudes towards republicanism by making it palatable to a generation who never experienced the conflict. It is a deliberate attempt to merge the memory of militant republicanism with that of a social movement whose initial aims are now generally accepted and acknowledged by the people of Northern Ireland, irrespective of national affiliation. This, of course, greatly exaggerates the role republicans played during the more moderate phase of the movement and grossly misrepresents the aims, means, and objectives of the Provisional IRA.
However, just as Sinn Fein cannot own civil rights, neither can civil rights disown republicanism. The civil rights movement created the conditions which allowed republicans to re-enter the public sphere to an extent they had not enjoyed anywhere in Ireland since the 1920s. While civil rights demands were relatively moderate in scope, the movement itself was disruptive, influential, and it was beginning to win real victories against the state. This is partly what motivated republicans to capitalize on its potential to advance their political agenda. Republican grassroots helped populate civil rights rallies and marches, and some republicans did indeed occupy prominent positions in the movement. This helped to centralize the republican platform and to create the appearance that its aims overlapped with civil rights, not only in the minds of hostile Protestants, but also supportive Catholics.
The purpose of this article is not to hold any one group responsible for the beginning of a deeply troubling and complex period in the country’s history. Rather, it is an attempt to reject the 'good activist v. bad terrorist' paradigm which has pervaded nationalist politics throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in order to illustrate a more balanced way of looking at the complex interplay between republicanism and the civil rights movement. Northern Ireland continues to grapple with the ever-perplexing question of how to commemorate its past, and as the country enters a period in which important anniversaries will receive a significant degree of attention, it must seek to do so in ways that not only respect the sensitivities of all of its communities, but also in ways that respect the historical realities. Rejecting the established narratives of the conflict and building a more honest account of the events that occurred is a painful and uncomfortable endeavor for many people, but it is an important step towards creating a more nuanced public understanding of the events that led to the conflict, which itself will help continue the painstaking process of reconciling a still-deeply divided society.
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