The Creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (January 1967)

In the opening four decades of unchallenged Ulster Unionist control in the state of Northern Ireland, little attention was paid and few reforms were made with regards to the area of civil rights for its working class population, both Catholic and Protestant, but with particular emphasis on the former. Michael Murphy, a biographer of civil rights campaigner Gerry Fitt, theorises that “in the mid-1960s, the future appeared to offer less emphasis on partition and more on social reform in Northern Ireland.”[1] This essay will seek to explore and analyse the reasons for this change in emphasis, while also discussing the political changes that took place, which ultimately culminated in the birth of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in January 1967. It will also provide a retrospective critique on NICRA’s establishment, developing the reasons for several quarters of suspicion regarding the organisation.

Before elaborating the factors which directly led to the creation of NICRA, it is important to exemplify a contextual framework within the topic of civil rights in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Paul Dixon, in his book Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace, goes into some detail on the various interest groups and organisations established with the intention; some of these included the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Connolly Association, neither of which made the same impact that the Campaign for Social Justice had done. Created in 1964, the CSJ “was established after forty young Catholic housewives petitioned and sixty-seven picketed Dungannon Urban District Council over poor housing conditions and discrimination.”[2]

On top of these new movements forming closer to home, it is important to note how changes in Westminster governments precipitated such events as the formation of NICRA. In 1964, a Labour government spearheaded by Harold Wilson was elected with a narrow majority of four seats, and Wilson had immediately taken a greater interest in Northern Irish affairs than any of his predecessors. Dixon notes that the CSJ brought the housing situation into the national spotlight: “the CSJ did succeed in drawing Harold Wilson into saying that a Labour government would intervene to deal with discrimination, which threw unionism into a panic.”[3] This panic became demonstrated by the new Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, who sought to introduce a series of reforms regarding this whole area, and culminated in the state visit of Irish Taoiseach Séan Lemass in January 1965, which “may have paved the way for a more substantive, material and political accommodation with nationalists.”[4] It was events like Lemass’s state visit which provided the encouragement for civil rights activists to let their voice be heard on a regional and national scale, a voice which had been starved of oxygen or indeed energy under the preceding monolithic Unionist governments.

As mentioned earlier, housing allocation had been a major point of contention for civil rights sympathisers in Northern Ireland for many years, as F.S.L. Lyons describes: “Historically, it was the competition for houses which provided the spark that was to set the whole province alight.”[5] A vast number of new houses all across the province had been built, which in principle should have remedied the growing concerns of the nationalist community over property allocation, but rather, as McKittrick and McVea articulate, the larger number of houses “heightened the potential for controversy by providing local councils with many more houses to assign.”[6] Catholic families continued to suffer from discrimination in this area, and underrepresentation from Catholics in public bodies was both a cause and a symptom of this discrimination. One of O’Neill’s senior civil servants, Ken Bloomfield, described by then British Home Secretary James Callaghan as “the brains of the outfit,”[7] spoke of Unionist indifference to discrimination in his memoirs: “Unionist governments… tolerated or even organised methods designed to exclude Catholics from prominent positions and to keep them in a state of political impotence.”[8]

Another, undoubtedly less significant, cause for nationalist anger at the Stormont administration at this time lay with the decision of the Lockwood Committee to establish a new university in the town of Coleraine instead of the majority Catholic Derry, also the second city of the province. Bloomfield analyses these events in lucid detail, concluding that the affair “did a deal of damage to O’Neill’s credentials as a prime minister who wished to deal justly with the Catholic minority.”[9] Although it cannot be doubted that the Catholic population did feel highly aggrieved as from their position they saw the oversight of the city of Derry to be a grave injustice, the more intimately situated Bloomfield disagreed, believing “the suspicions of dirty work at the crossroads to be unfounded. O’Neill personally would never have tolerated it, and the notion that a man of integrity such as Lockwood… would have accepted some kind of ‘steer’ was ludicrous.”[10] While the decision of the Lockwood Committee was widely criticised among the civil rights organisations in Northern Ireland, it is my belief that it was largely a minor cause of bringing people onto the streets to protest against the perceived discrimination of Catholics in the field of third-level education.

Perhaps the most significant factor in bringing about the formation of NICRA was the heavily corrupted and gerrymandered local council distribution of seats, with the spotlight particularly focussed on the Derry Corporation, which “perpetuated the rule of a Protestant oligarchy.”[11] The issue of gerrymandering was closely linked to housing allocation, as voting franchise in local elections was not granted to any person who did not own property; discrimination in favour of Protestants played nicely into the hands of the Unionist Party for this very reason and, coupled with the blatantly dubious drawing of electoral boundaries, scuppered any hope of proportional nationalist representation at local level. Lyons is especially scathing of this strategy, stating that “the particular form this segregation took in Londonderry city resulted in a pattern of unionist control which was too consistent too long to be anything other than deliberately contrived.”[12] There can be little doubt that this was a primary cause in the creation of NICRA, as the Nationalist Party, which bred a large number of civil rights activists, had as early as 1964 “published a thirty-nine point policy statement which demanded an end to discrimination and gerrymandering.”[13]

Whilst from an outsider’s perspective it is easy to assume that the intentions of civil rights activists were purely determined as such, NICRA came under intense scrutiny from unionist circles, believing the civil rights movement to be a “republican/Communist conspiracy to overthrow the Northern Ireland state and bring about a united Ireland.”[14] Dixon delves into this matter, giving an impressive amount of detail and, while succinctly explaining this negative Unionist attitude, also points out its weaknesses and irrational distrust of NICRA. He notes its close link with some aspects of the republican movement: “It is not so surprising that some unionists perceived that the civil rights campaign’s goal was anti-partitionist, or even a republican front, particularly in the context of growing unionist insecurity.”[15] In my opinion this viewpoint certainly holds a strong backbone, for it arguably cannot be denied that the civil rights movement at this point in Northern Ireland’s history was intrinsically linked with nationalistic politics, that the failure of the Stormont administration to bring about equality for both communities was as good an argument as any to end this government and introduce a united Ireland.

On the other hand, the unionist outlook of the civil rights movement and NICRA can be picked apart, as Dixon has done, on three distinct features. Firstly, and in my view most significantly, “it does not recognise that at least for some of those nationalists in the civil rights campaign there was a shift towards an emphasis on civil rights rather than the border question.”[16] This can be explained by the acknowledgement that nationalists were more likely to be involved in the civil rights movement due to the direct discrimination faced by Catholics in civil rights movement and nationalists in political circles. The other two reasons noted by Dixon explain how, primarily, the unionists’ underestimation of discrimination removes the most plausible reason for the sudden increase in violence in the late 1960s; and, secondarily, the lack of evidence that the republican movement harboured much control over the doings of NICRA, however that is not an invitation to undersell its presence. Ultimately I feel that it is important to recognise the level of opposition the civil rights movement faced at this time, in order to convey a full picture of how life was for the Catholic and nationalist community in Northern Ireland, and to highlight the reasons for their inaction prior to the 1960s.

In summary, this essay has explained several of the primary causes that led to the formation of NICRA, placing particular emphasis on what could be categorised as more political triggers, such as pressure from Westminster on the moderate O’Neill, and the issue of gerrymandering in local council election wards. However, it is important not to leave a discussion of this subject without ruefully assessing what might have been in regards to political reform. McKittrick and McVea astutely summarise O’Neill’s premiership as perhaps “a tragic missed opportunity in that with hindsight they appear to have been the last chance to tackle, by political means and in a time of relative peace, Northern Ireland’s structural problems.”[17] Indeed, one can raise the question pondering the effects that the civil rights movement had in the subsequent explosion of violence in the late 1960s, although this matter merits considerably deeper discussion than can be provided here.

[1] Murphy, M.A. — Gerry Fitt: A Political Chameleon; Mercier Press, 2007, p.30.

[2] Dixon, P. — Northern Ireland: The Politics of War & Peace; Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.74.

[3] Dixon — Northern Ireland, p.74.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lyons, F.S.L. — Ireland Since The Famine; Harper Collins, 1985, p.762.

[6] McKittrick, D., McVea, D. — Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Troubles; Penguin, 2012, p.14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bloomfield, K. — Stormont in Crisis: A Memoir; The Blackstaff Press, 1994, p.68.

[9] Bloomfield — Stormont in Crisis, p.79.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Lyons — Ireland Since the Famine, p.756.

[13] Murphy — Gerry Fitt: A Political Chameleon, p.37.

[14] Dixon, Northern Ireland, p.84.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dixon, Northern Ireland, p.85.

[17] McKittrick & McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles, p.30.

Bibliography

Bloomfield, K. — Stormont in Crisis: A Memoir; The Blackstaff Press, 1994.

Dixon, P. — Northern Ireland: The Politics of War & Peace; Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Foster, R.F. — Modern Ireland 1600–1972; Penguin, 1988.

Lyons, F.S.L. — Ireland Since The Famine; Harper Collins, 1985.

McKittrick, D., McVea, D. — Making Sense of the Troubles: A History of the Northern Ireland Conflict; Penguin, 2012.

Murphy, M.A. — Gerry Fitt: A Political Chameleon; Mercier Press, 2007.

Staunton, E. — The Nationalists of Northern Ireland 1918–1973; The Columba Press, 2001.