Lessons of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA)


The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in 1967. Many of its early members were drawn from the Dungannon based Campaign for Social Justice, a middle class grouping who had been collecting data on discrimination since 1964, along with some members of the Republican Movement and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Its demands were: one man - one vote; allocation of housing on a points system; redrawing of gerrymandered electoral boundaries; repeal of the Special Powers Act; abolition of the B Specials; and laws against discrimination in local government.

Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement

If there is a growth industry in Ireland at the moment it must be the rewriting of history. According to the people involved, who include the Labour and Workers Parties, it was the Peoples Democracy (PD) march from Belfast to Derry that stirred up sectarianism and the Provisional IRA which turned a peaceful protest movement into a violent and bloody one, The logic that flows from this is that the IRA are the primary problem and until the London and Dublin governments are able to totally smash them there will be little or no progress in the North.

This is why the Labour Party, both inside and outside coalition governments, has supported special non jury courts, broadcasting censorship, 'emergency' laws and the extradition of political prisoners. This is why the Workers Party calls for support for the RUC, calling them 'the best community police force in the world'. Though quick to condemn violence whether it comes from republican or loyalist paramilitaries they never seem to have anything to say about the violence of the British army, police or UDR. They go so far as to describe Sinn Féin as 'fascist'. Their attitude is a lot closer to a moderate Unionist Party than one which calls itself socialist. And that explains the praise they have received from people like former UDR major and Official Unionist MP Ken Magennis and ex-Northern Ireland Tory Secretary of State James Prior.

Blaming the IRA

After twenty years of seemingly endless death, injury and destruction the 'blame the IRA' school of thought has a certain attraction for many people who find it difficulty to understand why the fighting started and why it is still going on. But it offers absolutely no solution, instead it serves as an additional prop to imperialism and the six county statelet it set up. Regardless of its intentions it helps to perpetuate the problem.

If a problem exists it is necessary to look for its cause before one can set about solving it. The cause in the North is the state itself. While all states represent rule over the majority (the working class) by a minority (the bosses) there is something special about the Northern one. When it was created in 1921 it was done so on the basis of religious discrimination. Governments and bosses have consistently and deliberately secured the loyalty of Protestants by giving them marginal privileges over Catholics.

Border Campaign

By the 1960s the IRA had almost disappeared, its 1956 to 1962 border campaign having been an abject failure. It retained only a handful of active members and was regarded by most working class Catholics as a thing of the past. But something else was stirring. The Catholic middle class had given up waiting for a united Ireland and instead began to look for equality of opportunity within the six county set-up. The increased access to university education raised their aspirations and made them less willing to passively accept a second class citizenship. The Catholic working class, equally was more concerned with concrete improvements in their day to day lives than with dreams of unity with the South.

Discrimination within the North was the issue. Of 319 administrative positions at Stormont only 23 were held by Catholics while in the technical and professional grades there were 196 Protestants but only 13 Catholics. In Fermanagh, a county with a Catholic majority, the County Council employed 338 Protestants and just 32 Catholics. This pattern was repeated across the North in both the public sector and in private industry. A striking example of what this meant hit the headlines in 1968 when a council house in Caledon, County Tyrone was occupied by civil rights protesters. It had been allocated to a single 18 year old Protestant over tbe heads of a long waiting list of Catholics some of whom had as many as 12 children and were forced to live in overcrowded conditions with relatives or in damp and cramped caravans.

Civil Rights

To combat these myriad inequalities the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed in 1967. Many of its early members were drawn from the Dungannon based Campaign for Social Justice, a middle class grouping who had been collecting data on discrimination since 1964, along with some members of the Republican Movement and the Communist Party of Northern Ireland. Its demands were: one man - one vote; allocation of housing on a points system; redrawing of gerrymandered electoral boundaries; repeal of the Special Powers Act; abolition of the B Specials; and laws against discrimination in local government.

An understanding of these demands shows the sort of society that had been in existence since 1921. "One man - one vote" was counterpoised to the situation where business people were allowed multiple votes and people who were not ratepayers (tenants in private accommodation, lodgers, etc.) had no vote. Gerrymandering was commonplace. Derry had a population of 36,000 Catholics and 17,000 Protestants. Elections to the Corporation always returned a safe Protestant/Unionist majority. This was achieved by splitting the city into three wards and only allocating housing to Catholics in one of them.

Jobs and Houses

Laws against discrimination in local government speak for themselves, especially when Catholics were finding it a lot harder to get local authority jobs and Catholic areas were granted fewer services. In some cases they received almost none. The call for a housing points system was to replace the set-up where local councillors decided among themselves who got housed and did not have to take into account anything other than their own prejudices.

The Special Powers Act gave the Stormont Minister for Home Affairs absolute power to arrest people on "suspicion" of endangering the State and to imprison them without trial. It also empowered him to send police raiding parties into homes without warrants, impound any property without giving a reason, suspend Habeas Corpus and even abolish inquests. It contained an additional clause giving him the authority to do anything he wished even if it was not specifically mentioned in the Act. The B Specials were effectively the state-paid part-time armed militia of the Unionist Party and were notorious for their bigotry and brutality.

Hardly Radical

The NICRA demands were hardly radical. They were the minimum required for any country that even pretends to be democratic. The association did not raise the border issue or adopt any republican policies. The original members had mostly been middle class Catholics who were willing to work within the system. Throughout their lives they had been told that, like it or not, they were British subjects. All right, they reasoned, if we are supposed to be British we should enjoy the same conditions and protections as all the other residents of the United Kingdom. The nationalist/republican arguments were not important to them at that time, they were not too impressed by the clerically influenced gombeen society they saw on the other side of the border.

In August 1968 NICRA took to the streets for the first time with a 2,500 strong march from Coalisland to Dungannon to protest against local housing discrimination. Since 1945 71% of local authority houses had gone to Protestants in an area with a 53% Catholic population. The demonstration was a friendly and almost carefree one despite threats from Ian Paisley's Ulster Protestant Volunteers who had occupied the market square in Dungannon to deny access to the 'taigs'. The loyalist presence that day was a warning of what would come if the Catholics didn't quietly go home and accept their inferior status.

Believe it or Not!

Loyalist bigots did all they could to incite sectarian hatred. Typical was the claim by Paisley that the Civil Rights campaign was a Sinn Féin front whose intention was to drive the Protestants 'into the sea'. In his paper, the Protestant Telegraph, he printed what purported to be the Sinn Féin 'oath'. It was claimed republicans swore that: "These Protestant robbers and brutes, these unbelievers in our faith, will be driven like the swine that they are into the sea by force, the knife or by poison cup until we of the Catholic faith and avowed supporters of all Sinn Féin actions and principles clear these heretics from our land. . . At any cost, we must work and seek using any method of deception to gain our ends, towards the destruction of all Protestants and the advancement of the priesthood and the Catholic faith until the Pope is the complete ruler of the whole world. "

A second civil rights march was announced for October 5th in Derry. Stormont Home Affairs Minister William Craig banned it. After local left wing activists and the Derry Labour Party said they would take to the streets regardless of any ban, the NICRA leadership agreed to go ahead with the march. 2,000 set off. Almost immediately their way was blocked by lines of RUC. A short meeting was held and the NICRA leaders asked the crowd to disperse peacefully. When they tried to do just that they found more RUC blocking the other end of the street. The police charged into the demonstrators battoning, kicking and punching. Eighty eight were injured and another thirty six were arrested. Then a water cannon was brought up which sprayed marchers, shoppers and local residents alike.

Dangerously Subversive

Stormont had given notice that it was not prepared to allow people to peacefully demonstrate for equality. In their rotten little statelet even the most moderate democratic demands were considered dangerously subversive. However times had changed. Most people had a TV and when they saw pictures of blood spattered marchers whose only 'crime' had been to demand the passage of anti-discrimination legislation they began to ask questions. What sort of place are we living in? And how much longer are we going to put up with it?

In Belfast 800 students from Queens University, Catholic and Protestant, marched in protest and organised themselves into Peoples Democracy . It was to be a loose but active group, more radical than NICRA and contemptuous of the nationalist elements whose goal was no more than a few gains for Catholic professionals and politicians. It pointed out that while Protestants might be a little better off than Catholics they also suffered from low pay, bad housing, unemployment and that working class Protestant areas were just as likely to be denied proper amenities. Their aim was to unite the working class through common action on day-to-day issues, and to make this part of the civil rights campaign.

"Men of Violence"

Although the moderate leaders of the Civil Rights movement would have been only too happy to drive the campaign from the streets they knew that to do so would cue them off from most of their supporters who were furious about what had happened in Derry. The Catholic working class of Derry were going to march again regardless of what John Hume or Ivan Cooper said. Six weeks after the RUC attack 15,000 marched in Derry, an unheard of number for an anti-Unionist protest at that time. Being outnumbered 50:1 by demonstrators who were not in any mood to be told they could not march in their own city the RUC had little choice but to hide away in their police stations. With these 'men of violence' absent there was no trouble.

The Labour government in London which had previously not even discussed Northern Ireland in parliament, told Unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill that it was time for a few reforms to cool things down. On November 22nd 1968 O'Neill unveiled his package ~f reforms. Council housing would be allocated on a paints system, the extra votes of business people would be abolished, a Development Commission would be appointed to replace Derry Corporation, the Special Powers Act would be 'reviewed and an ombudsman would be employed to hear complaints of discrimination. This was enough to satisfy, at least for a time, the majority of 'respectable' civil rights leaders including most of the NICRA executive.

"Unnecessary Reforms"

Other reactions were not so favourable to O'Neill. Paisley and his loyalist pals in the UVF accused him of giving in to 'disloyal elements', 'republicanism' and 'Popery'. Within the Unionist Party MP's started an 'O'Neill Must Go' campaign.

William Craig ranted about 'unnecessary reforms' and claimed there was absolutely no religious discrimination in Northern Ireland. Only one group of any size was neither satisfied or discredited, the Peoples Democracy. They held there was no guarantee that these few limited reforms would be implemented, let alone enlarged to tackle all the other manifestations of discrimination. The promised scrapping of a handful of Unionism's worst excesses was hardly a great victory after 47 years of near dictatorship, pointed out the PD. The civil rights marches had shown that direct action can win gains and now was the time to step up the pressure.


Therefore PD decided to organise a march across the North, from Belfast to Derry, setting out on New Years Day 1969. The 100 or so marchers were met throughout the four day event with RUC barricades and forced to go down country lanes and across fields. When they reached Burntollet Bridge, just eight miles from Derry, they were attacked by about 350 loyalists throwing rocks and using clubs spiked with nails. Several marchers were seriously injured and a couple nearly killed. Many of the attackers were off duty B-Specials. The RUC accompanying the protest

refused to give any protection. Not one of the attackers was ever convicted in a court of law. O'Neill who was now being presented as a great reformer, went on TV to blame the victims for the violence and said "we have heard sufficient for now about civil rights. Let us hear a little about civic responsibility"

It was not enough for his opponents in the Unionist Party and on April 28th O'Neill resigned. His replacement Major James Chichester-Clark lasted less than two years because although he favoured more repression than O'Neill it was still not enough for most in the Unionist Party. Indeed Brian Faulkner who in turn replaced him and was even more repressive was nevertheless judged too moderate and was eventually banished to the political wilderness.

As Clear as Day

Something was so clear that only those who stuck their heads in the sand could not see it - the Northern State was unwilling and unable to implement a series of widespread and meaningful reforms. It had been built on the basis of a sectarian division, nurtured by bigotry and defended by thuggery. To talk of real reforms and of equality meant challenging the very basis of the state. It had not been the intention of most of the early civil rights activists but it was the reality they found themselves in.

Things finally boiled over on August 12th. The Apprentice Boys who were parading around Derry's walls demonstrated their contempt for the Catholics below by throwing pennies down into the Bogside. Some youngsters threw stones at the loyalists. It was unplanned and uncontrollable. The police responded with a vicious attack on the Bogside. Residents had their houses attacked and their heads split open. A riot developed. But the police had no idea of what was to happen this time.

The mainly Catholic working class Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry expelled the RUC, organised their own 500 strong defence force and built barricades. The police unleashed a vicious attack and fired hundreds of canisters of CS gas over the barricades. The area was defended with bricks and petrol bombs. People fought not only because they literally feared for their lives should the RUC get in but also because they had been humiliated and bloodied too often to now give up without a fight. The 'Battle of the Bogside' triggered smaller riots in other towns in an attempt to draw some of the RUC's forces from Derry.

The Army Arrives Back

At 5 PM on Thursday August 15th 1969 400 soldiers from the Prince of Wales's Own Yorkshire Regiment took up positions around the city. The British Army was again on the streets of Ireland. As later events were to prove they had not been deployed to protect people from the RUC and the B Specials. Harold Wilson's Labour government acted because the RUC were being beaten. No government will stand by while its monopoly of force is being brought into question. The army were sent in to uphold the authority of the state, to stop a counter-power developing.

Now it was Belfast that exploded. Loyalist vigilantes stormed the Falls on August 14 14th. Within a day and a half over 200 houses, nearly all of them occupied by Catholics, were burnt-out. RUC Landrovers sped up and down the Falls Road firing their Browning machine guns. The high velocity bullets from these have a range of two and a half miles and it is only with murderous intent that they would be sanctioned for use in densely populated urban areas. Ten people were killed and about 100 injured. The dead included a 9 year old boy shot as he lay in his bed and the first British soldier to die - a man home on leave who was shot by the RUC! His mistake was to visit his family in a Catholic area. (It is also worth recording that the first policeman to die, Constable Arbuckle, was shot by loyalists.)

Birth of the Provos

It was in this situation that the Provisional IRA was formed. The politics were old style Catholic republicanism, the immediate aim was to provide an armed defence against RUC and loyalist attacks on ghetto areas. Far from being the cause of violence, they arose as a response to the violence of the state. No matter how much we may disagree with their politics and their methods we have to recognise this.

Far from being a handful of gunmen who enjoy little or no support, everyone can see that one third of Northern Catholics, mainly from working class areas, vote for Sinn Féin. Despite all the ruling class's attempts to isolate them their support holds. The fact is that discrimination and repression continue and that is the ongoing source of the conflict. The 'bad old days' are not over.

Despite the Fair Employment Act of 1976 and the state-operated Fair Employment Agency, the FEA had to admit in 1987 that after twelve years in existence a Catholic man is still two and a half times as likely to be unemployed as his Protestant counterpart. In the aircraft and shipbuilding industries less than 5% of the workers are Catholics. The Sirocco Works, which is located in the Catholic Short Strand area of Belfast, has only 4 Catholic employees (0.4% of the workforce). This pattern is repeated throughout private industry. There has been some improvement in Catholic representation in the public sector - but only in the low pay jobs. Skilled work and promotion is largely denied to them.

Breeding the Anger

It is this discrimination combined with repression and brutality, that breeds the anger which is seen in support for the IRA. It is the violence of the Northern State and its masters in the British ruling class which have made certain that twenty years after the Civil Rights marches the death and destruction continues.

The task of anarchists is to build a movement that can challenge the Northern and Southern states. Our goal is not a nationalist United Ireland. But that does not mean we are prepared to equate nationalism with imperialism, we will defend the Provos against the state and oppose the attempts to scapegoat them for the problems created by the boss class. However we are in no sense in political alliance with republicanism for out goal is very different. We stand for a united Workers' Republic based on socialism, workers' control and individual freedom. We will settle for nothing less.

Published in Workers Solidarity no.30, Spring 1989