It was with great interest – and consternation – that I read Nelson McCausland’s latest column (Comment, January 4) on the origins of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
Although it is encouraging to see a prominent unionist engage with the history and legacy of the civil rights struggle, his tone and content betrays a wilful ignorance of the period and, as such, does little to bring the debate forward.
To avoid what Mr McCausland calls ‘a distorted and truncated narrative’, it is important that NICRA’s emergence is understood as the culmination of countless cultural and political interventions, meetings, debates and discussions, single-issue campaigns and democratic struggles that date back to the late-1940s and, indeed, to the formation of the northern state.
It is laudable that Mr McCausland should seek to acknowledge the pivotal role played by communists and republicans, because, after all, they were among those who were denied basic civil and political liberties by the unionist state, but this should not be at the expense of the diverse backgrounds and traditions that made up the NICRA.
Few, not least its progenitors, would dispute the movement should have had wider appeal, but this does not detract from their clear intentions to form a broad-based campaign involving all democratic forces.
Furthermore, there is something accusatory about Mr McCausland’s account of the civil rights movement, as if to question its motives and integrity on the basis of communist and republican involvement.
A cursory examination of the historical record – from Bob Purdie’s Politics on the Streets (1990) – show that communist and republican protagonists were fundamentally committed to the reforms demanded by the civil rights movement as an end in itself, with their more radical objectives to be pursued within the new democratic political space created by them.
Finally, there is the question of the ‘unionist story’ and the need for ‘mainstream unionist voices’ to be heard. I know that the broad-based Civil Rights Commemoration Committee wishes to mark the 50th anniversary of civil rights in an inclusive, sober and reflective way, engendering a constructive dialogue with those who did not, or do not, share the views of the civil rights leadership.
It is disappointing that Mr McCausland omits to mention that, in December past, he participated in a civic dialogue on ‘civil rights, then and now’ at the invitation of the committee. One of the first events of the committee’s programme, this was about reaching out, listening to and engaging with unionist views on civil rights from the outset.
In 2018, we will witness many examples of honest, constructive engagement with civil rights and those who are working to endow a better understanding of its history and legacy.
Mr McCausland’s archaic and disingenuous views, meanwhile, will continue to alienate the young pro-Union Protestants he purports to speak for.
DR SEAN BYERS