From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ 6 – the Civil Rights Association

One hundred delegates attended the founding conference of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) on 9 April 1967, electing a thirteen person steering committee made up of trade unionists, the Campaign for Social Justice, Communist Party of Northern Ireland, republicans, and the Ulster Liberal Party.  One Young Unionist was also co-opted later.  Its constitution was based on that of the British National Council Civil Liberties, now called Liberty.

The NICRA constitution of 1967 made no explicit mention of either voting rights or discrimination and its five objectives were stated in rather general terms:

(1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens

(2) To protect the rights of the individual

(3) To highlight all possible abuses of power.

(4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association

(5) To inform the public of their lawful rights.

These objectives avoided the direct issues of sectarian discrimination in housing and employment, the issue of ‘one man, one vote’ and the particular repression enshrined in the Special Powers Act.

The demands, coupled with the inspiration for the constitution, indicated that the new body, like organisations reviewed in the previous post, did not intend to be a campaigning organisation that would mobilise on the streets but a representative one, dealing with individual cases and focusing on defence of existing rights.

With this conception of its role it was destined for the same ineffectiveness and disappointment as the CSJ, and the resolutions and meetings held previously by the NILP and trade unions.  As one prominent participant, Fred Heatley put it – “the first eighteen months was a time of frustration.”  Letters to Stormont were dismissed after delay and two representatives were turfed out of a police station after trying to make representations, “but the most annoying aspect of the early period was the lack of real interest shown by our first council members – at times we couldn’t muster up the required six members for a quorum at the monthly meetings.”  A body that couldn’t get its leaders to a monthly meeting was hardly going to get masses of people onto the streets.

Some changes to the membership the next year appeared to make no difference.  What did make a difference  was a minimal responsiveness to what was happening outside and its effective co-option by these more powerful forces that were stirring.  It was not NICRA that propelled civil rights to the top of the political agenda but the stirring of political forces that pushed NICRA to the fore, against the wishes of some of its earliest leaders.

The Unionist Government’s proscription of the Republican Clubs, the political organisation of republicans in the North, and a ban on their demonstrations, clearly came within the ambit of NICRA’s declared objectives.  So one of its first public actions was to oppose proscription, with Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party of Northern Ireland attempting to avoid being seen to endorse the politics of the republicans by claiming that the Unionist proscription could threaten the Orange Order as well!

The banning of marches and the defiance of such bans could not be seen as incidental to the campaign for civil rights. Challenging the restrictions on protest and the use of mass mobilisation to exert political pressure was one of the key goals of many of those within the movement, explicitly stated in the NICRA aim of ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. It was part of the logic of civil rights and its early prominence was anticipation of the explosive issue it was quickly to become.

It was the one NICRA objective that spelled out its requirements in quite specific terms – for ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association’. While there is a tendency sometimes to pass quickly over this, it indicated that repression and state restrictions on protest were a central issue even before the marching campaign began. The Unionist government enjoyed extensive repressive powers under the Special Powers Act, including internment and the power to ban assemblies, marches, publications, and parties.  All of these became crucial in future events and ‘the Troubles’, indicating the continuity between the civil rights campaign and the political campaigning that continued even into the period of the Troubles, which is now remembered solely for political violence.

The official history of NICRA states that the association began to realise in early 1968 ‘that a ban on their demonstrations was an effective government weapon against political protest’ and that marches would provide a more effective way of exerting political pressure than letter-writing.  But even then, it was not from within NICRA that the first civil rights march arose.

The first demonstration arose from protests against the allocation of a house in Caledon, outside Dungannon, to a nineteen-year old Protestant and the eviction of a Catholic family who had squatted in it.  It was the initiative of Nationalist MP Austin Currie who proposed a march from Coalisland to Dungannon, receiving the sponsorship of NICRA after some delay through support from the CSJ and republicans and despite opposition by Communist Party member Betty Sinclair.

In the event it was attended by about 2,000 and faced a counter-protest of around 1,500 loyalists.  Ian Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers announced a rally at the same time and place as the civil rights meeting at the end of their march in what they regarded as Protestant territory – a common means of stopping parades.  The police re-routed the civil rights march to the Catholic part of the town but NICRA refused, since this would have implied that theirs was a sectarian demonstration, and in the end there were only minor clashes with the police.  The march had a distinctly nationalist colouring, which was pretty much inevitable given the character of the population demonstrating, but was regarded as a success.

Shortly afterwards Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) approached NICRA with a proposal for a march in Derry. DHAC was a coalition of left wingers in the NILP and radicals in the Republican Clubs.  NICRA agreed to sponsor it as well but it was the left in Derry that had responsibility for organising it, supported by the Young Socialists in Belfast.

The demonstration was to start across the bridge in the Waterside, considered the Protestant side of the town and the demonstration was banned by the hard-line Stormont Minister Bill Craig, even though a loyal order event that had previously been announced had been withdrawn.

The demonstration did not reach the 5,000 hoped for by the organisers and the local paper estimated only 350 to 400 took part, with a quarter of them students from Belfast, although swelling later to about 1,000. At its front rank were later leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and a number of British Labour Party MPs.

Famously, the march was attacked by the police and part of the attack recorded by Irish television and replayed in dramatic pictures relayed across Britain and Ireland.  For many, this was the start of the civil rights campaign, and for many the inevitable slide to the Troubles.  A later official British report into the events of the day found that four policemen had been injured and a further seven during later clashes on the City side, while seventy-seven civilians were injured, mostly with lacerations to the head.

From the moment that the RUC baton-charged the march in Derry in October 1968 repression of protest became a central mobilising issue, but did not yet dominate the objectives of the demonstrations themselves, which still demanded civil rights, now captured in rather clearer and pithy language that the original objectives of NICRA. This reflected the fact that the civil rights movement was still on the political offensive despite the attempt to baton it off the streets.  Unlike later struggles around military repression, the opposition to the repression of civil rights marches did not impose a defensive stance on the movement.  Its civil rights demands still defined a movement on the offensive.

This meant that the movement had not become simply a traditional nationalist one – the view of the Unionist Government and many Protestants – that it was another republican plot to destroy the Unionist State.  This was ensured by the unity that existed inside the campaign around the civil rights agenda, which although it contained nationalists as its mass base also included the radical left as a socialist component.

It was nonetheless a movement that challenged unionist domination and the unionist monopoly on political power, which was one of the main reasons why even liberal unionists steered clear of it. So while there were prominent Protestant figures involved, the movement was overwhelmingly composed of those from a Catholic background.  Definition as a socialist did not exclude one from unionist charges of anti-Protestantism but rather confirmed one’s involvement in a conspiracy that stretched from republicans to communists. In any case, while socialists might be prominent they were never numerous enough to determine the way the movement, or those who supported it, were perceived and how they would react to repression.

The lack of a large Protestant support not only removed any potential constraints on Unionist leaders or loyalist organisations but severely weakened the socialist perspective of using civil rights as a means of uniting Catholic and Protestant workers. The socialist imperative of non-sectarianism did not have an immediate payback in terms of winning Protestant support but instead sought its justification in terms of the tactics to be employed by the movement (mass action) and much more radical long-term aims (workers unity) with therefore a much longer term payback.

In the meantime, those who most loudly declared the civil rights campaign a Catholic/Communist conspiracy against Protestants were involved in their own conspiracy to prevent the campaign growing and developing one of their own, one that would ensure sectarianism continued to enforce its division.

The mid-1960s may have seen efforts, eventually successful, to create a civil rights campaign, but it also saw the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and the rise of Ian Paisley.  By the time of the creation of NICRA the UVF had already murdered and Paisley had inspired riots.

Back to part 5

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