A number of events and programmes have been designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 civil rights marches and on Friday night last, I took part in a panel discussion about the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
The panel discussion was part of ‘Imagine! The Belfast festival of ideas and politics’ and the three other panellists were Erskine Holmes and Austin Currie, who had been active in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), and Lynda Walker, chair of the Communist Party of Ireland.
Lynda Walker recalled that she was still living in England in 1968 and was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
She also recalled that she was introduced to the situation in Northern Ireland through the Connolly Association.
It was a passing comment, but nevertheless significant.
Most people in Northern Ireland will have some sense of a civil rights movement and of a Civil Rights Association, but very few will know much about the Connolly Association, which was a front of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
I have long argued that the Connolly Association was one of the main factors in the emergence of the civil rights movement and, indeed, the first letter I ever wrote to a newspaper was written more than 40 years ago on that very point.
Moreover, those who proposed that the IRA support a civil rights campaign were Marxists who were close to the leadership of the Connolly Association.
Back in 1968, Austin Currie was a young Nationalist MP at Stormont and, on Friday night, he recounted his role in relation to the Caledon squat and the first NICRA march.
He spoke of being encouraged by Labour MP Paul Rose to do something that would grab the headlines and compel the Labour government at Westminster to intervene in Northern Ireland.
That encouragement was the prelude to the first civil rights march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, the second march in Londonderry and the descent into violence.
The other panellist, Erskine Holmes, was then a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and active in NICRA.
He was present in Londonderry on October 5, 1968 and confirmed several important points about the television coverage of the day.
One of the most notable moments in the coverage is that of a “besuited Tyrone businessman” confronting the line of RUC men and then doubling up in apparent agony.
He has been named as Paddy Douglas and I have heard it said that this was simply an act.
The film footage shows him shouting at the police and then doubling up.
On that basis, it was generally said that he was hit with a baton in the groin.
However, there is no footage of him actually being struck by a baton and Erskine Holmes suggested that he could have received an award for his amateur dramatics.
This was “fake news” before we had ever heard the words “fake news”.
Yet that film footage became potent propaganda against the RUC and has been viewed by people around the world for the past 50 years.
I’m not saying that this is the whole story of the march, but it is one of the missing pieces.
There were probably over 100 people in the audience for the discussion, with just a handful of unionists, but it was a very interesting evening and I can only hope that, in the course of this year, there will be many other opportunities to interrogate and review the events of 1968.
Otherwise, there is a danger that Sinn Fein and some other nationalists will use it as an occasion to reinforce their perception of nationalists as the “most oppressed people ever”. It seems to me that, in 2018, Sinn Fein are trying to tap into a folk memory of 1968 in order to radicalise a new generation and, at the same time, legitimise the violence inflicted on Northern Ireland by the Provisional IRA.
That would be a tragedy for Northern Ireland — and a major setback for those of us who want to build a shared and better future.