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Peter Hadden

Civil Rights – 10 years of struggle in Northern Ireland

Labour Movement holds the key

(October 1978)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 67, October 1978.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

For most people in Northern Ireland the 5th of October 1968 stands out as the day when the “troubles” began. The events of that day transformed the Civil Rights Association (NICRA) for a period into a mass force with a huge base of support in all the Catholic areas in the North. The 5th of October was the day chosen by Civil Rights leaders for their first march in Derry.

Two days before the march, the Minister of Home Affairs in the Stormont Parliament, William Craig, announced the banning of all marches in Derry. Despite pressure from the more “respectable” middle class leaders of NICRA to accept the ban the march went ahead. In large measure this was due to the pressure from the local labour movement. A little over 2, 000 people assembled outside the railway station in the Waterside area.

They set out along the chosen route but found, after advancing a few hundred yards, that their way was blocked by a cordon of police. Unable to advance, the march leaders stopped and attempted to organise an impromptu meeting. A few people were already treated to traditional R.U.C. medicine-baton blows across the skull. Meanwhile at the back of the march a further police, cordon had sealed off the street. Having trapped the march the police began a series of baton charges. Only by a running gauntlet of fists and blows did the marchers manage to escape through the police cordon to their rear. Some quickly regrouped on the waste ground nearby and picked up stones, bricks, anything they could find with which to defend themselves from the thugs in uniform of the RUC.

Liam de Paor in his book Divided Ulster acknowledges that it was the radical youth, most particularly the Young Socialists who were to the fore in the fighting: “The brunt of the street fighting had been borne, not by any traditional nationalist element, but by the Young Socialists, who had shown great courage. ”

Instantaneously the Civil Rights Movement became a mass force. The sight of police brutality, some of which was shown on the television news, ignited the anger of the Catholic ghettos. One month later another march was organised along the route proposed for October 5th. This time about 15,000 people turned up. The sheer force of the number involved paralysed the baton-wielding arms of the state forces. This march surged across Craigavon bridge over the Foyle, then filed past police barricades and reassembled in the centre of the city

While the programme of civil rights, from the beginning, limited itself to the discrimination practised against the minority, the movement itself gained propulsion from more deep seated problems. It was in the working class areas, such Catholic ghettos as the Bogside in Derry and the Falls area of West Belfast that the movement drew the strongest support. Here it was the terrible conditions of slum housing, poverty and mass unemployment which acted as the springboard of the unrest. Unemployment in Derry in 1968 stood at 17%. In nearby Strabane the figure was about 25%.

In addition the awakening of this movement of social upheaval in Ireland came as part of the greater awakening of the workers’ movement in Europe. 1968 was also the year when the working class of France demonstrated that the deep lull which had descended upon the class struggle in the advanced capitalist nations as a result of the post-war economic boom was over. 10 million French workers, during May 1968, in what then was the largest General Strike movement in world history, occupied their factories.

The eruption in Northern Ireland also took place against the background of a movement of social agitation in the South. There the rank and file of the Irish Labour Party pushed the Party to its most left wing position since the days of James Connolly.


All this underlined the potential which existed in Northern Ireland in 1968: potential not merely for reform, but for a united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers for social change.

The conditions which drove people from the Catholic areas into the streets and eventually behind the barricades during 1968 and 1969, were conditions shared by Protestant workers. Discrimination had been used by the Unionist bosses to prevent the workers uniting on class issues. Protestants had been treated with marginal preference in relation to jobs and houses.

But the occasional crumb dropping from the Unionist table did little to ameliorate the misery of the mass of Protestant workers. It did not, as some Civil Rights leaders stated at the time, and as many Republican leaders have since echoed, somehow magically convert the Protestant population into Irish equivalents of the French colons in Algiers.

On the contrary, conditions in the Protestant ghettos differed not one bit from those in Catholic areas. In 1969 it was revealed that 95% of the homes in the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast had no inside toilet. 96% had no fixed bath and 97% lacked hot water, It was shown that no less than two thirds of the heads of households in this district earned less than £13 a week, hardly a princely sum even in 1969. Such conditions could have been the cement of a united class movement, not simply for housing or job re-allocation, but for decent homes, decent jobs and a living wage for all. It was primarily this danger of a class explosion and the effects this would have had in Britain, which determined the strategy of the British Ruling Class. They saw the influential role of various socialist groups and left-wing ideas within the Civil Rights movement and feared that its “moderate” middle class leaders might be elbowed to the side. Thus the British government began to put pressure on the Unionist leadership to introduce reforms.

During the period following the first world war the British ruling class, and its architect of policy Lloyd George, had been struck with dread at the prospect of social revolution in Britain and Ireland.

They lived under the permanent shadow of the October 1917 revolution in Russia. It was in order to divert the socialist movement in Ireland that they resorted to the trusty and well-tried tactic of divide and rule, even going to the length of partition, via the 1920 Government of Ireland Act.

At this stage they reacted with loud applause to every sectarian outrage which was committed by the Unionist lapdogs which they fostered and developed in Northern Ireland. But by the 1960’s things had been stood on their heads. Instead of sectarianism, the British bosses were interested in cultivating “economic co-operation” with the South in order that they could profit from this market. No applause came from the corridors of power in Westminster at the antics of the RUC on October 5th. Instead, the eyes of British – capital fixed with dread on the rumblings which had been provoked in the ghettos.


Terence O’Neill, Unionist Prime Minister at the time was persuaded to concede at least some of the civil rights programme. In November 1968 he announced a package of reforms. They included the abolition of the totally rotten Derry Corporation, the abandonment of the company vote in local elections, the introduction of a housing points system and the repeal of parts of the Special Powers Act. These and other sops which accompanied them were to prove far too little and far too late.

They failed to tackle the economic problems underlying the agitation. Yet they were sufficient to whip up a furore of opposition from among the Unionist right-wing. It is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. Large sections of Unionism failed to re-adjust their thinking to take account of the needs of their British paymasters in the new period. They had been taught to react to opposition with guns and batons and could accept no other way. Giving concessions to defuse a movement was a strategy beyond their imagination. Increasingly, the “moderate” O’Neill was to face a growing challenge from the right-wing of his own Party.

In February 1969, O’Neill called a general election hoping to isolate his right-wing opponents. He won the election but at the cost of seeing eleven of his outspoken critics returned to power.

In fact it was far more than the fate of their “moderate unionism” which was in the balance at this stage. Inherent from the start was the danger that NICRA would degenerate into a purely Catholic movement which would alienate any Protestant support.

This was the real choice which existed at the time – either working class unity and socialist policies, or a narrow Catholic-based movement and u1timately the triumph of sectarian divisions. The initial reaction of the Protestant workers to the civil rights demands was largely sympathetic. Counter demonstrations organised by Ian Paisley had attracted only the most backward sections of the Protestant population, the rural – often evangelical – breed who made up the backbone of die-hard Unionism. In the towns it was only sections of the middle class and some of the most lumpen elements who would have backed the actions of Paisley. Among the workers, and above all among the youth, there was a latent sympathy for NICRAs attack on the system.


In 1969 75% of the population of Queen’s University were from Protestant backgrounds. Yet in a survey conducted in that year 75% of the students stated their support for Civil Rights. Also in 1969 in a Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster, Civil Rights leader and left-winger Bernadette Devlin, making her appeal on a radical social programme, defeated the sitting Unionist candidate partly by winning the votes of some Protestants. If the civil rights agitation concentrated only on the issue of discrimination against Catholics it could never develop support from among the Protestant population and Protestant workers in particular.

In fact it would ultimately succeed in driving them into the arms of bigots. Civil rights as put forward by those most prominent within the N.I.C.R.A, John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Austin Currie, simply meant a re-distribution of jobs, houses etc. Posed in this way it could only be interpreted by Protestant workers as a challenge to what little they had. When there were not enough decent homes for all the people, reallocation on a points’ basis simply meant the displacing of some Protestants to make way for Catholics. So too with jobs. In 1968 there were 7% of the population without jobs.

If all that was asked was an even spread of this misery it simply meant removing a few Protestants and replacing them with Catholics. The equal distribution of the dole queues!

In this way the agitation for civil rights, even if unintentionally, could become sectarian in its effect. However in addition there were those within N.I.C.R.A, sections of right wing nationalist opinion, who’s every utterance was coloured with bigotry, from the very first moment. One such was Aidan Corrigan, subsequently an apologist for the Provisionals, who during his time as a civil rights organiser explained that “We’ve got to defend our children’s faith against Protestant, atheist and Communist ideology”.

The majority of those behind the civil rights banner were on the Left and would have responded to a socialist lead. However, some of the so-called Lefts within the movement, above all the supporters of the Communist Party, argued against the raising of socialist policies. Such ideas, they said, would be divisive – they would break up the “unity” of the Civil Rights Association.

So, in order to sustain unity with the Catholic middle class leaders and with bigots of the order of Corrigan, the Communist Party leaders and some other left-wingers were prepared to effectively block the united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers.

The key, at this time, rested with The Labour Movement, above all with the Trade Unions. Had the Unions intervened as a body at the outset of the civil rights campaign, linking the civil rights demands to a socialist objective, they could have spearheaded a movement of Catholic and Protestant.

By the late 1960s the Labour Movement was in a position to lead such a struggle. Politically and industrially it had been strengthened. The first stirrings of the civil rights agitation saw also a filling out of the ranks of the N.I.L.P. as more and more workers searched for a socialist alternative. In Derry the Labour Party and the Labour Party Young Socialists became a mass force. In other parts of the country, including Belfast, N.I.L.P. branches went from strength to strength. Nor were the ideas put forward by N.I.C.R.A. alien to either the Trade Unions or the Labour Party. As early as 1965 Belfast Trades Council had called a special conference on this question. Those attending, a majority of whom were from Protestant backgrounds, had passed resolutions demanding an end to discrimination. In 1960 the NILP and the ICTU had issued a joint memorandum demanding civil rights and presented this to the Unionist Government.

However as soon as mass support attached itself to these demands in 1968 the leadership of the labour movement hurriedly scrambled for cover. Instead of intervening to lead the struggle and give it a class orientation the Trade Union leadership refused to intervene, thus making it easier for the Unionists to paint NICRA as a purely Catholic Movement.

During the marches and the troubles which grew in regularity and size after October 5th, Trade Union banners and the Trade Union and Labour Party leaders were conspicuous by their absence. With no alternative from the official Trade Union movement which could have provided an attraction for the radical left wing of the Civil Rights Association, this body quickly became disorientated.

A few days after Oct. 5th students at Queen’s University in Belfast formed a loose knit left wing organisation called “People’s Democracy”. The leadership of this body reacted empirically to all changes in the situation and ended in political impotence. It was the failure of the Labour and Trade Union leadership to intervene which more than any other single factor, determined the degeneration of the Civil Rights movement, the drift away from class ideas and ultimately the growth of sectarianism. By the summer of 1969 the pattern of this first phase of the troubles had been set – mass marches and meetings, counter demonstrations, riots and barricades and a steady growth of sectarianism.

In August 1969 the cauldron which had simmered since Oct. 5th the previous year came to the boil. Clashes in Derry and Belfast following the traditional Protestant Apprentice Boys’ parade in Derry resulted in a virtual uprising in the Catholic areas of that city, sectarian clashes in West Belfast, the unleashing of armed police thugs on the Catholics of West Belfast and six deaths with the destruction of at least 150 homes in Belfast during one night. The British Ruling Class reacted by sending in the army rather than risk the escalation of this situation and the development of a dangerous and uncontrollable civil war. Continued inaction by the Labour and Trade Union leaders paved the way for years of sectarian bloodletting, for the deepening of the sectarian battle lines in Belfast as tens of thousands of families were forced to move from mixed estates into “safe” ghettos. for the re-emergence of republicanism – for a period – as a mass force, for the appearance of Protestant armies, for internment and military harassment and for the postponement of the building of a united movement of the working class.


During the early days of the Civil Rights agitation it was only those who supported the Militant – then only a monthly paper in Britain – together with sections of Derry Labour Party, who clearly explained what was required.

The February 1969 issue the Militant gave the warning:

“It must be recognised that the mass of Protestant workers have not been drawn to the banner of the Civil Rights campaign ... Unity can only be achieved on a class programme ... In all cases the demands must be related to the needs of all workers and the programme fought for inside the Labour Movement. This is the only unifying force for all workers in the final analysis, both North and South”.

Today ten years after the R.U.C battened down the civil rights marchers in Derry the opportunities for the development of a united working class have re-emerged. Sectarianism has been in decline for a period and major class battles loom as the world economy hovers on the edge of a new recession.

A new generation of youth has grown up and is looking for something better than the capitalist system can offer. It is up to the activists within the Labour Movement to examine the events of ten years ago and the period since, to understand the failures and fight to ensure that the second opportunity for building a mass Socialist movement uniting Catholic and Protestant workers is not squandered.

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Last updated: 17 February 2020