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

At the cafe inside Derry’s Waterside railway station, three old friends met. They remember October 5, 1968, and the civil rights march that changed everything.

“I think if I missed October 5th I probably missed the whole thing, and my life would be very different,” said Bernadette McAliskey, then 18-year-old student Bernadette Devlin.

“There’s nothing the same in politics, I think, and for most people who witnessed the march there’s nothing the same again.”

I know very well what happened. The marchers gathered at the station and stopped nearby Not Duke RUC Road. Images of police attacking unarmed marchers with rocks and blackthorn sticks have been viewed around the world, and it can be recognized as one of the starting points of the Chaos.

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

All three are lifelong campaigners and comrades. McCann was a former member of the Assembly for People Before Profit and a councilor until he stood up earlier this year for health reasons; McClenaghan was frustrated with his health making it difficult to attend demonstrations “but I’m as interested as ever”, he stressed, while McAliskey is the founder and chief executive of the rights -based community organization. Step sa Dungannon, Co. Tyrone.

By the time he and his school friends arrived in Derry on October Saturday morning, he was already a veteran; McAliskey was ahead North Ireland March of Civil Rights (NICRA) from Coalisland in Dungannon in August, a demonstration that inspired McCann and McClenaghan – both active in housing protests in Derry – to organize a march in the city.

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

Over 50 years, even Duke Street itself is different. As they talk about tea, coffee and Kit Kats they look at the roundabout and two carriages that take over the narrow and terraced street.

“We were supposed to go up to the Brae Distillery but the police blocked it, so we went straight to Duke Street,” McCann said. “So, the RUC helped to draw the traditional route.”

McClenaghan added: “Since then, any kind of good march, for lack of a better word, always starts here. It says a lot in itself.”

McAliskey remembers how you “feel the tension” and a speech from McCann: “We’ve never heard anything like it … It’s like something when you hear it, you know you always know it, but you don’t really put it together until that moment. “

Bernadette McAliskey: ‘There is no doubt that the RUC that day created the civil rights movement.’ Photo: Trevor McBride

He pointed to McCann. “That’s our memory, of standing rooted in place, listening to that man.”

While talking, passengers enter and glance in their direction in recognition; a friend who stopped to greet McCann would stay to listen to the conversation, and then ask if he could take a picture.

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

“We came to the top of Duke Street, the cops lined up all with their batons and shields, and we got against them and there was a standoff at the very nearby residence, 18 inches, being pushed and pushed.”

McBride stood in a chair between the two lines. “When it was about to happen, someone shouted, ‘Hold it, hold it!’ and everyone did. ”He took his picture.

“It suddenly ran for your life,” McAliskey said. “It was life changing … I remember seeing the young fella I recognized from Queen’s take on the police.

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

McCann agreed: “If the RUC attacked the march in Dungannon and it was already reported, that marks the first day of the civil rights movement, and there is a lesson there.

I think Derry is the best place in the world and it’s a great place for dreaming, of dreaming about what things can be and also dreaming about the way things are, the way people dream about 5th of October

“The only time you get on the front page of papers, the only time you make a mark of any kind in history, is when you say‘ f ** k it ’, and when the police attack you. .. that’s the thing that’s remembered, that’s the thing it’s dated. “

Many can be dated from Oct. 5, 1968. In the short term, the main demands of the marchers – around housing, jobs and votes – were quickly agreed upon, but everyone had no doubt that the consequences were still feels, mainly in Derry.

“I think Derry is the best place in the world and it’s a great place for dreaming, of dreaming about what things can be and also dreaming about the way things are, the way people dream about on Oct. 5, ”McCann said.

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

“We’ve had wars, we’ve had elections. The only progress we’ve made has been made by a lot of people on the ground.”

McClenaghan said: “I think October 5 has given people after all the space to do things they never dreamed of doing. It gave them a lot of confidence.” He cites as an example of Derry’s Pride march, which grew from nearly 150 participants to 9,000; in 2018, McCann, McClenaghan and McAliskey led the march.

Dermie McClenaghan: 'I think October 5 has given people after all the space to do things they never dreamed of doing.'  Photo: Trevor McBride

Dermie McClenaghan: ‘I think October 5 has given people after all the space to do things they never dreamed of doing.’ Photo: Trevor McBride

It is, McAliskey says, a “progressive city … a heritage has been created and continues”. At its “radical heart, the idea is still there saying that activism is what moves it … in its council, in civic life and in self -image”.

This is the “gift from Derry” to the world, McCann said. “The way we’ve legitimized, made more political action, by radical politics, the mass movement.”

In future battles, she said that “one of the biggest problems is excessive discrimination against women … what we need now are streets crowded with women”.

They outline ongoing problems around housing, high unemployment, mental health, discrimination against ethnic minorities, poverty, and a connectivity between the mainstream political narrative and the reality on the ground.

Who will create the future? We’re not Dermie and we’re Bernadette, they’re not people our age

Yet they feel a change. “At the same time having a combination of orange and green blocks in Northern Ireland, under, besiege, there’s something different, something changing, evolving, ”McCann said.

“It’s hard to believe that specifically all the young women who have taken to the streets over the past few years on a woman’s right to choose and equality of women in general … I don’t think they can be admitted to their communities is as easy as passing people before. “

Brexit, too, has “changed everything”; the conversation about “what our society should look like across Ireland” is “true and expanding and it will be interesting to see where it ends”, McAliskey said.

“You may not see it now but just as people didn’t see that October 5th was coming, all the elements that made it up are there and all the elements that challenge the current orange green dichotomy of the State are there. .. it’s still within the life of my generation, of this generation of reprobates to see change. “

Eamonn McCann: 'It's very hard to let go of dreams when they define your life and yourself, but I think the influence of 53 years ago and the civil rights movement is still there.'  Photo: Trevor McBride

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

That generation is still campaigning, at least for McCann, who last week stood in the steps of Derry’s Guildhall on the 20th anniversary of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan.

Earlier this year he stood as a local councilor of People Before Profit for health reasons. A neurological condition, ataxia, made it “very hard to stand at times, and you can’t have that as a councilor”, he explains. “But I can still find myself fully as an activist. I don’t feel any different than I did in October 1968, and my overall outlook hasn’t changed.

“In 1968 we were looking forward to doing something unique, and we should be looking forward to now.

“Who will create the future? We’re not Dermie and we’re Bernadette, they’re not people our age.

“It’s going to be young, and there’s no question in my mind, overwhelmingly, that it’s going to be the young women of Ireland who will shape the future, and I’m very happy about that.”

“And they’re not necessarily white,” McAliskey added.

Canvassing in Co. Donegal during the 2018 abortion referendum, McCann “suddenly realized that I was the only man, I was the only person over 30, and I thought, this is horrible, this is the future”.

“Come on sistas,” he cries, fist in the air. “Let’s get them – and they’ll do it.”

McAliskey fixes coffee cups – a lifelong habit, he explains. As he did so, he told his six-year-old grandson Iollann and his love of Lego Star Wars.

“She discovered that her grandmother had a history, so she said to me,‘ I think you’re with Rebel Alliance, Lola. ‘

“Of Derry, he asked, ‘Is that the center of the Rebel Alliance?'” “Yes!” exclaimed McCann.

Friends looked at each other, laughing faces. “And here we are,” McAliskey said. “The elders of the Rebel Alliance.”

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