People’s Democracy march with Belfast Anarchist Group banner, January 1969

There is a myth about John McGuffin carrying the Belfast Anarchist Group‘s banner singlehanded on the Belfast to Derry civil rights march organised by Peoples Democracy in January 1969.

In his A Wee Black Booke of Belfast Anarchism (1867-1973) the Derry anarchist and historian Máirtín O Catháin described that episode:

“It was during the ‘long march’ and savage attack on the demonstrators at Burntollet by police and Paisleyites, that McGuffin was written into history for having an anarchist banner on the march. Much mileage has been made out of the story that McGuffin allegedly carried the banner on his own at times throughout the march, though it is something confirmed only in some memoirs of the events and finds no verification in the major studies of the protest and period. What actually happened, according to a Belfast Anarchist Group member, was that McGuffin phoned him to bring the banner for the last stage of the march into Derry, and after the Burntollet ambush, these members joined with McGuffin and marched with the banner into Derry.

“However, at Irish Street in the Waterside the march was attacked by another group of Paisleyites. A Belfast anarchist veteran takes up the story, ‘I remember sticking my pole into the face of one attacker before I was punched and kicked and the banner snatched away. The attackers must have had lighter fuel with them for only a few moments later I looked back to see the banner well alight’.(1)

“It’s not in doubt, of course, that McGuffin did indeed carry the banner, but not all the way from Belfast and certainly not on his own as a demonstration of his political righteousness. Such apocryphal tales may entertain but they rarely enlighten, and they permit those who are not anarchists (though they may even be patronisingly sympathetic), to portray anarchism as a political eccentricity – the last refuge for the impractical and the whimsical on the left – of those convinced but unable to convince.”

(1) The mistaken story of McGuffin carrying the banner himself appears to have originated with Bernadette Devlin or her ghostwriter (see Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul [London, 1969], p.125 & p.142).

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