Bigotry and ignorance destroyed brief period of enlightenment in 1960s Northern Ireland

Posted By: October 08, 2018

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, October 6, 2018

The civil rights movement was The North’s first peace process. An odd claim you might think since many believe that the movement marked the beginning of The Troubles.

But examining the origins of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) shows that it was the first attempt at normal politics in a society which had been in a deep sectarian freeze since 1922 and, for the first time, it used peaceful protest rather than violent paramilitarism to confront the state.

This view argues that the 30-year sectarian war arose not because of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) but despite it.

So, how did it all begin? The CRM was influenced by a variety of political, social and economic factors of varying significance, which came together in the enlightened 1960s. Its main influences included the North’s 1947 Education Act, the Connolly Association in Britain, the Campaign for Social Justice, the IRA and the Beatles.

The 1947 Education Act allowed access to universities for those who previously would have been too poor to attend. The newly educated were able to describe, quantify and analyze Stormont’s discrimination against the wider world.

This reasoned and logical approach had been pioneered by Conn and Patricia McCluskey in Dungannon who, in 1963, formed the Homeless Citizens’ League and in 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ). In the weeks before NICRA’s foundation in 1967, for example, Patricia was challenging John Taylor through the letters page of this newspaper about housing conditions in Dungannon.

Even before the CSJ, however, the Connolly Association in Britain was highlighting northern injustices. In 1958, it published “Torture Trial in Belfast,” an eye-witness account of the trial of Kevin Mallon and Patrick Talbot, two Tyrone men who were tortured during questioning about the death of an RUC sergeant.

In 1961, the association organized two marches in England for civil rights in Northern Ireland – from London to Birmingham and from Manchester to Huddersfield. It published “The Northern Ireland Police State” on the Special Powers Act and, having identified that some internees in Crumlin Road prison were trade unionists, they gained the support of a million and a half British trade unionists to demand their release.

Meanwhile, the IRA had ended its border campaign (1956-62). Some volunteers left, but those who remained began an analysis of why the campaign failed and what they should do next.

They concluded that the IRA had become irrelevant by concentrating on militarism and ignoring social and economic issues. This new approach was reflected in an editorial in the IRA monthly newspaper, the United Irishman, by Dennis Foley, who wrote in 1965, Mair a chapel – live horse (and you will get grass).

He argued that the welfare of the Irish people could not wait until the establishment of a “free Ireland.” The North that meant campaigning peacefully for democracy. The IRA’s peace process had begun.

As a result, the first NICRA committee included Liam McMillen, a prominent Belfast republican. The early civil rights marches included IRA men, who ensured that peaceful protest remained peaceful. Time spent in dug-outs in south Derry, cells in the Crumlin Road and behind the barbed wire of the Curragh had taught some hard lessons.

Now the IRA were marching in a non-sectarian movement for democracy, alongside a wide variety of groups and individuals including a newly educated generation, members of the Wolfe Tone Societies, trade unionists, the Communist Party and those who had never been politically active.

Then there were the Beatles – not that they campaigned for civil rights, but they typified a new generation which challenged authority in the 1960s. Prompted by changes in everything from hairstyle to clothes, we pushed aside traditions such as sectarianism, discrimination, and one-party rule.

And then it all fell to pieces. Some went party political and formed the SDLP. Others drifted away, disillusioned by the sectarian tensions created by unionist intransigence, which was fuelled by Paisley’s bigotry and implemented by RUC brutality.

Old Republicans, who were absent from the IRA’s new departure, took the opportunity to form their own IRA and embark again on militarism. In 1994, almost 4,000 deaths later, their defeated paramilitary army sued for a peace process, even though they had mocked a better, non-sectarian one almost 30 years earlier.

The civil rights movement was founded essentially on education, whether in the classroom or the prison cell, but bigotry-driven ignorance destroyed what was a brief era of enlightenment, hope, and dreams in northern politics. That ignorance still dominates our politics today, and free university education has gone the way of the civil rights campaign – a mere memory of what might have been.