The protest movements that broke out across the western world in 1968 had captured the imagination of many people in the north of Ireland, leading to the creation of a local civil rights movement that began a series of marches and protests calling for greater equality for the Catholic/nationalist minority.
The civil rights movement formed in Belfast in January 1967 drew inspiration from the campaign for equal rights in the United States led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had held power. The UUP drew its support from the predominantly Protestant unionist/loyalist community and many of the policies it enacted marginalised and discriminated against the Catholic/nationalist minority.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) called for wide-ranging reforms: it demanded equal voting rights in local government elections; a fairer system for the allocation of public housing; an end to ‘gerrymandering’ (the manipulation of electoral boundaries to give one community an electoral advantage); an end to discrimination in employment; the disbandment of the ‘B-Specials’ (an all-Protestant auxiliary police force); and the repeal of the Special Powers Act (which allowed for internment of suspects without trial).
By 1968, the civil rights movement was beginning to gather support from local politicians as well as some prominent MPs in the British Parliament at Westminster. The Ulster Unionist government in Northern Ireland, led by Prime Minister Terence O’Neill, was under pressure from all sides for its hesitant approach to social reform. The reforms that were made were considered too much by many in the unionist/loyalist community and too little by many of those in the nationalist/republican community. Those on both sides of the debate agreed on one thing – opposition to O’Neill’s regime.
After their first march on 24 August 1968 in Co Tyrone, NICRA were invited by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) to hold a march in Derry on 5 October. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal society, announced plans to march the same route, on the same day. Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, responded by issuing a banning order on all marches within the boundaries of the planned route.
The civil rights march was stopped by the RUC before it had properly begun. The marchers had proposed to walk from Duke Street in the Waterside area of Derry to the Diamond in the centre of the City. Present at the march were three British Labour Party Members of Parliament (MP); Gerry Fitt, Republican Labour MP; several Stormont MPs; and members of the media including a television crew from RTÉ. There were different estimates of the number of people taking part in the march. Eamonn McCann (one of the organisers of the march) estimated that about 400 people lined up on the street with a further 200 watching from the pavements. The RUC broke-up the march by baton-charging the crowd and leaving many people injured including a number of MPs.
Television news coverage of these events brought the situation in Northern Ireland to international attention and serious rioting broke out locally. More civil rights demonstrations and counter demonstrations followed in the weeks and months ahead, with many ending in clashes as the security situation slipped out of control. The next major civil rights march (organised by the People’s Democracy) in January 1969 was ambushed just outside Derry by loyalists, with some of the attackers later identified as members of the security forces – in this case B-Specials. Serious rioting followed in Derry that evening and over subsequent days.
Tensions were not confined to the streets. Prime Minister O’Neill was under pressure both inside and outside his own government to take decisive action. O’Neill set up the Cameron Commission to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disturbances in Derry on 5 October 1968. He then called a snap election in an attempt to sideline his critics.
The move backfired. The Ulster Unionist Party retained power but suffered serious splits into pro- and anti-O’Neill factions. O’Neill himself even struggled to retain his own seat, only narrowly holding off the challenge of his political bête noire, Ian Paisley. On 28 April 1969, O’Neill resigned as prime minister of Northern Ireland.