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"We Shall Overcome" .... The History of the Struggle for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland 1968 - 1978 by NICRA (1978)

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Text: Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

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In January 1970 Captain O'Neill became a life peer, the UDR came into existence and the RUC returned unarmed onto the Falls Road and the Bogside. A new set of political props had arrived on the Northern Ireland stage but the theme of the drama was all too familiar. Up in Stormont the Unionists were at it again. Their Public Order [Amendment] Act was due for passing. This Act made it an offence to take part in an unlawful procession, and it also became an offence to sit, kneel or lie on the road in a demonstration. It was also illegal to occupy a building by way of protest and the period of notice of a march to the police was extended from 48 to 72 hours. Briefly it was an attempt to force civil rights and other demonstrations off the streets so that no political pressure could be put on the Government except by the ineffective minority inside parliament. NICRA was aware that it had no proper representation inside parliament in the manner of a political party and it was therefore imperative to protect its only method of legitimate political demand, the street demonstration. On February 7th it organised 9 demonstrations in Northern Ireland and 15 throughout Britain in protest against the Act.


But there was more trouble inside the organisation. In December three members of the executive, Dr. Conn McCluskey, John Donaghy and Brid Rodgers, had complained of the left wing influences in the organisation and had said that certain members of the executive were making unreasonable demands of the movement at that time.

It was a clear reference to the influences of the PD members on the executive. The three objectors represented the opposite end of the political spectrum. Civil rights must be Catholic rights and those arguing for socialist rights had no place on the executive. It was the old problem of determining who should have political priority in demanding both the type of rights and in making pre-conditions as to whom those rights should benefit most.


The civil rights demands raised many problems. The old Nationalist - Unionist division in Northern Ireland had stifled political thought for 50 years and in the breath of political fresh air which NICRA brought to the country a vast array of hibernating political animals were awakened.

Their first instinct was to follow the civil rights band wagon, but on careful reflection several people realised that a non-party-political demand like civil rights was not in keeping with their pre-determined political views, and, unable to swing NICRA into a definite party political position, they generally left, unaware that a civil rights organisation by the nature of its demands could retain credibility only as long as it remained aloof from party political lines.

That NICRA should be classified as an anti-unionist organisation was a reasonable expectation in the light of Northern politics. But that several political groups should have anticipated it as an organisation which could cater for their political ideology was a reflection of the lack of political progressive thought in Northern Ireland. If NICRA achieved nothing else in this period it certainly forced all anti-Unionists to develop their political thoughts beyond the stage of negative politics of simple anti-unionism.

They could then work out their positions in relation to the more normal political cleavage of left and right. Begun as pro-civil rights, NICRA had become identified as anti-Unionist and it soon became a clearinghouse for the politically confused who were shocked to discover that not only was NICRA not in line with their brand of anti-Unionism, it was not even deliberately anti-Unionist - it was pro - civil rights, and only the anti-civil rights stance of the Unionist party brought the two into conflict.


Its success as a clearing house for the politically confused led to NICRA's decline as a mass movement. The thousands who marched in 1968 and 1969 found it easy to rally around the NICRA banners demanding one man, one vote, but the granting of this and other demands brought NICRA from a political position of visible discrimination in Northern Ireland into a situation of invisible semi-democracy. And although semi-democracy was a major step forward, the fact that something like one man, one vote was not a tangible asset meant that many people passed through the marching ranks of NICRA into a political party. There they found what they had presumably been looking for - the political mechanism of fighting for power. NICRA was not intended to fight for political power and the peak of its success would have been -and would still be - a totally democratic society in which its role could be reduced to that of watch dog.

But many people associated with NICRA in its early days failed to recognise this and it was only the changing political situation of 1970 which slowly brought home the realisation that those people who wanted the Unionists out of office would have to find a political party into which they could channel their efforts.


The more normal political situation in Britain and the South of Ireland have meant that the civil rights organisations there have never had the same difficulties as NICRA in this respect. The concept of a civil rights organisation designed to monitor the Government's performance on democratic issues was readily accepted in both states and it was only the political immaturity of the Northern Nationalist population which caused initial confusion over NICRA's position. In a similar way NICRA also helped the Unionists to sort out their respective political beliefs. United by political inactivity, the Unionist Party split in several directions when the pressure of the civil rights campaign was applied and the once monolithic party has never been united since 1969.

28th November, 1970. NICRA Rally in Enniskillen attended by 3,000 marchers. In the front line can be seen from left: (and looking backwards) Malachy McGurvan, Kevin Agnew, Edwina Stewart, Denis Cassin, Rebecca McGlade, P. Morris, Ivan Barr, Jimmy Doris and Frank McManus carrying megaphone.

Party political developments dominated 1970. The major event on this front was the victory of the Conservative Party in the British General Election in June. For the first time since the civil rights campaign began there was a change of Government. The policy change was evident within a fortnight. At 10.15 pm on Friday July 3, the GOC of Northern Ireland, General Sir Ian Freeland, imposed a "curfew" on the Lower Falls area of Belfast - a "curfew" later found to be completely illegal. Large quantities of CS gas were fired into the area and while helicopters circled overhead hundreds of troops began house to house searches. The "curfew" was not lifted until 9 am on Sunday. The entire population of the Lower Falls had been confined to their homes for 34 hours and five civilians had been killed by the army. One of them had been run over by an armoured car. A march by hundreds of women into the area on Sunday morning indicated that the mass support for democracy still existed. The Conservative victory at the polls was followed by a victorious parade of generals and Unionist Cabinet Ministers through the Lower Falls on the Sunday. The prospects for civil rights had taken a nose-dive.


The second major political event was the formation of two new political parties. On April 21 the Alliance Party was formed. It originated in the New Ulster Movement, a pro-O'Neill group back in 1969, and its aim was to attract political support from both sides of the sectarian divide. In view of the increasing level of sectarian violence at the time the move was a courageous one, but it succeeded in attracting only middle class support and its impact on the violence was therefore minimal. The second political party to emerge in 1970 was the SDLP which was formally launched on August 21. It represented a coming together of the tiny Republican Labour Party, the Independent candidates elected on the strength of the civil rights campaign and the one political realist in the Nationalist Party, Austin Currie, who was joined by Paddy Devlin, elected on a Northern Ireland Labour Party ticket.


The Alliance Party was largely a middle class response to the violence which they perceived as the political extension of a rather violent theological argument. The SDLP, on the other hand, represented a political cohesion of anti-Unionism under the banner of social democracy. The political activity created by the civil rights campaign had whetted the appetites of activists in existing political parties and united by a common desire for political power, several fragmentary strands of anti-Unionism came together to fight for that power.

But if there was progress in the field of party politics, there was unheralded success for the men of violence. Rioting had slowly been edged out by explosions and shootings and a list of Government Offices and other buildings were demolished by midnight blasts. The Provisional IRA had managed to build the bones of an organisation capable of creating the same level of disruption as the IRA had managed at the height of the campaign in the 1950s. But this campaign was different because it was being fought in the surroundings of sectarian violence and it was being fought in Belfast, which had remained trouble free since the 1930s. Border posts, telephone exchanges, bus offices, railway bridges and finally pubs all fell victim to the bombers. On August 11 two members of the RUC were killed by a booby trap explosion in South Armagh and a week later RUC members voted 54 - 6 in favour of re-arming the police at a meeting of representatives from three RUC stations in Belfast.


In the spiral of violence and in the light of a Government ban on marches NICRA was powerless to act without the danger of creating more sectarian violence. Massive street marches were out but specific protests were mounted. On August 22, 1970, for example, they mounted a protest in Derry about the possibility of internment being introduced but within a month Northern Ireland had its 100th explosion of the year and the men of violence were slowly bringing democratic protest to a halt.

The future developments were clear to NICRA. The Conservative Government would mean a stifling of political progress which would be exploited by the sectarian gunmen on both sides. The Unionist Government could adopt an entrenched position on civil rights and if the violence were to get worse the Special Powers Act could be used in the name of peace to indefinitely intern anyone whom the Government disliked. For this reason NICRA sought a policy which would protect the rights of the individual and the freedom of expression of political parties while at the same time embracing all other aspects of civil rights legislation which would lay a democratic foundation for political progress in the face of increasing violence. The policy decided upon was the demand for a Bill of Rights.


The demand was first made in Derry on June 6, 1970. It was a direct appeal to Westminster to legislate over the head of the Stormont Government by using Article 75 of the Government of Ireland Act. Through this proposed Bill of Rights Westminster could write into the Northern Ireland Constitution legislative articles which would enshrine in law a broad range of civil and human rights. This would have given a cast-iron guarantee of civil rights which would in turn have relegated NICRA to a position of watch dog. It would also have given the minority political leaders something concrete with which to head off the challenge for the leadership of the Nationalist population by the Provisional IRA. In Unionist eyes it could have been portrayed as nothing more than an addition to their much valued Ulster Constitution and it would also have guaranteed the continuation of Stormont. The eventual outcome could have been normal politics.

The Bill of Rights demand was supported by all the Opposition Parties in Northern Ireland, by the Trade Union Movement in Britain and Ireland and by a number of individual politicians in Britain. The demand was never granted and today, on its tenth anniversary, NICRA is still pressing for the implementation of that same demand. A lot of bloodshed might have been spared had it been granted.

Meanwhile back on the streets the violence continued. In early September a premature explosion killed a man at an electricity transformer at Newforge Lane, Belfast. Copies of "The Voice of the North' were later found in the car. The Fianna Fail connection had come full circle. At the same time in Dublin Jack Lynch was offering three of his former Cabinet Ministers, Blaney, Boland and Haughey, as Fianna Fail fall guys in the Dublin Arms Trial.

The Provisional monster which they had helped to create was now loose in the North and someone in Fianna Fail had to suffer the political guillotine.

In Northern politics the predictable was happening. Kevin Boyle of the PD said that NICRA's position on the question of the Bill of Rights was a sham and he criticised the organisation for it [October 16]. In a statement in London on December 6 Bernadette Devlin said that civil rights protests should concentrate on more basic issues and link up with "the gathering militancy of the working class". The concept of civil rights as an issue distinct from party political ideology had still not registered with the PD.

NICRA fought on. Edwina Stewart, Secretary of NICRA, urged the British Government to introduce a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland at a meeting in London and NICRA Chairman, Kevin Agnew, took up the other major civil rights issue of the time, the local government elections. In October he announced that NICRA would return to the streets if the Government further postponed the local government elections. The Macrory Report had been published in June and its recommendations for the transfer of power from district countils to a three tier structure including Stormont had been welcomed by NICRA. But a proposed reform without immediate elections created the danger of a political vacuum at local level. In order to fill this and to head off the growing violence NICRA hoped to see local elections as soon as possible. They were not to come for three years.


In the autumn NICRA decided that the Government was again stalling on the civil rights issue, particularly in the field of repeal of repressive legislation. The only mechanism for political demand was a return to street demonstrations. In view of the increasing violence this decision was taken only after the most careful consideration and it was eventually agreed to hold a march in Enniskillen on November 28. But, as had happened so often in the past, members and supporters of NICRA disagreed with the decision and acted accordingly. John D. Stewart resigned from the executive because of the Enniskillen decision and the SDLP unanimously decided not to attend the march. In a statement at the time Mr. Gerry Fitt said that however well intentioned the march was it could do more harm than good. This was a logical position to adopt but it reflected the SDLP's growing independence of civil rights support and it marked the final breach in the relations between the two organisations. Having helped create the political conditions which brought the downfall of the Nationalist Party, NICRA could only stand on the sidelines and watch as the SDLP phoenix arose out of the ashes.

The Enniskillen march passed off without incident but as the winter set in the growing violence dominated the political scene. An income tax office in Newry was destroyed in an explosion a customs post at Aughnacloy was burned down the Customs Information Office in Derry was bombed the now familiar story was entering its first chapter. The violence was mainly anti-property rather than anti-personnel and few people at the time recognised it as the beginnings of a new IRA campaign. Those who did, looked on it as another flash in the pan destined inevitably to fail and take its place in the IRA's long history of failures. But this time things were different.

Sectarian feelings were running high. The civil rights campaign had highlighted the Unionist system of discrimination and the new generation was not prepared to accept Stormont's stalling on the civil rights issue. NICRA had partially succeeded in channelling political effort into the question of civil rights as an issue separate from the existence of the state but the intransigence of the Unionist Government on the issue drove many people away from NICRA and straight into the ranks of the paramilitaries.

The final piece in the Unionist jigsaw of mismanagement was Brian Faulkner who had replaced the politically ailing Chichester Clarke on March 20th 1971. Faulkner was the man who had marched the Orangemen over the Nationalist flashpoint of the Longstone Road and later, as he thought, defeated the IRA in the 'fifties. He was the man who, as Minister of Commerce, had attracted American and European industrial investment to Northern Ireland in the sixties. And now in the seventies he was Prime Minister. But like all members of the Unionist Cabinet he too failed to recognise that political conditions had changed since the start of the civil rights campaign.


Back on the streets the RUC were issued with flak jackets and bullet proof vests on February 28. Having been attacked by Provisional gunmen on several occasions the least they could expect was protection, and in the face of continuing attacks they could justifiably ask to be re-armed. Thus one of the primary victories of the civil rights campaign -the disarming of the RUC in 1969 - was wiped out by the Provisionals in 1971 when the force was rearmed. NICRA disarmed them, the Provisionals re-armed them. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1971 the Provisionals pressed on with their campaign. Thriving in the atmosphere of sectarian fear and bouyant with the Stormont Government's failure to act on the civil rights demands, the Provisionals were able to once more identify the question of civil rights with the abolition of the state. Four years after the civil rights campaign had begun the old question of pulling down Stormont once more raised its head.


The first step in the direction of direct rule came from the SDLP who withdrew from Stormont on July 16 in protest against the Government's failure to establish an impartial inquiry into the shootings of Seamus Cusack and Desmond Beattie by the British Army in Derry the previous week. Their opting out of the system was partially the result of procedural frustration inside parliament and partially a response to the growing Provisional strength on the streets.

If the SDLP had remained in parliament they were in danger of becoming politically isolated in a situation in which the pace of events was geared directly to street violence. Their failure to carry the civil rights struggle into the parliamentary chamber left them without a clear political direction and their abandonment of the civil rights issues in favour of a campaign for party political power forced them to constantly look over their shoulders at the Provisionals with whom they had to keep in step in order to outride the wave of violence.


During this period NICRA called for a re-committment to a broadly-based unified campaign against repression and sectarianism. The danger to civil rights still came from the Government, especially now that Faulkner was Prime Minister, but a new threat in the form of sectarian violence had clearly emerged and NICRA pointed out the dangers to civil liberties from this source also. As it happened the Government struck first. On the morning of August 9, Internment was introduced. Several hundred people were arrested and held without charge or trial.

The arrests continued for several months afterwards and the first widespread torture techniques used by the British Army in Northern Ireland were introduced. Paddy Joe McClean, the present Chairman of NICRA, was among those who received the most intense psychological torture ever used in Western Europe. Hooded, deprived of sleep, subjected to continual noise, disorientated and starved, he was missing for almost a week while in Army/RUC custody. He was only one of dozens of others. The European Commission of Human Rights at Strasbourg eventually found Britain guilty of torture and the British Government paid out thousands of pounds in compensation claims in the following years.

Among those arrested were several members of the NICRA Executive including the then Chairman, Ivan Barr, and the movement's Organiser, Kevin McCorry, who was released a month later. The violence and destruction after internment left the state ungovernable. By August 12th, 22 people had been killed. Politics were also effectively wiped out and the new situation placed NICRA back in the centre of the stage of events.


The day after Internment NICRA called for a campaign of civil disobedience to protest against "military terrorism', and within days those members of the executive who had not been arrested, had arranged a meeting with as many opposition MPs and political groups as possible putting forward the idea of a civil disobedience campaign. Initially this was to take the form of with-holding rents and rates but it later grew to include all other forms of financial non-co-operation with Government departments. Within weeks an estimated 30,000 households were with-holding an estimated £80,000 per week. Civil rights were to be fought for by civil disobedience.

18th August, 1971. The women of Derry. Wives, mothers and daughters of internees marching in protest against internment.

Within the first week after internment an estimated 50 public meetings were held by NICRA in one of the greatest upsurges of popular involvement in Northern Ireland against the Government's policy. The political may have been forced to go on the run, but the apolitical stepped into their shoes and, inspired only by instinct, they presented Stormont with the biggest mass revolt in its 50 year history.


The leaders of the campaign were the women. Day after day they organised and rallied the people in defiance of the Government attempt to intern their political opponents. If the Government's answer to the demand for civil rights was to be internment, then NICRA's answer was massive public opposition and civil disobedience. The campaign for civil rights had reached its peak. Although internment was supposedly a military act, its main consequences were political. Those whom the Government disliked were to be locked away. Four years of campaigning for civil rights had convinced no one in Stormont that there was need for reform. Brian Faulkner's answer to civil rights was repression, but repression, as Faulkner was to discover, could be counter-productive.

Non-co-operation with the Government was finally ratified among all the anti-Unionist groups by a pledge that no co-operation with the Stormont or Westminster administrations would take place until internment had finally ended.

Only the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Liberal Party for example accepted a British Government invitation to talks on September 8. The NICRA Pledge, as it came to be known, lasted until June, 1972, when it was broken by the Provisionals in their negotiations with the British Government. This effectively cleared the way for political co-operation from various parties and groups and the resumption of talks allowed the British Government to continue internment must longer than it could otherwise have done.

When the dust had settled after three weeks of post-internment violence NICRA found itself in the same position as it had been before the introduction of internment. The threats to civil liberties still came from the Stormont and Westminster Governments and from the para-militaries. On September 7, NICRA said in a statement that although it was very much heartened by the success of the civil disobedience campaign, it condemned the policy of bombings and shootings which bore no relevance to the struggle for justice and reform. It recognised that violence could only lead to more violence.


The threat from the Government was illustrated in letters smuggled out from Crumlin Road prison. Dublin journalist, Seamas O Tuathail, who was detained in the initial swoops, documented details of the brutality used in the holding centres and he managed to smuggle out the graphic details for publication in the "Irish Times". Later, as the men who had been subject to in-depth interrogation methods were returned to prison, 0 Tuathail documented the first horrifying details of exactly what had been going on since the introduction of internment and the torture tactics of the RUC and the British Army were exposed to the world. On September 19 a new internment camp at Long Kesh near Lisburn was opened and the first batch of 219 internees were ferried in from the Maidstone prison ship and the Crumlin Road Prison by a fleet of helicopters. A new era had begun in Northern Ireland.

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