As the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington is used to remember America’s Civil Rights movement, we should also recall the United Kingdom’s own Civil Rights movement.
1968 is famed as the year that across Europe, young people rose up against the prevailing orders. While these rebellions generally faded, in Northern Ireland they were to have a more lasting – and horrifying – impact. Young Catholics looked across the Atlantic to the victories won by Dr King’s campaign of non-violent resistance. They adopted these tactics for their own battle against those rules which excluded Northern Irish Catholics from housing, jobs and political power.
However, this peaceful movement was soon side-lined by a wave of violence. Moderate figures like John Hume increasingly lost the initiative to Sinn Fein and the IRA, and never really regained it. The peace process ultimately wound up being a reconciliation between the sectarian extremists that largely excluded moderates.
The Troubles that erupted across little Ulster claimed three and a half thousand lives. What would have happened had the ‘American Troubles’ or even the ‘Dixie Troubles’ does not bear thinking about. MLK gave America a great gift by ending segregation but perhaps an even greater gift was doing so mostly peacefully.