“a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships”: the abuses that prompted the Civil Rights campaign

Much of the recent commentary has focused on debating the origins and ‘ownership’ of the civil rights campaign. What has been missing from the discussion has been a timely reminder of the actual abuses that prompted the campaign.

At heart, the civil rights campaign was addressing a fundamental democratic deficit created by Unionists limiting the right to vote. This is starkly visible in comparisons of the registered electorate for Westminster elections at which Unionism had no facility to curtail voting rights, and, Stormont and local government elections at which the qualification to vote could be manipulated and controlled. Taking the 1970 Westminster elections and 1969 Stormont elections into account, the former had a total electorate of 1,017,303 while the latter, only one year earlier, was 784,242. This is a difference of 233,061 votes, or almost 22.9% of the electorate. Qualification for the franchise was rooted in eligibility to pay rates and other restrictions that had long been lifted elsewhere. And economic status was the key to eligibility.

Unionism viewed this issue as explicitly rooted in religious identities. But in the United Kingdom, overt religious discrimination was, and is, only formally permitted at the highest levels (in terms of its monarchy and, technically, political offices such as Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor). So this could not be done in public. Instead, Unionism had to curate and exploit economic barriers to acquiring the right to vote, like employment, access to education and training (Catholic schools only received equality of resource allocation in the 1990s) and housing rights. Irish language rights were entirely suppressed. Conveniently for Unionism, the UK as happens elsewhere, happily tolerates overt income-based discrimination while prohibiting other forms of discriminatory practice.

Unionism wasn’t particularly shy in articulating the relationship between economic status, religion and politics. In 1933, writing in the Northern Whig, the Unionist Party’s Sir Joseph Davison neatly links votes, religion and employment: “…it is time Protestant employers of Northern Ireland realised that whenever a Roman Catholic is brought into their employment it means one Protestant vote less… I suggest the slogan should be ‘Protestants employ Protestants'”. Unionist boasts of ‘a Protestant Government for a Protestant People’ were usually in the context of demanding the employment of Protestants over Catholics (who were described as 99% disloyal) to ensure continuation of that same government.

And Unionist language on the issue could be brutal, with little fear of public rebuke. “The Nationalist majority in the county, i.e., Fermanagh … stands at 3,684. We must ultimately reduce and liquidate that majority. This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone [the Nationalist majority] around our necks.”, this was said by the Unionist MP for Enniskillen, Erne Ferguson, in 1948. Ferguson later resigned as an MP to take up the role of Crown Solicitor for Fermanagh.

When the British government appointed Sir John Cameron, a Scottish judge, to look at the violence that had been used against the early civil rights campaign, he stated (in his 1969 report, Disturbances in Northern Ireland) that: “We are satisfied that all these Unionist controlled councils have used and use their power to make appointments in a way which benefited Protestants. In the figures available for October 1968 only thirty per cent of Londonderry Corporations administrative, clerical and technical employees were Catholics. Out of the ten best-paid posts only one was held by a Catholic. In Dungannon Urban District none of the Council’s administrative, clerical and technical employees was a Catholic. In County Fermanagh no senior council posts (and relatively few others) were held by Catholics: this was rationalised by reference to ‘proven loyalty’ as a necessary test for local authority appointments. In that County, among about seventy-five drivers of school buses, at most seven were Catholics. This would appear to be a very clear case of sectarian and political discrimination. Armagh Urban District employed very few Catholics in its salaried posts, but did not appear to discriminate at lower levels. Omagh Urban District showed no clear-cut pattern of discrimination, though we have seen what would appear to be undoubted evidence of employment discrimination by Tyrone County Council.”
As well as the economic measures, the civil rights campaign also addressed inequities and inequalities in the administration of justice. Back in April 1922, the Unionists had enacted supposedly temporary measures in the Civil Authorities (Special Powers Act) which was intended to ‘restore order’. But the Act was continually renewed until it was just made permanent. It contained provisions to intern individuals without a charge, a trial or a release date. Hundreds were interned from 1922-24, 1938-45 and 1956-62 with smaller groups interned on other, lesser known, occasions (such as 1925 and 1951). Sentencing policy varied relative to your political background. An identical firearms offence attracting a £2-£5 fine for a Protestant would become a ten year penal servitude sentence (possibly including 10 strokes of the whip) for a republican. Habeus Corpus could be suspended, meaning, among other things, that it was possible to take and hold prisoners and refuse to admit they were being held prisoner.

Other measures were continually used to suppress opposition political activity. Public meetings and assemblies could be, and were repeatedly, banned. Individuals could be expelled from the north if they refused to abide by a restriction making them live in either Limavady if they were a republican or Clogher if they were a communist [Ed – No, I’ve no idea why Limavady and Clogher]. Publications including posters could be banned. Anything the Unionists’ deemed seditious, including concerts, memorials, publications, emblems and flags could be banned, seized and the owner prosecuted. In practice, under the Special Powers Act, individuals were detained and held for up to 7-8 weeks without charges or any form of hearing. The RUC could even deny holding them. Nor was there any form of redress once released if they weren’t charged or interned.

After the first ten years of operation of the Act, there were a series of unemployment protests in Britain, culminating in the hunger marches and rally in Hyde Park which was broken up by the police, injuring 75 people. This coincided with the Outdoor Relief riots in Belfast. The long term impact of the hunger marches was the formation of the British National Council for Civil Liberties in 1934. It’s focus was on abuses by the state including the suppression of political opposition, the use of police, and the promotion of democratic norms. After thousands of Catholics were attacked and forced from their homes and jobs in Belfast in the summer of 1935, the Council for Civil Liberties created a commission to report on the use of emergency powers and draconian legislation by the Unionists. It delivered its report on 23rd May 1936 and the main conclusions were:—

  • Firstly, that through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of Government.
  • Secondly, that through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is at the arbitrary disposition of the Executive. This abrogation of the rule of law has been so practised as to bring the freedom of the subject into contempt.
  • Thirdly, that the Northern Irish Government has used special powers towards securing the domination of one particular political faction and, at the same time, towards curtailing the lawful activities of its opponents.
  • Fourthly, that the Northern Irish Government, despite its assurances that special powers are intended for use only against law-breakers, has frequently employed them against innocent and law-abiding people, often in humble circumstances, whose injuries, inflicted without cause or justification, have gone unrecompensed and disregarded.

It believed that the Unionists were “…in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”.

With no sense of irony, the Belfast Newsletter (25 May 1936) dismissed the report as ‘bitter attacks on Ulster’. It then followed the Commission’s conclusions with a response from the County Grand Master of Belfast Orangemen, Sir Joseph Davison (same as above), who stated that “…to the best of his knowledge responsible members of the Protestant community did not give evidence at the inquiry which could, therefore, scarcely be impartial. ‘I have not made a careful study of the report of the Commission,’ he said, ‘but it is clearly very one-sided.’”

The British National Council for Civil Liberties report was regularly cited for the next twenty years in reference to the failures of Unionism to administer justice. None of the political groupings in the north initially embraced any form of rights-based campaign. Certainly individual issues were cited by the likes of the Nationalists and various Labour political factions. Republicans, politically disengaged from the structures of the northern state, highlighted the nature of the administration of justice. As republican meetings, commemorations and publications were regularly banned and led to arrests, the mere act of protest often was restricted by the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act. This included campaigning for political status for prisoners and the release of internees and political prisoners. Campaigns to release internees and sentenced prisoners took place from around 1944 to 1950 and again from 1957 to 1962. The end of the latter campaign saw republicans co-operate with the British National Council for Civil Liberties to highlight the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act.

In 1950, Geoffrey Bing, a Belfast born Labour MP for Hornchurch who was associated with the Council for Civil Liberties, published a 24 page pamphlet called John Bull’s OtherIrelandhighlighting what he saw as the abuses the Tories enabled Unionism to perpetrate.  He wrote that “The outward and visible manifestation of Tory policy in Northern Ireland is sectarianism. The Catholics are, like the Jews under Hitler, to blame for everything. A politician has only to wave the Orange flag and there is no need for him to concern himself with tiresome questions of national welfare.” Several million copies of Bings’ pamphlet were sold. He concluded that “…the creation of Northern Ireland was the greatest of all gerrymanders.” and that the British government and parliament, ultimately, was enabling the Unionists to carry on in this way and needed to take the lead in forcing change to take place.

Later, in the 1960s, at the preliminary meeting in Belfast that agreed on the need to found the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a Dublin-based lawyer, Ciaran McAnally, identified the range of civil rights that should be upheld by society (as reported in the Irish Democrat, January 1967):

  1. The right to personal liberty and freedom of movement. This should only be forfeited following conviction in a fair trial on known charges;
  2. The right to freedom of expression in speech, writing or publication subjects to the norms of truth and justice. In other words, this right should not be used to the (legal) injury of others;
  3. The right to freedom of conscience to hold and change religious beliefs, and the right to proselytise;
  4. The right to assembly. This right is implicit in the right to free expression and personal liberty;
  5. The right to form associations that not harmful to society. This follows from the right of assembly;
  6. The right of access to courts of law to obtain the enforcement of the aforesaid rights. This entailed the provision of legal aid to people who otherwise would be prevented from having access to the courts;
  7. The right to protection against discrimination in public employment and fair and impartial access to the public services, housing, social security and the other facilities provided today by central and local government authorities.
  8. The right to freedom from conscription for conscientious objectors.

The initial press releases from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association concentrated mainly on the administration of justice, rather than the socio-economic issues. These were: 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 the public of their lawful rights.

But as the civil rights campaign developed, the socioeconomic issues began to be equally stressed drawing together what was to form the two most recognizable strands of the civil rights campaign.

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A history of NICRA by its first treasurer, Fred Heatley, published in Fortnight in 1974

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.

NICRA

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:

  1. To defend the basic freedom of all citizens.
  2. To protest the rights of the individual.
  3. To highlight all possible abuses of power.
  4. To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association.
  5. 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.

ARMAGH

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).

BURNTOLLET

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.

BOYLE’S LAW

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.

…to resist, to join together, occasionally to win…

“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.  And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.”

“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”

Howard Zinn, concluding his acceptance speech for Le prix des Amis du Monde diplomatique (a literary award given by the French newspaper Le Monde diplomatique), 1st December 2003.

If you aren’t familiar with Zinn’s writing on history, the quote above should be enough to make you curious.

The earlier prehistory of the civil rights campaign: more IRA than NICRA?

Far from dismissing the involvement of the IRA and Sinn Féin in the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967, is it time to acknowledge, instead, that it drew its roots and methods more from prisoner release organisations of 1960-62 than any of the individuals and organisation that subsequently coalesced with them to form NICRA itself. Ironically, is it time to admit that the NICRA owed even more to the IRA than is generally accepted.

The issue of the background to the civil rights movements in the north still appears to be the focus of some debate. While Bob Purdie’s Politics in the Streets (published in 1990) is quite explicit in tracing some roots of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association back into the Wolfe Tone Society and the IRA, earlier accounts, such as that of Fred Heatley (published in Fortnight in March 1974) pretty much cover the same ground. Neither makes an attempt to conceal the involvement of republicans. However, most accounts of the emerging civil rights campaign start in either 1962 or 1963, bookended by the formal declaration that the IRA’s border campaign was over in 1962. This means they don’t explore any synergies between the post-1967 NICRA and events less than five years beforehand, but probably reflect the history starting from when groups like the trade unions and some on the left became involved.

A useful reference point, and perspective, on the emergence and evolution of the civil rights campaign is given here by Niall Ó Dochartaigh which looks at its transition from protest through violence by considering the NICRA as a social movement (if you don’t read anything else below – do click on the article and read it).

As Ó Dochartaigh points out, methodologically, the NICRA, which people generally associate with marches and protests, didn’t really engage in those kind of tactics until August 1968 (it had been founded in January 1967). The Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) had been involved in street protests earlier in 1968, while the first protests (at Caledon) and NICRA march, from Coalisland to Dungannon, included the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) and others.

The founders and early membership of the NICRA aren’t really disputed by anyone. It included groups and individuals like the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) which had been formed in January 1964 building on the Dungannon-based Homeless Citizens League (HCL) that had been founded in 1963. The McCluskey’s and others involved in CSJ had mainly followed a reformist route to pressure the authorities into the desired changes through campaigns such as letter writing to senior British politicians. The likes of DHAC coalesced, at least in part, with the NICRA.

A major component of NICRA was the Wolfe Tone Society (WTS), founded in 1963. By the time the NICRA was formed in 1967, the Wolfe Tone Society was into its second incarnation. Its early members were a patchwork of former IRA leaders, current IRA and Sinn Féin activists, trade unionists, arts and Irish language people and socialists. By April 1964, the secretary was Roy Johnston, who had spent 1960-63 in England where he had been active in the Connolly Association as was another WTS figure, Anthony Coughlan. Rightly or wrongly, the Connolly Association was then regarded as a creature of the Stalinist CPGB, the Communist Party of Great Britain (by the CPGB). Johnston had helped found the current Irish communist party (the Irish Workers League) in 1948 and been a member of CPGB while in England. Prominent British communist Desmond Greaves was also heavily involved in both and believed himself to be influential in Irish politics too. Collectively they like to see their arrival on the political scene in 1963 and the dissemination of Greaves analysis (particularly by Johnston) as the point of origin of NICRA.

In terms of their impact on any sentimental appeal of communism in Ireland, a watershed moment for the Irish Workers League, the Communist Party of Great Britain and others had been the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which had been defended by contemporary Stalinist organisations (including Greaves) and was still fresh in the mind in the early 1960s. This made it difficult to cross-pollinate their ideas with Irish nationalist and republican sensibilities.

The Wolfe Tone Society had been formed by amalgamating the local Wolfe Tone Societies that had been created in 1962 to co-ordinate commemorations, in 1963, of the bicentenary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. This was part of the IRA’s post-border campaign horizon-scanning under Cathal Goulding. The local branches had been organised under a directorate and membership had been sought from the trade unions and cultural organisations. The language was careful, stressing the shared heritage of the United Irishmen. But the events were unapologetic in their cultural reference points with participation by the likes of the GAA and Gaelic League.

The early Belfast delegates to the Wolfe Tone Society represented a range of socialist and republican opinion, like former IRA Adjutant General Liam Burke, communist Jack Bennett, trade unionist Fred Heatley and Sean Caughey, the leader of Sinn Féin in Belfast. The influence of Greaves on Johnston and Coughlan would have emphasised some of the reformist aspects of their Connolly Association background. In Britain, by 1964, the Connolly Association believed that Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 gave Westminster the power to end the discriminatory and repressive measures used by the northern government. With that in mind, the association helped form the ‘Campaign for Democracy in Ulster’ with support from (mainly Labour) backbench MPs and others in January 1965.

The likes of Sean Caughey provides a direct link back into earlier, albeit smaller scale, social movements. It also takes the roots of NICRA further back beyond the histories written by the likes of Heatley or Purdie, or the involvement of Johnston and Coughlan. While they all acknowledge republican involvement, they don’t trace the roots of NICRA further back into the prisoner release organisations of the IRA’s border campaign that ended in 1962 (while Purdie does, he mistakenly dates their formation to 1962). While Caughey was one of those centrally involved in the Wolfe Tone Society, he left Sinn Féin in 1965 and formed the Irish Union, one of a number of small, short-lived, parties that emerged in the mid-1960s.

[Photo’s from Joe Baker’s Belfast in the 1960s. Thanks to Feargal Caughey for reminding me about it!]

The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties (BCCL) had been formed back in January 1960, involving republican figures like Leo Wilson, who was secretary in 1960. The Belfast Council for Civil Liberties mounted a campaign to have internees and political prisoners of the Unionist government freed. Wilson outlined the ethos of the BCCL: “This Council is not concerned with political or sectarian issues. Its aims are the protection of fundamental human rights, as set out in the United Nations Charter. We regard interment or arbitrary arrest as a denial of these rights, and we are opposed to unjust or undemocratic practices, no matter from what source they may originate.

The BCCL wasn’t exactly a novel concept. In the late 1940s there had been two, co-existent organisations, the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare Association (IRPWA) and the Republican Prisoners’ Release Association (RPRA). Both were simply the latest incarnation of two distinct missions, one of which (IRPWA) supported prisoners and their dependents, the other (RPRA) mounted publicity campaigns and lobbied to secure their release. The release of the last prisoners from Crumlin Road Jail in 1950 saw, of necessity, the winding down of both organisations which were reformed on an ad hoc basis as circumstances required throughout the 1950s.

By the summer of 1960 BCCL was being referred to as the ‘Northern Ireland’ Council for Civil Liberties. It continued to campaign for the release of prisoners and highlighted human rights abuses, stating that should be brought to the United Nations. By 1962, Caughey was NICCL secretary. The NICCL continually flagged prisoner issues and the suppression of public protests. It was present at pickets and public attempts to challenge the banning of marches and public meetings. The profile of activity of NICCL more closely resembles the NICRA than any of the intervening organisations.

The NICCL agenda seems to be well reflected in the objectives of the NICRA at the time of its formation: (1) To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens. (2) To protect the rights of the individual. (3) To highlight all possible abuses of power. (4) To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association. (5) To inform the public of their lawful rights (see Bob Purdie, Politics on the Streets, 1990, p.133). Issues raised by NICRA such as ‘one man, one vote’ and housing, while implicit in its objectives in 1967, came more clearly to prominence in 1968 and later.

Suffrage issues like ‘one man, one vote’ had been raised by the Nationalist Party back in the 1930s and 1940s and Northern Ireland Labour Party by the 1940s and sporadically through the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1965, at a Belfast meeting to plan for the 1966 Easter Rising anniversary, Tomas MacGiolla had signalled that it was to be a social issue that Sinn Féin would take up. Yet it wasn’t explicitly listed as an initial objective of the NICRA.

The NICRA demand for freedom of speech, assembly and association had equally deep roots and resonated with long-term conflicts between republicans, (occasionally) socialists, and, the Unionist government over repression and political control since the 1920s. Arguably, with Belfast’s long history of sectarian violence, the deep history of repression and political control, as evidenced by recurrent street violence, went back much further than issues of suffrage. The NICCL also links the NICRA back into a longer continuum of social movements protesting the detention or internment of political prisoners and engaging in the type of street protests that were to become a feature of the NICRA campaigns by late 1968.

The repression and political control was experience by republicans during 1964 (including those in WTS) when it protested the RUC’s removal of a tricolour from its Divis Street election headquarters and in the subsequent violence and protests, and, again in 1966 when it was in conflict with Unionists over the 1916 commemorations. The 1964 electoral campaign, riots and attempts at repression drew both a violent response in 1965 (by a breakaway group calling itself the Irish Freedom Fighters) and then a much more violent Unionist response in 1966.

Ó Dochartaigh asserts that, reading the history of the civil rights campaign and the interplay between peaceful protest and violence “…the concept of continuum emphasizes the links between these different phases, a more systematic exploration of the continuities in goals and aims that run through these different phases of contention might enrich our understanding of this process of change. In the course of the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland demands relating to discrimination and the restricted suffrage were superseded by the issues of repression and unionist political control. But these latter two issues had provided the deep underlying motivation for many of the movement’s founders, before the dramatic confrontations that brought them to the centre of debate.

The problem with a ‘concept of continuum’, in any context, is determining what to accept as the appropriate starting point. Clearly, cycles of violence were present in the period leading up to the foundation of the NICRA, such as 1964-66. However, the roots of the NICRA clearly extended back past that cycle, in the form of the early Wolfe Tone Societies and earlier, in BCCL/NICCL with continuity provided by the involvement of members of the republican movement. Unlike the later participants in the NICRA or IWL/CPGB and trade unionists that began to join the embryonic campaign from 1962-63 onwards, the republicans brought a deep background in organising street protests and marches and having to confront the open, and often violent, repression of the Unionist government.

There maybe lies one fallacy in minimising republican involvement in NICRA. The polices and practices NICRA sought to address hadn’t somehow emerged, fully formed, in the late 1960s. Instead, they had been central to the methodologies of Unionist governance. The fact that, from around 1963, other organisations took a greater interest in attempting to promote change, shouldn’t obscure the much deeper history of the injustices and resistance to them that NICRA sought to address.

75th Anniversary of Crumlin Road Jail Escape

Monday 15th January 2018 will be the 75th anniversary of the escape from Crumlin Road Jail by Pat Donnelly, Hugh McAteer, Ned Maguire and Jimmy Steele.

The escape provided one of the few iconic images of the IRA campaign of the 1940s, with the famous wanted poster. It was initially published in the local press on the day following the escape (see below).

The poster contains a couple of errors. Jimmy Steele was born in 1907, not 1909. Similarly, Hugh McAteer was born in 1916, not 1917. I managed to perpetuate this error last year by incorrectly noting the centenary of his birth (his daughter Máire has since put me right – he was born in Derry on 13th August 1916). McAteer wrote an account of the escape, which I’d previously posted up here.

You can read an account based on the escape report and other memoirs here.

You can find out more about the escape here and listen to the Men With No Property’s recording of ‘Steele and McAteers Daring Escape from the Crumlin Road Jail’ (am not sure who wrote it, but one candidate would be Arthur Corr, who was an orderly in A wing at the time of the escape and wrote the balled ‘Tom Williams’).

Winnie Carney at the GPO, via #Herstory

Last night, the image of Winifred Carney was one of those projected onto the GPO as part of #Herstory, to coincide with Nollaig na mBan (literary, ‘the women’s Christmas’, the traditional Irish name for the Christian feast of the Epiphany in Ireland).

You can check out more text and images via the Herstory social media and website.

Carney, born in Bangor but brought in Belfast, was a trade unionist, suffragist and republican activist. Living at Carlisle Circus, she was active in the textile unions, Gaelic League and nationalist organizations and was prominent in highlighting the dreadful conditions faced by workers in Belfast, particularly women and children.

She worked closely with James Connolly, particularly throughout the Easter Rising where she was the first woman into the GPO and last to leave. The other Belfast republicans active in Dublin during the Rising was mainly women (eg see Nora Connolly’s account here). Afterwards she stood for election for Sinn Féin and continued to be active in the likes of the TGWU and, later, the NILP. She married George McBride in 1928 (below, with Carney, image held by District Trades Union Council), who had been in the UVF and Orange Order but was by then a committed socialist.

Carney died in 1943, ages only 56, and is buried in Milltown.

James Connolly 150th anniversary

The 5th June 2018 will mark the 150th anniversary of James Connolly’s birth in Edinburgh of Monaghan parents. I’m sure the year will include various events and discussions of Connolly, his life and legacy.

One area that interests me and, I think, seems wholly under-explored, is Connolly’s time as a British soldier. Not just in how it must have contributed to Connolly’s own political and intellectual formation but also in how it provides an example of that tradition of service in Britain’s armed forces by Irish Catholics. Connolly’s military experience is very much suppressed in the post-1916 twentieth century hagiography and biographical treatments of his life (Greaves being the obvious pioneer of reintroducing his years as a soldier into the substance of the Connolly legend). That’s a thread I’m going to try and continue to pick up in 2018.

During this year, I’m hoping to start adding contributions from other people. The guiding principle will be that I’ll add anything relevant: memoirs, old historical news items, ephemera, songs/ballads etc. It doesn’t need to be academically written or of any particular length. The only requirement is that it adds something new, not well known or interesting. Easiest way to let me know you’ve something of interest is to message me via the Facebook page or by email (jjconeill at gmail.com works best).

In the meantime, best wishes for 2018 and thanks for continuing to read and comment on the blog and Facebook and here’s some Connolly reading from the blog to get your new year started.

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/learn-all-he-can-and-put-his-training-to-the-best-advantage-irish-republicans-in-the-british-army/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/james-connollys-time-as-a-british-soldier-some-new-evidence/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/nora-connolly-obrien-on-her-father-belfast-and-1916/

https://treasonfelony.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/they-told-me-how-connolly-was-shot-in-the-chair/