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14 August 2003 Edition

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March for the right to vote

BY LAURA FRIEL

I was only eleven in 1968, living across the Irish Sea in Britain, but I still remember the television images of the Civil Rights marches in the North of Ireland. Here was a place, I was told at the time, that was a part of Britain where ordinary people, who incidentally looked just like the people of my own neighbourhood, were marching on the streets for the right to vote.

Even as an English child with no Irish connections, it seemed appalling that anyone should need to demand the right to vote. Wasn't it a right? Didn't Britain believe in democracy? The answer came in the images of civil rights marchers batoned by the RUC and later, the rolls of barbed wire and the lines of troops. The message was clear - democracy was for Britain. And for the north of Ireland? Well there was repression, occupation and British rule.

After 35 years of struggle and in the context of the current peace process, it might be tempting to believe that the exercise of basic civil rights in the North of Ireland is no longer a burning issue. Think again. Earlier this year, the British government unilaterally decided to cancel elections to the northern Assembly due to be held at the beginning of May 2003.

To do so, they had to rush legislation through the British House of Commons amidst the claim that their action was nothing more than a temporary delay. To secure a favourable response in the British Parliament, the legislation was passed, with a new election date set for the end of May.

But with the legislation already in place, the British government was able to cancel the election again, this time without setting an alternative date for the election. In other words, on the basis of legislation sold as 'temporary', the British government has established an open-ended cancellation of democracy and reintroduced direct rule.

In August 1968 men, women and children marched from Coalisland to Dungannon demanding the right to vote. The march was blocked by the RUC from entering Dungannon Square. That night, and in the days and nights that followed, thousands of people took to the streets in cities and towns across the North and place names like the Bogside, Bombay Street and Burntollet became a part of the lexicon of the civil rights' struggle. And despite vicious opposition, the right to vote was clearly won.

But the right to vote means nothing if you are denied the chance to use it.

Three decades after Northern nationalists secured the right to vote, the British government unilaterally decided to cancel the election to the Assembly. They did so in the face of opposition from the Dublin government and all political parties in the North, bar one, the Ulster Unionist Party.

On Saturday 23 August, people in the North of Ireland will trace the footsteps of the early civil rights marchers of 35 years ago and march from Dungannon to Coalisland in defence of the right to vote.

The demonstration will be assembling in Ann Street, Dungannon at 2.30pm to walk to Coalisland for a rally in the Square. Prominent members of the early Civil Rights Movement, including Bernadette McAliskey, Eamon McCann, Michael Farrell, former Mid Ulster Sinn Féin MP Tom Mitchell, and former TD Austin Curry, have been invited to attend and various prominent speakers will address the rally.

An Phoblacht talked to Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy about the forthcoming protest in County Tyrone. "The British government shouldn't be allowed to cancel democracy as and when it suits them," said Francie. "The early civil rights movement secured the right to vote but at a high human cost. Having secured the right to vote, it's equally important to defend the right to exercise it."

Francie explained that the decision to march from Dungannon to Coalisland, the opposite route of the original civil rights march, is to symbolise the British government's attempt to reverse democracy.

"The right to hold an election and exercise the right to vote should not be the 'gift' of the British government but an inalienable right of the people living here," said Francie. "The right to vote becomes increasingly meaningless if the British government can cancel elections whenever they fear the outcome.

"Democracy is about the exercise of the people's choice, not that of a British government. Cancelling elections is only one of a number of measures currently being pursued by the British government designed to distort the operation of democracy in the north of Ireland," said Francie.

The early Civil Rights Movement campaigned against the practice of 'Gerrymandering', the manipulation of electoral boundaries to secure a particular political outcome. The Boundary Commission has been recalled again to look at council and Westminster constituencies.

"In the late '60s, northern nationalists successfully opposed and ended the practice of securing artificial unionist majorities through gerrymandering," said Francie. "Over 30 years later, the political manipulation of electoral boundaries is a real possibility once again."

Francie also recalled the recent Electoral Register fiasco in which new restrictions on the method of registering to vote resulted in around 200,000 voters being 'missing' and disenfranchised. "The British government is now telling us that everyone will have to re-register to vote in any forthcoming election," said Francie.

Even when registered, the new requirement of photographic identification in order to exercise the right to vote adds another impediment to the operation of democracy in the north of Ireland.

"This is a very serious march about a very serious issue. I am urging everyone not to be complacent," said Francie, who acted as a steward on the '68 March. He recalls it as a family occasion. "And we want it to be a family occasion this time. It should be a great day and there's music, dance and song organised for the rally."

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