N for non-binary is used to create a space where we are free to define our own gender without the polarisation of I like the non-binary label as it creates common cause with all those who dislike the binary opposition of  polarisation. What does binary opposition mean to you? Sir Paul Bew’s claim after the death of David Trimble that he escaped “Ulster’s binary opposition” transported me back to our student days which were sabotaged by sectarianism. In Belfast in the early 1970’s growing awareness of the importance of gay and lesbian liberation existed alongside our rejection of the binary opposition of Catholic v Protestant or Nationalist v Unionist

Sectarian Sabotage

As students on the streets of Belfast in 1968 marching for Civil Rights we thought we were beyond the US and THEM sectarianism of Northern Ireland politics. We identified with May ‘68 in Paris. We wanted change. We wanted equality. The most popular slogans to distinguish us from Irish Nationalist politics was  TORIES OUT NORTH and SOUTH or ONE MAN ONE VOTE against gerrymandering unionism. Feminism was hovering on the fringes of our equality agenda.  Another slogan was SSRUC because the police force and B-specials were protecting the status quo which discriminated against Catholics in jobs and housing.

SSRUC. SSRUC. SSRUC. The slogan flung at the water cannon had a ring to it and I gave the Sieg Heil salute as it filled my lungs. Ann pulled me off the street and into a shop doorway away from the powerful jet of the water cannon followed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary equipped with riot shields Later I would get the lecture about how accusations of fascism were not to be thrown around lightly. We had travelled up by coach from Queen’s University, Belfast, where we were first year students, to join the Civil Rights demonstration. It was 1968 and we demanded an end to discrimination and the right to houses and jobs for all. My enthusiasm had not yet faced the challenges of 1969 when Civil Rights was hijacked by sectarianism and nationalism.

The water cannon dispersed the march inside the walls of Derry city. When we emerged from the shop doorway, there was a sudden rush of  marchers and shoppers from all directions as stones began to rain down on us from above. I was separated from my friend Ann in the confusion as we scattered. A counter demonstration of supporters of the Rev. Ian Paisley had taken up position on the walls above the city, where they had a great vantage point over the streets below. I tagged onto a group of students heading for the coach. There were murmurings of people injured as we looked around anxiously for Ann. She turned up with a rakish bandage on her head. ‘I got hit by a stone and I ended up in hospital, c’mon let’s get on this bus.’ Ann was no drama queen.

We didn’t get the full story until we were in our shared room in Belfast at the hostel for students run by nuns. There were stitches across Ann’s forehead and the hospital wanted to keep her in for observation, but she’d refused and signed herself out. Both of us were more afraid of our parents in Strabane finding out we had been in Derry or even worse family members arriving in Derry to take us home to Strabane.. Ann’s injury got infected and attracted attention from lecturers as well as the nuns  but Ann wasn’t keen on mollycoddling, so she made little of her injury .

We were surprised that instead of censure, the nuns seemed to take a certain pride in our activism. Up until then the nuns had focussed on warnings about the danger from the temptations of men who would use us and then cast us aside like a sucked orange. Curfew at 11pm protected us from this fate. But when we rolled up after putting Ireland’s backward politics to rights in the Students’ Union or the Club Bar, there was always another student who would open the common room window on the ground floor to let us in.

We were keen to avoid the constraints of the Irish Catholic label. Civil Rights were non-sectarian. As students we were fired up by May ’68 movements in Paris, by Civil Rights in US and anti-Apartheid in South Africa. We were products of the British Welfare State and free education. We were on the side of the workers. We were high on the excitement of our cause and convinced our passive resistance to violence would win over the majority in Northern Ireland to Civil Rights. We were not in favour of a union with the Republic of Ireland. We wanted something bigger, better, and international.

We prepared for our student marches in Belfast in 1968 with Gandhi-style tactics of passive resistance when we carried out regular sit-down protests on the roads around the City Hall where the RUC lifted us and deposited us on the pavement. We made it once into Stormont and the same procedure got us ushered out. We thought our style would win and even the bloodied heads from batons or bruises from stones were good material to demonstrate the righteousness of the cause. We called ourselves the Peoples’ Democracy and it was open to all and it those early days, the majority who filled the large hall in Queen’s University were non-Catholics. Polarisation was lurking in the undergrowth ready for ambush.

The Peoples’ Democracy organised the Long March from Belfast to Derry for the New Year of 1969. I was disappointed that parental pressure persuaded me to spend New Year in Strabane so I couldn’t join the others. I wasn’t prepared for the news footage of our friends huddling in ditches at Burntollet Bridge in County Derry on 3rd January. Counter demonstrators had organised an ambush. Equipped with cudgels and missiles, they occupied the hill above a narrow bridge when the Long March passed through County Derry. In the news footage it looked as if the RUC who accompanied the marchers were also under attack although they had the protection of their riot shields. We went to welcome them as they arrived in the Guildhall Square in Derry – a repeat of the Freshers’ weekend in Belfast in October 1968 when we welcomed back students whom B-Specials (an auxiliary force of the RUC) had attacked with batons at the first Civil Rights demonstration in Derry.

The counter demonstrators to Civil Rights became known as Paisleyites. They were whipped up by fears of being forced into “Rome Rule” – a slogan used by the Rev. Ian Paisley to highlight the threat of Roman Catholics’ resistance to partition and the danger of the Irish Republic annexing Northern Ireland. (Articles in the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland gave a special place to Roman Catholicism and sought an end to the partition of Ireland.) Many Unionists saw civil rights for Catholics as a threat to the union with the United Kingdom. The Rev. Ian Paisley’s fundamentalist version of Christianity was vociferous against any initiatives which would encourage common cause between Catholics and Protestants and initiatives in favour or rights for women or gays. He was prepared to use violence and aggression to keep Northern Ireland dominated by his version of Unionism. In the Peoples’ Democracy, we were convinced that monolithic Catholic Nationalism or monolithic Protestant Unionism were out of date and out of touch with reality. Human rights and internationalist politics would soon despatch them into history.

Ann and I went to a big Paisley rally with the third member of our trio to find out what motivated his supporters. The ten thousand people at the rally cast doubt on our non-sectarian aspirations. We saw how much easier it was for a leader to appeal to fear and prejudice and to whip people up into taking sides rather than working out what sort of Ulster could emerge from our diversity. But we didn’t yet give up hope his followers would soon see through his empty slogans and bombastic rallies. We were confident the majority were not in favour of Civil Rights provoking Civil War.

On 9th January 1969 in Newry, another Peoples’ Democracy march was faced with a counter demonstration. We stood back as cars and vans were set alight and the peaceful demonstration became a riot. The tone of demonstrations had changed. The battle was no longer for equal rights but our rights versus your rights without respect for diversity or minorities.

Bernadette Devlin had emerged as a leader for one of our People’s Democracy demonstrations and stood for election as a Member of Parliament in April 1969. Unlike Eddie Mc Ateer the leader of the Nationalist Party, who refused to recognise the British parliament, she made a fiery entry to Westminster. In her maiden speech she refers to “my people because Catholics and Protestants are the ordinary people, the oppressed people from whom I come and whom I represent” – but her speech also demonstrated the fragility of non-sectarianism given the discrimination against Catholics and their ghettoization. She predicted violence against the potential deployment of British troops. 

In August 1969, the backlash from Paisleyites and counter violence from Catholics, burnt out of their homes, brought increased pressure on the UK government to do something and the British troops entered the fray. Irish Republicans and the Rev. Ian Paisley went in search of arms dealers. Before long winning Civil Rights became irrelevant to the battles and tit-for-tat violence on the streets.

In between marches and meetings, I would visit my sister forced to leave home because her fiancé was in the RUC.. I would find common cause with my RUC brother-in-law who had been on the other side of that Newry barricade in 1969. At first, I didn’t believe him that Civil Rights would be hijacked by those who had too much to gain by sectarian conflict. Surely, we were beyond that. From Fermanagh, he was one of the few who understood the mix of urban exclusion and rural deprivation where many were dependent on the grace and favour of those with power. Republican fervour was waiting to the wings ready to take advantage of  sectarian provocation.

The emergence of the Provisional IRA at the end of 1969 confirmed the Unionist predictions that Civil Rights was a front for a Catholic uprising in favour of a United Ireland which would have no place for anyone who identified as British. There was no more room for anti-sectarian and non-violent action. Peoples’ Democracy became polarised.( For a history of the People’s Democracy see link to Paul Arthur below). We retreated as murder and mayhem took over. The equations of Nationalism=Catholics and Unionism=Protestants became more entrenched than ever. The seeds were sown for sustained polarisation in Northern Ireland.

In an interview with Freya McClements in the Irish Times fifty years later, Eamon McCann admits to feeling “desperately disappointed; not quite ashamed, but uneasy, that we didn’t foresee what might happen.” (September 29, 2018). Yet when I listen to his speeches, I can’t hear any learning from our mistakes. We were too busy then posing as modern revolutionaries until it was too late. We were young enough to understand how marginalised youth were ripe for manipulation and exploitation in pursuit of the glory of a cause greater than them? Petrol bombs could become car bombs. Pipe bombs could become cannister bombs. It’s all too easy to gain the co-operation of international arms dealers when neighbours turn against neighbours.

Those of us who had been lifted out of the ghettos by education were not motivated by nationalism or unionism and went in search of other political struggles. After graduation from Queen’s University, Belfast in 1972, I left to find a job in a label factory in London. Labels and identity have preoccupied me ever since. Should we have taken more time to undermine the sectarian divisions by developing more consciousness of equality movements which were also emerging in Ulster in the 1960’s?

My friend Ann went on to work on reception of Chilean refugees in London and from that to the International Miners’ Union. She died of cancer on 30th January 2000. I miss her perspective on whether the threat/promise of a United Ireland will activate polarisation of Nationalism v Unionism and Irish versus British identity across this island.


Anyone interested in a political analysis could take a look at Paul Arthur’s account of Peoples’ Democracy: