Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Irish: Cumann Chearta Sibhialta Thuaisceart Éireann) was an organisation which campaigned for civil rights in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s. although not formed in Belfast until 29 January 1967, and initially including Unionist politicians, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on the executive committee. the nucleus of the organisation lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies and the IRA. The organisation was ostensibly created to campaign for social justice on issues such as discrimination against Roman Catholics in employment and housing, the Gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the rights of Irish Travellers, and nuclear disarmament, however the hope of the IRA was that there would be a campaign of civil disturbance which would unseat the unionist government in Belfast.
Since Northern Ireland's creation, the Roman Catholic minority had suffered from varying degrees of discrimination from the Protestant majority, which the state allowed to happen. While some historians regard the ethos of the Northern state as unashamedly and unambiguously sectarian, there are some who argue that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. The police in particular were demonised by republicans as being in support of the Protestant and Unionist majority.
The civil rights campaign which began in the mid-1960s attempted to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to abuses in areas such as housing, unfair electoral procedures, discrimination in employment and the Special Powers Act.
The idea of a greater civil rights campaign was pursued by the Dublin Wolf Tone Society. The concept had been mooted previously by C. Desmond Greaves when a member of the Connolly Association and was seen as "the way to undermine Ulster unionism". At a meeting which took place in Maghera over 13–14 August 1966 at the home of Kevin Agnew (nationalist solicitor), attended by all the Wolfe Tone Societies and the IRA's chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, it was proposed that a civil rights campaign be started. From this meeting another was arranged in Belfast and on 29 January 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed. The thirteen man committee which was formed included Fred Heatley and Jack Bennett from the Wolfe Tone Societies and Laim McMillan of the IRA.
For a time NICRA existed in parallel to other civil rights groups in Northern Ireland such as the Northern Ireland Council for Civil Liberties but the latter "disappeared from view" leaving NICRA to assume its role as umbrella organisation for the smaller civil rights organisations in the province. The concept was to "Demand more than may be demanded by the compromising elements that exist among the Catholic leadership. Seek to associate as wide a section of the community as possible with these demands, in particular the well-intentioned people in the Protestant population and the trade union movement."
NICRA published five aims:
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.
It had six main demands:
- "one man, one vote" which would allow all people over the age of 18 to vote in local council elections and remove the multiple votes held by business owners - known as the "business vote".
- an end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.
- prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs
- prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing
- the removal of the Special Powers Act
- the disbandment of the Ulster Special Constabulary (B Specials)
It was seen as essential that: the civil rights movement include all elements that are deprived, not just republicans, and that unity in action within the civil rights movement be developed towards unity of political objectives to be won, and that ultimately (but not necessarily immediately) the political objective agreed by the organised radical groups be seen within the framework of a movement towards the achievement of a 32-county democratic republic.
In a conscious imitation of tactics used by the American Civil Rights Movement, and modelled somewhat on the National Council for Civil Liberties, the new organisation held marches, pickets, sit-ins and protests to pressure the Government of Northern Ireland to grant these demands. Internationally, given the widespread concern in the late 1960s with civil and minority rights, NICRA secured much wider international and internal support than traditional nationalist protest.
Allegations against NICRA and ties with republicanism
NICRA wasn't as all-embracing as its name implied. The Northern Ireland government accused NICRA of being a front for republican and communist ideologies. Loyalists suspected that NICRA was a front for the IRA. The involvement of republicans such as IRA chief of staff Cathal Goulding, the Irish National Foresters, the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the Wolfe Tone Societies, would only affirm their suspicions.
Certainly after the failure of the IRA's Border Campaign, republicans had been seeking peaceful ways of advancing their cause by joining Trade Unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and then NICRA when it was formed in 1967. On 4 October 1968, a day before NICRA's Derry march, the IRA admitted that it was infiltrating the civil rights movement as well as trade unions.
NICRA arose from a meeting of the republican Wolfe Tone Societies, however this is claimed as being "fortuitous" as it was likely that such an organisation would have come into being anyways. The republican movement were influential in getting NICRA to participate in protest marches, however due to the various different groups that made up NICRA, it could not control the organisation's direction.
The radical views of individuals within NICRA were highlighted by a commission of inquiry set up by the British Government following the spread of civil unrest in 1969. The report by a Scottish judge, Lord Cameron stated, "certain at least of those who were prominent in the Association had objects far beyond the 'reformist' character of the majority of Civil Rights Association demands, and undoubtedly regarded the Association as a stalking-horse for achievement of other and more radical and in some cases revolutionary objects, in particular abolition of the border, unification of Ireland outside the United Kingdom and the setting up of an all-Ireland Workers' Socialist Republic."
First civil rights march
On 27 April 1968, NICRA held a rally to protest at the banning of a republican Easter parade.
In an effort to highlight the issue of public housing being allocated preferentially to Protestants in County Tyrone, an Austin Currie, at a meeting of NICRA in Maghera, July 1968, proposed holding a protest march from Coalisland to Dungannon. After initial hesitations and opposition to the idea from some in NICRA's executive, the proposal was agreed. A counter-protest was then planned by the Ulster Protestant Volunteers and Ian Paisley, who saw the proposed march which would go to center of Dungannon as an invasion into an loyalist area.
Hoping to avoid a confrontation, the UUP MP for South Tyrone, John Taylor, tried to get Paisley to abandon the counter protest, and asked William Craig, the Stormont Minister of Home Affairs to have the NICRA march rerouted to the Catholic part of Dungannon. The call for a reroute was supported by the Unionist mayor of Dungannon district.
The NICRA march took place on 24 August 1968, attracting around 2,500 people from various different groups. The Tyrone brigade of the IRA had sought permission from its Dublin headquarters to participate, resulting in a call for as many republicans to attend as possible.
Not until the march reached Dungannon did it encounter incident. 400 RUC officers prevented the march from entering Dungannon whilst 1,500 loyalists jeered. Some marchers tried to break through the police line resulting in a police baton charge, whilst Gerry Fitt claimed that had there not been women and children present, "I would lead men past that barricade". The chairperson of NICRA was veteran communist Betty Sinclair, and she managed to convince the marchers to restrain themselves and show that they were "peaceful people asking for out civil rights in an orderly manner".
After the Coalisland-Dungannon march, the Derry Housing Action Committee requested that the next NICRA march be held in Derry. The date chosen was 5 October 1968, and its route was to start and go through the predominantly Protestant Waterside area of Derry.
The Middle Liberties Young Unionist Association thought about holding a counter-demonstration, however on 1 October, several local clubs of the Protestant fraternal organisation, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, announced their intention to march the same route on the same day and time, though it's governor said he knew nothing of a planned parade.
William Craig, the Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister, at first chose to ban the civil rights march, which caused complaints, however then banned the Apprentice Boys march as well on police advice in the hope of avoiding serious disorder. Craig said that whilst he isn't against freedom of expression it should not be done in areas where it likely to cause provocation, especially as he saw NICRA as "a republican-nationalist organisation".
With the march banned, NICRA's executive unsuccessfully tried to get the Derry Housing Action Committee to call off the march. Despite fearing the presence of radicals leading to violence, NICRA then reluctantly agreed to go ahead.
The march started at the Waterside station, and only attracted 400 protestors. Eamonn McCann (one of the organisers of the march) estimated that a further 200 watched from the pavements. Some of the more prominent participants such as John Hume only took part only because of Craig's banning of the march. Others there included Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt, who brought three British Labour Party MP's with him, and members of the media.
The march was stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) however before it had properly begun. The marchers had proposed to walk from Duke Street in the Waterside area of Derry to the Diamond in the centre of the city. After several protestors were hit by police batons, with Fitt being hospitalised, the protestors sat down and short speeches given. After some retaliation from the protestors, the police moved in with batons chasing and hitting those who fell by the wayside.
Some demonstrators had managed to filter into the Diamond in small groups, however this saw a large crowd of angry local Catholic youths who hadn't participated in the march arrive and provoke the police. Having forced the youths back down to the Bogside with baton-charges, a stone-throwing confrontation took place between Catholics and police. Having pushed the police back to the Diamond, the fighting continued and the next day petrol bombs where thrown and shops looted.
The footage captured by RTE of the march and unprovoked police brutality on unarmed protestors including British MPs would change the course of Northern Ireland forever. In one go it brought the full spectre of sectarianism in Northern Ireland to the fore and started the chain of events that led to the bitter intercommunal violence that would degenerate into The Troubles.
Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill made his 'Ulster at the crossroads' speech on television on 9 December, appealing for calm. As a result of the announcement of various reforms, NICRA declared a halt to marches until 11 January 1969, while People's Democracy disagreed with this stance.
Leading Derry Housing Action Committee member, Eamonn McCann, later admitted "our conscious if unspoken strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off a mass reaction against the authorities".
Events escalated until August 1969, when the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march was attacked as it marched through the city's walls and past a perimeter with the nationalist Bogside. Initially some loyalist supporters had thrown pennies down from the walls onto Catholics in the Bogside. Catholics then threw nails and stones at loyalists leading to an intense confrontation starting. The RUC intervened, and a three-day riot ensued known as the Battle of the Bogside. Rioting quickly spread throughout nationalists area of Northern Ireland, where at least seven were killed, and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics were driven from their homes by loyalists. These events are often seen as the start of the Troubles.
In a subsequent official inquiry, Lord Scarman concluded, "We are satisfied that the spread of the disturbances [in Derry in August 1969] owed much to a deliberate decision of some minority groups to relieve police pressure on the rioters in Londonderry. Amongst these groups must be included NICRA, whose executive decided to organise demonstrators in the Province so as to prevent reinforcement of the police in Londonderry."
Internment and Bloody Sunday
The British government introduced internment on 9 August 1971 at the request of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner. The British Army in co-operation with the RUC, interned 342 people. 116 of those interned were innocent of involvement with the IRA and were quickly released. The introduction of internment wasn't a closely guarded secret with newspaper editorials appearing and discussion on television. The IRA, having seen the inevitable about to happen, either went underground or fled across the border. As a result fewer than 100 arrested were from the IRA. Some of those imprisoned were civil rights activists.
By this stage support for NICRA began to wane, however NICRA organised marches against internment. In Derry on 30 January 1972 NICRA took part in a mass anti-internment march which had also been banned. Fourteen unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by British troops during the march, and it became known as Bloody Sunday.
People associated with NICRA
Malachy McGurran Chairman, Frank Gogarty, Ivan Barr, Denis Haughey, Michael Farrell, Vice Chair, Vincent MacDowell vice chair. Patrons of NICRA included Kader Asmal, Anthony Coughlan, Bernadette Devlin, and John Hume. The first chair of NICRA was Betty Sinclair (Communist Party) from 1968-1969; other committee members included Paddy Devlin (NILP), Ivan Cooper, Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, Robin Cole (Young Unionists), Kevin Agnew, Conn McCluskey, Jack Bennett, Madge Davison and Fred Heatley. NICRA's Official Secretary was Edwina Stewart, a Protestant who replaced Betty Sinclair in the executive in 1968.
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