Posted By: April 07, 2017

Civil rights movement marks 50th milestone

Described by a founding member as ‘the most successful political force since partition’, events take place this weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

John Monaghan. Irish News. Friday, April 7, 2017

 HOUSING: Forty years on from occupying a house in Caledon Austin Currie, right, and the late trade unionist Inez McCormick,                                                                            left, listen to Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie, center addressing a housing rights conference.

SYMBOLIC IMAGE: Patsy Gildernew, Austin Currie and Joe Campbell at the Caledon sit-in with protesters in 1968

 WE SHALL OVERCOME: Clockwise from above, a civil rights march in Dungannon in 1968; Patsy Gildernew, Austin Currie,                                                                                        and Joe Campbell at the Caledon sit-in with protesters in 1968; reports in the Irish News of events in Dungannon; water cannon                                                                            turned on civil rights marchers in Derry in 1968.

  BLOODY SUNDAY: Bishop Edward Daly who went to the aid of civil rights protesters gunned down by British soldiers during                                                                         Bloody Sunday, shown on a Bogside mural, right. He died in August last year.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the official formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

Water cannon turned on civil rights marchers in Derry in 1968. Picture copy by Margaret McLaughlin


 STALWARTS: Derryâ??s civil rights leaders John Hume and Ivan Cooper at the unveiling of a mural dedicated to the civil rights movement in the Bogside Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

File photo dated 14/06/10 of a mural in the Bogside area of Derry depicting Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief as he led Jackie Duddy away from danger on Bloody Sunday, as the retired Catholic bishop who went to the aid of civil rights protesters gunned down by British soldiers has died, the Catholic Church said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday, August 8, 2016. See PA story, ULSTER Daly. Photo credit should read Paul Faith/PA Wire.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) officially marks a milestone this weekend with events taking place reflecting on its founding 50 years ago.

Although a fledgling group first met in January 1967 when 13 committee members were elected, it was April 9, 1967, when a constitution was ratified and the movement’s aims set out.

Attended by between 70 to 100 people the meeting at the International Hotel in Belfast was a low-key affair.

However, within 18 months, the civil rights movement was familiar in every household after violence at a rally in Derry in October 1968 flashed images around the world of the RUC baton-charging protesters.

The movement was driven by a desire for social justice and change with a key aim of ending the discrimination and inequality faced by the Catholic population.

Chaired by Noel Harris, a trade unionist and member of the Communist Party, the committee covered a broad base of political opinion, with academics, communists, trade unionists and republicans all represented.

Amongst those on the initial committee was Billy McMillen, the Official IRA’s leader in Belfast who was killed in 1975 during a republican feud, while Robin Cole, a former chairman of the Young Unionists at Queen’s University Belfast, was later co-opted.

The make-up of the group was certainly diverse, according to historian and Irish News columnist Brian Feeney.

“The unusual thing was that Communist Party members sat on it; they didn’t tend to sit on committees.

“Of course, the presence of someone like McMillen was the evidence that the British, unionists and RUC needed to state that it was all a republican front.”

While Terence O’Neill, the Ulster Unionist prime minister, set out to improve nationalist-unionist relations, protesters sensed he was “all gesture and no substance” about introducing reforms, according to political historian Dr. Éamon Phoenix.

“By the 1960s you had the spread of television, the civil rights movement in the US, and the impact of the post-war education act, which saw working-class people, many of them Catholic, going through the grammar school and university system,” he said.

“In 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice is set up. They begin writing to British ministers with examples of cases of gerrymandering. The British government become concerned about the lack of British standards in their own backyard.”

Dr. Phoenix said: “The straw that really broke the camel’s back was the choice of a non-descript Unionist town, Coleraine, for a second university rather than Derry. To make matters worse, the unionist cabinet had actually wanted Portadown.”

There were also internal squabbles going on within both nationalism and republicanism.

Dr. Phoenix said: “The Nationalist Party was conservative, focused on partition rather than the basic grievances facing the nationalist population. The old nationalist leaders saw the civil rights leaders as challenging them.

“You also have a re-think going on in republicanism, leading away from violence and towards political protests.”

Austin Currie, the former Stormont MP, TD and government minister both north and south of the border, was present at the two meetings in 1967 and said he refused to go onto the committee to avoid perceptions that the new grouping was aligned to a party.

Mr. Currie, then the Nationalist Party MP at Stormont for East Tyrone, told The Irish News: “The fact that any unionist was able to attend at all would indicate that it wasn’t the great threat that they later came to see it as.

“No elected politician was on the Executive. That was deliberate. I was proposed but refused on the basis that it should not be party


In the years leading up to the formation of NICRA, Mr. Currie had assisted the Campaign for Social Justice group, set up in 1964 by Dungannon GP Dr. Conn McCluskey, who was also on the initial 13 person NICRA committee.

He said: “The Campaign for Social Justice had had documented cases of abuses and I brought them over to London.

“Very few in Britain understood what the problem was. Very few had factual information about the situation in Northern Ireland.”

“At that stage, we were trying to put the factual information together and influence opinion makers in Britain,” added Mr. Currie.

At its initial meeting, NICRA published five general objectives – to defend the basic freedoms of all citizens; to protect the rights of the individual; to highlight all possible abuses of power; to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association; and finally, to inform the public of their lawful rights.

The year after its formation, two events propelled the civil rights question into the public consciousness.

In June 1968, Mr. Currie squatted at a house in Caledon, Co Tyrone, in protest at a decision by Dungannon Rural District Council to allocate a new council house to Protestant teenager Emily Beattie ahead of a young Catholic couple with children.

Mr. Currie said: “There were protests and agitation, but eventually I felt we weren’t getting anywhere and I wasn’t getting anywhere. I decided to go for bust. I went through the normal procedure of asking parliamentary questions. Eventually I saw to it that I was thrown out of the Stormont Assembly. That was to get publicity. All the time I was thinking about the impact in Britain. It was a very unusual thing that an MP would break the law by squatting at Caledon.”

Shortly after the Caledon protest, Mr. Currie and two fellow Dungannon councilors, John Donaghy and Michael McLoughlin, approached NICRA with the idea of a civil rights march from Coalisland to Dungannon.

“It was a big departure from what NICRA had been doing and some of them weren’t keen,” he said.

“We were disappointed with the publicity it received – it was planned for August 24 – but then of course the week it happened the USSR invaded Prague. So, the media went to Prague instead of Coalisland.”

Mr. Currie added: “However, it went very well and encouraged others to go to Derry in October 1968. The media made it to Derry in great numbers and of course those images went around the world.”

Although the subsequent outbreak of sectarian violence saw the sidelining of the civil rights movement and the polarization of the north’s two communities, NICRA did achieve its initial aims.

In November 1968, just weeks after the Derry protest, Terence O’Neill, under pressure from the British government, announced a five-point reform package to be put in place by late 1971.

It included a points system for the allocation of housing, the removal of some parts of the 1922 Special Powers Act and the replacement of Londonderry Corporation with a Development Commission.

Business owners would no longer get additional votes, while an Ombudsman would be appointed to examine complaints.

Dr. Phoenix said the campaigners had achieved more within “45 days of the October 1968 march they had achieved more than in the previous 45 years.”

He said: “In the end, it had a violent outcome, something the civil rights movement would have wanted to avoid.

“They had alerted the British government to abuses in Northern Ireland.

“However, it was portrayed by Paisley and other Unionists as a republican front because known republicans were present. That mud stuck with a large section of unionism.”

Austin Currie views the civil rights movement in the north as “the most successful political force since partition”.

“All of the demands were granted within a very short period of time. The trouble was that certain sections of the community decided on violence. The republicans had decided that they were going to go for a united Ireland.”