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.

The Manchester Martyrs centenary and echoes of the 1969 split in the IRA

Up to the Easter Rising, one of the key annual events in the republican calendar was the commemoration of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’, William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O’Brien, the IRB members who were publicly hanged in front of a crowd of 8-10,000 outside Salford Gaol on 23rd November 1867. They were hung for the death of a police sergeant during an attempt to free two IRB prisoners from a police van. Neither Allen, Larkin or O’Brien fired the shots that killed the policemen and two others that had also been sentenced to death had their sentences commuted due, in one case, due to American citizenship (a lesson not lost on a future generation), and in another, due to the clearly perjured evidence against him (bizarrely, the others were all convicted on the same evidence but not reprieved).

Smashing of the Van

‘The Smashing of the Van’ – the attempt to free two IRB leaders that led to Sergeant Brett being shot and the execution of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ in 1867.

The execution was only the second public hanging in Manchester and The Pall Mall Gazette in London noted (on 25th November) the well behaved nature of the crowd (as opposed to the rioting that frequently accompanied hangings in London) and put it down to the fact that “…a taste for execution is perhaps, rather acquired than natural.” The hangman, William Calcraft, was notoriously inept and only Allen is believed to have been killed by the initial drop. Calcraft himself pulled on Larkin’s legs to break his neck but a priest in attendance, Fr Gadd, stopped him from doing the same to O’Brien. Instead the priest held O’Brien’s hands for three quarters of an hour until he finally died. The three were buried in the New Bailey prison in Manchester, although public funerals were held across Ireland and in some cities in Britain. Allen, Larkin and O’Brien are publicly commemorated in the song ‘God Save Ireland’, first published by Tim Dan Sullivan in December 1867. Another song, ‘The Smashing of the Van’ commemorates the events that led to their execution. Their remains were moved from the New Bailey prison to Strangeways in 1868 and then cremated and reinterred in Blackley cemetery in 1991.

Even after 1916, a huge commemorative ceili continued to be held annually in the Mansion House in Dublin for several decades. There are a lot of parallels with 1916, in terms of how the event became a focal point within the broader political methodology of Irish republicanism. For long periods, Irish republicanism had focused on building towards an event that might become the spark that would lead to the establishment of the Irish republic, rather than what would later become known as a ‘long war’ strategy (or low intensity conflict). In 1916, the ‘blood sacrifice’ concept understood by Pearse and Connolly was rooted in a realisation that failure to secure a republic by force of arms, in April 1916, would likely see their deaths either in battle or by execution. However, both knew Irish republicans could then catalyse the reaction to executions (rather than the whole Rising) into an ideological parable to try and give impetus to the Irish public to go out and establish that republic (as had happened with the Manchester Martyrs). Arguably, the structure of republican strategy, post-1981 hunger strike can be read within a similar framework. In the late 19th century, the Manchester Martyrs had provided a similar focus rather than the broader ‘Fenian movement’.  In many ways, the historical narrative around Irish republican ideology is often best understood within the context of such events involving a small number of individuals, rather than by looking at time periods defined in other ways (eg the ‘War of Independence’ was often reduced to a summary that focused on the likes of the execution of Kevin Barry).

The centenary of the Manchester Martyrs saw various events organised. Known, by 1967, as the Manchester Martyrs and Easter Week Commemoration Committee, the main organisers announced a few weeks in advance that a ‘Manchester Martyrs Commemoration Week’ was to be held in Manchester from November 20th to 26th. This was to include a folk night in St Bernadette’s Hall, Princess Road, a play presented by the St. Brendan’s Irish Players in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre. City Road, Old Trafford, a High Mass in St. Patrick’s Church, Livesey Street on the actual anniversary (celebrated by the Bishop of Salford),  a dinner dance in St. Brendan’s Irish Centre, City Road with the Assarce Ceili Band and then a parade on the 26th from Bexlev Square past the place of execution to St. Patrick’s Church for 11.30 am Mass. The parade was then to reassemble at Ben Brierley, Moston at 3 p.m. and continue to Saint Joseph’s Cemetery, Moston, where an oration was to be given by Jimmy Steele, Belfast, and a decade of the Rosary in Irish. All Irish organisations in Manchester were requested to keep that week free of engagements to support the committee’s functions.

In Manchester itself the centenary was preceded by a dispute over the erection of a memorial plaque at the site of the execution. The memorial was proposed and sponsored by the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association rather than the official Manchester Martyrs Memorial committee. It was given planning permission but opposed by the Manchester police and the issue was not resolved prior to the centenary itself. The Connolly Association had offered to include the policeman’s name on the plaque (arguing that he too was equally a victim of British imperialism). But the left wing politics of the Connolly Association also brought it into conflict with the conservation Catholicism of the official Memorial committee.

At the end of the main commemoration on the 26th November, the Memorial committee chairman, Austin Fitzmaurice, was prompted by one of his committee to add some final comments. The first was that the commemoration was nothing to do with any other commemoration committee (clearly meaning the Connolly Association), the second was that ‘those present’ did not want Ireland freed with the help of Soviet Union and the last was “We are Catholics first and Irishmen afterwards.” (Irish Democrat, January 1968).

The Connolly Association plaque was put on display during the commemorations, though. The main gathering on the Sunday was attended by 3,000 people including 77 year old, Elizabeth Maher, a cousin of Michael Larkin, who had travelled from Dublin. Also in attendance were Tomas MacGiolla, President of Sinn Féin and Jimmy Steele, Chair of the Republican Clubs in the north, members of Fianna Éireann (whose Dublin branch organised Ms Maher’s travel and provided a colour party), Cumann na mBan, the Brian Boru Pipe Band and the Pre-Truce IRA Association.

At the main gathering in the cemetery in Moston, Jimmy Steele gave what the Connolly Association’s newspaper, The Irish Democrat, described as a ‘spirited oration’ in its December issue. In it he criticised the ‘New Departure’ of John Devoy and Michael Davitt, stating that “…it was always an error to become involved in political parties.” (Irish Democrat, December 1967). Devoy, who had later supported the Treaty and Cumann na nGaedhal, had pushed the IRB leader, Michael Davitt, into supporting Parnell and the constitutional nationalists sitting at Westminster in 1878. This was perceived as having weakened the IRB and directed energies towards four decades of an ineffectual ‘Home Rule’ campaign in Westminster (the culmination of its failures being the IRB’s response with the 1916 Rising).

The month previously, Dan Breen, the former IRA leader who had been a Fianna Fáil TD, led a commemoration and wreath laying at the John Devoy memorial in Kildare, alongside leading Fine Gael politicians. Notably, neither party appears to have been represented at the official Manchester commemoration. There is an interesting echo here of last year’s 1916 centenary and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s embarrassingly strained emphasis on constitutionalists like John Redmond.

Steele might have intended his comments to be a commentary on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael détente at Devoy’s memorial, or at least be read as such. But within the IRA and Sinn Féin, Cathal Goulding had been pushing for an end to abstentionism at Leinster House, Stormont and Westminster. This had been repeatedly defeated when put to a vote. While his strategy was being questioned, Goulding had increasingly been centralising control of both the IRA and Sinn Féin in himself and in its public voice, like The United Irishman newspaper. The Belfast IRA newspaper Tírghrá, edited by Steele, was starved of resources and effectively closed down by Goulding in 1965. In September 1968, Goulding was to dilute the ability of the IRA to oppose his attempts to end abstentionism by dramatically expanding the Army Council so that he could then install a majority of his supporters and force through changes (and, apparently, stall any Army Convention that might reverse the changes). This precipitated the crisis within the IRA that surfaced in the early summer of 1969, led by Steele. In that light, Steele’s comments in Manchester should be seen as commentary on Goulding’s aspirations to transform the IRA. The Manchester Martyr’s commemoration in 1967 should perhaps be regarded as an opening salvo in the dispute that was to split the IRA two years later.

For more on the Manchester Martyrs, see Joe O’Neill’s The Manchester Martyrs.