‘Elders of the Rebel Alliance’ remember the day everything changed


In the Derry’s Waterside station café, three old friends meet. They remember October 5, 1968 and the civil rights march that changed everything.

“I think if I had missed October 5, I probably would have missed everything and my life would have been incredibly different,” says Bernadette McAliskey, then 18-year-old student Bernadette Devlin.

“Nothing was the same politically anymore, I don’t think so, and for most of the people who attended the march, nothing was ever the same. “

What happened is well known. The marchers gathered at the station and were stopped near Duke Street by the RUC. Images of police attacking unarmed marchers with clubs and blackthorn sticks were seen around the world, and it was to be seen as one of the starting points for the unrest.

McAliskey is now 74 years old; Dermie McClenaghan and Eamonn McCann, 80 and 78 respectively, are said to be two of the only three surviving organizers of the march (the third is Eamon Melaugh).

The three are longtime activists and comrades in arms. McCann is a former People Before Profit assembly member and served as a city councilor until he had to step down earlier this year for health reasons; McClenaghan is frustrated with his medical condition which makes it difficult to attend protests “but I’m still so interested,” he points out, while McAliskey is the founder and CEO of the rights-based community organization Step at Dungannon, County Tyrone.

By the time she and her school friends arrived in Derry that Saturday morning in October, she was already a veteran; McAliskey had participated in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) first march from Coalisland to Dungannon in August, a protest that inspired McCann and McClenaghan – both active in the housing protests in Derry – to organize the march in the city.

Both use the same phrase as McAliskey. “The next morning … at least a dozen people stopped me and said those words, those exact words, ‘things would never be the same’. People knew,” McCann said.

Over 50 years later, even Duke Street is different. While chatting over tea, coffee and Kit Kats, they gaze at the roundabout and the dual carriageway that replaced the narrow terraced street.

“We were supposed to set up the Brae Distillery but it was blocked off by the cops, so we went straight to Duke Street,” McCann explains. “So the RUC helped to chart the traditional route. “

McClenaghan adds: “Since then every sort of good walk, for lack of a better word, has always started here. That says a lot in itself. “

McAliskey remembers how “you could feel the tension” and a speech by McCann: “We had never heard anything like it … It was like something when you hear it, you know you have it. always knew, but you hadn’t actually put it together until that point.

Bernadette McAliskey: “There is no doubt that the RUC created the civil rights movement that day. Photography: Trevor McBride

She points to McCann. “It was our memory, to keep our roots in place, to listen to this man.”

As they speak, the coming and going passengers glance in their direction in recognition; a friend who stops to say hello to McCann stays to listen to the conversation, then asks if he could take a picture.

“You know, Trevor held back all the Troubles for about eight or nine seconds,” says McCann, of Trevor McBride, who photographed the march and is here to take pictures for The Irish Times.

“We got to the top of Duke Street, the cops were all lined up with their batons and shields, and we bumped into them and there was a very close dead end, 18 inches, pushing and shoving.”

McBride was standing in a chair between the two lines. “As everything was about to happen, a cry was heard: ‘Here, here!’ and everyone did. He got his picture.

“All of a sudden he was executed for your life,” says McAliskey. “It changed my life … I remember seeing this young guy I recognized from Queen’s kick the police like that.”

“There is no doubt that the RUC created the civil rights movement on that day.

McCann agrees: “If the RUC had attacked the march in Dungannon and it made the news, it would have been marked as the first day of the civil rights movement, and there is a lesson in that.

I think Derry is the most beautiful place in the world and it’s a great place to dream, dream of the way things could be and also dream of the way things were, the way people dream of the 5th October

“The only time you make the headlines, the only time you make history in any way, is when you say ‘f ** k it’, and the cops attack you … c is the thing that is remembered, it is the thing that it is dated.

Much can be dated October 5, 1968. In the short term, the main demands of the marchers – around housing, employment and votes – were quickly conceded, but all three are without doubt that its consequences will continue. are still being felt, especially in Derry. .

“I think Derry is the most beautiful place in the world and it’s a great place to dream, to dream of the way things could be and also to dream of the way things were, the way people dream of October 5, “McCann says.

“It’s very hard to let go of dreams when they defined your life and yourself, but I think the influence of 53 years ago and the civil rights movement is still there.

“We have had wars, we have had elections. The only advances we have made have been made by masses of people on the ground. “

McClenaghan says, “I think October 5th gave people a space afterwards to do things they never dreamed of doing. It gave them great confidence. He gives the example of the Derry Pride March, which has grown from around 150 participants to around 9,000; in 2018, McCann, McClenaghan and McAliskey led the march.

Dermie McClenaghan:

Dermie McClenaghan: “I think October 5th gave people a space afterwards to do things they never dreamed of doing.” Photography: Trevor McBride

It is, says McAliskey, a “progressive city … a legacy has been created and continues.” At “the radical heart of it, the idea is still there to say that it is activism that animates it … in its council, in its civic life and in its self-image”.

It’s “Derry’s gift” to the world, McCann says. “The way we have legitimized has made mass action the common sense of politics, of radical politics.”

Among the battles to come, he says, “one of the biggest problems is the overwhelming discrimination against women … what we need now are streets crowded with women.”

They describe persistent problems related to housing, high unemployment, mental health, discrimination against ethnic minorities, poverty and a disconnect between mainstream political discourse and reality on the ground.

Who will create the future? It’s not Dermie and me and Bernadette, it’s not people our age

Yet they feel a change. “At the same time as there is a consolidation of the orange and green blocks in Northern Ireland, underneath, simmering, there is something different, something transformational, emerging,” says McCann.

“It’s very hard to believe that especially with all the young women who have taken to the streets in recent years about women’s right to choose and women’s equality in general … I don’t think so. not that they could be brought back to their communities as easily as people were parked before.

Brexit, too, “changed everything”; the conversation about “what our society should be like across Ireland” is “real and growing and it will be interesting to see where it ends,” says McAliskey.

“You might not see it now, but just as people didn’t see it coming on October 5th, all the ingredients that made it happen were there and all the ingredients that challenge the current orange-green dichotomy. of state are all there … is still in the lifespan of my generation, of this generation of outcasts to see the change.

Eamonn McCann:

Eamonn McCann: “It’s very hard to let go of dreams when they defined you and your life, but I think the influence of 53 years ago and the civil rights movement is still there.” Photography: Trevor McBride

This generation is still campaigning, including McCann, who stood on the steps of Derry’s Guildhall last week on the 20th anniversary of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan.

Earlier this year, he resigned his position as a local People Before Profit advisor for health reasons. A neurological disease, ataxia, made it “very difficult to stand up sometimes, and you can’t have that as a counselor,” he explains. “But I would still absolutely consider myself an activist. I don’t feel at all different from what I felt in October 1968, and my general outlook hasn’t changed.

“In 1968 we couldn’t wait to do something different, and we should be impatient now.

“Who will create the future? It’s not Dermie and I and Bernadette, it’s not people our age.

“It will be the young people, and there is no doubt in my mind, overwhelmingly, that it will be the young women of Ireland who will shape the future, and I am very happy about that.”

“And they won’t necessarily be white,” McAliskey adds.

Asking Co Donegal in the 2018 abortion referendum, McCann “suddenly realized I was the only man, I was the only person over 30, and I thought, that’s great , it’s the future”.

“Come on, sisters,” he shouts, his fist in the air. “Let’s go get them – and they will.”

McAliskey puts the coffee cups away – a long-standing habit, she explains. In doing so, she talks about her six-year-old grandson, Iollann, and her love for Lego Star Wars.

“He found out his grandmother had a story, so he said, ‘I think you’re part of the Rebel Alliance, Grandma.’

“From Derry, he asked, ‘Is this the center of the Rebel Alliance? ” ” ” Yes ! McCann exclaims.

The friends look at each other, laughter in their faces. “And here we are,” McAliskey says. “The elders of the Rebel Alliance.”

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