Democracy Denied in Ireland: March marks 35th anniversary of Civil Rights protest

In August 1968, in what turned out to be a landmark protest, men, women and children marched from Coalisland to Dungannon in Northern Ireland. The demands of the marchers were one man, one vote, an end to discrimination against Catholics by public authorities, an end to gerrymandering of council areas in favour of unionists and a fairer allocation of public housing. The march was blocked by the RUC police from entering Dungannon Square and from that night on people in Derry, Belfast, Newry, Armagh, Burntollet and across the north took to the streets in an attempt to secure basic civil rights for the Irish people.

On Saturday August 23, thirty five years on, hundreds retraced the route of this march to protest at the decision of the Tony Blair British government to unilaterally cancel the elections to the Assembly government in Belfast.

Sinn Fein national chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said the origins of what became known as 'the Troubles' was the inability of governments to respond to the demands for democratic franchise or civil rights and equality.

Explaining why the march had been organised Sinn Fein councillor Francie Molloy, who was on the original 1968 March, said "The issue of people being allowed to exercise their democratic right to vote is as relevant today as it was 35 years ago following the cancellation in May of Assembly election by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"As someone who was a steward on the original march, I was disappointed that civil rights activists like Austin Currie did not respond to our invitation to take part in Saturday's march. What we were campaigning for back then was 'one man - one vote'. Now we find that even though we have the right to vote, we are being denied the right to exercise it by Tony Blair, Mr. Molloy said.

"The British Government cannot unilaterally cancel elections like it did in May and think it can escape criticism. It is a denial of a basic right of all people - the right to vote - and it underlines how much further society needs to progress. That should be the focus of all nationalists at this time."

"Thirty-five years on, the march is reversed, as we are going from Dungannon to Coalisland.

"This signals that the British government is going backways in cancelling the election.

Martin McGuinness Speaks at London Meeting Condemning Denial of Democracy in Ireland

Martin McGuinness MP, Sinn Fein chief negotiator, was the main speaker at a public meeting held at the University of London on July 7 to condemn Tony Blairís decision to cancel elections in the north of Ireland. The meeting was entitled Democracy Denied in Ireland Ė Voting: A Right Not a Privilege

He began by paying tribute to the 30-year struggle for truth and justice of the families of the Bloody Sunday victims, many of whom were attending the current sessions of the Tribunal in London and were present in the audience. He said that in those 30 years things had changed. Never again would his community accept the role of second-class citizens. The continuing physical attacks on the community, the attempts to bring down the peace process and rescind the Good Friday Agreement, all were driven by fear of the strength of the Republican case, of inability to handle its just demands.

He said that the present situation in the north of Ireland presented a huge challenge first and foremost to the British government. We have delivered on our responsibilities, he said. The British government must now accept its responsibility to face up to Unionist rejectionism. The big difficulty was that the Good Friday Agreement was not fully implemented, even though the vast majority throughout all of Ireland had endorsed it. It had become clear that the sticking point was not IRA decommissioning, as some had claimed, but opposition to the Good Friday Agreement itself, to the fact that it heralded change and could bring a new future. Tony Blair, he said, deserved credit for passing the Good Friday Agreement. But it was a serious mistake to have cancelled the Assembly Elections. Britain has no right to "fix" the democratic process, he said. The British and Irish governments must defend the democratic process. If the election delivered a majority against the agreement, then that would have to be dealt with. Pressure must be put on politicians here that once the people decide, it is the responsibility of the British and Irish governments to continue.

As far as Sinn Fein was concerned, he said, it was going from strength to strength. Some said the DUP and Sinn Fein would emerge as the largest blocs. He would prefer, he said, that the DUP were defeated. But that would only happen if the Unionist community got a decisive pro-Agreement lead from David Trimble as well as the British government. Sinn Fein for its part would work with whatever politicians were returned. But the DUP must be given a clear message that there would be no renegotiation of the Agreement. He said the future was bright and that Sinn Fein would continue its work. He said that the peace process was the only way forward and Sinn Fein would work with all who wanted the Good Friday Agreement to succeed. He compared the peace processes in South Africa, the Middle East and Ireland. He said what all had in common was the need to reach a peaceful settlement by negotiation. Why wait for thousands more to die? He said he was sure that in Ireland a 32-county Republic would be achieved. It would be inclusive and in the interests of all who had made their home in Ireland.

There then followed a very broad and informative question and answer session. In his replies, among other things, Martin McGuinness condemned as disgraceful the recent attacks on the mosque in Crai gavon. The local community must stand up to the thugs, he said. Such racism must be nipped in the bud. On the question of Unionists and a United Ireland, he said that many Unionists recognised that change was necessary, the status quo was unacceptable. They had voted for the Good Friday Agreement as a new way forward. We should be big enough, he said, to be content to live with those who believed in the Union and believed themselves British. We must convince them that a regime would never be visited upon them of the type under which our parents suffered. On Tony Blair, he said that his words of praise concerned the passing of the Good Friday Agreement and did not imply support for his other programmes. He condemned the holding of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by the United States and said Sinn Fein had made clear its views on the invasion of Iraq to both George W Bush and Tony Blair. On his work as Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, Martin McGuinness spoke of the achievements in improving schools, especially special needs schools and progress towards scrapping the 11+ exam. On work in the Irish Republic, he spoke of Sinn Feinís growing influence, of the importance of defending Irelandís neutrality regarding European Union military forces, and of the importance of good relations and of equality in relations between Ireland and Britain. He said the old days were gone. The issues were complex and demanded humility from all sides, including the British. But the Irish were masters of their own destiny and would decide the future of their island!

From Workers Weekly, Number 73, July 10, 2003