Sinn Féin's national chairman accused of 'rewriting history' of civil rights campaign

Sinn Féin national chairman Declan Kearney. Picture by Hugh Russell

Sinn Féin's national chairman has been accused of "rewriting history" by claiming that the inspiration for the civil rights campaign in the north came directly from the republican movement's leadership.

South Antrim MLA Declan Kearney makes the claim in an article to mark this year's 50th anniversary of an upsurge in public protest against widespread unionist discrimination.

The marches and demonstrations that marked out 1968 as the year in which support for civil rights grew rapidly followed the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Nicra) in October the previous year.

In his article on the website , Mr Kearney (53) acknowledges the role of the earlier Campaign for Social Justice in inspiring those advocating civil rights but he similarly attributes the "strategic decision of the IRA and Sinn Féin leaderships at that time".

"Through the medium of the Wolfe Tone Society, the army and Sinn Féin committed to building alliances with other democrats, trade unionists, communists and many others to demand state reform," he writes.

"That culminated in the formation of the NI Civil Rights Association, or civil rights movement in 1967."

He writes that the leadership of both the IRA and Sinn Féin encouraged activists to "organise and support the civil rights movement".

Mr Kearney says republicans recognised the importance of "progressive coalitions to successfully advance the common ground of equality and rights for all citizens".

"Ironically it’s now quite common to hear a revisionist narrative today which glosses over that," the article claims.

"The role of the IRA and Sinn Féin may well sit uncomfortably with some but the reality is the SDLP didn’t exist in 1967/68."

However, author and former People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann, who was one of the organisers of the first civil rights march in Derry, has challenged the Sinn Féin's chairman's reading of history.

He described Mr Kearney's article as a "blatant attempt by Sinn Féin to colonise the civil rights movement".

"He's back projecting the IRA experience and method of operation back onto the civil rights movement in order, so he hopes, to enhance the alleged connection between, on one hand, masses of people marching for democracy and the armed struggle for the narrow purpose of a united Ireland," he told The Irish News.

Mr McCann said the people who made up the republican movement's leadership at the time when the civil rights movement coalesced later became associated with the Official IRA rather than the Provisionals.

"It's simply a matter of historical record that people like Eoghan Harris and the then chief of staff of the IRA Cathal Goulding were advocating the three stage theory of the Irish revolution – the first stage of which was winning democracy in the north," he said.

"This article is blatant attempt to distort the narrative of our northern Troubles – all it's designed to do is consolidate support for a political party."


Former SDLP deputy leader Brid Rodgers, who was involved in Nicra forerunner the Campaign for Social Justice, said the article was "historically inaccurate".

"To link the Campaign for Social Justice with the IRA, as the article does, is totally untrue," she said.

"The civil rights movement was made up of people of all politics, of all religions and none – I never came across any of the people who are now big names in Sinn Féin."

Last night Mr Kearney said republican activists who helped form and organise the civil rights movement remained prominent members of Sinn Féin.

"The history of the civil rights movement demonstrates that it had multiple parents and many children," he said.

"Any balanced debate on its origins is welcome – that is not served by interventions based upon historical and hysterical revisionism, or political sectarianism."

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