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Extracts from 'The People's Democracy 1968-73'
by Paul Arthur (1974)
Text: Paul Arthur ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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1: October 1968-February 1969. A Child of
'. . . And as far as I was concerned it was one of those peaceful
civil rights marches, go along, make your protest and go home.
The police brutality did something much more important than focus
the attention of civilization on Northern Ireland. It awakened
the people of Northern Ireland, particularly the students. I know
what it's like to live in an unbalanced society. Because the more
you become involved in it, the more you realize that the whole
problem is much bigger than a few bigoted members of the government.
It's the whole system that's wrong.' 
Miss Devlin was summing up her feelings towards the Derry violence
of October 5, 1968 seventeen months after the event, during which
period her political views had undergone a radical transformation.
But, for our immediate purpose, she was speaking one truth which
has become evident to me after interviewing a number of people
in the People's Democracy (PD). Among students at Queen's University
there was a sense of deep shock and guilt surrounding the events
of October 5. It was this fund of moral protest which was to guide
PD in its early days, the type of protest which was common to
the student protest movement.
'Few young radicals are sure of themselves in terms of ideology.
They feel much more sure of themselves in postures of moral intransigence
using the purity of youth and action to answer their critics'
political attack.'  It was moral outrage which
launched the PD and sustained it in its first phase, a period
of political innocence - outrage at the behaviour of the RUC in
the streets of Derry on October 5 and the subsequent intransigence
of O'Neill's Government. Even some of the left-wing activists
who were to the fore in the Derry march were shocked at the violence
of the events. Cyril Toman knew that the police were going to
stop the march and that there was going to be trouble. But 'I
didn't see beyond that. I didn't conceive of the Unionists as
being as thoroughly bad as they were. I didn't foresee things
like police perjury for example.'
The activists and the uncommitted were united, then, by the violence
of the situation and by the administration's over-reaction to
events. On October 6, ten students held a picket outside the home
of Mr William Craig, Minister of Home Affairs; he is reported
to have called them 'a crowd of bloody fools' for their pains.
At a well-attended meeting in the Students' Union the next day
a decision was taken to march to the City Hall on Wednesday, October
9. The organisers were to be the Joint Action Committee which
had planned the protest march on November 15 the previous year.
On October 9 the march of about 3,000 people, including twenty
members of the academic staff, passed off peacefully. The march
organisers complied with police instructions and avoided Shaftesbury
Square, the Rev Ian Paisley's territory,  on the understanding
that they would be allowed to hold a meeting at the front of the
City Hall. In Linenhall Street, at the rear of the City Hall,
the police again blocked the march to avoid a conflict with a
small number of Paisleyites. There followed a frustrating three-hour
sit-down in Linenhall Street and eventually a march back to the
The demonstrators were anxious to avoid a clash at all costs -with
the exception of one small group:
'While there were undoubtedly voices raised by an excited sub-Guevara
group towards the end of the proceedings advocating a charge through
the police, the main body of the march was made up of embarrassed
indignant young Ulstermen and women whose deep-grained conservatism
of behaviour was outweighed by a reluctant recognition of injustice.'
The militant student leaders learnt a few valuable lessons
from the conduct of that march. This was not to be the time for
pressing ahead with revolutionary demands, and it was significant
that it was Michael Farrell who had the foresight and the authority
to persuade the dissidents to adopt a more reasoned view.
It was clear to all of those who had been involved in the sit-down
that they had to overcome the frustration of not reaching their
destination. Again it was Farrell who seized on this point and
who called a meeting of all interested parties immediately after
the marchers arrived back at the University. What began as a
small gathering of disenchanted students intent on voicing their
criticisms of the organisers, the police and the counter-demonstrators
grew into an emotional and intense mass meeting concerned with
solving the fundamental problems of the divided community. At
least one newspaper, admittedly partisan, compared it 'to the
kind of free debate of which the Sorbonne in the May Days was
the best example.' 
At that meeting a number of important decisions were taken, and
PD emerged as a spontaneous, militant, democratic group working
within the Civil Rights Movement. It made six demands which were
sloganised into an appeal leaflet illustrating its civil rights
One man, one vote
The nature of its organisation was agreed upon. As a democratic
organisation it was open to literally anyone who wished to come
along to its meetings, a fact which the Cameron Commission felt
obliged to explain:
Houses on Need
Jobs on Merit
Repeal of the Special Powers Act.
'People's Democracy has no accepted constitution and no recorded
membership. At any meeting any person attending is entitled both
to speak and to vote; decisions taken at one meeting may be reviewed
at the next - indeed during the currency of any given meeting.
No subscription, entrance fee or membership qualification is required
of members (if they can be so called) of this movement, and the
requisite finance is obtained from collections at meetings, subscriptions
or contributions from well wishers and supporters both within
Northern Ireland and elsewhere.'
A 'faceless committee' was elected. The body of the meeting, fearing
that the 'professional' student politicians would take over PD,
insisted that a committee of ten be elected on the basis that
none of them had any known political affiliations. The faceless
committee consisted of Miss Bernadette Devlin (undergraduate),
Miss Patricia Drinan (undergraduate), Miss Ann McBurney (a recent
graduate), Ian Goodall (undergraduate), Michael O'Kane (undergraduate),
Eddie McCameley (undergraduate), Joe Martin (a recent graduate),
Fergus Woods (a recent graduate), Kevin Boyle (lecturer in law
at the University) and Malcolm Myle (worker and member of the
Young Socialist Alliance). The committee did not have executive
powers. It was elected in a co-ordinating capacity to administer
the decisions of the general meetings and it was given the right
to elect ad hoc committees for specific projects and functions.
Finally, the name of this new student movement emerged as the
'People's Democracy.' John Murphy tells how it was created:
'In Linenhall Street there was dissatisfaction with the organisation
of the march. I felt the need for a democratic organisation rather
than a joint action committee. I remember saying at the time,
"This is the only democratic street in Northern Ireland.
This is a People's Democracy." On the next morning I had
to stencil an announcement and decided "There will be a meeting
of the People's Democracy tonight." It was the most natural
description of what was to take place that night. The name was
adopted at that meeting.'
An observer of the contemporary political scene in the United
States has noted that 'a main difference between the New Left
and both the Old Left and traditional Right is the New Left's
antipathy to conventional political forms and organisations. It
does not relate to. the Democratic Party or to the larger structure
of pluralistic politics.'  A parallel can be drawn with the
initial position of PD in relation to Northern Ireland's political
scene. The adoption of its name (with its obvious Marxist connotations),
its Libertarian organisation which allowed for non-student participation,
and the election of its 'faceless committee' which includes five
Socialists  - Patricia Drinan, Ian Goodall, Michael OKane,
Joe Martin and Malcolm Myle - were victories for the 'underground'
of exstudents 'which sometimes provides direction and ideological
sophistication to the movement.' From the outset then, PD was
part of the larger civil rights movement but the nature of its
organisation had helped to establish its separate identity.
(This account of the naming of PD
clashes in some respects with that reported in the Sunday Times
of 27.4.1969, but I see no reason to doubt the veracity of
the interviewee). So the PD was formally launched on October 11,
(i) From 'Incipiency' to 'Coalescence
'The situation within the embryonic movement is reminiscent of
what Blumer (1951) has had to say about what he calls general,
as opposed to specific social movements . . . "groping unco-ordinated
efforts . . . unorganised with neither established leadership nor
recognised membership, and little guidance or control." '
During this early period the PD was aware of the sympathy and
respect it had won from important sections of the community. 'In
a bitter atmosphere, the students strike a note of hope,' wrote
Mary Holland in the Observer. The President of the Methodist
Church complimented 'the students of Queen's on the restraint
and nonviolence of their demonstrations this week.' The Liberal
Party praised the first march as 'an example of effective, responsible
and non-violent protest.' The Minister of Education, Captain Long,
two senior civil servants and a District Inspector of the RUC
saw fit to address it during the first fortnight of its existence.
Even some members of the Queen's University Conservative and Unionist
Association, including the chairman, were prepared to support
In this incipient phase PD's reaction to its immediate acclaim
was to be spontaneous and contradictory. On October 10 it exercised
caution by postponing a proposed march in Belfast on Saturday
(October 12) until the following Wednesday to avoid a clash with
a demonstration organised by the Rev Ian Paisley. Always it stressed
its non-sectarian and non-violent nature. For example, on October
15 it called on Church support: 'At this most critical time in
our community, if we are to avoid the forces of violence which
surround us and if we are to achieve our ideals of peaceful change
then more than anything else we need the heartening support of
the religious bodies of this province.'
On October 16 more than 2,000 students reached the City Hall,
having accepted another re-route after the Rev Ian Paisley cancelled
his meeting at Shaftesbury Square. On November 1, it wrote to
the Prime Minister suggesting a debate on the civil rights issue,
 and on the same day it supported the proposed march of Paisley's
supporters through the predominantly Catholic city of Derry on
November 9 as being a basic civil right for them.
These actions and sentiments suggested a movement with a passion
for justice, but a movement which would not attempt to overthrow
the system - in short its radicalism was tempered by a sense of
responsibility and of working for the possible. This absence of
utopianism is best summed up in Bernadette Devlin's disarmingly
naive statement: 'We are not out to embarrass the Government or
cause civil strife or divide the people on any issue. Our movement
is non-political, non-sectarian, and if we can get civil rights
established we can return to our books and studies with the satisfying
knowledge that we have achieved something in the interests of
the community.'  Miss Devlin demonstrated her political innocence
in a more positive manner at this time when she attempted to parley
with the Rev Ian Paisley at his home. The meeting achieved nothing.
Yet her words and deeds personified the spirit of PD in these
The liberal acclaim which PD had received was by no means universal.
The allegations of the link between the Irish Workers' Group and
prominent personalities in PD made by the Minister of Home Affairs
at Stormont was one attempt to invoke a 'red scare'. A few days
previously RUC Special Branch detectives claimed that 'members
of the illegal Irish Republican Army are enlisting undercover
agents among students at Queen's University.  In a letter
to the Belfast Telegraph (October 14) the President of
the SRC, Ian Brick, wrote: 'I am concerned that all too often
students are used as a readily available supply of people for
others to manipulate. Hence if trouble does occur on a march or
demonstration almost certainly students alone will receive the
blame.' Finally Mr D D Rogan, chairman of the Young Unionist Council,
said that he was convinced that 'the Campaign for Social Democracy
(sic), the People's Democracy, the Students' Joint Action Committee
(sic), the Civil Rights Association, and the Londonderry Citizens
Action Committee were mostly, if not all, Communist and Republican'.
PD reacted to these criticisms by dismissing them as the smear
tactics of discredited Unionism, and it continued its campaign
for civil rights and social justice. At Stormont, on October 24,
1968, United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Day, it occupied
the Great Hall for three hours and conducted its own mini-Parliament.
Eventually most of the protesters left having collected the signatures
of twelve MPs  on a statement demanding its six basic civil
rights demands, and 'having taught Stormont a lesson in democracy'.
Eleven, however, decided to squat on until midnight, the first
public sign of some disagreement within PD. What was more significant
at this stage was the fact that the Government sent Capt Long,
Minister of Education, to parley with the demonstrators. Here
was a clear acknowledgement of PD's potential -not only was the
Cabinet prepared to allow it a sit-in at the centre of power but
it felt it necessary to send along one of its senior Ministers
to negotiate with it.
As far as the Government was concerned that was the end of its
short and curious honeymoon with PD. The movement was proving
that it had time and energy to be of considerable nuisance value.
When the Prime Minister opened an exhibition at the Arts Council
Gallery on October 28, he was met by a small picket. When the
new Governor, Lord Grey of Naunton, went to Stormont to receive
addresses from both Houses of Parliament on December 3, he was
met by about twenty PD supporters carrying placards declaring:
'Welcome to Fascist Ulster' and 'Houses on Need'. On December
6, six PD supporters paraded outside a Unionist Party Standing
Committee meeting demanding that Mr William Craig be sacked; next
day another forty mounted a picket outside his private residence
for three hours, and a further twenty-five held a meeting and
distributed leaflets at the City Hall.
All those demonstrations had the support of the other civil rights
groups and opposition parties so long as they were non-violent.
The older generation was only too aware of the frailty of non-sectarian
politics. For example, many individuals in the inter-confessional
NILP were prepared to take part in the early protests even at
the risk of losing votes in Protestant working class constituencies.
If there were to be any incidents of violence they would want
to wind down the civil rights campaign. To a lesser extent this
was the attitude of the local civil rights groups which tended
to be led by the Catholic professional middle class. When minor
acts of violence did occur the moderates were irritated.
On November 4, Capt O'Neill travelled to London to discuss the
civil rights demands with the British Prime Minister at Downing
Street; it had been arranged that a small picket of PD sympathisers
would meet him there. Simultaneously a march, from the University
to the City Hall via Shaftesbury Square (ie disputed territory),
had been planned. The demonstrators decided that they had been
reasonable in accepting two re-routes in the past and were not
prepared to agree to another. Consequently there were some scuffles
with the police when the group tried to enter Shaftesbury Square
and nine of them were arrested on charges of disorderly behaviour.
The remainder made their way individually to the city centre where
they held a meeting and a sit-down which disrupted rush-hour traffic.
In retaliation a Protestant extremist, Major Ronald Bunting, and
nine of his supporters occupied a University Hall of Residence
for three hours.
One other incident lost PD support within the University. On November
13 the Prime Minister came along to the University to a prize-giving
ceremony and was met by a PD picket. But the demonstration got
out of control, and PD came under attack. On the following day
the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist chaplains in
the University described the incidents as 'a disorderly and ill-mannered
demonstration.' Professor Sir John Biggart, Pro-Vice-Chancellor
of the University called for a report on the incidents to be sent
to him, and a PD spokesman placed the responsibility on a 'splinter
group' of 'revolutionary infants.' PD was forced to make a formal
'The People's Democracy to-day stated that the demonstration at
the Whitla Hall on Wednesday afternoon was ineffective because
of hasty and incomplete organisation . . . It was not our intention
to disturb the Methodist College prizegiving and an apology is
being forwarded to all concerned,' - and retreated from demonstrations
on the campus. This was not just a face-saving retreat; rather
it demonstrated PD's concern with larger issues, a fact noted
by Richard Rose: 'at a time when student riots were disrupting
campuses elsewhere in the Western world, it is entirely in character
that events in Northern Ireland moved in the opposite direction.
Student members left the university precincts in peace and concentrated
attention upon the society around them.' 
One of the signs of the coalescence of a radical movement
is 'the organisation of a number of local and ephemeral ad hoc
committees, caucuses, fronts, and the like, here and there around
the society. There is not yet any nationally co-ordinated organisation.
The set-back of the Whitla Hall incident unwittingly revealed
one of PD's strengths. Its radical animus did not depend on the
promotion of 'etudialist' demands. It must always be remembered
that it was only one of a number of organisations demanding civil
rights. It began extending its influence outside the University
milieue by allying with organisations in other areas -
particularly Derry where the most effective local civil rights
group, the Londonderry Citizens' Action Committee, held a number
It took part in a sit-down in Derry on October 19; and on November
16 about 120 PD members were among a 15,000 crowd which marched
through Derry. This march had been banned three days previously,
and had the procession been violent it could have certainly swept
aside the police barriers erected to prevent it entering the old
walled city of Derry. As it was the march dispersed after a 'token'
breach of the barriers by its leaders and after a few minor skirmishes
PD was also to the fore at a march in Armagh on November 30 when
Michael Farrell was one of the invited platform speakers. Again,
the success of this demonstration was guaranteed when the procession
was blocked by a large group of Paisleyites and yet it refused
to allow itself to be provoked.
Not all of PD's supporters were prepared to submerge the organisation
in the all embracing cloak of 'civil rights'. Some insisted in
pushing PD's individual line. John Hume was wary of certain individuals
in it from the beginning: 'Their tactic was that wherever there
was a confrontation with the police a spontaneous meeting should
be held and votes taken. They wanted the right of anyone in the
crowd to get up and speak. I wondered did they in fact want the
crowd to get out of control . . .' 
This tactic and the tensions which it created, manifested itself
at the mass demonstration in Derry on November 16. One press correspondent,
Joe Carroll, noted that:
'The role played by several hundred Queen's students in last Saturday's
Derry march reflected the strains within the PD. The PD Committee,
including Kevin Boyle and Bernadette Devlin, organised most of
the students as stewards to help control the huge crowd. The RSSF
 group gave the Derry stewards some anxious moments,
according to one of the committee, when they seemed only too anxious
to have a go at the police; but a clash was averted . . . in fact
the socialist element is probably the most influential and vociferous
at the moment. . .'
The same element was involved in the minor violence of November
30 in Armagh where there was some trouble at the point of confrontation
with the Paisleyites, most of it stemming 'from members of the
People's Democracy, several of them throwing themselves at the
barricades,' while other PD supporters held a spontaneous meeting
at a street corner after the march broke up.
A more obvious example of its attempt to extend its influence
outside the University was its campaign of PIP, a Programme to
Inform the People, in opposition to Capt O'Neill's PEP. A local
branch of PD was formed in Newry on November 9 when a small group
travelled from Belfast and held two meetings in the town. Its
sphere of influence was extended to Dungannon and Omagh on November
23 when standing committees were elected but these meetings were
marred by scuffles with Paisleyites and consequently PD suffered
a further dent in its non-violent image.
The PIP campaign has certain similarities with ERAP, the Economic
Research and Action Project, undertaken by the American civil
rights-cum-revolutionary socialist group, Students for a Democratic
Society. 'Apart from campus activities, SDS undertook
community organising, mainly of the poor in their Economic Research
and Action Project (ERAP) which did work in Newark, Chicago, Cleveland,
Boston and other towns
' The type of activity may have
been different but the aims were the same in both cases - to extend
the influence of each group - though it should be said that there
is no evidence that PD were aware of SDS activity.
The 'Long March'
It was the decision to march from Belfast to Derry which finally
separated the militants from a large group of students who were
worried about a left-wing takeover. The moderates won their last
major victory when they persuaded PD by a small majority to cancel
a planned march for December 14 to the City Hall, Belfast, one
condition being that 'Mr O'Neill should still be in power on Saturday.'
This concern for the plight of the Prime Minister was an indication
of what was going on at Government level. For some time the Prime
Minister had been aware of the necessity to make some concessions
to the insistent civil rights demands. He realized the dangers
in ignoring them:
'Political leadership has a responsibility and a motive to assess
the informal power behind the conflicting demands of social groups
and to find a basis of accommodation in terms of cost and risk.
In doing this they must adjust their own and their followers'
values to make the accommodation feasible or face the dangers
of direct action and escalated violence and counter-violence.
Where a community drifts towards alienation and violence, leaders
of the establishment cannot evade the responsibility of adjusting
majority values to moderate minority needs.' 
Urged on by the British Prime Minister, Mr Harold Wilson, Capt
O'Neill did not attempt to evade his responsibilities. On November
22 he introduced his 'reform package.' He promised an Ombudsman,
the introduction of a points system in the allocation of houses,
the reform of local government elections, the repeal of parts
of the Special Powers Act and the suspension of Derry Corporation.
This announcement was received with mixed feelings by the various
interest groups. Within his own party the 'hard-liners' began
a campaign for his removal, and from that date his position as
Prime Minister was a tenuous one. In the civil rights movement
the moderates saw the package as a victory for their dignified
protests and a declaration of the Prime Minister's good intentions.
(Consequently there was a lull in civil rights activities.) However,
the militants - chiefly within PD - felt that it was too little
too late, although it indicated the efficacy of direct action.
The November 22 reform deal did not stem the tide of agitation
mounted against O'Neill by a section of his own party. As a result,
on December 9 he made an emotional televised speech, full of Churchillian
cadences, warning Ulster people that they were on the brink of
disaster. His speech made considerable impact and moderate
opinion flocked to his support. Over 100,000 people supported
a 'I back O'Neill' campaign organised by the liberal-unionist
Belfast Telegraph and within a matter of days 2,000 undergraduates
signed a message of solidarity.
On December 11 he strengthened his position with liberal opinion
by sacking William Craig, his right-wing Minister of Home Affairs,
thereby coincidentally acceding to one of PD's most insistent
demands. Immediately the Derry Citizens Action Committee pledged
'as an indication of their sincerity' to conduct their campaign
without marches for a month.
By succumbing to some of the civil rights demands in his announcements
on November 22 and December 11 it could be argued that the Prime
Minister was attempting to 'co-opt' the civil rights activists,
thereby fulfilling one of the factors of the 'incipiency' and
'coalescence' stages of the growth of a radical movement. The
upsurge of public support for him indicated that he had met with
short-term success at least.
The suggestion that PD should march from Belfast to Derry was
made at one of its regular meetings from the floor of the house
in early December. Michael Farrell became very enthusiastic with
the idea and was instrumental in having an organising committee
set up to work out the details. But the timing of the decision
was delicate since it occurred when civil rights activists were
reconsidering their views on direct action. Following the lead
of the Derry Citizens Action Committee decision of December 9,
a large meeting of PD decided to call off the march in the interests
of peace. O'Neill's co-optive efforts had achieved another short-term
Against this background of growing support for the Prime Minister
the New Left was not prepared to let the matter rest. A small
meeting was held at the end of term when most students had returned
home. A decision to go ahead with the march was taken after leaders
of the Young Socialist Alliance emphasised that they would
undertake it if PD was not in favour. It was an important victory
for Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman. The latter summed up his
attitude by saying: 'To accept O'Neill's moratorium was not a
neutral decision, it was a tacit acknowledgement of O'Neill's
The decision embarrassed the Derry Citizens Action Committee:
'I had long conversations with Bernadette Devlin and Kevin Boyle.
I expressed the view that the march would lead to sectarian violence.
I thought they agreed with this and as far as I know they went
back and argued that the march be not held . . .'
(Nonetheless when the march did take place the Action Committee in Derry met
it, largely because it generated an emotional Catholic response
to its courage.)
The decision also indicated the overt breakdown of the ultra-democratic
structure of the organisation. While two militants, John McGuffin
(an anarchist) and John Murphy (a former nationalist), have stated
in interview that they were prepared to abide by the original
decision to cancel the march, Farrell and Toman demonstrated clearly
that they would have their way at all costs. One of the 'faceless
committee,' Kevin Boyle, was annoyed by this attitude:
'I was bitter about the way in which the YSA had upstaged the
Boyle's opinion was an important one because he had been seen
to have exercised a moderating influence on the 'faceless committee,'
a fact acknowledged by the Cameron Commission. He was certain
of what his role should be:
'At the very beginning the only people aware of mass politics
were the Left and SRC people. . . In a sense we (ie Bernadette
Devlin and himself) held back the Left. My fear was that it would
push too far, dissipate itself and disappear.'
Bernadette Devlin concurs with this statement:
'Essentially we were referees between the existing political groups
so that none of them actually took over . . . I was coming to the
realisation that if people felt it was a YSA idea a lot of people
wouldn't go. If he (ie Michael Farrell) had taken his time he
might have held on to a lot of other people who were idealistic
but hadn't come round to socialism yet.'
Although Kevin Boyle and Bernadette Devlin were not too happy
about the timing of the decision they felt it incumbent upon them
to go on the march.
That may have been one small indication of the successful takeover
of PD by the New Left. Another more important sign was that the
New Left felt powerful enough to dissolve the Young Socialist
Alliance by majority vote on the night before the march to Derry.
(Yet Michael Farrell claimed that he didn't want to see PD being
turned into a socialist organisation, that his task was to recruit
people from PD and move them into a socialist group such as the
Young Socialist Alliance, and that it was only by February 1969
that he was thinking of trying to move PD to the left.) The
simple fact is that this decision was a victory for the socialist
element and for Farrell in particular. The composition of the
march clarified that point. Only about forty to eighty people
set out from Belfast on January 1 under the twin banners of 'Civil
Rights' and 'Anti-Poverty.' It received the active assistance
of the Londonderry branch of the NILP and the Radical Socialist
Alliance (a small extreme left-wing splinter group from Derry).
During the march itself, an Anarchist and a Republican banner
were hoisted, and Republicans and NICRA supporters housed and
fed the marchers along the route.
As was to be expected the Unionist Party and the Orange Order
were opposed to the march but the Government was not prepared
to ban it. Confusion was sown in the ranks of the
opposition parties. The NICRA, Austin Currie MP (Nationalist)
and Miss Sheelagh Murnaghan MP (Liberal) welcomed the decision:
From a number of sources, however, disquiet was evident. The elder
statesman from the Opposition, E McAteer MP, leader of the Nationalist
Party, considered it 'not good marching weather - in more senses
than one.' Both the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph
in their editorials on December 30 counselled caution and
care. With the advantage of hindsight it is obvious that no one
was certain what would happen on the march and that most people
on the opposition side were prepared to let the march go ahead
if only to guage the feelings of the body politic after a few
months of intense agitation.
There were those in PD who knew why they were marching. Michael
Farrell thought that civil rights agitation would come to a stop
if PD did not go ahead, because the other groups 'would have accepted
O'Neill's miserable reforms.' Bernadette Devlin was equally
'Our function in marching from Belfast to Derry was to break the
truce, to relaunch the civil rights movement as a mass movement
and to show people that O'Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing.
What we really wanted to do was to pull the carpet off the floor
to show the dirt that .was under it so that we could sweep it
This mixture of expediency and moral outrage was typical of many
of the marchers. One of them aptly summed up feelings as the march
'The violence that had grown around us was a living proof of the
rottenness that was built into the system: our little march had
lit a fire That would help to burn out the dross of Ulster.'
On the eve of the march a PD statement, outlining the reasons
for proceeding with the exercise, likened it to the famous march
of 1965 between Selma and Montgomery led by Dr Martin Luther King.
'We are marching because nothing has really changed since the
Government's package of reforms in November which was condemned
as inadequate by the entire Civil Rights movement and even the
British Prime Minister, Mr Wilson . . . It is, perhaps, as well
to repeat that we are demanding not privileges but rights and
that in marching to Derry we are merely exercising another fundamental
Ostensibly, then, the march to Derry was to be an exercise of
a 'fundamental democratic liberty' but it can be seen also as
an attempt to build a worker-student alliance. Similar attempts
had been made by French students in the 'May-Days' of 1968 and
earlier by Japanese and Uruguayan students. For example 340,000
trade unionists and students had converged on the Japanese Diet
on June 19, 1960, in the famous 'snake-march.' As a gesture of
contempt, there was a mass-urination on the steps of the Diet
building. Since 1962 radical students and sugar workers had
organised an annual May-Day march in Uruguay. Their manifesto
of May 1, 1968 indicates their aims:
'We set out from Bella Union in this "March for Land"
with the idea of passing through villages and towns and talking
with all the exploited and oppressed.. . We reject dialogue with
those who govern us...'
In reality the march from Belfast to Derry through the towns and
villages of counties Antrim and Derry was a rejection of dialogue
with the Government. Attacks on the march by Protestant workers
automatically ensured Catholic support for it, particularly after
the Burntollet ambush. Burntollet bridge, about six miles outside
Derry was the scene of a carefully staged ambush by about 400
Protestant extremists. Armed with bricks and nailed cudgels and
wearing white armbands as a means of identification, they laid
into the defenceless marchers, many of whom were badly injured
and whose only escape route was a swollen and freezing river.
The remnant of the march fled on towards Derry, convinced that
the RUC had offered little or no protection.
The 'Long March,' as it came to be called, had far-reaching
effect. Cameron summed it up thus:
'For moderates this march had disastrous effects. It polarized
the extreme elements in the communities in each place it entered.
It lost sympathy for the Civil Rights movement and led to serious
rioting in Maghera and Londonderry. It divided the Civil Rights
movement and weakened the Derry Citizens' Action Committee. We
are driven to think that the leaders must have intended that their
venture would weaken the moderate reforming forces in Northern
Ireland. We think that their object was to create tension so that
in the process a more radical programme could be realised. They
saw the march as a calculated martyrdom.'
Reaction to the Burtollet ambush was immediate. John Hume, for
the Derry Citizens' Action Committee announced:
'The pre-Christmas truce which we voluntarily imposed may now
be considered at an end. There will certainly be a return to militant
action. To this we are totally committed.'
The Prime Minister condemned the march as 'a foolhardy and irresponsible
undertaking' and advised students 'to return to their books.'
In an interview given to Karl E Meyer of the Washington Post
he demonstrated his concern with the PD:
'. . . We've always had extreme Protestants and extreme Irish
Republicans - the anarchchists and Trotskyites among the students
are something new. About 95 per cent or even 99 per cent of the
students don't want violence, but a small minority doesn't care.
These radicals are quite distinct from the leaders of the civil
rights marches in Londonderry. In fact, up there they drove the
anarchists out of the movement.'
It is much too soon after the event to make any definitive statements
about the effects of the Burntollet march particularly since the
situation has been conforming to a sort of inexorable logic of
violence and counter-violence. Certain cautious comments can be
The Prime Minister was correct in fearing the influence of PD
since it had demonstrated that it was interested in weakening
'All were going for at least one common reason: a reaction against
the evasive platitudes with which O'Neill and his men tried to
pass the can for his own misdeeds . . . in marching we felt that
we were pushing a structure (that contained the seeds of great
violence among other things) towards a point where its internal
proceedings would cause a snapping and a breaking to begin.'
In short some PD members were now seeing their task as the destruction
of the State, no matter what the consequences. The Long March'
began the long march from the policy of persuasion to that of
polarization. This method of attack was built by New Left radicals
in the United States:
'Their answer to the government-by-consensus that is becoming
universal in the advanced countries has been to polarize opinion:
not for them the dialogue leading to co-optation that distinguished
their predecessors, but the solidarity of those alienated from
the system and all its works.'
Millenarianism had arrived and while it might be some time before
it asserted itself in PD it was clear that reformist politics
were on the way out. This is a phenomenon which has been noted
by at least one academic observer of the student movement:
'What starts as a limited protest against some isolated issue
may easily turn into a sustained movement, with concerns extending
to the broader society. The leadership of the student movement
is notably fluid, and it is very possible for a norm-oriented
leadership to be supplanted by students interested in capitalising
on a particular movement for their broader political purposes.'
Within PD it created an elite of marchers; those who had gone
to Derry were conscious of the solidarity and camaraderie which
had grown up among them. Kevin Boyle noted this point: 'In a sense
those who had taken part in the march regarded themselves as PD,
and those who didn't weren't. Certainly afterwards the meetings
were smaller.' Michael Farrell read wider implications into
the success' of the march: 'It gave students - red flag flyers - credibility with the working class and peasantry. This has not
been seen anywhere else in Europe.' (This view
would very probably be disputed by the students of Nantes for
example, who had a very successful, if short-lived, alliance with
peasants and industrial workers.)
What the student marchers seemingly were not capable of was self-criticism.
They accepted the accolades heaped on them when they refused to
be provoked into reacting violently; they accepted that the march
had split PD somewhat, but what remained was the elite of the
movement; they accepted that it 'established in people's minds
the separate identity of PD as the most extreme of civil rights
groups,' and they accepted that Kevin Boyle and
Michael Farrell were elected to the NICRA executive in February
largely as a result of the publicity won on that march.
But no one stopped to ask what effect it had on Protestant opinion.
An Australian observer has noted that 'arrogant' invasion of enemy
territory 'has often been the flashpoint of the religious riots
which have punctuated Ulster's short but stormy history.'
The 'Long March' was seen by many Protestants as a series of
arrogant invasions of their territory; the ambush at Burntollet
bridge was their answer to it.
Nor did anyone wonder if it would have a debilitating effect on
the civil rights campaign. Michael Farrell, in a characteristic
blanket statement, thought the contrary: Without this resumption
there would have been no "one man, one vote" and no
The charge of 'calculated martyrdom' made by Cameron is one which
John Hume accepted:
'I would think that the leaders of the march calculated it and
knew what would happen. Anyone with any experience of Northern
Ireland politics knew it would happen. It was a calculated move
by the leaders . . . As a result of the Burntollet march Farrell
became a national leader.'
While subsequent actions and writings of a few of the leaders
bore this point out we must not extend the criticism beyond a
few people. Account must be taken of the genuine political innocence
of many of those involved in the march. Even those who had had
political experience before October 1968 had been limited to protests
over, say, Vietnam or Czechslovakia, 'safe' issues in Belfast.
They made the further mistake of believing that if they stated
that they were non-sectarian and non-violent enough times they
would persuade the wider world to accept them and even adopt their
In brief, then, the 'long march' illustrated a number of points.
It may have widened the sectarian divide - the intemperate reactions
of two moderate leaders, John Hume and Captain O'Neill, is one
slight example of the polarization in the community - although
any coming together of the two communities had been very tenuous
indeed. It established PD's separate existence within the civil
rights movement, giving it a sense of self-importance and helping
to create a division between itself and the more moderate groups.
Within PD it created a left-wing elite which may have alienated
more moderate students. Finally it weakened O'Neill's position.
His advice to students to return to their books cannot have won
him any Catholic votes in the general election in February, and
the defiance of authority in Derry following the Burntollet ambush
strengthened the hand of his right-wing opponents in the party.
John Hume's promise that there would be a return to militant action
on the streets manifested itself in Newry on the following Saturday,
January 11, 1969. The local branch of PD - it had had virtually
no contact with the parent body since its formation on November
9, 1968 - decided in December to hold a march in the town some
time in January, but since there was a lack of public support
the committee called off the march on December 30. The ambush
at Burntollet heightened public feeling and a decision was quickly
taken to organise a march. 'They had decided to hold Saturday's
march to capitalize on the emotions engendered by Burntollet and
to express disgust with Captain O'Neill's speech,' said T Keane,
chairman of Newry PD.
The civil rights movement wanted to demonstrate that marches could
proceed without attracting violence, and PD in Belfast had a vested
interest in ensuring that the demonstration passed off peacefully.
Kevin Boyle thought that Newry would be more important than the
'Long March.' 'Was PD to expand through the branches? Newry would
provide the answer.' The damage done in Newry illustrated
that the emotions of Burntollet could not be channelled in a non-violent
direction. Seven police wagons were destroyed; eighteen people
- including ten policemen - were injured; and twenty-four, most
of them PD supporters, were arrested.
The Civil Rights movement suffered a temporary set-back and PD
took much of the blame with the result that a local branch of
the NICRA was set up in its place. The violence was a useful propaganda
victory for the Government:
'.... their aim now appears to be the creation of civic strife
in an attempt to disrupt the harmonious relationships which have
grown up among all sections of the community in recent years.'
PD could readily dismiss Unionist opinion, but had to take account
of civil rights opinion. Local people objected to the diversionary
tactic of Michael Farrell and twelve others when they occupied
Newry General Post Office. At a public meeting in the Town Hall
on January 15, 'members of the audience were sharp in criticism
of the occupation of the GPO, which they felt could have led to
violence, which was in direct conflict with the Civil Rights movement.'
Cyril Toman's diversionary actions were even more ludicrous. He
attempted to organise local teenagers into a 'People's Army.'
It was this type of tactic which led Fergus Pyle to sum up the
feelings of many towards PD:
'In the first confused reaction on Saturday night a man from the
Omagh CR group said: "This proves that we must cut loose
from the PD." His main fear was that its form of organisation
laid it open to "infiltration, abuse and demagoguery."'
Yet, certainly in the short-term, PD's popularity did not seem
to suffer, and the General Election of February 24, 1969, confirmed
its acceptability among a section of the Catholic population.
One reason could have been that it realised the futility of marching
duing that tense period. Kevin Boyle made the point at a meeting
in Dublin: 'By Civil Rights marches we have heightened the risk
of sectarian conflict and polarised the community. Marches have
become counter-productive and are in danger of becoming redundant.'
Thus PD favoured the postponement of a NICRA march in Strabane
on January 18 and agreed to hold a teach-in at the University
with a group from Oxford rather than risk a march through Belfast
on January 25. To replace marches it announced a shift in tactics
towards a campaign of civil disobedience.
The General Election February 1969
Following the reaction to the 'Long March' the Prime Minister's
position was becoming increasingly untenable, particularly within
his own party. In response to growing Catholic agitation Capt
O'Neill announced the setting up of the Cameron Commission to
inquire into the reasons for the civil disturbances. This displeased
his own right-wingers, and on January 23 Brian Faulkner, the Deputy
Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce, resigned. Two days later
William Morgan, Minister of Health and Social Services, followed
Faulkner's example. Finally thirteen Unionist backbenchers met
in Portadown to publicize their grievances with O'Neill. He replied
by calling a General Election for February 24.
PD decided to contest the election. Once again, however, the first
meeting to discuss the issue decided that the group should not
become a parliamentary party. The decision was reversed at a later
meeting when the pro-election caucus presented the meeting with
a fait accompli, that is, it had drawn up an electoral
strategy, had decided its candidates and what constituencies to
contest and had produced a manifesto. It entered the campaign
full of amateur enthusiasm, but uncertain of financial support.
(It was the responsibility of each candidate to raise his own
deposit and expenses, though it seems that some money came from
a group of PD supporters in London.) Initially twelve candidates
had been chosen, but only eight stood. Six of these were recent
graduates, most of them ex-members of the Labour Group,  one,
Bernadette Devlin, an undergraduate, and one, Mr E Weigleb, who
stood in Cromac, a salesman. They contested six Unionist-held
seats, and two Nationalist-held seats, in three
cases being the only opponents to the member in the last Parliament,
and in five they were taking part in a three-way fight.
The endorsement of the candidate in Cromac is an example of an
essentially student movement attempting to establish links with
the working-class. Few of PD's active supporters knew the candidate
personally but supported his nomination simply because he had
come along to the meeting and indicated his willingness to stand.
During the campaign he received very little help form the students
and was the only candidate to lose his deposit. Kevin Boyle summed
up PD confusion on this point:
'We were so ignorant of the situation that we didn't know there
was a Labour candidate in Cromac. My girl-friend was shanghaied
into acting as Weigleb's election agent . . . We half-heartedly
went on with it.'
PD saw the election as a 'non-event', an attempt to decide 'whether
sectarianism is to be polite and covert - the O'Neill approach
- or paraded as something to be proud of, the approach of his
so-called right wing colleagues.' It chose to fight 'traditionally
uncontested Unionist and Nationalist seats in the main, not on
the basis that they will most easily assure our election but on
the argument that our policy is right for all and not for the
ears of one particular group. In these constituencies we intend
to provide for the first time to the mass of the people real policy
and real choices.' 
Although PD's manifesto was fairly predictable
in that it reiterated its familiar civil rights demands, it went
beyond these to make some radical suggestions. Among other things
it demanded state investment in building new factories which would
be run by the workers; the expropriation of large estates to be
replaced by small farmers's co-operatives; and a comprehensive
integrated educational system. Within such a conservative society
these demands were radical indeed and were an indication of the
success of the former Labour Group left-wing activists in imposing
their will upon PD.
This is particularly clear if one examines PD's housing policy
in the manifesto. Back in October 1968, the demand had been for
'One Family, One House - and that a decent house - and all houses
allocated by a fair points system.' Now that was a policy which
the Catholic working class would support, simply because it believed
that housing was allocated on political and religious lines and
that it was the minority who suffered most by this policy. By
February 1969, however, this vague slogan had been transformed
into the demand for:
'The declaration of a housing emergency and the diverting of financial
and physical resources to a crash house-building programme and
away from unnecessary or prestige building. All vacant housing
accommodation must be requisitioned, the Housing Trust debts to
the Central Banks must be cancelled.'
Clearly, those people who had actively supported PD's civil rights
demands in late 1968 could not be expected to go along with the
above unless they accepted socialism. Most of them did not and
consequently PD was a much smaller group. It would be wrong to
say that PD was now under the thumb of the radical New Left, if
only because the whole movement had moved in this direction.
However, one should avoid the pitfall of emphasising the radicalism
of the manifesto. Certainly, PD played down its more radical aspects.
Kevin Boyle felt that the demands for workers' control in industry
was not necessarily revolutionary, although it was socialist,
and, on the same point, Vincent McCormack, PD's election co-ordinator,
wrote: 'This is not such a radical proposal as the national executive
of the British Labour Party has endorsed a policy statement on
democratisation of industry.' Again, one journalist asked Michael
Farrell would he call himself a Marxist. 'His answer was a qualified
one, saying that there were good and bad elements in Marxism.
"Anyway," he added, "you cannot give a blanket
endorsement to the ideas of any dead man.".'
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of PD's campaign was the fact
that it was run on orthodox lines - door to door canvassing, street
meetings, literature, posters and pamphlets. But there were some
strains of the radical and the unorthodox in PD's electioneering.
For example, at a 'Peoples Convention' held in
Omagh on February 13, PD's nominee for West Tyrone, Peter Cush,
stood down in favour of a local man, Dr Aidan Lagan. Nor was
it orthodox for candidates with a Catholic background to campaign
on 'Loyalist' territory as did most PD candidates.
Before we analyse the election results it is as well to understand
PD's election strategy. In the words of its chief ideologue, Michael
'The contribution of the PD throughout the campaign was both to
expose the confidence trick of O'Neillism and to continually drive
home the message that there should be no compromise with the Unionist
regime and no let up in the CR campaign without the total dismantling
of the whole apparatus of discrimination, gerrymandering and repression.
At the same time the PD warned clearly that such measures would
expose the Protestant working class to the North's economic depression
and split the Orange alliance wide open. Even at this stage the
PD candidates argued that the only real solution to the Northern
problem was the creation of an Irish Socialist Republic.'
At first glance PD's success was unexpected and impressive but
it must not be examined in isolation. Its eight candidates took
23,000 votes, 4.23 per cent of the total vote. running pro-O'Neill
candidates into third place in Mid-Armagh and Enniskillen, and
depriving Capt O'Neill of an absolute majority vote in Bannside;
and in South Down its candidate, Fergus Woods, was within 220
votes of victory against the sitting Nationalist, E Keogh. There
is no strong evidence to suggest, however, that it persuaded people
to vote across the traditional divide. In South Derry, for example,
Bernadette Devlin polled almost the same vote as the Nationalist
candidate in the 1949 election - that was the last time the seat
was contested. Nor does Miss Devlin's claim - '. . . mainly thanks
to us, the Nationalists lost three of the nine seats they held
in Stormont' stand up to the light of examination. These
three seats were won by Independent civil rights candidates.
Rather the voting indicates a shift in traditional Catholic voting
attitudes. The success of the three Independent candidates was
largely a note of endorsement of civil rights policies. All three
had been very actively involved in the campaign from October onwards,
whereas the Nationalists had been slow to see the potential in
the civil rights campaign. John Hume's victory in Derry is especially
instructive since he defeated the sitting member, E McAteer, Leader
of the Nationalist Party, and Eamonn McCann. The latter candidate
had been even more active than Mr Hume but his socialist policies
proved too radical for the Catholic working class in Derry and
he lost his deposit.
The Catholic voter demonstrated that he was prepared to vote for
civil rights activists first rather than revolutionaries. PD received
its large vote because it had proved itself, particularly at Burntollet,
as the ginger group of the civil rights movement and not as revolutionary
socialists. PD's attempt at continuing its demolition job on O'Neillism
was only marginal. Granted that Michael Farrell's intervention
in Bannside led to a damaging loss of prestige for O'Neill, but,
whether Michael Farrell liked it or not, the real election battle
was within the Unionist Party. Captain O'Neill failed because
he did not purge the party of anti-O'Neill candidates. If one
accepts PD's logic it was in its interests to inflict serious
wounds on all Unionists and quite obviously it did not manage
to do this in any case.
Given its lack of interest in gaining parliamentary seats, PD's
real success lay in the fact that it extended its scope outside
the University. The first excursion out of Queen's into Newry
had broken down with the damaging march of January 11. Following
the success of the general election, PD was able to set up branches
in Armagh, Fermanagh, Toomebridge, Dunloy, South Derry, Newry
and Cromac. Some of these were to be short-lived but at last PD
seemed to have broken away from the University mentality. This
had occurred fortuitously because the various candidates could
not rely on student help. 'We received no support from anyone
else at Queen's . . . we were forced towards the local population.
They became our source of reference.' Another candidate
soon realized that he would have to look to the local population
for support: 'My election workers were nearly all local people.
PD supplied me with printed material only. One local man bought
me a public address system. Local women collected for me.'
A further two points strike the observer as being worthy of examination.
Why did Eamonn McCann stand in Foyle as a NILP representative
rather than a PD candidate? Secondly, why did PD receive so little
help from the student body? To deal with the latter point firstly:
we are faced with the problem that an organisation which had been
able to bring 3,000 students on to the streets five months previously
could not get enough undergraduate support to campaign in eight
Undoubtedly there was dissension within PD when the decision
was taken to contest the election. One member, John McGuffin,
who objected to fighting elections on principled grounds, made
no secret of his annoyance: 'It was hypocritical to fight it.
It was voted down at the PD but later a small meeting was held
and the real activists managed to swing it narrowly.'
Yet McGuffin accepted the logic of the situation which was,
that since it was the activists who decided to fight the election,
they had the right to go ahead: 'It didn't shame my sense of democracy.'
This attitude of mind aptly sums up the reasons for the diminution
in numbers in PD. Those, the New Left, who were frenetically active,
had a distinct political ideology which acted as a motivating
force. Those whose liberal conscience had been shocked at police
brutality in Derry on October 5, 1968, did not have the staying
power nor the desire to fight left-wing activity. They started
to drift away following the November reform package and because
they were more concerned at passing examinations than in becoming
politicians, and because they disagreed with the late decision
to march to Derry. Ultra-democracy could only work where there
One cannot explain Eamonn McCann's candidature so easily because
it raises problems of a personality clash. The Cameron Report
assumes that PD and McCann were part of the same movement. If
one were to examine and compare his election manifesto with that
of PD's one would be forced to the same conclusion. Similarly
we find that McCann involved himself in all of PD's major demonstrations
and spoke at a PD meeting as early as November 6, 1968. But it
would be more correct to speak of the 'PD-McCann axis.
We have here two inter-related problems, one of geography and
the other of personality. Eamonn McCann's political base was in
Derry, and his political home was in the NILP - the Derry branch
of the NILP, which was much more unorthodox and radical than the
NILP generally. In the space of a few years he had built up considerable
support among young Derry radicals and he was not prepared to
submerge that in PD. Nor was he prepared to allow PD to establish
a branch in Derry, a point he admitted frankly in interview, and
a point which Cyril Toman made in a letter to the Irish Times.
'In spite of visits by several PD members to Derry, Eamonn McCann
refused to join any other organisation than NILP and used his
undeniable influence to dissuade others from setting up a PD branch
in the city.'
While it may seem a trivial point we will discover
that personality clashes were to be a recurring theme in PD's
Even allowing for the temporary set-back of Newry on January 11,
PD enjoyed its greatest success in the months of January and February
1969. It had reached the apex in the curve of the five-stage cycle
of radical movements, the stage of institutionalization. As
far as can be ascertained it is the only student movement in the
Western liberal-democratic countries which has tested its popularity
at the polls in a national election. 23,000 votes may not have
won it any seats but it allowed it to extend its influence and
it was concrete evidence that it should be taken seriously.
'Success for the movement during this stage can also be seen in
the legislative arena, where repressive legislation is being increasingly
accompanied by ameliorative legislation aimed at some of the criticisms
which the movement is making.
The setting up of the Cameron Commission on January 15 was seen
by right-wing Unionists as a betrayal since it was a concession
to anti-unionist activists who were either Republicans or Marxists.
The introduction of the Public Order (Amendment) Bill on January
28 was seen by these same activists as the first of a series of
pieces of repressive legislation. While it is true that both these
measures were aimed at containing civil rights agitation generally,
it could be argued that the Prime Minister would not have created
the former, and introduced the latter had there not been a 'Long
March' with its ambush at Burntollet. Any measure aimed at the
Civil Rights movement was of necessity aimed at its militant off-shoot,
the People's Democracy.
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