Peoples Democracy Member 1969 – by Peter Cosgrove – Part One
Preface– This short work is only my own memory of what happened in 1969 when Northern Ireland imploded. I have tried to stick to matters of which I had personal experience. The detailed history of 1969 is now widely available. Anyone interested can refer to numerous accounts of that year.
I am indebted to many people, some of whom do not want to be named. A special word of thanks to my late partner, Alison Fowles, to Eddie and Geraldine Toman,, to Pauric Fallon, to Tom Ronayne and to my sister Kathleen Cadden. Needless to say I alone am responsible for the finished product. (copyright Peter Cosgrove)
In proud memory of J.K.Dzonzi from Tete and G.Mkhondlo from Port Elizabeth who died, fighting for freedom, at Vila Pery in June 1968.
In the early hours of the morning of 6 October 1968 I was lying awake in bed on the Zambian Copperbelt. I was listening to the BBC World Service news. The World news was followed by a five minute “News about Britain”. Most of that was devoted to disturbances in Derry city. There was serious rioting in Derry’s Bogside. The rioting had followed the dispersal of a banned “Civil Rights” march.
Eamonn McCann was interviewed. He spoke clearly, in a tone of suppressed rage, about a police riot by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) whom he described as “armed lackeys of the Unionist state”. He went on to describe the Northern Ireland state as “Britain’s political slum”. I could recognize the rage in Eamonn’s voice because I had been to school and university with him. It seemed to me, as I got up to make coffee, that 1968 had not only given us the Tet Offensive and the events in France but that the spirit of revolt had reached even backward Northern Ireland.
On 1 January 1969 I set out from the City Hall in Belfast with Eamonn and some fifty others to march from Belfast to Derry. We were now calling ourselves People’s Democracy and we intended to bring to the world’s attention that a rotten state of affairs existed in Northern Ireland. I had equipped myself with a padded green anorak but had totally forgotten to buy walking boots. I did not think that I would be walking very far since I assumed that the Stormont regime would ban the march and we would all be arrested before we got to the end of Royal Avenue. The chief organizer of this march was Michael Farrell who had been on the 5 October march in Derry. Michael had courage, determination and patience.
In December 1968 the People’s Democracy had debated the issue of marching to Derry over and over again. Many were opposed to such a march. Captain O’Neill, the Prime Minister of the Stormont government had promised reform and better treatment for Catholics. The Republican movement led by Sean Garland and Cathal Goulding were against the march. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) opposed the march. John Hume, who was in control of the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, was against the march. So was Eddie McAteer, the veteran nationalist politician and brother of Hugh McAteer, a former Chief of Staff of the IRA. Eddie told the press that “January is a bad month for marching.” Young Bernadette Devlin, who would later in the year become the icon of “Civil Rights” was opposed to the march. In the spirit of the times, Bernadette accepted the majority decision and turned up at the City Hall.
Michael Farrell was unimpressed by opposition to the march. I had been a student at Queen’s University at the same time as Michael and his wife, Orla, but it was only now, five years later, that I began to recognize their quality. They were tireless in organizing and advancing the struggle for “Civil Rights”. A march from Belfast to Derry would, Michael and Orla said, tear open and reveal to the world the rotten state of affairs which had obtained in Northern Ireland since the state was established in 1920 and consolidated by murder and anti-Catholic pogroms.
I know well that many more erudite folk than myself believe that this march was a disastrous enterprise which would polarize Northern Ireland and start the long slide into war. For all I know these folk are right but that is not how it seemed to me at the time. I would be more impressed with this point of view if it were not so often accompanied by a determined attempt to revise history to the effect that Northern Ireland was a democratic state. Northern Ireland was a one-party Unionist state, “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”, as Sir James Craig pithily put it. Where did that leave the forty per cent Catholic minority? On the dole, in England or en route to Australia on the £10 emigration scheme, seemed to be the answer when I was growing up.
It is beyond the scope of this book to explain the tangled history which led to the partition of Ireland and the setting up of Stormont in 1920. However, a brief piece of background may be of some help .Resistance to British conquest of Ireland was fiercest and most protracted in the north of the island.
The Gaelic clan system was broken after the defeat of O’Neill and O’Donnell at Kinsale. In 1606 O’Neill and O’Donnell fled the country and went into exile in Spain and Rome. James I of England, was determined to permanently solve the Ulster problem. The defeated Gaelic tribesmen were cleared off the best land which was given over to settlers from England and Scotland. The settlers arrived as viable communities of landowners, tenants and merchants. They began to farm productively using native labour when necessary.
The natives could not be expected to be happy with this state of affairs. In 1641, encouraged by emissaries from Spain and Rome and, loosely organized by remnants of the old Gaelic aristocracy, they rose in rebellion. Several thousand settlers died in the first wave of attacks. The settlers were, however, able to hold on to Derry, Enniskillen, Coleraine and some other towns. These events are said to have shaped the Protestant view that Catholics were treacherous animals liable to murder decent Protestants in their beds. To be fair, the Irish natives behaved very much like natives anywhere in the world. Natives are never grateful to settlers who seize their land and expect the natives to work for slave wages. Natives do not see this type of thing as progress. On a world scale, the Irish were not particularly bloodthirsty. Many settlers were simply stripped of their possessions and told to walk to Dublin where they could get a boat back to wherever they had come from.
The situation was complicated by the fact that the rebellion happened during the English Civil War and also by the fact that some of the exiles and their emissaries regarded the whole thing as part of the Counter-Reformation against the Protestant heresy. Certainly Eoghan Rua O’Neill, a general in the Spanish army and a descendant of Hugh O’Neill, regarded himself as a Counter-Reformation warrior. In a famous speech to his men before the battle of Benburb in 1646, Eoghan Rua told them that they were fighting for Faith and Fatherland. The password was “Sancta Maria”. Eoghan Rua won the battle of Benburb but he died before he could give battle to Oliver Cromwell who landed with his New Model Army in 1649. ( Cromwell’s men were, of course, the first armed Republicans that Ireland had ever seen.) The upshot was that the natives were defeated with great slaughter and the settlement of Ulster resumed.
During the English constitutional crisis of the 1680s Catholic Ireland sided with James II. They were defeated by William of Orange. In the 18th Century the Protestant community in the North began to develop modern capitalist industry based initially on the growing of flax and its conversion into linen. Spinning and weaving was originally a domestic enterprise. Competition for land, spinning and weaving led to conflict between Protestants and Catholics. After a serious disturbance in Armagh the Orange Order was formed in 1795. Ostensibly a religious organization, the Orange Order sought to transcend class differences in the Protestant community. In practice, it devoted its early energies to driving Catholics out of the Armagh, East Tyrone and North Monaghan area. The Order was fiercely opposed to the United Irishmen who had been founded in Belfast in 1791 by Presbyterians and a few Church of Ireland men.
The United Irishmen were greatly influenced by the French Revolution of 1789. Their most famous leader, Wolfe Tone, summed up his position as “to substitute for Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter the common name of Irishman”. Wolfe Tone served in the French revolutionary army and was second-in-command to General Hoche who failed to land at Bantry Bay in 1797. The 1798 rebellion was crushed and the settlers breathed easily again.
The 19th century saw the development of Belfast into a great manufacturing city with linen, ropeworks and ship-building industries leading the way. Expanding Belfast sucked in workers from its hinterland. These folk were both Protestant and Catholic and they brought with them from the countryside the Orange Order and, on the Catholic side, a tradition of Defenderism. Throughout the 19th century there were regular outbreaks of fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast.
The fateful division, already well established, was deepened and intensified by the prospect of Home Rule for the whole island. The Protestant community rallied to the slogan “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” Their leadership, the bourgeoisie, were acutely aware that Home Rule meant, if the economic programme of the Home Rulers was to be implemented, exclusion from the Empire market. They believed that would spell ruin for industrial Belfast. They established the Ulster Unionist Council to co-ordinate opposition to Home Rule. The Ulster Unionist Council imported weapons from Germany. They set up an armed wing, The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Important and influential parts of the British ruling class sided with the unionists.
In reply the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) established the Irish Volunteers. They also imported weapons from Germany but many less than the UVF. World War I was interpreted differently by the UVF and the IRB. The UVF joined the British army en masse, forming the majority of the 36th Ulster Division. They were slaughtered at the Somme. The Home Rulers joined up too, to fight “that small nations might be free”. They also died at the Somme and at Gallipoli and Salonika. “Their lonely graves are by Suvla’s waves.” The IRB saw the war as an opportunity to rebel against English rule. This they duly did on Easter Monday 1916.
The Stormont regime was established in 1920 and consolidated by a pogrom against the Catholics which halted, temporarily, in 1923. The Dublin regime was established by the Treaty of 1922 and consolidated by a vicious civil war which ended in 1923.
Partition was now a fact. Petty discrimination against the Catholic community was normal in the Unionist state. The Unionists, ignoring the Good Book, sowed dragons’ teeth and reaped armed men.
The struggle for “Civil Rights” was intended to change this state of affairs. The “Civil Rights” movement covered a multiplicity of Catholic nationalists, republicans, communists and ordinary decent human beings who actually believed in “Civil Rights”.
It seemed clear to me that trying to march from Belfast to Derry would cause problems for the Orange State. So, I swaggered up Royal Avenue on 1 January, 1969.
“Twas on a dreary New Year’s Day ……………”
We were a motley crew as we set off up Royal Avenue. Gery Lawless, Ireland’s best known Trotskyist had come over from London. So too had Bowes Egan, a writer and publisher. Rita O’Hare, later to become a well-known republican was there. So was Johnny Morrissey from Tipperary. None of these folk were students. There were students on the march but they were probably outnumbered by graduates and people with no university background.
We were preceded by a posse of Unionists waving the Union Jack. They were led by Major Bunting who was, at the time, Dr Paisley’s right-hand man. Oddly enough, the Major’s son, Ronnie who later became a prominent member of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) was on the march.
We trudged on towards Antrim town. More people turned up to join us and as we approached Antrim there were about one hundred of us. On a narrow bridge we were confronted by a large group of Unionists. The RUC said we would have to call the march off. We refused and said we had a legal right to march. The RUC turned their backs on the Unionist mob and ordered us to disperse. We would not. There were ugly scenes. An RUC man grabbed me by the hair and tried to drag me out of the second row. I lay down and all he got was a handful of hair. I was frightened. The sight of flag standards with real pikeheads being pointed in our direction was frightening. Legal rights or not, there was no way we were going to get across that bridge. Negotiations between Michael Farrell, Kevin Boyle and the RUC led to us agreeing to be bussed through Antrim and Randalstown.
I did not get on the bus but returned to Belfast with Eamonn McCann who was due to appear on a BBC program. Afterwards we spent the night at the house I had been renting in Belfast. The following morning we were joined by Nell McCafferty, later to become a well-known journalist and feminist. Nell thought that we needed “a martyr”. Having seen the Unionist mob at Antrim I was not persuaded that we needed a martyr. Certainly, if we did, I was not going to be the one.
We drove back to the march with loud-speaking equipment to be used for a public meeting in Toomebridge. In Antrim we picked up an elegant young man who was reading “Dialectical Materialism” by Henri Lefevre. He was Paul Bew who had come over from Cambridge to join the march. Paul later became an adviser to David Trimble and is now Lord Bew.
In Toomebridge I stopped beside a lady who was coming back from the shop. I said we were from the march and I needed somewhere to leave the loud-speaking gear until the march arrived. She interrupted me to say, “Do you know what the bastards did last night? They blew up Roddy.” It took me a little while to realize that she was speaking of the statue of Roddy McCorley, a Presbyterian United Irishman who famously went to his death on the bridge of Toome. “Leave it over at that house, son”, she said and went on her way. For the first time since we left the City Hall I began to feel more secure. We were among our own. A token march arrived in the village.. A man called Hugh Gribben from Toome produced a tricolour. The RUC attacked him immediately. Hugh fought hard and they did not get the flag. We looked on as helpless spectators. The temperature in Northern Ireland was rising. Some of us welcomed that; others were disturbed. From Toome, our numbers augmented by local people, we marched to Brackareilly Hall outside Maghera. That night there was rioting between Catholic and Protestant crowds in Maghera. We felt secure in Brackareilly Hall because armed men patrolled the perimeter.
On the following day we crossed Glenshane Pass and arrived in Dungiven. We were chanting “Tories out, North and South” but nobody cared what we were saying. We were warmly welcomed in Dungiven. A public meeting was held and after the speeches we marched towards Claudy. The posse of Unionist flag wavers had disappeared.
Outside Dungiven the RUC insisted that we change our route. We refused. By now there were quite a lot of us. We confronted the RUC. I heard some of the Dungiven men saying “The pepper will get us through”. Gery Lawless made a brief speech. “De great are only great because we are on our knees. Comrades, let us rise.” The bags of pepper broke the RUC ranks and we ran down our chosen route. There was a spotter plane overhead. A man in wellies who was running beside me stopped to hammer an RUC man who was trying to climb out of a sheugh. We ran on and then formed up again to march to Claudy.
In Claudy there was a welcome committee. Sandwiches, tea and all. Bowes Egan and myself went into Derry where we spent the night in the City Hotel. We returned to the hall in Claudy to find a state of some confusion. Some people wanted to call the march off. There were vague rumours of trouble ahead between Claudy and Derry. The majority decided to march on.
We set out from Claudy with Tom McGurk holding up one pole of our banner. At Burntollet showers of stones came flying over. Then our ranks were divided by men with cudgels.
I could see that the road to my survival lay across the bridge. Bowes Egan, who was to my right, was driven off the road. He got eighteen stitches to his head. I got off with three stitches but as I moved to the left an RUC man tried to smash me with his riot shield. “Run, you Fenian bastard,” he said. I took his advice. We re-formed and it was then that I saw the calmness and courage of Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann. An Irish Press journalist drove me to Altnagelvin hospital where I got my three stitches. There I encountered Gery Lawless who was in a wheelchair for reasons which were not exactly clear.
Later we headed to the Guildhall Square where speeches were made. Barricades were already being built in the Bogside. John Hume treated us to steak dinners in the City Hotel. Bernadette Devlin, who had been badly beaten at Burntollet, was ferried off to RTE in Dublin. She was about to become a household name. The following day we were bussed back to Belfast. The Bogside was still rioting. I was dog-tired and happy to get back to my own bed.
Cracks began to appear in the Unionist monolith. In February, Captain O’Neill, the Stormont Prime Minister, decided to call an election. The election was intended to rout his Unionist critics but it did the very opposite.
People’s Democracy decided to stand candidates in this election. The idea was that this would help to spread the struggle for “Civil Rights” throughout the six counties. There were three Stormont constituencies in Co Fermanagh, my home county. Malachy Carey from Antrim, Cyril Toman from Armagh and myself were selected to stand in Fermanagh. Bowes Egan who, even as an undergraduate, planned to become MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, persuaded Cyril to go back home to Armagh and stand there. So Bowes got to stand for the Enniskillen constituency. Malachy was to be the candidate for Lisnaskea. I was to stand in South Fermanagh. Enniskillen and Lisnaskea always returned Unionist MPs. South Fermanagh always returned a Nationalist MP. In fact there had not been a contest in South Fermanagh since 1949. I was to stand against John Carron, a highly respected local publican, a pillar of the Church, who had been awarded a Papal medal for his services to his religion. Bowes was opposed to Harry West, a member of the leading Unionist family in Fermanagh. Malachy was to stand against Captain John Brooke, a son of Basil Brooke who had founded the ‘B’ Specials and was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland for rather a long time.
We launched our campaign at the first public meeting of Fermanagh Civil Rights Association. The self-appointed executive of the FCRA were not very happy about that but we gained some support from the body of the hall.
Our first problem was to get ourselves nominated. This required twelve signatures from people who were on the electoral register. Bowes Egan found this relatively easy since he came from Belleek and was quite well known there. I knew practically no one in South Fermanagh and Malachy Carey knew no one at all in the Lisnaskea constituency. It was only on the day before nominations closed that I got the necessary signatures. I then had to go with Malachy to my home area of Roslea to get Malachy nominated.
We arrived in Roslea around four o’clock in the afternoon. The papers had to be lodged by 10.00 am the following morning. We got the last signature at 4.00 am. We were greatly helped by Dinny Tierney. Dinny would not sign the papers himself. Standing for Stormont involved signing an oath of allegiance to the British monarch and as a republican Dinny could not nominate anyone prepared to do such a thing. We were, of course, prepared to sign anything. Malachy and myself drove back to Enniskillen, slept in the car and successfully lodged our nomination papers and our £150 deposits.
We could see that our problems were only beginning. People’s Democracy had no money. I had some money since I was technically on holiday from a fairly well paid job. Fortunately Bowes Egan had plenty of money and he greatly enjoyed spending it. He probably spent about £1000 on the campaign. I spent about £400. Malachy spent all he had.
The “Fermanagh Herald” refused to cover our activities. The ‘Herald’ was Fermanagh’s Catholic newspaper so this was a formidable obstacle. We went to see the editor, Senator Paddy O’Hehir. There was a heated exchange of views but we still got no coverage. The “Impartial Reporter”, the Protestant paper did provide accurate reports of our activities. Mervyn Dane, its chief reporter, was a fine journalist. Although we appreciated the coverage we knew that very few Protestants were going to vote for us.
The Nationalist Party made us an offer. If we would withdraw from South Fermanagh they would provide us with a free office in Enniskillen. They would also give us money for the campaign in Enniskillen and Lisnaskea. We pretended to be interested for a few hours but then told them to get stuffed. They said we had no money to fight elections. Bowes Egan who had anticipated this development produced a thick wad of money from his pocket, waved it at them and said “There is £1000 there, gentlemen. Good night to you.”
We left, laughing heartily. In fact the wad was about £200 inflated by layers of toilet tissue. My opponent began to say that we were communists whose pockets were stuffed with “Moscow Gold”. If only!
My own campaign was a matter of finding an election agent and people to man the polling booths. Paddy Mc Caffrey was a great help. He got James McConnell of Macken to act as my election agent. James was a quiet, determined man . Paddy also found twelve men willing to act as scrutineers at the count. Paddy’s parents generously put me up and fed me over the next three weeks. There was no organization to do door to door canvassing.
We flooded the county with rented cars full of students and others. Some of the cars had expensive loudspeakers mounted on their roofs. We held public meetings. We gave out leaflets. John Gray produced a daily newssheet in Enniskillen. We spoke at Church gates after Mass. We were very, very active. Everywhere I went I met men, usually schoolteachers, who intended to become MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Most of these folk were deluded and nobody, except possibly the family pet, thought that they would ever become MP for anywhere. An exception to this was Frank McManus from Kinawley who did later become MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
We hoped to raise the standard of revolt in Fermanagh. Although we were political innocents we did know that better men than us had tried to raise the standard of revolt in Fermanagh. Men as disparate as Michael Davitt and ‘Red’ Pat McManus.
The campaign was mercifully short. My opponent held no public meetings apparently because he thought that we would turn up and wreck them. We held our eve-of-poll rally outside his bar.
We all saved our deposits. I got roughly one third of the votes cast in South Fermanagh. After a brief rant when the results were announced, we repaired to Mahon’s Hotel in Irvinestown where Bowes Egan had established his headquarters. I bought a few bottles of Black Bush for my scrutineers. I went up to bed around five o’clock in the morning. One of the scrutineers was drinking Black Bush from the neck of the bottle and singing “Sean South from Garryowen”.
On the strength of a temporary teaching job in a Catholic primary school I resigned from my job in Zambia. I rented a house by the roadside between Derrygonnelly and Monea. My primary school class had completed the 11+ exam and were marking time before transferring to secondary school. Their regular teacher was seriously ill and it seemed that I would have the job at least until the Summer holidays.
In fact, I kept the job for only ten days. On the last day of the Spring term the Principal rather sheepishly told me that the teacher was returning at the beginning of next term. During my ten day stint we had been visited twice by the Administrator of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Clogher. Both times he questioned the class about religious doctrine. They answered quite well because I had been careful to coach them in the catechism.
From the Administrator’s point of view the problem was that I was an atheist who had had the bad taste to get married in a registry office in England. Our children had not been baptized. We did not go to Mass. I had not mentioned atheism to the children but he presumably thought I might.
I signed on the dole. I also went to see the Administrator in his office in Enniskillen. He made no reference to my lack of religion. He said that the teacher was coming back at the start of the Summer term. I knew this was a lie and, in fact, the class was left without a teacher for the whole Summer term.
Cracks continued to appear in the Unionist party. There were cracks too in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. NICRA had been set up as a “Popular Front” organization by the IRA and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Betty Sinclair, a veteran of the Comintern School of 1932, resigned from the NICRA executive declaring that “trotskyists and anarchists” were perverting ‘Civil Rights’ for their own ulterior motives.
Shortly after the election we organized a march and rally in Enniskillen. It was quite well attended and passed off without incident. When it was over Bowes and myself were having a quiet drink in a bar when we were approached by a man who worked on the Duke of Westminster’s estate. He showed me a number of payslips and demanded to know whether they showed any marginal privilege for Protestants. I showed the slips to Bowes who said lightly “You are a fool to work for money like that.” He went away. Later I went to the Gents. On the way back I was confronted by the Duke’s employee. He said, “I am a member of the Special Constabulary. Soon we are going to be mobilized. We know where you live – Donnelly’s house on the Long Shot.”
I knew exactly what this man meant. In 1921 the newly formed Specials had burnt our local village, Roslea. In 1958 they had murdered James Crossan near Swanlinbar. Keeping the Fenians down was what the Specials were for.
NICRA established a delegate conference for all the groups who supported ‘Civil Rights’. Liam Slevin and myself represented Fermanagh Peoples’ Democracy at these meetings. The meetings were held in St Mary’s Hall at the bottom of the Falls. There were heated debates. Some of the self-appointed NICRA executive loathed Peoples Democracy and, of course, some of us went out of our way to be provocative.
When Samuel Devenney died in Derry the Bogside erupted. Samuel Devenney had been badly beaten by the RUC in his own home a few months before. The Bogside was so angry that every available RUC man had to be sent there to try to contain them. Liam and myself were at the delegate conference that weekend. From the platform members of the NICRA executive urged us to go to our home areas immediately and make it clear to the authorities that RUC men would have to be withdrawn from Derry to cope with us.
There was a queue for the call-box but we eventually got through and arranged for as many men as possible to assemble at the Diamond in Enniskillen. Liam and me rushed back in his van. We found that we had about a hundred men. There was no sign of the RUC. We marched to the Depot in Enniskillen chanting “RUC murderers out of Derry.”
Outside the depot the RUC were very light on the ground. Nearly all of them must have been in Derry. The County Inspector agreed to receive a delegation. A Nationalist Councillor, Frank McManus and myself made up the delegation. I told the County Inspector that we were worried by the lack of police in the town. Should there be an outbreak of arson who would protect our lives and property? The Nationalist Councillor immediately said that he wished to disassociate himself from my remarks. The County Inspector smiled and relaxed.
We went back to our meeting where the Councillor assured the crowd that he had told the County Inspector where to get off and that we would have the Fermanagh RUC withdrawn from Derry. This Councillor was another deluded person who hoped to become MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. He was so used to stroke politics that he did not realize that the times were changing. I will not pretend that this was what I was thinking at the time. Instead I was busy resolving never to allow this waste of space to go anywhere in my company again.
FERMANAGH PEOPLES’ DEMOCRACY
After the election and our march through Enniskillen Malachy Carey and myself began to organize a local group. We got together some fifteen or twenty people who were prepared to be known as Fermanagh Peoples’ Democracy. We had difficulty finding a venue for our group meetings. Eventually we were allowed to meet in the storeroom above Reilly’s shop beside the Diamond. Mickey and Pat Reilly, sons of the Reillys, were members.
There were no women members. As far as I can remember nobody even commented on this. The modern Women’s Liberation Movement already getting under way in the USA, had not penetrated Fermanagh yet. No doubt there were women in Fermanagh who felt themselves excluded. Again, I do not remember anyone raising the matter.
We held weekly meetings and tried to plan activities which would advance the struggle. Housing was an obvious area to start with. Fermanagh County Council had been established under the auspices of Captain John Brooke. It was a model gerrymander with 32 Unionists Councillors to 16 Nationalist or Non-Unionist. The Housing Committees allocation of council houses blatantly discriminated against Catholic applicants. The Education Committee, not to be outdone, employed 36 part-time school bus drivers. These jobs were much valued in Fermanagh where unemployment was rife. 35 of these bus drivers were Protestant and Unionist.
This type of thing rankled with Catholics. The question was what to do about it. We organized squatting in houses which had been unfairly allocated. We started with a house in Fairview Avenue, Enniskillen. We did not get into the house but we blocked access to it and picketed outside. We got considerable publicity but we did not succeed in changing the allocation. We did something similar in a house outside Arney. The Council organized a parade designed to promote Fermanagh as a tourist destination. There were a number of floats and we provided a lorry carrying people with placards protesting the unfairness of Council policies. Later we occupied the Tourist Office for a whole Saturday. This caused the County Secretary to appear in person to remonstrate with us. He addressed himself to me saying that as an “educated man” I should understand the damage we were doing to the economy of the county. This did not seem a very compelling argument to any of us. We came out of the office at 9.30 in the evening. A considerable crowd of our supporters had gathered outside. So had a counter-demonstration of Unionists. The RUC stood between the two groups but as usual with their backs to the Unionist crowd. We dispersed without incident. There were no arrests.
We also occupied the Council chamber one day. Again we got considerable publicity which was grist to our mill. We took to picketing outside council meetings. We occupied a house in Lisnaskea which had been unfairly allocated. We stayed in it for two nights. Again we failed to change the allocation but we did get a lot of publicity. Fermanagh was a quiet county but we were making some impact.
We were joined in some of these activities by some members of the FCRA executive. It is fair to say that the FCRA were very doubtful about us. Many of them were teachers. Some were headmasters used to having their own way. They tended to view us as uncontrollable interlopers who were from an inferior caste. In return, we laughed at them too much. John Gray was now producing a mimeographed magazine called “The Northern Informer”. His edition dealing with Fermanagh included the quip “FCRA have adjourned activities for the summer because of the large numbers of teachers and children on the committee.” This harmless sally outraged the FCRA. Also John’s labeling them ‘FUCKRA’.
In July we announced that we intended to march from Newtownbutler to Enniskillen to protest against the lack of work in the county. This provoked an intervention by Major Bunting, the architect of Burntollet. The Major said he intended to show loyalists how to “legally harass rebels”. We rather thought that “legal harassment” by the Major might involve hitting us over the head with clubs. In any case the march was banned by Robert Porter, the Minister for Home Affairs. At a public meeting on the Diamond we announced that we were defying the ban by holding a public meeting on the Diamond the following Saturday afternoon. The Diamond was occupied early on Saturday morning by a group of Unionists. We marched one by one towards the Diamond carrying placards protesting the denial of our “Civil Rights.”
Fifty four of us were arrested including four women. A special sitting of the magistrates court remanded thirty seven of us to Crumlin Road jail. Seventeen others, including the four women were remanded on bail.
We were taken to Crumlin Road jail in police landrovers. I had two cigarettes left and took one out. As I prepared to light it the policeman opposite me drew his baton and threatened to break my head if I lit the cigarette. I put the cigarette away. In Dungannon our landrover stopped so that our escort could get coke and crisps. A sergeant who was sitting beside the driver said I could smoke if I wanted to. I smoked both cigarettes.
We did not get to Crumlin until quite late. Our clothes were removed. They were replaced by smocks. In my case the smock left my genitals exposed. It is hard to be dignified in such circumstances but I tried as best I could. Three screws took my particulars. They came to a question about my religion. I replied “None”.
“What church do you belong to, son?”
One of the screws said in a kindly voice
“If you are a Roman Catholic, son, don’t be afraid to say so”
“If I fucking was, I wouldn’t be fucking afraid to say so”
“Don’t swear in here” said the third screw
We spent the night in individual cells. I slept but was wide awake when a trusty arrived in the morning with a bowl of porridge.
I said “You can take that away. I don’t eat muck like that. Bring me a cigarette.”
“You won’t get far in here with that kind of attitude.”
“I came in here last night with forty men. If you know what’s good for you bring me a cigarette”
He came back in half an hour or so with a very thin roll up. It was so strong that it made me dizzy.
“You are getting smarter. Mind how you go”, I said by way of thanks.
The reason I remember these snatches of conversation is because my part of them was not spontaneous. I had rehearsed my lines. I had been coached in this sort of behaviour by a man who had been an IRA prisoner in the fifties. We were political prisoners and were not to be treated like ‘ordinary decent criminals” as the screws called the other inmates. Later we were given back our clothes and allowed out for exercise in the yard. I remember talking to Eamonn Goodwin who had done time for blowing in the door of the Enniskillen police training depot. In fact it was his older brother who did it but since Frankie was not at home when the RUC raided the house they arrested Eamonn and charged him with doing it. He had just turned eighteen and he said that doing five years had ruined his life. Some people seem to thrive in jail but many more do not.
In the afternoon we got cigarettes. Suddenly, life in the Crumlin did not seem all that bad. The food, including the porridge, was better than what we had been fed as boarders in St Columb’s College. The screws seemed rather benign compared to some of the mad priests who had roamed the college. Of course my attitude was shaped by the knowledge that next day, Monday, we would get bail in the High Court. On Monday afternoon thirty four duly got bail. The three remaining had burnt the banning order and deposited the ashes on the bonnet of the RUC landrover. There was a party for us in a house on the Malone Road. The Fermanagh lads, or some of them at least, were rather horrified by the raucous rock music and the general demeanor of the men and women at the party. Some long haired young men were smoking funny tobacco and some of the women seemed to be shameless hussies who were showing a lot of thigh. The late sixties collided with Fermanagh.
In 1969 remand prisoners were entitled to have their own food sent in to them from outside. On Tuesday three of us went back to the jail to arrange this facility for our three remaining prisoners. The Governor conceded that remand prisoners did have that right but said that he did not think any café on the Crumlin Road would take such an order. We went to an hotel on the Cliftonville road and arranged for three meals a day to be delivered to our men. If I remember correctly this cost £13 for a week. The hotel carried out the order very efficiently and never failed to meet any of the deadlines set by the screws.
Some weeks before this we had moved back to Belfast. My wife was not willing to live in the isolation of rural Fermanagh. The children had to get into school in September and we doubted if they could be happily integrated into a local State/Protestant school. Also, since my encounter with the B Special who worked for the Duke of Westminster I had begun to feel rather vulnerable living by the roadside on the Long Shot. We found a flat in Cromwell Avenue, quite close to the Holy Land and also to the university. The relative anonymity of Belfast seemed safer and we had no difficulty enrolling John, our son, in Stranmillis Primary school. I continued to keep in contact with Fermanagh Peoples Democracy and made regular forays to the county.
To my surprise I got a job as a teacher in a Catholic secondary school on the Whiterock Road. I was to teach Irish, was shown my classroom and signed a contract. Mr McKeown, the headmaster and father of Ciaran McKeown who later became a leader of the Peace People, naturally assumed that an Irish language teacher must be a Roman Catholic. He was disabused of this notion by the Administrator of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Down and Connor. Within a month a letter arrived cancelling my appointment. I had a solicitor for a forthcoming court case. I told the solicitor to write to Mr McKeown pointing out that I had signed a valid contract and that I intended to sue unless I was given the job. Some past pupils of St Columb’s were already on the staff of the school. One of them got in touch with me and said I was causing Mr McKeown considerable stress. I was finding life on the dole rather stressful so I was not as sympathetic to Mr McKeown’s problems as perhaps I should have been. Finally I got Paddy Devlin, MP for the Falls, to approach the Administrator. The Administrator told Paddy that I would get no job in any Catholic school in Ireland. He also doubted that I would get a job in any Protestant school either.
My solicitor urged me to forget about it. I would only get one month’s wages as compensation and after that I would certainly not get a teaching job. I took his advice. He did not, as a Catholic solicitor, want to lock horns with the Diocese of Down and Connor. I decided to re-apply for my former job in Zambia and after a few months they were kind enough to give it back to me. By then I was due in court in January 1970. I arranged to return to Zambia on 25 January 1970 hoping that the courts would not have me in jail by then.
BERNADETTE AND MID-ULSTER
A big event for us was the Mid-Ulster by-election caused by the death of the Unionist MP. The MP’s widow was the Unionist candidate. There was an intense debate in the Catholic community about the choice of candidate.
Kevin Agnew of the Republican Movement and Austin Currie, a Nationalist member of the Stormont parliament were serious contenders for the nomination. Some of us wanted Michael Farrell to be the candidate but Michael was unacceptable to both factions. In the end Bernadette Devlin was chosen as a compromise ‘ Unity’ candidate. All the factions regarded Bernadette as a young woman who could be easily manipulated. It subsequently transpired that they were very wrong about that.
The PD went to Mid Ulster to help with Bernadette’s campaign. We were not really needed because the combined Republican and Nationalist election machines needed little help from even the most enthusiastic amateurs. On behalf of Fermanagh PD I spoke at her eve-of-poll rally in Carrickmore. There were an awful lot of speakers on the platform and I doubt if anyone was listening by the time I made my modest contribution.
After the rally, Eamonn McCann and myself found ourselves in a house in Carrickmore in the company of Gerry Fitt, MP for West Belfast. Gerry was always droll company. Sipping a plastic cup of neat whiskey he explained to us neophytes how to get the vote out.
“Get some lads to throw a few stones at nuns in Omagh coming out of eight o’clock Mass. Get it on the Radio Eireann news at one o’clock. That’ll get the vote out.”
We thought Gerry was being droll and perhaps he was. We were more interested in getting some of his whiskey transferred to our plastic cups than we were in his political counsel.
Bernadette won a famous victory becoming the youngest woman ever elected to the Westminster Parliament. Her maiden speech written with some input from Bowes Egan had an electrifying effect on the House of Commons and also on Irish communities in Britain and Ireland. She began a round of public meetings in Britain addressing Irish factory and building workers. Considerable sums of money were collected at these meetings. Unfortunately the money went to International Socialism, the Trotskyist sect which had organized the meetings.
Bernadette was an intelligent courageous person but she was inexperienced and was soon out of her depth in Westminster and in Irish politics in general. Looking back on it all, Bernadette did better than anyone could reasonably expect of a young person suddenly in the full glare of the media circus. She was an honest politician, a rare commodity in Irish politics and she suffered for her honesty. She survived a determined Unionist attempt to kill her and remains active in her local community.
“CIVIL RIGHTS NORTH AND SOUTH”
At the end of March the PD decided on a march from Belfast to Dublin under the slogan “Civil Rights, North and South.” We made contact with the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement. They would march from Galway and we would meet up in Dublin. Some of the Trotskyist sects in Dublin supported us although they were at pains to let us know that we lacked their grasp of Marxist dialectic.
Fermanagh Peoples Democracy were against the march and I was the only member who took any part in it. PD demands that divorce and contraception be legalized in the Free State were too much for many of our Catholic members. The march was to begin on 4 April and at 2.00 am that morning Robert Porter, the Minister for Home Affairs, served Orders prohibiting any march between Belfast and Newry. He also forbade meetings in Lurgan. We had already decided on 3 April that we would start marching in Newry after holding a meeting in Lurgan.
We congregated outside the City Hall on the morning of 4 April. There was a Unionist mob and plenty of RUC. A little colour was added to the scene by the presence of a contingent of English anarchists. They had been attracted to Belfast by John McGuffin, Ireland’s most famous anarchist. On his own initiative, John had toured British universities rousing his libertarian acquaintances with the suggestion that Ireland was where it was all happening.
The anarchist I remember is John Rety who, as a boy of sixteen, had walked out of Hungary into Austria after the defeat of the Hungarian Rising of 1956. To see John Rety, hanging on to a lamppost haranguing the Unionist counter-demonstration in heavily accented English was a treat in itself. Most of the English visitors were arrested trying to defy the ban on meetings in Lurgan. The RUC issued a statement saying that twelve of those arrested were “from across the water.” The implication appeared to be that it was wrong to come “from across the water” to cause trouble in Northern Ireland. Someone read this out of the paper and observed that the man who wrote it must have been off school during the history lessons!
We held a public meeting in Catholic Newry. There were plenty of police but no trouble. At the border Cyril Toman held a press conference on our behalf. Cyril pointed out quite correctly that there was a serious absence of ordinary civil rights in the 26 county state. The two topics he dwelt on were the ban on the sale or advertising of contraceptives in the southern state and censorship. The Dublin media were happy to applaud our struggle for ‘Civil Rights in Norther Ireland but resented the idea that such notions could be applied in their own state. Asked to give an example of censorship Cyril named a few banned books. He also mentioned “The Ginger Man” by J.P. Donleavy. This was, unfortunately, one of the few serious works of literature not banned in the 26 counties. The press made much of this but shied away from the larger questions. 26 county censorship had made the 26 county state the laughing stock of civilized Europe. The outlawing of divorce and contraception weighed heavily on working class and rural women. Church control of education made a mockery of the word ‘republic’ which the Dublin government was pleased to call itself.
Eddie Toman and myself drove into Dundalk were we observed Ciaran McKeown assembling loudspeaker equipment. When Ciaran began to test the machine Eddie jumped up and said “Christ, yer man is going to make a speech”. We charged across and confiscated the microphone. One of the recurrent problems of the amorphous structure of the PD was that anyone who got hold of a microphone could claim to be speaking on our behalf.
As a result of the hostile reports in the Dublin media the Gaeltacht Civil Rights people threatened to withdraw from the plan to meet up with us in Dublin. They cited our support for the legalization of abortion. We had not mentioned abortion although some of us, myself included, believed in the legalization of abortion. There may have been some confusion about the difference between contraception and abortion. (My old friend, the Nationalist Councillor believed that “contraception was murder.” I still treasure a memory of his confronting Eamonn McCann with this proposition. We were in a café in Enniskillen at the time. Eventually Eamonn closed the discussion by saying that he was not advocating compulsory contraception.)
I accompanied Michael Farrell to Maynooth where we met the Galway folk. Michael assured them that the legalization of abortion was not part of our platform. He insisted that access to legal contraception and divorce were elementary civil rights. There seemed to be some reservations among the Gaeltacht Civil Rights People but they agreed to continue with their march. We met up in Dublin and held a joint rally outside the GPO in O’Connell St.
It was widely felt that our march to Dublin had turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. However as the next few decades demonstrated the 26 county state was ripe for a “Civil Rights” struggle. And, in fact, this struggle still ongoing, has transformed the formal legal position of women, children, travellers and even men. PD had neither the resources nor the personnel to organize such a struggle but calling attention to a civil rights deficit in the whole island seemed a reasonable thing to do.
The criticism leveled against us by some people that we were “pandering to Orange prejudice” by criticizing the absence of civil rights in the 26 counties seemed absurd to me at the time. And, even with the benefit of hindsight, it still seems absurd to me today.
Peter Cosgrove comes from Roslea, Co Fermanagh. He was educated at St Columb’s College and Queen’s University. He lives in Leitrim.