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Speech by Mark Durkan to the 40th Anniversary Civil Rights Commemoration Conference, Derry, (4 October 2008)

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Text: Mark Durkan ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

‘The Impact of Civil Rights on Northern Ireland’, Speech by Mark Durkan, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to the 40th Anniversary Civil Rights Commemoration Conference, Guildhall, Derry, (4 October 2008).


"Thank you, Michael [Farrell], for your kind introduction.

I want to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to the Civil Rights 1968 Commemoration Committee for inviting me to take part in your conference today. And by offering my congratulations to you all. Not just for organising an excellent event to mark a milestone anniversary this weekend, but for delivering a remarkable programme throughout this year.

As well as celebrating the achievements of the civil rights movement forty years on, you have also been shining a light on the civil and human rights challenges of today – both here and elsewhere. Casting an eye, not just over where we have all come from, but on where we need to get to as well. Raising our sights to how we can fulfil together the civil rights movement’s vision of a truly shared, fair and equal society for all.

No one epitomised or upheld that vision better than Claude Wilton. A proud patron of the Commemoration Committee, it is poignant that Claude passed away just a few days before this weekend’s conference. Without doubt, Claude Wilton was one of the most colourful characters in Derry. But more than that, he was also one of the most determined campaigners for Derry and its people. He will be sadly missed. But he will also be very fondly – and frequently – remembered by many.

It gives me great pleasure, as Foyle MP, to welcome this conference to Derry. Our city was a heartland of the civil rights campaign. Not only because of the gerrymandering, minority misrule and systematic discrimination in the provision of jobs & housing that went on here. Or because of the poverty and deprivation those unjust practices created. But also because, overwhelmingly, the people of Derry have always stood for the higher values of equality, justice, partnership and fair play for every person. That’s why Derry went on to lead the way in upholding power-sharing and inclusion in local government through the worst of the troubles.

Faced with injustice, the civil rights movement rose against it.

Marched to end it. Stood up to the towers of power by sitting in their own streets

Taking a courageous, peaceful determined stand in the face of violent provocation. Displaying non-violence in response to vicious reaction.

Ending discrimination in the allocation of housing.

Ensuring fair elections within fair boundaries.

Abolishing corrupt anti-democratic local government

Confronting the notorious Special Powers Act.

Transforming our society for the better, forever and for all.

Confounding the pretensions of the Stormont regime; challenging the indifference of the British parliament and the inertia of the Irish parliament.

And they did all that without firing a single bullet, planting a single bomb or drawing a drop of anyone else’s blood. The Civil Rights Movement through adversity and powered by its own diversity, broke the shackles of misrule, loosened the chains of injustice and removed the bars of discrimination.

Thankfully most of that democratic emancipation endured beyond that brief shining moment. However, the forces of reaction regrouped to head off the prospect of a shared democracy based on equal rights.

Sadly some were distracted or provoked into the dead end of violence. So while significant civil rights were advanced, our wider community and democratic potential was prevented from escaping the politics of division and conflict with such a terrible cost. The lost years, countless lost opportunities and the thousands of lost lives that followed did not flow from the Civil Rights Movement. The chance which it offered and the choices it made cannot be blamed for the futility, brutality or intransigence which hurt and frustrated our country for so long. The dream you dared to share must not be blamed for the nightmare created by other forces.

We are now – finally – beginning to emerge from under a shadow. As we do, let it never be forgotten that the non-violent civil rights movement delivered more meaningful change for more people in a matter of months than paramilitary violence did in the decades that followed. There is no more powerful antidote to the lie that violence can produce positive change than that tragic truth. Nor are there many clearer examples of the possibilities of peaceful protest than the legacy our civil rights movement has left.

It is a legacy that has in the end brought us to where we now are. So it is appropriate this weekend that we pay tribute to all those who were part of that movement. Both those who led from the front and those who marched behind them. Generations since and generations still to come are in their debt. This weekend’s conference is an important part of that.

And to those who demonstrated and demanded, who were batoned and beaten or drenched and dragged – I salute you and I say ‘Thank You’

Thank you not only for standing up for your own rights in your own time but for my generation and those that followed.

Thank you for the promise offered and for the achievements of 40 years ago.

And thank you for the inspiration you have provided for this time and for so many people in so many places.

As well as reflecting on what was achieved, it is right too that we keep a watchful eye on the here & now and set our sights towards the future. In 2008, it is clear that we need to be defending rights, as well as commemorating them.   And there is much for us to defend.

I know that the people who campaigned for our civil rights four decades ago are deeply passionate about protecting the rights and interests of others today. The civil rights movement was always internationalist – in inspiration and in outlook. Some of you have spoken to me, as Foyle MP, to express your concerns about current challenges to fundamental civil and human rights. Not least to voice concern about aspects of the Counter-Terrorism Bill currently going through Westminster.

The SDLP passionately opposes that Bill’s provision for 42 day detention. Not just that the period of detention without charge but the absurd pretences of ‘protection.’ These are somewhere between fig leaf and figments of procedure. A parliament acting as grand jury would violate due process and create not just a form of executive detention but parliamentary detention. 

Two weeks ago, Gerry Conlon addressed the SDLP Fringe Meeting at the British Labour Party Conference. Without bitterness, Gerry spoke movingly of his experience, of the injustice he endured and the profound wrongs perpetrated against him. I wish every Westminster MP could have heard him, particularly those who support – or feel they are obliged to support – 42 day detention.

We have warned the British Government  from our experience here and the Irish community in Britain, that  such counter-terrorism plans can be counter-productive with the aggravation, alienation and injustice they can generate. Just because we might now dare to hope that the potential victims of harassment or miscarriages of justice under such a law might not have Irish accents or Irish names we cannot be complacent or comfortable. Civil rights are not just for ourselves, for our own or for our own shores. That’s what I told Gordon Brown when he offered me a promise of something in the future in exchange for the votes of SDLP MPs. Civil rights are part of our DNA. We must assert proper ideals not accept improper side deals. From our experiences I tried to warn the House of Commons not to feed what it is trying to fight and, the essence of the civil rights ethic, is not to destroy what it is meant to defend.

42 days is not that Bill’s only odious provision. Its proposals for secret inquests are just as worrying. A Secretary of State able to remove an inquest jury on virtually any grounds, at any time and not just for terror-related cases. Allowed to sack the Coroner too. So, first we had Diplock courts, now we are facing Diplock inquests.  When other MPs asked if there was anywhere else in the world these practices would be permitted. I was able to answer. For it is eerily similar to another law. A law so obnoxious that the South African Minister for Justice, Vorster remarked that he would trade the Coercion Bill he was introducing for just one clause of it. The Special Powers Act. What we are looking at here is the Special Powers Act digitally re-mastered for the 21st Century. All proof, if it were needed, that the campaign for civil rights endures. That there are many more challenges to be overcome. Including some that many thought had been overcome.

The British Government finally appeared to honour their commitment to repeal emergency provisions when they passed legislation against Tory and Unionist opposition in 2006. But they produced a Justice and Security Act last year which brought back emergency powers for the police and the British Army. It created a new scheme for the DPP to order non-jury trials with certificates that cannot be challenged in or by a court. Only the SDLP opposed this Act either here or in Westminster. Only we are raising its implications in the context of the debate on devolving policing and justice.

Championing civil liberties was one dimension of the Civil Rights cause. Asserting democratic rights was another. The rallying call of ‘one man – one man vote’ started a journey that took a community from grievance to governance. Through the concept of power sharing and the development of the peace process, we have seen a divided community with rival grievances arrive at shared governance.

The Civil Rights Movement did not just challenge the old order but tried to open a vista of equality, inclusion and healthy democracy. That is the promise that finally became a democratic covenant of honour when the people of Ireland overwhelmingly endorsed by the Good Friday Agreement.

As we stand – even with current issues – on the threshold of a settled process we have still not fulfilled some of the Agreement’s promises. To victims. On the North-South Parliamentary Forum and the Civic Forum in abeyance. We still do not have a Bill of Rights in the North. Nor a Charter of Rights ‘reflecting and endorsing agreed measures for the protection of the fundamental rights of everyone living in the island of Ireland.’

Core to the Agreement’s power-sharing provisions is the principle of inclusion as a democratic entitlement based on mandate. We negotiated – and the people mandated – a form of proportional representation in the Executive where parties could not vet or veto each other’s appointments.

Now there is a proposal to ignore these core principals and protections when it comes to a devolved Justice Ministry. The First and Deputy First Minister agreed in July that d’Hondt will not apply. Appointment will be by the power of patronage of their parties – the new majority rule. This allows for direct discrimination denying a party its democratic entitlement.

Redrawing the lines of appointment to deny a due outcome and ensure an unrepresentative one was the essence of gerrymandering.

The old Stormont regime began in its early years by removing proportional representation from local government then from Stormont. This one wants to start with the Executive. And this is not their first attempt. On 5 October 2006 – note the date – they got Peter Hain to produce draft legislation which would have excluded from office any party who did not vote for the First and Deputy First Minister. In other words inclusion not according to your own mandate but only by submitting your mandate to other parties.

But this is not about the SDLP being shafted for a second ministry. The record shows that I would be upholding any other party’s rightful claim. This is about the DUP having a veto ‘at all times’ on the Justice Minister. The SDLP might be the first loser but will not end up the worst loser. This ‘at all times’ veto will be used in the future against Sinn Fein. On the 40th anniversary of a landmark civil rights event we are looking at a devolved Justice Ministry with a sign ‘No Nationalist Need Apply.’

But this is not just about parties and their rights. A key lesson from the order which Civil Rights challenged is that policing and justice must not be – or seen to be – an accessory of any political parties, the privilege of one section of the community or the property of special political interests. That important lesson was etched into the Patten recommendations. Is it about to rubbed out in a shallow political stroke?

This is not the only echo of the old Stormont. Decisions made by the powers-that-be in Stormont Castle. The rubber-stamped through the chamber in Parliament Buildings with no meaningful parliamentary scrutiny or challenge.

Flawed and controversial legislation for the four victims commissioners pushed through under ‘accelerated passage.’ No committee scrutiny, no evidence from those affected or interested; no need to listen to or even answer valid views because they had the majority needed.

The same on the new Local Government Boundaries Bill. The numbers and boundaries for new councils carved out in Stormont Castle and cast in a Bill pushed through the chamber again by ‘accelerated passage’ without consideration of or concession to any other interest or argument.

These lapses into the old Stormont culture might be excused as blips by some. But they should be resisted as slips on a dangerous slope by all who convey the experience of the Civil Rights cause.

Only this week we find out that the Executive decided in March that there was to be no 2008 budget process. Both the Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act are clear there has to be a draft budget presented to the Assembly before the beginning of each financial year and that there has to be consultation including with the committees before the budget is finally decided. Indeed it is the Assembly which is supposed to be the Budget authority. The castle powers made this decision only weeks after some of us had the audacity to try to amend the current budget and Programme for Government in the Assembly. In true establishment style they accused anyone who voted against the budget of trying to undermine and destroy the very institutions of the Agreement. Whose interests are served and what precedent is created by hollowing out the Assembly’s role in proofing, improving, and approving the annual budget?

A fettered chamber accountable to Stormont Castle instead of an Executive accountable to a democratic chamber. That was a shame of the past exposed by the Civil Rights Movement. Who will stop it being the sham of the future?

 This weekend, as we reflect on the achievements of forty years ago and pay tribute to those involved, we also look forward.

We determine that – inspired by the example set to us more than a generation ago – we will stand tall for the civil and human rights of all people, in all places, at all times.

We must stand strong for the values that brought our people to the streets in search of justice and brought an unjust regime to its knees.

We should march proud for the vision of a society built on equality, justice, opportunity and partnership.

We will set our sights on making this country the very best it can be – socially, economically, culturally, environmentally – for each and every person who calls it home.

This will be the time when the ‘We Shall Overcome’ anthem of civil rights will inspire us.

We shall overcome division.

We shall overcome the deprivation of poverty, in all its forms. And the depravity of prejudice and all its harms.

We shall overcome sectarianism, the hatred it feeds and the hurt it breeds.

We shall overcome racism, bigotry and all narrow-mindedness.

We shall overcome injustice, inequality and the indifference that tolerates them.

We shall overcome hurt and galvanise hope.

We shall banish the wrongs of the past and guarantee rights for the future.

We shall walk hand in hand one day.

We shall walk in peace all days."



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