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Recalling the North’s Civil Rights Movement

January was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, which sponsored the civil rights marches that brought the anti-Catholic discriminatory practices of the old Stormont Unionist regime to world attention.

I was at that foundation meeting on Sunday 29 January 1967 in the International Hotel, since demolished, behind Belfast City Hall as an observer from the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society of which I was then secretary.

All shades of Northern political opinion were represented on NICRA’s first Executive – Liberal, Labour, Nationalist, Republican, Communist, Trade Unionist.  A Young Unionist was co-opted at the next meeting in the same venue on 9 April, which I also attended.

Tony Smythe, secretary of Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties, told the January  meeting how NICRA might emulate the NCCL. This meant tackling Unionist discrimination against the Catholic Nationalist minority. The novelty  of the new movement was that it was not going to raise the constitutional issue, the North’s membership of the UK, and the Partition question.

British rights for British citizens were to be its focus. This was deeply subversive of the sectarian political basis of the Northern statelet. The majority Unionist Government at Stormont was used to dealing with the IRA. It could handle the anti-Partition agitations that had been the focus of Nationalist minority politics since 1920. But the demand for equal treatment for Catholics and Protestants within the existing constitution was something quite different.

It divided Unionism between the more liberal element backing Stormont Premier Terence O’Neill and the more anti-Catholic element that looked to Ian Paisley. It appealed to the sense of fair play of the British public. Above all it put the British Government on the spot.  For how could London stand over the discriminatory practices of a devolved administration in one part of what was the United Kingdom when they were brought to world attention?  All the more so as the UK and the Republic were then applying together for membership of the EEC.

Northern Republicans backed the call for British rights for British citizens. This was the pre-1970-split IRA/Sinn Féin, led by Cathal Goulding and Tomas MacGiolla. They had learned the futility of trying to end Partition by force and had ‘gone political’ following the failure of the IRA’s 1956-61 Border campaign.

NICRA agreed five demands at its foundation: (1) One man one vote, which meant an end to the property franchise and associated plural voting in local elections; (2) an end to the gerrymandering that put nationalist-majority towns like Derry, Enniskillen and Dungannon under permanent Unionist control; (3) an end to anti-Catholic discrimination in allocating Council housing and in public and private employment; (4) an end to the Special Powers Act, which permitted arrest without warrant, imprisonment without trial and the banning of nationalist publications and meetings; and (5) the standing down of the B-special constabulary, which allowed volunteers in this wholly Protestant force to intimidate their Catholic neighbours at will.

The first NICRA-sponsored civil rights march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon the following year, on 24 August 1968. I was one of the thousand or so people that walked on that. I recall standing on a ditch outside Dungannon that lovely summer evening, the better to hear Betty Sinclair, Austin Currie, and other civil rights speakers addressing the crowd from the lorry at the front. I had a pocket radio with me on which at the same time  I was listening  to news of the Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia to put down Dubcek’s “Prague Spring”. The RUC stopped the marchers entering Dungannon on the ground that there was a Loyalist counter-demonstration up ahead.

The second NICRA-sponsored march in Duke Street, Derry, on 5 October 1968 brought the Northern civil liberties situation to world attention. I got to that just as the RUC began batoning the few hundred marchers at its start, and was later doused by the police water-cannon as they cleared the street of protesters.

March from Belleek to the Border post at Kinlough in 1969

Stormont Home Minister William Craig had banned the Duke Street march. Gerry Fitt, Republican Labour MP for West Belfast, had blood covering his shirt-front from a head wound received from a police baton. Fitt had brought three Labour MPs from London to be with him. The TV cameras sent pictures of the RUC batoning the marchers around the globe. Civil rights in the North became world news overnight. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government came under pressure from an appalled British public to tackle the abuses of the Unionist majority-rule regime at Stormont, which London had been happy to ignore since the 1920s.

The following month, November 1968, was the culmination of the non-violent phase of the Civil Rights Movement when the Derry Citizens Action Committee, led by the Catholic John Hume and the Protestant Ivan Cooper, marched thousands of people peacefully into Derry city centre, establishing their right of protest in their own city.

Between then and summer 1969 the Unionist Government was caught between the pressure of the Civil Rights Movement internally and the British Government externally. Stormont Premier Terence O’Neill was forced to concede in principle all of NICRA’s demands, although it would take years for some of them to work through, in particular ending discrimination in jobs and housing.

In that time occurred the rise in Protestant-Catholic sectarian tension which culminated in August 1969 with the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ in Derry, the burning of Catholic homes and businesses in Belfast and the expulsion of hundreds of Belfast Catholics in face of Loyalist attacks.

The Cameron Commission’s Report is still the best account of the early Civil Rights period.  It attributed significant blame for the rise of sectarianism in 1969 to the actions of the student-based People’s Democracy. The PD split the civil rights movement. It criticised NICRA’s demands as too moderate. It disdained proper stewarding on its marches. It called for one-person-one-job rather than one-person-one- vote. Its leaders wanted what they called “socialism” and they wanted it quickly!

The Cameron Commission characterised the Burntollet march organised by the People’s Democracy in January 1969 as a coat-trailing exercise across the province which was deliberately designed to provoke a violent Loyalist reaction, as it did.  This march was held at a time when the NICRA had called for a moratorium on marches to give Premier O’Neill’s reform programme a chance to work through. Burntollet raised the sectarian temperature markedly.

Of course the basic responsibility for the rise in sectarianism between November 1968 and August 1969 and the explosion of violence on the latter date rested with the failure of successive British Governments over the years to reform what some called its Northern Ireland “political slum” and its willingness to let various political dogs lie sleeping there since the 1920s.

The August 1969 attacks by Loyalists on Belfast Catholic areas led in turn to the disastrous Republican split of January 1970 and the formation of the Provisional IRA. The Provisionals, in contrast to the Republican “politicisers” around Goulding and MacGiolla, saw peaceful civil rights activity as a distraction from the more important job of expelling “the Brits” from the North by force.

Within months of its formation the Provisional IRA, led by Seán MacStiofáin, Daithí Ó Conaill and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, went on the offensive against the British Army with a view to bringing about a United Ireland by military means. The labour historian Desmond Greaves, whose ideas influenced some of those who had established the NICRA, remarked that the Provos were “taking on NATO with pop-guns at the height of the Cold War and must inevitably fail”.

By 1971 the Civil Rights Movement was effectively sidelined. British, Irish and international public opinion, which two years before had been behind the non-violent Civil Righters, now saw the Northern problem as one of “containing IRA terrorism”, not of establishing equality for the Catholic minority. There followed the quarter-century-long “armed struggle” of the Provisional IRA until a new generation of Northern Republicans, led by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, packed that in, in 1994.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement is a commitment to a regime of equality of treatment and parity of esteem for Catholics and Protestants in the North. Essentially it is civil rights “redivivus”. Can this lay the basis for a coming-together of the two Northern communities on the basis of equality to make possible an eventual United Ireland by consent at some future date, however distant, as was the hope of some of those who set up NICRA in January 1967?  For this is certainly the only way that that can ever happen.

The “Claud Gordon” column in the Sunday Press.

Jack Bennett (1927-2000) was made NICRA information officer at its 1967 foundation meeting.  His father, who was Protestant, was high up in the RUC and B-Specials, but he brought up his children as anti-sectarian. Jack was liberal and leftwing and became a key man in the Belfast Wolfe Tone Society.  His day job was as a journalist on the Belfast Telegraph, but he also wrote the pseudonymous ‘Claud Gordon’ column for the Northern edition of the Sunday Press. This  had a big circulation in Nationalist circles at the time. “Claud”  and “Gordon” were Jack Bennett’s middle Christian names. His weekly column during the 1960s had a big influence on Nationalist opinion in orienting it towards a political, civil rights approach. There is a PhD waiting for some graduate who can track that influence.  It is an aspect of the lead-up to the Northern Civil Rights Movement that historians have neglected. Jack Bennett later moved to Dublin where he worked on the Irish Press and became an Irish-language enthusiast.

Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin.