February 19, 2019

Ray Davey on the Civil Rights campaign in Northern Ireland

Ray Davey wrote in his book ‘Take Away This Hate’ (pp. 90-92):
"It was, as far as I could see, a time of creativity and optimism among the students that I knew best. The result was that when in the Autumn term of 1968 the whole situation suddenly changed and the academic calm was rudely shattered by protest marches and confrontation, the vast majority of students were deeply shocked and completely taken by surprise. 
This was initially sparked off by unrest among students in other parts of the world. It was known as the period of student revolt. This was happening in various ways: protest against the way the universities were run, demands for more student participation in the organisation and running of the institution, as well as even more radical requests. It was part of a general reaction against structures and institutions and a demand for much more democracy instead of oligarchic and at times authoritarian control. In many centres there was violence and frequently security forces were involved. Earlier there had been the Civil Rights Campaigns in the United States. All these events and the radical and revolutionary ideas, proclaimed by a writer like Marcuse, created a whole new ethos and attitude in many campuses. 
It was very obvious that this new thinking and approach would find fertile soil in Northern Ireland among the new generation of students who were the first generation of their tradition to have higher education as the result of the 1947 Education Act. These young people were able to articulate their feelings and asserted that they were no longer willing to be treated as second-class citizens. They were well aware of all the grievances they and their elders had to endure, such as discrimination in housing, employment and in local government. They were also very conscious of the Special Powers Legislation and had little confidence in the status quo at Stormont. 
I learnt much of how they felt, when with several of my fellow chaplains I attended the early meetings of the new radical group, the People’s Democracy. This was mainly made up of students from a Nationalist background and also members of the Youth Socialist Group which included many who were not students. Events soon escalated. There were several civil rights marches in Belfast very widely supported by students and staff. 
Soon came the much publicised civil rights march in Derry when the Minister of Home Affairs over-reacted and many of participants were batoned by the police. The march from Belfast to Derry, started by a small group of People’s Democracy, again drew a violent reaction, and the events of Burntollet bridge became part of history. Here the marchers were ambushed by Loyalists who claimed that Republican flags were being displayed, and that IRA supporters were in the procession. So polarisation increased, as did the danger of much greater violence, with the Loyalists becoming more articulate and organised. 
The gives something of the atmosphere of these traumatic weeks. I can remember the various responses of the student population, because Queen’s now found itself very much in the limelight, as most of the activists at that time were students. I need only mention Bernadette Devlin, Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann. Student opinion was naturally deeply divided. There were those who were set not only on Civil Rights and alterations in the present administration, but on more revolutionary change, and had as their ideal the Workers’ Republic as envisaged by James Connolly before the 1916 Rising. There was a much larger number of those who were from a Nationalist background who did believe in change, but did not believe in, or want, violence.  
Those I was in touch with were for the most part from the Unionist tradition. Most of them were deeply perplexed and shaken by what was happening, as they had hitherto little idea of how their fellow students of a the Catholic-Nationalist tradition felt. Many of the more thoughtful were deeply disturbed when they because aware of the various forms of discrimination and indeed took part in the early Civil Rights marches. As the situation developed and hardened they realised that much more than civil rights were involved; in fact it implied a United Ireland, and this was in complete opposition to their whole outlook and background."

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