By Eamon Sweeney

On February 24, 1969 a general election took place in Northern Ireland. It was the last Stormont election to be held before its abolition by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973.

The four years between 1969 and 1973 would of course prove amongst the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Northern state which at that stage was just over 50 years old.

In 1969, Eamonn McCann was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) and was also involved with the Young Socialist movement in the city. That year’s election represented his first foray into the arena of electoral politics and it was not an ultimately successful one. In a three-candidate race, McCann came third polling just under 2,000 votes.

It remains a memorable election to this day in Derry for one main reason-that it heralded the beginning of the electoral career of John Hume, who standing as an Independent Nationalist took the seat from Eddie McAteer who had held it for the Nationalist Party since 1953.

Statistically speaking, the defeat may have felt like a crushing one. John Hume finished almost 7,000 votes ahead of the young NILP candidate. But, for Eamonn McCann polling 1,993 votes as a left of field candidate in the increasingly nationalist fervour of the era was perhaps an achievement of sorts- especially against two candidates of the calibre and public profile of John Hume and Eddie McAteer.

Nevertheless, it would be another 47 years before Eamonn McCann finally won a seat at the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.  He lost it after just nine months in 2017 when another election was called and the representation for Foyle constituency was reduced from six seats to five.

In May this year he was elected to Derry City and Strabane District Council as a People Before Profit Alliance representative for The Moor District Electoral Area-the area in which he has lived all his life.

“The year began with the events that surrounded the march that was attacked at Burntollet. Rioting took place in the Bogside and barricades went up. It was the first manifestation of Free Derry.

“Looking back now, it’s easy to be nostalgic or romantic about it because that shapes the way you see it. That’s the thing about reminiscing over accounts of what happened-about where we were, what we did and so on. I have learned over the years that my memories are quite different to other accounts of what took place.

“But, you look for reasons to say you were right, for validation of your experience and your memory is shaped by that.

“I remember having a discussion with John Throne from the Young Socialists about incidents that took place in Abbey Street. There was rioting and what I could see what quite different to what he could see. That all has to be factored in. It doesn’t mean what all of us saw isn’t true. You tend to see the past through the prism of the present and see things through your own political prism as well. “There are separate, individual accounts so there’s never a definitive version,” Eamonn McCann said.

The Derry News asked Eamonn McCann if he sensed anything different about the overall political situation as 1968 ended and 1969 dawned.

He said: “The reason that Burntollet is so well remembered is because it represented a different phase. It was a step change, a game changer. It was during this that I came up with ‘you are now entering Free Derry’-it’s the most enduring sentence I’ve ever spoken. And, it takes me back to that moment when Liam Hillen, who painted the slogan on the gable end of a house asked me if there were one ‘R’s’ or two ‘R’s’ in entering.

“Looking back, you can see how one thing led to another, but it didn’t seem that the Battle of the Bogside was inevitable. There were events in Derry and Belfast that were significant, but it didn’t feel like they were plot points in the narrative.”

It was also an era when there was a large political pot on a constant simmer filled with different viewpoints, ideologies and proposed tactics. And, it was this unlikely blend of ingredients that formed the back bone of the burgeoning civil rights movement. It was an eclectic, maybe even eccentric mix to say the least constituted as it from nationalists, socialist militants, elements of liberal unionism and republican veterans of previous IRA campaigns.

Eamonn McCann recalled one particular encounter as the People’s Democracy march made its way from Belfast to Derry.

“Dolours and Marian Price remained lifelong friends of mine despite our many political differences. I remember telling the two of them to shut up on the march. They were nattering non-stop, but they were very young at that stage.

“Subsequently they achieved fame, or infamy perhaps. They came from a very republican background so were heavily influenced by that but long-term their lives were deeply affected.

“Even in the first half of 1969, whilst a lot of us tried to hold firm to socialist ideas, you could see the drift towards armed struggle. I remember Sean Keenan saying that the whole situation would lead to armed conflict. There were competing ideas at the time, competing interpretations. But anyone who says now they could see overall what would happen didn’t really see it at the time,” he said.

It’s well known of course that the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) took a lot of its leads from the actions of the movement in the U.S.A. Overarchingly, NICRA were determined to stay within the realms of passive resistance-the use of peaceful means of protest.

Eamonn McCann continued: “It might not stick out in many people’s memories, but during the march to Derry we took a pledge amongst ourselves every night not to be violent. Nobody threw a stone or a fist the whole way along. We were battered, but we remained peaceful.”

That pacifist outlook quickly faded after the loyalist attack on the march at Burntollet. The perceived strong value of non-violent protest was not discarded by the leadership of the broad civil rights movement at Burntollet. But the assault on the demonstration aided and abetted by the RUC, gave the enraged nationalist youth of Derry added proof that the police force were not there to protect them, but rather to prop up the wishes of, as they saw it, a state fundamentally prejudiced against them.

Two nights of violence between rioters and the RUC followed in the city on the 4th and 5th of January. And, it was perhaps during that 48 hours, more than any other time, that the seeds were sown for what would follow in August of 1969.

“When the barricades went up, we took control of the area. Personally, I thought it was heady and hugely exciting and enjoyable, but I don’t want to over emphasise that for fear of trivialising what was going on,” said Eamonn McCann.

What was going on within the unionist establishment in Belfast was that it was visibly wavering in the face of increasing agitation.

In 1963, Captain Terence O’Neill became the leader of Ulster Unionist Party and therefore by a default political setting, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

Without doubt, O’Neill possessed impeccable credentials to assume both the leadership and premiership. He hailed from an English ascendancy background and his family held titles and lands in County Antrim. His father, The Hon Arthur O’Neill was the first MP killed in action during the First World War and Captain Terence too served in the British Army, within the 6th Guards Tank Brigade in WWII. He settled with his family near Ahoghill at the end of 1945 and served as Minister for Home Affairs and Minister of Finance at Stormont before attaining the position of Prime Minister.

However, O’Neill’s policies from the mid-1960s onwards, aimed at ending sectarianism, seeking improved relations with trade unions and seeking inward foreign investment did not augur well with his party. His visit to a convent also rattled the bones of a dogmatically Protestant political party.

But, his meetings with Taoiseach Sean Lemass, a veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916, and later Jack Lynch to discuss common plans for industrialisation and modernisation proved a step too far. He resigned as leader of the UUP and Prime Minister on April 28, 1969. He was replaced by Major James Chichester Clark, a man who had resigned from O’Neill’s cabinet after he had granted ‘one man, one vote’ just five days earlier on April 23.

A statement made to the press by O’Neill less than a month after his resignation would today have nationalists baying for his blood. But at time the language was regarded as traitorous the unionist cause.

On May 10, 1969 O’Nell told the Belfast Telegraph: “It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church.”

Eamonn McCann said: “O’Neill made a televised speech during which he asked, ‘what kind of Ulster do you want?’ You could the beginnings of the disintegration of the unionist monolith. He was intent on trying to run Northern Ireland with some sort of timid reformism. He was a singularly inappropriate character within unionism-completely ineffectual. He had a patrician manner that was very unlikely to persuade the Ulster Unionist Party of the need for reforms.

“He was involved in a very complicated minuet and he didn’t have the ability to dance his way through it.”

Against the turmoil within unionism, in the Bogside Eamonn McCann says there was constant discussion mainly based upon the lines of “what do we do now?”

“All of a sudden there were barricades at the bottom of the street. We were fighting with the police. We’d watched the student uprising in Paris in 1968, there was an uprising in East Berlin and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In the U.S. there was the black civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests. That’s what we were associated with.

“Others were looking instinctively at Irish American politicians as a root to the Whitehouse to get them onside. Myself and others went to the USA and met with organisations like the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement. There were the seeds of a number of different developments, but I was involved with people that would have been defined as socialists, like Johnny White, Joe Quigley, Seamus O’Kane and Cathy Harkin.

“Others saw constitutional nationalism as the way to negotiate ourselves into a better position and some others again had in mind the reintroduction of armed struggle as the way forward. And you could see the embers of a new republican struggle there.

“So, there were socialists and anarchists who welcomed the breakdown of public order. There were chants like, ‘2,4,6,8 organise to smash the state’. But, there wasn’t the realisation that this had a completely different connotation in Northern Ireland. Looking back, we should have been more aware of that, but it just manifested itself in arguments between different organisations.

“There wasn’t enough calm discussions between socialist elements. There wasn’t enough comradeship in the Bogside. I didn’t see it then, but I see it clearly now.

“Then again it wasn’t clear in those days that there would be careers in politics available. I’ve often thought since if some people were thinking about that at the time. I think we were all carried away by events as they happened. But, it was a good time. Maybe that sounds callous but it’s not meant to be.”

So, the Derry News asked Eamonn McCann, what came out of the turmoil on the streets in 1969?

He said: “The basic problems are still with us-poverty, division…there’s a housing crisis again. It’s a different type of housing crisis, but it’s still a crisis. There was very poor housing back then. It’s a bit better now but there’s still not enough of them. Unemployment, particularly among young people is still there.

“But, still a lot of the priorities of the left 50 years ago were achieved within a period of five years in terms of electoral boundary reform, fair allocation of housing and advances in fair employment. More was achieved by the civil rights movement than armed struggle. It makes me think ‘what the f—k was that about?’ when I think about what followed.”

CAPTION: Eamonn McCann pictured during the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969.

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