Fred Heatley, who was for a number of years an executive member of NICRA, wrote a series of articles on the growth and development of the Association which were published across five issues of the magazine Fortnight in 1974, starting with issue 80 on 22nd March with the last instalment in issue 84 on 7th June.
I had recently posted on the Wolfe Tone Societies and their antecedents, the civil liberties and republican prisoner release groups, as being part of the formative learning that fed into the thinking behind the formation of NICRA. Heatley describes the Wolfe Tone Societies as ‘an autonomous adjunct’ of the republican movement. Tracing its engagement with other civil liberties groups, he states that it was decided to stop using the ‘Wolfe Tone Society’ name in November 1966 and the name Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was adopted in January 1967. Heatley records how invitations were sent out to the various groups who then joined NICRA, the development of the NICRA officer board and how its strategies evolved.
In terms of IRA involvement, Heatley notes that while some of those involved in both wings of the IRA in 1970 had been involved in NICRA, only those who later were involved in the Official IRA had been on the officer board. This appears consistent with the divisions among republicans in the 1960s, with those supporting Goulding’s strategies remaining in leadership positions (and taking on roles in NICRA) while those that were disaffected left, only rejoining the Provisionals when the link with Goulding and those around him was broken. By the time his account of NICRA was written in the spring of 1974, Heatley claims it had been taken over by the Officials and Communists (dating the takeover from around 1970).
In terms of the involvement of various other groups, Heatley sets out a rough chronology below. The diverse range of groups that were invited to participate, or coalesced with NICRA at some point, is probably one source of the competing claims to the origins of the NICRA. A more useful exercise might actually be to remind people of the civil rights abuses NICRA sought to address and apply the same energy to countering civil rights abuses today.
Here are Heatley’s articles on the growth and development of NICRA compiled into one single article.
THE BEGINNING 1964 – FEB. 1968.
Millions of words have been written as to how the ‘troubles’ began, and the instant-history writers have flooded the market with their views. Most of these historians date everything back to the Derry Civil Rights march of October 5th 1968, or to that of a few months later which led to the ambush at Burntollet Bridge. Few have even attempted to trace the civil rights campaign beyond those dates and it is this writer’s intention to put on record something of what had taken place prior to then.
THE WOLFE TONE SOCIETIES
Theobald Wolfe Tone, a middle class radical Protestant who, many years after his death became the father figure of Irish Republicanism, was born in 1763. In the bicentenary year of his birth a number of committees were set up to commemorate that event including one in Belfast, a place which Tone knew well. The Belfast Bicentenary Committee drew support from across the religious divide and a special commemorative newspaper that was published had a two-and-two editorial body. By mid-1964 the commemorations had finished and it was decided by some of those involved to stay together and form what became Wolfe Tone societies, the strongest of which were in Dublin and Belfast. They were small groupings. Belfast never had any more than a dozen members and their aims were to foster republicanism by educating the masses in their cultural and political heritage. To that end they sponsored the commemorations for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Belfast Presbyterian United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken; and in the following year they were responsible for the ceremonies connected with the centenary of the birth of James Connolly. It should be emphasised that the Belfast Wolfe Tone Society was not controlled by either the IRA or Sinn Fein but was an autonomous adjunct of the republican movement.
FOUNDING OF NICRA
During the weekend 13th/14th August 1966 at a joint meeting of all Wolfe Tone societies held in Maghera a decision was taken to launch a civil rights body in Belfast. The initial moves for this were made by the Belfast society and the Queen’s Hall of the War Memorial Building in Belfast’s Waring Street was booked for a meeting on November 28th under their auspices, but following some discussion with other non-WTS members drawn into the ad hoc civil rights grouping as we had now become it was decided to drop the Wolfe Tone Society title from any future correspondence.
At the meeting, which was better attended than we had hoped, John D. Stewart took the chair. He was not a member of the Wolfe Tone Society and neither, to my knowledge, were the two speakers, Kader Asmal and Ciaran Mac an Aili. The former was a South African Indian, President of the Irish anti-apartheid movement, and a lecturer in International Law at Trinity College, Dublin. Mac an Aili was President of the Irish Pacifist Association, a member of the International Federation of Jurists and a well-known Dublin solicitor, although a Derry man by birth. Asmal spoke on “Human Rights: an International Perspective” and Mac an Aili on “Civil Liberty in Ireland Today”.
At the conclusion of the meeting it was agreed that another should be called when it could be expected that a Northern Ireland civil rights body would be formed. Invitations were once again sent out to all the political parties then active in Northern Ireland, to many of the cultural and trade union organisations, and to prominent people whom it was thought might be interested, and on January 29th 1967 this meeting took place in the International Hotel, Belfast. Tony Smythe and James Shepherd of the British National Council for Civil Liberties flew over, and Senator Nelson Elder of the Unionist Party attended (although he walked out before the meeting had concluded). It was however very successful and the large attendance accepted with some small modification the proposed constitution drawn up by the ad hoc committee and based on that of the NCCL. A 13-person steering committee was elected which on February 6th selected its officer board as follows: Chairman, Robin Harris (DATA); vice-chairman, Dr Conn McCluskey (Campaign for Social Justice); secretary, Derek O’B Peters (Northern Ireland Communist Party); treasurer, Fred Heatley (Wolfe Tone Society); PRO, Jack Bennett (Wolfe Tone Society). Other members were Liam McMillen (Republican), Betty Sinclair (Belfast Trades Council), John G Quinn (Liberal Party), Michael Dolley (National Democrats), Joe Sherrie (Republican Labour), Jim Andrews (Ardoyne Tenants’ Association), Tony McGettigan (no affiliation) and Paddy Devlin (Northern Ireland Labour Party). Within a few days Robin Cole, former chairman of the Queen’s University Young Unionists, was co-opted onto this steering body thus giving representation for all seven political parties in Northern Ireland. No such grouping had ever before appeared in the North and it was hoped that with such a widespread interest reform could be achieved fairly quickly.
A five-points outline of the broad objectives of the newly fledged body was issued and given mention in all the local newspapers; it was:
- To defend the basic freedom of all citizens.
- To protest the rights of the individual.
- To highlight all possible abuses of power.
- To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association.
- To inform die public of their lawful rights.
There was nothing outstandingly controversial about any of these and it was hoped they would be implemented with little delay. In the meantime the steering committee had to report back to the membership, and on April 9th 1967 another gathering was held in the International Hotel. At this the amended constitution was accepted and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association formally inaugurated. There were some changes in the new (first official) executive council with Ken Banks (DATA), Kevin Agnew (Republican) and Terence A O’Brien (Derry, no affiliation) replacing Andrews, McMillen and McGettigan.
CSJ AND OTHERS
Although we were now active in the sphere of civil liberties we were not the only such group. In 1963 the Campaign for Social Justice, based mainly at Dungannon under the leadership of Dr. Conn McCluskey and his wife, Patricia, had been founded. Over the years they had applied themselves diligently to amassing figures on employment, housing and electoral boundaries which showed, irrefutably, evidence of discrimination and gerrymandering. Their material was sent to MPs at Westminster, to leading people farther afield and to newspapers. But the CSJ was seen as being middle class socially, as being too cautious politically, and as being somewhat pan-Catholic in outlook. These, of course, were snap judgements and may not have stood up to an authentic research. The CSJ did not appeal to the mass, so the attempt to form a body which did. The McCluskeys were invited to send representatives, which they did, and Dr Conn McCluskey was elected to both the steering and to the first official committee of NICRA. The trade unions also had been showing an increasing awareness in the lack of basic rights at home and in early 1967 they published-in conjunction with the Parliamentary Labour Party, a “Joint Memorandum on Citizens’ Rights in Northern Ireland” which was addressed to the then Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. Also at this time the British NCCL was seriously considering setting up a branch in Belfast.
THE FIRST 18 MONTHS
The NICRA went straight into action with a condemnation of the ban on Republican Clubs. At a meeting in Newry on April 15th, the first time NICRA was on the streets, we also dealt with the issue of the itinerants who were making news by squatting on the Shore Road and the scheduled abattoir site. There were also numerous cases of harassment of republicans or republican sympathisers by the RUC Special Branch, particularly those based in Hastings Street Station. I recall on one occasion when investigating a complaint, being accused in front of witnesses, of being a tout for the RUC. This was a non-too-subtle attempt to discredit both myself and NIGRA. That first eighteen months was a time of frustration. William Craig, to whom most of our complaints were directed, usually delayed in replying. When he did he denied that the complaints were justified even when a civil rights officer (myself) was physically thrown out of Hastings Street Station! Yet we did detect an easing off in harassment both of republicans and of itinerants.
But the most annoying aspect of the early period was the lack of real interest shown by our first council members at times we couldn’t muster up the required six members for a quorum at the monthly meetings. Not that the disputes about gerrymandering etc were not recognised, for even the News Letter, during early 1968, serialised a thesis by an assistant professor at Oakland University entitled “Ulster Under Fire”, detailing some of the abuses.
In November 1964 The Scotsman had printed an article “Backwash in Belfast”. Other similar tirades were “Vested Interests Keep Bigotry Alive” (Belfast Telegraph, 9/11/63), “A Nasty Smell from Ulster” (New Statesman, 3/1/64), “John Bull’s Political Slum” (Sunday Times, 3/7/66), “The Ulster Rump” (New Statesman, 27/1/67), “Ulster’s Second-class Citizens” (The Times, 24/4/67), and “John Bull’s White Ghettos” (The Observer, 6/10/68). But the Ulster Unionists turned a deaf ear. Terence O’Neill had begun his ‘meet the people’ tours and his ‘civic weeks’, yet nothing had actually changed except perhaps the ordinary folk were then more kindly disposed towards each other than before … or since. The Divis Street riots had been a blot on the copybook and there had been many similar incidents often associated with rallies of the Rev Ian Paisley, but most of the harassment and discrimination had become so subtle that only those directly involved could see them.
In February 1968 the second executive council of NICRA was elected and there were a few new faces on it. John McAnerney (CSJ), Frank Campbell (Republican), Peter Morris (no affiliation), Jim Quinn (no affiliation), Frank Gogarty (Wolfe Tone Society), and Rebecca McGlade (Republican) replaced the outgoing Bennett, Harris, Banks, O’Brien, Dolley and Devlin. Robin Cole, although re-elected with the highest total number of votes later resigned from the executive because of some words used by the outgoing secretary, Derek Peters. Betty Sinclair became new chairman; John Quinn, vice-chairman; John McAnerney, secretary; Rebecca McGlade, assistant secretary; Frank Gogarty, PRO; whilst I retained my post as treasurer. That year began quietly enough with a capitulation to Paisley over the Easter Annual Republican Parade in Armagh. There was a spate of meetings held in protest. I represented NICRA at all of these (Armagh, April 20th, Newry, April 27th, and back in Armagh, May 18th). All of the Stormont opposition parties had speakers on these platforms and NICRA, by being invited to share with them, was at last gaining some recognition although only by the non-Union action of the community.
THE FIRST MARCHES
In the spring of 1968 there was much rethinking within the CRA leadership; the tactics of Martin Luther King in America had been absorbed inasmuch that it was felt by some that only by public marches could we really draw world attention to what we were trying to achieve by normal democratic means. But we had members who either didn’t relish the trouble this could create or were too constitutional in their thinking. However, the Caledon incident when the local council granted a house to a young unmarried Protestant girl next door to one where a Catholic family with young children had been evicted for squatting gave us the opportunity to have our way. Austin Currie phoned me and asked if I would address a protest meeting on the following Saturday night (June 22nd 1968) at Dungannon. John McAnerney drove me down on a night of torrential rain and although soaked to the skin, I had the satisfaction in pledging the NICRA to a policy of civil disobedience. The following month, back in Maghera where the CRA had first materialised, plans were formulated for Ireland’s first-ever civil rights march. We had all along been of the opinion that Derry should be the venue for this it being an obvious choice but the availability of a well-organised local group to do the ground work for us and the smart of the Caledon housing farce led us to choose a walk from Coalisland to Dungannon.
That evening of August 24th 1968 was one of magnificent weather and the thousands who turned up for the march enjoyed their stroll as well as protesting against injustice. We had taken no chances against violence by, or against, any of the marchers by providing a ring of march stewards. At one stage the police attempted to issue us with summonses but they were brushed aside and everything went quietly until we came close to Dungannon town centre where a crowd of Paisleyites awaited us. The RUC requested that we should detour. The alternative route they opened for us was through a Catholic ghetto area which we refused arguing that the town centre was neutral and that we were not coat-trailing but insisting on our right to go that way. We had no wish to be seen as a purely Catholic agitationary group so we refused to confine ourselves to a strictly Catholic locale whilst neutral ground was available. Our protests were in vain and our stewards did magnificent work in holding back the hot-heads within our ranks as the editorial of the Belfast Telegraph put it “The extremist element in the minority is controllable, and on the other side it is not.” It was not quite accurate in this line of thinking as extremists on either side could be controlled if the desire to do so was strong enough.
An incident about that march worth clarifying: Betty Sinclair was quoted in some newspapers as shouting to our young hot heads to “join the IRA”; she didn’t use that expression. I was standing right next to the woman who did.
DERRY OCTOBER 5th 1968
Derry was the next venue for a demonstration, for October 5th, 1968. We liaised with the Derry Housing Action Committee, the Londonderry Labour Party, the James Connolly Republican Club and the older men of the Derry Nationalist Party. Everything was going swimmingly until about a week before the scheduled march when we had a letter from Eddie McAteer, the Nationalist leader, informing us that he and his party were pulling out from the event. Three of the Executive, Betty Sinclair, John McAnerney and myself, went to his home and asked for his reason, the gist of which was that he didn’t care for the company we were keeping! We asked him to reconsider his decision, knowing that it would be political suicide for him and his party should they not support us. Eddie obviously came around to our way of thinking eventually as he was.
The Dungannon march, and the one scheduled for Derry, brought the world’s press. The Unionist Government was taking quite a beating, intensified when William Craig ordered a ban on the October 5th parade. Notice of the ban was delivered to John McAnerney on Thursday, October 3rd and he immediately called a meeting of the NICRA executive. After some talk we phoned Derry asking them to call a meeting of all interested parties for the next night. In the City Hotel, following a three hour debate, which was at times very stormy indeed, the unanimous decision was to defy Craig’s ban. At midnight the waiting press were informed of our decision. On Saturday morning Fergus Pyle of The Irish Times wrote of an interview he had with Craig in which the Home Affairs Minister said: “Strict instructions have been given. We intend to make sure there will be no more Armaghs”. Pyle goes on: “This reference was to the Republican parade at Easter which marched along a route banned by the Ministry. It was not interfered with by police but several arrests were made afterwards”. Reading that we knew that we could expect a rough time in Derry.
Betty Sinclair, John McAnerney, Frank Gogarty and myself travelled by car arriving in the Waterside shortly after the march had moved off. Upon seeing this I started sprinting for the head of it not then realising that our route had been slightly altered. When but a few paces from the police lines in Duke Street I reached the front ranks of the marchers, was almost immediately kneed in the groin by a constable, was dragged behind the RUC lines and was ordered into a Black Maria. I was, I believe, the first demonstrator arrested, and on reflection the inside of a “Paddy wagon” was possibly the safest place in Duke Street that Saturday. (Incidentally, the next man thrown in beside me was Martin Meehan who achieved notoriety later as a Provisional IRA leader.) I was brought to Victoria Police Station on Strand Road where I was well enough treated and released later at about eleven o’clock that night. Some weeks after I was issued with three summonses arising from my participation in the parade.
Whatever indignities we suffered, Terence O’Neill and his party suffered more. Television cameras recorded for world consumption the actions of the police in their water-hosing and batoning of men and women. O’Neill’s efforts to cool things were not helped by Craig’s bullish statements implying IRA control, etc. His famous declaration that his police had photographs of IRA boss, Cathal Goulding, at the march fell flat when Goulding was able to prove that he had never left County Wicklow on that day. And the excuse that he had to ban the NICRA demonstration because it was clashing with the prior-arranged Apprentice Boys was also proved ridiculous when the top man of the local Apprentice Boys admitted to the press and TV that he knew of no march by his organisation for that afternoon. That night rioting broke out in the streets of Derry and developed in intensity as the week moved on. So frightening did this become that the Lord Mayor of the city, William Beatty, agreed to meet with NICRA executive members, Miss Sinclair and John McAnerney in an attempt to calm the situation. They met at Portballintrae on October 11th and the meeting caused a little disagreement within NICRA as neither “delegate” had consulted the Executive beforehand.
November 13th brought a ban by William Craig prohibiting all marches within the walls of Derry, but three days later this was scorned when some 20,000 people followed the intended route of October 5th and marched from the Waterside, across Craigavon Bridge and into the Diamond where various speakers addressed them.
Exactly a fortnight afterwards the NICRA was back into the fray with a demonstration in Armagh. Early that morning the Rev. Paisley and Major Bunting had organised hundreds of supporters who, armed with an assortment of weapons, announced that they would stop any march in the city. Upon arrival in Armagh it was found that access to the starting-off point was rather difficult as we were not permitted to proceed by car any further than The Mall, which is on the Belfast side of the city. For some time we paraded along The Mall where we were watched over by dozens of club-carrying Paisleyites. Then a Special Branch officer led us across the mud of the new ring road to meet up with the marchers who had already started off. Upon reaching Thomas Street we saw a line of police blocking our way and some distance behind them Paisley and his men.
At this point County Inspector Sam Sherrard requested permission to be let speak from the civil rights platform. He announced that he couldn’t offer any protection to us; this was pure capitulation to the men of violence. At this some of our supporters were naturally incensed but our stewards prevented what could have been a blood bath by hemming in the potential trouble makers. By now we had a good idea as to tactics and a knowledge as to whom to watch amongst our marchers. I remember one very prominent civil rights member arguing with me in the middle of the street that we should let the people go on – he obviously couldn’t see that we had once more proved beyond doubt that the reactionaries were the extreme Unionists. I felt then, as I feel even stronger today, that violence only begets counter-violence. And that seemingly was the attitude of the liberal home and world news media who, by speaking out strongly against the use of the police, drew more sympathy to our cause.
On November 22nd he had offered a five-point package of reform but it was a case of too little too late. When he asked for a cooling-off period we accepted it for two reasons. Those of us who had been active all along were beginning to feel the strain of continuously organising and travelling up and down the country; and we knew that to keep pushing could well show us as being unwilling to accept compromise. Also, we needed space to consolidate our gains and during the weeks of “truce” we set up branches in various smaller towns within the province. Our idea was, if reform was not implemented, to organise a series of monthly marches beginning in the early spring. The People’s Democracy put paid to that.
THE PEOPLE’S DEMOCRACY
They had come into existence on October 9th, a few days after the Duke Street batoning. An amorphous body whose leaders were principally from the Young Socialist Alliance, they purported to believe in true democracy; anything with an officer board or recognised leadership was to them bureaucracy. They were young, idealistic, and with the inexperience of youth inclined to see things only in tones of black and white. To them there were no shades of grey. They began by hitting out at the injustice of Derry; then the injustices of the Unionist overlords; then the overlords of the Irish Republic; and ended by attacking the whole capitalist system. As their knowledge increased their revolutionary potential developed, but they had by then lost the bulk of their membership and the halo of ‘student martyrs’ began to dissipate. We of the NICRA were called by them right-wingers, pan-Catholics, and other names of scorn. We were ridiculed for not extending our area of operation to the southern Republic and they refused to listen to our arguments why we did not. They would not accept that we were the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and they probably didn’t know that in November 1968 I had travelled to Dublin to explain to a selected group of trade unionists, budding politicians and others the best way in which we thought they could assist us.
It was explained to this audience that condemnation of the Unionist Government by people resident south of the Border was hypocritical unless they made the attempt to clean up the mess in their own backyard. They too had a ruling clique every bit as corrupt as that in Stormont; they too had repressive legislation just as obnoxious as we had; they had a constitution which discriminated against those of the Protestant faith. These were some of the points raised and they were advised to treat the North calmly. Already they had two civil rights bodies in the Dublin district the Irish Association of Civil Liberties and the Civil Liberties League both of which were worse than useless. From that visit south later emerged a group known (if my memory serves me right) as Citizens for Civil Liberties.
HUMAN RIGHTS YEAR
Nineteen hundred and sixty eight was designated throughout the world as Human Rights Year. A Northern Ireland Committee for Human Rights Year was established, its Hon. Presidents being drawn from the leaders of the various political parties including the Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, the heads of the main religions, and the Mayor of Derry. Its Chairman was Sir Robin Kinahan, and its vice chairmen Brian McGuigan and Brian Walker. The NICRA were one of the first organisations to affiliate with this Human Rights Year Committee but they were sadly disillusioned if they expected any real progress from them. The banning of the Republican parade at Easter had been referred to them as we argued that the banning contravened something like 20 of the 30 articles of the Human Rights Charter; we never learnt of any action taken or protest lodged by this Committee. By mid-summer John McAnerney wrote to Tony Smythe of the NCCL and asked him to assist in urging the Human Rights Year’s body to do something. To quote from John’s letter: “The last meeting of the full Committee was on 8th May, the previous one on 27th November, and when the next will be, God only knows…”.
“At the May meeting the Education Committee reported the sole result of six months’ work a competition for the production of children’s scrapbooks. This revolutionary proposition was not past the planning stage. For adult education they did not even seem to have plans: there was no mention of any public meetings or lectures, nor any indication that such were to be held …”
“The Research Committee’s solitary brainchild seemed, at first glance, quite promising. It was a piece of research to be undertaken by Queen’s University into some aspect of Human Rights in Northern Ireland. The project was going to cost £5000: Human Rights Year would be history long before the project got started: the project would then take two years to complete: if and when completed it would not make any recommendations”.
MEANWHILE BACK ON THE STREETS
Events were to overtake whatever good, if any, really existed within the Committee. Arising out of the October 5th Derry march 66 summonses were served on 45 people and the trial of these opened in Derry on November 18th, 1968. After a couple of days the cases were adjourned till December 4th. On the 10th D.I. Ross McGimpsey took the stand, and in his evidence declared that he had first received notice of the parade on September 29th, i.e. just one week prior to its taking place. This seemed an odd statement since it had been on 8th September that we served notice of our intentions. When I learned of D.I. McGimpsey’s statement I phoned John McAnerney pointing out that there was clearly a case for us to contest. At that time we were convinced that all telephones belonging to prominent members of the CRA were tapped and it came as no surprise when on the 16th the Attorney-General agreed to postpone all cases arising from the Derry march. Although they were officially only being put back until the following May we knew that an amnesty was likely to be offered. When Chichester-Clark became Prime Minister a general pardon to all those charged with events connected with civil rights demonstrations was offered (May 6th, 1969).
The PD Long March left Belfast’s City Hall and despite doubts by some of the NICRA we did grant them £25 of our meagre funds to help them on their way. We also issued a press release calling on all our supporters to succour them in whatever way they could. As tension mounted day by day, and Major Bunting and his supporters continued to harass the marchers, we decided to walk the last stretch with them. On the Friday night Frank Gogarty, John McAnerney and I drove up to Claudy, the marchers last stopping place, and then into Derry where we spent the night.
In the morning we returned to Claudy to join the march. As we neared Burntollet John and I were near the end of the line so had a good view of what happened. Following a warning from the police that there “might be some stone throwing” we had moved forward again. A posse of constables in ordinary uniform strode in file up the hilly ground on the right-hand side of the road towards the groups of men and youths standing there. In front of our parade was a bunch of police in full riot gear. The first section of the march got through reasonably easily, watched by the mob who waited to see how the police were going to act. When they saw the indifference shown them, they opened up. Of some 800 people in that march I would estimate that about 60 were students, the rest being mainly local County Derry men, women, boys and girls. It was the latter who took the brunt of the broadside aimed at us. Frank Gogarty took a terrible beating; he rushed back to try and retrieve the NICRA blue banner which had been dropped by its carriers and I saw him being beaten by the ambushers on one side and by two policemen on the other. Major Bunting was standing grinning like a Cheshire car at his strategy and as I approached him he held out a hand in welcome. I was wearing an orange-coloured sweater and he obviously thought that I was one of his thugs. As I argued with him he insisted that his men were non-violent and I in my anger asked him if “he was bloody sane” just as two petrol bombs were thrown at the parade, which was already in some confusion.
Police approached as we argued and I left Bunting and went to try to assist those still struggling. One young constable who had guarded the Black Maria in which I was kept on October 5th recognised me and asked me to “clear the road, Mr Heatley, as we want to get at those bastards” pointing towards the ambushers; I still doubt that he meant I it.
The marchers straggled into Derry greatly strengthened in numbers. When word had filtered back into the city there was a mass exodus of young men to our aid. Frank Gogarty had been driven to Altnagelvin Hospital and I was honestly surprised to see him standing outside the gate there waiting to rejoin the parade on its way in, his head swathed in bandages. As we crossed Craigavon Bridge word drifted through to us that Ann Devlin, student daughter of Paddy Devlin, had been killed and this put the crowd in worse anger. Fortunately she was not as seriously hurt as first reported but no-one could honestly blame the Bogsiders and Cregganites for the rioting that occurred before that terrible day was past.
I remember sitting on the stairs of the City Hotel with two later-to-be Stormont MPs discussing heatedly the formation of a citizen guard for future marches. We may have disagreed with the holding of the long walk and the foolhardiness in undertaking it, but in retrospect it was one of the major turning points of the whole civil rights campaign. It snowed once again the partiality of the police and the directors of law and order and it drew untold publicity to our cause. Billy Craig with his ham-fistedness was proving a fantastic help to us and we joked about presenting him with a plaque of honour.
The PD were however still a thorn in our side. I was told in Derry the day of Burntollet that an offer of stewards had been made to the PD as escort from Claudy into the city. The offer was turned down and one wonders that if it had been accepted there would not have been as many innocent people hurt on that day. This refusal to agree to stewarding their marches led on January 11th, 1969 in Newry to ‘evidence’ being manufactured to ‘prove’ the violent character of the civil rights movement. On that day several police tenders were offered as bait and the lack of stewarding let the bait be taken. The tenders were set on fire and the Unionist press worked overtime to spread the story to the world. We had suffered a setback through some of the more questioning I reporters wondered why so many policemen had stood idly by and allowed a mob to destroy their vehicles. It didn’t make sense, especially when one realises that the area in which they were left was a comparatively easy one to defend and, at that time (Jan. 1969) the only guns and bomb being used were by Loyalist extremists.
We had, by the date of the Newry near-disaster, co-opted two PD members on to the NICRA executive, and in a further attempt to gain co-ordination between their organisation, the recently formed Derry Citizens’ Action Committee and ourselves we held a joint meeting at Toomebridge on January 16th, 1969. This proved of little value as only one of the Derry members was able to attend and the PD proved unable to agree to anything as they insisted that every motion would have to be referred back to their total membership for ratification. Ten days later we returned to Toomebridge for another round of talks which ended with a similar lack of success although the DCAC were willing for co-operation at any level.
Present at these second talks were all the then big names of the civil rights struggle including (from Derry) John Hume, Michael Canavan, Eamon McLaughlin; (from the PD), Bernadette Devlin, Mike Farrell, Kevin Boyle, Loudan Seth; (from NICRA), John McAnerney, Frank Gogarty, Betty Sinclair. At the close of the first meeting I was asked by Kevin Boyle as to Mike Farrell’s chances as candidate in the pending Mid-Ulster bye-election. My reply was a negative one. History now records how Bernadette Devlin went forward on behalf of the People’s Democracy and was elected by the unity shown by all the anti-Unionist groups in the constituency. Tensions were by now mounting up within the forces for civil rights; the PD by their militancy had gained support and within NICRA there was unease at our apparent lack of activity. Some members felt that we were losing the initiative whilst others thought that the PD were pressurising us into making rash moves. There was collusion between some of our executive and the People’s Democracy.
The first open sign was shown at the February NICRA annual general meeting when Frank Gogarty inadvertently proposed Mike Farrell for the post of treasurer. This post, according to our constitution was the only one on the officer board which was appointed by the vote of all the membership, the rest of the positions on the board being filled at a further meeting of those selected to the 14-person executive. When Frank realised his mistake he withdrew his proposal. I was, for the third time, elected unopposed as treasurer, and Frank then again proposed Farrell’s name for the executive. Kevin Boyle was also elected and it was obvious from the voting pattern that although there were nominally only two PD men on the 1969 NICRA controlling body, they were not without strong support.
THE PD MARCH
Yet I believe the majority of our members were surprised when they read on the front pages of the Irish News of March 7th the following: “A march from the centre of Belfast to Stormont is being planned by the Civil Rights Association and the People’s Democracy for the end of the month, to protest against the passing of the new amendments to the Public Order Act and against the attitude of the Unionist Government generally. This was disclosed by Miss Bernadette Devlin of the P.D., when she spoke at the formation of a Civil Rights branch for South Derry in Gulladuff last night. Miss Devlin said it was hoped that this would be the biggest Civil Rights demonstration to date.
We will see if the Government closes the gates of Stormont against the people who elected them, she said. “Most of us on the executive had no prior knowledge of this Gulladuff meeting and Bernadette, of course, had no authority to commit us to a joint parade of which we knew nothing. When this was raised at a NICRA executive meeting a couple of nights later both Farrell and Boyle disclaimed any responsibility for what Miss Devlin had said but on March 14th a formal proposal was made that we join forces for this march. During that night there were three proposals on CR issues put forward by either Farrell or Boyle. On each occasion the vote split seven-seven with our chairman, Frank Gogarty, using his casting vote each time in favour of the parade to Stormont. Betty Sinclair, John McAnerney, Raymond Shearer, some others and myself opposed this. We were convinced that it was lunacy to lead people in a civil rights protest through East Belfast in what would be interpreted as an exercise in coat-trailing. For hours the argument dragged on during which Erskine Holmes, then a member of NICRA executive, walked out in disgust exclaiming that we four in particular were only being obstructive.
The upshot was that at 1 a.m. on March 15th, 1969 the four of us announced our resignations from the council. We acted on impulse as it became clear that the CRA strategy of proper marshalling of demonstrations and the actual independence of NICRA was being sacrificed to placate PD demands. They had contested the Northern Ireland elections the previous month as a political party and our constitution (which had been approved at the inauguration of the association) declared us to be non-party political. Two members were all that the PD had on our executive but it was obvious that they wielded power beyond their numerical strength and that in collusion with others of our executive the march to Stormont had been prearranged.
On St. Patrick’s Night I appeared on Ulster Television with Kevin Boyle to discuss the dispute. My principal argument was that that the PD were a political party and as such NICRA could not organise any demonstration with them as we were non-party political. Kevin’s reply was that his organisation was NOT political. As with most TV debates it ended without any definite conclusions.
Prior to facing the cameras and later when having a meal together, Kevin candidly admitted that the PD was a political party. This confirmed my belief that he was, and was to remain for some time, the strategist of the People’s Democracy. He was never as flamboyant or as openly courageous as Mike Farrell whose recklessness one could condemn yet still admire. Kevin was training, and has since qualified, in law, and without doubt this made him the more cautious of the two. He was seldom seen in the same light as his comrade. Looking back on it I now feel that our resignations were both foolish and unnecessary sentiments with which some months before his death John McAnerney agreed. But on that night in March 1969 there was anger and frustration at what we saw as infiltration of NICRA by a body more intent on socialist revolution than on the attainment of civil rights. Some of us as individuals may ourselves have been socialists, but we knew, that our strength was in forging a unity of purpose with clearly defined targets rather than on chasing a doctrinaire political belief. Because of that unity of purpose we had been able to weld together as an effective unit conservatives, labourites, communists, republicans, Northern Irelanders, liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants. Our aim was a charter of human rights for Northern Ireland. That, basically, was what was most lacking in the country and without it a person could be, and was, discriminated against on account of religious or political beliefs.
Everyone in the long term suffered because of discrimination: the employer who could never employ the best qualified person for the job on offer, the employee who was made redundant through the mismanagement of their firm; the Protestant who thought his squalid little house on the Shankill was superior to that of the Catholic on the Falls; the worker who produced more and was paid less for his efforts than his British-mainland counterpart through the exploitation of the divisions within the working population; the child who lost his cultural heritage because that heritage was told to be “evil Catholicism” or “evil Protestantism”.
THE DEVELOPING SPLIT
Our resignations had been followed by, for the same reason, those of eight of the Omagh CRA leadership, and was to lead to a wide split within the movement. An emergency general meeting of NICRA was called for March 23rd and held in the Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast. Following a long, acrimonious and confused debate, one of two motions put forward by the remaining NICRA executive was defeated and another left suspended. We had won the day. Had we demanded a similar emergency meeting on March 14th instead of resigning in disgust and anger, I am confident we would have obtained the same result. At 1.30 in the morning of March 25th the Chairman of NICRA phoned me to reconsider my decision and told me that the treasurer’s job was still mine. He refused to comment on the readmission to their posts of the three who had resigned with me, so I declined his offer on the basis of what was fair for one was fair for all. The next day I received in writing official notification from NICRA that my resignation was accepted, later replying to this and reiterating my stand of March 25th. Betty Sinclair and John McAnerney continued to fight within the association. I cut completely with it, feeling unable to support it any longer as an active member.
TENSIONS WITHIN THE CRA
Our departure had heralded the first outward division of opinion within NICRA. The proposed march to Stormont which had led to the split was postponed, and then forgotten about. But the entire civil rights movement was in a state of crisis. Statements were issued of ‘complete unity’ within the ranks but behind the scenes the truth gave lie to this. The CSJ circulated to members and to close friends, bulletins expressing fears of a leftwing takeover. The Young Socialist section of the PD became more bold in their pronouncements of what their hold on the CRA would mean. In America, Australia and England, the support groups for Irish human liberties began squabbling. A NICRA branch was hurriedly set up in Belfast but the council elected to run it was declared void by the executive council and another election held. There were stormy meetings of the executive and on at least one public platform accusations were made by speakers against other speakers. There were allegations of money going astray. And thirteen cases pending before the European Commission of Human Rights at Strasbourg were let go by default.
In place of James C. Heaney (an American lawyer who was representing the civil rights movement) Ciaran Mac an Aili who addressed the Queen’s Hall meeting back in 1966 was brought in. He had the support of the McCluskeys’ CSJ and seemingly of NICRA, yet the cases were allowed to lapse.
While the internal crisis was going on in NICRA there were more dramatic and frightening happenings on the streets of Derry and Belfast. It began with stones and petrol but finalised with guns and explosives. In August of 1969 the chairman of NICRA convened a meeting of his executive to discuss ways of taking the pressure from Berry’s beleaguered Bogside. A decision was taken to hold demonstrations throughout the North excluding Belfast. Something went wrong, a meeting was held on the Falls which preceded the killings and destruction in the area during the next few days. During all this “civil rights” were forgotten. The more immediate need was for defence.
The IRA which had been dormant, rapidly built up its strength, and in January 1970 the Provisionals came into existence. The Republicans had split and this too had its effect on NICRA. Along with his fears of a Marxist socialist takeover of the Association, Dr. McCluskey was now expressing fears of a joint Marxist Republican coup d’etat. At the 1970 Annual General Meeting he and his supporters withdrew from membership of NICRA, and, ironically, so did the People’s Democracy who had been the original cause of the split in the civil rights movement. Of the Republicans those now identified with the ‘Official’ wing retained membership whilst those connected with the Provisionals eschewed theirs. It is though, a point worth remembering that of the two sections of the Republican movement the Provisional element never had many of its members-to-be in NICRA. Offhand I can think of only about half a dozen, and none held executive posts. Those now connected with the Official Republicans have a long and steady record of membership. It was at the 1970 AGM that they first gained any real control and today, with the withering of politically neutral support they, with the assistance of the Northern Ireland end of the Communist Party, seem to hold most of the top positions.
INFLUENCES ON POLICY
This raises the question as to what was the Republican or Communist influence behind the civil rights movement. Well in the start, the Campaign for Social Justice could never have been identified with either. But the Wolfe Tone Society who initiated the moves which led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was, as I have written in the first part of this story, a believer in a united country. Most of their members would, I think, be classed now as ‘moderate’ in that they did not believe in force to obtain their aims. The Society as such faded away as their activists became more and more enmeshed with the CRA. The last meeting of the Wolfe Tone Society I can recall attending was in March 1969 on the night after the emergency general meeting of NICRA. I know there was a meeting in 1970 and late last year I read a press release given by a Belfast Wolfe Tone Society (who is behind this body I have never bothered to find out).
The members of NICRA’s steering committee and of its first two executive committees are listed here with their political affiliations, if any. It is then up to readers to consider for themselves whether they were top heavy with militant Republicans and whether they would have been able to control the thinking of the full membership. In its best years, 1968 and early 1969 not even William Craig could make a sincere accusation of IRA or Sinn Fein control. In those years we drew substantial Protestant support and our first big cash donation was £200 from a Presbyterian minister; it was the continued disorganised militancy of the PD that drove such support away. And that too is ironic for the PD often accused us of being pro-Catholic.
Then there were charges of Communist control. Of the steering and 1967 executive committees three of the five members were, or had been, members of the CP. No-one who knows anything of the inside story of that first season can ever claim that they (the CP members) were militants in fact, they were accused of being too cautious. Betty Sinclair, later NICRA chairman, has long been a convinced Communist but that has never been held against her in her work on behalf of the underprivileged or in the Belfast and District Trades Council. Between ‘Rebel’ and ‘Red’ scares there were all kinds of attempts to discredit the CRA but invitations to its formation were sent to all political parties including that of the Government. Still available are letters of reply from the Unionists signed by either James Chichester-Clark as Chief Whip or J.O. Bailie, secretary.
The final question is: where to now?
I am convinced that in every society there is a need for a civil rights body to prevent bureaucratic abuses or the sometimes more subtle abuses showered by one person upon another because of their colour or religion or politics. There should be some mode of redress made available for anyone discriminated against. Although a board was set up by the government this is not the answer. The National Council for Civil Liberties is a good structure to work on. They are independent of government and their record of assistance to the needy is first class. They have a pool of lawmen to call on and a caucus of politicians within Westminster to lobby in their interests. There should be a financial grant from governmental funds to cover expenses of such an organisation but no strings should be attached to this other than that of normal accountancy.
At present we have three civil rights organisations in Ireland. There is the more-newly formed (in 1972) Irish Civil Rights Association, mainly southern-based and Provisional Republican oriented; there is NICRA which is dominated by Official Republicans and Communists; and there is the Association for Legal Justice founded 1971 and which has established branches on both sides of the Border. And the NCCL have recently stated their intention once again of forming a branch in Northern Ireland.
At the moment these groups do sometimes assist each other in gathering information or in publicising what they consider abuses of human rights, but the ideological differences between ICRA and NICRA make proper unity an impossibility. Ciaran Mac an Aili crops up again in the formation of ICRA and was its first chairman. In Northern Ireland we obtained many safeguards for citizens which have been written into legislation probably through the actions and propaganda of the early civil rightists. There has been a desire to put right some of the more blatant abuses of power, yet we are now worse off than we were five years ago.
Internment is still going at full blast, the denial of the right of public procession is still being denied on a one-sided basis, there is an over-exceeding of power by sections of the security forces, the right to political expression is not being observed, the Special Powers Acts have been swapped for the Emergency laws including some of the most draconian aspects of the former, and the Tribunal at Long Kesh or Maze Prison is no substitute for a proper judicial proceeding. Although the Northern Ireland situation is, to put it mildly, abnormal that is no justification for all that takes place in the name of law and order. Justice must not only be done, but seen to be done. The populace, especially in Belfast, has edged itself into stronger and more defensive ghettos and it will take years to break down this housing pattern. Many of our business firms are trying to integrate their work forces but this too will take time.
There is now a strong call for peace with justice and I believe should be the cry of all. We owe it, not only to ourselves and to our children, but to each other.