Written by Martin Lynch

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Reviewed by Lucy Simpson

We’ll Walk Hand in Hand is a play that was recently shown in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. The play was written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Its’ playwright, Martin Lynch, is a household name in Belfast and beyond.

He has written some excellent plays over the years such as Dockers, which reflected and recreated the rich history of working-class life in Belfast. Lynch was born into a dockers’ family, left school at 15 and became a cloth cutter until 1969, when he became a full-time organizer for the Republican Clubs (fore-runner of the Workers Party).

Steeped in this period of Northern Ireland’s history, this play was disappointing; it did not reflect the real developments of the early days of the civil-rights movement. It did not mention the role of the Labour movement nor of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), which were significant forces in this period of history.

The play attempts to touch on some of the issues of the day in the first half, such as unemployment and other social injustices. Two young working-class people meet in university and get involved at the centre of the explosive student reaction to the civil rights movement. Confrontations develop with their disapproving families and ultimately conflict with each other. Vincent and Lesly, the young couple, both from different religious backgrounds are central to the play as we observe their young lives, involved as passionate student protesters caught up in the famous long march to Derry that ended in violence.

The example of Lesly’s involvement in the civil rights movement is a positive reference to something often forgotten – that many young Protestants, radicalised by events, where supportive and did engage in the civil-rights movement. The confrontation between Vincent and his father likewise positively references the outlook of most young Catholics at the time, which was to view the politics and methods of the IRA as futile and outdated, particularly given the failure of the IRA border campaign from 1956 to 1962. The play doesn’t illustrate what young people were looking towards, however, namely the ideas of the labour movement and socialism and not a reformed Northern Ireland.

The first half, salutes love across the divide, other than that it has very little political content, it might have impressed tourists looking for some insight into our troubled past and trying to make sense of our present-day backward society. But the play lacked any sense of portraying the solidarity and empowerment that people who took part in civil-rights marches felt.

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned in a cavalier manner in terms of pushing Vincent into the civil-right movement. However, the mighty events of the US civil-rights movement and the revolutionary upheaval in Paris in ’68, which gave the early civil-rights movement here an international outlook, are not dealt with in any serious way.

It was obviously not meant to be a serious take on the early development of the civil-rights movement. Lynch ignores the Labour movement entirely and suggests, by inference that the civil-rights movement diminished because the paramilitary forces took hold in society. The audience is left to conclude that there was an inevitability about this outcome. The play made no reference to trade unionists, young socialists, others on the left at the time and crucially fails to mention the mistakes of the leaders of the NILP and the leaders of the trade union movement.

As the play fasts forward in the second half to 2018, Michaela, the granddaughter of Vincent and Lesly presents them with a different kind of civil-rights challenge. The rights of the LGBTQ+ community, abortion rights, and the plight of refugees in modern day Northern Ireland. Lynch may have consciously avoided political depth in the first half of the play precisely to emphasise the similarity of spirit between the two eras of struggle for rights. He succeeded in this, and did importantly underline the importance of young people with all their energy, courage and resolve as being the driving force for social change.

By drawing a link between the civil-rights movement in sixties and the fight for rights and equality today, he also highlighted the hypocrisy of those politicians in the SDLP and Sinn Fein who claim the mantle of the civil-rights movement, yet are opposed to providing LGBTQ and women’s rights today. When I was watching the play, so was the former SDLP MLA, Alban McGuinness, someone with a strong record in voting against abortion rights and marriage equality. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of the play.

Another positive was the running of workshops for nearly a year with a refugee group, LGBT group and a group from the Markets area of Belfast involved in campaigning for more social housing. The cast of 17 included some of the members of these groups. The high standard of acting certainly added to the whole experience.

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