October 5: Derry brought Irish civil rights to the attention of the world, says President Michael D. Higgins

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D. Higgins has this afternoon professed that though the seeds of the Irish civil rights movement were sown in America and Dungannon its was the march of October 5, 1968, that made the world take notice.

The President made the remarks in his address at the international Civil Rights Festival in the Guildhall.

In a far-ranging speech President Higgins observed that almost 50 years after the foundation of Northern Ireland “structural features of the state” remained “in key legislative areas, sectarian” and that this came to a head in Duke Street on October 5, 1968.

Ironically, he observed, how the progressive 1947 (Northern Ireland) Education Act that extended free education to the over 11s and raised the school leavers’ age to 15 had generated a vanguard of leaders and intellectuals in “Ivan Cooper, John Hume, Bernadette McAliskey, Eamonn McCann, Seamus Deane and Seamus Heaney” that would help shape the Derry of the 1960s and beyond.

Some of these were on the frontline when what the old Unionist regime at Stormont had believed was an immovable object met the unstoppable force of the civil rights movement in Derry.

“It would be the march of 5 October 1968 here in this city which brought the Civil Rights Movement to the attention of the world,” said the President.

“It was, of course, undertaken at the request of the Derry Housing Action Committee, and may I say what an honour it is to see some of the members of the Committee here today,” he said.

President Higgins pointed out that as with the housing protest in Caledon of the same year it was ordinary women demanding what they believed were their natural rights and entitlements that provided the movement with its initial impetus.

“As Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh has reminded us, the origins of the Committee can be found in February 1968, following a discussion at Derry Corporation’s Housing Department between four women – ‘Mrs. McNamee, Dillon, Olphert, and Quigley’ - living in flats on Limavady Road who had been forced to live by candlelight when they had found their electricity cut off,” he said.

The President said the Derry Housing Action Committee like the movement as a whole had been a “broad church” comprising “socialists, republicans, labour activists, and trade unionists, including, of course, Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, Eamonn Melaugh, and Eamonn McCann”.

He recalled a sense of awakening upon witnessing the images of RUC members batoning peaceful protestors of the streets half a century ago.

“Like all those who viewed them on the television, I can still recall the images of the Civil Rights march of the 5th of October - the baton-charge by the police on Duke Street, the kicking and punching of protestors – and I remember reading contemporary reports on the intimidation of photographers and cameramen documenting the attack,” he stated.

“These images profoundly shocked people across Ireland, Britain and the wider world, and instantly linked, in the minds of many who saw them, the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland to the other great movements for freedom, democracy and social justice across the world - connecting Derry to Paris, Rome, Berlin, Prague, Mexico City, Warsaw and Cairo.

“Three British Labour Party MPs - Russell Kerr, his wife Anne, and John Ryan – had had answered the call and were standing close to Gerry Fitt when he was struck by police officers,” he said.

The President observed how the events of 50 years ago changed the course of Irish history and paid tribute to two of the key figures that emerged as among the Derry civil rights movement’s most vocal spokespersons in the march’s aftermath.

“The 5th of October march galvanised the movement for Civil Rights in Ireland. In the days which followed, civil rights groups in Derry City merged to form the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee,” said the President.

“Its first chairperson was of course Ivan Cooper, and may I add my own thanks to Ivan, as President of Ireland, for the courage, the leadership and the dedication to the cause of justice – justice in all its forms – that he has demonstrated throughout his political career.

“The vice-chair of the Committee was another remarkable servant of the people of the island of Ireland, John Hume,” he continued.