The Ongoing Struggle for Civil Rights: The United State, Northern Ireland and Worldwide.
Saturday 5th October marked forty-five years since the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association march in Derry which many historians consider to be the starting point of the Northern Ireland troubles, after it sparked serious rioting following the decision of police to disperse marchers using batons and a water cannon. To mark the occasion, the Clinton Institute, in conjunction with the John Moore Newman Fellowship, hosted an event which sought to draw together past, present and future research in the Institute.
“The Ongoing Struggle for Civil Rights: The United States, Northern Ireland and Worldwide” mixed together academic experts with key activists from civil rights campaigns in the United States, Northern Ireland, and Bahrain to create an analytical, yet vivid picture of global civil and human rights.
Following an introduction by organiser Dr Andrew Sanders, human rights activist and author of “Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America”, the only existing comparative study of the two campaigns, Brian Dooley chaired the first panel which featured Professor Father Thomas Murphy of Seattle University, Professor Peter Ling of the University of Nottingham and Minnijean Brown Trickey, a human rights activist who first entered global consciousness as part of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
Father Murphy opened the day by offering his analysis of the historical dimension to civil rights in the United States. His talk offered insights into possible links between Irish-America and the civil rights struggle in America and helped to establish the historical context for the talks that followed. Professor Ling offered a more contemporary analysis of the issue of civil rights in the United States and particularly the image of Martin Luther King in contemporary US culture. Minnijean Brown Trickey then spoke, telling a captivated audience of her long term associations with Ireland, and particularly emphasising her motivations for her involvement as part of the group that became known as the Little Rock Nine. For her, as a young girl in Arkansas, the issue was simply about her right to attend school. The simple goals of civil rights activists was to become a recurring theme throughout the day.
Following a coffee break, the focus turned to Northern Ireland. Dr Gareth Mulvenna opened the panel by detailing the issue of civil rights as it pertains to the loyalist and Protestant working class in Northern Ireland. He offered a scathing assessment of tactics used to undermine the loyalists campaign and shared a great deal of his primary research on the topic. Dr Stuart Ross then spoke on the issue of commemoration, using a comparative analysis of Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association marches from the 1960s with their ten-year anniversary marches, noting that in each case, the commemoration marches were actually better attended. Dr Niall O’Dochartaigh, of the National University of Ireland, Galway, then discussed the wider aims of civil rights in Northern Ireland, tapping into his previous research which contributed towards his book “From Civil Rights to Armalites” as well as more recent work as he continues to investigate the topic. The Northern Ireland panel ended with a powerful talk from Bernadette McAliskey, who spoke of her admiration for American civil rights activists like Minnijean. She emphasised the lessons she learned from visiting the United States and how these continue to influence her on-going work with the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme. Of particular relevance was her discussion of her 1969 trip to the United States, which took place shortly after her election as the Member of Parliament for Mid-Ulster.
Both of the morning panels emphasised that civil rights was not a thing of the past for either the United States or Northern Ireland, but the third panel focused on the most contemporary campaigns; those commonly referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’. First, Dr Mairead Collins spoke of the bureaucratic difficulties that are placed in front of Palestinians in the West Bank and offered a detailed explanation of just how overwhelming these are for the vast majority of the Palestinian population, drawing on her experiences in the region. Dr Rita Sakr then offered an assessment of the Arab Spring in contemporary literature, drawing on a recent event that she organised at the Clinton Institute “Media and the Arab Spring”. For full details of this event, please see http://www.ucdclinton.ie/MediaandtheArabSpring
The final keynote speaker of the event was Maryam al-Khawaja. Maryam is the Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. She is the acting director because the director, her father Abdulhadi, is currently imprisoned in Bahrain, sentenced in 2011 to life imprisonment for his role in the 2011-2012 Bahraini Uprising. Her sister, Zainab has also served time in prison. Both have gone on extensive and traumatic hunger strikes in protest to their treatment. Maryam gave an impassioned talk about her work for civil and human rights in Bahrain, alluding to its importance in the wider ‘Arab Spring’, although she was careful to note that the uprising was neither exclusively Arab, nor were the connotations of the word ‘spring’ entirely appropriate for these events.
The final session brought Minnijean, Bernadette and Maryam together to share their reflections on the days events and to take part in a group discussion with all participants and those in attendance. “The Ongoing Struggle for Civil RIghts” marked the first time that any of the three activists had ever met, indeed the historic occasion of their first meeting was perhaps the major highlight of the day, but it was evident that by the end of the panel discussion that the struggles of each had struck a chord, not just with the audience and the academic experts, but with each other.