1968 and the struggle in Northern Ireland

November 24, 2008

Shaun Harkin looks at the rise of the civil rights struggle of Northern Ireland's oppressed Catholic minority.

1968 WAS a year of international revolt: Ideas, inspiration and solidarity swept across continents and over oceans.

The year marked a historic turning point in Irish politics. In the northern six counties of Ireland that constituted Northern Ireland, the oppressed Catholic minority erupted in rebellion against the British-backed Unionist power structure that defended continued union with Britain.

The response of the Unionist regime to Catholic demands for reform and equality was violent, bloody and shocking.

Northern Ireland stood on Britain's doorstep and was supposedly part of its model modern democracy. Instead, the British government's attempt to shore up its rule in Northern Ireland developed into a decades-long confrontation against discrimination and second-class status for Catholics and the British occupiers' authority.

Years later, one of the leaders of the new civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, explained at a forum in the U.S. how movement developed:

Civil rights organizer Eamonn Melaugh speaks at a housing rally in Derry as Eamonn McCann (right) looks on
Civil rights organizer Eamonn Melaugh speaks at a housing rally in Derry as Eamonn McCann (right) looks on

The rise of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was directly inspired by events in the United States. Our inspiration to take to the streets in peaceful mass marches came directly from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights marches we saw on television.

In 1968, I was 19 years old. I was not a revolutionary or socialist then. I was not even a militant. I was a young Catholic student who simply wanted equality before the law and equality within the system. What made me a revolutionary and an international socialist was practical experience. I saw what happens to people who ask for too little. They get less!

The spread of television broadcasts in the North--from 10,000 licenses issued for the first broadcasts in 1954 to 194,000 licenses by 1962--had a huge effect. "Courtesy of television," said Gerry Adams, the current president of the Sinn Fein party, "we were able to see an example of the fact that you didn't just have to take it--you could fight back."

As Michael Farrell, another leader of the struggle and author of Northern Ireland: The Orange State, said:

What else to read

>War and an Irish Town by Eamonn McCann is the best and most readable introduction to the roots the civil rights movement, written by a leading participant.

For more on the origins of the Northern Ireland state, read Michael Farrell's excellent Northern Ireland: The Orange State.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey's The Price of My Soul is a powerful autobiography that looks at Northern Ireland's economic, social and political questions.

For an excellent study of the influence of the African-American civil rights struggle on Irish activists, see Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America by Brian Dooley.

[A]ll young Catholics...were very influenced by seeing on television the American civil rights movement...By the beginning of the '60s, you were beginning to have the American civil rights movement on television, and I think there was a very general identification with it.

A POLITICAL radicalization was sweeping the world, challenging Cold War ideology, initially centered on campuses, but then spreading to include young workers attracted to action and fundamental political change.

But the roots of the crisis in Northern Ireland lay earlier, with the formal partition of Ireland in 1921. The War of Independence made Ireland ungovernable, and the British government was forced to give up control of 26 of Ireland's counties. But the six other countries in the northern end of Ireland held key economic and industrial concerns on which the British ruling class was determined to maintain a grip.

After partition, the Northern Ireland parliament was opened by King George V of England in June 1921. The borders had been carefully constructed to include a two-thirds Protestant majority. Thus, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland declared: "All I boast is that we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people."

But the new state had to rely on a tremendous level of repression and violence, including 16 British Army battalions and the newly formed Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Northern Ireland Special Powers Act gave the home affairs minister the ability to use dictatorial measures, including internment without trial; a ban on assemblies, organizations and publications; and the right to refuse inquests into the deaths of people killed by police.

In apartheid South Africa, when then-Minister of Justice B.J. Vorster introduced repressive new laws to defend white minority rule, he said he "would be willing to exchange all the legislation of that sort for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act."

Protestant workers were encouraged to identify with Loyalism to the British state and given employment and housing preferences. Sectarianism became a powerful weapon in cementing divisions within the working class. Nevertheless, though Protestant workers were better off than Catholics, they were paid much less than workers in other parts of Britain.

In the 1960s, conditions for Northern Ireland's Catholic minority were atrocious. Viewed with suspicion by the Loyalist machine, their influence in the political system was curbed through gerrymandering. Catholics were consigned to segregated slums and endured high levels of unemployment and poverty--Unionist employers were openly encouraged by the state to hire only Loyalist Protestants.

"The overall effect on the Catholic population was to make them despair," wrote Michael Farrell. "Many of them had been attacked, terrorized and driven from their homes. They had been cut off from the rest of Ireland and forced into a state run by their enemies. Now they were deprived of political power, discriminated against and driven on the dole or the emigrant boat."

However, the mood started to change in the mid-1960s. Northern Ireland's economy had begun to falter a decade earlier, with its three key industries, agriculture, textiles and engineering, in decline. By 1963, unemployment was nearing 10 percent, and the moderate Northern Ireland Labour Party was making inroads among Protestant workers who traditionally backed the Unionist Party.

In response, Capt. Terrence O'Neill was elected prime minister with a mandate to reform Northern Ireland's economy. The new economic plan hinged on creating a modern infrastructure to attract foreign capital investment.

At the same time, the Republic of Ireland was making a similar economic transition, and cooperation between North and South increased with the encouragement of the British government. In 1965, Sean Lemass, the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic, met with O'Neill in Belfast, the first such meeting since 1925.

The promise of reform and thawed political relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic began to change the sentiment among the Catholic minority in the North. A new generation of working class Catholics had also gained access to higher education, and expectations were rising.

These factors, along with the example of revolts around the world, are the backdrop for the eruption of struggle in 1968.

IN HIS book War and an Irish Town, socialist and civil rights organizer Eamonn McCann described some of the bold tactics that began to develop among Catholic residents in the city of Derry:

In March, they...had organized themselves into, if that is not too strong a word, the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), which set out with the conscious intention of disrupting public life in the city to draw attention to the housing problem. The DHAC had introduced itself to the public by breaking up the March meeting of the Londonderry Corporation. We invaded the public gallery of the council chamber with banners and placards, and demanded that we be allowed to participate in the meeting....

At the beginning of June, Dermie McClenaghan discovered John Wilson. Mr. Wilson was living with his wife and two children in a tiny caravan parked up a mucky lane in the Brandywell district. Mr. Wilson was told by the Corporation Housing Department that he had "no chance" of a house.

Mr. Wilson's case was tailor-made. On June 22, a Saturday, ten of us manhandled the Wilson's caravan on to the Lecky Road, the main artery through the Bogside, and parked it broadside in the middle of the road, stopping all the traffic. We distributed leaflets in the surrounding streets explaining that we intended to keep the caravan there for 24 hours as a protest against the Wilson's living conditions and calling for support. We then phoned the police, the mayor and the newspapers, inviting each to come and see.

Following their successes and with growing confidence, the local Derry activists called for a march into the Diamond--the center of the city a and symbol of Unionist supremacy--on October 5.

The march was banned a few days before by Northern Ireland's home affairs minister, William Craig. The moderate Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was ready to call off the protest, but left-wing organizers said it would happen regardless. As McCann wrote:

Most accounts of the current trouble in Northern Ireland begin at 5 October 1968, which is as good a date to start as any other. It was the day of the first civil rights march in Derry. Had all those who now claim to have marched that day actually done so, the carriageway would have collapsed. It was a small demonstration, perhaps 400 strong--and a hundred of these were students from Belfast. Most of the rest were teenagers from the Bogside and Creggan...

The march had been organized by a loose group of radicals who had been trying for months, with some success, to create general political mayhem in the city.

The peaceful march was met with indiscriminate violence, bludgeoned off the streets and drenched with water cannons. For millions around the word, television reports captured Britain's dirty secret: a political and social slum on its doorstep. In Derry in the aftermath of the march, working class areas rioted to keep the police out.

Under pressure from Unionists to his right who favored keeping the status quo, Prime Minister O'Neill said that Catholic voices had been heard, reforms would be granted and demonstrations should end. A truce was agreed to by moderate Catholic organizations. But it was rejected by left-leaning Labour Party activists, Irish Republicans, socialists and members of the newly formed radical student group People's Democracy.

Instead, they called for a march from Belfast to Derry modeled on Martin Luther King's 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The strategy was parallel also--to draw the British government into a conflict with the Unionists by exposing the brutality of the Northern Ireland state.

The marchers had signs and banners calling for Catholic civil rights, but also attempted to appeal on a class basis to Protestant workers for support by taking up issues such as poverty and unemployment. The four-day march, which began on January 1, 1969, was attacked by supporters of the Loyalist bigot Ian Paisley at every step of the way, while the police looked on.

FROM HERE, protest and police repression escalated. O'Neill was forced out by Unionist hardliners opposed to any reform, and the police laid siege to working-class Catholic areas in Belfast and Derry, where they met ferocious resistance. The 50-year-old power structure was being shaken to its foundation by rebellion, and its reactionary character was exposed for the whole world to see.

The British government was forced to act and sent in the British Army on August 14, 1969. Initially, Catholic communities welcomed the army presence and accepted the idea that it would protect them from Loyalist attacks.

However, it soon became evident that the British government wouldn't challenge the sectarianism at the heart of the Unionist state. Instead, worried about the prospect of its own Vietnam, it sent troops to protect the status quo and make sure Unionist rule wasn't overthrown by a popular rebellion. Britain had tried to push the Unionist machine toward reform, but it wasn't willing to challenge the Protestant opposition this had stoked.

With real reform off the table, Catholics in working-class areas became increasingly intransigent and alienated.

Though not prominent at the beginning of the civil rights movement, the Irish Republican Army's message of armed struggle to smash the Unionist state and drive out the British Army recruited growing numbers of radicalized youth. Increased repression, internment and the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, in which 26 civil rights protesters were shot by British soldiers, pushed thousands more to see the IRA's military struggle as the only solution. This shaped the politics of the resistance in Northern Ireland for decades to follow.

Nevertheless, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey's assessment of the impact of the civil rights movement was absolutely correct:

In 50 hours, we brought a government to its knees, and we gave back to a downtrodden people their pride and the strength of their convictions...Whatever happens, never again will the Unionist government be able to govern Northern Ireland as it has done since the country was created.

Eamonn McCann later drew some some organizational conclusions from the lessons of 1968:

With no politically hard organization and no clear orientation on the working class, the left in the civil rights movement had surfed along on the tide of events. It was therefore quite unable to stand fast against the direction in which the tide was flowing. We were carried along by it...

If we had been able to point to an organized working class movement--the unions, most importantly, and the Labour Party--with a clear record of fighting vigorously for an end to the oppression of Catholics, it might have been possible to point to the working class as the force which had the power to remedy the ills we were fighting against.

But this wasn't the case. The realistic possibility we did have, and didn't take, was of recruiting relatively rapidly from the masses of angry, urgent working class youth whom we had helped to bring onto the streets, and perhaps entering 1969 with a revolutionary socialist organization a few hundred strong.

The task of building such as organization remains.

Further Reading

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