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Writer brings republicanism back to its roots

(, Irish News)

I find it strange that the 40th anniversary of the founding of the civil rights movement received scant attention in a country renowned for dwelling on the past.

It perhaps raises uncomfortable questions but the birth of civil rights was a crucial aspect of our past. One of the people associated with that period is Dr Roy Johnston. As a leading Young Unionist what fascinated me about Johnston was that a Protestant could end up a leading figure not only in relation to civil rights but within the republican movement. Decades later he followed a path not dissimilar to my own in being drawn to the Society of Friends (Quakers). He felt this was in keeping with a republicanism divorced from nationalism whereas I felt it was compatible with a unionism divorced from ascendancy politics.

Roy Johnston has published his memoirs combined with a record of previous work by his father Joe Johnston, a home ruler who hailed from a small farming Presbyterian background in Tyrone. Roy's work is well documented and outlines, as the title suggests, a Century of Endeavour. It forms a critical resource for anyone seeking to understand the genesis of civil rights and civil conflict here.

Johnston was a physicist and a political activist who – as Thomas McGiolla, a former president of Official Sinn Féin – said, could have been making atom bombs but instead was making revolution. He was central to IRA chief Cathal Goulding's mission to take the gun out of Irish politics and in Johnston's words bring republicanism back to its Protestant roots. The intended revolution was not now to be violent but rather centred on ideas and, according to McGiolla, Johnston had many ideas. He might have a hundred ideas and they would run with one while he developed another hundred. McGiolla said Johnston stood out in many ways and was of great importance in moving the Republican Movement in support of civil rights.

The revolutionary thinking was promoted through conferences that encouraged republicans to act politically and to end abstentionism in order to influence the Dail and Stormont. After the split they held a 'school' in a cottage at Mornington near Drogheda where at weekends they engaged in intensive discussions to save the politicising process. However, Mornington was impossible to sustain after internment when the drift towards militarism became unstoppable.

Cathal Goulding had known members of 1930s Republican Congress which had also tried to politicise the republican movement. He may have had contact with Protestants who, in the wake of the Belfast outdoor relief demonstrations of 1934, carried a banner at Bodenstown with the slogan 'Break The Connection With Capitalism' in the name of Wolfe Tone Commemoration, Shankill Road Belfast Branch. For their pains, the Shankill men were stoned by Irish nationalists from Tipperary posing as republicans.

According to Johnston, some ex-Curragh internees from the 1940s moved to the political left and rejected the 1956–62 IRA border campaign. Those interned during that campaign also re-examined their approach and garnered ideas from the left having realised that to fight was not necessarily to win.

Most unionists saw the IRA campaign as a futile attempt to undermine Northern Ireland with bombs and bullets. The new approach associated with people like Johnston stirred a more negative reaction partly because the IRA was interpreted as Moscow's agent in the context of the Cold War. Seeking British rights for British people was more subtle and effective but there were fears of subversion in Britain and Ireland with civil rights demands interpreted as IRA propaganda. Although some Young Unionists were members of the first NICRA executive, leading republicans were also members which increased unionist fears. This context helped to make Roy Johnston's task of rescuing democratic left ideas from 'the dead hand of Stalin' and the republican democratic tradition from 'the dead hand of Fenian militarism' exceedingly difficult.

Opposition also came from the British and Irish establishments and crucially from a new militant Provisional IRA encouraged by, among others, elements within Fianna Fail. Almost 40 years later the Provisional IRA is now politicised and we wonder what the intervening years were all about. Johnston's research of a century's work will remain a valued resource for students of the period for another century and more.

May 31, 2007
  • Century of Endeavour: A Biographical & Autobiographical View of the Twentieth Century in Ireland by Roy HW Johnston (Tyndale Press Carlow & Lilliput Press Dublin 2006).

    This article appeared first in the May 28, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

  • This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News