“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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Prayers in the rain, Milltown 1935

In 1935 the Easter Rising commemoration at Milltown cemetery was banned by the northern government as had happened in previous years. Some 200 RUC men were drafted in to seal off the cemetery and prevent any ceremony being held. In defiance of both the northern government, and the elements (it poured rain), some 2,000 republicans gathered at the cemetery gates despite the rain. Fr J Bradley, from St Patricks, gave out the Rosary as the crowd knelt in the rain (he can be seen standing in the middle of the crowd in the photo below).

Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935

Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935

This public show of defiance was the largest attendance at an Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast to date (and would be until the mid-1950s). The practice of saying the Rosary had become a hallmark of the Belfast commemorations in the 1930s. Since the northern government could not prevent a religious ceremony being held it had been the sole public act of commemoration that Belfast republicans could hold. Notably, this was probably the last major gathering of republicans or nationalists in Belfast prior to the pogrom that summer. Even before the Outdoor Relief Riots in October 1932, An Phoblacht had been warning that there were signs that the northern government would attempt to divide the community by initiating a pogrom. Mini outbreaks followed but a fully-blown violent assault on areas where Catholics were resident, in particular around Lancaster Street, the Docks, North Queen Street and York Street, finally came in 1935. Perhaps the northern government were spooked into action by the defiance seen at Easter in Belfast. Notably, de Valera was too, as he had a Belfast IRA training camp raided on the eve of the pogrom and detained many of the Belfast IRA volunteers who were there. The timing was not believed to be a coincidence.

Despite the apparent religious fervour of the image, republicans were in perpetual conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and the attachment to the rosary being said at Milltown was in its symbolic defiance and resistance to the northern government rather than pious devotion. Ironic too, it was not the Catholicism of IRA members that the northern government feared but rather it’s long term co-operation on various projects with left-wing groups in Belfast (there had even been a mini-purge of senior Belfast republicans who were hostile to the left in 1932 and 1933).

In the aftermath of the 1935 pogrom, the National Council of Civil Liberties investigated both what had happened and the Unionist government’s Special Powers Acts. On the 23rd May 1936 it finally presented its report in London. According to the report, Catholics had been denied all lawful means of conducting their political activities or of advancing the cause of a United Ireland. The Commission of Inquiry reported that:

It is sad that in the guise of temporary and emergency legislation there should have been created, under the shadow of the British Constitution, a permanent machine of dictatorship – a standing temptation to whatever intolerant or bigoted section may attain power to abuse its authority at the expense of the people it rules.[1]

The report itself highlighted the origins and uses of the Special Powers Acts. It identified a constitutional irregularity between the powers conferred by the Act on the Executive (effectively the Minister of Home Affairs) and the limitations of the powers given to the northern government under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to pass such legislation. It goes on to examine the extent to which the Special Powers Acts created new ‘offences’, removed the normal protections afforded by the law, subjected judicial process to political interference (criticising, in particular, the appointment of Resident Magistrates). It emphasised the roles played by the Orange Order and Protestant Leaguers in attacks on working-class and labour organisations (as well as on Catholics). It also highlighted how the Orders were linked to the government, judiciary and policing and never subjected to the use of the Special Powers Acts themselves. The Commission made reference to the ‘electoral reforms’ which gerrymandered various electoral bodies to guarantee a unionist majority.

It summarised this by saying that the Special Powers Acts: “…places the Executive in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”. It illustrated the report with various cases to show typical ways the act was used to target and harass labour activists, Catholics and republicans.

The conclusion of the report is damning and worth quoting in full:

Through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of government.

“Through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is 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.

“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. The driving of legitimate movements underground into illegality, the intimidating or branding as law-breakers of their adherents, however innocent of crime, has tended to encourage violence and bigotry on the part of the Government’s supporters as well as to beget in its opponents an intolerance of the ‘law and order’ thus maintained. The Government’s policy is thus driving its opponents into the ways of extremists.

“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.

“Jurists have hitherto regarded the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law as the two cardinal principles of the British Constitution. The Northern Irish Government in abrogating them has ravished the heritage for which generations of Britons have fought and suffered. The Special Powers Acts, the basis of a legal dictatorship, are a vital link in the chain which has been forged around the freedom of the community of Northern Ireland.

“The Commission expresses the belief that the operation of the Special Powers Acts has the most widespread effect upon political life in Northern Ireland. The existing conditions of rule – secured by the supercession of representative government and the abrogation of the rule of law and the liberty of the subject, the basis of Special Powers – cannot be described otherwise than as totally unBritish.

“It is clear to the Commission, that the way to the re-establishment of constitutional government, the prerequisite of law and order in democratic communities, can be paved only by the repeal of the Special Powers Acts. Where the pillars of constitutional rule, parliamentary sovereignty, and the rule of law are overthrown there exist the essential conditions of dictatorship.”

Anyone who believed that the report might have some impact either in Westminster or Belfast was quickly put straight by Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of the northern government: “… no importance should be attached to a document containing such misrepresentations…”.[2]

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[1] For instance, see The Irish Times, 25 May 1936

[2] McEoin 1997, 372s