"We Shall Overcome" .... The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968 - 1978 by NICRA (1978)
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The analysis of NICRA's role in the changing face of Irish politics during the past 10 years is comparatively easy. What is more difficult is an assessment of the organisation's future role and development. The difficulty lies in the unpredictability of future political developments in Northern Ireland, but there are some indications as to how these might evolve.
The British Government's political plan for Northern Ireland at the moment is to have no plan at all. That way no mistakes can be made, no failures can be recorded. The only plan that exists is a military one in which as many people as possible are to be tortured into confessing as many crimes as possible so that anyone who has had an illegal thought in the past 10 years - and many who have not - is to be locked away for as long as possible.
The RUC, almost totally unreformed and unchanged since the day they murdered Sam Devenney in Derry, have been given a free hand to arrest, torture and detain whom they like, or more accurately, those whom they dislike. The British Army is free to harass, arrest and brutalise and the UDR is actively encouraged to continue with its policies of sectarian violence.
In brief Britain is determined to put the boot in. It is a policy easily justifiable to the world press in the light of seven years of para-military violence. It is a policy which the British electorate can be fed in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings and other anti-people atrocities, and it is a policy which apathy and war weariness allow to pass unnoticed in Northern Ireland.
The midnight knock, the early morning raid and the agonising screaming in Castlereagh and other RUC interrogation centres are part of daily life in Northern Ireland. Even though para-military violence has decreased in recent years the British Government have stepped up their levels of military violence and the Northern Ireland citizen is still subject to the fear, the uncertainty and the terror which violence generates. As long as this is Britain's plan for Northern Ireland there can be no political progress.
Whatever the final political outcome may be NICRA's role is to oppose the present torture and detention policies. This is being done by documenting and exposing cases of torture, by organising support and publicity, locally and internationally, for the victims, by lobbying influential political and journalistic figures in an attempt to have the issues publicly and politically exposed and by continuing pressure on the Government to reform existing repressive legislation and to introduce a comprehensive Bill of Rights to ensure that such anti-democratic legislation can never again be introduced. The short term future of NICRA is therefore clear. There is no need to expound a philosophical justification for such a policy because it is a policy which any organisation interested in defending and extending human and civil rights must immediately adopt in Northern Ireland today. The immediacy of the problem determines the policy.
NICRA's policy will obviously continue for as long as Britain pursues a military solution to what is essentially a political problem. For NICRA it is a battle being fought with their backs to the wall. Finance is meagre, public apathy is high and the nature of the battle makes it defensive rather than offensive. A defensive struggle can never win major victories. All it can hope for is a let up in the opposition's attack.
When - or if - the present policy of military and legislative repression ends it will be the task of NICRA to protect and monitor human and civil rights under whatever form of government or whatever constitutional arrangement eventually exists. The role of NICRA at such a point in the future is hypothetical, but it can be stated without doubt that as long as their is a need to protect existing human rights and demand new ones NICRA will be there to do so. As long as the rights of people are being violated in the human or legislative sense NICRA will be there to speak out.
But the long term future is of secondary importance. The important future is today, tonight, tomorrow. NICRA's future is tomorrow morning's press statement, tomorrow evening's meeting or next Saturday's picket. It is the letter or phone call to the Northern Ireland Office complaining about the latest Government maneouvre in avoiding the introduction of a Bill of Rights. It is the phone call to Springfield Road RUC station inquiring about the condition or the whereabouts of a 16 year old youth dragged from his bed at dawn and unheard of for three days in police custody. It is the letters to MPs to support groups abroad, to international peace and human rights organisations. The FUTURE IS NOW.
NICRA's future will be the same as NICRA's past. It will show leadership to the leaderless, political analysis to the apolitical and information .to the uninformed. It is an organisation which has survived attack from without and within, from British Army guns in Derry and from British Cabinet legislation in general. It has pointed a way to political peace and stability in Northern Ireland from the days before the violence began and its solution has the unique advantage that it has never been considered at any stage by the British Government.
Power sharing, power hoarding, independence and integration are
all ways of avoiding the real issue in Northern Ireland - civil
rights. As long as civil rights are ignored NICRA will be there
to protest, to harry and to complain, until the time comes when
full civil and human rights are established by law in this country.
It will be a long struggle but too much has been sacrificed to
abandon it now.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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