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"We Shall Overcome" .... The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968 - 1978 by NICRA (1978)

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Text: Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

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In 1962 the IRA decided to hang up its guns. A five year guerilla campaign of violence had produced a handful of dead bodies on both sides, a marked increase in the number of people in prison and a strengthening of the Unionist political system. It was a campaign which had been fought and lost on the bleak hillsides of South Armagh and South Derry far away geographically from the city of Belfast and far removed from the mainstream of Northern politics.

But para-military failure laid the basis for political success inside the Republican Movement, and in the light of changing political attitudes and events in Ireland, the Republican approach to Northern politics became political for the first time in forty years. The same year the Connolly Association in London published its pamphlet "Our Plan to End Partition" in which it was pointed out that "the greatest obstacle to turning out the Brookeborough Government is the way it has barricaded itself at Stormont behind a mountain of anti-democratic legislation."


In pursuit of their aims the Connolly Association sought pledges of candidates in the 1964 general election that they would press for democratic reform in Northern Ireland. A follow-up conference on the issue in 1965 eventually led to the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, a loose alliance of Labour MPs spearheaded by Fenner Brockway and Paul Rose. Meanwhile back in Ireland the Wolfe Tone Societies, a group of Associations formed to commemorate the bi-centenary of Theobald Wolfe Tone in 1963, had decided to stay in existence to attempt to influence cultural and political trends in the country. The strongest groups were in Belfast and Dublin and they too became concerned with the weakening of the Unionist monolith at Stormont through democratic action.

Action of a sort had already begun in the form of the Campaign for Social Justice, an organisation based mainly in Dungannon and headed by Dr. Conn McCluskey and his wife Patricia. They spent a considerable amount of time documenting and quantifying examples of discrimination, gerrymandering, unfair housing allocation and administrative malpractice by Government departments, and it was perhaps this groundwork which spread the first awareness of the seriousness of the problem in Northern Ireland to the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster. The Communist Party [N. Ireland] were also active on the issue. In their 1962 programme "Ireland's Path to Socialism", they emphasised that the demand for democratic rights was one of the immediate political demands.


The final strand in what was to be woven ir the civil rights campaign was the Trade Union Movement, particularly the Belfast & District Trades Union Council.

The Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Union, on two separate occasions, along with the Northern Ireland Labour Party, went on deputations to see Captain O'Neill. Their demands for One Man One Vote and repeal of the Special Powers Act were ignored, and 4 Belfast-based Stormont seats were not sufficient leverage for the NILP, then a political force, to obtain movement on the civil rights front.

In May 1965 the Trades Council organised a conference on civil liberties in the lecture room o the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union headquarters in Belfast and several trade union leaders spoke of their concern over the failure of the Government to implement basic democratic guarantees in Northern Ireland.

The trade unionists, mainly Protestants, had a ready audience in the members of the Campaign for Social Justice, the Communist Party, the Republicans and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, all of which sent representatives. For sectarian discrimination to be condemned by the union representatives of Belfast's Protestant working class was a big step, even in the enlightened sixties. Slowly the diverse strands of political thought were coming together. The need for reform had been documented and publicised, but it was a problem which needed more than recognition - it needed action.


The first move in what was eventually to emerge as NICRA came from the Wolfe Tone Society. The Society recognised the growing awareness of the need for a broad organisation to channel the demands for democratic reform and to this end they organised a meeting of all Wolfe Tone Societies in Maghera in August, 1966.

The outcome was a decision to hold a public meeting to highlight the issue of civil rights in Northern Ireland. This was held in the War Memorial Building in Belfast in November, 1966, and its attendance was drawn from all sectors of libertarianism in Northern Ireland, the Chairman being John D. Stewart.

The two main speakers were Ciaran Mac An Ali, who spoke on "Civil Liberty - Ireland Today" and Kadar Asmal, who spoke on "Human Rights, International Perspective".

The support for this public meeting prompted the Belfast Wolfe Tone Society - effectively Fred Heatley and Jack Bennett - to hold another broad meeting with a view to setting up a formal organisation which could be devoted to unifying the struggle for civil rights.


The meeting was held at Belfast's International Hotel on January 29, 1967. All political parties in Northern Ireland were represented. Unionist Senator Nelson Elder attended, but after losing an argument for the retention of hanging for the murder of policemen, he walked out. A letter from the Unionist Chief Whip, James Chichester-Clarke, stated that he would try to get someone along. In all there was over one hundred people present and a 13 man committee was elected to draw up a draft constitution and a programme of campaign for submission to a later meeting.

The 13 man steering committee later elected the following officers:

Chairman: Noel Harris [DATA]
Vice Chairman: Conn McCluskey [CSJ]
Secretary: Derek O'Brien Peters [Communist Party]
Treasurer: Fred Heatley [Wolfe Tone Society]
P.R.O.: Jack Bennett [Wolfe Tone Society]

Other members of the committee were:

Betty Sinclair [Belfast Trades Council]
Billy McMillen [Republican Clubs]
John Quinn [Liberal Party]
Michael Dolley [National Democratic Party]
Joe Sherry [Republican Labour Party]
Jim Andrews [Ardoyne Tenants Association]
Paddy Devlin [Northern Ireland Labour Party]
Tony McGettigan [no affiliation]

Members did not represent their party political views on the committee and the political affiliation of each member is included in an attempt to illustrate the broad nature of the organisation. That the committee was equally conscious of their broad base was evidenced by its unanimous agreement a few days later to co-opt Robin Cole, former Chairman of the Young Unionists at Queen's University on to the committee.

A five point outline of broad objectives was issued to the press after the inaugural meeting. These were:

* To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens
* To protect the rights of the individual
* To highlight all possible abuses of power
* To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association
* To inform the public of their lawful rights.

These five demands later became the rallying cry for thousands of marchers. They were the inscriptions on banners in countless marches and the slogans on the lips of countless marchers. They were the demands which motivated thousands of marching feet and they were ultimately the five basic demands for which many people lost their lives. They were five demands which were not based on an elaborate political philosophy but came rather from the politics of instinct, trained and developed by fifty years of Unionist Government.

It is to these five demands that the present political situation in Northern Ireland can be traced.


The political situation in which the demands were made and in which the fledgling civil rights body emerged was typical of O'Neill's mirage-type liberalism. The first resolution ever passed by the new committee was a condemnation of the denial of freedom of speech exercised by Ian Paisley over the Bishop of Rippon, Dr. John Moorman. Paisley, in his unique politico-religious style, was challenging both the results of the ecumenical movement and the outcome of the O'Neill political atmosphere. Before the civil rights committee could hold a meeting to ratify the new constitution the Unionist Government, with O'Neill as Prime Minister fired the first salvo in the battle over democratic rights. On March 7th 1967, the Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, announced a ban on the North's forty-odd Republican Clubs. It was a straight case of political censorship in which a political organisation hostile to the Government was to be banned.

While awaiting formal ratification of its constitution, NICRA offered its voice in protest against the Government decision, but a new era had already dawned in Irish politics, because for the first time under the Unionist Government the Republicans did not fade away to form fours in dark corners of fields. They stood and fought the issue on the basis of their civil right to exist as a political organisation. Within a week of the ban's introduction a Republican Club had been formed in Northern Ireland's bastion of academic complacency, Queen's University. There, for the first time in the history of the state, university students took a stand against the totalitarian Unionist Government. The chickens hatched under the free education Act of 1949 had come home to roost with a vengeance.


While the Queen's students highlighted the need for the right to freedom of political association, NICRA held its meeting to ratify the constitution on April 9th 1967. It was on this date that NICRA officially came into existence. There were some changes in the executive council with Ken Banks [DATA], Kevin Agnew [Republican] and Terence A. O'Brien [Derry, no affiliation] replacing Andrews, McMillen and McGettigan.

With the exception of the Nationalist Party, all political parties and the Trade Union movement were represented in the struggle for civil rights. The Nationalist absence was not through any conscious political decision but stemmed rather from a failure to recognise changing political conditions, a failure which ultimately led to the party's melting away in the spring of the civil rights campaign.


The formation of NICRA marks the formal beginning of the civil rights campaign. Although the concept of civil rights was inherent in a political system with an in-built one party majority, the reality of the struggle came only after several other avenues of politics and violence had been explored without success, so that when NICRA finally emerged it was as much a product of frustration with Unionism as a demand for political change.

After 47 years of effective dictatorship, the question of civil rights was tackled seriously for the first time in 1967. It was the beginning of the end for the Unionist Party and the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland.

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