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7 January 1999 Edition

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Burntollet: a milestone on the long road to freedom

30 years ago the People's Democracy marchers from Belfast to Derry were taking a step in a struggle against the unionist state that had begun with the stand taken by the Gildernews in Caledon, County Tyrone and the civil rights march batoned off the streets of Derry the previous October.

So with the unionists unsure of where to turn the PD demonstration was a further test of the regime and a chance for the reformers in the O'Neill camp to either deliver equality or bow to the extremists.

The loyalist extremists won out and the rest is, as they say, history.

Except that it isn't history, because the struggle for equality and justice has still to be concluded.

That was the message that came from the demonstration last Monday called to mark the 30th anniversary of the Burntollet ambush.

The media coverage of the original march blamed the violence on Catholics and Protestants who clashed while some said the demonstrators were attacked by loyalists.

All the reports overlooked the fact that the RUC were part of the attacking loyalist mob and played as vicious a part in the attack as did the Paisleyites.

No wonder the demonstrators, gathered on that bleak road beside the river Faughan, called for the RUC to be disbanded.

Speaking at Monday's demonstration Sinn Fein Assembly member Mary Nelis vowed that the ``quest to establish justice and equality would continue''.

And organiser Bernard O'Hagan claimed that ``nationalists are still being treated as second class citizens''.

John McGuffin, one of the original marchers, denied that the civil rights demonstration was infiltrated by communists and republicans, saying, ``I marched on that day and I have been doing so for many days since for civil rights. The basic simple demands that we asked for 30 years ago have still not been fully addressed.

``For people to say that it was provocative or that we should forget all about it is to my mind a gratuitous insult to the people who have suffered over the past 30 years, who have been denied their civil rights and are still being denied their civil rights''.

 


A public meeting to commemorate the Burntollet Ambush was held in Pilots Row Community centre in Derry on Monday night. The main speaker was Sinn Féin Chairperson and Assembly member, Mitchel McLaughlin.

He compared the events of thirty years ago to those of today, in particular, ``as we witness the manoeuvring of Trimble today as he attempts to renege on his commitments we are reminded of the various ways in which the `Veto' is applied to prevent political movement. Then as now we see Unionist reluctance to support democratic reform. Weak or besieged leadership is a familiar refrain. O'Neill then, Trimble and his apologists now, Unionist leaderships portraying themselves as moderates who are anxious to introduce change but cannot deliver on these commitments because they face internal revolt.''

But, he said, ``while many problems and obstacles remain, it is incorrect to state that nothing has changed over the past 30 years.

``For a start a confident, radicalised and politicised electorate has emerged. Constituencies who understand struggle and identify with it, a section of the people of Ireland who are strong in their self- belief and who are prepared to take responsibility for their own destiny.

``A situation has been forged over 30 years of intense sacrifice and struggle whereby the British establishment have conceded that the decision on Irish Independence and the ending of the British link will be by decision of the people of Ireland, a decision which will be made on the island of Ireland, no more decrees by British Imperialism.

``The most significant change has been the emergence of a republican leadership with the authority and experience to chart a clear path to national democracy; a republican leadership and movement which is already focused on the next phase of the struggle to establish a Democratic Socialist Republic in Ireland.''
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