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. Formed in Belfast on 9 April 1967, the civil rights campaign 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 genesis of the organisation lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies which was attended by Cathal Goulding, then chief of staff of the IRA. The hope of the IRA, which four years earlier had ceased military operations after the failure of its Border Campaign, was that out of the already-nascent civil rights movement in Northern Ireland begun in 1963-4 by the Homeless Citizens' League and the Campaign for Social Justice there would arise a campaign of civil disturbance which would assist its efforts to unseat the unionist government in Belfast, and that the creation of NICRA would enable it to direct that campaign's course. Although socialist republicans and one IRA member were among those involved in the creation of NICRA, the IRA did not direct it. During its formation, NICRA's membership extended to trade unionists, communists, socialists, liberals and those of no political affiliation, with republicans eventually constituting five of the 13 members of its executive council when the association came into being. The organisation initially also included Unionist politicians, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on its executive council. IRA influence over NICRA grew in later years, but only as the latter's importance declined, as violence increased from late 1969 until 1972 when NICRA ceased its work.
Since Northern Ireland's creation in 1922, 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, at least one argues that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. The primary areas in which discrimination against Catholics was alleged were electoral representation, policing, employment and housing.
- Electoral representation. Proportional representation had been enshrined in the constitutions of both Northern Ireland and what later became the Irish Free State and then the Republic of Ireland, with a view to protecting the minorities in each state, by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Although the Republic has retained that system to this day, proportional representation for local government elections was abolished by Northern Ireland's devolved government in 1922 and for parliamentary elections in 1929. The property franchise (which granted votes in local elections only to those who owned property) weighted representation heavily in favour of the Protestant community, as did the plural business votes they enjoyed for parliamentary elections. The result was that many towns and cities with a Catholic majority, even a substantial one, were Unionist-controlled: examples included Londonderry, Armagh, Dungannon and Enniskillen. Electoral boundaries were carefully engineered: Belfast's representatives in Stormont went up to 16 in 1921, but (as in the days when it had been four), there was no increase in the nationalist representation, with Belfast continuing to return only one member of parliament. In the 1966 elections to the Westminster parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party won 11 of Northern Ireland's available 12 seats, while in 1969 Stormont elections some 39 out of the 52 available seats (i.e., 75%) went to the Unionist and Unofficial Unionist parties. The Stormont Assembly returned the Protestant Official Unionist Party (later Ulster Unionist Party) to office continuously between Northern Ireland's founding in 1922 and the dissolution of the Assembly in 1972. In the Republic, an upper house of parliament provides additional representation to the minority population (by means of, inter alia, the allocation of three seats to representatives chosen by graduates of Trinity College Dublin)
- Policing. Of the institutions of state, the police in particular were perceived by Catholics and nationalists as being in support of the Protestant and Unionist majority. Representation of Catholics in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, formed in 1922, never exceeded 20% and, by the 1960s, it had sunk to 12%. The reserve police force (the Ulster Special Constabulary) was comprised on its formation largely of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers and led by the Ulster Volunteers' former commander, Wilfrid Spender and remained almost exclusively Protestant until its disbandment.
- Employment. The 1971 Census offered the first opportunity to assess the extent of any discrimination in employment, as it was the first census since 1911 that provided cross-tabulation by religion and occupation. The Census documented that Protestant male unemployment was 6.6% compared to 17.3% for Catholic males, while the equivalent rates for women were 3.6% and 7% respectively. Catholics were overrepresented in unskilled jobs and Protestants in skilled employment. Catholics made up 31 per cent of the economically active population but accounted for only 6 per cent of mechanical engineers, 7 per cent of 'company secretaries and registrars' and 'personnel managers', 8 per cent of university teachers, 9 per cent of local authority senior officers, 19 per cent of medical practitioners, and 23 per cent of lawyers.
- Housing. Housing was inter-related with electoral representation, and therefore political power at local and Stormont levels. The general vote was confined to the occupier of a house and his wife. Occupiers' children over 21 and any servants or subtenants in a house were excluded from voting. So the allocation of a public authority house was not just the allocation of a scarce resource: it was the allocation of two votes. Therefore, whoever controlled the allocation of public authority housing effectively controlled the voting in that area.
Institutional discrimination, on this occasion against Protestants, also existed in the Irish Free State (later, the Republic), despite the electoral protections afforded to the minority religion there. While there was no official policy of discrimination against Protestants, the ethos of the Republic became unwelcoming to aspects of Protestantism: after independence in 1922, the legal system was changed to allow for prohibitions against divorce and contraception. Whereas the 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State had been drafted to conform with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Republic's 1937 constitution was not so fettered and its drafting was directly influenced by the Catholic church. The Protestant population in the 26 counties of the Republic fell from 327,171 in 1911 (some 10% of the population) to roughly 130,000 (5%) fifty years later. If the Republic was more "benign and democratic" towards the Protestant minority than was Northern Ireland to its Catholics, that is likely to have been because Protestants in the Republic did not constitute the same degree of perceived threat to the existence of the state as Catholics in Northern Ireland given that they were relatively so few.
Since 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice had been collating and publicising in its journal The Plain Truth what it regarded as evidence of discrimination and its precursor the Homeless Citizens League had been holding marches to press for fair allocation of social housing. Both of these organisations has arisen at a time when the African-American civil rights organisation was headline news around the world. Both had achieved success in bringing anti-Catholic discrimination to the attention of the media and, in the case of the Campaign for Social Justice, to politicians in Westminster.
The idea of developing this non-partisan civil rights campaign into one with wider objectives as an alternative to military operations, which the IRA Army Council had formally ceased on 26 February 1962, was pursued by the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society, although redirecting the civil rights movement to assist in the achievement of republican objectives had been mooted previously by others (including C. Desmond Greaves when a member of the Connolly Association) as "the way to undermine Ulster unionism". Indeed, the idea shared certain attributes with that of infiltrating Northern Ireland's trade unions as a means of furthering republican objectives, which had previously been tried and abandoned by the IRA in the 1930s.
The concept (set out in the August 1966 bulletin of the Wolfe Tone Societies, Tuarisc), 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." In 1969, after the civil rights movement had been active for several years, the strategy was described in Ireland Today, published by the Republican Education Department, as requiring 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.
At a meeting which took place in Maghera over 13–14 August 1966 at the home of Kevin Agnew (a nationalist solicitor), attended by all the Wolfe Tone Societies of Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Derry and County Tyrone and the IRA's chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, it was proposed that an organisation be created with wider civil rights objectives as its stated aim.
After these discussions it was decided to drop the Wolfe Tone Societies tag, and an ad hoc body was formed which organised a seminar on 8 November 1966 in Belfast. The main speakers were the president of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Kader Asmal, who was a South African-born lecturer in law at Trinity College Dublin, and Ciarán Mac an Áilí, a Derry-born Dublin solicitor who was a member of the International Commission of Jurists and president of the Irish Pacifist Association. It was agreed that another meeting should be called to launch a civil rights body and this took place in Belfast on 29 January 1967. Tony Smythe and James Shepherd from the National Council of Civil Liberties in London were present and there were over one hundred delegates from a variety of organisations, including all the Northern Ireland political parties.
The 13-member steering committee tasked by the Belfast meeting with drafting NICRA's constitution (of whom one, Dolley, had taken part at the meeting at Agnew's house) were:
- 1. Chairman: Noel Harris, a trade unionist and member of the Draughtsmen and Allied Trades Association.
- 2. Vice-Chairman: Conn McCluskey (one of the founders of the Campaign for Social Justice).
- 3. Secretary: Derek O'Brien Peters, of the Communist Party.
- 4. Treasurer: Fred Heatley, of the Wolfe Tone Societies.
- 5. Information Officer: Jack Bennett, a journalist with the "Belfast Telegraph".
- 6. Betty Sinclair, a communist and member of the Belfast Trades Council.
- 7. Liam McMillen, vice-chairman of the Republican Clubs (and a member of the IRA).
- 8. John Quinn, of the Ulster Liberal Party.
- 9. Professor Michael Dolley, of Queen's University Belfast, a civil libertarian and member of the National Democratic Party (Northern Ireland).
- 10. Joe Sherry, of the Republican Labour Party.
- 11. Jim Andrews, of the Ardoyne Tenants Association.
- 12. Paddy Devlin, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
- 13. Tony McGettigan, unaffiliated.
NICRA held a meeting to ratify the constitution on 9 April 1967. It was on this date that NICRA officially came into existence. There were some changes as the steering committee became NICRA's executive council, with Ken Banks of DATA replacing Andrews, Kevin Agnew (the republican solicitor) replacing McMillen and Terence O'Brien (unaffiliated) replacing McGettigan. Betty Sinclair became chairman. Robin Cole, who was one of the most liberal of the Young Unionists and chairman of the Queen's University Belfast Conservative and Unionist Association, was later co-opted onto the executive council.
NICRA's constitution, aims and philosophy
NICRA, as it eventually emerged, differed from what had been outlined in Tuarisc and discussed at Kevin Agnew's house in Maghera. The form which NICRA took was determined by the coalition of forces which came together to create it, of which republicans were only one element. Civil rights were the banner to which republicans, nationalists, communists, socialists, liberals and the unaffiliated could rally. NICRA's executive council brought together such diverse groups as the Wolfe Tone Society, with its nationalist goal of furthering the creation of a united, independent, democratic Irish Republic, with the Campaign for Social Justice, whose founders and leaders were initially motivated by what they saw as the ineffectuality of nationalist politics in putting the case of the Catholic minority.
The constitution of NICRA was based on that of the (British) National Council for Civil Liberties. NICRA's name was expressed in English only. The constitution emphasised the association's character as non-party and non-denominational, and as a body which would make representations on the broad issues of civil liberties and would also take up individual cases of discrimination and ill-treatment and stated NICRA's aims as "to assist in the maintenance of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, propaganda and assembly". NICRA's aims were:
- 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:
- 1. "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".
- 2. An end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.
- 3. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs.
- 4. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing.
- 5. The removal of the Special Powers Act.
- 6. The disbandment of the almost entirely Protestant Ulster Special Constabulary (B Specials).
In conscious imitation of the philosophy of, and 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 relating to civil and minority rights, NICRA secured much wider international and internal support than traditional nationalist protest.
NICRA's innovation (drawing on the approach adopted by the Campaign for Social Justice) was to rely on and seek to vindicate civil rights, i.e. rights adhering to all citizens of Northern Ireland as British citizens under the existing constitutional settlement, rather than base its demands on the nationalist goal of reunification in a republic comprising the whole island of Ireland. For many supporters of NICRA, that did not mean accepting the constitutional settlement or any obligation of loyal subjecthood: assertion of those rights was a device by which the condition of the Catholic minority could be improved. However, from the outset there were tensions within the association between those advocating militant and confrontational methods, in particular the socialist and republican elements of the movement, and others who remained wedded to the pacifist American-inspired model.
Allegations against NICRA and ties with republicanism
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 a 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 MPs 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 RTÉ 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 and Patricia 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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