1969 – On a march from Belfast to Derry, the civil rights group People’s Democracy is attacked at Burntollet Bridge.

People’s Democracy (PD) was a political organisation that, while supporting the campaign for civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority, stated that such rights could only be achieved through the establishment of a socialist republic for all of Ireland. It was founded on 9 October 1968 at Queen’s University Belfast after the Royal Ulster Constabulary had attacked a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march in Derry on 5 October. It demanded more radical reforms of the government of Northern Ireland than NICRA.

The founders included Queen’s University students such as Bernadette Devlin and Cyril Toman as well as college lecturer Michael Farrell.

PD had emerged out of a milieu of various leftist student organisations. In the late 1960s, Queen’s University gained its first Labour Club (affiliated to the forerunner of Labour Students as well as its Irish equivalent) and a Young Socialist Alliance which grouped together many radical leftists.

After marches in Belfast, in imitation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Selma to Montgomery marches, about 40 People’s Democracy members held a four-day march between Belfast and Derry starting on 1 January 1969. The march was repeatedly attacked by loyalists along its route, including an incident at Burntollet bridge on 4 January where the marchers were attacked by about 200 unionists, including off-duty special constables, armed with iron bars, bottles and stones while police stood by and watched.

PD became increasingly radicalised as a result of these events. They also attacked the censorship laws in the Republic – earning a rebuke from Ruairi Quinn and Basil Miller, then leaders of Students for Democratic Action, a revolutionary socialist student organisation, for letting British imperialism off the hook. In later years, members of the PD either quit politics altogether or became independent left-wing activists (such as Devlin and Farrell).

In 1971, PD became a founder of the Socialist Labour Alliance. In the mid-1970s, a group left to form the Left Revolutionary Group. During the 1970s, the organisation evolved towards Trotskyist positions and, by merging with the Dublin-based Movement for a Socialist Republic, was recognised by the reunified Fourth International as its Irish section in 1976.

PD was especially active around the issues of internment and prisoners’ rights. Following the formation of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee in 1979 to build support for the Republican prisoners then on the “blanket protest” in support of political status and the subsequent death of Bobby Sands and nine of his comrades during the H-Block hunger strikes, a number of members of the organisation, led by Vincent Doherty – then a member of the Political Committee and a former party general election candidate – argued that PD should join Sinn Féin, which had moved openly to the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1981, two members of People’s Democracy were elected to Belfast City Council. J.G McNulty and Fergus O’Hare were elected in a joint campaign with the IRSP. Fergus O’Hare won the council seat of Gerry Fitt, a sitting Westminster MP. O’Hare had been a founding member of the National H-Block/Armagh Committee and had previously been chairperson of the Political Hostages Release Committee which spearheaded the campaign against internment in the early 1970s. He subsequently went on to found the first Irish-language secondary school in Northern Ireland Meánscoil Feirste.

When Sinn Féin ended its boycott of elections and gained mass support among the republican community, PD entered a political crisis. From 1982 on, a number of activists left them and joined Sinn Féin. At a PD national conference in 1986, a group including Anne Speed proposed the dissolution of the group and that the members all join SF as individuals. This position was defeated by 19 votes to five. A few weeks later the minority of five resigned from PD followed by their supporters and joined Sinn Féin. The remaining rump who continued to oppose this view maintained PD as a small propaganda group.

In the early 1990s the remaining members of PD initiated the Irish Committee for a Marxist Programme as an attempt to regroup socialists and left wing republicans. This project ended in 1996, when PD dissolved and reconstituted itself as Socialist Democracy, adopting the program put forward by the ICMP.

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