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THE REBEL : Student Power in Northern Ireland

a weekly column from Hamilton's "FUSION" magazine
Monday 10 July 2000

The Hidden History of Northern Ireland

The Marching season is always a time of heightened sectarian tension in Northern Ireland, and this year hardline Loyalist groups opposed to the Peace Process are mobilising to destroy it on July the 12th. The way that events are portrayed in the corporate media lead many people to think of this as an essentially religous conflict, with Catholics and Protestants locked into an endless form of tribal warfare over differences in faith and dogma. Unfortunately, the truth of how this conflict began is never fully explained, as it shows the power of students and ordinary people in taking on a racist state. The Rebel fires back!

Ireland is Britain's oldest colony, and has struggled for over 800 years

for its independence. In 1922, following the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, the British Empire conceded partial independence to the

south of the country, but maintained rule over the northern six counties

around Belfast. An artificial state was carefully drawn up to maintain a majority of Protestant voters, descendants of 17th century settlers who arrived with the Plantation of Ulster. The catholic population of the new Northern Ireland were regarded as disloyal and potential enemies

of the State, and a system of apartheid based on birth religion was enshrined. Catholics suffered appauling poverty, overcrowding in ghettoes, discrimination in employment and routine harrasement from security forces that recruited overwhelmingly from Protestant areas. For nearly 50 years, the six counties of Ulster were Britain's hidden South Africa, where voting for local elections was determined by what property you owned. A rented house containing 25 people on the Bogside of Derry had not one vote, whereas its Protestant landlord who owned many more had 30. Rigged boundaries for local elections ensured built in majorities for the Unionists- the predominantly catholic Derry had three representatives for the 40,000 strong Bogside, and nine for the 20,000 protestants on the Waterside. This system of political corruption was known as Gerrymandering.

The UK Education Act of 1948 gave people the right to free tertiary education, and by the 1960s, a wave of highly articulate, working class catholic students emerged from Northern Ireland's campuses, such as Derry's Eamonn Mc Cann, Belfast's Michael Farrell, and the miniskirt wearing , cigarette smokin', streetfighting MP, Bernadette Devlin. Taking their inspiration from Martin Luther King and the images of the black civil rights struggle in the US on television, they formed a radical student group, People's Democracy. PD began demanding "British rights for British citizens", such as one person one vote, an end to discrimination in employment and housing, and unity between the Protestant and Catholic poor against sectarianism. Their marches were banned by the state, and on the 5th October 1968, images of their march in Derry being violently batoned to the ground by out of control police shattered the silence and exposed Northern Ireland's injustice before the world. The Civil Rights movement was born, tens of thousands joining the student cause and marching for equality in defiance of the state.

Employment, housing and politics was controlled by the Orange Order and its political wing, the Unionist Party. The Orange Order is an exclusively protestant organisation, which forbids members to marry catholics, and encourages the protestant working class to look to their upper class betters for leadership. The Orange Order organises triumphalist marches through catholic areas, to celebrate their colonial

victory over them in 1690. Many of the police in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) are members of the Order, and gave the Loyalist mobs a free reign when the marches turned to pogroms. By 1969, the people of

Derry could take it no more. Its political equivalent was a Ku Klux Klan march through a black area, or a Nazi parade through a Jewish one. One of their most popular songs is "we're up to our necks in Fenian Blood"....

For three days and nights, the town of Derry rose in popular revolt. They were not prepared to allow the Orange Order march into the Catholic

bogside and start another pogrom. Radical student leaders like the newly elected MP Bernadette Devlin and the revolutionary socialist Eamonn Mc Cann helped organise the resistance against the mob and the sectarian RUC. By the end of the Battle of the Bogside, the RUC were defeated, and "Free Derry" was established behind the barricades. The student radicals talked of revolution, of catholic and protestant unity. Class not creed was the real divide in NI, and the Orange state was hovering near collapse.

The British Army was brought onto the streets on 13 August 1969, supposedly as a "peace keeping force" to protect Catholics from further pogroms. Over ten thousand families had been burned out of their houses

in Belfast during the Battle of the Bogside, and initially they were welcomed by the exhausted people. But very soon, their true purpose was

exposed as soldiers began to attack civil rights marches- they were there to prop up the dying Orange regime, and reinforce the RUC. The true nature of Britain's dirty little war is being exposed currently at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, where in 1972 the Parachute regiment murdered

14 innocent Civil Rights marchers. Bloody Sunday was a callous act, deliberately planned to shoot the mass movement off the streets. Afterwards, the till then irrelevant IRA began recruiting in droves, and

a 30 year military campaign raged, taking 3600 lives.

My mom often tells me I was arrested before I was even born! She was on

a Civil Rights March from Dundalk to Newry when she was preagnant with the Rebel in her belly! A British helicopter hovered over the 12,000 strong march and informed us all, 1984 style, that we were on an illegal

procession and we were all under arrest! The Civil Rights movement has been written out of official British history, yet for many people it explains the origins of the conflict and its possible solution. The students of PD wanted to unite Catholics and Protestants, they mobilised

hundreds of thousands onto the streets and challenged a rotten state. The bigots in Northern Ireland are still there, trying to drive us back into another horrific dead end of sectarian warfare.

The Orange marches are a worrying time for Irish people everywhere, and this year, english neo nazis have joined their ranks at Drumcree. People fear another bombing or machine gunning of a bar will be organised by these fascists to entice the IRA out of their ceasefire and

back into war. We can only see in the days ahead what will happen, but the bigoted and racist nature of the Orange Order is now on show around the world.

For the Rebel's Links to information on Northern Ireland, go to

Recommended reading: War and Peace in Northern Ireland, by Eamonn Mc Cann. The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin. Northern Ireland: The Orange State, by Michael Farrell.

Till next week, kia kaha See you on the barricades...

The Rebel

write to the rebel at

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