BY Barry McCaffrey – Irish News 11/06/08
Forty years ago a family’s decision to make a stand over housing set in motion a chain of events that would give rise to the civil rights movement and thrust Northern Ireland into the international spotlight. Barry McCaffrey reports from Caledon
As Mary Teresa Goodfellow walked through the front door of No 11 Kinnard Park in the sleepy village of Caledon in Co Tyrone in October 1967 she had no idea that her actions would lead to the birth of the civil rights movement and signal the beginning of the end for the Stormont government.
With two young children and a third on the way the 26-year-old and her husband Fran had until then been crammed in to her parents’ two-bedroom home along with her six brothers in the townland of Brantry near Dungannon.
When the area’s council built 15 houses in the nearby village of Caledon, a gentleman’s agreement was reached between unionist politician William Scott and local curate Fr Michael McGirr that the houses would be divided equally between Protestants and Catholics.
However, on October 13 1967 the unionist-dominated Dungannon council decided that all but one of the 15 houses was to be allocated to Protestants.
Today, for the first time in 40 years, Mrs Goodfellow has chosen to speak about the events many believe changed Northern Ireland forever.
“We were absolutely livid,” the 66-year-old re-called.
“There were 12 of us living in my parents’ two-bedroomed house and now we were being told we weren’t entitled to any of these houses simply because we were Catholic.”
Angry at the overt discrimination, a number of Catholic families vowed that they would squat in the Caledon houses until the council agreed to a fair allocation.
That night the Goodfellow and McKenna families moved into empty houses at numbers nine and 11 Kinnard Park in the predominantly Protestant village.
“Some other families were supposed to move into the other houses but in the end they were too afraid,’’ Mrs Goodfellow said.
“We didn’t blame them. It was one of those things.
“But we had no choice. We had to move into number 11 because we simply had nowhere else to go.”
Fran Goodfellow insists his family did not break into the house but simply walked through an open front door.
“This was nothing to do with politics. It was a matter of us being in desperate need of a house and deciding that we had to stand up and say that this discrimination was wrong.”
The father-of-three admits that he had mixed emotions when he found himself sitting on the living-room floor that night with his pregnant wife, four-year-old daughter Dawn and son Brian, aged two.
“I remember the RUC arriving the next morning and searching the house but leaving when they found that we hadn’t actually broken in.
“In one way we were delighted just to have somewhere to live but on the other hand we always knew they weren’t going to let us stay there without a fight.
“Over the next eight months we were visited by lots of media and I remember [BBC presenter] WD Flackes helping us to light the fire in the living room.”
The family soon discovered that Dungannon council was not going to give up easily.
“We were afraid to leave the house in case they just came in and changed the locks and threw us out on the street,” Mrs Goodfellow said.
“They tried turning off the water and then the electric but every time they turned something off we found a way of turning it back on.”
Within weeks the family found themselves standing in court charged with squatting.
“We were fined £1.50 but the judge said we could stay in the house for six months in the hope that the council would see sense and allocate us a house on the basis of our need.”
However, the protest had bigger implications than a simple dispute about a council house.
“People forget that unionist gerrymandering was still very much the order of the day,’’ Mrs Goodfellow said.
“If you didn’t have a home, you didn’t get a vote.
“If unionist councils had to give houses to homeless Catholics they would also have to give them the vote and that wasn’t going to happen.”
The ‘Battle of Caledon’ came to a head on the morning of June 19 1968 when bailiffs broke down number 11’s door.
“We’d been dreading this day coming for a long time but nothing prepared us for an RUC man coming through the front window and them breaking down the door with sledgehammers,” Mrs Goodfellow said.
“When they smashed their way into our front room I was sitting on the floor with Dawn and Brian and my 10-week-old baby Mairead.
“My mother Anne and sister-in-law Geraldine, who was three months pregnant, were also sitting on the floor with her one year-old son Emmet.”
Geraldine Gildernew – whose daughter Michelle is now MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone – recalled how the three women sat huddled on the floor with their children.
“When I told them I was pregnant it put them off for a while but eventually they just dragged us out of the house by our feet,” she said.
“The media were all there and the images of heavily armed police dragging pregnant women out of a house was seen around the world.
“The injustice of it all was seen right around the world.”
Hours after the family had been evicted it emerged that the house next door had been allocated to a single Protestant woman who happened to work as a secretary in the office of a prominent local unionist politician.
In protest Mrs Goodfellow’s brother Patsy Gildernew, Nationalist MP Austin Currie and family friend Joe Campbell decided to squat in number 9. Within hours images of them also being dragged from the house by bailiffs were being beamed around the world.
However, while the Goodfellows found themselves homeless once again their decision to squat in Kinnard Park began a chain of events which would lead to the eruption of the civil rights movement, the establishment of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the eventual collapse of Stormont.
“Weeks after we were evicted the civil rights movement tried to march from Coalisland to Dungannon to protest against what had happened to us.
“That march was blocked from entering Dungannon.
“When the civil rights tried to march to Derry they were attacked at Burntollet bridge and the rest is history.”
However, the personal repercussions for the Goodfellows and Gildernews did not end with their eviction.
“During the eight months we were squatting in number 11 the UVF threatened to march on Caledon,” Mrs Goodfellow said.
“While the majority of people in Caledon supported us we did receive a number of loyalist death threats.
“In August 1969 there was a gun attack near the family home and the RUC told our extended family that we were going to be shot by loyalists.
“We were told to take the threat seriously and had to move to an Irish army camp in Gormanstown in Co Meath for four months.
“It was hard on the families but a lot of other people had been forced over the border in similar circumstances so we just had to get on with it as best we could.”
Looking back on those historic events 40 years on, Mary Teresa Goodfellow insists she has no regrets about her actions.
“It highlighted the injustice and the discrimination that was taking place at the time.
“I’d like to think that it signalled the beginning of the end for gerrymandering.
“I remember on the day we were being evicted a neighbour innocently asking my mother if we weren’t making hay that day and my mother saying that we were making history instead.
“We were just making a stand and saying that enough was enough.
“We never dreamt that it would lead to the civil rights [movement] and the beginning of the end for Stormont.
“The sad thing is that none of the last 40 years might have happened if people had been treated fairly in the first place on the basis of need and not religion.
“I often wonder how many lives could have been saved and how much untold misery could have been avoided if people had been allowed their civil rights in the first place.”
An exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the Caledon evictions will go on display at the Cornhill Heritage Centre in Coalisland from Friday until June 18.
On Saturday a special questions-and-answers discussion will take place with former loyalist spokesman Glenn Barr, former civil rights leader Ivan Cooper, Irish News columnist Roy Garland and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew at the Craic Theatre in Coalisland (8pm).