The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (Cumann Chearta Sibhialta Thuaisceart Éireann) was an organisation which campaigned for civil rights for the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
According to Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, the ethos of the Northern state was unashamedly and unambiguously sectarian, although Senia Paseta argues that discrimination was never as calculated as nationalists maintained nor as fictional as unionists claimed. The civil rights campaign which began in the mid-1960s attempted to achieve reform by publicising, documenting, and lobbying for an end to abuses in areas such as housing, unfair electoral procedures, discrimination in employment and the Special Powers Act.
Since Northern Ireland’s creation, the Roman Catholic community had suffered from discrimination under the government. The Northern Ireland government accused NICRA of being a political front for Republican and Communist ideologies.
Internationally, there was concern with civil and minority rights with Northern Ireland part of this international trend. NICRA therefore secured much wider international and internal support than traditional nationalist protest. According to the authors of Northern Ireland: 1921/2001 Political Forces and Social Classes, the one area which exemplified the formation of the northern state was the constitution of the security forces. They say that the strategy pursued by the Unionist middle class along with the British government’s diplomatic strategies were responsible for the establishment of a sectarian-populist flavour in Northern Ireland.
In a conscious imitation of tactics used by the American Civil Rights Movement,[ and modelled 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. NICRA had five main demands:
•One man, one vote which meant extension of the local government franchise from ratepayers to all those over 21
•An end to gerrymandering which meant Unionists were elected even in districts with Catholic majorities
•An end to discrimination in housing
•An end to discrimination in jobs
•The disbandment of the B-Specials, the Ulster Special Constabulary, which many viewed as sectarian.
On 27 April 1968, NICRA held a rally to protest at the banning of a Republican Easter parade. On 24 August 1968 the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), NICRA, and other groups, held the first civil rights march in Northern Ireland from Coalisland to Dungannon, in Co Tyrone. Loyalists organised a counter demonstration in an effort to get the march banned and in fact the rally was officially banned. Despite this the march took place and passed off without incident. The publicity surrounding the march encouraged other protesting groups to form branches of NICRA.
On 27 August 1968, the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), which protested against housing discrimination and provision in Derry, organised another protest in the Guildhall, Derry council chamber. Immediately after the protest Eamon Melaugh telephoned NICRA and invited them to organise a march in Derry.
In September 1968, NICRA organised a march to be held in Derry on 5 October 1968. On 1 October, a Protestant fraternal organisation, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, announced their intention to march the same route on the same day and time. William Craig, the Northern Ireland Home Affairs Minister chose to ban civil rights marches.
Civil Rights demonstrators defied the ban. They were repeatedly attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who injured many marchers, including west Belfast MP Gerry Fitt. Television pictures of the march taken by RTÉ cameraman, Gay O’Brien, shocked viewers across the world. Following these events, Catholics in Derry rioted against police for two days. Students such as Bernadette Devlin at Queen’s University, Belfast were radicalised by these events and formed a more radical civil rights organisation People’s Democracy.
Unionist Prime Minister O’Neill made his ‘Ulster at the crossroads’ speech on television on 9 December, appealing for calm. As a result of the announced reforms, the more moderate civil rights associations declared halt to marches until 11 January 1969. The People’s Democracy ignored the government’s statement.
Events escalated until August 1969, when an Apprentice Boys of Derry march was attacked after trying to march through the nationalist Bogside area of Derry. The RUC intervened, and a three day riot ensued between the RUC and the Bogside residents (allied under the Derry Citizens’ Defence Association. Rioting spread throughout Northern Ireland, where at least seven were killed, and hundreds wounded. Thousands of Catholics were driven from their homes by Loyalists. These events were often seen as the start of the Troubles.
The British government introduced internment on 9 August 1971. The British Army in co-operation with the RUC, but acting on out of date intelligence interned hundreds of men and women. This eventually rose to several thousand. Most of those interned were innocent of involvement with the PIRA. The PIRA having being tipped off about the internment either went underground or fled across the border. Many of those imprisoned were civil rights activists.
By this stage support for NICRA began to wane. However NICRA organized marches against internment. In Derry on 30 January 1972, fourteen unarmed demonstrators were shot and killed by British troops during an anti-internment march. This became known as Bloody Sunday. The army later claimed it had come under fire. No guns were uncovered. Most of the victims were shot in the back, indicating they were running away. The British government’s Saville Report published 2010 cleared the names of the protestors as innocent victims and blamed a “breakdown in the chain of command” for the deaths.
People associated with NICRA:
Malachy McGurran Chairman, Frank Gogarty, Ivan Barr, Denis Haughey, Michael Farrell, Vice Chair, Vincent McDowell vice chair. Patrons of NICRA included Kader Asmal, Anthony Coughlan, Bernadette McAliskey, and John Hume. The first chair of NICRA was Betty Sinclair (Communist Party) from 1968-1969; other committee members included Paddy Devlin (NILP), Ivan Cooper, Robin Cole (Young Unionists), Kevin Agnew, Conn McCluskey, Jack Bennett, Madge Davidson, and Fred Heatley. NICRA’s Official Secretary was Edwina Stewart, a Protestant who replaced Betty Sinclair in the executive in 1968.
Photo: Civil Rights mural featuring prominent leaders, Derry