From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 10 – the rise of sectarianism

The political confrontation resulting from the clash of the civil rights movement with a Unionist regime unwilling to offer the necessary reforms led to growing tension and violence intensified by the mobilisation of extreme loyalism.

The riots in Derry in April 1969, which were prevented from developing into greater conflict by withdrawal of the RUC, were preceded by an explosion at an electricity station just south of Belfast, followed by another at the Silent Valley reservoir in County Down, and another at an electricity facility in Portadown.  These were blamed on the IRA and provided the opportunity for hard-line unionists to demand greater repression, while denouncing the civil rights movement as a vehicle for armed republicanism.

Ian Paisley’s campaign against O’Neill continued, with the latter described as “a traitor, a tyrant, and a viper,’ whilst his newspaper, the ‘Protestant Telegraph’, declared that “this latest act of IRA terrorism is an ominous indication of what lies ahead for Ulster: IRA barbarism, especially, sabotage and ambush.  Loyalists must now appreciate the struggle that lies ahead and the supreme sacrifice that will have to be made in order that Ulster will remain Protestant.”  In fact, it was associates of Paisley who carried out the bombings, for which he is now alleged to have provided the finance.The loyalist bombs were intended to raise the spectre of an IRA campaign, so justifying rejection of demands for further reform and supporting the removal of the ‘traitor’ O’Neill.

Rioting followed NICRA and PD protests in Belfast; and the IRA petrol-bombed a number of post offices on the same day that the more effective loyalist bombings of the water and electricity facilities were carried out.  The IRA had carried out a number of actions in the previous couple of years but these rather revealed its weakness which had been reflected in poor electoral results, for example coming in fourth out of four candidates in the October 1964 Westminster election.  In May 1967 and January 1968, it had bombed British army recruitment offices in Belfast and Lisburn and in July 1968 had attacked an RUC operation in West Belfast with a hand grenade.

IRA leader Cathal Goulding revealed the policy of republicans at this time and both their new thinking and the limits to it.  In February 1969 he stated that “if the civil rights movement fails there will be no answer other than the answer we have always preached.  Everyone will realise it and all constitutional methods will go overboard.”  British Intelligence estimated that the IRA had 500 members in the North and while morale was considered good it was short of guns, ammunition and money.  In any case at this point such activity was subordinated to civil rights agitation over which it had influence but not control.

Its actions in targeting post offices was designed to draw off RUC who would otherwise be available to join attacks on the Bogside.  This was justified as a defensive operation that protected Catholics and was to be the approach taken later in the year when attacks on the Bogside took place again in August, one that dramatically demonstrated the extremely limited capacity of the IRA to play this role.  The rationale for the IRA carrying out more minor attacks than loyalists in such circumstances can therefore be questioned.

In the face of continuing protests and the rioting in Belfast, Terence O’Neill conceded the principle of ‘One Man, One Vote’ on 22 April.  The next day the prominent Unionist Chichester-Clarke, who was O’Neill’s cousin, resigned.  The Unionist Parliamentary Party accepted the reform by 28 votes to 22 but the other prominent Unionist leader, Brain Faulkner, voted against.

That night two more explosions occurred at water facilities, leaving the whole of Belfast badly short of water, weakening further the position of O’Neill inside the Party.  Rather than face impending defeat, and in order to secure the leadership for Chichester-Clarke rather than the more hard-line Brian Faulkner, O’Neill resigned, to be replaced by his cousin by a majority of just one vote.

The ingrained sectarianism that existed even within ‘reforming’ unionism was exposed in an interview with the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper in May when O’Neill, after his resignation, said that:

“It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church”

Chichester-Clarke attempted to re-unite the Unionist Party by bringing Faulkner back into the cabinet while announcing a temporary amnesty for offences connected with political protest.  This spared not only civil rights demonstrators but also loyalists like Paisley, who got out of jail, and B Special Constabulary who otherwise might have been expected to qualify for prosecution by the RUC. After Chichester-Clarke and Faulkner met Harold Wilson and James Callaghan from the Labour Government at Westminster it was announced that the next local elections would be held under ‘One Man, One Vote’.

NICRA had called a temporary halt to demonstrations but demanded a timetable for reforms that would include abandoning the proposed Public Order Bill designed to repress demonstrations.  At the end of June demonstrations began again.

The strains placed on the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society meant that the political conflict around civil rights had not been solved, or rather, the acceptance of civil rights by the Unionist leadership did not signal an agreed solution.  Half the Unionist Party had opposed equal voting rights and armed loyalists had attempted to ratchet up the tension and provoke a more repressive response.

In April a meeting was held of community leaders in the Shankill Road in Belfast, ostensibly to address poor housing conditions in the area.  These were undoubtedly awful.  In the house that I lived in at that time the outside toilet had only recently been ‘joined’ to the rest of the house, so that snails had to be avoided on the cold tiles while running from the bath to the fire in order to dry off.  In work done to put in an electric fire in the living room, what seemed like hundreds of cockroaches ran out when the old wooden hearth was lifted up.  Within the year the ceiling in the living room had fallen down unannounced on my mother and myself.

But this accommodation seemed luxurious in comparison to my grandparents house further down the Shankill Road, which still had an outside toilet, complete with newspaper, and two bedrooms upstairs whose floors were so uneven that it was impossible to lie down on the bed without quickly feeling the blood draining either to one’s head or feet. The conditions of many on the Shankill were often no better than conditions on the Catholic Falls and some Protestants thought they were worse, since Divis Flats at the bottom of the Falls had just been built.

The difference of course was that Protestants by and large supported the regime that kept them in these conditions while Catholics opposed it.  They didn’t see such conditions as a reason to oppose the Unionists, unless like my parents they continued to vote for the Northern Ireland Labour Party, but rather were convinced that the Catholics were no worse off than they were and so had no justification for their opposition.  The hostility to Catholic claims was grounded on the sectarian identity that defined most Shankill Protestants and their politics.

The meeting of Shankill community figures included Mina Browne, who had made a name for herself by supporting the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and had been a part-time cleaner in Belfast Corporation.  In that capacity she had organised protests against the Corporation’s decision to allow Catholics to join the list of school cleaners.  She had also sent an anonymous threatening telegram to a Unionist MP on behalf of the UVF, although the telegraph clerk had rather exposed her by putting her address on the telegram!  She had also denounced Paisley as a ‘big wind bag’, proving once again that there was always someone more extreme than the extremists within loyalism.

The meeting was highjacked from its purported purpose and a Shankill Defence Association (SDA) created.  This quickly set up groups of vigilantes with a membership of 2,000 and acquired arms and explosives.  In the later British Government sponsored Scarman Tribunal, which looked into the background to the growing violence, a senior RUC officer was to describe the SDA as a small group of men, even though it was to play a major role in the mass intimidation of Catholic residents in the general Shankill area and the streets adjacent to it.

Slogans began appearing on walls – ‘Fenians get out or we’ll burn you out’ –  and direct intimidation escalated.  Three families fled their homes in Dover street while a few days later another loyalist mob threatened Catholics in Manor Street.   Others received bullets in envelopes marked ‘UVF’, or with a warning that the next bullet they got ‘will be through your head.’.  One Catholic owner of a café on the Crumlin Road received a message from the UVF stating that ‘if she did not shut her café she would be burned out.’

Loyalist intimidation also grew outside Belfast, with three sticks of gelignite planted at a Catholic church in Saintfield, south of Belfast, and a petition organised in the mainly Protestant workforce at the ICI plant in Carrickfergus, north of Belfast, stating that ‘too many Catholics were getting in.’  Meanwhile, the Unionist regime used emergency powers to deploy the British army to guard key installations from the IRA and called up the armed police reserve – the B Specials – many of whose members were responsible for the growing loyalist violence.

The leader of the SDA was John McKeague and it is instructive of so much of what happened in ‘the Troubles’, at this time and afterwards, to read his Wikipedia page. An acolyte of Paisley he was, like many such people, later disowned by him, playing the role of Paisley himself by occupying Belfast City Centre to protest against a James Connolly commemoration demonstration on 15 June.

In the lead up to the height of the Unionist marching season in July intimidation increased on the street and in workplaces.  The Fire Brigade recorded an increase in petrol-bomb attacks on Catholic properties in the Shankill, while McKeague organised swaps of homes between Protestants in Catholic Ardoyne and Catholics in the Shankill/Woodvale. On one occasion forty RUC looked on as a loyalist mob burned down a Catholic house.  On 5 July Paisley threatened at a rally of 2,000 loyalists in Bessbrook that he would march on the Catholic town of Newry.  Later, in August, he declared that his supporters were “armed and premeditated” while threatening that events would be worse than previous troubles in 1912, the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s.

In Belfast the increased tension and intimidation began to centre on the Unity Flats complex at the bottom of the Shankill Road, whose Catholic residents were woken early on 12th by loyalist bandsmen.  The loyalist parade was accompanied by the RUC but residents’ complaints to the police about the parade were ignored.  That night a mob spilling out of a club taunted the residents with ‘burn the fenians out.’  The Scarman Tribunal later noted that a Scottish band was involved, and it has generally been true that Scottish loyalists visiting Orange parades in Ireland often bring their own particular cocktail of sectarian bitterness.

At the Tribunal McKeague complained that Catholics had been given houses before Protestants and that by housing them in Unity Flats Belfast Corporation had “put rebels on our doorsteps.”  One SDA member, who was also a teacher, described mixed housing as a republican plot – “one of our planks was opposition to integrated housing.  The RCs had been taking over new districts, like the bottom of the Shankill.  What they do is, they get enough votes to elect a nationalist councillor, then eventually an MP . . . then gradually they will take over the whole of Northern Ireland.”

Eviction of Catholic families in Belfast continued while trouble also arose at two Orange parades in Dungiven in Co. Derry, with B Specials firing 100 live rounds.  Rioting took place on the 12 July in Derry between police and Catholic residents, and another Orange march in Dungiven saw one Catholic man killed after being hit on the head in an RUC baton charge. Francis McCloskey came to be recognised as the first person to be killed in the ‘Troubles’, dying only three days before Samuel Devenney, who had been assaulted by the RUC in Derry three months earlier.

In truth, ‘the Troubles’ can only have said to have started at this time in retrospect, and even then, it is debateable that this was the case.  Most date the start to 14/15 August 1969, when the British Army was put on the streets, and to the events immediately surrounding it, but this too invites the question – what exactly we denote when we speak of ‘the Troubles’?

In the few short weeks between the high point of the loyalist marching season on 12 July and the explosion of the ‘Battle of the Bogside’ one month later in Derry, the sectarian character of loyalism and the Unionist regime set the framework for what was about to happen.  It was not civil rights that delivered ‘the Troubles’ but the mobilisation of the repressive forces of the Northern State, and loyalist sectarian violence in response to it, that did.

Back to part 9

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 9 – the radicalisation of civil rights

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Initial doubts or outright opposition to the January 1969 march by Peoples Democracy from some nationalist and civil rights’ leaders gave way to support as the march was obstructed and repeatedly attacked.  At Dungiven Catholic schoolchildren left their classes to greet the marchers while Protestant children stayed in their classrooms.  Sympathy was widespread when the marchers were attacked at Burntollet in County Derry.  It was attacked again before entering Derry City, where the Citizens Action Committee organised a reception to welcome them to their final destination.

Severe rioting broke out in the city centre after the reception and continued for several hours afterwards.  Later that night a group of RUC men, some of them drunk, attacked streets on the edge of the Bogside, smashing windows and attacking people in the street.  The DCAC decided to withdraw its truce on marching and congratulated PD on its restraint, while one prominent DCAC member promised that ‘it would be hard-line militancy until they got what they wanted.’

The DCAC accepted the need for vigilantes to protect Catholic areas, under some pressure from republicans who were among the few groups prepared to take on this activity, although DCAC stewards, later to be members of the SDLP, were also involved.  It was not however the case that republicans were automatically looked to in order to provide defence.  There were hardly enough of them for a start.

For five days a ‘Free Derry’ was created with barricades ensuring no RUC presence in the Bogside.  Patrols of local people policed the area while the RUC was excluded.  A gable-end wall was painted – ‘You are now entering Free Derry’ – while a ‘Radio Free Derry’ was created as ‘the voice of Liberation’.   Unfortunately, none of this had been prepared and the majority of people were not ready for it or what it implied.  To maintain it required some other perspective on the way forward from that of the leadership of the Citizens Action Committee, which was not at all comfortable with this type of action.  After five days the leadership of the Committee rather quickly persuaded those behind the barricades to take them down.  As McCann noted “we had neither the organisation nor the means to put resistance [to the police] into effect,” noting also that the radicals were actually members of the DCAC. However, even had they not been, it was clear that they could not have prevented their removal.

Catholic sympathy with O’Neill waned when he criticised the Burntollet marchers and their “foolhardy and irresponsible undertaking”.   Some of them were, he said, “mere hooligans ready to attack the police and others”.

While he also condemned people who “have attempted to take the law into their own hands in efforts to impede the march” and also their “disgraceful violence”, these people were simply “playing into the hands of those who are encouraging the current agitation.”  “Enough is enough, he said.  “We have heard sufficient for now about civil rights: let us hear about civic responsibility.”

Soon after Burntollet another demonstration was held in Newry organised by the local PD branch, which again faced the threat of a loyalist counter-demonstration in the mainly Catholic town.  Even when this threat was withdrawn the march was rerouted, which led to a riot, with police tenders burned and pushed into the canal that runs through the town.  The march organisers lost control while many civil rights supporters made claims that the attacks had been deliberately facilitated, with later strong suspicion of actions by an agent provocateur.

The Newry march led many people to conclude that civil rights demonstrations could no longer be carried out peacefully and that the movement had lost control over the more hot-headed and extreme elements of its support. In fact, between the end of January and the end of July 1969, there were ten occasions on which civil rights activities led to trouble and twenty-one in which they were carried out entirely peacefully, including another march in Newry on 28 June. The issue of marching however was thrust into the back-ground when Terence O’Neill called a general election for 24 February.

O’Neill faced more cabinet resignations after he announced a Commission of Enquiry into the recent events, while a majority of backbench Unionist Party MPs were now opposed to him with twelve meeting to call for his resignation.  He then called the general election, in which the Unionist Party consisted of both pro and anti-O’Neill candidates, so that some of the official Party candidates supported him and some opposed.

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The election appeared to settle nothing, with pro-O’Neill candidates getting nearly 142,000 votes and eleven seats, and the anti-O’Neill group getting nearly 131,000 and twelve seats.  O’Neill himself just scraped through in his own constituency.  Among the opposition, leaders of the civil rights movement ousted Nationalist MPs, with John Hume and Ivan Cooper elected.  The NILP made little impression losing one seat, retaining another and gaining one through Paddy Devlin, who had been active in the civil rights movement.  Devlin and six Nationalists were shortly to break with their parties and form the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), that was social democratic only in the sense that it didn’t particularly advocate anything else and Labour only in the sense that two of its MPs used to call themselves it.  The struggle for civil rights was breaking up the old parties and either replacing them or changing their character.

Peoples Democracy stood in the election on a manifesto which encompassed the established civil rights demands on the franchise, state repression and housing allocation, and added other demands such as a crash housing programme, state investment and state-owned industries with workers’ control, integrated comprehensive education and a break-up of large estates in the west to provide land for co-operative farms.

No seats were won, but PD candidates totted up 25,407 votes. Eamonn McCann stood as an NILP candidate in Foyle and if his 1,993 votes are added to those of PD, it amounted to 29 per cent of the total poll in the seats contested. In South Down, Fergus Woods came within 220 votes of unseating the Nationalist MP.

PD’s support ranged widely, from 9.2 per cent of the poll in Belfast Cromac (the only lost deposit) to 48.8 per cent in South Down. The average over the nine constituencies was 26.4 per cent. This was not strikingly different from the performance of other unsuccessful candidates with a civil rights record. Erskine Holmes of the NILP got 29 per cent of the poll in Belfast Ballynafeigh, Sheelagh Murnaghan of the Liberal Party got 14.8 per cent in North Down and another Liberal, Claude Wilton, got 35.1 per cent in City of Londonderry

Bernadette Devlin in South Londonderry achieved the best result in a Unionist-held seat, with 38.7 per cent of the poll, but this was almost the same as the Nationalist candidate who had fought the seat in the 1965 general election. In South Down, which included Newry, “the performance can best be comprehended less as a People’s Democracy achievement than as general Catholic support for a civil rights candidate.”

A new, more radical NICRA executive was elected, including two PD members, while four of the ‘Old Guard’ resigned in protest at the increased militancy of the movement.  This was partly in response to the repressive policies of the Unionist Government, which had introduced a new Public Order Bill, and partly by continuing attacks on civil rights demonstrations by the police.  In April a Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster saw the PD candidate win the nomination as the anti-Unionist candidate, and Bernadette Devlin was duly elected with the biggest anti-Unionist majority since the seat was created in 1950.

The march to Derry, at a time when NICRA had called a truce, did not imply as profound a difference between it and the PD as might be supposed. One of NICRA’s leading members, Frank Gogarty, stated that they had been ‘blackmailed off the streets’ by loyalist intimidation and police repression. But they ‘would not remain off the streets forever’. The Government would have to give them a ‘definite timetable of reform’ or they would go back to the streets “and protest louder than ever”.

NICRA also felt obliged to extend its demands by changes in the political situation. It was not prepared to accept O’Neill’s promises and it wanted to keep up the momentum of the campaign. This made it necessary to make radical demands and to enter qualifying clauses on its former simple and clear-cut aims. A NICRA circular pointed out that the shortage of jobs and houses created a situation in which discrimination flourished, and demanded that the Stormont and Westminster Governments fund a crash house-building programme, while in areas of high unemployment the Government should start local industries as they had started the Forestry Commission.

It called for trade-union law to be brought into line with British law, for the disbandment of the B Specials and for the RUC to cease carrying revolvers. It had, in other words, adopted a number of demands that had been put forward by Peoples Democracy. Both organisations were opposed to Stormont’s new Public Order Bill, which made it necessary to give longer notice of parades and banned counter-demonstrations, sit-downs and the occupation of buildings.

This was clearly an attempt to impede the civil rights campaign and deny it legitimacy.  It was opposed by the new MPs elected out of the civil rights campaign but their failure to stop it simply repeated previous failures to prevent unionist repression through the Stormont parliament.  It was an important reason for the DCAC to relaunch the civil rights campaign in Derry, confirming the strength of the forces radicalising the civil rights campaign, affecting even in its ‘moderate’ sections.

The campaign appeared to have the support from the full range of forces it had previously encompassed, from the Nationalist Party to the Labour left.  At one sit-down protest John Hume insisted that “the politics of the street must continue until fundamental justice has been achieved”; but only a week later a repeat of the October 5 march in Derry was followed by clashes between Protestant and Catholic youths, and the other prominent MP Ivan Cooper declared that he would “press for an end to marches.”

A demonstration to re-create the January PD march from Burntollet was cancelled at the last minute with the resulting confusion prompting youths in Derry to carry out a sit-down protest that was then broken up by the RUC.   While this was happening loyalists confronted Catholic crowds in the centre of the city, which the RUC attacked leading to three days of ferocious rioting.  During the clashes some RUC pursued rioters through a house in the Bogside, severely beating several people who lived in it, including the father of the household, Samuel Devenney.  Part of the Bogside was evacuated while republicans organised defence committees and the moderates of the DCAC sought to avoid clashes between the Catholic population and the RUC.

The behaviour of the RUC, defence from their attacks and the end of Catholic support for it, or even tolerance of it, became the primary immediate issues.  The RUC, in the words of a senior English policeman, was ‘not a police force in the English sense.  It is a para-military organisation accountable to a minister.’  At this time around 10 per cent of the force was Catholic and, alongside the Orange Order, was an important pillar of the Unionist regime.

While, until the summer of 1969, most of the violence that had erupted had been confined to Derry, this now changed.  That the character of the problem had already changed in Derry, where the existing civil rights agenda of an end to discrimination had been to the forefront, showed that the rapid shift to one of defence from the RUC was inevitable given the thoroughly sectarian character of the state machinery and composition of the unionist regime.

Without satisfactory reform the civil rights movement would not and could not be prevented from going onto the streets, despite the misgivings of many ‘moderates’, but equally the unwillingness of the Unionist regime to grant the reforms meant their sectarian police force were placed in the way of protest.  The Stormont government’s Public Order Bill signalled that the Unionist Government were attempting to employ repression to substitute for the full reforms the civil rights movement demanded.  But this was to fail very quickly.

Back to part 8

Forward to part 10

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 8 – provocative civil rights

The December 1968 speech by Terence O’Neill was a landmark in unfolding events, but unfortunately there were many such landmarks.  Many critics of the militancy of some in the civil rights movement have since been too keen to blame the subsequent descent into the Troubles on their refusal to trust the bona fides of the Unionist regime, but without detaining themselves long to examine the paucity of the reforms on offer.

At the time the speech had a powerful impact on public opinion, and many were impressed at his sacking of the hard-line Minister of Home Affairs, Bill Craig.  The leadership of NICRA and the ‘moderate’ leaders of the Citizens’ Action Committee in Derry all accepted the request to call off their demonstrations and suspend their protests.

Peoples Democracy decided that the promises of the Unionist Government would be tested.  The speech by O’Neill had solved nothing and even the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson noted that universal franchise – ‘one man, one vote’ – had not been granted.  A march starting on 1 January 1969 from Belfast to Derry modelled on the Selma-Montgomery march in Alabama three years before, which exposed racist violence and forced reform, would test the Unionist Government’s intentions.

The intentions of unionist hard-liners became apparent very quickly.  The march was subject to repeated harassment and struggled to take its intended course with repeated blockages and police diversions that seemed intended to facilitate loyalist attacks.  On the fourth day the RUC led the demonstration into an ambush at Burntollet in which hundreds of loyalists throwing stones and bottles attacked with clubs and iron bars.  Some RUC men joined in the attack while dozens of the attackers were later exposed as off-duty members of the B Special constabulary, especially notorious for its bigotry.  No attempt was made to arrest the attackers and later both police and assailants were to be found socialising together. The march regrouped and faced further attack but eventually made its way into Derry. City

PD had organised the march to test the Unionist Government and its State but did not anticipate the level of violent reaction it suffered; encapsulating one great problem for the whole civil rights struggle.  In the words of PD leader Michael Farrell, “either the government would face up to the extreme right . . . and protect the march . . . or it would be exposed as impotent in the face of sectarian thuggery, and Westminster would be forced to intervene.”

The problem with this was that the Unionist Government was not concerned with sectarian thuggery in itself but only with its possible consequences, especially intervention by Westminster, although Westminster did not want to intervene.  The result was that sectarian thuggery took on, and had to take on, massive proportions before Westminster did eventually intervene, and then not primarily to stop the sectarian thugs.

Because this was not understood more appropriate preparations to defend against sectarian attacks were not taken and nor was the character of the later Westminster intervention understood, or the much greater level of violence it eventually entailed.

The idea of ‘provocation’ was not only the accusation of unionism but was also part of the calculation of some radical civil rights leaders. One marcher stated that “Our function in marching . . . was to break the truce, to relaunch the civil rights movement as a mass movement, and to show the people that O’Neill was, in fact, offering them nothing. We knew that we wouldn’t finish the march without getting molested, and we were accused of looking for trouble. What we really wanted to do was pull the carpet off the floor to show the dirt that was under it.”

The PD march had been opposed by the leadership of NICRA and the Derry Citizens Action Committee, while the most prominent organiser, Michael Farrell, said he knew what he was doing – “a lot of the route was through my home area of South Derry so I knew . . . the likely reaction.”

One author of the history of the civil rights movement was not so sure:

“Farrell had not, however, anticipated the full extent of the violence. He had thought that the march would force the Government either to confront the loyalists or to drop its pretensions about reform, but he had not been clear about the further consequences of forcing the Government to resist sections of its own supporters. The loyalists might back down, or the Government might fall, forcing the British government to intervene. The purpose of the march was to upset the status quo.” (Bob Purdie, ‘Politics in the Streets’)

When the Nationalist Party had tried to march in Derry city centre in 1952, for example, the march had been banned and then broken up violently by an RUC baton charge. One consequence was a great reluctance to defy these bans and the next to do so in Derry was the civil rights march in October 1968.

As Eamonn McCann said, “the strategy was to provoke the police into overreaction”, and as he also put it, “one certain way to ensure a head-on clash with the authorities was to organise a non-Unionist march through the city centre.”  “Our conscious, if unspoken, strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off mass reaction against the authorities.” (War and an Irish Town p 62.)  Of October 1968 he said – “we had set out to make the police over-react.  But we hadn’t expected the animal brutality of the RUC.”

But if opponents of this approach have accused these radicals of provocation, they have been less keen to interrogate just exactly what justification had those who were provoked?

Given the moderation of the demands there is scant excuse for a violent reaction and the assumption of a strategy determinedly ‘non-provocative’ would appear to be that if you did next to nothing, next to nothing would be done to you.  But O’Neill’s promised reforms made it clear that the Unionist Government had no intention of granting equal citizenship rights to the Catholic minority without the strongest of pressure.  If only because pressure was being applied by hard-line loyalists on the other side, whose violence is so part of their nature that it is taken for granted by critics of the civil rights movement.  The imperative to non-provocation for these liberals thus always lies with the disadvantaged.

This does not imply that the moral righteousness of the oppressed means that no consideration need be given to the legitimacy or efficacy of methods of struggle employed.  It means that much more consideration needs to be given when you are in a position of weakness and you cannot simply declare a right to fight back by any means without accounting for its effects and its consequences.  There is no ‘right’ for Marxists to glorious or inglorious failure with its consequent casualties.

So, to demand civil rights meant challenging the sectarian parameters of society, which necessarily meant that the sectarian forces which defended these parameters were then ‘provoked’ into repressing demands for equality.  This, for example included demonstrating outside what was considered ‘your area’, which was then taken by the state as valid reason to enforce its sectarian rules by force.

For the defenders of sectarian supremacy any challenge to their sectarian rights was by its nature sectarian itself, simply by virtue of challenging the particular sectarian privileges of some Protestants.  In this view there was no such thing as non-sectarianism or anti-sectarianism because all attempts to redress the imbalance of rights necessarily impacted unequally on Protestants. In this view the inequality that existed was either denied or justified.  No claims to equality had any purchase on those with these views.  The alternative was to take a neutral view between these for and those opposed to sectarian practices, on the usually unspoken grounds that the latter were too powerful and capable, of violence.

The state defended itself not so much by arguing against the civil rights demands themselves as against those who were raising them, by arguing that the civil rights campaign involved republicans and was a republican front; in effect stating that even mild demands for change were subversive.

We have seen that no one outside of the Catholic population itself was able to build any substantial opposition to the State’s sectarian practices, so it had to come from within that population, not just logically but inevitably.  When the demands were raised by ‘moderate’ middle class figures they were ignored.  When they were raised by trade unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party they were ignored.  When they were raised on the streets it was inevitable that leftists and republicans would be involved, at which point they were no longer ignored but attacked.

The involvement of the Communist Party in NICRA meant unionism also associated it and civil rights with Communism, which had a particular connotation at this time because 1968 was also the year the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.  The development of NICRA however showed that neither the Communist Party nor republicans had control of the movement.

NICRA had rejected the charge that the 5 October march in Derry was provocative and it was pointed out later that there were no clashes between demonstrators and Protestant residents but only between demonstrators and the police.  As a defence however this could not be sustained when loyalists increasingly confronted civil rights demonstrations, as they had done from the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon. This was also a consideration for those opposed to the PD march but no one in the civil rights movement could afford to allow counter-demonstrations by the most bigoted Paisley supporters or attacks by off-duty police and Special Constabulary to veto their right to protest and demand for civil rights.

Either these attacks would lead to passivity and reliance on the good grace of the Unionist Government to introduce reforms, or the campaign would continue until they had been implemented, or not.

This at least seemed the logical choice, but as has been said before in this blog, political struggle is not a question of logic.  Political struggle gives rise to (or arises from) an opposition and this changes the choices that can be made.

It is clear that the civil rights movement did not foresee the vicious loyalist reaction that dragged the opposition to the sectarianism of the state into the Troubles, but they are not to be ‘blamed’ for the Troubles on that account.  Rather, if blame is to be apportioned, it is to those who violently opposed civil rights and who escalated their violent opposition as they saw the sectarian rights they were defending threatened.

Back to part 7

Forward to part 9

From civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ 7 – civil rights takes centre stage

Image result for derry civil rights movement 1968

Television pictures of the civil rights demonstration in Derry on 5 October 1968 being attacked by police sparked anger across the North and South of Ireland and shock in Britain and further afield.  In Belfast Queens University students marched from the University into the city centre and set up a new organisation – Peoples Democracy (PD) – when they returned.

On the right of the spectrum, the Nationalist Party withdrew from its position as official opposition at Stormont and endorsed a policy of ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ and the civil rights agenda.   This did nothing to change the leadership of the civil rights movement while the running was made elsewhere as the next day PD held another demonstration to the City Hall in Belfast.  On 21 October the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson declared that there must be reforms while the Taoiseach Jack Lynch visited London and protested against the events in Derry.  Just over a week later Wilson met the leadership of the Unionist Government and demanded the introduction of reforms.

In Derry the movement that had played such a big role in precipitating the crisis was rather easily taken out of the control of left radicals by the local Catholic middle class, intent on instilling its discipline.  Thus was created the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC) which most radicals joined, afraid of marginalisation if they didn’t, except for Eamonn McCann who walked out of the launch meeting in protest.  The presence of the majority of radicals however made no appreciable difference to the course of action taken by the DCAC.  The weakness and lack of perspectives that had been discussed by these radicals when they existed in separate loose organisation and alliance was made abundantly clear inside the Citizens Action Committee.

The DCAC brought more planning and organisation to protests, which they began organising, such as the mass sit-down in Guildhall Square later in October.  It was bigger than the 5 October demonstration, with between four and five thousand taking part, demanding a crash housing programme and points system for housing allocation. So, while denying it had any political purpose, even the new middle class leaders felt the need to extend the demands of the movement and continue its activity on the streets.

On the other hand the DCAC, run by local businessmen, did not mark itself out as centrally concerned with civil rights and hardly had much to do with NICRA at all, which in itself is symptomatic of both the limited nature of NICRA and the localised and confined perspective of leading figures in the Catholic middle class. There appeared to be no movement to compel the creation of a united and democratic civil rights campaign across the North or, on the other hand, a united left component of it, composed of the Derry radicals, PD in Belfast and others.  Instead, histories of the period note that the civil rights association and the wider civil rights movement were separate.  As so often, especially on the left, the need to prioritise activity in order to take advantage of a particular conjuncture of circumstances affected everyone concerned.

Another demonstration, defying a Government ban that the RUC could not enforce, was held on 16 November and was much larger that the October demonstration, with at least 15,000 taking part.  Two days later 400 dockworkers left work and marched and 1,000 shirt factory women also left work to demonstrate in the city centre as court proceedings arising from the first march started.  Later that night Protestant youths attacked the women as the evening shift left the factory, with clashes continuing the following day.

Two days later disagreement developed over a proposed demonstration on unemployment, which the DCAC leadership argued successfully against.  As Eamonn McCann later acknowledged, this approach “perfectly matched the mood of the Catholic masses” – “reasonable, respectable, righteous, solid, non-violent and determined.  The DCAC “did not challenge the consciousness of the Catholic masses.  It updated the expression of it, injected new life into it and made it relevant to a changed situation.”  As MCann also observed, it contrived to contain within itself those who wanted to destroy this consciousness.

Nevertheless, the repercussions of the Derry demonstration and the publicity it generated were carried forward – by the actions of the DCAC in leading street action and by the spontaneous demonstrations of workers. Coupled with the defection of the Nationalist Party and the radicalisation elsewhere, including demonstrations in Belfast, it contributed to growing pressure on the Unionist regime to make some concessions. On 22 November the Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill announced a package of reforms.

They included a review of local government that would deal with ‘one man one vote’ in two years’ time, the abolition of the Special Powers Act as soon as practically possible, encouragement to local authorities to use a merit-based points system for allocating public housing (that they could make up themselves), an ombudsman to deal with complaints and a development commission to replace Londonderry Corporation.

One obvious problem with the reforms was that the Unionist Party leadership remained in control of the government with the only significant threat to its parliamentary majority being the threat from hard-right unionists. This dynamic ensured that the reforms were minimised for fear of losing this right-wing support and would continue got come under pressure. For example, the points system for allocating public housing was left for the local authorities to devise themselves.  The abolition of the Special Powers Act was to be as soon ‘as practically possible’, while the then Minister of Home Affairs suggested that this might not be for some time.

Most importantly, the package did not end the restricted franchise in local government and included no measures that would actually guarantee the end of unionist control of districts where nationalists were in a majority, except for Derry where a development commission was to take charge. All of the important levers of power remained in the hands of the Unionist Party. ‘One man, one vote’, which had come to crystallise the civil rights movement’s concerns had not been conceded, demonstrating that the Unionist Party couldn’t concede it because to do so threatened a split.

Unionist backbenchers were opposed to the reforms, while the cabinet had carried out analysis that showed that without the property franchise Catholics would make up a majority of the electorate in Fermanagh and Tyrone whilst threatening the Unionist Party position elsewhere.

The rioting that had followed the Derry October demonstration had given rise to concerns about future possible sectarian clashes, although it had been pointed out by ciivil rights protestors that it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that had attacked the demonstrators and not local Protestants. Nevertheless, a small civil rights march in November from Strabane to Derry had been attacked by loyalists, and at the end of the month supporters of Ian Paisley occupied the location of a civil rights march in Armagh town centre, armed with cudgels and sticks, preventing the legal civil rights march from taking its intended route.  The denial on full civil rights so evident in the limited concessions offered in O’Neill’s reform package was matched on the streets by the RUC, which stood by while loyalists prevented a legal civil rights demonstration.

It was clear rather rapidly that the reforms proposed were not enough, although they still led to a clash inside the Unionist Government, with the hard-line Home Secretary Bill Craig sacked after his criticism of a televised speech by O’Neill.   This had been designed to show the Unionist Government’s commitment to reform – “your voice has been heard and clearly heard .  Your duty now is to play your part in taking the heat out of the situation.”

The message was that the Unionist Government had played its part and now the civil rights movement was to play its – by calling an end to the demonstrations that caused so much violence and division.    Many Catholics were impressed that the previously aloof Unionist Prime Minister spoke directly to them, even if he spoke on behalf of the Protestant middle class that feared looming violence.  The unionist ‘Belfast Telegraph’ newspaper ran a campaign in support of O’Neil with tens of thousands of its coupons backing himl being returned by its readers.

His ‘Cross roads’ speech in December 1968 warned of the situation being on “the brink of chaos”, while he appealed for the civil rights movement to call off its demonstrations, pledging that there would be no watering down of the promised changes.  NICRA and the DCAC acquiesced and called a truce on marches while nationalist newspapers welcomed the defeat of unionist hardliners and the reforms that were on their way, hoping that this promised steady progress in the future.

O’Neill had certainly changed the style and rhetoric of Unionist rule somewhat and was, as one author put it, “strong on gestures and bold statements”,  but there were very restricted limits to any reforming intentions and those that existed should be seen as part of attempts to modernise and rejuvenate industry and the economy more generally.  Unionist reformism, such as it was, assumed that the benefits of British welfarism and economic progress, plus funding for Catholic Church institutions, would nullify any demand for equality.  For O’Neill, the ‘Scotch-Irish’ Protestants of the North of Ireland were as different from the rest of the Irish people as ‘chalk from cheese’.

His premiership demonstrated no evidence that the anti-Catholic character of the Unionist Party was changing or that the Orange Order was not still an important part of it.  He wanted North-South relations to improve but there were no measures to prevent or combat discrimination in Northern Ireland.  He condemned the October civil rights march in Derry as ‘an act of pure provocation’ and supported the police despite its violent attack on it.

Undoubtedly he was limited in what he could do by the right wing of his party, which was rather rapidly and easily to become predominant, but he thought civil rights was only of interest to a minority of Catholics who he believed were more interested in houses, jobs and public services plus funding for their own sectarian institutions.

O’Neill did not so much advance a non-sectarian agenda, and pave the way for measures to reduce sectarianism, as undercut the growing but fragile movements that did and which threatened Unionist hegemony and that might have heralded a real, even if limited, advance on civil rights – the NILP in particular.  His liberal image had also made it easier to resist pressure from Westminster for some reform by the Unionist regime, which would have been harder to justify by other hard-line unionist leaders.  In this regard however, even the threats from the British Government to start interfering were not meant to speed up reforms but to avert intervention.

O’Neill sought Catholic quiescence to a unionist state, as his reaction to the 5 October civil rights demonstration showed.  Rather than criticise or apologise for the violence of the RUC he threatened to mobilise the even more sectarian and ill-disciplined B-Special Constabulary.

The limited character of the November reform package was clear, while his call for an end to civil rights demonstrations was precisely the objective of hard-line unionists, and also of the Paisley counter-demonstrations that had generated much of the violence.  Given these circumstances it was not unreasonable or even unexpected that this commitment to reform, and resistance to the right wing inside and outside the Unionist Party, would be tested.

It was only a question of time, although even today some controversy and condemnation attends to the Peoples Democracy march in January 1969 that did the testing.

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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.

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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.

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From Civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ – part 4 Labour’s failure

Political developments inside the Catholic population set out in the previous post were reflections of changes within a seemingly stagnant Northern society, most notably the growing strength and confidence of its middle class and greater educational opportunities for working class Catholics.

For the former, if they shifted away from simple rejection of the Northern State it was not because they had strong material interests in that state but because they had the possibility for this to be the case.  For the latter, the increasing economic and social role of the state, including welfarism, made equality and the state’s opposition to it a much more immediate issue and one for which the State could not avoid taking clear responsibility.

Gerrymandered local government boundaries meant that discrimination became an acute issue as more and more Catholics who had received higher levels of education felt aggrieved that their efforts might be wasted, while their integrity and identity was being insulted, never mind the material loss of income to go with demeaned status.

Since an increased role for the State in housing provision through local government also made the state more directly responsible for Catholic disadvantage through discrimination in housing allocation, this too became a more blatant injustice. All the more insufferable in those areas where Catholics were a majority – west of the Bann and especially in Derry.  Belfast Catholics were almost always more aware of their vulnerability as a minority and the threat to their security – it wasn’t possible to be anything more than a minority, at least locally.

It could be no surprise therefore that the civil rights movement began in a real way outside Belfast and never became a mass movement inside it, certainly not in the way it was to become in the rest of the Northern State.  This heavily influenced the political development of the fight for reforms and the evolution of the socialist alternative to the varieties of nationalism that later triumphed in the struggle to lead the struggles of the Catholic working class.

So, in histories of the civil rights campaign it is the students at Queens University that appear prominently, and the Peoples Democracy organisation that they created that plays a key role. Later events confirmed that while students are an important segment of society they cannot substitute for the working class, which of course some of them were, and increasingly would, become.

The welfare state not only gave Stormont a more obvious role in the distribution of public resources but was a component of greater capitalist state intervention into the economy and society more generally. Greater state planning involved projects for new hospitals, roads, towns and a new university.  All gave opportunities for religious disadvantage given the geographical difference in the settlement of the two religious populations.  Promotion of new industry also had differential impacts on the two religious groups, with declining traditional industry mainly in Belfast and East of the Bann being replaced by outside investment in these areas.

This welfare state didn’t reflect the strength and struggle of the working class, and was primarily, as elsewhere, a means of socialising costs for capital by the state, but it did give some benefits by reducing inequalities between workers and encouraging their demands, in this case that distribution should be fair and equitable.

Accompanying the modernisation of state intervention was a modernisation of rhetoric from the Unionist regime in the person of the new Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. O’Neill sought to modernise economic policy with a number of reports and a strategy of attracting outside investment. A new town, new university and new roads, and in 1964 recognition of the autonomous Northern Ireland Committee of the all-island Irish Congress of Trade Unions all reflected this new agenda.  New industry was attracted – Michelin, Du Pont, Enkalon as the old declined – and new economic and political links established with the South as O’Neill met Taoiseach Sean Lemass at the beginning of 1965.  All this persuaded the Nationalist Party to become the official opposition in Stormont for the first time in its history.

O’Neill’s policy was a result of the decline of traditional industry and therefore the erosion of the economic and social basis of the devolved regime, which would become more and more dependent on London and the political vagaries of politics at Westminster, especially if decline were to continue.  The election of a Labour Government in 1964 encouraged some nationalists to believe that the new Labour Government would be more sympathetic to Catholic expressions of grievance than the previous.  In this context, the existence of a small group of Labour MPs sympathetic to the nationalist case was seen as an important route to push for Westminster intervention and effect a break from the existing convention that London would not intervene in Stormont’s devolved responsibilities.

O’Neill’s policy was also a response to political pressure on Protestant working class support for the Unionist Party, which was suffering from the erosion of support consequent on the decline of traditional industry and growing unemployment.  Protestant workers were increasingly deserting the Unionist Party, threatening the all-class nature of the Stormont regime’s support.

Just as today predictions of unionist decline and defeat are partly based on increasing numbers who do not define themselves as unionist (or nationalist), so the increase in votes for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as the growth of class-based politics.  While perhaps easily dismissed now in hindsight, were a similar growth to develop today it is likely that some left enthusiasm for such a development would actually be greater.  It is therefore important to consider the question whether Unionist rule could have been overturned by the Protestant working class?

The 1958 Stormont election saw the NILP do well with unemployment growing in Protestant working class areas, winning four seats against unionists in these areas, although the nature of the Party and its leaders at this point needs to be taken into account.  For example, in his maiden speech one newly elected NILP MP attacked nationalists as sectarian for complaining about discrimination. Just as today when loyalists present themselves as defenders of the interests of the Protestant working class, the emphasis of the NILP at this point is on the limiting attribute of ‘Protestant’.

In the following 1962 election the NILP retained their four seats, and with the IRA campaign over, achieved its highest ever vote of 76, 842, although the Party didn’t win any more seats.  In Belfast the NILP vote was 60,170 while the Unionist vote was 67,450.  The latter however included 5,049 business votes, few of which would have gone to Labour.  Some foresaw the NILP as a ‘formidable contender’ for control of Belfast in five years’ time.  In 1964 the NILP increased its vote again to 103,000 in the Westminster election, although winning no seats.

In 1965 O’Neill called a Stormont election and despite fielding more candidates the NILP vote fell to 66,323, losing two of their four working class seats. O’Neill’s modernisation agenda had stolen much of the platform of the NILP’s social democracy, and his image was less overtly sectarian than previous Unionist Party leaders.

This arose from O’Neill visiting Catholic schools and meeting members of the church, which gained some Catholic goodwill while generating loyalist anger.  He was still however a member of the Orange Order and joined two other loyal orders after becoming Prime Minister.   None of the minority’s grievances regarding gerrymandering of local government, discrimination and the Special Powers Act or B Specials were touched.  Even the Unionist newspaper, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ later noted that appointments to public bodies made a mockery of O’Neill’s professions of goodwill.

The sectarian character of the Unionist regime remained intact and the most prominent members of the NILP in the early 1960s were opposed to challenging its discrimination. These leaders faithfully reflected some of the most backward ideas within the Protestant working class rather than attempting to lead them somewhere more progressive.

Their commitment to the constitutional status of the state was absolute, and their reactionary character was exemplified by a relatively minor event that has since become notorious for demonstrating the NILP’s reactionary cowardice.  In November 1964 a motion in Belfast Corporation to open public play centres on a Sunday was defeated by one vote with two Labour members of the corporation voting against it – the swings in the parks were to be locked and closed.

By 1966 it was clear that the NILP could not oust the Unionist Party but there was nevertheless a small constituency which was sympathetic to Catholic grievance.  Throughout the 1960s the NILP took up issues later prominent in the civil rights campaign, including opposition to repressive legislation and an enquiry into discrimination and gerrymandering.  What the Party could not do was either mount a credible challenge as an alternative majority in Stormont to the electoral hegemony of the Unionist Party, or lead an alternative movement outside of the electoral arena – a Labour-led civil rights movement.

This meant that the defeat of the Unionist regime and its sectarianism would not come from within the Protestant working class or, it would appear, from the ranks of social democracy reaching across the sectarian divide to Catholic workers.  This would have required a larger and stronger Party more committed to ending the sectarian division through popular campaigning. The organisation of even a small number of individuals from the Protestant working class with such a perspective would have been exemplary but would have found it extremely hard to change the dynamic of later events that led to the troubles, and would even have found it hard to maintain organisation as sectarian mobilisation increased within Protestant working class areas.

Instead there were a number of ominous developments in the mid-sixties that would later become typical of what has been called a loyalist ‘backlash’, although as examination of the period shows this was a backlash that came first by creating the circumstances employed to justify itself.

Violent loyalist activity preceded the troubles, with notable riots in 1966 in protest at commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  Attacks on Catholics and their property led to two Catholic men being shot dead and one Protestant woman killed in a petrol bob attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home  The Orange Order denounced the Rome-ward trend of Protestant churches and there was a push against O’Neill in the Unionist parliamentary party that included four out of nine cabinet members.

Even by 1966, before the civil rights campaign had really started, or the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had been created, a ‘backlash’ had erupted against purely symbolic diluting of sectarian supremacy.

On the Catholic side disillusionment had set in by 1965, with the hopes raised by O’Neill generating disappointment and some bitterness. Nationalist Party participation as an official opposition in Stormont was gaining them nothing.   By 1964 the first organisation with a recognisable political agenda based on civil rights had been set up.

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