Is Sinn Fein so ashamed of its own past that it has to rewrite it? – By Bríd Rodgers

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The re- writing of history has been going on for quite some time but I have to say that Declan Kearney’s article on entitled “Northern Nationalism has Politically Remobilised” is the most blatant attempt yet.

Kearney’s version of the Civil Rights Movement bears no resemblance to the actual movement in which I, along with many others from different political persuasions, religions and none, was involved.

The claim that the IRA and Sinn Fein were the key drivers behind the formation of the Civil Rights Movement is outrageous and quite simply untrue.

Yes, the Republican Clubs, subsequently known as the “stickies” contributed to the movement and supported it as did members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, Communist Party, Trade Unions, some from a unionist background and many like myself with no party political affiliation. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, of which I was an Executive member, the Derry Citizen’s Action, Derry Housing Association, the Campaign for Social Justice and the People’s Democracy broadly constituted the movement. Members from all of those met regularly at different venues across the north to coordinate and plan peaceful protests.

The intermittent IRA violence of previous decades had done nothing to redress the real grievances of the catholic community.

In fact it had strengthened the unionist grip on their own people by exploiting their fears, allowed them to deny the reality of discrimination and present the Northern Ireland problem as simply the attempt of a takeover by republicans. Their answer was “What we have, we hold and No Surrender.”

The Campaign for Social Justice was founded in 1964 by Dr. McCloskey and his wife Patricia with the aim of shining a light on the discrimination practised by the Unionist government against Catholics and the failure of the sovereign British Government to face up to its responsibilities in dealing with it. The pamphlets they produced, particularly “The Plain Truth” and others including copies of letters from the British Prime Minister, refusing to take responsibility or even to discuss the issues at Westminster provided an unanswerable case for the demands of the Civil Rights Movement.

Try, as they did to pass off the Civil Rights Movement as a republican plot, the Unionist Party failed in their efforts for it was very clear that the thousands of Catholics, joined by a small and courageous number from the protestant community marching peacefully and demanding British rights for British citizens could not be labelled as such.

As Chair of the SDLP Civil Rights Commemoration Committee, I, along with Colum Eastwood have made it very clear from the outset that the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement cannot be claimed by any individual or any one party. Key leaders of the Movement were John Hume, Austin Currie, Ivan Cooper, Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt, Eamonn Mc Cann, Fionbarra O Doherty, Bernadette Devlin, and Michael Farrell etc. While others seek to commemorate the events of their violent past, we will ensure that people should never forget however that in two short years a peaceful mass movement brought about more change than the violence and rhetoric of three previous decades.

Derry Corporation was disbanded, The Housing Executive was set up taking housing out of the hands of local councils, the key demand of one man one vote was conceded and a Fair Employment commission was established.

As a party however that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, founded by prominent leaders of the Movement – John Hume, Austin Currie, Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and Paddy O Hanlon, we are proud to commemorate on the 50th anniversary their achievement and that of many others. Undoubtedly it was the catalyst for the political advances that followed. In particular, it was the realisation that violence in the pursuit of Irish Unity was not just wrong but futile and counterproductive. The tragedy is that it took others including the Republican Movement and Unionism another three decades to recognise that the only way to resolve difference in a divided community is by partnership and compromise. What a tragedy that John Hume’s exhortation to “spill sweat for Ireland and not blood” fell on deaf ears.

Those who marched from Coalisland to Dungannon never had to hide their faces. The good men and women who were savagely beaten off Duke Street in Derry were never sworn to secrecy about their efforts to change this place. Secrecy or shame never defined our movement in the way it characterised the activities of others.

People reading Declan Kearney’s piece need to ask themselves what is the intention at the heart of these distortions of history? Is Sinn Fein so ashamed of its own past that it has to rewrite it?

The SDLP has never and will never seek to deny the truth.

What Mr Kearney fails to address in his account, is the purpose behind our movement, the purpose to bring about change, the purpose to put power into the hands of people who were discriminated against, marginalised and treated like second class citizens. We won. We are not second class citizens anymore. That’s why the greatest tragedy is that instead of standing up to the DUP in Government Sinn Fein have abdicated responsibility. This comes after they failed for ten years in Government to deliver equality, rights and respect. When you need to bring about societal change, you need action. Change can be delivered here but that can only happen through participation in Government.

Declan Kearney and his colleagues should remember those who worked tirelessly before him so that change was possible for nationalists. Those of us who marched for civil rights spilled our sweat and not our blood for change not to permanently stand still.

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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. A few points to make in response here. It strikes me that the whole point of this piece is to berate SF for not conceding to joint government with the overbearing DUP without first addressing the difficulties that caused the collapse of the institution of government in the first place. Are the representatives of northern nationalism really to accept a continuing “not an inch” mentality when trying to introduce progressive measures to bring about a more inclusive and equitable society? The unionist leadership since the inception of the state has fought a continuous rearguard political battle to thwart anything looking like reform and continues to do so. While NICRA certainly highlighted the issues it was the unrest that sprang from the Unionist response to those issues being highlighted that finally drove Westminster into implementing reforms. These reforms were social and human rights issues – they were not about implementing a new political framework. Any such measures were resisted by the Unionist political leadership – the Anglo-Irish Agreement being a case in point. It was only when the British Government finally put it up to Unionism that it was either power sharing or joint sovereignty that Unionism finally accepted a new dispensation – and have been trying to row back ever since.

  2. It is exactly mealy mouthed SDLP drivel like this why the good people.of West Tyrone told Bríd to sling her hook back in 2001.

  3. Maybe Brid Rogers needs to go back to secondary school as she too seems to be rewriting history. Or maybe she should take a walk to The Bogside Artists Walls in Derry and look at the Key Leaders of The civil Rights Movement. Seems she too has her political glasses on when recalling the true leaders. Thankfully there are writers and researchers out there telling the true events and recalling those who made life more civil for my generation and my son’s.

    • So your preferred source is murals painted by Shinners, of shinners, for shinners, rather than someone who was at the forefront of NICRA and one of its leaders.
      History can be redrawn as well as being rewritten

  4. Jake Mac Siacais on

    Ah Bríd beir gréim ar do chiall. Mhair muid fríd seo:agus tá a fhios againn cé a bhí ar na sraideanna. Cé a ghlaoigh stailc cíosa agus cé a thug an ‘repayments of debt act’ i bhfeidhm ? . Bhí an SDLP ariamh ina Pháirtí a bhí sásta leis an leath bhuilín. cad é fa mad dog Coll agus d’oidhreacht foréigeanach féin?

    • Mo náire ort, Jake, ag scríobh píosa suarach deistíneach maslach mar seo. Tá fhios agar nach bhfuil muid freagrach as ár gcuid gaolta, go háirithe duine a d’éag níos mó na ochtó mbliana ó shin gan baint ar bith le cúrsaí politíochta.

  5. Brian Heading

    Mr Kearney must have been a very young man and this may explain his lack of experience and his narrow and revisionist view of the Civil Rights movement’s formation and the role of the Republican movement and founders of Provisional Sinn Fein in both assisting and forming and supporting NICRA or not. Many have already stated of the broad front formed to establish NICRA. The Derry Housing Action Group, Northern Ireland Labour Party, CPI, some progressive Unionists who went on to form the Alliance Party, and the Republican Clubs, plus the later founders of the SDLP and many individuals of no party political alignment. I intend to provide, what I hope is some further historical information to you, Mr Kearney and others in the hope you will take the time to check my and your facts against the Republican and well documented history of the establishment of NICRA and your own party in 1970.

    You have hurt and angered many who at that time attempted to work within the political structures of the North, including, rightly or wrongly, Republicans, in seeking to reform the North and not its immediate destruction. But in your rewriting of history you also confirm the evidence and fear working class Unionists had of the demand for Civil Rights-their civil rights also , to those and who admittedly were not the greater number that lived in bad housing, had no vote, and those with jobs, yes the majority of the workforce, and who worked on average £3 less than their counterpart in Britain with a higher cost of living. To crow about the Republican movement involvement while playing down the role of others justifies the statement it “was simply a Republican plot rather than an attempt to confront the Unionist party on Human rights and the right to Social Justice for all”.

    My reference point for you is the political disconnection from the civil rights campaign by your party founders in a speech by Jimmy Steele (yes before provisional Sinn Fein was founded) at the Barnes and McCormack Funeral in July 1969. Where, in the oration, he said ” IRA Strategy was perceived as aligning itself to closely with the International left that it was at risk of being too heavily influenced by external direction ” A clear reference here by those older Republicans who were uncomfortable of Republicanism becoming involved in social issues and would rather stay in and hark back to border campaigns and militarism. Read the Irish Times article of January 12 1970 on the formation of Provisional Sinn Fein. No mention of Civil Rights in the North that day. Jimmy and others were uncomfortable and argued the Republican struggle was being diluted (I think that a fair description of their political view) by becoming involved in building a socialist democracy and national unity between North and South by ending Republican abstention. A pipe dream perhaps as then as it is now given our recent past political history but it was a time when hope of unity of the working class could lead to a form of national unity. It was also the support of International struggles for Cuba, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese struggle against US Imperialism that also influenced Jimmy to make the “external direction” statement for the record.

    The Republican campaign at that time was to work with others,even those who were anti Republican and dismissive of the new Republican policy in bringing about working class unity to achieve social justice from Unionist Tories wrapped in sectarianism. it was this work in a progressive front policy that was rejected by those who in 1970 went to form the provisional movement. Its ironic that the socialist Connolly worked with anti socialists in the IRB and yet those who walked in 1970 were not prepared to do it. Those 1950’s border campaign, men and women, who “booked the hotel” to accommodate the minority of Ard Fheis delegates who staged a walkout and left modern Republicanism in order to make the pre planned announcement of the formation of provisional Sinn Fein had no interest in civil rights-at that time .“A DIVISION on right and left wing ideologies that has been festering for some time in Sinn Féin resulted last night in some 80 delegates walking out of the party’s ard-fheis in the Intercontinental Hotel” (Irish Times January 12th 1970)

    Rather than to claim something your founders rejected read the speeches made at Easter in Milltown Cemetery, where promises of “this year” being the year of a British withdrawal and Irish Unity was an empty promise but one many accepted in good faith and supported, joined and later voted for Sinn Fein.

    Your party has come a long way from the Ard Fheis walk out in 1970. Perhaps it’s the analysis of Unionism being unable to reform itself to accept social justice would confirm a view held by many of the conflict being inevitable. But it was the Civil Rights campaign that provided a nonviolent alternative to one that was unacceptable to Unionist and Republican militarism. I would argue Provisional Republicans fell into a trap while trying to capture all the political ground after August 1969 for themselves. At that time with a fractured Nationalist opposition and a NICRA considering if they were responsible for August 69, the Provisional movement went down the military route of hoping to drive the British into the sea. This prolonged the party Unionist life. They couldn’t deal with Civil Rights demands but knew only too well how to deal with the IRA.
    Unionist State violence through Internment and bloody Sunday led to the collapse of the Unionist party not the IRA ( both wings). There are many versions of what happened in 1968 and since it. Some or personal , some are academic and all of them have a grain of truth . But don’t try to claim your party’s linage goes back to the Civil Rights movement. The evidence is your founders left that struggle for another.

  6. Austin Currie was photographed looking through a hedge at the civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon.
    He also took a job collecting rent from people during the rent strike

  7. Everything achieved since 69 to date was achieved by the IRA , lest we would have had what we hold now pre 69.
    SDLP contribution to the war was to extend it by ten years .

  8. “Everything achieved since 69 to date was achieved by the IRA …”

    One Man One Vote?

    Make a list of all these achievements. It can’t be that long if you leave out the Armani Suits and Eyebrow waxing.

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