The purpose of my visit was to participate in a Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) panel debate on whether the fight for civil rights is still relevant now. The event was held to kick-start the year of commemorative events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the movement.
Next year marks a half-century since the first marches for civil rights in Northern Ireland. These marches demanded one man, one vote; an end to the electoral corruption of gerrymandering; fair allocation of decent housing; and an end to the discrimination in employment.
While the SDLP made clear at the event that the civil rights movement does not belong to any one party, the SDLP grew out of the civic movement that demanded civil rights.
Many of the party’s founding fathers were leaders in the movement. It was a privilege to hear their stories and also to meet with many of the political giants that struggled throughout that era and this for social justice. In particular, I was truly humbled to meet Ivan Cooper and Brid Rodgers who led civil rights activists and marched the streets peacefully for equality. Brid made the point that what compelled her to help lead the fight for civil rights was the realisation that Nationalists, Catholics, Republicans – any discriminated minority group – were never going to achieve legitimate and lasting equal rights unless they stopped the violence. Every Republican bullet fired would only serve to legitimise the actions of the British Government/Army in the eyes of some, and would only serve to inspire more violence in those communities that were discriminated. I had the honour of meeting Pat Hume, the great peace-builder John Hume’s wife.
When I spent the day in a room with these giants, and listened to their stories and motivations, I realised the thing they all had in common was that they saw something that wasn’t right, and they were far too busy working away and fighting to make it right, that they never noticed they were making history and changing the face of Ireland forever.
One of the most important messages that came from the event was that this isn’t just history, it’s reality. Today’s fight for civil rights has yet to be won. And the most significant and moving part of the civil rights story in Northern Ireland is that it was young people, ordinary young people, who saw injustice and said “no more”.
While Northern Ireland’s past is plagued with violence, the civil rights movement was a movement of people from all walks of life coming together in peaceful protest to demand fairness and to demand change. And in three short years that change was achieved.
Although many peaceful civilians were beaten on the streets in Northern Ireland, the majority of people there still chose politics as a path to peace and to real change.
With recent events in Catalonia, I am appalled and ashamed that in many parts of the world we have yet to learn the lessons of the past. The right to vote, the right to self-determination, the right to peaceful protest and to civil and human rights are not subjective – they are absolute. Brutal barbaric reactions from any state towards peaceful citizens should be completely, and utterly condemned.
One pertinent point made by the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was: “The civil rights movement gave representation to the timeless human truth that there is always more that unites us than that which divides us.” That is something none of us should forget. Those of us who get into politics for the right reasons get into it for others, for a purpose. Never for ourselves. Only by becoming an MP did I truly learn how to work to represent the people who voted for me and not simply my own views. That is why the values of the civil rights movement resonate so much today.
It is also why the spirit of the civil rights movement is something all of us should admire and be inspired by.
That spirit that puts society before self called for justice and fairness. That worked for all, not just some, it faced down the establishment and the status quo – that shook the world in a way that brought about meaningful and lasting change.
When I got into politics it was because I hated what I saw. I wanted a better Scotland, I wanted a fairer Scotland and I knew that independence could bring those things. Today, I firmly believe that to be true more than ever.
I didn’t want to be a politician or move to London – nothing could be further from the truth. But I didn’t want to just sit at home and do nothing about it. That’s not how change happens. In a challenging changing world, where the far right has risen, I know that the fight must go on. But none of us can do that alone.
In Northern Ireland, young people can lead the fight for marriage equality and finally treat the LGBT community with the respect it deserves.
In Scotland we can and we will keep building a fairer nation – but to achieve that we must be independent. We must be able to take on the right-wing Tories, we must be able to end the brutal austerity regime and we must be able to give our children hope, that their Scotland, their world is to be a better place than the one that came before them.
I was asked, “do civil rights really still matter? What do they mean to you?” And I simply replied: “It means I can get married in Scotland but I couldn’t in Northern Ireland.”
The battle for rights will never ever end. Each generation has to fight the same battles over and over. Where we do make progress and achieve equality, we must continually fight to maintain those rights.
Northern Ireland didn’t find peace because a few individuals were predestined to bring about peace.
It was achieved because ordinary people decided that enough was enough. They couldn’t sit by and watch or suffer any longer. They got educated, they got organised, and they fought and fought until they achieved what would have once seemed impossible. Wherever we see injustice let us do the same. We shall overcome.