Forty years ago, in 1968, a series of events took place here which changed the face of Northern Ireland irrevocably. These events were the culmination of attempts since the early 1960s by a number of different organisations and individuals to highlight injustices in Northern Ireland. The Campaign for Social Justice, the Derry Housing Action Committee and the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster were examples of this. Their concern was not with the great constitutional issues which had dominated political debate thereto, but with the everyday issues which dominated people’s lives. In 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was founded to address all these issues. The following year, inspired by the courage of Civil Rights leaders in the United States, and by their example of peaceful non-violent protest, Civil Rights protesters began to take to the streets of Northern Ireland. Their objective was to bring an end to injustice in the system of public authority housing provision, injustice in public and private employment practices, injustice in voting and representational rights, and the arbitrary and oppressive powers available to the state to suppress dissent.
The things that happened during that pivotal year had a profound effect upon our society, and precipitated an avalanche of change which left no part of our community untouched. Such was the importance of these events, and what they led to, that it is appropriate and even necessary, 40 years later, to commemorate them in a sober and reflective way, to seek to learn from what happened, to consider the significance of the Civil Rights Movement for our society today and the continuing resonance of the issues which it addressed, and the ideals which underpinned it.
A number of those who were active in leadership positions in the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, have established a broad based Civil Rights Commemoration Committee to commemorate the events of 1968, in such a way as to serve the historical record as best we can, and to generate a balanced and inclusive reflection upon that year.
Objectives of The Civil Rights Commemoration Committee are:
- To honour the courage all those who took part in the Civil Rights movement.
- To explore the legacy of civil rights through documentation, conferences and other events.
- To reflect on the achievement of civil rights movement as an example of non-violent and peaceful change.
- To commemorate the shared/contested history of civil rights on a cross community basis.
- To examine the civil rights challenges at home and abroad today especially racism and sectarianism in Ireland and the need to build a tolerant and inclusive society throughout the island.
- To support and strengthen the protection of civil/human rights throughout Ireland and to share the lessons of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement with people working for human rights in situations of conflict.
CIVIL RIGHTS TIMELINE
1963 Homeless Citizens’ League
HCL was established to campaign against discrimination in the allocation of public housing.
January 1964 Campaign for Social Justice
CSJ was established by Dr Conn and Patricia McCloskey for ‘the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community against the Catholic section of that community representing more than one-third of the total population’.
1 February 1967 NICRA formed
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formed calling for ‘one man, one vote’; the end to gerrymandering of electoral boundaries, the end to perceived discrimination in the allocation of public sector housing and appointments to public sector employment; the repeal of the Special Powers Act and the disbandment of the ‘B-Specials’.
The Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) was formed.
20 June 1968 The Caledon Protest
Austin Currie, then Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) at Stormont, and a number of others, began a protest about discrimination in the allocation of housing by ‘squatting’ (illegally occupying) in a house in Caledon, County Tyrone.
22 August 1968
Society of Labour Lawyers publish a document about alleged discrimination in Northern Ireland.
24 August 1968 First Civil Rights March
The Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ), the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), and a number of other groups, held the first ‘civil rights march’ in Northern Ireland from Coalisland to Dungannon.
October 1968 Civil Rights March in Derry
A civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968 which had been organised by members of the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) and supported by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), was stopped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) before it had properly begun. The RUC broke-up the march by baton-charging the crowd and leaving many people injured, including a number of MPs. The incidents were filmed and there was world-wide television coverage.
8 November 1968
Londonderry Corporation agreed to a Nationalist request to introduce a points system in the allocation of public sector housing.
22 November 1968
Terence O’Neill, then Northern Ireland Prime Minister, announced a package of reform measures which had resulted from meetings in London with Harold Wilson, then British Prime Minister, and James Callaghan, then British Home Secretary. The five point reform plan included:
1: a nine member ‘Development Commission’ to take over the powers of the Londonderry Corporation;
2: an ombudsman to investigate complaints against government departments;
3: the allocation of houses by local authorities to be based on need;
4: the Special Powers Act to be abolished as it was safe to do so; and
5: some reform of the local government franchise (the end of the company votes).
People’s Democracy staged Burntollet march from Belfast to Derry was attacked.