In mid-1968, NICRA took the fateful decision to organise street demonstrations in Northern Ireland. The arguments in favour appeared to be overwhelming. Little or nothing had been achieved during the first eighteen months of the association’s existence — the government had failed to investigate its complaints (William Craig, Minister of Home Affairs, 1966-1968, was particularly unresponsive), morale was flagging and meetings of its executive were ill-attended. At the same time, members were impressed and encouraged by the aggressive, sometimes successful, methods of international protest movements — in the United States, at the London School of Economics and at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was felt that such an approach, applied locally, might at last fully mobilise latent discontent and shake the Unionist leadership out of its apparent indifference and lethargy.
Barton, B. (1996). A Pocket History of Ulster. Dublin: The O'Brien Press. page 129
For six weeks in October and November 1968, a civil rights campaign, based in and more or less confined to Derry, brought thousands of people out to demonstrate on the streets of the city. The campaign proved impossible to repress or ignore. It exerted pressure on the Unionist government of Northern Ireland, not only as a huge media spectacle, but also through sheer force of numbers on the streets. That pressure operated on the ground and also, via media coverage, through Westminster and Dublin. Perhaps the central success of the campaign was to attract outside attention and to bring outside pressure to bear on the Northern Ireland government.
Ó Dochartaigh, N. (1997). From Civil Rights to Armalites: Derry and the Birth of the Irish Troubles. page 19
The civil rights campaign began in the mid-1960s as an attempt to draw attention to grievances felt by Catholics in Northern Ireland. The initial grouping, the Campaign for Social Justice, adopted the techniques of a pressure group and wrote letters to Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons and published a series of pamphlets. The letters and pamphlets set out their case that Catholics in the region were experiencing disadvantages in relation to public sector housing and jobs, and also through certain electoral practices.
The campaign only became a mass movement when public demonstrations were organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The decision to hold civil rights marches was taken as a result of what was seen as inaction on the part of the Unionist controlled government of Northern Ireland at Stormont. Initial demonstrations passed off peacefully although they were opposed by Loyalists who felt the campaign was a cover for Republicans who wanted to end the Northern Ireland state rather than reform it. A march organised in Derry on 5 October 1968 was banned and when the 400 people taking part tried to proceed in defiance of the ban the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) used batons to break up the march. The police action was filmed and Nationalist opinion was outraged to such an extent that the next march over the same route attracted over 10,000 people.
Further conflict in 1969 led to the British government taking the decision to deploy troops on the streets of Northern Ireland. The British also began to force the Northern Ireland government to introduce a number of reforms. As events began to spiral out of control with the emergence of the Provisional IRA the British were convinced of the need to introduce internment by the Stormont government. The NICRA campaigned against internment and at one of its rallies in Derry on Sunday 30 January 1972 the British Army shot dead 13 demonstrators and injured another 14. 'Bloody Sunday' effectively marked the end of the use of mass street demonstrations to achieve civil rights.