Declan Kearney: My factual reference to role of republicans in civil rights movement was misrepresented

Declan Kearney is the national chairperson of Sinn Féin
Declan Kearney is the national chairperson of Sinn Féin

MY factual reference in a recent article to the role of republicans, along with others in helping to establish the civil rights movement, has been misrepresented by several political opponents.

This historical reality appears to have struck a raw nerve among those uncomfortable with republican activists' involvement in the campaign for civil rights.

For the record, veteran civil rights activists, including Gerry Adams, Mitchel Mc Laughlin and Francie Molloy, remain prominent Sinn Féin members.

The fact is, that many progressives formed the civil rights movement and many others have been inspired by its legacy.

The civil rights movement had multiple parents and many children.

Some who have rushed to criticise quite obviously did not read my article. Other responses were simply based on personalised attack and political sectarianism.

Of course that is sometimes to be expected from hostile commentators: but balanced debate and fraternal disagreement is always preferable.

However, the hysterical and egocentric outbursts from opponents have avoided the key political point made by me; that the civil and democratic rights legacy of the civil rights movement today remains unfinished business in the north.

Fifty years on sections of political unionism continue to oppose the development of a rights based society.

The culmination of ongoing financial scandals in the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme, institutionalised bigotry within the northern political institutions, in parallel with broken agreements and denial of citizens' rights created a tipping point which directly caused the current crisis.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

It set out a framework to enshrine equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect on the basis of proper power-sharing and all-Ireland political institutions in the form of an international treaty.

In ways the ambition and principles of the GFA addressed what the civil rights movement did not get resolved.

The agreement came about because northern nationalism and other strands of progressive opinion with the support of Irish America and the Irish government created the circumstances which led to it receiving overwhelming popular support of the Irish people, north and south.

However, just as the unionist state opposed the civil rights movement, political unionism has pushed back relentlessly against the GFA since 1998.

Last week the DUP leadership squandered an opportunity to rebuild the political process. It pulled back from closing the draft agreement which could have re-established the political institutions. As a result the extremists in political unionism have been emboldened.

The timeless lesson from the civil rights movement which applies to our current situation, is that the type of progressive alliances which popularised the demand for rights in that era, are now required to secure the fundamental language, marriage, legacy and other rights which are available elsewhere in these islands.

The 20th anniversary of the GFA this April ought to be a landmark anniversary in the transformation of this society.

This should be a shared objective for all democrats and progressives. As a co-guarantor of the GFA the Irish government has a huge responsibility to ensure it is fully implemented. Both the British and Irish governments must now act decisively to entrench the rights of citizens in the north.

Once again Irish America also has a very important role to play in the peace process.

We have come full circle. The extremists within political unionism must not be allowed to hold back the momentum for change.

The days of second-class citizenship are over in the north of Ireland.

The post-civil rights generations will never again be pushed to the back of the bus.

Declan Kearney. Sinn Féin National Chairperson