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Civil rights at 40: historical perspective seminar

I had a busy evening, so I could only stay for the first part of tonight's historical perspective seminar, held as one of the first events in the year-long programme of the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee to mark the fortieth anniversary (sort of) of the civil rights movement.

Dennis Haughey introduced and chaired, with mini-lectures from Dr Eamon Phoenix of Stranmillis University College (and an old history teacher of mine from St Malachy's days) and Prof Henry Patterson of the University of Ulster.

A few dozen people had shown up for the event in Queen's University Students' Union – they were a mixture of civil rights 'old timers' like Austin Currie and Steve McBride, a few political activists (especially SDLP members like blogger El Blogador) and even a few students. It struck me that this was a far cry from the heady days in the Students' Union of forty years ago when the halls could be thronged for civil rights meetings, but I also know (from my 1960s student activist father-in-law) that student civil rights meetings then could also be quiet affairs before things really took off.

In any case, this wasn't a civil rights meeting, this was a history lecture.

Funnily enough, however, there was a human rights event going on tonight in the same Queen's Student's Union building. One floor down, in Clement's coffee bar, the brilliant QUB Amnesty group was staging an exhibition, live music and card signing event in support of our Stop Violence Against Women campaign.

I popped in later to see how they were getting on – the place was full, the photographs were amazing (well done Matt!), there was a good buzz and the student activists were quietly ensuring everyone got the campaign message. I doubt if any of those attending the civil rights history event were aware of the present day rights campaigning simultaneously going on downstairs and I doubt of any of our student campaigners knew about the civil rights history seminar upstairs. A pity. I think each would have something to teach, and learn from, the other.

Anyway, back upstairs, as it were, to the Beech Room, where I was able to stay for Dr Phoenix's quick run-through of some of the injustices to be experienced in Northern Ireland from 1920 and the foundation of the state up to the inception of the civil rights movement. I'll not rehearse them here – they are well documented elsewhere, so look for a good history book if you are interested. Phoenix is an engaging speaker, who is able to pepper his lectures with thumbnail portraits of the protagonists, snippets of speech and historical anecdotes to bring his discourse alive.

He reminded us of the early contribution of Dungannon doctor, Conn McCluskey and his Scottish wife Patricia, who set up the Homeless Citizen’s League in the early sixties before going on to found the Campaign for Social Justice which, in turn helped lead to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. I hope there's a plaque to them somewhere in Tyrone, although the real monument to their achievements was the abolition of discriminatory allocation of public housing and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Regrettably, because of yet another competing event, I could not stay for Prof Patterson's contribution or the discussion which was to follow. If I come across another online account of the evening, I'll post a link at some later point.

Meanwhile, if you want to do some present day rights campaigning and you're not already a member, join Amnesty.

UPDATE: John from the Queen's Amnesty Group has now blogged their SVAW event here.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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