Voices from the Sixties Talk Back – By Peter Weil

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a quote much used by A Level history students. While there is no danger of anyone in Northern Ireland  forgetting the events of the last fifty years, have we learned anything from the past half century? Are we destined to remain prisoners of our history or can we use our shared experience to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland? Our ten week course at Stranmillis University College, which starts on Thursday 6 September at 6.30 pm, will attempt to find answers from some of the people who heavily influenced the period 1968-74.

Many of the leading personalities from the late sixties and early seventies will join us in the Stranmillis Drama Theatre to share their memories of the period and, with the benefit of their experience, look to the future. They include politicians and civil servants from Belfast, Dublin and London as well as former paramilitaries, trade unionists, writers, clergy, actors, journalists and a senior police officer in the RUC and PSNI.

Winston Churchill once said: ” History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Unsurprisingly, there are already numerous different versions of our recent history. By providing a platform to question the key players, the course will aim to help the audience  make up their mind as to where the truth lies.

During my preparation for the course, I have been impressed by our contributors’ desire to address the past openly and candidly.

Back in the early fifties Stratton Mills was one of the Unionist party’s brightest hopes for the future. In 1951, as a young student, he accompanied Lord Brookeborough on his election campaign. Elected to Westminster at the age of 27, he will explain why, thirteen years later, he refused to join the other UUP MPs in resigning the Conservative Party whip and instead resigned from the party. A year later he became the Alliance Party’s first MP at Westminster.

Austin Currie will talk about his role in the Caledon protest – the precursor to the 5 October Civil Rights march in Derry – as well as the challenge he faced in persuading those whom he had asked to support a civil disobedience campaign to subsequently abandon the rent and rates strike.

Lord Kilclooney will look back over a lengthy career in which he participated at all levels of government from local council, the Parliaments of Northern Ireland, Westminster and Europe through to the various Assemblies and Conventions. The power behind the throne, he could make or break Unionist party leaders. His support was crucial to party leader David Trimble in setting up a power-sharing government in 1998. It was, however, the same John Taylor who 24 years earlier had proposed a motion which was critical of the Sunningdale agreement at the Unionist party’s council. The motion was carried and, as a result, Brian Faulkner resigned the leadership. John Taylor was also one of 10 Stormont MPs to sign a statement calling for Prime Minister Terence O’Neill to go in 1969. Within a couple of months O’Neill had resigned.


The Stranmillis research team has dug out some remarkable archive:

* An interview with former Prime Minister Lord Brookeborough in which he candidly addresses the issue of discrimination. An extract is below:

“There is no discrimination against Roman Catholics… because they worship in a different way. What there is, is a feeling of resentment that most, and let me emphasise the word most, that most Roman Catholics are anti-British and anti-Northern Ireland. This is nothing to do with religion at all. But there is this feeling of resentment that here is a man who is out to destroy Northern Ireland if he can possibly do it. That I think, is it. They say ‘Why aren’t we given more higher positions?’ But how can you give somebody who is your enemy a higher position in order to allow him to come and destroy you?

Q: Is it not the democratic right of anyone in Northern Ireland to be a Nationalist and an anti-Partitionist?

LB: Yes, absolutely his democratic right.

Q: And therefore, to expect completely equal treatment from the state?

LB: Well, it’s very difficult to answer that, but surely nobody is going to put an enemy where he can destroy you?

Q: Even if he is going to use constitutional methods to do it?

LB: No. I wouldn’t.”


* A 1961 report on UTV about the political situation in Derry in which a fresh-faced John Hume is introduced by the reporter as “a younger citizen of Derry, a very intelligent man called Hume.”

“We have been left with a peculiar political situation where a minority rules. There is a growing feeling that the welfare of the City should be lifted out of the party political arena. Politics should be taken out of the Guildhall and run by citizens, irrespective of political party viewpoint, who have the interest of the city at heart….. Catholic leaders (should) accept the constitutional position without delay. Their present position is rather hypocritical. They take salaries and attend a Parliament which they say they do not recognise. They should make it clear that they regard the future of the city to be in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. This would make Derry’s position much more secure.”


* In an interview with Ian Paisley on RTE in 1987, conducted by his daughter Rhonda Dr Paisley sets out the vision which he would later adopt as First Minister.  “We’re going to live on this island for a very long time. Let us be good neighbours, let each part develop in its own way.”


* One of the most poignant government minutes records the atmosphere at the last meeting of the 1974 power sharing executive:

“Ministers exchanged good wishes and expressed their mutual sorrow that the great co-operative and, to that point, very successful effort which had been made by all of them should have ended in this way. They regretted that on this last occasion they had not been able to act in complete unity as they had invariably done before on so many difficult issues. They agreed that they would do everything possible to avoid all personal or political recrimination and that they would not deviate one jot or tittle from the principles on which the Executive was founded.”

A study of the archives also reveals that some of the women who were to the forefront of our society in the 60s have since seen their contributions marginalised. We hope to rectify this. Our guest line up includes Brid Rodgers, who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement from 1965, helped found the SDLP and in 1999 was appointed to the first Northern Ireland Executive,  Shirley Williams, who was asked by Harold Wilson in 1969 to take on the role of Minister for Northern Ireland, May Blood, trade unionist and indefatigable campaigner for equality for women at work, Baroness Paisley who won a seat on Belfast City Council three years before her husband became an elected representative and Bernadette Devlin- McAliskey who played a prominent role in the PD and was elected to Westminster at the age of 21. Some years later she survived an assassination attempt after she and her husband were shot 4 times in front of their children.

Contemporary attitudes towards women in politics left much to be desired. Shirley Williams recalls how, when she was appointed Minister for Northern Ireland, the then Prime Minister, James Chichester-Clarke, took the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, aside and said: “We can’t talk to her about anything important – I’m sure you understand.” “In that case,” said Callaghan, “you won’t be talking to anyone at all.”  On the day Bernadette Devlin was elected toWestminster, a journalist put it to her that she was a communist and “just an ambitious young girl”. There is no evidence of any male MPs being asked similar questions following their election victory.

Charles Haughey was somewhat more subtle in his approach to Margaret Thatcher. The atmosphere at one of their meetings was distinctly strained but Haughey was determined to charm his interlocutor. At one point an exasperated Prime Minister exploded: “I don’t know why I keep trying!”. The Taoiseach’s emollient response: “Keep trying. You are one of the most able politicians”. The Dublin Cabinet secretary’s account of the meeting concludes: “There then followed some general discussion which was notably more friendly and relaxed than earlier in the meeting.”

Our guest list is not limited to former politicians. The late James Young was one of the first comedians to confront the Troubles in his material and successfully appeal to both sides of the divided community. Olivia Nash, who acted alongside him, is still making us laugh at ourselves and is currently best known as Ma in “Give My Head Peace”. She will be joined on the panel by Tim McGarry and producer, Jackie Hamilton.

Toto Ellis’ film, “Two Angry Men”, which stars Adrian Dunbar and Conleth Hill, revisits the controversy surrounding Sam Thompson’s play “Over the Bridge”. It was the first play to expose sectarianism in the workplace. Panellists include Denis Tuohy, who was on stage on the opening night in Dublin, Robina Ellis, widow of the producer James Ellis and Brian Garrett who was in the Belfast audience on the opening night and went on to become Sam Thompson’s literary executor.

Robin Walsh, the former editor of “UTV Reports” and Gordon Burns, the presenter of “UTV Reports” between 1969 and 1973 team turn up again almost fifty years later to reveal how the local news team dealt with the unique situation they faced. We will play a clip in which a red faced Ted Heath angrily attacks the Loyalists. “To many like myself over here there are no more disloyal people in the UK. It gives the utmost offence – they are in effect disloyalists”.

The course will seek to strike a balance between examining our history from a purely local perspective and placing the events of 1968 within a wider global context. We will include extracts from Below The Radar’s “The Day the Troubles Began”. Contributors include US civil rights activists Tom Hayden and Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Our final session on Thursday 15 November will examine whether it is possible to remain proud of your tradition and heritage and move forward while simultaneously refusing to be a prisoner of your history.

We will hear from a number of contributors who, to a greater or lesser degree, have done just that.

Laurence McKeown is a former Republican prisoner member who took part in both the hunger strike and dirty blanket protest at Long Kesh. He now writes plays on various legacy issues which are performed across Northern Ireland in a variety of different communities – including Loyalist areas.

Paula McFetteridge is the artistic director of Kabosh, which stages Laurence’s plays. Kabosh honours the legacy of the not too distant past, staging its innovative productions in all sorts of unpredictable venues, from historic buildings and community halls, to public houses and black taxis.

Ian Marshall, a former Ulster Farmers’ Union president and Ulster Unionist, was nominated by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and also backed by Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald to be the first person from a unionist background to win support for the Senate by members in both the Seanad and the Dail.

David Honeyford recently wrote a blog on this site. His son plays rugby at Lisburn Rugby Club and David started to help out with coaching. He met two parents from Glenavy who suggested a collaboration between Lisburn Rugby Club & Glenavy GAC. They took a group of children to Glenavy for an introduction to GAA football and then brought the GAA club to the rugby club at the end. From that first evening, six boys started to play GAA weekly and joined Glenavy GAC. Likewise some of the GAA boys continue to play rugby. One of them is on an Ulster Rugby Development squad!

One of the most surprising revelations comes from Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, arguably Northern Ireland’s most influential civil servant ever and the power behind the throne under three different Unionist Prime Ministers as well as successive Secretaries of State until his retirement in 1991. He will explain what led him to write that he sometimes feels “like a party to a marriage whose partner no longer feels or shows any real affection. There are moments, I confess, when even I wonder if we would not enjoy a more dignified position as a community within a united Ireland”

If you’d like to enroll for the course please go to the Stran e-shop, Stranmillis Life Long Learning site and look for “Those Were the Days Those Were”. Living History Those were the days those were



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