Speech by Mary McAleese at the 40th Anniversary Civil Rights Commemoration Conference, Derry, (4 October 2008)
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Speech by Mary McAleese, then Irish President, at the 40th Anniversary Civil Rights Commemoration Conference, Guildhall, Derry, (Saturday 4 October 2008)
"I am delighted to be joining you this afternoon as part of the programme of events which have been arranged to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement, a movement which proved of profound significance for the entire island of Ireland and beyond. I thank Conference Chairman Denis Haughey for inviting me. I also thank John Hume for such a kind and warm introduction. It is indeed an honour in his own beloved city to be introduced by such an illustrious international statesman, Nobel Prize Winner, visionary and simply great human being as John Hume. Thank you John.
This Conference invites us to remember that Northern Ireland of forty years ago, its context and its circumstances and in remembering, to commit ourselves anew to the task of building on this island's two jurisdictions, societies that are humanly decent, just, equitable, peaceful, prosperous and comfortable for everyone, regardless of differences of politics, religion, identity, race, gender or sexual orientation.
The events of 1968 in Northern Ireland had a much wider international context. In fact there were many 1968s as protests with different causes provoked civil unrest around the world. There were protests against racial segregation in the United States and South Africa, against an unpopular war in Vietnam, dictatorship in Spain, communism in Warsaw and Prague, gender bias in Paris, discrimination in Northern Ireland to name only a few. There was no grand international committee orchestrating events but people were more connected than ever before through television, more confident through education and more focussed on the obstacles to individual fulfilment in a world still only nervously embracing the actualising of the concept of democracy. Ten years after the end of the Second World War, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person as required by the laws of racial segregation. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, among them tens of thousands of Afro American GIs recently returned from fighting for freedom in Europe, the spotlight turned to the absence of freedoms closer to home. The American Civil Rights Movement was born. It was a difficult birth that provoked formidable and violent opposition from many quarters. But it also drew in many supporters, black and white, the Jewish community particularly prominent among the latter.
The first major race riot occurred in Harlem, New York in 1964 when an off-duty white police officer named Thomas Gilligan shot and killed a 15-year-old
Afro American in controversial circumstances.
In 1968 the American Civil Rights Movement was convulsed by the assassination of two of its greatest champions, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement was born in that unruly international environment as the world tried to shake off all the straitjackets of mind and behaviour, of laws and regulations, which stood in the way of that great self-evident truth- that all human beings are created equal. Here a small group of men and women began to construct a new narrative of change, for in the memorable words used many decades later by then Ulster Unionist leader, now Tory peer, Lord Trimble, Northern Ireland had become a "cold house for Catholics." Lord Cameron put it more prosaically in his 1969 Report to the Northern Ireland Government when he spoke of "a rising sense of continuing injustice and grievance among large sections of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland….." He went on to say "We should record however that in the evidence presented to us from many responsible individuals and bodies, predominantly Protestant and non-Nationalist in purpose or outlook, there was a frank recognition that this widespread sense of grievance among Catholic people in Northern Ireland was justified in fact and called urgently for remedy." His assessment was that "The weight and extent of the evidence which was presented to us concerned with social and economic grievance or abuses of political power was such that we are compelled to conclude that they had substantial foundation in fact and were in a very real sense an immediate and operative cause of the demonstrations….".
The early champions of Civil Rights came from right across the traditional religious and political divide. They believed that only when Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland, was freed from the politics of sectarianism would its truest and best potential be revealed. They believed in non-violence, in peaceful protest, in the politics of persuasion. They spoke, to quote Seamus Heaney, "From the canton of expectation," theirs was the "new age of demands", theirs as Heaney says the "intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars." These were individually and collectively "the one among us who never swerved, from all his instincts told him was right action, who stood his ground…..".
John Hume was, is, one such man, Edwina Stewart one such woman, so too the late legendary Claude Wilton, Ivan Barr, Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt, we think of Dr Con and Patricia McCluskey, Austin Currie, Ivan Cooper, Eamon McCann, Michael Farrell, Denis Haughey, Bernadette McAliskey, Seamus Mallon ……; it's a dangerous thing to start lists but I hope in naming these few we will call to memory all those others who set out forty years ago, at considerable personal cost, to create a Northern Ireland where every, man, woman and child Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Nationalist, or none of the above would share full equality of citizenship.
Today the institutions and structures of the Good Friday and
St Andrews Agreements and the framework of human rights legislation which underpins them, provide a sound basis for that equality of citizenship and for relationships of mutual respect and good neighbourliness within
Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain. Much has changed. The once fraught relationship between Great Britain and Ireland is now collegial and friendly. Once mistrustful cross-border relationships have thawed visibly and a still very young and impressively diverse administration in Northern Ireland is working to find its feet in a new culture of peaceful partnership- a radical shift from the old culture of conflict. There is much learning and unlearning for everyone in these processes. There is also much to be gained from peaceful patience, persistence and perseverance. We know the cost of failure for it is long since written on the tombstones of the dead and the hearts of the injured, the bereaved and the despairing.
In his Smithsonian Speech in Washington DC in June 2007, First Minister, Peter Robinson, observed, "As I stand here and look towards the Lincoln Memorial I am reminded of the suffering that the United States experienced and the strong nation that emerged following its Civil War. Lincoln said- 'A house divided against itself, cannot stand'".
Though to some it did not appear so, back in 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was about the business of ending wasteful sectarian divisions that had made Northern Ireland a house divided against itself. It was about the business of creating one shared and indeed proud narrative for all those who live here. Today that task is well under way.
I wish First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister
Martin McGuinness well as they and their colleagues in government set their faces firmly towards a shared future. We can see that theirs is no easy task but when we consider the extent of change already achieved, of sacrifices and compromises made on all sides, we take courage and hope. Today at this Conference we look back in gratitude to those who first introduced us to the possibility and potential of that courage and that hope. We look back, but there is no turning back. A critical mass of the people of Northern Ireland, Loyalist, Republican, Unionist, Nationalist, Catholic and Protestant, have indeed, at last, begun to overcome.
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