By Edward T. O’Donnell
Thirty-four years ago this week, on Aug. 24, 1968, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement staged its first protest march. Organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and joined by several like-minded groups, the march protested against the notoriously discriminatory housing allocation policies of local governments throughout the province. Despite threats of violence from loyalist thugs inspired by the rhetoric of the Rev. Ian Paisley, 2,500 marchers turned out and marched without incident from Coalisland to Dungannon. The event marked the end of Catholic submission to Protestant domination in Northern Ireland and raised hopes — hopes soon shattered — that nonviolent protest could achieve civil, social, and legal equality for all in the six counties.
NICRA was born in January 1967 as a coalition of liberals, labor unionists, radicals, and republicans. They were committed to bringing about an end to the state-sponsored policies of discrimination against Catholics living in the North. They demanded:
+ An end to gerrymandering, which created a small number of all-Catholic political districts and thereby diluting Catholic voting power. Nationalists in the North never had more than 19 of 52 seats in the N.I. Assembly.
+ An end to job discrimination that left Catholics with an unemployment rate more than double that of Protestants.
+ An end to housing discrimination which left Catholics in dismal, segregated public housing projects, or on waiting lists while Protestant families received housing ahead of them.
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+ An end to the Special Powers Act, which gave the Royal Ulster Constabulary sweeping powers of arrest and detention, as well as the authority to prohibit public assembly or parades.
+ Reform or abolish the RUC, which was rightly seen (with just 11 percent of its members Catholic) as the enforcement arm of Protestant domination.
+ Abolition of the B-Specials, an all-Protestant state-funded militia.
NICRA activists took their inspiration from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful movement for justice in the United States, even to the point of singing “We Shall Overcome” at their protest marches.
One vital point regarding the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland cannot be overemphasized. It comprised people committed to social justice, not nationalists dedicated to bringing about a united Ireland. Many in the movement surely supported the idea of a 32-county republic, but they steered clear of such divisive issues and concentrated instead on getting a fair deal for Catholics living in the North. By the mid-1960s, Northern Ireland had a large and growing number of well-educated, middle-class Irish Catholics who refused to accept the discriminatory system that denied them economic opportunity and full civil rights.
In the spring of 1968, civil rights activists staged repeated sit-ins and demonstrations in Derry and elsewhere to protest cases of blatant anti-Catholic discrimination in the awarding of housing units. These events were soon overshadowed by the march from Coalisland to Dungannon, the first such march of the nascent civil rights movement. The Aug. 24 march made news across Ireland (though the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia overshadowed it internationally) and alarmed a Unionist community long used to its position of privilege.
A second march occurred on Oct. 5. Despite a government ban, 500 civil rights activists marched in Derry. Just as the march began, they were assaulted by RUC units. The violence left 88 marchers injured and dozens arrested.
The violence that day was captured on film and broadcast around the world, sparking an international outcry against the repressive Northern Ireland regime. It also spawned further organizing, this time by students at Queens University in Belfast. Two days after the violence, at the Craigavon Bridge, they formed a political party and activist organization called the People’s Democracy. Among the founders was a young woman named Bernadette Devlin, an activist who would soon win election to Parliament.
The violence against the peaceful marchers also got the attention of the Northern Ireland government. In late 1968, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s government put forth a series of reform proposals that met many of NICRA’s demands. NICRA responded by agreeing to a temporarily halt to protest marches But the more radical People’s Democracy brushed aside O’Neill’s initiative, claiming it only scratched the surface of the problem. It announced plans for a march from Belfast to Derry, an event modeled after Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The “Long March” began on Jan. 1, 1969 and involved only a few dozen students. But it took on great significance when it was ambushed on Jan. 4 by Protestant counter-demonstrators outside Derry. The RUC was present but did little to stop the violence against the marchers. And when the marchers retreated to the Catholic section of Derry, the RUC followed, sparking widespread violence.
The crisis in Northern Ireland touched off by the civil rights marches produced a political split in the Unionist ranks between moderates and hard-liners. O’Neill, uncertain as to what course of action to take, called for elections to the Northern Ireland Parliament in early 1969. His party suffered a major loss at the polls to hard-line Protestant politicians were galvanized by the nationalist challenge to Unionist supremacy.
The Nationalist Party, traditional party of the Province’s Catholics, also suffered a setback. It was challenged by a new crop of young and talented candidates from several small parties, some of which would eventually unite form the Social Democratic Labour Party. In April of 1969 the nationalist community of the North won another victory. Devlin, a 21-year-old civil rights activist, took advantage of Unionist disarray and won a seat in the British Parliament. The youngest woman elected to the House of Commons did not mince words in her victory speech: “I was elected by the oppressed people of Ulster, and I shall work for them.”
Minister O’Neill became convinced that concessions to some of the demands of civil rights activists were necessary if civil war was to be avoided. Shortly after Devlin’s election, he approved a measure abolishing the North’s skewed electoral system in favor of one person, one vote. Other reforms would follow in the next few years, including removal of housing allocation from local control, adoption of anti-discrimination employment laws, and a reorganization of local government.
While these represented positive steps by moderate Unionists, they were perceived as too little, too late by the nationalist community. Equally important, hard-line Unionists viewed them as unacceptable concessions and vowed to resist Catholic empowerment at all costs. By the end of 1969, what began as a peaceful assertion of Catholic civil rights would give way to a generation of violence known as “the Troubles.”
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Aug. 22, 1791: United Irishmen founder Theobald Wolfe Tone publishes “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland,” calling for full equality of Catholics in Ireland.
Aug. 22, 1922: Michael Collins is assassinated.
Aug. 25, 1946: Ben Hogan captures his first major golf title, winning the PGA Championship at Portland, Ore.
Aug. 23, 1785: War of 1812 naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry is born in Kingston, R.I.
Aug. 23, 1912: Dancer and actor Gene (Eugene Curran) Kelly is born in Pittsburgh.
Aug. 25, 1913: Cartoonist Walt Kelly is born in Philadelphia.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History, or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell