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The civil rights struggle and its legacy

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     For peace, unity, and socialism                                                                     nn 0791-5217

   SOCIALIST VOICE
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                   Monthly publication of Dublin District, Communist Party of Ireland                                                 nt
Special supplement                                    September 2008


                The civil rights struggle
                    and its legacy
T  HE Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was a unique political organisation in the
   history of this country. It was established at a meeting in the International Hotel, Belfast,
on 29 January 1967 and was disbanded in 1981. At its height, in 1972, NICRA had approxi­
mately five hundred members. Its archives are held in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.
                                                                                         ruled out any parliamentary question
                                                                                         in the London Parliament that sought
                                                                                         to delve into the “internal affairs” of
                                                                                         Northern Ireland.
                                                                                             NICRA sought to attract as wide a
                                                                                         political and religious membership as
                                                                                         possible and, as a corollary, advanced
                                                                                         non-sectarianism as a fundamental
                                                                                         principle.
                                                                                             How far NICRA was modelled on
                                                                                         the American civil rights movement is
                                                                                         open to question. The fundamental
                                                                                         reality is that the struggle for civil
                                                                                         rights would have occurred around that
                                                                                         time even if the American civil rights
                                                                                         movement had not existed.
                                                                                             The Cameron Report in 1969 set out
                                                                                         the NICRA demands as:
    It had two constitutions. The            of Northern Ireland’s status within the     • universal franchise in local govern­
original one was modelled on that of         United Kingdom and accepted the               ment elections in line with the fran­
the British civil liberties body, the        constitutional framework as the basis         chise in the rest of the United
National Council for Civil Liberties.        for the redress of those grievances.          Kingdom,
The second was adopted at an annual              The prime focus of its campaign was     • the re-drawing of electoral boundaries
general meeting in 1970 and reflected         always Westminster’s responsibility for       by an independent commission to
the transformation of the organisation       good government in Northern Ireland.          ensure fair representation,
into a mass-based one.                           It sought to have Westminster exer­     • legislation against discrimination in
    Under both constitutions the             cise its responsibilities towards all its     employment at local government and
elected ruling body was known as the         citizens as the sovereign authority           the provision of machinery to remedy
Executive Council or Committee. The          under the Government of Ireland Act           local government grievances,
policy-making body was the annual            (1920), section 75 of which provided        • a compulsory points system for hous­
conference.                                  that, “notwithstanding the establish­         ing which would ensure fair
    NICRA was not a political party. It      ment of the Parliament of Northern            allocation,
started as a pressure group but              Ireland, the supreme authority of the       • repeal of the Special Powers Act,
developed into a grass-roots organi­         Parliament of the United Kingdom            • disbanding of the B Specials, and
sation. The Cameron Commission               shall remain unaffected and un­                later
described it as a “novel phenomenon.”        diminished over all persons, matters        • withdrawal of the Public Order
    It did not look south of the border      and things.”                                  (Amendment) Bill.
for political direction. Instead it              This article gave Westminster the           The substance of these demands had
directed its demands at Westminster          power to intervene at any time in           been conceded, legislated for and imple­
and Stormont and looked for support          Northern Ireland to tackle the blatant      mented by the mid-1970s. These
and allies in Britain, particularly in the   abuses practised both by Stormont and       demands were classic civil rights and
British labour movement.                     by local government there. But if there     democratic ones. Some were directed at
    Its agenda was limited and was           was one thing that united Labour and        catching up with general British stan­
directed to redressing the grievances of     Tories throughout the 1960s it was the      dards; others, such as the abolition of
a large section of the Northern popu­        fervent wish to leave section 75 to         the B Specials and Special Powers Act,
lation. It did not agitate over the issue    gather dust. A so-called convention         were related to repressive institutions


                                                                                                                               1
peculiar    to     Unionist                                                                                 them.
misrule in Northern Ire­                                                                                        The introduction of
land.                                                                                                       internment in August
   The civil rights reforms                                                                                 1971 brought a period of
sought by NICRA, and the                                                                                    intense confrontation with
analysis of what was                                                                                        the Westminster and Stor­
wrong with Northern Ire­                                                                                    mont authorities, which
land that they were based                                                                                   culminated in Bloody
on, were little different                                                                                    Sunday.
from demands made by                                                                                            NICRA was the focus of
other groups and indi­                                                                                      a campaign to end intern­
viduals over many years.                                                                                    ment. The core of the cam­
What was unique was that                                                                                    paign was a programme of
NICRA was able to                                                                                           civil disobedience, which
develop a politics that                                                                                     involved the withdrawal of
brought them to the                                                                                         representatives from pub­
attention of the world.                                                                                     lic bodies and the refusal
The civil rights demands                                                                                    to pay rent, rates or other
were widely understood                                                                                      financial dues to local
and easily communicated.                                                                                    councils or the Stormont
This helped to popularise                                                                                   authorities.



                    The lessons of the civil rights movement
A   LTHOUGH there is no body of writing on the lessons of the civil rights struggle, there are
     clear lessons to be drawn from examining its history.
• Clarity about where the respon­             also be capable of carrying people              never go it alone but must be able to
sibility for the injustice rests. A lack of   further, once the initial victories are         win allies for the struggle.
such clarity led elements of the civil        gained and popular morale and political
rights movement down blind alleys.            consciousness have been raised through
The most important confusion in this          struggle.
                                                                                              The legacy of NICRA
regard was the concentration on               • The political potential of disci­             Although NICRA was formally wound
abolishing Stormont rather than forcing       plined, well-organised mass action,             up in 1981, its legacy remains for
the British Government to intervene           where large bodies of people are                progressive people in this country and
and redress the civil rights grievances       moved to action by a widely shared              further afield. In particular, they should
over the heads of the Stormont                sense of injustice that unites them.            be aware of the continuing battle to
administration.                               • No matter how dedicated and brave             apportion responsibility for Bloody
• The need for a competent political          the democratic forces, the objective            Sunday where it should properly lie:
leadership capable of formulating             circumstances must be right, so that            with the British government.
and expressing progressive demands            it becomes possible to contemplate,                The lessons of NICRA are part of
in a way that unites and moves people         develop and engage in struggle.                 the tradition and politics of everyone
into struggle. That leadership must              Finally, the democratic forces can           striving for justice



                        Timeline of the civil rights campaign
Late 1950s                                      memorate the bicentenary of the birth           lecture room of the Amalgamated
  The first talks and discussions begin for     of Theobald Wolfe Tone.                         Transport and General Workers’ Union
  finding a way forward. C. Desmond           June: Demonstration by the Homeless               in Belfast. Several leading trade union
  Greaves is among the influential figures      Citizens’ League in Dungannon to publi­         members participate; also represented
  in this process.                              cise     discrimination     in     housing      are Campaign for Social Justice, Com­
1958–1962                                       allocation.                                     munist Party, Republican Movement,
  The IRA launches a border campaign.         27 August: Seventeen families move into           and Northern Ireland Labour Party.
  Confined mainly to south Armagh and           a squat in Dungannon. Thirty-five                  The Northern prime minister, Terence
  south Derry, it ends in failure and de­       houses are taken over. The council              O’Neill, meets the Taoiseach, Seán
  moralisation.                                 illegally cuts off electricity and water        Lemass.
                                                supplies.                                     1966
1960
  The Connolly Association in London          1964                                            August: A conference of Wolfe Tone
  publishes its pamphlet Our Plan to End        Campaign for Social Justice founded by          Societies in Maghera, Co. Derry, pro­
  Partition.                                    Patricia and Conn McCluskey.                    poses the establishment of a civil rights
                                                    Connolly Association seeks pledge by        organisation.
1962                                            candidates in the British general elec­       November: Public meeting in the War
  The Communist Party programme,                tion that they will press for democratic        Memorial Building, Belfast, to publicise
  Ireland’s Path to Socialism, identifies       reform in Northern Ireland.                     the issue of civil rights, chaired by John
  democracy as the Achilles heel of                                                             D. Stewart.
  unionism and calls for a mass demo­         1965
  cratic struggle. The Republican Move­         Campaign for Democracy in Ulster              1967
  ment begins a rethink of its ideology         established in Britain, a loose alliance of   29 January: Meeting in International
  and strategy.                                 Labour MPs headed by Fenner Brockway            Hotel, Belfast, at which all Northern
                                                and Paul Rose.                                  political parties are represented. A
1963                                          May: Belfast Trades Council, through its          thirteen-member committee is elected
  Wolfe Tone Societies are formed in            secretary, Betty Sinclair, organises a          and mandated to draw up a draft consti­
  Dublin, Belfast and Cork to com­              conference on civil liberties in the            tution and campaign programme. The


2
   following officers are elected: chair­         Russell Kerr, Ann Kerr, and John Ryan—          attacked by a counter-demonstration
   man: Noel Harris (DATA); vice-chair­           witness the events.                             led by Ian Paisley.
   man: Conn McCluskey (Campaign for                 “People’s Democracy,” an informal         20 April: Loyalists plant bombs that
   Social Justice); secretary: Derek O'Brien      organisation of students, mainly in             damage water and electricity supplies.
   Peters (Communist Party); treasurer:           Queen’s      University,     Belfast,   is   28 April: O’Neill resigns and is replaced
   Fred Heatley (Belfast Wolfe Tone               established.                                    by James Chichester-Clarke.
   Society); PRO: Jack Bennett (Belfast        4 November: The British prime minister,         1 June: NICRA announces a return to the
   Wolfe Tone Society); other members are         Harold Wilson, summons the Northern             streets, believing it has given the
   Betty Sinclair (Belfast Trades Council);       prime minister, Terence O’Neill, to             government enough time to announce a
   Billy McMillen (Republican Clubs), John        London. Political pressure, both                timetable for substantial civil rights
   Quinn (Liberal Party), Michael Dolley          national and international, grows.              reforms. Its demands are
   (National Democratic Party), Joe Sherry        Unionism and the role of the British            • one man one vote in local govern­
   (Republican Labour Party), Jim Andrews         government increasingly exposed, and            ment elections;
   (Ardoyne Tenants’ Association), Paddy          the Unionist edifice begins to crack.           • votes at eighteen in local government
   Devlin (Northern Ireland Labour Party),     16 November: Second civil rights march,            and parliamentary elections;
   Tony McGettigan (no affiliation).              in Derry; more than twenty thousand             • an independent boundary com­
   (Members do not represent their party          people participate. The march is                mission to draw up fair electoral
   political views on the committee.) The         banned and is halted at police barriers         boundaries;
   steering committee later co-opts Robin         at the entrance to the Walls.                   • a compulsory points system for
   Cole, former chairperson of the Young       9 December: O’Neill makes his “Ulster at           housing;
   Unionists at Queen’s University.               the Crossroads” television speech on 9          • administrative machinery to remedy
      A five-point outline of broad objec­        December. Two days later he removes             local government grievances;
   tives is issued to the press:                  William Craig from office. The cracks in        • legislation to outlaw discrimination,
   • To defend the basic freedoms of all          unionism deepen.                                especially in employment;
   citizens                                          NICRA responds to O’Neill reforms.           • the abolition of the Special Powers
   • To protect the rights of the individual      After much discussion in the Executive          Act and the disbanding of the B
   • To highlight all abuses of power             Committee it is decided not to hold any         Specials.
   • To demand guarantees for freedom of          marches for the time being. This course      28 June: The first of the “post-truce” civil
   speech, assembly, and association              of action is agreed upon for two                rights marches takes place in Strabane.
   • To inform the public of their lawful         reasons:                                     12 July: Sectarian violence at Unity Flats
   rights.                                        • the promised reforms must be given            in Belfast.
7 March: The Minister of Home Affairs,            a chance to work, both for their own         13 July: Similar violence in Derry and in
   William Craig, announces a ban on              sake and for the credibility of the whole       Dungiven.
   Republican Clubs (branches of Sinn             principle of civil rights demands;           14 July: More violence in the Crumlin
   Féin).                                         • the chances of sectarian violence are         Road and Hooker Street area of Belfast.
9 April: Meeting to ratify the constitution       growing by the day, and anything that        21 July: Most of the Armagh NICRA com­
   whereby NICRA officially comes into            might defuse the situation would be             mittee resign because of the tendency
   existence.                                     welcome.                                        of People’s Democracy to use it as a
1968                                           1969                                               political platform.
April: Annual republican Easter parade in      1 January: People’s Democracy organises         2 August: Violence breaks out in Belfast
   Armagh is banned. Ban on marches               a march from Belfast to Derry, to pass          at Unity Flats and Hooker Street, con­
   forces NICRA into holding street               through some of the most loyalist and           tinuing at regular intervals throughout
   demonstrations.                                reactionary rural areas of the North.           the week.
June: Direct action in politics has begun.        The marchers are attacked in Antrim          11 August: In Dungannon a hundred
   Members of Brantry Republican Club             and Toome, outside Maghera, in                  members of NICRA picket a meeting of
   and Austin Currie (Nationalist Party           Dungiven, at Burntollet, Co. Derry, and         the local council in protest against its
   member of Northern parliament) squat           on the way into Derry.                          housing policy.
   in a house in Caledon, Co. Tyrone, that     24 February: O’Neill puts his political         12 August: Violence breaks out in Derry,
   they feel has been unfairly allocated.         career to the test by announcing a              spreading to Belfast later in the week,
July: Members of Derry Housing Action             general election for the Northern parlia­       changing the face of Northern politics.
   Committee continue the campaign for            ment. Old Nationalist Party leaders—         October: A protest march by Derry
   impartial allocation of housing by             Eddie McAteer, Patrick Gormley, and E.          Housing Action Committee is broken up
   blocking Craigavon Bridge; seventeen           G. Richardson—lose out to John Hume,            by a police baton charge, which is
   members are arrested.                          Ivan Cooper, and Paddy O’Hanlon.                filmed and shown on television around
14 August: The first civil rights march              On the Catholic side the march, and          the world.
   takes place, from Coalisland to Dun­           particularly the Burntollet ambush, is             Serious civil disturbances begin, and
   gannon, Co. Tyrone, supported by               seen as a Protestant attack on Catholic         British troops are deployed on the
   more than two thousand people.                 students. Civil rights are slowly becom­        streets.
2 September: NICRA announces that a               ing identified in the Catholic mind with           1969 ends as it began—violently.
   march will be held in Derry.                   opposition to the Unionist regime, and          Throughout the late autumn and early
5 October: Derry witnesses the first              this means opposition to the state. A           winter a succession of riots marks an
   bloodshed, when many of the two                conscious attempt to organise a broad,          increase in sectarian violence.
   thousand marchers who defied Craig’s           non-sectarian civil rights movement is       1970
   ban are attacked. Among the injured is         becoming identified with a sectarian         January: The Ulster Defence Regiment is
   Gerry Fitt (Republican Labour member           ideology.                                       established, and the RUC returns, un­
   of the Northern parliament). Three          19 April: Civil rights supporters hold a sit-      armed, to the Falls Road and the
   members of the British parliament—             down demonstration in Derry, which is           Bogside.




 “                                                                                                                               ”
           With all opposition forces at Parliamentary level and many organisations of the working
           class and Labour movement in opposition, in one form or another, to this denial of
           democracy, here is the fundamental ingredient for a united struggle against Unionist
           domination of political affairs in Northern Ireland . . . Abolition of all anti-democratic laws,
           an end to civil and religious discrimination, and an end to the rigging of electoral areas in
           the interests of the wealthy, can be accomplished by united action of the people. The
           organised Labour movement is the force to lead the struggle for democracy and the rights
           of the individual to participate with equality in public affairs. The Communist Party has
           this struggle as its foremost aim.—Communist Party (Northern Ireland), Ireland’s Path
           to Socialism (1962).

                                                                                                                                         3
 “                                                                                                                                ”
             This civil disobedience campaign will cripple unionism more surely than any bombings of
             city warehouses and stores.—Belfast Telegraph, 19 January 1972

February: People’s Democracy announces              are held by NICRA in one of the greatest        Edward Heath. It is to be Faulkner’s last
   that it will not be contesting elections         upsurges of popular involvement in              meeting as prime minister: Heath tells
   to the Executive Committee of NICRA,             Northern Ireland against government             him that London has decided to take
   so ending a period of ultra-left dis­            policy. NICRA calls for a rent and rates        direct control of Northern Ireland.
   ruption.                                         strike.                                      5 November: NICRA calls for a stepping
7 February: NICRA organises nine demon­          15 August: SDLP and Nationalist MPs call           up of civil disobedience, including non-
   strations in Northern Ireland and fifteen        for a similar protest after it has already      payment of television and radio
   in Britain in protest against the Public         begun in Belfast.                               licences, ground rent, and water rates.
   Order (Amendment) Act.                        19 September: A new internment camp is          1973
21 April: The Alliance Party is formed.             opened at Long Kesh, near Lisburn.              The year of the “power-sharing”
June: In the British general election the        9 December: Turf Lodge estate in Belfast           Executive.
   Conservative Party wins.                         reports 89 per cent of tenants not           28 December: The SDLP calls for an end
6 June: In Derry the demand for a Bill of           paying rent. Seán Morrissey, chair­             to the strike. The SDLP minister in the
   Rights is first made.                            person of Turf Lodge Residents’ Associ­         Executive, Austin Currie, implements
3 July: The commander of British forces in          ation and a member of the Executive             plans to increase the amount of arrears
   Northern Ireland, General Ian Freeland,          Committee of the Communist Party, is            that can be seized each week and adds
   imposes a curfew in the Lower Falls              arrested.                                       a penalty charge against the protesters.
   area of Belfast—later found to be com­        1972                                               This provokes huge anger against the
   pletely illegal.                              19 January: The Belfast Telegraph states:          SDLP but also reduces the numbers
21 August: The Social Democratic and                “This civil disobedience campaign will          involved in the protests.
   Labour Party is formally launched.               cripple unionism more surely than any
28 November: Back to the streets: a civil           bombings of city warehouses and                During the following years NICRA takes
   rights march takes place in Enniskillen.         stores.”                                       on the role of investigating and pro­
December: 1970–71 sees the emergence             30 January: NICRA holds a march in Derry          ducing reports regarding human rights
   of the Provisional IRA and the death of          on a day that will become known as             violations, torture, and the use of
   the first British soldier, with thirty           Bloody Sunday. Thirteen members of             plastic bullets. It addresses inter­
   others dying in the period before intern­        the crowd are murdered in cold blood           national conferences on the role of the
   ment day, 9 August 1971.                         by members of the British army’s Para­         British government and its army in the
1971                                                chute Regiment. (A fourteenth dies             gross violation of human rights.
   Mass civil disobedience begins. The              some weeks later from wounds                       Armed violence and deepening sec­
   RUC is rearmed.                                  received.)                                     tarianism make it almost impossible for
20 March: Brian Faulkner replaces the            6 February: Following the massacre in             street marches to take place. NICRA’s
   politically ailing Chichester-Clarke as          Derry an estimated 100,000 people              struggle has changed the political land­
   prime minister.                                  take part in Newry in another march            scape of the North for ever. Many
16 July: The first step in the direction of         organised by NICRA. Increasing vio­            lessons can still be learnt from the role
   direct rule from London comes from the           lence, however, means that the Newry           and activities of NICRA and the politics
   SDLP, which withdraws from Stormont.             march, though NICRA’s biggest, is also         it attempted to develop and build on.
9 August: Internment is introduced. Of              its last significant one.                    1981
   the 342 people arrested, 105 are              February: At its annual general meeting           Having organised hundreds of pickets,
   released within two days.                        NICRA formulates its demands in the            marches, demonstrations and confer­
10 August: The day after internment,                light of the new political situation.          ences and presented numerous reports,
   NICRA calls for a campaign of civil dis­      March: Less than two months after Bloody          NICRA finally closes its doors after more
   obedience in protest against “military           Sunday, Faulkner is summoned to                than a decade of intense political
   terrorism.” In the first week after intern­      London to meet the prime minister,             struggle.
   ment an estimated fifty public meetings


                                                 Some pen-pictures
Betty Sinclair (1910–1981) was born into a working-class
family in the Ardoyne area of Belfast and was from the
Protestant tradition. She had many decades of experience of
mobilising working people, bringing to bear her experience
not alone from the 1934 Outdoor Relief struggle but also
from decades of involvement in the trade union movement
and an understanding of the crucial importance of the unity
of Catholics and Protestants. In May 1965, under the
auspices of Belfast Trades Council, she organised one of the
first major meetings on civil rights. She was a founder-
member of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in
1967 and its first chairperson. She resigned from her position
in 1969 after NICRA had been compromised by ultra-leftists
and pushed into provocations that would result in further                Madge Davison (1950–1991) was born and reared in east Bel­
sectarian divisions.                                                     fast in a strong Protestant working-class family. In 1970 she
                                                                         took part in the breaking of the Falls curfew, when several
                                                                         hundred women marched in protest at being held within the
                                                                         area by the British army. By the 1970s she had begun work
                                                                         as full-time assistant organiser for NICRA. Many of her CPI
                                                                         comrades—including Betty Sinclair, Barry and Terry Bruton,
                                                                         Jimmy and Edwina Stewart, Joe Deighan, Andy Barr, Lynda
                                                                         Walker, Margaret Bruton, Noel Harris, Joe Bowers, and
                                                                         many others—also played a significant role in the
                                                                         organisation.


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