Chapter 3 – Civil Rights

On August 24th, 1968, the first civil rights march set out from the small town of Coalisland in Mid-Ulster, to Dungannon some five miles away. It was organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), a body set up in 1967 partly under the inspiration of the movement for black civil rights in the USA.

Protestants and Catholics took part in this first demonstration which was non-sectarian in character. Many of the marchers, and the platform speakers, were labor movement activists.

Although banned from the center of Dungannon, the march passed off peacefully. Not so a demonstration held a few weeks later, on 5 October, in Derry. This was banned by the Unionist government and the few hundred who turned out to defy the ban, found themselves sandwiched between lines of baton wielding policemen and were ruthlessly beaten.

That night the television news showed pictures of the police attacking the marchers. The shock and anger this created turned the civil rights campaign into a mass movement. A second demonstration in Derry on 16 November attracted, not a few hundred, but 15,000. It was banned from entering the center of Derry but the size of the crowd meant that the police were powerless to implement the ban.

Among the Catholic working class and youth the civil rights campaign had almost total support. They saw it not just as a battle against discrimination but a struggle for jobs, decent houses and a decent future.

Many Protestant youth also gave their support, seeing this as a struggle against an oppressive state. The Protestant working class adopted a wait and see attitude – they too were hostile to a Unionist Party which represented the rich, but they were unsure about the nature of this Civil Rights Movement.

While Catholics had always been treated as second class citizens within the state, Protestants, too, suffered from unemployment, poor wages, and in particular, poor housing. 79% of the homes on the Shankill Road had no inside toilet. 81% had no hot water. Tens of thousands of Protestant workers, because they did not own their own homes and pay rates, were denied the right to vote by the class discrimination of the government.

If the civil rights campaign had taken up these issues it could have found a road to the Protestant working class. The best people to make this appeal were the trade union and Labour leaders who already had the support of thousands of Protestant workers. If trade union and Labour banners were to the fore in the civil rights marches it would have made it difficult for the Unionists to portray this as just a Catholic movement.

Instead the right wing NILP and trade union leadership chose to opt out. They had supported the idea of civil rights when it was just a matter of a delegation to Stormont to chat with Unionist ministers. Now that it was a mass movement in physical opposition to the state, they quickly dropped it.

This is the first reason why the civil rights issue came to be regarded with suspicion by Protestants. The second concerns the leadership of the civil rights struggle itself.

‘Moderates’ Take Over

The first civil rights marches were mainly organised by socialists and left wing activists, including the first members of Militant (now the Socialist Party) in Northern Ireland. These people were careful to ensure that the slogans and appeals were non-sectarian, linking the issue of discrimination with class issues which could appeal to both Protestant and Catholic workers.

Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists were the driving force behind the decision to go ahead with this march. The NICRA Executive wanted to call it off. John Hume, soon to be elected to the Stormont Parliament as an Independent on a civil rights program, refused to back the march.

Yet within a few weeks Hume, and other so-called moderates, had set up a self-appointed ‘Citizen’s Action Committee’ and through this, partly because some left wingers made mistakes and gave way to this new self-appointed leadership, had taken effective control of the Civil Rights Movement in the city. Derry was the eye of the civil rights storm, so this position gave them a key influence in the overall movement.

The first thing that these moderates did was clamp clown on the strikes and spontaneous demonstrations then breaking out almost daily in Derry. They also narrowed the civil rights program. Civil rights, said Hume, was a struggle which could ‘heal’ class divisions. Socialist ideas, or demands in favor of the working class which might alienate Catholic businessmen, should not be raised.

No placards, no banners and no slogans were permitted on the November 16th Derry demonstration, which marched in silence to the city center. From here on ‘anti-unionist unity’ and not ‘class unity’ was to be the theme. The NICRA Executive, heavily influenced by members of the Communist Party which was arguing for a broad anti-unionist struggle of all classes, echoed the position of Hume.

‘Anti-unionist unity’ was, and still is, nothing more than another term for Catholic unity. In the name of this ‘anti-unionist unity’ any attempt at building a bridge to the Protestant working class was abandoned.

When Protestant workers listened to the speeches of John Hume, ex- Nationalist Party MP Austin Currie, and others like them, all they could hear was a call for more jobs, more houses, better treatment for Catholics. Instead of demanding an end to poverty these people seemed to be saying things would be all right if it was dished out evenly to the two communities.

A special Militant leaflet, drawn up and issued by the handful of Militant members then in Derry, warned;

“Demonstrations, divorced from the main body of the labor movement, in support only of limited reforms may alienate some Protestant workers who are suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, and will only be convinced by a movement which can be seen to offer a solution to their problems.”[9]

Militant’ s forces were too small to change the direction of the Civil Rights Movement and this warning went unheeded. Late in 1968 O’Neill announced a limited package of reforms.

These proved too little and too late. Despite support from the NILP and union leaders and despite a call from the new civil rights leaders to halt the demonstrations in order to give the reforms time, the Catholic population were not going to be content with piecemeal change. The marches began again at the beginning of 1969 and continued, with ebbs and flows, through the first half of the year.

From the start of the civil rights campaign Paisley had replied to civil rights demonstrations with counter demonstrations, under the banner of the ‘Ulster Protestant Volunteers’. At first the Protestant opposition was quite small. The Protestant working class mainly concentrated in and around Belfast were still passive onlookers.

But the deliberately narrow appeal of the civil rights leaders made it easy for the Unionists to characterize this as a purely Catholic movement out for Catholics only. Protestant opposition began to harden. By the summer of 1969, as for the first time the turmoil spread to areas of Belfast, tensions were running high and both communities feared that a sectarian backlash was coming. Events in August brought things to a head.

On 12 August, 15,000 Protestant Apprentice Boys marched through Derry. Skirmishes, at first quite minor, between marches and residents of the Catholic Bogside area, escalated to a major confrontation. Police backed up by marchers, attacked the Bogside. Barricades were erected in response and the three day Battle of Bogside was begun. Eventually with its police force overstretched, exhausted and unable to penetrate the wall of stones and petrol bombs which greeted their every attempt to enter the Bogside, the government gave the order to call up the notorious B Specials.

Troops Welcomed

A pogrom which would certainly have provoked a Catholic uprising north and south of the border and which could have led to civil war was on the cards. Under pressure from civil rights leaders among others, the British Labour government sent in troops. On the afternoon of August 14th, soldiers took up positions on the edge of the Bogside, much to the relief of those defending the area. It was to be a temporary emergency measure to ‘restore peace’. Troops have been on the streets of Northern Ireland ever since.

That night there was serious fighting in north and west Belfast as Protestants from the Shankill area attacked and burned Catholic streets. Police sent to the Catholic Lower Falls, ‘protected’ residents by opening fire on them with heavy machine guns. The rump of the IRA were unable to provide defense. Five died and hundreds of homes were destroyed in these pogroms.

The next day soldiers took up positions in parts of Belfast and gradually an uneasy calm returned, although barricades stayed up and were to stay in place for weeks.

There was almost universal support for the entry of the troops. People in the Catholic areas welcomed them as a relieving army. The NILP, the Irish Labour Party, and of course, the British Labour Party, whose government sent them, gave support. So did virtually all the civil right leaders including those who later backed the Provisional IRA. Likewise most of the fringe socialist groups in Britain, such as the Socialist Worker Party (then the International Socialists), people who were soon to b cheering on the IRA, supported the government’s decision.

Militant, along with left wing members of the NILP in Derry, found itself virtually alone in opposing. Its September 1969 issue, under headline, ‘Withdraw the Troops’ predicted:

“The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business”.[10]

This was the reality. The army were not sent for humanitarian reasons but because of fear of what a civil war might mean for British capitalism. Civil war on its doorstep would destabilize Britain, probably spreading to the huge Irish communities in its cities. Britain would be blamed internationally. British property would be destroyed or seized in Ireland and there would be campaigns to boycott British goods in the United States and other countries with Irish communities.

Their past policy of divide and rule had now caught up with the British ruling class. Although they would have much preferred to with- draw altogether, they found instead that they had no option but to commit themselves to direct military involvement. History was having the last word for the crimes of Randolph Churchill, Bonar Law, Lloyd George and all the others who had chosen to play the ‘orange card’.

The entry of the troops solved nothing. The poverty, the discrimination, the sectarian division -everything which had led to the August ’69 pogroms -remained. Because no capitalist government could solve these things, it was certain that the anger which led to August ’69 would produce new confrontations. The difference would be that the army would be on the streets. Inevitably they would come into conflict with the very people who, it was claimed, they had come to defend.

Would it not still have been justified to support the entry of the army as an emergency measure to prevent civil war? No, the duty of Marxists in a situation such as this is to point to ways in which the working class can rely on its own strength to solve its own problems, not rely on the forces of the capitalist state.

The arrival of soldiers did have a temporary effect in restoring calm to some areas. However across most of the North there was not a soldier to be seen. In most areas peace was kept by non-sectarian defense or peace committees made up of both Catholics and Protestants. Shop stewards in the shipyards took action to prevent the intimidation of Catholics and their example was taken up in many other workplaces.

The outline of a non-sectarian defense force, based on the trade unions and on community activists, existed even during the fierce sectarian fighting of August. This could have been built upon if a clear lead had come from the trade union or NILP leaders. Instead these leaders sup- ported the army and argued that their members should rely on the troops, not on their own strength.

The effect of this mistaken policy was that the defense committees eventually dwindled away. Bodies which could have mobilized Protestant and Catholic workers against sectarianism were gone. Instead there was British Army which could unite no-one and solve nothing.


  1. Militant leaflet (March 1969)
  2. Militant (September 1969)