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From We Shall Overcome to Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

During the 1960s much of the Free World rocked, in some cases merely swayed, to a post-World War Two culture of free love, flower power and hallucinogenic substances. But there was one corner of the United Kingdom where more pressing matters began to surface. Much to the consternation of the powers that be.

The integral part of the UK known as Northern Ireland was not yet 50 years old. Nevertheless, its Unionist government had managed to collect baggage stuffed with discrimination in jobs, housing allocation and electoral gerrymandering. Add to that an armed sectarian police unit known as B Specials and a law that allowed detention without trial. This Special Powers Act was the envy of the Apartheid government in South Africa.

The principal pallbearers of this unjust and undemocratic burden were the third of the population that followed the Roman Catholic tradition of this church going, God fearing people. The mini state, six counties of the thirty-two county island of Ireland, also boasted the biggest red, white and blue Union Jack that ever fluttered over the British Empire.

These affairs were presided over by a parliament on a hill outside the city of Belfast known to this day as Stormont. Everything was as fixed as the Iron Curtain in a Churchillian mind, Apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the southern USA.

It was into this world that Martin McGuinness was born in the northern city of Derry in the year 1950. And it was there that he died in March 2017. He came from a practicing Catholic family and was denied an apprenticeship as a motor mechanic due to his religion. He earned a living by working in a butcher’s shop, as a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, becoming Minister of Education and later Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland government.

In the 1960s the UK was limbering up to become accepted as a member of what is today’s European Union. So the dirty baggage did not suit the image of a forward looking group of countries, sworn to no more wars on European soil and a common market of economic, social and cultural cooperation.

In the meantime Britain saw the formation of the Anti Apartheid Movement in 1960. The USA’s Civil Rights Movement had been growing since the 1950 and won significant legislative changes during the mid 1960s.

Clearly, Martin was born into a changing world. But throughout his life he was of the Irish nationalist/republican tradition. His passion was to see the British governed Northern Ireland where he was born, reunited with the southern Republic of Ireland; sovereign and independent of British political domination.

Part of that changing world was the birth and rise of a civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. From the mêlée of groups that emerged during the formative days of the movement two distinct organizations emerged. These were the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and People’s Democracy (PD).

While some talked of civil rights for Catholics as their preferred option of change the Stormont government stayed consistently stagnant. The old Unionist battle cries of “No Surrender” and “Not an Inch” served as a lullaby to their troubled ears as “the times are a changing” echoed around them.

The civil rights movement took to street protests. The 1960s protest song, We Shall Overcome, became something of an anthem. It wasn’t all marching and singing, which is bog standard political activity in Northern Ireland. The movement presented Stormont and London’s Westminster with a set of demands, as the basis for achieving civil rights where they had long been denied.

TV screens around the world saw the violent reaction of the Stormont controlled police force. Solidarity and financial support came from individuals and groups in different countries, particularly the USA. Northern Ireland had become an embarrassment to the British government’s international standing.

Frustrated by the small “c” conservative political establishments in London, Belfast and Dublin PD rushed into the vacuum and petered out. Although it should be said some of its leadership has remained active, articulate in the political arena. NICRA held to the line that civil rights were rights for all; that their demands were attainable in this less than perfect environment and in the end would benefit all. It formally disbanded in 1981 having achieved considerable success in realizing its demands.

Martin McGuinness chose a different form of activity in response to the situation that was evolving in the north of Ireland. The armed struggle, as it is sometimes called, lasted for 30 years. During this time he rose through the ranks of the Irish Republican Army in its fight against British rule.

The British state was not shy of armed intervention, taking the initiative and various other subterfuges. Sectarianism grew, armed groups professing to be “loyalist” to the British ideal flourished. Religious and political divisions, usually differing forms of conservatism, widened.

Besides his military activities Martin McGuinness was also a negotiator for peace with representatives of the British government. When the moment came, after the singing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, he threw himself wholeheartedly into making peace a lasting reality. For this he deserves every measure of credit.

But along with others, those who stood in the way of civil rights, which started half a century ago this year, he is part of history – sorry, glorious or whatever. The struggle for civil rights, especially the work of NICRA, should not be forgotten. There are lessons for today.

Stormont was shut down in spring of 1972 and direct rule imposed from Westminster Parliament, London. Following the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday agreement, it reopened and got a new lease of life. This time it met with a broader representation of political internets. Well, a broader representation of the same old traditional interests.

But again the politicians have lost the plot, more interested in covering their careers and sectarian asses. They have managed once again, to only agree to disagree. As civil rights had to be shared, so too do today’s resources, both material and non-material. A state of affairs made worse by a Conservative British government hell bent on class-selective austerity. The Dublin government follows a similar creed. So where have all the flowers, of social justice and peace, gone?

Direct rule from London, in one form or another, seems to be the next stop, the British general election of 8 June being an inconvenient distraction.

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Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.

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