On 5th October, 1968, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (N.I.C.R.A.) staged the first of the civil rights marches in Derry demanding an end to discrimination in housing allocation, gerrymandering and restrictions in the right to vote.
You can read some more on the background to N.I.C.R.A. here. By the October 1968 march, it had developed the tactics which were to characterise the civil rights movement of the next few years. One of the initial objectives of N.I.C.R.A. when it was founded was to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, association and to protest the rights of the individual. The restrictions on political opposition had been a long-standing, if not central, feature of Unionist rule. The activity of N.I.C.R.A. in 1967 had focussed on education and organisation but there were few early public protests, other than events in Newry and an Easter commemoration in Armagh in April 1968. It was only on the election of N.I.C.R.A.’s second executive committee that tactics began to take greater notice of the success of Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches in highlighting abuses (this is largely paraphrasing Fred Heatley).
The official march poster (original here).
By the summer of 1968, N.I.C.R.A. had replicated Martin Luther King’s success in the publicity achieved through the Caledon and Coalisland-Dungannon civil rights protests. Apparently prompted by the Derry Housing Action Committee (D.H.A.C.), N.I.C.R.A. then proposed a civil rights march in Derry. The James Connolly Republican Club, Derry Nationalist Party and Londonderry Labour Party were all involved in the local organisation of the march while the promotion and wider publicity was managed by N.I.C.R.A.. The Unionist government believed that those involved were the D.H.A.C., the ‘Republican Party’ (which it describes as ‘members of the IRA and Sinn Fein’) and the Young Socialists. About a week before the proposed march, Eddie McAteer, the Nationalist Party leader, informed N.I.C.R.A. that it was pulling out of the event. After meeting with three of the N.I.C.R.A. executive, Betty Sinclair, Fred Heatley and John McAnerney, the Nationalists agreed to stay involved.
In the days leading up to the Derry march, Andrew Boyd wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Press quoting Frank Gallagher’s book, The Indivisible Island, about civil rights abuses including: “…a report from the Northern Whig, January 11th, 1946, which alleged that a Major L. E. Curran; who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, said that ” the best way to prevent the overthrow of the government by people who had no stake in the country and not the welfare of the people of Ulster at heart was to disenfranchise them.” Major Curran and his colleagues could not, of course, take the vote away from everyone whose loyalty was doubtful but they did, in an act passed by Stormont in 1946, restrict the franchise in local government elections to ratepayers. This is still the law. It denies the municipal franchise to about one-third of the North’s adult citizens, but, consistent with Major Curran’s “stake in the country” principle, allows as many as six votes to the owners of business promises on the basis of one vote for every £10 valuation. Until last year businessmen also had extra votes in the Stormont parliamentary franchise…”.
On the Thursday, William Craig, the Unionist Home Affairs Minister, banned the civil rights march and the ban was communicated to the Chief Marshall, John McAnerney (of N.I.C.R.A.). Publicly, the reason given for the ban was that it clashed with an Apprentice Boys parade at the same time and place, although Home Affairs documents indicate that that concern was secondary. Craig also indicated to journalists that the success N.I.C.R.A. had in peacefully holding the 1916 commemoration in Armagh in April 1968 wasn’t going to be allowed to happen again. His ban was immediately compounded, on the same evening, by Dr Abernethy, the governor of the Apprentice Boys. Abernethy stated that he knew of no parade or march planned by the organisation for the Saturday (it was claimed that the clash was actually with Apprentice Boys from Liverpool who would be visiting Derry that day). As it was, the wording of the ban meant that no parades or public processions could take part in the areas of the city covered by the ban.
The N.I.C.R.A. executive met on the Thursday evening then met up with the various groups involved in Derry the next day. After a three hour debate it was unanimously agreed to defy Craig’s ban and proceed with the march. When McAteer rang Craig to protest the ban he was advised by Craig that the protest was banned as it was a Nationalist/Republican parade. Gerry Fitt, the Republican Labour MP, called on people to defy the ban. Similarly, the British Labour party and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster both sent members to Derry for the march.
On the eve of the march, even the unionist Belfast Telegraph noted that “…in some ways it is the Civil Right’s Movement’s misfortune that it is so closely associated with such strident personalities as Gerry Fitt, who can be accused of exploiting the situation to his own political ends. But that it is founded in sincere held grievance is undeniable. Derry’s housing record is one that no city could be proud of.”
After the agreement to proceed with the march on the Friday evening, a spokesperson advised the press that “Come hell, high water or Herr William Craig, we will meet at the Waterside Railway Station at 3:30 pm“.
You can see some footage of what happened at the march itself here: