How the civil rights movement of the 1960s shaped Northern Ireland.

Fifty years ago, Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O’Neill said: “Ulster stands at a crossroads.” A civil rights movement seeking justice and equality had just begun. At a civil rights march in Derry on October 5, 1968, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) viciously attacked non-violent demonstrators. No one was killed, but many were injured and hospitalized. What followed in the wake of that march shaped Northern Ireland.

The civil rights movement expanded its numbers and grew in strength. The movement was countered by the Reverend Ian Paisley, founder of the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church. He led “counter-demonstrations” in which “Paisleyite” mobs assaulted non-violent protesters under the watchful but idle eye of the RUC. Paisley’s tactic made street clashes inevitable. 

At a political level, attempts to implement reforms were undermined and thwarted. A majority of unionists did not believe that they lived in a discriminatory society. They treated moderation toward the minority community with disdain and embraced stridency. Some unionists felt extremism in the face of civil rights efforts was acceptable. These attitudes were reflected early the following year in Stormont elections. Those election results ended political careers for some, while others entered politics and began long-lasting and impactful careers.    

After the October march, Prime Minister O’Neill, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was summoned to London to meet with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson pressured O’Neill into accepting some of the reforms sought by the civil rights movement, including a promise to end the Special Powers Act, develop a new system for the allocation of public housing, institute certain voting rights reforms, and appoint an ombudsman to investigate complaints about the provision of government services.    

O’Neill announced the package of reforms in November. The package did not achieve everything civil rights activists sought. Significant changes like one person one vote and the abolishment of the B Specials, a Protestant militia, were missing. The proposal was a step in the right direction, but civil rights marchers continued to press for full reform. 

The Derry Citizen Action Committee (CAC), headed by Ivan Cooper and John Hume, scheduled a protest march for November 16th that would take place along the same route as October’s march. Northern Ireland’s Home Affairs Minister William Craig banned it, but fifteen thousand peaceful marchers showed-up and took part. Hume invited Craig “to arrest the lot of us.” 

After the marchers crossed Craigavon Bridge, they halted at police barricades set-up on the other side. There, four pre-selected leaders climbed over the barricades. Instead of making arrests, the police withdrew. Protesters continued to “the Diamond,” which was the city center. The growing “strength of the civil rights movement” was evident. The number of marchers was more than 14,000 greater than the number in the original Derry march.  

Having successfully completed the march, nationalists started to believe the movement could deliver necessary change. This optimism was premature. In less than two months, events at Burntollet Bridge in Claudy made it clear that any change, if possible, would be a lengthy and hard-earned process. 

Two weeks after the CAC march, the RUC halted a civil rights march in Armagh. Shortly after it had commenced, Reverend Ian Paisley and Major Ronald Bunting arrived in the city center with a caravan of cars loaded with men armed with clubs and stones. They were prepared to hold a counter-demonstration. Their tactic successfully ended this march, and it became one favored by those opposed to granting equal rights to Catholics.   

O’Neill now found himself trapped between the civil rights movement’s non-violent campaign for justice and equality and the unionist community’s fervent opposition to any change. After the reform package was announced, members of O’Neill’s cabinet abandoned him. Craig was sacked after publicly condemning O’Neill for “acting under pressure” from the Prime Minister. Craig also expressed the unionist view that the civil rights movement was “a creature of the IRA.”

In early December, after a close encounter between civil rights marchers and Paisleyites in Dungannon, O’Neill attempted to calm the tense situation and win support for reform. On December 9, 1968, he delivered his “Ulster at the Crossroads” speech. He said: “For more than five years now I have tried to heal some of the deep divisions in our community.  I did so because I could not see how an Ulster divided against itself could hope to stand . . . Unionism armed with justice will be a stronger cause than Unionism armed merely with strength.”   Unfortunately, strength prevailed over justice.   

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) reacted positively to O’Neill’s speech. NICRA placed a temporary moratorium on its marches.  However, the Peoples Democracy (PD), which had formed after the October 5th march, decided they should continue. One of its founders, Michael Farrell, said one person one vote was a “crucial demand” and the civil rights movement must keep building “momentum” toward it. 

The PD scheduled a four-day march from Belfast to Derry commencing January 1, 1969. It was planned to be a “Six County version of the American civil rights march from Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama.” Achieving the right to vote was what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights groups sought to accomplish with the Selma-to-Montgomery march, by having peaceful protesters shine a spotlight on injustice in a confrontation with local Alabama officials and the Governor. Similarly, the 73-mile route in Northern Ireland was intended to be provocative by taking marchers through “staunchly Protestant areas” in Counties Antrim and Derry.  

Fearing violence, NICRA leaders criticized the decision to hold it. Unlike the U.S., where the federal judiciary made states comply with federal laws, British courts consistently upheld repressive government action in Northern Ireland, like public order bans on demonstrations.

During the first three days, marchers were sporadically blocked, re-routed and, harassed. Nevertheless, the number of participants grew from 40 at the start to over 100 by the fourth and final day. At Burntollet Bridge, seven miles from the end, marchers were attacked by an organized mob of about 200 men, including off-duty members of the B Specials. 

First, projectiles - “stones, bricks, and milk bottles” - rained down from higher ground. Then, hordes of screaming men descended and beat marchers with “planks of wood, bottles, lathes, iron bars, crossbars, and cudgels studded with nails.” Those who fell were also kicked. Approximately 80 members of the RUC were there but did nothing to intervene. They stood-by watching as beatings were inflicted. Thirteen marchers were hospitalized. 

One of the PD marchers, Bernadette Devlin, described protecting herself by rolling-up “in a ball on the road.” She said, she tucked-in her knees and elbows and covered her face with her hands. She was clubbed on her back and head, and two nails on a plank protruded into one of her hands. She, along with other “bloodstained” survivors, completed the march. A rally was held in the Diamond until the RUC broke it up.

Rioting ensued for days, and a slogan was painted on a gable wall at an entrance to the Catholic Bogside. It read: “You Are Now Entering Free Derry.” NICRA announced its marches would resume. 

Shortly thereafter, O’Neill set-up an official inquiry into the causes of civil unrest and appointed a Scottish Judge, Lord Cameron, to chair it. Two more cabinet members resigned. O’Neill called for a general election; he described it as “the crossroads election.” He wanted to shore up political support, but that is not what happened. 

O’Neill held onto his Stormont seat, defeating Paisley narrowly. Hume, on the other hand, won a resounding victory. “Drawing inspiration” from Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he spent the next three decades as a proponent of constitutional nationalism and peace-making. He was one of the principal architects of the Good Friday Agreement and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Despite the defeat, Paisley continued in politics. He went on to serve in the House of Commons and European Parliament, and as First Minister of Stormont. O‘Neill’s poor electoral showing ended his political career. He resigned as Prime Minister a few months later and was succeeded by his cousin, Major James Chichester-Clark. 

O’Neill hoped to marshal public opinion in favor of reform and against “sterile forces of hatred and violence.” But he misread the unionist mood. The unionist position was hardening. This became clearer in the summer. For O’Neill, his political impotency meant he was unable to implement reform. 

As O’Neill left office, Devlin won a Mid-Ulster by-election and a seat in the House of Commons. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament.  Burntollet had radicalized her. In a famous maiden speech to Parliament, she challenged MP’s: “The question before the House, in view of the apathy, neglect, and lack of understanding which this House has shown to these people in Ulster whom it claims to represent, is how in the shortest space it can make up for fifty years of neglect, apathy and lack of understanding.” She called for consideration of “the possibility of abolishing Stormont and ruling from Westminster.” And she warned, “[I]f British troops are sent in, I should not like to be either the mother or sister of an unfortunate soldier stationed there.” 

The speech’s tone caused an uproar in Parliament, and its truth was ignored. At that point, there had not been any “Troubles” related deaths since 1966 when three people were killed. No one could foresee the more than 3,660 deaths that lay ahead. Devlin’s comments gave voice to nationalist sentiment and notice of things to come. Sadly, not enough people were listening.  

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mcbride photojohn hume addressing marchers in Derry 1968