The fortieth anniversary of the October 1968 civil rights march in Derry is something that, while it’s obviously hugely significant, I must admit I haven’t been going out of my way to look at. This year there’s been a rather wearying parade of has-beens backslapping themselves about what they did forty years ago, not to mention lots of people claiming credit for the civil rights movement. This has usually taken the form of “Yo! We won! And I and my close collaborators were the guys wot won it.”
In the media, this has boiled down to a protracted bunfight between the SDLP and the Provos about who played the most significant role. Actually, the Sticks and the Communist Party probably have more convincing claims, although they don’t get the airtime. (One might also mention Socialist Democracy, the lineal residue of the old PD, except they don’t seem terribly keen on making anything of their illustrious history.) So, though I’m always happy to see the inimitable Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh on the telly, the anniversary hasn’t been preoccupying me inordinately.
But here’s something curious. Last Sunday there was a civil rights demo in Belfast city centre, in the form of the North Belfast Housing Action Committee, with a very creditable turnout of around 400. Even more creditable given that the driving force seemed to be the IRSP – at least they were the only organised force there apart from some anarchists. (I was even a little surprised the anarchists were there, as this is the sort of thing the left usually run a mile from. A little too nationalist, you see.)
And this actually flags up that in certain areas, and around certain issues – housing in North Belfast is a key example – the dilemmas of forty years ago are still incendiary. The background is this. In North Belfast, there is a huge housing list, and areas like Ardoyne are bursting at the seams. What’s more, 87% of those on the housing list are Catholic. And yet, there is lots of empty housing stock in North Belfast, but the trouble is it’s all in designated Protestant areas.
And what makes the problem even more apparent is the long-term demographic decline of Protestant North Belfast. Many of these areas are not far off being derelict. Anyone who has the opportunity to move out does so, and you’re basically left with those too old to move, those too poor to move and the paramilitaries. But Catholics can’t move into these areas, because that’s called encroachment, and it drives North Belfast Prods buck mad.
So here’s a problem that’s been simmering away for many years and has only got worse. What do you do? Well, you can avoid actively sectarianising the issue, and seeing if you can find a few progressive Prods who are willing to pitch in. But again, any solution to the housing issue will be a solution that unionism – and not only the extreme sectarian fringes – seriously won’t like. But there’s also a problem with the normal leftist nostrum of class unity – if your strategy is to wait for the Prods, North Belfast nationalists are likely to give you a dusty response. And there’s no getting past that 87% figure.
Quite a conundrum, isn’t it? And a conundrum that was all too familiar in 1968…
Rud eile: I am pleased to note that regular commenter Garibaldy is now in the blogging game, and has some pertinent thoughts.