jump to navigation

“Makes Me Ashamed to be an Academic”. Harsh. But Fair? October 7, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Irish History, Irish Politics, Media and Journalism, Northern Ireland, The Left.

One of Cedar Lounge Revolution’s regular contributors has already delivered a short review of last night’s TV show “The Day The Troubles Began” here, dismissing the on-air arguments of the show’s historical advisor, Dr. Simon Prince, as “nothing less than a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters of historical truth”. I have no intention of putting words into anyone’s mouth – the author of these criticisms can elaborate on them if they wish – but those words are worth bearing in mind when thinking about the show.

First, the good bits. Lots of original footage, interviews with many of the participants, including the organisers and one of the RUC men on duty that day (though I would have liked to see his answer to the questions of whether he had been swinging his baton that day, and whether he thought the force used was appropriate). Excellent material on the influence of international affairs, especially the example of Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights movement. The interviews with those involved in protests in 1968 in other countries like Tom Hayden, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Alain Gesmair were fascinating, as was the American news coverage of the attack on the march. All set to a quality soundtrack. And, perhaps best of all, no extended discussion of how Northern Ireland was really like west Germany. The programme fairly raced along, and was often a compelling watch.

What then of its problems? Firstly, there were a number of niggling inaccuracies. Finbar O’Doherty – and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether he approved of the use of the English version of his name – was described as a member of the Derry Housing Action group, not the Derry Housing Action Committee (the name is important, of which more later). There was also footage of later marches and interviews which suggested that John Hume – who had opposed the October 5th march – had been involved with it. In addition, some of the international stuf seemed to go nowhere – there was extended coverage of Martin Luther King’s funeral, and some participants recalled their reaction to his death – but no-one said how this did or didn’t affect their determination to press on, what tactics they might use etc.

The main problem though that I could see was that it told the story of Duke Street from one particular angle, to the virtual exclusion of all others. That angle was that of the elements involved who later became active in the People’s Democracy, and by extension the story told in Simon Prince’s own book. In this story, October 5th was deliberately planned as a provocation designed to demonstrate to the world, especially Britain, but also to local opinion the corrupt, repressive and arbitrary nature of the unionist regime by provoking the police into attacking non-violent marchers. This done, the oppressive and anti-working class nature of the regime obvious, there was a possibility of re-running Paris in May 68 in Northern Ireland. Hence Prince talking about the 68ers. And there is certainly a good deal of truth in this argument. Eamon Melaugh, one of the main organisers, said as much, and that he had nothing to apologise for.

The question becomes what constitutes provocation, and whether the police or the marchers should be blamed for the violence that followed. Prince, possibly following one of the Young Socialists interviewed for the programme, has been drawing a distinction between non-violent and peaceful. He argues that the marchers were non-violent but the marches were not peaceful because there was an intention to provoke violence from the police. This seems to me to be deliberately missing the point. The point being that the people who attack non-violent marchers are the violent ones, and it is they who are responsible. Not the marchers. The marchers may have expected, or even hoped for violence, but that is still not the same as initiating it. The look on the face of the senior RUC officer who has just been swinging his blackthorn stick at a marcher lying on the ground spoke volumes. Bernadette Devlin spoke of her shock of the hatred on the RUC men’s faces, and this is also the recollection of others.

Then there is the sequence of violence versus provocation. And here the comparison with the first, peaceful Dungannon march is instructive. The footage last night showed the Dungannon marchers be approached by an RUC officer and told to stop (as in Derry several weeks later, they had been banned from entering part of the town). There is a moment’s hestitation before a woman (possibly Mrs Mc Cluskey of the Campaign for Social Justice and NICRA but I can’t say for sure), waves the marchers forward. They proceed, and are not attacked by the RUC. If we turn then to the march that had been surrounded by the police in Duke Street, we see the same thing. The marchers approach what is this time an RUC line. They walk right up to it, and the momentum of the crowd behind pushes them forward. A few make it through. The others get batoned – Gerry Fitt being the first, needing three stitches (Austin Currie’s remarks about the determination of the marchers behind to ensure that the MPs – him, Fitt, and Nationalist Party leader Eddie Mc Ateer – stayed in the front line raised a smile). The RUC man interviewed said he would leave it to others to judge whether walking right up to police lines constituted provocation. It is clear from Dungannon that a few weeks before it was not regarded as provocation worthy of being batoned. Perhaps that little fact escaped the programme makers’ attention. The provocation described by the programme makers involved the giving of Nazi sautes to the police, and the throwing of (paper thin) placards. Yet as we can see, the violence had been initiated by the RUC beforehand. This seems to me to undermine the argument put forward in the programme.

Next comes the sin of omission. As I said above, the programme interviewed many of the organisers and participants. But they were overwhelmingly drawn from one small part of the overall civil rights movement. No-one was there from the central executive of NICRA explaining why it backed the march. Which meant that no-one was there from the Communist Party, even though some of its members participated. There were several people interviewed, including Michael Farrell, who had gotten the Young Socialist bus up from Belfast. Yet no-one was interviewed from the busload of Republican Clubs members who also left from Belfast that day. Why not? It is possible that neither the programme makers nor their historical advisor was aware of this bus, and the nice contrast such an interview may have made. But they were certainly not unaware of the major republican presence at the march. The second banner carried, immediately behind the NICRA one and impossible to miss, was that of the James Connolly Republican Club. It appeared several times. Where were the interviews with the republicans, local or otherwise to explain their presence on the march, their aims, how NICRA fit into their strategy? In fact, according to Eamon Mc Cann’s account, Republicans made up two of the five people on the Ad-Hoc Civil Rights Committee that organised the march. One of them was O’Doherty, yet he was described as Housing Action group. Now given the subsequent troubled history of splits within republicanism, it is possible O’Doherty chose to be identified with the Housing Action campaign, rather than anything else, though he has never been shy of discussing his republican history. The very name Derry Housing Action Committee was lifted from the Dublin Housing Action Committee, a group established by Sinn Féin, with others, to further the socialist and politicising goals of the Goulding leadership. What did 1968 mean to the Republicans, especially the ones who unlike Farrell saw positive attributes in the USSR? So there is a context here screaming to be discussed, and that could have been easily discussed with one of the participants, never mind getting an extra interview. Yet it fit neither the story of the PDs, nor the historical advisor, and so we find it absent. Certainly, from his book, we know Prince was well aware of republican involvement in NICRA, and in the planning for October – he recounts how a broken down car stopped senior republicans being there. We can only conclude then this was deliberate omission, an editorial choice, taken for the sake of coherence but at the expense of historical accuracy and explanatory power.

Eamon Melaugh has spoken just this weekend of the attempts to write him and others out of the story of October 5th. And while the programme organisers featured him prominently in the account of the origins of the march, he disappeared from the discussion of the march, and its aftermath. Might this have been because he had nothing to say? Anyone who has met him will find this unlikely. Given that unlike the Mc Canns and the Farrells and the Devlins, he (re)joined the Republican Clubs and The Workers’ Party, it seems quite possible what he had to say did not fit the story being told, and so it was left on the cutting room floor. As with the Republican Clubs, the programme makers stand condemned by their own film.

One other virtual omission. Paisleyism. There was no mention of Paisleyite attempts to provoke violence in Dungannon – which were successfully resisted by republican stewards – nor of the fact that the reason given for Craig’s ban on the October 5th march was that a Loyal order march had been moved to ensure there was a clas. What about this provocation, the people standing behind police lines egging them on.

To sum up then, this was an interesting, informative, but deeply flawed programme. Its explanations at times lacked credibility, and it was clearly one sided. But it’s on BBC iplayer and on again on Thursday at 9 on BBC NI 2, so judge for yourselves.


1. Pete Baker - October 7, 2008


Prince’s distinction between “between non-violent and peaceful” marches was one of the points I thought was reasonable to make in the Politics Show interview.

And whilst I would draw a further distinction between the two approaches, I was also interested in how it could feed into Che Guevara’s argument for the use of “hatred as an element of the struggle”.

“We must carry the war into every corner the enemy happens to carry it: to his home, to his centers of entertainment; a total war. It is necessary to prevent him from having a moment of peace, a quiet moment outside his barracks or even inside; we must attack him wherever he may be; make him feel like a cornered beast wherever he may move. Then his moral fiber shall begin to decline. He will even become more beastly, but we shall notice how the signs of decadence begin to appear.”

Particularly given the Che worship that still occurs within certain circles and Prince’s separation of the events at Duke St from what subsequently happened.

Add into that Prince’s correct identification of the continuing battle for the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.


2. garibaldy - October 7, 2008

The problem I have with the distinction Pete is that it elides the question of responsibility to such an extent that it ends up blaming the victim. The racist cops who attacked King’s marches did not HAVE to do so. They chose to. King may have known those things were going to happen. But that does not mean he is responsible for them. The marchers were peaceful and non-violent. It was the response to them that was not.

Prince might have a case for the October 5th march in terms of the ultra-leftists, but it is seriously undermined by the chronology. He loves to talk about looking at the historical record. Well he’s good at ignoring it where it suits him – as with the omissions outlined above.

Hatred is indeed an element of struggle. But while it is clear that people like Melaugh hated the system, it is much less clear that they hated individuals. Except for Craig I’d say. I think I mentioned before on Slugger Che talking about the importance of love for a revolutionary.

There is indeed an ongoing battle for the legacy of the civil rights movement, and I think it’s an important one. But I would suggest that the version given out here is a less than complete one. I still fail to see how October 5th led to August 1969. Prince says I think in his book it was Burntollet that split the community irrevocably, but asserts rather than gives evidence for it. Others, such as Marc Mulholland in his book Ulster at the Crossroads deny the centrality granted to Burntollet. If either Duke Street or Burntollet start the Troubles, I don’t see any evidence for it in terms of violence on the ground. You don’t think effectively blaming the PD for starting the Troubles is part of a comment on the legacy of civil rights? I’d say if fits into a pattern going back to antiquity, or Burke and the French Revolution, or Lewis Namier and 1848.


3. Pete Baker - October 7, 2008

King was not responsible for the cops. Nor was he responsible for the violence. But he did set out knowing that his actions would, he hoped, provoke that violence in order to further publicity for his cause.

It’s worth acknowleging the manipulation involved as well as the violence shown in order to get a better understanding of what was actually going on.

Better still when attempting to draw comparisons between there and here.

But – “Hatred is indeed an element of struggle.”

Do you mean that in the sense that Guevara articulated?

That you must become a beast in order to show the other for the beast that you already believe him to be?

Guevara’s “love” was selective, discriminatory and not about the individual. It was a faux-romantic love of his selected oppressed. In his case, it was self-serving and nihilistic.


4. garibaldy - October 8, 2008

I agree King was not responsible, and I agree that it’s worth remembering why he marched where he did. And these things were said at the time by NICRA against the adventurists. But again, the problem with the programme and the broader thesis is that it comes dangerously close to absolving the state and its forces of responsibility. On a point of historical interpretation, the programme takes the motivation of a small number to be that of the larger numbers involved. Which is highly problematic.

I don’t support terrorism, and I don’t believe Che did either. I’m not a blind Che worshipper (I remember the look of horror I got from an English ultra leftists for talking about how he had “failed” to adjust to post-revolutionary conditions). But there are times in war when it is necessary to be brutal. But NICRA was not about war, but about peace.


5. Pete Baker - October 8, 2008

“I don’t support terrorism, and I don’t believe Che did either.”

Sorry, Garibaldy. That’s where we disagree. You’re completely wrong on that count. Read what he wrote again. And that’s not about NICRA, it’s about those that usurped that objective.


6. Dunne and Crescendo - October 8, 2008

Martin Meehan was one of the first arrested in Derry on October 5th. he was a republican and he was also not, as we know, a believer in non-violence. Neither were the Republican Clubs. They believed in non-violence as a tactic, not as a principle and they all believed (and read the United Irishman from the time and listen to the speeches made) that force would have to be used to bring about a united Ireland, eventually. The other republican, who can often be seen on the footage of the October 5th march is Johnnie White, commander of the IRA in Derry and again, not a pacifist. The republicans have been written out in favour of the far left but I’m afraid people like yourself Garibaldy are also sanitising the history of civil rights. You should read Liam McMillen’s account of the era to see how the notables got pushed into the RUC lines and why they were pushed. Republicans wanted confrontation as well.


7. garibaldy - October 8, 2008


From what I recall, the campaign in Cuba, or in Africa and Bolivia that Che got involved in, was not a terrorist one. I am perfectly happy to condemn those who destroyed the positive achievements of NICRA with violence.


What you say about Meehan is certainly true. However, the Republican Clubs’ leadership was moving away from violence. In fact, Mac Giolla is quoted in a book called Black and Green saying involvement in NICRA was seen as an alternative to planning for any future campaign. As for the speeches in 1968 etc in the United Irishman, I think they are referring to a revolutionary situation north and south at some point in the future, rather than anything more concrete or immediate. White certainly was integrally involved in the Derry HAC and the civil rights agitation, but the point being that this was done in a peaceful manner, even if in occupying the Guildhall, the Craigavon bridge etc they were taking direct action. I’ve read Mc Millen’s account. I don’t have it to hand to check what he said, but from what I remember of it, he was making the point that unionist inteolerance and police brutality – which he describes in terms of the Wolfe Tone commemorations and Divis Street – would be exposed to the world if the important people got hit. But I may be misremembering it, and am open to correction.

I agree entirely that there were people within republicanism who had not bought the new line, and who were turning up at civil rights things simply because they had been told to do so. But a lot if not most of those associated with this train of thought were by 1968 former members. Even if the Republicans saw violence as an ultimate option at some point in the future (and much of that rhetoric may have been designed to try and ease the transition given what happened over the next number of years) it does not take away from the fact that NICRA protests were peaceful. Remember what the Cameron report said about republican stewarding, praising it for preventing violence.


8. Hugh Green - October 8, 2008


Do you mean that in the sense that Guevara articulated?

That you must become a beast in order to show the other for the beast that you already believe him to be?

That’s not in the sense Guevara articulated, as the text of the original article you cite demonstrates.


He was talking about a particular enemy, one that had wrought


the most terrible devastation known in the annals of modern warfare: riddled with bombs; without factories, schools or hospitals; with absolutely no shelter for housing ten million inhabitants

To which his response was:

They are pushing us into this struggle; there is no alternative: we must prepare it and we must decide to undertake it.

Now, one might disagree with Guevara on different things; that the US was not killing millions of people, that it was not an imperialist power (though I personally find it hard to disagree on those two points), that there was an alternative.

But what you can’t do, and this is what you do above, I think, is a) treat Guevara’s words as meaning that the methods to be used in this instance should apply generally to each and every situation where there is a struggle; and b) see the revelation of the enemy’s true nature as a fundamental element of Guevara’s approach.

In reading the entirety of what Guevara wrote in this instance, you can see that he had no particular concern with activities intended to reveal the ‘true’ nature of the enemy: for him, the nature of the enemy was already clear for all to see: US imperialism had already demonstrated its ‘beastliness’ rather well. The fact that it became more beastly when confronted would be simply an indicator that it was on the way down.

So if Guevara’s position was somehow influential at the beginnings of the NI Civil Rights Movement, in terms of people who thought they could provoke the state forces into a violent response and thus reveal the true character of the state, I would suggest that it was so as the result of a wilful misreading.


9. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 8, 2008

Having unintentionally provided the title for this post, I suppose I should add a note of clarification.

When I wrote that thread comment yesterday, I was writing off the top of my head, and in terms of my immediate reaction to the programme. Having had time to sleep on it, I’m not sure I’d use such intemperate language to describe Dr. Price today. However, I do remain unimpressed by what I saw of him the other night. I’ve been in the academia game for about a decade, and I’ve met some truly brilliant people in it, and also some people who, in Terry Eagleton’s words, ‘have no more ideas in their heads than a hamster’. I wouldn’t say Simon Price falls into the latter category, but the ideas in his head are less than persuasive. But we’ve been here before on this site, regarding his view of the Stormont regime as a ‘dominant party system’.

The fundamental question, as I see it, is not whether or not some sections of the Civil rights movement (and as I told a class of first-year undergrads in Auckland a few months ago, it was always a movement, not a party or organisation) nurtured Guevarist fantasies, or whether they were part of an international youth radicalisation (and let’s not forget that the 1960s was also the era when the modern American conservative movement really took off, and it had a large number of adherents among the youth as well). The fundamental question is, what was the nature of the NI state and NI society which meant that the importation of the American civil rights movement’s tactics and strategy would have seriously unintended consequences. I’d say that here the assessment of Paul Bew and his colleagues is correct, for all that I’m not a Bew fan. Control and domination of public space in Northern Ireland was a zero-sum game; to stage a civil rights march anywhere was to directly challenge the foundations of the state itself. So even if the civil rights movement had been even more ‘middle-aged, middle class and middle of the road’ than it was initially, it would still I think, have triggered the crisis and the conflict. And that is not an indictment of the civil rights movement, it’s an indictment of a state that could not exist without denying equal status to a huge proportion of its population. That – in my opinion – is what the focus should be on.

I come from a long line of Castle Catholics. One of my great-grandfathers was a Justice of the Peace in Co. Mayo. Another was a Catholic RIC officer from Stranmillis. My grandmother once told me how he had to be ferried home to work every night in an armoured car during the Belfast pogrom. I must actually ask my older relatives what happened to him after that.


10. ejh - October 8, 2008

I wouldn’t say Simon Price falls into the latter category, but the ideas in his head are less than persuasive

You don’t mean Simon Prince? Simon Price is a pop music writer. The description fits, though.


11. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 8, 2008

Always with the nitpicking, eh EJH?


12. Pete - October 8, 2008

I accept what the above posters have said about the reactionary nature of the Northern state. Nonetheless there seems to be a stark unwillingness by both the Price and all bar one poster to see that for the Northern troubles to be started by the Civil Rights movement it took two to tango.
In the US civil rights marchers were being beaten off the streets, in Paris students were tear-gassed and beaten off the streets. In the US Deep South blacks and activists paid the ultimate price. Yet there was not decay of these struggles into a protracted violent civil disturbance. In my view it’s the easy way out on both sides to blame the ultra Left or a singularly reactionary northern state and security apparatus.
Look at the differences in the Northern situation as per the make up of the Civil rights movement. Forget about the violent fantasies of the Ultra left. The reality was that at the core of NICRA was an organisation, all of those members were pledged to the use of political violence when necessary. As Garibaldy says the leadership of this organisation were committed to taking non-violence as a tactic as far as it could to attain its objectives, yet at the same time the IRA was seeking weapons and training its young membership in battle tactics. Maybe people can say so were the ultra leftists in other states, however there organisations did not have a history of actual violent successes against the security forces of which the IRA could boast. You can not on one hand honour men such as McMillen, White, Melaugh without accepting the reality of what I think it is fair to believe they saw themselves as in the late 1960s – that is revolutionary soldiers.
Understand that such men were at the very heart of civil rights and were publicly committed to the overthrow of both Irish states it is perhaps easier to understand the sharp descend into violence of the Civil Rights movement. This is of course just one ingredient which has to be thrown into the mix along with a reinvigoration of reactionary Protestantism, a belligerent southern state (sections of which were only to willing to turn northern protest to violence) and, in my view, a much over hyped ultra Left.


13. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 8, 2008

Pete – I think you have a point about the persistence of physical force currents into the post-border campaign world and into the CR movement itself. But what does it really mean to say that these currents were ‘at the core’ of the CR organisation? What does it really mean to say that Melaugh were ‘at the very heart of civil rights’? What was that organisation’s structure, exactly? Were actions planned on an ad hoc basis or otherwise? Did it have the kind of structure, or structurelessness which lends itself to manipulation by unscrupulous and extremist minorities? Were the ‘revolutionary soldiers’ generals without an army? And if they weren’t, how did they get that army?

These are not rhetorical questions. They should be at the heart of any assessment of the character of the civil rights movement and the nature of the dynamic it unleashed. And I don’t think those questions can be answered via the kind of superficial thinking I saw Dr. Prince (thank you ejh) display on monday night.

It takes two to tango, absolutely. But who calls the tune?


14. dessalines - October 8, 2008

i don’t know why anyone in their right mind would grant any validity to simon prince’s crude, laughingly embellished ‘thesis.’ it was directly contradicted by the footage, and by the recollections of those interviewed for the film. seriously, why is it being accorded any credibility at all, except that it has been given airtime by a ‘respectable’ establishment media outlet with a record of being amenable to the most outlandish revisionism?

pete baker’s comments above are pure shit-stirring: fasten on the murky and trivial details to obscure the historical record and deflect responsibility from the state. Garibaldy’s point, about the writing out of the republican clubs, seems also beside the point to me. a march cut off from the front and rear, with water cannon ready for deployment; a sectarian police force which even a minister in the government of the day admits operated beyond direct control by the state; and a deeply conservative, entrenched, one-party state built on discrimination: why do we need a self-promoting academic to tell us why all of this combusted when it ran up against a movement for fundamental change?


15. garibaldy - October 9, 2008


I wasn’t sure whether to steal your quote for the title, but it was so stand out that I couldn’t resist. I agree that ultimately the situation was dependent on the nature of unionism, which was intensely reactionary, and opposed to any change. And prepared to provoke violence, as had been shown by Paisleyite activity over the previous number of years.


I agree that certainly the Troubles took more than one side to get the dance started (depending on whether we want to separate loyalism from the state, or include London, it’s more than two I reckon). The question is whether there is a link between NICRA and the terrorist campaigns by sectarian unionism and nationalism during the Troubles. Which seems to me less certain.


In fairness, the post is about the historical accuracy or otherwise of the show, rather than about the march itself. Though hopefully it’s clear from putting the word surrounded in italics and noting that the RUC inaugurated the violence (unlike Dungannon where they did nothing) that there is no attempt to absolve those responsible. Unlike, perhaps, others who talk about this.


16. Seán Ó Tuama - October 9, 2008

I agree with those of your contributors who criticise Price’s “blame the oppressed for protesting against oppression” line. However, as a point of historical fact, I think that some of his critics may have exagerated the differences on the ground in Derry between the YS/PD axis and the Republican Clubs. While these differences were great at a national level, my understanding is that the YS and Republicans were quite close at local level and that many of the Derry YS later joined the Official Republican movement. When the Official Republican leadership began its journey towards the Stalinist Unionist economism charactertistic of the WP, most Official Republicans in Derry joined the IRSP split and became what could be descibed as the IRSP’s far left wing. I think that the YS/PD line in 1968 probably reflected as opposed to explioted local feeling.


17. garibaldy - October 9, 2008


Certainly the two worked very closely together, and as you say ultimately most of the people in Derry went with the IRSP. I wonder though how much of that was due to the feelings left over from Bloody Sunday.

The YS line – like the line of the Derry Housing Action Committee or the Derry CRA – represented before 1968 actually a small number of Derry people before the fifth of October march. Hence the disappointment at only around 400 turning up (as opposed to 2,000 or so in Dungannon, which was also a disappointment), especially when we consider that perhaps around 100 came from outside Derry city.

You may well be right that the Derry republicans thought very similarly to the YS element all along, but the programme didn’t even bother to ask that question. Melaugh at least – though not a member of the Republican Clubs at this time – certainly took a different path.


18. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 10, 2008

I think there’s another wider point here about the way we still think about the 1960s; the history of that decade is still, forty years later, strangled by the dead hand of nostalgia.


19. Repetition « Garibaldy Blog - October 17, 2008

[…] Revolution, I’ll also flag up two pieces discussing the analysis of 1968 offered this year, here and here. Maybe I’ll do this from now on whenever I post over there. Possibly related […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: