Category: Archive

Civil rights to civil war?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

Frantic efforts by a badly split Stormont government to stave off reforms demanded by the civil rights movement, with a furious British government threatening to pull the plug on economic handouts from London, are revealed in the release of 500 papers from the Northern Ireland public record office.

U.S. campaigners of 30 years ago can take a bow. The papers reveal that after film of the RUC’s attack on a civil rights march in Derry, the Stormont government had learned through official channels that the British embassy in the United States had been under intense pressure from the U.S. press.

The march, in October, ended with police using their batons indiscriminately against the participants. The event is generally acknowledged as the start of the Northern Troubles.

The march also hardened British attitudes against the Northern regime. The Stormont government noted that the British prime minister’s attempts to "fob off" left-wing pressure in his own party had gone very well, but this had "dramatically altered to our great disadvantage."

"Whether the press or television coverage is fair is immaterial. We have now become the focus of world opinion," said the then Northern Ireland prime minister, Capt. Terence O’Neill, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

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The refusal of hard-liners in the cabinet, such as William Craig and Brian Faulkner, repeatedly prevented O’Neill, from making more "liberal" steps toward the demand of "one man, one vote."

An RUC assessment of the first-ever civil rights march as more of a "republican parade" than anything else is also revealed, as was the fury of the head of the RUC at comments made by Gerry Fitt, who called policemen "black bastards" in a public speech in Dungannon.

The then head of the RUC, accused the civil rights movement of allowing "extremists and trouble-makers for the purpose of preaching violence and stirring up hatred amongst the people."

He also criticized Austin Currie, then a young nationalist member of the Stormont government (now a Fine Gael TD for Dublin West). Currie had recently occupied a house in County Tyrone to prevent it being allocated to a unionist.

The RUC chief accused him of "carefully subscribing misleading information to the press in order to serve his own purposes" and said, "There is little doubt that he is one of the prime movers behind the upsurge of alleged discrimination in housing and employment."

The Northern Ireland unionist establishment was taken completely by surprise when the first generation of young, educated Catholics initiated the civil rights movement. Hitherto it had managed to get away with gerrymandering councils and allocating jobs and housing on the basis of religion.

Financial threats

After the critical Oct. 5 parade in Derry, when camera footage captured the RUC beating civil rights marchers, the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, told O’Neill he must institute reforms or they could be "the complete liquidation of all financial agreements with Northern Ireland."

Wilson, clearly furious with the slow pace of reform, also threatened to withdraw subsidies from Protestant bastions such as Harland and Wolff shipyard and Shorts armaments factory, referring to them as "a kind of soup kitchen" that were of "no good to anybody."

But they also reveal O’Neill being squeezed by violent predictions from within his right-wing within government, who refused to contemplate being influenced by threats from London or conceding democratic reforms such as "one man, one vote."

Craig, then housing minister, said reforms would "provoke a constitutional crisis and a massive uprising of the loyalist community." Brian Faulkner, then commerce minister, warned about "wholesale chaos and virtual civil war."

Craig opposed a points system for allocating housing, claiming the present system worked fairly despite the allocation of a new house in County Tyrone to a 19-year-old single girl who was the secretary of a local unionist instead of to a large Catholic family in the same area.

O’Neill, in strong contrast, said he felt Catholics had genuine grievances, although he was adamant that "Ulster is British" and must always remain so. "Of course," he said in late 1968, "there are anti-partition agitators prominently at work, but can any of us truthfully say in the confines of this room that the minority has no grievance calling for a remedy?"

At the same time he was scathing of Fitt and Currie’s "antics" and of their "abuse of the world’s press." Nevertheless, he asked if it were possible to "govern Ulster by police power alone, against the background of mounting disorder."

To avoid British-imposed concessions on the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, reforms had to be made in other directions, he said. The multiple vote in local government elections had to go, along with concessions on the Catholic-controlled Mater Hospital in Belfast.

"And we may even in time have to make a bitter choice between losing Londonderry and losing Ulster," O’Neill said.

Despite O’Neill’s reforms, the Burntollet March ambush of January 1969 put another nail in the coffin of O’Neill’s leadership, ultimately leading to his downfall and the violence of 1969 that led to the IRA split and the start of 30 years of troubles.

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