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Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

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The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Irish: Cumann Chearta Sibhialta Thuaisceart Éireann) was an organisation which campaigned for civil rights for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Formed in Belfast on 9 April 1967, the civil rights campaign attempted to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to discrimination in areas such as elections (which were subject to gerrymandering and property requirements), discrimination in employment, in public housing and alleged abuses of the Special Powers Act.


The genesis of the organisation lay in a meeting in Maghera in August 1966 between the Wolfe Tone Societies which was attended by Cathal Goulding, then chief of staff of the IRA.

During its formation, NICRA's membership extended to trade unionists, communists, socialists, with republicans eventually constituting five of the 13 members of its executive council. The organisation initially also had some unionists, with Young Unionist Robin Cole taking a position on its executive council. IRA influence over NICRA grew in later years, but only as the latter's importance declined, when violence escalated between late 1969 until 1972, when NICRA ceased its work.


Since Northern Ireland's creation in 1922, the Catholic minority had suffered from varying degrees of discrimination from the Protestant and Unionist majority. Many nationalist historians regard the ethos of Northern Ireland as unambiguously sectarian, however, author Senia Paseta posits that discrimination was never as calculated as republicans maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed.

  • Electoral representation. Proportional representation had been enshrined in the constitutions of both Northern Ireland and what later became the Irish Free State and then the Republic of Ireland, with a view to protecting the minorities in each state, by the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Although the Republic has retained that system to this day, proportional representation for local government elections was abolished by Northern Ireland's devolved government in 1922 and for parliamentary elections in 1929. The property franchise (which granted votes in local elections only to those who owned property) weighted representation heavily in favour of the Protestant community, as did the plural business votes they enjoyed for parliamentary elections. The result was that many towns and cities with a Catholic majority, even a substantial one, were Unionist-controlled: examples included Derry City, Armagh, Dungannon, and Enniskillen. Electoral boundaries were carefully engineered: Belfast's representatives in Stormont went from 4 to 16 in 1921, there was no increase in the nationalist representation, and Belfast continued to return only one MP (member of parliament).
  • In the 1966 elections to the Westminster parliament, the Ulster Unionist Party won 11 of Northern Ireland's available 12 seats, while in 1969 Stormont elections some 39 out of the 52 available seats (i.e., 75%) went to the Unionist and Unofficial Unionist parties. The Stormont Assembly returned the Protestant Official Unionist Party (later Ulster Unionist Party) to office continuously between Northern Ireland's founding in 1922 and the dissolution of the Assembly in 1972.

  • Policing. Of the institutions of state, the police in particular were perceived by Catholics and nationalists as being in support of the Protestant and Unionist majority. Representation of Catholics in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, formed in 1922, never exceeded 20% and by the 1960s had sunk to 12%. The reserve police force (the Ulster Special Constabulary) was comprised on its formation largely of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers and led by the Ulster Volunteers' former commander, Wilfrid Spender and remained almost exclusively Protestant until its disbandment.
  • Employment. The 1971 Census offered the first opportunity to assess the extent of any discrimination in employment, as it was the first census since 1911 that provided cross-tabulation by religion and occupation. The Census documented that Protestant male unemployment was 6.6% compared to 17.3% for Catholic males, while the equivalent rates for women were 3.6% and 7% respectively. Catholics were over-represented in unskilled jobs and Protestants in skilled employment. Catholics made up 31% of the economically active population but accounted for only 6% of mechanical engineers, 7% of 'company secretaries and registrars' and 'personnel managers', 8% of university teachers, 9% of local authority senior officers, 19% of medical practitioners, and 23% of lawyers.
  • Housing. Housing was inter-related with electoral representation, and therefore political power at local and Stormont levels. The general vote was confined to the occupier of a house and his wife. Occupiers' children over 21 and any servants or subtenants in a house were excluded from voting. So the allocation of a public authority house was not just the allocation of a scarce resource: it was the allocation of two votes. Therefore, whoever controlled the allocation of public authority housing effectively controlled the voting in that area.
  • Since 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice had been collating and publicising in its journal The Plain Truth what it regarded as evidence of discrimination. Its precursor, the Homeless Citizens League, had been holding marches to press for fair allocation of social housing. Both of these organisations has arisen at a time when the African-American civil rights organisation was headline news around the world. Both achieved success in bringing anti-Catholic discrimination to the attention of the media and, in the case of the Campaign for Social Justice, to politicians in Westminster.

    The idea of developing this non-partisan civil rights campaign into one with wider objectives as an alternative to military operations, which the IRA Army Council had formally ceased on 26 February 1962, was pursued by the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society, although redirecting the civil rights movement to assist in the achievement of republican objectives had been mooted previously by others (including C. Desmond Greaves, then a member of the Connolly Association) as "the way to undermine Ulster unionism". The idea shared certain attributes with that of infiltrating Northern Ireland's trade unions as a means of furthering republican objectives, which had previously been tried and abandoned by the IRA in the 1930s.

    The concept (set out in the August 1966 bulletin (Tuarisc) of the Wolfe Tone Societies) was to "demand more than may be demanded by the compromising elements that exist among the Catholic leadership. Seek to associate as wide a section of the community as possible with these demands, in particular the well-intentioned people in the Protestant population and the trade union movement." In 1969, after the civil rights movement had been active for several years, the strategy was described in Ireland Today, published by the Republican Education Department, as requiring that: "the civil rights movement include all elements that are deprived, not just republicans, and that unity in action within the civil rights movement be developed towards unity of political objectives to be won, and that ultimately (but not necessarily immediately) the political objective agreed by the organised radical groups be seen within the framework of a movement towards the achievement of a 32-county democratic republic."

    At a meeting which took place in Maghera on 13–14 August 1966 at the home of Kevin Agnew (a Derry republican solicitor), attended by the Wolfe Tone Societies of Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Derry and County Tyrone, and the IRA's chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, it was proposed that an organisation be created with wider civil rights objectives as its stated aim. After these discussions it was decided to drop the Wolfe Tone Societies tag, and an ad hoc body was formed which organised a seminar on 8 November 1966 in Belfast. The main speakers were the president of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Kader Asmal, a South African-born lecturer in law at Trinity College Dublin, and Ciarán Mac an Áilí, a Derry-born Dublin solicitor who was a member of the International Commission of Jurists and president of the Irish Pacifist Association. It was agreed that another meeting should be called to launch a civil rights body and this took place in Belfast on 29 January 1967. Tony Smythe and James Shepherd from the National Council of Civil Liberties in London were present and there were more than 100 delegates from a variety of organisations, including Northern Ireland political parties.

    The 13-member steering committee tasked by the Belfast meeting with drafting NICRA's constitution (of whom one, Dolley, had taken part at the meeting at Agnew's house) were:

  • 1. Chairman: Noel Harris, a trade unionist and member of the Draughtsmen and Allied Trades Association and the Communist Party.
  • 2. Vice-Chairman: Conn McCluskey (one of the founders of the Campaign for Social Justice).
  • 3. Secretary: Derek O'Brien Peters, of the Communist Party.
  • 4. Treasurer: Fred Heatley, of the Wolfe Tone Societies.
  • 5. Information Officer: Jack Bennett, a journalist with The Belfast Telegraph.
  • 6. Betty Sinclair, a communist member of the Belfast Trades Council.
  • 7. Liam McMillen, vice-chairman of the Republican Clubs (Commanding Officer, Official Irish Republican Army's Belfast Brigade).
  • 8. John Quinn, of the Ulster Liberal Party.
  • 9. Professor Michael Dolley, of Queen's University Belfast, a civil libertarian and member of the National Democratic Party (Northern Ireland).
  • 10. Joe Sherry, of the Republican Labour Party.
  • 11. Jim Andrews, of the Ardoyne Tenants Association.
  • 12. Paddy Devlin, of the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
  • 13. Tony McGettigan, unaffiliated.
  • NICRA held a meeting to ratify the constitution on 9 April 1967. It was on this date that NICRA officially came into existence. There were some changes as the steering committee became NICRA's executive council, with Ken Banks of DATA replacing Andrews; Kevin Agnew, a republican solicitor, replacing McMillen; and Terence O'Brien (unaffiliated) replacing McGettigan. Betty Sinclair became chairman. Robin Cole, a liberal member of the Young Unionists and chairman of the Queen's University Belfast Conservative and Unionist Association, was later co-opted onto the executive council.

    NICRA's constitution, aims and philosophy

    NICRA, as it eventually emerged, differed from what had been outlined in Tuarisc and discussed at Agnew's home in Maghera. The form which NICRA took was determined by the coalition of forces which came together to create it, of which republicans were only one element. Civil rights were the banner to which republicans, nationalists, communists, socialists, liberals and the unaffiliated could rally. NICRA's executive council brought together such diverse groups as the Wolfe Tone Society, with its nationalist goal of furthering the creation of a united, independent, democratic Irish Republic, with the Campaign for Social Justice, whose founders and leaders initially believed that traditional nationalist politics were not effective in serving the needs of the Catholic minority.

    The constitution of NICRA was based on that of the British National Council for Civil Liberties. NICRA's name was expressed in English only. The constitution emphasised the association's character as non-party and non-denominational, and as a body which would make representations on the broad issues of civil liberties and would also take up individual cases of discrimination and ill-treatment and stated NICRA's aims as "to assist in the maintenance of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, propaganda and assembly". NICRA's aims were:

  • 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.
  • It had six main demands:

  • 1. "One man, one vote" which would allow all people over the age of 18 to vote in local council elections and remove the multiple votes held by business owners - known as the "business vote".
  • 2. An end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.
  • 3. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs.
  • 4. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing.
  • 5. The removal of the Special Powers Act.
  • 6. The disbandment of the almost entirely Protestant Ulster Special Constabulary (B Specials).
  • In conscious imitation of the philosophy of, and tactics used, by the American Civil Rights Movement, and modeled somewhat on the National Council for Civil Liberties, the new organisation held marches, pickets, sit-ins and protests to pressure the Government of Northern Ireland to grant these demands. Internationally, given the widespread attention, particularly in the United States in the 1960s relating to civil and minority rights, NICRA secured much wider international and internal support than traditional nationalist protests had done.

    NICRA's innovation (drawing on the approach adopted by the Campaign for Social Justice) was to rely on and seek to vindicate civil rights, i.e. rights adhering to all citizens of Northern Ireland as British citizens under the existing constitutional settlement, rather than base its demands on the nationalist goal of reunification in a republic comprising the whole island of Ireland. For many supporters of NICRA, that did not mean accepting the constitutional settlement or entail any obligation of loyalty to the UK: assertion of those rights was a device by which the condition of the Catholic minority could be improved. However, from the outset there were tensions within the association between those advocating militant and confrontational methods, in particular the socialist and republican elements of the movement, such as Eamonn McCann, Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman, and those who remained wedded to the pacifist American civil rights model. Toman later joined Sinn Féin.

    Allegations against NICRA and ties with republicanism

    The Northern Ireland government accused NICRA of being a front for republican and communist ideologies. Unionists suspected that NICRA was a front for the IRA. The involvement of republicans such as IRA chief of staff Cathal Goulding, the Irish National Foresters, the Gaelic Athletic Association, and the Wolfe Tone Societies, would only confirm their suspicions. After the failure of the IRA's Border Campaign, republicans had been seeking peaceful ways of advancing their cause by joining Trade Unions and the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and then NICRA when it was formed in 1967. On 4 October 1968, a day before NICRA's Derry march, the IRA admitted that it was infiltrating the civil rights movement as well as trade unions.

    NICRA arose from a meeting of the republican Wolfe Tone Societies. The republican movement was influential in getting NICRA to participate in protest marches, however, due to the various different groups that made up NICRA, it could not control the organisation's direction. The radical views of individuals within NICRA were highlighted by a commission of inquiry set up by the British Government following the spread of civil unrest in 1969. The report by a Scottish judge, Lord Cameron stated, "certain at least of those who were prominent in the Association had objects far beyond the 'reformist' character of the majority of Civil Rights Association demands, and undoubtedly regarded the Association as a stalking-horse for achievement of other and more radical and in some cases revolutionary objects, in particular abolition of the border, unification of Ireland outside the United Kingdom and the setting up of an all-Ireland Workers' Socialist Republic."

    First civil rights march

    On 27 April 1968, NICRA held a rally to protest the banning of a republican Easter parade. In an effort to highlight the issue of public housing being allocated preferentially to Protestants in County Tyrone, Austin Currie, at a meeting of NICRA in Maghera, July 1968, proposed holding a protest march from Coalisland to Dungannon. After initial hesitations and opposition to the idea from some in NICRA's executive, the proposal was agreed. A counter-protest was then planned by the Ulster Protestant Volunteers and Ian Paisley, who saw the proposed march which would go to center of Dungannon as an invasion into a loyalist area.

    Hoping to avoid a confrontation, the UUP MP for South Tyrone, John Taylor, tried to get Paisley to abandon the counter protest, and asked William Craig, the Stormont Minister of Home Affairs to have the NICRA march rerouted to the Catholic part of Dungannon. The call for a reroute was supported by the Unionist mayor of Dungannon district. The NICRA march took place on 24 August 1968, attracting around 2,500 people from various different groups. The Tyrone Brigade of the IRA sought permission from its Dublin headquarters to participate, resulting in a call for as many republicans to attend as possible. Not until the march reached Dungannon did it encounter incident. 400 RUC officers prevented the march from entering Dungannon while 1,500 loyalists jeered. Some marchers tried to break through the police line resulting in a police baton charge, while Gerry Fitt claimed that, had there not been women and children present, "I would [have] led men past that barricade". The chairperson of NICRA at the time was veteran communist Betty Sinclair who managed to convince the marchers to restrain themselves and show that they were "peaceful people asking for our civil rights in an orderly manner".

    Derry march

    After the Coalisland-Dungannon march, the Derry Housing Action Committee requested that the next NICRA march be held in Derry. The date chosen was 5 October 1968, and its route was through the predominantly Protestant Waterside area of Derry. The Middle Liberties Young Unionist Association thought about holding a counter-demonstration, however on 1 October, several local clubs of the Protestant fraternal organisation, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, announced their intention to march the same route on the same day and time, although its governor said he knew nothing of a planned parade.

    William Craig, the Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister, at first chose to ban the civil rights march, which caused complaints. However, he then banned the Apprentice Boys' march as well on police advice in the hope of avoiding serious disorder. Craig said he was not against freedom of expression but that it should not be done in areas where it likely to cause provocation, especially as he saw NICRA as "a republican-nationalist organisation".

    With the march banned, NICRA's executive unsuccessfully tried to get the Derry Housing Action Committee to call off the march. Despite fearing the presence of radicals leading to violence, NICRA then reluctantly agreed to go ahead. The march started at the Waterside station, and attracted 400 protesters. Eamonn McCann (one of the organisers of the march) estimated that a further 200 watched from the pavements. Some of the more prominent participants such as John Hume took part only because of Craig's banning of the march. Others there included Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt, who brought three British Labour Party MPs with him, and members of the media.

    The march was stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary before it had properly begun. The marchers had proposed walking from Duke Street in the Waterside area of Derry to the Diamond in the centre of the city. After several marchers were hit by police batons, with Fitt being hospitalised, the marchers sat down and gave short speeches. After some retaliation from the marchers, the police moved in with batons chasing and hitting those who fell by the wayside. Some demonstrators had managed to filter into the Diamond in small groups, however this saw a large crowd of angry local Catholic youths who hadn't participated in the march arrive and provoke the police. Having forced the youths back down to the Bogside with baton-charges, a stone-throwing confrontation took place between Catholics and police. Having pushed the police back to the Diamond, the fighting continued and the next day petrol bombs where thrown and shops looted.


    The footage captured by RTÉ of the march and unprovoked police brutality on unarmed protestors including British MPs would change the course of Northern Ireland forever. In one go it brought the full spectre of sectarianism in Northern Ireland to the fore and started the chain of events that led to the bitter intercommunal violence that would degenerate into The Troubles. Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill made his "Ulster at the crossroads" speech on television on 9 December, appealing for calm. As a result of the announcement of various reforms, NICRA declared a halt to marches until 11 January 1969, while People's Democracy disagreed with this stance.

    Leading Derry Housing Action Committee member, Eamonn McCann, later admitted "our conscious if unspoken strategy was to provoke the police into over-reaction and thus spark off a mass reaction against the authorities".

    1969 riots

    Events escalated until August 1969, when the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry march was attacked as it marched through the city's walls and past a perimeter with the nationalist Bogside. Initially some loyalist supporters had thrown pennies down from the walls onto Catholics in the Bogside. Catholics then threw nails and stones at loyalists leading to an intense confrontation starting. The RUC intervened, and a three-day riot ensued known as the Battle of the Bogside. Rioting quickly spread throughout nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, where at least seven were killed, and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics were driven from their homes by loyalists. These events are often seen as the start of the Troubles.

    In a subsequent official inquiry, Lord Scarman concluded, "We are satisfied that the spread of the disturbances [in Derry in August 1969] owed much to a deliberate decision of some minority groups to relieve police pressure on the rioters in Londonderry. Amongst these groups must be included NICRA, whose executive decided to organise demonstrators in the Province so as to prevent reinforcement of the police in Londonderry."

    Internment and Bloody Sunday

    The British government introduced internment on 9 August 1971 at the request of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner. The British Army in co-operation with the RUC, interned 342 people. 116 of those interned were innocent of involvement with the IRA and were quickly released. The introduction of internment was not a closely guarded secret, with newspaper editorials appearing and discussion on television. The IRA, having seen the inevitable about to happen, either went underground or fled across the border. As a result, fewer than 100 arrested were from the IRA. By this stage support for NICRA began to wane, however NICRA organised marches against internment. In Derry on 30 January 1972 NICRA took part in a mass anti-internment march which had also been banned. Fourteen unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by British troops during the march, and it became known as Bloody Sunday.


    Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association Wikipedia

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