Civil Rights Then and Now, 1968-2008 QUB Seminar Michael Farrell

Paper to seminar in Queens University, Belfast

On 3rd October 2008 to mark the 40th anniversary of

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement

This seminar has been organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland but this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I would like to begin with a quote from the Preamble to that Declaration:




“Whereas it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”

I am speaking today as someone who was actively involved in the Civil Rights movement as a member of the Peoples Democracy and NICRA and is currently a member of the Civil Rights Commemoration Committee.  And I am nowadays a practising lawyer working for the Free Legal Advice Centres in Dublin and working with a lot of the human rights mechanisms I am going to mention later on.

The Civil Rights Commemoration Committee has set out to mark the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights movement here, but not in a triumphalist way and not to nurse old grievances, settle old scores, or dwell too much in or on the past; but to try to draw some lessons from that movement to apply to the civil and human rights challenges that face us at the present time, and that is what I hope to do today.

However, it might seem a bit odd when speaking in Queens on this weekend not to say something about the role of Queens students in the events of October 5th 1968 and its immediate aftermath.

Forty years ago this weekend a busload of students and young people, organised by the Young Socialist Alliance, set off from outside the Students Union to go to Derry for a Civil Rights march, the second one to take place under that name.  The march, which was in protest at the discriminatory housing policy of Derry Corporation and the gerrymandering of its electoral boundaries, had been banned on spurious grounds by the Minister for Home Affairs, William Craig.

We arrived a little late to find the marchers hemmed in in a narrow street by rows of RUC men and Eamonn McCann addressing the crowd.  We moved up to the front of the crowd, facing the RUC, not intending to attack them but to make sure that if they tried to disperse the crowd they would have to physically remove us.  It was what US Civil Rights activists called ‘assertive non-violence’.

I even, rather naively, addressed the RUC men urging them to let us through.  A few placards were thrown at the police, over our heads, and suddenly a policeman rammed his baton into the belly or the groin of the man beside me and they began batoning everybody in sight, including me.

After that my memories are pretty hazy except that I ended up on the ground being beaten by a District Inspector with his blackthorn stick while he tried to hold onto his cap with his other hand.  One of my more streetwise colleagues pulled me up a lane, switched jackets with me and got me a lift to Altnagelvin Hospital.  Meanwhile the RUC brought out water cannon, the first time they had been used in the UK, and hosed the rest of the demonstrators – and the Saturday shoppers – off the street.

All this was captured on film by an RTE cameraman and shown extensively all over Britain and the Republic as well as here.  It caused uproar.  This was 1968 and it seemed as if the Paris student uprising and the beating of anti-war protestors by police at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago had suddenly arrived on our doorstops in Northern Ireland.

Queens opened on the following Monday or Tuesday and there was a mass meeting in the Students Union.  Students who had been in Derry told their stories and a protest march was called for Belfast on the Wednesday.  Around 2,000 students took part and when it was blocked from reaching the City Hall there was a three-hour sit-down in Linenhall Street.  When the students eventually trudged back to Queens, there was another mass meeting and a new protest organisation called the Peoples Democracy was set up.


How did the marchers and march organisers deal with the ban on the Derry march and the violence with which the police broken it up?  Had they tried to judicially review the Minister’s decision to ban the march?  Did they complain to the Police Ombudsman about the behaviour of the RUC?  Did the Human Rights Commission protest about the use of the water cannon and its indiscriminate effect on shoppers and passers-by?

Did the injured marchers sue the police?  And what did the Committee on the Administration of Justice do about it?  Did they contact the UN High Commissioner’s office or the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights?

Of course, the answer to all these questions is no.  None of these watchdog institutions existed at the time and it simply never occurred to the marchers or the march organisers at this stage that they could or should look to the courts to overturn a ban by the Minister for Home Affairs or to censure the behaviour of the police.


This little digression was partly to illustrate the differences between campaigning for rights in 1968 and today.


The Civil Rights movement arose directly out of frustration and anger about discrimination in the allocation of houses and jobs by Unionist-controlled councils mainly west of the Bann and particularly in Derry and Dungannon, and the hardship this was causing to young Catholic families who were desperate to get homes and jobs.  Some 300/400 families had squatted in abandoned US Army huts in Springtown Camp in Derry in the late 1940s and despite periodic agitation over the years, many of them were still there in the early 1960s.

In Dungannon homeless families took over and squatted in pre-fabricated bungalows that the Council wanted to demolish in the mid-1960s.

The allocation of jobs was, if anything, worse.  Notoriously in Fermanagh, a county with a small Catholic majority, only 3 out of 77 school bus drivers were Catholic.

And intimately linked with all of this was the restricted local government franchise and the gerrymandered electoral boundaries that kept Unionist councils in control even in areas with Catholic/nationalist majorities.  A fairer franchise, it was hoped, would put an end to much of the discrimination.

This was not a nationalist agenda and it had very little to do with a united Ireland.  These were down-to-earth, practical, bread and butter demands.  They were largely made by Catholics because they were the ones who were systematically discriminated against, but their demands of “One Man One Job”, “One Family One House” and “One Man One Vote”, while they may have been sexist, were not sectarian, and would eventually have benefited working class Protestants as well.

These were not new complaints.  They had been made repeatedly by Nationalist and Labour MPs in the old Stormont Parliament but had simply been ignored.  By the early 1960s, however, there was a new mood in the Catholic population. A generation had grown up who weren’t prepared to leave all these matters to be resolved when Ireland was united, if only because that was not going to happen any day soon.  They were less concerned about Partition and more about practical everyday problems, and because of the establishment of the Welfare State in the UK, they had higher expectations of the services that public authorities should provide.  And television was beginning to show them other ways of organising and campaigning politically apart from the dead end experience of serving on gerrymandered councils or at Stormont.

A group of Catholic professionals set up the Campaign for Social Justice in Dungannon in 1964 to collect facts and figures about discrimination and use them to lobby British politicians about the situation in Northern Ireland.  They did so quite successfully and even got a commitment of sorts from the British Labour leader Harold Wilson in 1964 that a Labour government would deal with their complaints.  However, when Wilson came to power shortly afterwards nothing was done.

Two years later Wilson won again, this time with a sizeable majority, and Gerry Fitt was also elected for West Belfast and used his position at Westminster to publicise the abuses in Northern Ireland.  But still nothing happened.

There were other groups seeking practical change within Northern Ireland as well: elements in the Northern Ireland Labour Party and the trade unions, and in the Republican movement, which was turning from the use of violence to social agitation, and many of these strands came together to set up the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in February 1967.  They were all, to varying degrees, influenced as well by the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

We had grown up with images of what was happening in the southern United States.  American news reels, which were shown in cinemas before the ‘big picture’, had good coverage of the Civil Rights protests.  I was too young to remember footage of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, sparking a year long bus boycott, which is often regarded as the beginning of the US Civil Rights movement.  However,  I do remember a couple of years later dramatic pictures of the Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, where federal troops and police had to escort the first black students to enrol there in 1957-8.

It was a striking thing that people in small towns in mid-Ulster 40 years ago were so interested in and identified so readily with the struggle of black people in the American South and were prepared to learn from them, and especially perhaps that a largely Catholic group was prepared to adopt as a hero and mentor a black Baptist minister called after Martin Luther.

The proto Civil Rights movement was particularly interested in two aspects of the US movement; its strategy of trying to force the US federal government to intervene and enforce change on the segregationist white state governments in the South; and its use of non-violent protests, civil disobedience and marches when conventional political methods were not delivering results.

But there was a third and very important element to the strategy of the US movement: its use of the courts.  For many years and well before the development of the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1950s, the black movement and especially the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the NAACP, had developed a legal strategy – initially to defend black people railroaded through the courts on criminal charges and tried by all-white juries, but later to try to challenge segregation and discrimination.  They did this by relying on the US Constitution and taking cases through the federal courts which operated across the country alongside the often racist state courts.

The most famous example of this strategy was the decision by the US Supreme Court in Brown v The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools.  In fact the judgment was so cautious and qualified that it required a lot of campaigning and protesting to get it implemented, but using the law was a very effective element in the strategy of the US movement. It meant that where they were successful, Civil Rights organisers could call on state governments to implement the law and then press Washington to intervene when the states refused to do so.  And it gave a sort of legal sanction to the movement’s marches, pickets and sit-ins.  And they did use the courts to challenge bans on marches and demonstrations.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights movement did not use the law as part of its strategy, at least in the early days.  The Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) did explore the possibility of a legal challenge to Dungannon Council but did not pursue it.  The lawyers they consulted were not enthusiastic.  There was no written Constitution like in the US with guarantees of justice and equality and Judicial Review was still in its infancy in the British legal system so that administrative decisions could only be overturned for procedural errors, bad faith – which was almost impossible to prove – or complete irrationality, which was also almost impossible to prove.

The CSJ was refused legal aid for its Dungannon case and they did not take it any further.  They had no confidence in the local, politically appointed judiciary and there were no federal-type courts in Northern Ireland which they might have seen as more likely to give them a fair hearing.

In the US the courts were seen as an avenue of redress where the political system was unresponsive, even though they were slow and not entirely satisfactory.  In Northern Ireland that avenue was not open to those seeking civil rights reforms, or was not seen as open to them.  This led to the relatively rapid move from frustration with political lobbying and localised pickets and sit-ins, which had been going on in Derry and Caledon during the summer of 1968, to street demonstrations.

Paul Rose MP, the Chair of the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, a lobby group of backbench Labour MPs, had written to Austin Currie, then the youngest Nationalist MP at Stormont, in January 1968, saying:

“I have lost hope that this or any British government will put pressure on the Unionists unless it is forced to do so.  Unless you and others like you can create a situation where this government will be forced to intervene in Northern Ireland, nothing will happen and the position will remain unchanged”.

The Civil Rights movement felt it had nowhere else to go and the RUC reaction to the October 5th march meant that there was no turning back from then on.

And that, I think illustrates the essential truth of the quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with which I began:

“Whereas it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.

The Civil Rights campaign was not, of course, a rebellion but simply a resort to extra-parliamentary methods but the principle is the same.

And, in my view, the Northern Ireland system was too brittle to be able to respond to a campaign of protests on the streets.  It did not have the confidence or flexibility to take peaceful protests in its stride or to make the sort of dramatic and generous concessions that would have satisfied the Civil Rights movement at that time.

But I do not want to talk here about the downward spiral into violence and the armed conflict that caused such suffering and hardship to all sections of the community over the succeeding years, nor to apportion blame for it, other than to say that we must all look back upon that period with humility and sorrow and a strong determination to ensure it must never happen again.  I think the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement puts it well where it says that

“the achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence”.


Things have changed enormously from the point of view of someone seeking to assert their rights since that Saturday afternoon in Derry 40 years ago.  Today the victim of discrimination or oppression is faced with an almost bewildering array of legal and human rights instruments to choose from.

These tools or instruments were hard fought for.  As the conflict developed and more and more draconian security measures were adopted, lawyers and what would now be called human rights activists began to fight back, not in support of the armed conflict but of the rule of law.

The first major change was probably the case taken by the Irish Government against the UK under the European Convention on Human Rights over the treatment of persons arrested on the introduction of internment in 1971.  Probably only a government would have had the resources to take the case, though I must pay a belated tribute here to Kevin Boyle, who with a number of others, gave very generously of his time and expertise in that and other cases.  The Strasbourg process was very slow and internment had ended before the European Commission of Human Rights gave its verdict in 1976, saying that the treatment of certain of the detainees amounted to torture.

Even though that verdict was later reduced to “cruel and inhuman treatment” by the Strasbourg Court, it sent out the message that even in the midst of war it was possible to challenge the British government and call it to account if it breached the law.

After that, lawyers in Northern Ireland, who had had so little confidence in the courts as a venue for challenging unfair decisions in the 1960s, became among the most frequent and experienced visitors to the Strasbourg Court and significant changes in emergency laws and practices resulted.

On the civil side, there was some recognition from an early stage that there was a need for a mechanism that would allow citizens to challenge discriminatory decisions, but the earliest attempts were ineffective and even when the Fair Employment Commission was set up in 1974, it was pretty toothless.  It took a long struggle, including campaigning in the US for the MacBride Principles, before the Fair Employment Agency was eventually given powers to really make a change.

Similarly with the police.  There was a recognition of the need for some change as early as James Callaghan’s reform package in August 1969 but it was not until the Patten Report in 1999 as part of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, that sweeping changes were made and the PSNI became something of a model of accountability for many other police services – which does not of course mean that they never do anything wrong, but that they can now at least be held accountable when they do.

And then there are all the international instruments.  A whole series of new treaties and conventions were adopted by the UN and the Council of Europe and eventually signed up to by the UK, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture (ECPT).  These had a new dimension.  States which ratified them had to report to the monitoring bodies on how they were implementing the treaty provisions and be examined about their reports in public in Geneva.  And the Convention on the Prevention of Torture went one step further, assuming the power for its monitoring committee to inspect prisons and police stations for itself.

And then there was the Human Rights Act, passed in 1998 and effective in 2000, making the European Convention on Human Rights directly applicable in the UK and doing away to some extent with the long delays which had made access to the Strasbourg Court fairly meaningless for a lot of applicants.  And, of course, there is also the Human Rights Commission with powers to comment on and criticise government policies, to carry out certain types of investigation, to intervene in legal cases and to fund some cases itself.

This may be beginning to sound like a publicity hand-out from the Northern Ireland Office but I think the point is clear.  For people or groups who believe that they are discriminated against on political or religious grounds or are harassed by the security forces, there are now mechanisms available to secure redress.


Are those mechanisms needed any more?  Especially now that there is a political settlement involving all the significant political parties, cannot all grievances be addressed through the Assembly and the Executive?

Some weeks ago that might have seemed a more serious argument.  Today, given what is happening at Stormont between the two main parties, it is less likely to be seriously argued.  But if the Executive remains deadlocked or if it breaks up, then the human rights instruments become much more important because they could provide a mechanism for the ventilation and resolution of grievances and conflicts which would otherwise fester and sour the political climate, making it even harder for the political structures to work again; or worse still, allow a drift back to the conflict it has taken us so long to emerge from.*1

And, ironically, even if as I sincerely hope it does, the Executive starts to function properly again, that would not spell the end of the useful life of the legal and human rights structures.  In some ways the more closely the Executive works together, the more need there may be for independent human rights bodies.  Between them the Executive parties totally dominate the Assembly and in time complacency and party loyalty may mean that there will be precious few voices to speak out on awkward or inconvenient issues – abortion and gay marriage suggest themselves as issues where there may be very few dissident voices in the Assembly.

Already there are alienated groups in Northern society; working class Catholics and Protestants in the most disadvantaged areas complain that there has been little peace dividend for them, and dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries have not, unfortunately, all gone away yet.

Not that reports from UN Treaty bodies and such like are likely to cut much ice with such groups.  And that is where there is a missing piece in the equation as I have outlined it so far.  All these mechanisms I have mentioned will only work if added to the mix there are active NGOs like the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and a vibrant civil society made up of local community groups and grassroots organisations.  They are needed to voice the concerns of the disadvantaged and to channel them towards the mechanisms that can address their grievances – and to take to the streets as well from time to time when those mechanisms prove too slow or are ineffective.

There may be a tendency to feel that NGOs and civil society are no longer needed now that there is a settlement in place and apparently a redress mechanism for every grievance.  There is some evidence that this happened in South Africa when majority rule was at last achieved with a new and radical constitution; there was something of a drop off in support, funding and enthusiasm for the NGO sector.  But NGOs and civil society are needed as much as ever to cope with that country’s new problems as well as those inherited from the past.

And equally CAJ and NICEM (Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities) and WRDA (Women’s Resource and Development Agency) and the Northern Ireland Law Centre and the whole network of community and voluntary organisations that has developed here over the years are just as necessary as ever if the whole elaborate human rights infrastructure is to have any relevance for the disadvantaged and marginalised people whom it is supposed to help.



I have couched this paper largely in terms of the traditional political/religious divide here and the grievances that flowed from that, and indeed still flow from it, in that there are still areas where Catholics in particular are significantly under-represented in the workplace.  I have stressed the need to provide channels for resolving these grievances so that we never return to the conflict that has thankfully ended.

But that is too narrow a perspective.  This society was never divided exclusively on religious/political grounds.  It was divided as well on gender grounds, between rich and poor, between disabled and non-disabled and, although we did not acknowledge it until recently, between gay and straight.  And today Northern Ireland, like the Republic, has changed very significantly as a result of the influx of large numbers of migrant workers, who have completely transformed the complexion – if you will pardon the pun – of some of the towns in Mid-Ulster where the Civil Rights movement began.

There have already been racist attacks and intimidation in a number of areas of Belfast and elsewhere.  We must ensure, while the opportunity is still there to do so, that these new citizens or residents are not forced into ghettos and victimised with the result that old community divisions are replaced by new ones and one disadvantaged minority is replaced by another one.

That has already occurred with the Travelling community, the most disadvantaged group in our midst, for whom the proliferation of human rights instruments has not so far delivered much change.

The gay and lesbian communities have also come under both verbal and at times physical attack in recent times and need clear and unequivocal public support.

And in the meantime, the struggle for women’s rights is by no means over and the struggle for the rights of the disabled is only beginning.

A more ambitious target than just ending the old politico-religious division here would be to actively use the wide array of human rights protections and mechanisms that are now in place to build a society that not only resolves its old conflicts but is truly inclusive and seeks to protect the rights of all minorities and vulnerable and disadvantaged people.




*1  This rather pessimistic outlook was the product of the lengthy stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein which led to a suspension of meetings of the Executive for five months in the summer and autumn of 2008.  Happily that row was eventually resolved and the Executive resumed meeting in November 2008, but that supports the second argument made above for the importance of human rights NGOs – that with no effective political opposition left in Northern Ireland, there is all the more need for bodies that can tell awkward, inconvenient truths and speak up for the voiceless and marginalised.

1 thought on “Civil Rights Then and Now, 1968-2008 QUB Seminar Michael Farrell”

  1. This is a very good overview and analysis of the last 40 years – it is encouraging how Michael has highlighted the systems / institutions which are now in place to safeguard and promote our human rights. Let’s hope we will continue to move forward.


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