"We Shall Overcome" .... The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968 - 1978 by NICRA (1978)
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1969, which was to be a year of violence, began violently. Alarmed that the NICRA one month truce with O'Neill might lose the impetus of the civil rights campaign, the PD decided to take the initiative and bring their campaign back on to the streets. Since one of the few effective methods of making political demands at the time was the march, it was necessary to introduce a variety of march routes to both attract support and add newsworthiness to the demands. The PD decided on a march from Belfast to Derry through some of the most Loyalist and reactionary rural areas in the North. They left Belfast on January 1, and from their first steps outside the City Hall until their last faltering steps into Guildhall Square in Derry, they were harassed, manhandled and beaten.
SECTARIAN FEELINGS HEIGHTENED
The RUC, despite the appearance of protection, made little effort to prevent attacks on the marchers apart from advising re-routing or cancellation of the march. Attacks were made in Antrim and Toome, outside Maghera, in Dungiven, at Burntollet Bridge and on the way into Derry. As an exercise in marching it was either foolhardy or brave, but as part of an attempt to put political pressure on a Government to grant basic democratic reforms it succeeded only in raising the political temperature. The end result of the march was a heightening of sectarian feelings. The Loyalists, angered by what they regarded as a provocative march, could feel no sympathy towards the civil rights campaign, even though they too could benefit from the same civil rights. They saw civil rights as a threat to the Government, and consequently as a threat to Protestant privilege. The PD march helped to drive the Protestant working class into the arms of Paisley and Bunting.
On the Catholic side the march, particularly the Burntollet ambush, was seen as a Protestant attack on the Catholic students. Civil rights was slowly becoming identified in the Catholic mind with opposition to the Unionist regime, and that meant opposition to the state. A conscious attempt to organise a broad nonsectarian civil rights movement was being gradually identified with a sectarian ideology and the PD's failure to distinguish between political progress and political turmoil hardly helped to reassure the Loyalist population.
The situation was made worse after violence erupted at a PD march in Newry on January 11. The march had been banned from entering a part of the town and violence broke Gut at the RUC barricades when the march arrived.
The trouble began when the RUC retreated behind their tenders as a violent element in the crowd confirmed the worst fears in Unionist minds - civil rights meant Catholic rights, and Catholic rights meant violence. The barricades, the police baton charges, the marching masses all combined to give the atmosphere of revolution to the PD, which was slowly losing its broad base in the University and becoming an extreme left-wing organisation intent on using the civil rights struggle for a political end. Their instinct at the height of the Newry violence was to occupy the local post office. NICRA's efforts to nullify the PD influence by co-opting Michael Farrell and Kevin Boyle on to the executive committee failed to control the lunatic fringe.
But if there was trouble on the civil rights front, there was even greater dissention in the Unionist Party. O'Neill, having failed to placate the Catholic minority now found himself under accusation in his own party that his drinking tea with the reverend mothers had encouraged the concept of civil rights. He was having difficulty in maintaining party unity in the face of the civil rights problem, and with influence over political events slowly switching from Stormont to the streets, any solution which did not entertain the granting of immediate civil rights demands was found to fail. When O'Neill was at his weakest Faulkner resigned on January 24.
"TURNED QUEEN'S EVIDENCE"
The resignation came as a shock to the stability of the O'Neill Government. Faulkner had been Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce, but his true talent was politics. Recognising O'Neill's problems he attempted to move in on the premiership by politically turning Queen's evidence against his boss in the hope that he could obtain power as O'Neill fell. O'Neill put his political career to the test by announcing a Stormont General Election for February 24. It was an election designed to do two things:
"YOUNG LIONS into OLD GUARDS"
The election obviously involved civil rights as an issue. The PD decided to temporarily abandon revolution and seek seats in what they regarded as fascist Stormont. Michael Farrell, Eddie Weigleb, Bernadette Devlin and Fergus Woods were among the PD candidates and Woods came within a few hundred votes of capturing the Nationalist held seat in South Down.
Outside the PD several candidates stood as independents on the civil rights ticket. John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Paddy O'Hanlon stepped into Stormont on the strength of their apparent leadership of civil rights marches and at the expense of the Nationalist Party whose failure to become involved in civil rights had now finally led to political oblivion. The defeat of McAteer, Gormley and Richardson, however, did not mark a victory for political progress. The return of "civil rights" candidates was an election illusion because although Hume, Cooper and O'Hanlon fought on the issue of civil rights they were under no party discipline in Stormont and the passing of time saw the young lions of civil rights rapidly evolve into the old guard of nationalism, a process completed with the formation of the SDLP.
That the civil rights campaign was abandoned on passing through the doors of Stormont was apparent when Ivan Cooper, in his maiden speech, welcomed the establishment of the Derry Development Commission. In his maiden speech John Hume asked whether politics were going to remain on the streets or be fought out in parliament and as an infant parliamentarian he obviously favoured the latter. In doing so he effectively set himself up as a spokesman inside parliament for the thousands who had marched outside, and although he was identified as such in the popular mind , as a result of his non-stop media appearances, his non-accountability to NICRA and the mass movement set him and his colleagues on a party political as opposed to a broad political course. Like the PD before them the SDLP were to use the popular cause of civil rights to gain political support and then attempt to swing a mass movement behind them on the basis that only their political philosophy could guarantee such rights.
For O'Neill the election was a disaster. The electorate had told him what sort of Ulster it wanted in no uncertain terms. It wanted an Ulster without O'Neill and although he had an unofficial parliamentary majority of eleven, his pledge to stay in office rang hollow in the election aftermath. He lasted exactly two months. On April 28 he resigned.
In retrospect he has been hailed as a possible liberal saviour, but an interview he gave to the Belfast Telegraph two weeks after he resigned showed the true nature of his liberalism.
"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. If you treat a Roman Catholic with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their church."O'Neill's liberalism held good as long as he was in office. His liberalism was the liberalism of real-politik, and his politics were the politics of Unionism.
But if things were going badly for O'Neill, they were not going much better for NICRA. The problem was a combination of Hume and Cooper in parliament and Farrell and Devlin on the streets. At the AGM in February, Farrell and Kevin Boyle were elected to the NICRA executive. The PD, anxious to steer the civil rights campaign in their direction, hoped that their men on the inside would keep up the momentum of marching, in an effort to force a political crisis in the country. But the political crisis inside NICRA had to be staged first. On March 7, the "Irish News" carried a report that Bernadette Devlin, speaking at a meeting in Gulladuff, had announced details of a march from the centre of Belfast to Stormont for the end of the month, to be organised by NICRA in association with the PD. NICRA had no previous knowledge of the march and although Farrell and Boyle denied that they had been responsible for the statement they proposed that the march should go ahead, despite the fact that it would mean marching through the heart of Loyalist East Belfast.
At an executive meeting to discuss the proposed march three separate pro-PD proposals were put forward be either Farrell or Boyle and on each occasion the vote was divided exactly seven each. On each occasion also the Chairman, Frank Gogarty, used his casting vote in favour of the march. The outcome was that four members of the executive, Fred Heatley, Raymond Shearer, Betty Sinclair and John McAnerney resigned. Heatley later admitted that he had acted on impulse and McAnerney, shortly before his death in 1970, also agreed that the resignations were foolisn and unnecessary at that time.
But four valuable members of the executive had gone at a crucial period in the civil rights struggle and eight of the Omagh CRA leadership followed soon afterwar The first open split in the NICRA ranks had appeared, and although an emergency general meeting on March 23rd ended in some confusion, the majority attending were in favour of abandoning the proposed march to Stormont. That march never did take place but it proposed implementation within the organisation had caused severe damage.
In America, Australia and Britain support groups became divided and confused about what was happening in Ireland and the stormy executive committee meetings even spilled out on to the public demonstrations, where, on at least one occasion, speakers criticised each other from the same platform. NICRA's problem was that it was a mass movement which had sprung into activity almost overnight following the Derry march on October 5. Many new recruits to the organisation were unaware of the political role of the movement as an agitation body for civil rights and nothing else, and the PD was able to cash in on the frustrations of NICRA's impatient element.
There was an impatient element also within the Unionist population. Annoyed at O'Neill's failure to tackle the civil rights problem in a military manner, militant Loyalists blasted him out of office by damaging water and electricity supplies on 20th April 1969. At the same time his Minister for Agriculture, James Chichester-Clarke, resigned on the grounds that the introduction of one man, one vote "might encourage militant Protestants even to bloodshed". O'Neill, trapped by Westminster on the one man, one vote issue, was hounded out of office as the fall guy for the failure of the Unionist Party to recognise the changing political situation. But the new premier was nothing more than a new face on an old policy, and worse still, it was a face without a political brain to back it.
It was during Chichester Clarke's term of office that the first murder occurred. On Saturday, April 19th, civil rights supporters held a sit-down demonstration in Derry which was attacked by a Paisley-led counter demonstration. In the violence which followed the RUC took the side of the loyalists and severe rioting occurred throughout the city. The RUC led a number of raids into the Bogside, injuring a total of 79 civilians. During one raid they broke down the door of 42-year-old Samuel Devenney's house and in front of his children beat him senseless despite pleas for mercy from his daughter.
When the baton blows had stopped Devenney was a crumpled heap on his living room floor, an innocent victim of police violence. Three months later he died in hospital in Belfast where he had been since his beating. An inquest the following December stated that he had died of natural causes. To the minority it was one of the most natural causes in the world. A year after the attack Sir Arthur Young, then head of the RUC, announced that Scotland Yard detectives were being brought in to take over an inquiry into allegations of police brutality in the Devenney case.
In November, 1970, Young finally admitted that the inquiry had failed because of lack of evidence and he referred to "a conspiracy of silence" among members of the RUC. Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, announced the following day that the entire matter was the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government. Devenney's blood had been spilled under a Labour administration and now his murder was being concealed by the Conservatives.
The blood which flowed from Sam Devenney's head to his living room floor was the first blood to be spilled in a case of murder in the events directly connected to the civil rights demands. It was the Unionists' reply to a demand for the reform of a bigoted administration, a resort to physical violence in the last analysis.
On June 1 NICRA announced a return to the streets having given the Government sufficient time to announce a timetable for major civil rights reforms. Their demands to the Government were:
As Chairman, Frank Gogarty pointed out the following week, NICRA did not expect instant legislation, but they were demanding a calendar showing when the Government's reforms would be carried out. Chichester-Clarke's honeymoon period was over and the change of leadership had managed to give only a brief respite from the year's rapidly changing political situation.
The Unionist Government continued to prove either incapable or unwilling to act on the civil rights demands. Westminster hoped that everything would settle down peacefully again, hut the problem remained. On June 28 the first of the "post-truce" civil rights marches took place in Strabane. The success of NICRA up to then was illustrated by the assortment of speakers who were willing to give of their services: Eamonn McCann, Bernadette Devlin, Austin Currie and Conor Cruise O'Brien. McCann attacked Currie, Currie attacked McCann, Devlin attacked Currie and O'Brien attacked the Unionists. The political dog-fights of Irish politics were being fought out on a platform provided by NICRA. Bernadette Devlin's main point was that it was time they [presumably the PD] looked around to see not who they were marching against, but who they were marching with, and her attitude was indicative of the political sectarianism which had entered the civil rights campaign. Civil Rights had become party political prerogatives and several groups were unwilling to play the game unless they owned the ball.
The following week, July 5, NICRA held another march and rally in Newry. It passed over the intended route of the January march without trouble, but the real tension on this occasion was the PD - CRA relat ionship. After the march the PD held a meeting to discuss the matter and Cyril Toman spoke of the great gap between the two organisations. On July 21 most of the Armagh NICRA committee resigned because of the tendency of the PD to use civil rights as a party political platform. Mr. Tom McIntegart said that his committee believed that they could ultimately destroy the civil rights movement.
As the rift between PD and NICRA grew, violence began in several parts of the province. Most of it stemmed from the July Orange marches. On July 12 there was sectarian violence at Unity Flats in Belfast. On 13th there was similar violence in Derry and in Dungiven and by July 14 the Crumlin Road - Hooker Street area of Belfast had become a permanent trouble spot. Police baton charges in Dungiven left 66 year old Francis McCloskey dead and in Belfast's Disraeli Street a Catholic house was burned. On August 2 violence broke out again in Belfast at Unity Flats and at Hooker Street and it continued at regular intervals throughout the week. NICRA's position as a mass movement on the streets became hopeless. In Dungannon on August 11, for example, 100 members of NICRA picketed a meeting of the local council in protest against its housing policy. An event which six months previously would have received little opposition from the Unionist population was met with a hostile crowd and violence eventually broke out. The RUC batoned the civil rights picket and arrested 15 of them. Civil Rights protests had become identified as being Catholic in the increasing sectarian violence and the RUC joined in vigorously on the Protestant side.
The violence which began in Derry on August 12 and spread to Belfast later in the week changed the face of Northern politics. Following the RUC attempt to invade the Bogside the NICRA executive sought a meeting with Mr. Robert Porter, Minister for Home Affairs, because, they said, the Bogside situation had been completely mishandled. They felt that trouble could escalate throughout the province and proposed that the Minister should immediately withdraw the RUC from the Bogside. If the Minister refused they would have no alternative but to defy his newly imposed ban on marches and hold protests throughout the North. The ban was defied and it was after a CRA meeting in Armagh on August 14 that the 'B' Specials from Tynan murdered John Gallagher. In Belfast the RUC ran riot and murdered a nine year old boy in Divis Flats. Other deaths followed and the first widespread violence of the present era had begun.
The Government's response to the violence, for which it bore a heavy responsibility, was to intern 24 republicans under the Special Powers Act. Westminster's response was to send in units of the British Army. In Belfast NICRA established its own information service and organised an ambulance service through the hastily erected barricades for those who wished to leave the city. NICRA stated that the troops recently flown in from England must remain until the 'B' Specials were disbanded because only a directly controlled security force from Westminster could guarantee the Catholic minority immunity from the forces under the control of Stormont. The following day, August 18, the executive demanded the release of the 24 political prisoners then interned in Crumlin Road prison under the Special Powers Act, and the disbandment of the 'B' Specials within 48 hours. Two members of the NICRA executive were among those interned.
The violence in the North had its repercussions in the South. At the height of the riots Jack Lynch, the Fianna Fail Prime Minister, announced the movement of "Field hospitals" and support troops up to the border. His military exercises involved only the rump of the Irish Army, the operative section of which was on duty with the United Nations in Cyprus, but his move was political rather than military.
He had to be seen doing something to ensure his survival as leader of Fianna Fail in view of the threat to his position from Neil Blaney and Charlie Haughey.
To allow the Catholic population of the North to appear as victims of Protestant violence on southern television screens would have been verging on political suicide for the leader of a party which used national re-unification as an important part of its political doctrine.
Lynch also had problems with the IRA which in the previous few years had swung to the left and could pose a political threat to the electoral strength of Fianna Fail. With the beginnings of the Northern violence the prospect of a left-wing IRA rising to a position of political strength through the various defence committees became a reality and the field hospitals were a ploy to head off the IRA strength in the Six Counties.
The IRA itself had taken little part in the August violence. Dormant since 1962 political policies had dominated its activities and the violence had caught it unprepared, but the events in Derry and Belfast brought it suddenly back again to para-military reality. Fianna Fail's aim was to either short circuit or control the IRA position in the North and to this end a special fund of £100,000 was set up by the Cabinet to provide relief to the people of the North. "Relief", as Haughey later pointed out at the Dublin Arms Trial meant the following:
"We were given instructions that we should develop the maximum possible contacts with persons inside the Six Counties and try and inform ourselves as much as possible on events, political and other developments, within the Six County area".Civil Rights was a prime area for information and infiltration. In early September after initial discussions with Haughey the Director of Irish Army Intelligence agreed to implement a recommendation from two of his officers that a "relief" centre should be set up in Monaghan so that it could be used as a focal point for intelligence gathering on the North.
A weekly sum of £100 to finance the office was laid aside and provision was also made for the production of a weekly newspaper. Two editions of a news-sheet, "The North' appeared at the end of September, but this was replaced by the "Voice of the North" in early October. Meanwhile two other publications were also financed by the Dublin Government. They were a booklet entitled "Terror in Northern Ireland", an account of the August pogrom in Belfast, by Seamus Brady and "Eye Witness in Northern Ireland" by Aidan Corrigan. Of the two, the latter was the more sinister.
Speaking at a press conference to launch the book in Jury's Hotel in Dublin on October 5, 1969, Corrigan announced that he was chairman of Dungannon Civil Rights Association and that "a number of civil rights groups, such as those in Fermanagh and Dungannon, had only tenuous affiliations with NICRA, and an altered constitution would tighten the organisation and permit discipline and control to be maintained".
Early 1969. Early civil rights march in Newry, Co. Down
What Corrigan did not reveal at the press conference was that 50 £1 affiliation fees had been paid into the NICRA headquarters earlier that month in the names of 50 people from the Dungannon area. He went on to speak of other civil rights groups including one in Monaghan which "was formed during the riots in mid-August and has since been organising meetings on the Civil Rights campaign in the south." In his opinion the constitution of NICRA was "a stumbling block" as it did not permit satisfactory representation from Civil Rights groups outside Belfast. Corrigan was Fianna Fail's man inside NICRA and he was intent on moulding the organisation in the interests of his masters. For the Unionist population their worst fears of NICRA had been confirmed.
Fianna Fail were also active in influencing other groups in the North, groups which would determine not only the future of NICRA, but the future of all of Ireland. The first of these was the broad range of defence organisations set up after the August pogrom. Any "doomsday" situation in the North would have to be faced by these groups and if Fianna Fail could retain a controlling interest in them, their future political stake in the Six Counties was guaranteed.
Captain James Kelly, an Irish Army Intelligence Officer, held a meeting for all defence groups in Bailieborough in October and a few days later £5,000 of the "relief" fund was channelled in this direction. But more important than the defence groups was the IRA which had seen the return of far more "sleepers" than there had been members.
The men who had been "out" in the forties and fifties flocked back in droves to take up where they had left off. But out of touch with the IRA's new political policies they found it difficult to integrate into the organisation and the violence in Belfast and Derry had created a political aftermath in which the finer points of socialism were rather difficult to dwell on. There was thus a ready-made cleavage between the sleepers and the activists, a cleavage which the Dublin Government was glad to exploit.
The apolitical element were willing to accept arms and money unconditionally and an undetermined amount of the £100,000 is reliably believed to have found its way into the hands of the "unofficial" IRA group in Belfast. In the early days of September 1969, the Provisional IRA was conceived in Belfast, fathered by Fianna Fail and mothered by the fear and uncertainty of the post-pogrom era. The "official" group within the IRA did not conform to the grant-aid requirements of Fianna Fail.
The three elements in the Fianna Fail grand design - the defence groups, NICRA and the IRA - were to be cemented together by "The Voice of the North", a mouthpiece for the politics of Fianna Fail. The paper began by equating civil rights in the North with Fianna Fail in the South. By its third edition it was carrying articles on Eamon de Valera's policy on the North, propounded twenty years previously. By April 1970 it was carrying an advertisement for a Provisional meeting in Armagh and by May it had articles in favour of EEC entry by Aidan Corrigan and Bishop Philbin. Civil rights was only an appetizer in the main meal of a Fianna Fail attempt at gaining a foothold in Northern politics. The defence groups soon melted away when the threat of additional Protestant pogroms became unlikely, but the Provisional IRA went from strength to strength until it eventually broke free from those who had initially financed it. NICRA remained independent and the struggle went on.
The aftermath of the August violence had seen more than the barricades and the emergence of defence groups. In political terms it meant confirmation of the partiality of the RUC and the naked sectarianism of the 'B' Specials. In early October the Hunt Report on the police recommended the replacement of the 'B' Specials by a new 4,000 strong force under the control of the British Army and the establishment of a police reserve force. Security was to be regarded as a military responsibility under the control of Whitehall and the RUC were to be gradually disarmed.
In terms of the civil rights struggle this was a partial victory in that it laid the basis for additional reforms in the future. A disarmed RUC would be a massive improvement from the August riots and the disbandment of the 'B' Specials was regarded as a major victory. At the time the role of the new force, later called the UDR, was not clear and the sectarian nature of this group did not emerge until later. But some progress had been achieved.
On the day previous to the Hunt announcements, the Electoral Law Bill was given its second reading at Stormont. This was a Bill designed to abolish plural voting and bring the franchise into line with that in Britain. Other reforms at this time included the appointment of a Minister for Community Relations and a Bill appointing a Commissioner for Complaints, to inquire into allegations of discrimination. Chichester Clarke promised to review the law on incitement to religious hatred and there was to be an anti-discrimination clause in government contracts. Public bodies were to make a declaration of equality of employment opportunity and to adopt a code of employment procedure. A Local Government Staff Commission was to advise councils on filling senior posts. House building and allocation had been removed from the hands of local councils and placed under the control of a new central housing authority, later called the Housing Executive.
It was a period of progress. The outstanding NICRA demands still included the repeal of the Special Powers Act and the revision of legal administration. As the year ended the re-structuring of the new Ulster Defence Regiment became added to the list of demands, but in the late autumn of 1969 NICRA had reason to feel that its campaign had not been in vain. At the end of November the executive was able to announce that they saw no immediate prospect for a return to the streets to obtain their outstanding demands in view of the Government's three month ban on marches.
The struggle was far from over, however. The legislation necessary to bring into force point six of the Downing Street Declaration of August was still a long way off:
"in all legislation and executive decisions of Government every citizen of Northern Ireland is entitled to the same equality of treatment and freedom from discrimination as obtains in the rest of the United Kingdom, irrespective of political views or religion."On the civil rights front the PD eventually decided that they would be unable to use NICRA as a vehicle for their political views and on 23 November they took their 2nd formal step towards becoming an orthodox political party. At their first annual general meeting they decided to issue membership cards and "the people" no longer automatically qualified for membership. By February 1970 they had announced that they would not be standing for elections to the NICRA executive committee because "the problems of Northern Ireland cannot be solved by obtaining equal shares of poverty and misery.
The CRA is not a socialist organisation and by its nature cannot extend its fight from immediate injustices of Unionist rule to the stranglehold of British Imperialism which underlies them. We want to devote all our energies to the struggle against imperialism North and South of the border and the achievement of a workers and small farmers republic." That much at least had finally been cleared up. From that point onwards PD dropped the civil rights issue.
The second major progressive step achieved in the struggle for civil rights at this period was the acquisition of an office for NICRA. This was in Belfast's Marquis Street, from where NICRA has continued to operate ever since. With the office established there was need for full time staff and they were appointed in December 1969. The job of Organiser was filled by Kevin McCorry a graduate of Trinity College Dublin. He remained in the position until 1975. His assistant was Margaret Davison who still works in the Office for NICRA. The Office and the staff were financed by American dollars which poured into NICRA after the August violence and by the "widows' mites" gathered in Northern Ireland. As the only readily identifiable anti-unionist organisation from a distance of 3,000 miles, the American support groups had little bother in collecting the much-needed cash.
1969 ended as it began - violently. Throughout the late autumn and early winter a succession of riots marked an increase in sectarian violence. The army inevitably became involved and the para-military elements on both sides found an active role for themselves in the brick and bottle skirmishes of the Belfast ghettoes. On the streets events were moving fast, but in terms of reforms the inevitable slow speed of legislation meant little political progress. Bricks and bottles were soon to give way to guns and bombs.
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