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.