From Socialist Voice, August 2008

Civil rights: a missed opportunity

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formally established at a meeting held in Belfast on 29 January 1967. It was disbanded in 1981. At its height, in 1972, NICRA had approximately five hundred members. Its archives are now in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast.
     The concept of civil rights in Northern Ireland was as old as Northern Ireland itself. A permanently guaranteed parliamentary majority for the Unionist Party at Stormont was built on a foundation of sectarian discrimination, biased administration, and a barrage of totalitarian legislation, which both protected unionism and instilled a deep sense of injustice in the non-unionist population.
     The progressive response was to demand the dismantling of discrimination, the unfreezing of bigotry, the achievement of the utmost degree of civil liberties, freedom of political action, and an end to the bitterness in social life and divisions fostered by unionism.
     The key to unlocking this process was to develop a strategy that would bring into being and mobilise in struggle a movement that could put pressure on both the subordinate regime at Stormont and the British government, which ultimately controls it.
     It thus had to be able to win support from a non-sectarian bloc within Northern Ireland, from organised political opinion within Britain, primarily in labour and trade union circles sympathetic or potentially sympathetic to the cause of democracy in Ireland, and finally from international public opinion.
     On 8 May 1965 Belfast Trades Council organised a conference in the lecture room of the ATGWU to discuss the issue of gerrymandering in local government and the operation of the Special Powers Act and to demand an inquiry into the working of the Government of Ireland Act (1920). This latter issue was particularly significant, because it highlighted the issue of the ultimate British government responsibility for misrule in Northern Ireland.
     The conference also discussed the possibility of organising a campaign for civil rights in Northern Ireland.
     These issues were being discussed in trade union and Labour circles. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions had gone to meet the Northern Ireland prime minister, Captain Terence O’Neil, on two occasions to demand franchise reform and repeal of the Special Powers Act.
     On both occasions the trade unionists had been accompanied by representatives of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. This party held four of the Belfast Stormont seats. But on both occasions the trade unionist and Labour people had been ignored.
     The May 1965 conference brought together trade unionists, representatives of the NILP, the Communist Party (Northern Ireland), and the Campaign for Social Justice, based in Dungannon. Also present were representatives of the republican movement. They were well received. The conference thus provided an opportunity for trade union, labour, socialist and republican elements to come together and try to thrash out a way forward for civil rights and democracy in the North.
     Tragically, the trades council initiative was not sufficient to get a campaign off the ground, largely because of stalling and foot-dragging by the NILP. If the movement for civil rights had got going then rather than three years later it would have been a trade-union-sponsored campaign.
     Such a movement would have had a different profile from the movement that emerged subsequently. It could have drawn on the valuable experience acquired by the trade unions in fighting to maintain Short’s and to keep other factories open. It would have had a greater chance of winning over a section of the Protestant population to civil rights demands. It could be argued that such a campaign perhaps would have been more successful in neutralising Paisleyism and dampening republican impatience.
     The tragedy of the civil rights movement was that it did not get going in 1965. Those three lost years were crucial. They allowed Paisleyism to develop greater momentum, especially in response to the events associated with the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. In that period also the impatience of republicans increased. I believe that perhaps if civil rights had got going earlier the gains might have been greater; but of course we cannot be sure.
     The real scandal was the failure at all times of the British government and parliament, which had overriding responsibility and authority to insist on basic civil rights and democracy, without the people of Northern Ireland having to go through hell in order to obtain the current political dispensation.
     So, imperceptibly, the initiative moved. The first step in what was eventually to emerge as NICRA came from the Wolfe Tone Society. Wolfe Tone Societies had been established in 1963 to commemorate the bicentenary of Theobald Wolfe Tone’s birth and had decided to stay in existence to attempt to influence cultural and political developments in the country in a progressive and democratic direction by bringing together people of a labour and republican background. There were societies in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork.
     The Belfast society recognised the growing awareness of the need for a broad organisation to channel the demands for civil rights reform. To this end it organised a meeting of all Wolfe Tone Societies in Maghera, Co. Derry, in August 1966.
     The outcome was a decision to hold a public meeting to highlight the issue of civil rights in Northern Ireland. This was held in what was known as the War Memorial Building in Belfast in November 1966. The support for this public meeting prompted the Belfast Wolfe Tone Society to organise another meeting with a view to setting up a formal organisation. This meeting was held on 29 January 1967.
     The meeting that led to the establishment of NICRA resulted from the coming together of the Belfast Wolfe Tone Society and trade unionists such as Betty Sinclair, Noel Harris, and Brian Graham. The trade union involvement was in a personal capacity.
     The broad objectives of the new group were spelled out as
• to defend the basic freedoms of all citizens
• to protect the rights of the individual
• to highlight all possible abuses of power
• to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly, and association
• to inform the public of their lawful rights.
     This is very much the programme of a civil-liberties-type organisation, and indeed NICRA’s first constitution was based on the constitution of the National Council for Civil Liberties.

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