From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 5 – those who came before

A number of initiatives preceded the creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and the organisation itself never united all civil rights activists and organisations within its ranks or even under its umbrella.  This demonstrated that the small numbers involved in each of these initiatives reflected something deeper in the transformation of Northern society.

Their ultimate success in bringing this agenda to the fore should not in the first place be credited to this or that form of organisation, important no doubt that this was, but to this underlying reality, which these organisations reflected and then in turn reflected upon society.  Looked at in this way it was the underlying material circumstances that created the opportunity to mobilise the Catholic population around a demand for civil rights and which ultimately selected the organisations that would best reflect their existing political consciousness and the extent to which it developed, or did not develop, during this period.

None of these initiatives, even the republican one that most directly led to the creation of NICRA, envisaged civil rights to be a means of doing anything other than reform the Northern State, allowing the development of what they variously considered to be normal politics.  There was no republican conspiracy and the influence of the Communist Party, which played an important initial role, was invariably a moderating one, quite contrary to Unionist red scare stories.

An important precursor and later component was the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), which began in Dungannon and was made up of impeccably middle class Catholic professionals. It developed from earlier activity around housing grievances by the Homeless Citizens’ League (HCL) set up in 1963. The HCL publicised the unfair allocation of housing, which a few years later was to be the issue sparking the first civil rights march.  Its main demands were for a points system for housing allocation and an end to residential segregation, its work helping to expose the deal between local Unionist and Nationalist politicians on sectarian housing allocation.

It was inspired, as so many civil rights activists were, by the demand for civil rights in the US, devoting itself to publicity and lobbying.  Its novelty related more to its being a break from the ineffectual Nationalist Party, and being avowedly non-sectarian, even if its membership was made up entirely of Catholic professionals, the ‘middle-class do-gooders’ later criticised by Bernadette Devlin. Launched in January 1964 in the Wellington Park hotel in Belfast, after four years of assiduously collecting information and publishing the facts about discrimination it had become no more than an irritation to the Unionist Government.

An important issue for it and all subsequent campaigns (even that of the IRA) was to break the convention at Westminster of non-intervention in Northern Ireland affairs, which was for the devolved Stormont parliament only, and appealing to public opinion in Britain and to Westminster.  Unlike the US, appealing for an end of discrimination through the courts was unpromising and campaigners were never going to get a majority at Stormont.

Of course, in Ireland there was the rest of the Irish people in the Southern State but as we have said, the Dublin political establishment wasn’t interested in challenging the Northern State but was concerned first with removing any threat to its own state’s stability, which might arise from any threat to that of the Northern state.  Northern nationalist politicians were more interested in defending their own position as political leaders of the local Catholic population than creating an avowedly non-sectarian organisation or campaign.

The Campaign for Democracy in Ulster (CDU), launched in London in1965, was a London-based campaign based mainly in the British Labour Party, which gave the CSJ an audience in Britain. It included in its objectives the ending of discrimination in Northern Ireland and arguing for the necessity and ability of Westminster to intervene in Northern Ireland affairs against any unionist prerogatives.

The British Government was loath to intervene and limited itself at most to putting pressure on the Unionist leadership to achieve its objectives.  Like the Irish State, it sought stability and this relied firstly on the stability of the unionist regime.  The CDU could not progress delivery of civil rights because this was never a concern of the British State or the various Governments that sat on top of it, and when it did become one, the question of unionist stability became more important as a result. Without the explosion in October 1968 on the occasion of the civil rights march in Derry it is likely that the CSU would have disappeared.

While middle class professionals sought support from within the British Labour party, in May 1965 Belfast Trades Council held a meeting against discrimination attended by trade union representatives, the NILP and CSJ. It did not however lead to any permanent organisation.

It has been argued later by one socialist tendency that ‘The Labour and Trade Union Movement could have . . . brought Catholic and Protestant workers together around this issue [civil rights], but only if class demands had been raised. Instead of the dividing up of poverty they could have led a struggle for houses for all, for jobs for all and for a living wage for all workers.’

Aside from the political weakness of the labour movement in the North of Ireland due to the strength of sectarianism, which makes this assertion very doubtful, it is clear that the question of civil rights was raised inside it and it was always subordinated to the usual economist demands of the movement, just as this tendency wanted.

It was not therefore the case that civil rights was pushed to the exclusion of, and counterposed to, what is erroneously considered ‘class’ demands. Some leftists, liberals and Catholics had joined the NILP in the mid-1960s and the previous setbacks to the Party had weakened the pro-Unionist MPs.  In 1965 the Party conference voted against the Special Powers Act and in 1966 it and the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions demanded ‘one man, one vote’, fair electoral boundaries for local government, measures to end discrimination in housing and employment, fair representation on public boards and appointment of an ombudsman.

As we have seen in the previous post, the NILP took some progressive positions but could not take the lead in a civil rights campaign, and not even a militant campaign around economic demands (considered wrongly by this tendency to be more ‘class’ based demands than equality and an end to sectarian discrimination).  No trade union was later ever to affiliate to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Whatever the abstract truth of the need for working class leadership to achieve working class unity, and how to make this more than a tautology, the labour and trade union movement in the North of Ireland showed itself incapable of challenging the Unionist regime or Protestant workers support for it.  Its own organisational integrity was always held up as the primary unity to be protected by not being too ambitious.  In this way all progress could only, and did, pass it by.

This did not mean that support from the NILP and trade unions should not have been sought, and we can see that it was.  What would have been wrong however would have been to hostage a civil rights campaign to such support, so that no other means to creating a campaign could have been considered. A political challenge to discrimination and sectarianism should not have been opposed, abstained from or refused participation within because, ultimately, it is argued that only the working class movement could deliver an end to sectarian division and the much sought-after unity that socialism requires.

As we have seen, a wide range of forces took up the mantle of civil rights, at this time with little effect. From the Ulster Liberals to the NILP, Communist Party and radical leftists, all could see the injustices that were becoming less and less tolerable, especially to young Catholics.

At this time the Communist Party of Northern Ireland claimed that “closer examination of the anti-democratic laws reveals that they are aimed at the Catholic population, to some extent, in the main they are aimed against the interests of the working class”.

Again, such a position might be true from a general socialist standpoint, but such a position would not be enough to overcome sectarian division since it would only be possible to accept this argument that sectarian division was against the working class as a whole if the working class as a whole was seen to have its own interests separate from its Protestant and Catholic parts.  Most Protestant workers however were clear that sectarian practices were against Catholics.

It was subsequently the initiative of the republican movement to create a campaign against discrimination and for civil rights that created the organisation now most clearly recognised as the civil rights campaign. The republican movement of the day is not to be confused with Sinn Fein today, which (as the Provisionals) were formed later, and whose leaders were opposed to the strategy at that time adopted.  The strategy of the republicans at this time did not involve repudiation of armed struggle but rather acceptance that it was not at that time possible.

The republican Wolfe Tone Societies met in Maghera in August 1966 and discussed a document on civil rights with a view to a convention on civil rights and a civil rights charter. Not all republican leaders were enthusiastic, but the broad proposal was accepted and a seminar held in Belfast in November.  This agreed to launch a civil rights body at another meeting to which a variety of organisations and all the local political parties were invited.  The launch took place in January 1967 and the civil rights campaign was born.

Back to part 4

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