Mise agus Rosa Parks
This Saturday there will a march from Coalisland to Dungannon to mark the 50th anniversary of the first ever civil rights march in the north. It was a pivotal moment in the struggle against the injustice, bigotry and discrimination of the Unionist regime at Stormont.
For the Unionist regime its gerrymandered electoral system involved building very few houses for Catholic families, even if their need was greater; even if their home was designated as unfit for human habitation. As a result tens of thousands of citizens were denied the right to vote for local councillors.
In a report published in 1936 the National Council of Civil Liberties condemned the use by the Stormont Regime of the Special Powers Act. In its report it tersely and effectively described the northern state. Unionists it said had created ‘under the shadow of the British constitution a permanent machine of dictatorship.’
In protest at this system, and against the discrimination in housing the Gildernew family took a stand. In October 1967, led by Fermanagh/S Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew’s granny, Nana, they squatted in a house in Kinnard Park in Caledon in south Tyrone. The local Council in Dungannon had a deserved reputation for discrimination against Catholics in housing and had allocated the house – over 269 other applicants on the waiting list - to a single 19-year-old woman who was employed by a prospective unionist candidate. Local republicans, including Francie Molly and Stan Corrigan, and Stormont Nationalist MP Austin Currie backed the Gildernews.
The Gildernew family after their eviction from the house in Caledon
On June 18th 1968 bailiffs, and RUC men, forced their way into the home and the family were evicted. There was widespread anger at this. The Civil Rights Association, which had been founded the previous year, had as one of its demands an end to discrimination in housing. Looking to the example of the Civil Rights campaign in the USA it decided to organise a peaceful march to highlight the issue. The Coalisland to Dungannon march was the result.
Nana Gildernew wasn’t the first woman to take a stand against injustice. There have been countless others in Ireland and many more in similar struggles for freedom across the world. I have a particular affection and admiration for Mary Ann McCracken. And Alice Milligan, Elizabeth O Farrell and Winfred Carney from our own place and others from across the world like Harriet Tubman.
In 1994 on one of my first visits to the USA I had the honour to meet one of my heroes – Rosa Parks. In December 1955 Rosa Parks, who was a seamstress, boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The bus driver ordered her to leave her seat in the ‘coloured section’ of the bus for boarding white passengers. Rosa Parks refused. She refused to go to the back of the bus. As a result she was arrested for violating the segregation laws in Alabama.
There were subsequent claims that she had been ‘planted’ by the civil rights movement to create a controversy. Martin Luther King, in his book ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ described it well. He wrote: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realises that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’ Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and self-respect.”
At the end of July another woman who had had enough, seventeen year old Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, was released after spending eight months in an Israeli prison for slapping two Israeli soldiers. Her courage and fearlessness in the face of armed aggression by Israeli soldiers caught the imagination of many people internationally. Her release was widely reported as was her call for greater support for the people of Palestine in their struggle for self-determination. Ahed is only one of a new generation of Palestinians standing up for their right to be free from oppression.
Marie Moore and Maire Drumm leading by example
And so it was with in Ireland in the 60’s and since. Women like Nana Gildernew and Betty Sinclair, Patricia McCluskey, Brigid Bond, Madge Davison, Bernadette McAliskey and others from that time and later. Women like Maire Drumm and Marie Moore, who helped break the British Army curfew of the Lower Falls in 1970. Women like Sheena Campbell and Mairead Farrell and many more who had had enough and dared to challenge the political sectarianism and the armed forces of the British state.
Mairead Farrell on protest in Armagh Women's Prison
In the struggle for freedom and justice, wherever that struggle has occurred, whether in Ireland or South Africa or the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or in countless other places around the world, women have always played a substantial and leadership role. It has not always been recognised and acknowledged. These unmanageable revolutionaries have risked life, and injury and imprisonment in their determination to take a stand and to improve the quality of life of their families and neighbours and communities.
Details: The march from Coalisland to Dungannon, will begin at 3pm on Saturday 18th August, in the square in Coalisland.