McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School: Was the ‘Armed Struggle’ Justified?

Danny MorrisonHow might the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland have developed, had there been no ‘armed struggle?’

That was the theme of the first session of the McCluskey Civil Rights Summer School, held on Saturday 28 August at the Heritage Centre in Carlingford, Co. Louth. The Summer School honours the legacy of civil rights leaders Dr Conn and Patricia McCluskey.

It was almost inevitable that the first session would generate heated debate, given that it featured civil rights leader Austin Currie and Danny Morrison, the former Communications Director for Sinn Fein.

Morrison is a careful speaker, who managed mostly to avoid words like ‘inevitable’ and ‘justified’ in his defence of Sinn Fein and the IRA’s joint ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy. One of his major claims was that the unionist and British Government responses to the peaceful civil rights protests (which he initially supported) was what ultimately sparked republican violence.

Further, Morrison claimed that it was the pressure of republican violence that allowed constitutional nationalists to argue for meaningful power-sharing and the inclusion of a Council of Ireland in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement.

Austin CurrieCurrie, of course, disagreed, arguing that republican violence was in fact a hindrance to negotiations and had prevented the implementation of Sunningdale. He also focused on the role that the Rev. Ian Paisley played in promoting violence – nearly claiming, it seemed to me, that Paisley could be blamed for most of the mayhem that followed the initial civil rights marches.

Currie also raised the question of what were Paisley’s true intentions throughout the Troubles?

Currie said that if history showed that Paisley was not really as bigoted as he had seemed all those years, and that he had finally compromised with Sinn Fein only to gain personal political power, that he should be judged all the more harshly by future generations.

At one point Morrison said that everyone in Ireland bore some responsibility for the Troubles, which provoked an angry reaction from the crowd. Cries of ‘shame’ and ‘not in my name’ stopped him from offering a fuller explanation of what he meant by this.

I don’t agree with the ‘armed struggle,’ and clearly most of the audience didn’t either, but I do think that Morrison had a point and I would have preferred to hear him out. In the study of conflict transformation, one of the common fallacies that usually must be overcome is the idea that it is a few ‘terrorists’ who are causing all the problems.

Generally, even those who do not commit violent acts are in some way supporting, or not challenging, or living in leafy suburbs where they can relatively safely ignore, those who are involved in violence.

That’s an important part to remember when the violence has stopped, and the work of reconciliation has to be done. Reconciliation is not just something for the former combatants, it’s something that ideally has to happen amongst people at all levels of society.

That said, it’s clear from the reaction at the Summer School that questions about whether or not violence was justified can quickly and dramatically and open old wounds. Is Northern Ireland prepared to embark on a ‘Dealing with the Past’ process that could unleash such strong emotions?

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