The North in crisis-The origins of the Civil Rights movement
WHILE THE Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association has constituted one of the main factors in the civil rights movement it would be inaccurate to say it is synonymous with it, The movement begins in effect in October of last year with the famous Derry march. At this point the civil rights ideal reached a sufficient number of people and moved them sufficiently towards direct action to earn the title of movement. The Association, however, has a much longer and lesser known history. The idea of an association of civil rights for Northern Ireland was first considered as far back as 1962. On September 30th of that year the Connolly Association in London held a meeting in St. Pancras Town Hall. The main topic was that of discrimination in Northern Ireland but the meeting was inconclusive and the matter was left suspended in mid-air.
I t was more than two years before the matter was taken up again by an official body.The Belfast Trades Council, representing most of the unions in Northern Ireland, had steadfastly refused to involve itself in this issue, Resolutions criticising discrimination had been proposed by emigrant members only to be overwhelmingly opposed or simply withdrawn from the agenda. However, under the presidency of Ted Murrow, the Belfast Trades Council held a convention of civil rights. Memoranda covering the whole spectrum of civil rights as outlined by the National Council of Civil Liberties in Britain were sent to Stormont and Westminster. Particular mention was made of the Special Powers Act. As a result of this convention an informal relationship was established between the Belfast Trades Council and the Connolly Associatio:J. in London.
On March 13, 1965, the N.C.C.L. organised a council on civil rights in Northern Ireland. A report on the Northern Ireland franchise was drawn up and sent to various prominent people in the hope of awaking interest in the civil rights question. The report strengthened existing links between the N,C.C.L. and the Northern Ireland trade union movement. By August, 1966, the N.C.C,L. was considering setting up a Northern Ireland civil rights association as a branch.
It would appear that the prospect of a British based civil rights movement in Northern Ireland did not appeal to the Republican movement. A joint meeting of the Belfast and Dublin Wolfe Tone Societies was held in Maghera that same month and a lecture-seminar on the subject of civil rights was planned for the following November. On that occasion the chair was held by the liberal free-lance journalist John D. Stewart and the main speakers were Dr. Kadar Asmal of the Anti-Apartheid movement and Mr. Ciaran McNally, a Dublin solicitor and supporter of the Republican movement. The audience ranged from Nationalists to members of the Northern Ireland Communist Party .and from these a voluntary ad-hoc committee was formed to look into the whole question of a civil rights association and to draw up a constitution.
This ad-hoc committee called a meeting in February, 1967, at which the constitution was accepted (unanimously) and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed. It was agreed that the leadership should not involve prominent public figures since the association was not to be identified with any of its component political groupings.A new committee was elected with representatives of Sinn Fein, The Nationalists, The Northern Ireland Labour
Party, The Republican Labour Party, The National Democrats, The Northern Ireland Communist Party and The Campaign for Social Justice in North
ern Ireland,A Unionist member Robin Cole, was also elected to the committee. The Chairman was Noel Harris, who along with Betty Sinclair represented the trade union movement. Tom McCluskey, a Dungannon doctor responsible for the Campaign for Social Justice, was elected vice-chairman. Representatives from N,C.C.L. were present, but only as observors.
The constitution put forward by the ad-hoc committee was basically that of the N.C.C,L. with a few minor alterations to suit the context of Northern Ireland. One major difference, however, was that the N.I.C.R.A, was to be a more democratic organisation than the N,C.C.I. The difficulty of holding together totally diverse shades of opinion on the basis of a short term programme was fully realised.
For the first year of its life the association was characterised by extreme caution. Its activities were confined to issuing letters of protest in cases of wrongful arrest and ill-treatment of itinerants. Many of its members, inexperienced in the ways of public life in Northern Ireland, were alarmed to find themselves the victims of police intimidation.
It was nearly eighteen months before the association felt itself sufficiently confident to take action. In the summer of 1968 the government imposed a ban on all clubs carrying the title title" Republican." Members of N,I.C.R.A. showed their disapproval by attending banned meetings and to their surprise found that they did not meet with police interference. This was taken as an indication that the non-political front was working and the authorities were baffled as to how to deal with the new coalition.
Under pressure from the Republicans, the movement felt sufficiently self-confident to hold a march from Coalisland to Dungannon at the end of August, It was their first major bid for non-sectarian support. The march was a success. There was an awareness among some Opposition politicians of the need to take direct action to meet the demands of their electorate, Austin Currie (Nat. M,P. E. Tyrone) was pushed reluctantly into leading a squatting protest in a Derry housing estate-the success of the operation led to his making contacts with the Republicans and a turnabout in his reaction to direct action politics.
Following the success of the Dungannon Coalisland march-N.I.C.R.A. in conjunction with the Derry Housing Action Committee, the Derry Labour Party, the Connolly Association and the Republican Club decided to hold a " parade" in Derry on October 5th.
The combination of a large antiUnionist population with the most blatant discrimination, gerrymander and unemployment made Derry the obvious choice for a Civil Rights march, The march was planned to publicise the objectives of the civil rights movement in relation to jobs, housing, and gerrymander.
Shortly after the announcement of the march it became known that the Apprentice Boys had also given notice of a march through Derry also on the afternoon of August 5th. Mr. William Craig, the Minister for Home Affairs, served a restriction order on the civil rights march prohibiting it from entering Loyalist areas through which the Apprentice Boys were to march.
The circumstances surrounding the " ban" on the march are suspicious. Usually notice of an Apprentice Boys parade is given to the police in Derry by one of the local officials of the organisation. However, the notice for October 5th March was given in Belfast by Dr, Abernathy, Governor of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and also a prominent member of the Orange Order. There was some consternation among the local Apprentice Boys club as they were told that the parade was a prelude to an initiation ceremony for new recruits to the club. Normally the new recruits would march from the railway station up to the Club during the morning, arriving in time for lunch. The initiation ceremony would then take place during the afternoon.
Decision to go ahead
The organisers of the civil rights march decided to go ahead with their 'plans and defy Mr. Craig's ban. Students from the various socialist clubs in Queen's University, Belfast, expressed solidarity and support and some of the groups came to Derry to join the marchers, The Republican Labour M.P., Gerry Fitt, who was attending the British Labour Party's annual conference in Blackpool, drew British attention to the march by publicly denouncing Craig's
ban and setting off to join the march in Derry, with three other British M.P.'s.
The afternoon of the 5th, almost 3,000 marchers set out. Everything went peacefully until they arrived at the "Loyalist" areas banned by Mr. Craig, where the R.U,C. blocked the road, armed with batons and shields and backed up by water canon. The civil righters who were unarmed, continued marching towards the police (who were under orders from Craig to break up the march and enforce the ban at any cost), The marchers appealed to be let through the police lines and continue on their route. Without warning the police baton-charged the crowd and drove them down William Street, the water cannons were then put into operation. The marchers were driven back by degrees towards the Bogside area, where they re-assembled. By this time they had collected stones to protect themselves against the police, the fighting continued for some hours and the R.U.C. finally invaded the Bogside, Intermittent stone throwing and baton charges continued all night and through the following day. The official casualties totals issued by Altnagevlin Hospital were ninety-six, among these Gerry Fitt and Eddie McAteer.
Committee set up
The following week an ad hoc committee was set up in Derry to press for civil rights there. From this emerged the Derry Citizens' Action Committee, which has directed all civil rights activity in Derry since then. At first the D.C.A,C, included Unionists as well as Nationalists, Republican and Labour representation, but shortly after its formation its Unionist member, Major Campbell Austin, resigned in refusal to condone, "civil disobedience."
The loss of Major Austin deprived the D.C,A.C. of the opportunity to pursue civil rights for Derry on a clearly non-sectarian front. A Protestant factory manager, Ivan Cooper, was elected Chairman and John Hume, M.A., Vice-Chairman.
The impact of the October 5th march was considerable. Because of excellent T.V. coverage of the demonstration and specifically of the unprovoked police brutality-thousands throughout the North re-awakened to the reality of their police state and millions in the U.K. and elsewhere were given their first glimpse inside Britain's political slum.
The significance of October 5th was that N,I.C,R.A. was no longer a cautious pressure group, but was now a mass movement for reform.
Over the following weeks several civil rights demonstrations took place throughout the North with an increasing number of demonstrators.
On November 16th, 15,000 people took part in a civil rights march organised by the Derry Citizens' Action Committee, It had been served with a Restriction Order by the police-the ban was broken by a token force of four D.C.A.C. members who vaulted the police barricades, Otherwise the march passed off peacefully.
It rapidly became clear to the Unionist monolith that its stranglehold on power was being challenged by quite a different political phenomena to that which it had grown to know, The civil rights movement provoked the more extreme Unionist factionthe Paisleyites-into a more violent and outspoien militancy.The die-hard Protestants had long come to regard the Catholic minority as subdued and quiescent. The N,I.C,R,A. marches through loyalist areas and perhaps, more particularly, the overwhelming support which the civil rights movement was winning from the mass media, especially television infused the militant Protestants with a terror that their hegemony on jobs, houses and votes might be overthrown.
The Paisleyites took to the streets in defiance of the civil rights marchers and became a dangerous third element in the frequent police-civil righters confrontations.
On November 25th, a Paisleyite mob took over the centre of Dungannon and intimidated people there. On November 30th, Paisley and his lieutenant, Major Ronald Bunting led a loyalist mob of 15,000 strong into Armagh and took over the city centre. Their object was to prevent 6,000 civil rights demonstrators from parading through the city as planned. There were bloody clashes between the police, armed Paisleyites and civil rights marchers.Both Paisley and Bunting were summoned and later jailed for their part in that day's events. Secondly the polarization on the streets between the civil rights movement and Paisleyism produced a division between the Cabinet at Stormont. As later revealed by O'Neill there was considerable opposition within the Cabinet to Craig's ban on the October 5th march in Derry, though the Gov ernment, a few days after the march, announced its support for the ban and praise for the R, U.c. Craig contentep himself with rabid denouncements of N.I.C.R.A. for being either a plot to overthrow the Stormont government or a Communist front. O'Neill's reaction was to concede some reforms, of a limited nature.
Pressure from Westminster was mounting in favour of immediate reform, At a meeting between Mr. Wilson and Capt. O'Neill accompanied by William Craig and Brian Faulkner, the British Prime Minister expressed his increasing embarrassment with the Special Powers Act which was in contravention of the Human Rights Convention of the European Commission of Human Rights to which Britain was a signatory. Local government franchise, housing, a parliamentary commissioner for Northern Ireland and the situation in Derry were also discussed at this meeting. Mr. Wilson made it clear that any extremest usurpation of O'Neill's government would be resisted by Whitehall. Ten days later, in the House of Commons, Mr, Wilson demurred that he thought political reforms in Northern Ireland had been " a bit too moderate so far."
In mid-November the Stormont Government announced its first batch of reforms. Priority was to be given to Derry with a plan for 1,200 new jobs and 960 new houses by 1981. Reaction in civil rights circles was lukewarm, but from Unionist backbenchers it was sharp. John Taylor said the Government had no mandate for basic reforms and that a General Election must be held in order to secure it. On November 21st, Mr, Wilson sent Capt, O'Neill a letter outlining the reforms which the London Government thought essential. On the following day the Stormont Government announced its reforms. They included the abolition of company vote in local elections, the appointment of an Ombudsman at some future date, reorganisation of local government by 1971 and recommendations to local authorities to reform their housing allocation procedures, There was no mention of one man one vote, or of the abolition of the Special Powers Act, The reaction in the civil rights movement was" too little, too late."
Two days later the Government announced the setting up of a Special Commission to administer Derry in replacement of the sitting gerrymandered Derry Corporation and County Council.
The split within the Unionist Party was exacerbated by the announcement of these further reforms. On November 28th, Mr. Craig made his infamous hard-line speech: "We must face reality, where you have a Roman Catholic majority you have a lower standard of democracy,"
On the 5th December, O'Neill made a gallant defence of Craig, who, he said, was operating" under considerable strain." However, on the following day Craig repeated the genesis of his earlier speech and his continued association with O'Neill was obviously coming to an end, Before his departure, however, Craig had the happy task of calling up eighty B Specials and announcing an increase in R.U.c. strength from 3,000 to 4,000 members, which was necessary to cope with the escalating violence on the streets.
Under increasing pressure from both factions within his party, and also from Westminster and the civil rights demonstrators, Captain O'Neill went on television on December 8th to deliver his famous Churchillian plea for calm and moderation. He warned that if the people of the North" did not face up to our problems Westminster Parliament might well decide to act over our heads."
He promised that the reforms which he had announced were genuine and farreaching and displayed a letter from the Conservative Leader, Ted Heath, affirming the Tory party's firm commitment to reform. The immediate response to Mr. O'Neill's speech was overwhelmingly favourable and the N.I.C.R.A. and D.C.A.C. announced a moritorium on marches and demonstrations for a month. However, \X'illiam Craig quickly replied to O'Neill's speech by declaring that Northern Ireland would resist any attempts at British intervention and the following day, December 11th, Mr. Craig was dismissed from office and Capt. Long was appointed Minister for Home Affairs.
On December 12th, Capt. O'Neill faced his own Parliamentary Party and won a resounding vote of confidence, 28 votes in his favour, 4 abstentions and none against. It then appeared that not alone was the Premier's crisis within the Unionist Party resolved but that Northern Ireland was to undergo a period of peaceful transformation. The Northern Ireland crisis, it seemed, had ended. Only a militant group of students, known as the People's Democracy, thought otherwise. But they didn't seem at the time either, significand or powerful enought to make any difference. We all knew differently a month later.