Northern Ireland's '68

David Granville reviews Northern Ireland's '68: civil rights, global revolt and the origins of The Troubles by Simon Prince, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978 0 7165 2870 3, £19.95 pbk

NI's '68

THE 40th anniversaries of the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967 and the civil-rights marches of the following year have given rise to important new research into the period.

One inevitable outcome has been the appearance of a spate of new books on the subject. Of those published within the last 12-18 months, Simon Prince's Northern Ireland's '68 is arguably the most significant to date.

Of particular interest to readers of this publication is the detail provided by Prince of the role played by the late C. Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association in pioneering a civil rights strategy from the late 1950s onwards.

Greaves saw this as a means of undermining unionism by exposing the injustices perpetrated by the Stormont regime and, over time, of creating the conditions which could bring about a united Ireland.

Central to the strategy developed by Greaves and the Connolly Association was the winning of support for a civil-rights campaign amongst the British labour politicians and trade unionists. Greaves saw this as vital to breaking down an effective 'wall of silence' in the British media and the Westminster parliament concerning the affairs of the north of Ireland.

By working closely with sympathetic MPs and other labour movement and progressive figures, and with organisations such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster and the Movement For Colonial Freedom, the injustices perpetrated by the Unionist regime were indeed exposed and the silence broken.

As Prince demonstrates, the efforts of Greaves' succeeded in convincing political allies in the north's labour and trade union movement of the validity of such an approach. This was to play a key role in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in 1967.

Most previous studies, and indeed some of the most recent, have either played down or completely omitted the role of Greaves and the Connolly Association. While this may have been due, in part, to political prejudice relating to Greaves' membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain, a more mundane factor has contributed to some previous scholarly 'omissions' - until very recently, the most significant repository of material relating to the conflict in the north, Belfast's Linen Hall Library, included very little material produced by the Connolly Association.

Having had access to copies of the Irish Democrat, Greaves' journals and a range of other sources associated with the Connolly Association, Prince's study avoids any such pitfalls.

The book begins with two lengthy chapters exploring developments within unionism and nationalism in the years between partition and the civil-rights era. While both provide a useful backdrop to what is to follow, much of what they contain can be found in other historical studies of the period and, as such, could possibly have been cut back to leave more room for the main subject of the study.

Chapters three and four, 'Republicanism and Socialism' and 'The Civil Rights Campaign', rely heavily on material published in the Irish Democrat and Greaves' journals.

Prince thankfully avoids the pitfall of making the erroneous assumption that because Greaves was a long-standing member of the Communist Party of Great Britain the Connolly Association was some kind of 'front organisation'. Anyone who worked closely with Greaves or who, like Prince, has had access to his journals, knows that the truth lies elsewhere.

Prince's study also makes use of Roy Johnston's ground-breaking biographical and autobiographical study of the 20th Century in Ireland, Century of Endeavour, and of Anthony Coughlan's unpublished history of the Connolly Association. The hypertext links to many of the key documents of the period included in Johnston's Century of Endeavour have clearly proved invaluable - as they will for scholars of this period for many years to come.

Both Coughlan and and Johnston had been active in the Connolly Association in England prior to their return to Ireland in the mid 1960s and both were to have a role in efforts to politicise the republican movement in a leftwards direction - Coughlan from outside the movement, Johnston from within.

The sections of the book which deal with the marches, the Derry disturbances and Unionist reaction to the civil rights campaign highlight developments within the campaign, including the tensions within the civil-rights movement between its broad-based mainstream core and the putative revolutionaries in People's Democracy, a group whose agenda went far beyond achieving fundamental civil rights.

Undoubtedly the least satisfactory element of Prince's book concerns his intermittent forays into other political developments and civil rights struggles around the globe throughout 1968. While some general context is undoubtedly relevant, I cannot help feeling that this could have been dealt with more briefly in the introduction. As it is, the author's detours into the political developments and upheavals in France, Germany, the United States and Czechoslovakia appear forced and, in my opinion, only serve as a distraction from the main narrative.

In his introduction Prince states that his aim in writing the book was to show that "Northern Ireland was different but not exceptional" and that "Northern Ireland should be compared to France and West Germany, not to apartheid South Africa and Israel-Palestine." In doing so Prince inadvertently downplays the role played by British imperialism in the partition of Ireland and subsequent developments in the six counties. The result, as the Irish revolutionary James Connolly foretold, was to be a 'carnival of reaction' on both sides of the border.

In my opinion, this approach of Prince's serves to distract the reader from the fact that it was very specific local conditions arising from partition and the subsequent oppression of and inequalities inflicted upon the nationalist people stranded in the six-county statelet in the wake of partition which led to the civil-rights campaign and what was to follow.

Also, suggesting, as Price does, that the Irish civil-rights struggle had more in common with the outbursts of political activism and militancy which were erupting across western Europe around this time than with other more overtly anti-imperialist struggles around the globe, or the civil rights struggle in the US, has the unfortunate effect of letting Britain off the hook in terms of its own responsibility.

Had the six counties of Northern Ireland not been the remnant of Britain's Irish colony, Prince's argument may have had more validity. But it was such a remnant, and so it remains - and will be so until such time as the the border is removed and a united and independent sovereign Ireland emerges to take its place.

An examination of the conflicts arising from British imperial rule and partition - India/Pakistan, Palestine/Israel or Cyprus, for example - would have been far more politically and historically relevant. Interesting parallels with the peculiar brand of 'colonialism of a different type' which developed in South Africa could also have been usefully explored.

These criticisms aside, this is an excellent book which is packed with detail and thoughtful analysis. There is no doubt that it will be widely read and debated by all those who took part in the civil rights struggles - and by all those who have an interest up to the present time in seeing peace and justice in Ireland and the development of a new relationship between Britain and Ireland based on national sovereignty, mutual respect and co-operation.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2008-09-23 09:35:01.
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