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Peter Hadden

1968 – Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement

(October 1988)

From Militant, October 1988.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On October 5th 1968 a few hundred demonstrators gathered in Duke Street on Derry’s Waterside to march for Civil Rights.

Unionist home Affairs Minister, William Craig, had banned the march on the pretext that its route coincided with that of a ‘traditional’ unionist parade which no one had ever heard of.

The Executive of the tiny, and still not very influential, Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), a body which had no base in Derry, had favoured calling off the march. John Hume, then a prominent local Catholic businessman, had refused to give his backing to the marchers.

The real organisers of the march were the Derry Labour Party and Young Socialists along with a local Housing Action Committee in which the Labour Party were deeply involved, and the small but left-wing branch of the Republican movement, the James Connolly Republican Club. These bodies decided to ignore the ban.

The marchers found themselves sealed in by lines of police, front and rear. Attempting to disperse, they were viciously batoned. Pictures of the police assault were shown on TV screens throughout Ireland and around the world. These images electrified the country and brought the problems of this previously little-heard-of province, into the centre of world attention.

October 5th was not the first, nor was it the biggest march for Civil Rights to have been held. But it was the most important. It provided the spark which transformed the Civil Rights agitation into a truly mass movement.

After the Derry march a ferment affected the Catholic community, particularly the youth. Politics entered every street, every club, every classroom.

Within days a march of students in Belfast was blocked by the RUC and in its aftermath, a new and amorphous left-wing group, Peoples Democracy, was set up.

Groups sprang up in towns all over the North seeking to organise Civil Rights protests. Over the next months, there were demonstrations in Omagh, Strabane, Armagh, Dungannon, Newry, Dungiven and other areas.

On November 16th a massive crowd of up to 20,000 gathered in Derry to march along the proposed October 5th route. This time the marchers filed round a police barricade to a rally in the city centre.

In November ’68 O’Neill tried to defuse the situation by announcing a package of reforms, including the appointment of an ombudsman and a Commission to replace Derry Corporation.

Early in 1969 he managed to commit the Unionist Party to the principle of one man, one vote. All this proved too little, too late. Reforms were coupled with repression. Not only did the Special Powers Act remain, it was supplemented by a Public Order (Amendment) Act which placed restrictions on the right to protest.

Into 1969 events moved at a hectic pace. All along Civil Rights marches had been opposed by counter demonstrations organised by Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers. A PD march from Belfast to Derry was viciously ambushed by Protestants, many of them serving B-Specials, at Burntollet.

Clashes between Catholic youth and the RUC became regular occurrences especially in Derry. An RUC invasion of the Bogside in April brought the first death, Samuel Devenney, a local man who was viciously clubbed in his home by police.

As the summer of 1969 approached Belfast began to be affected. From a meeting in the Shankill Road, supposedly called to protest about plans to redevelop the area, an organisation called the Shankill Defence association emerged. Led by a right-wing loyalist bigot called John McKeague, this was to be a forerunner of the loyalist paramilitaries. It engaged in attacks on Catholic districts such as Unity Flats and Ardoyne.

The riots which followed the August 12th Apprentice Boys Parade in Derry brought the province close to civil war. In Derry the RUC were expelled from the Bogside by a mass uprising in this entire area. The decision of the government to mobilise the B Specials made a pogrom certain. Serious fighting erupted in West Belfast along the sectarian interfaces between the Shankill and the Falls and the Shankill and Ardoyne. John McKeague’s hand was evident in the attacks on Catholic homes.

At this stage the British government decided to put its troops on the streets. This restored a temporary and uneasy calm but only for a period. It solved nothing. Instead a new ingredient was added which together with the bitterness invoked in the flames of August ‘69, paved the way for a new and more vicious turn to the troubles.


Looking back through the prism of nearly 20 years of sectarian upheaval, it is all too easy to distort the true significance of the early Civil Rights period. This is what virtually every commentator on the period has done.

October 5th is generally viewed as a first step to the inevitable re-emergence of the IRA and to sectarian conflict. It is of no help whatsoever to ascribe to history an inevitability it never had. The result is a distortion, a conscious falsification written in the interests of the social forces which have emerged. It was the sectarian forces which came out on top after 1969 and it is their version of events which predominates today.

There was nothing inevitable about the rise of sectarianism after 1968. Quite the reverse. At that time the potential existed for the development of a class movement which could have united Catholic and Protestant workers and youth against Unionism and against capitalism.

The immediate issue for the Civil Rights protesters was the ending of Unionist discrimination against Catholics in jobs and houses and the policy of electoral gerrymander.

At the time of partition the Unionists had been aided and abetted in these policies and in their repressive methods by the British ruling class. By the 1960s the interests of British Imperialism had changed. A Free Trade Agreement with the South was signed. In 1968 the South became the 5th largest marker for British exports in the world. Under these changed circumstances British Imperialism would have preferred a united Ireland which they would dominate economically.

Fearing that Unionist policies were stoking up grievances which might surface and destabilise both parts of Ireland, they encouraged the introduction of reforms. The experience of the so-called ‘Liberal Unionism’ of O’Neill proved the impossibility of reforms from above. Even if O’Neill himself had been determined to carry though real change, he would never have convinced his party and would have been removed.

By 1968, after 5 years of O’Neill, there were promises of reform, of a future review of local government and nothing more. O’Neillism raised the expectations of Catholics, convinced them that Unionism was not as immovable as it had once seemed and at the same time showed that unless pressure from below was applied, nothing would change.

When the Civil Rights struggle began there were high expectations that the Unionists cold be beaten. The reforms offered by O’Neill under pressure in 1968 and ’69 could not satisfy the deep-seated demands of the mass opposition. At bottom this was a class movement fuelled by terrible social conditions which neither the Unionists not any other capitalist government could resolve.

In Derry, for example, there was 20% unemployment in 1967. Over one in three males was out of work, 10% of families were registered as homeless. Yet, in that year, the Unionist Corporation built not a single dwelling.

Across the North living standards lagged far behind those of Britain. Unemployment was over twice the British level. 14% of the adult males in Britain earned less than £14 per week in 1967. In the North the figure was 30%

Discrimination left Catholics worse off but the idea of the Protestant working class as a cushioned, pampered elite, was pure fantasy. Housing conditions in those working class districts of Belfast and Derry which were mainly Protestant, were no different from those in the mainly Catholic areas.

A survey of Belfast’s (largely Protestant) Shankill Road found that 90% of the homes had no hot water, no bath and no inside toilet. Of the households in this district, 2/3 had an income of under £13 per week. In the Upper Shankill area, 27% lived in less than £5 per week.

An appeal on the basis of these conditions could have won the support of the mass of the Protestant working class and youth to a struggle against Unionism and capitalism. Religion would have taken second place.

In the Autumn of 1969, James Callaghan, then Home Secretary, visited Derry. He went into the home of a Protestant woman. The house he remembers as

“neither two storey, nor one. Once inside the living room which opened onto the lane you went up a very narrow handful of stairs into a sort of attic cum bedroom.”

What this woman said, summed up the general attitude of Protestant workers, even at this stage when a sectarian backlash had already begun.

“I will live next door to anybody, Catholic or Protestant, if only I can have a decent house to bring the children up in.”

In the South also the tide was to the Left. Labour was moving leftwards and there was an expectation that a labour government was a possibility. A wave of important industrial struggles took place, most notably the maintenance workers strike early in 1969, in which respect of picket lines resulted in the closure of much of industry. Through housing protests and other agitations there was a dovetailing of the class movements North and South.

It was from such movements and events that the youth in the North took their inspirations. It was to socialist ideas, not to nationalism or sectarianism, that they initially turned.

The potential for the development of a class movement was enormous. There was a general swing to the Left within society. International events, particularly the revolutionary movement of May 1968 in France which for weeks had dominated the front pages of all the local newspapers, acted as a powerful stimulus.

The republican movement did not exist as a force. The IRA had all but disappeared after the abortive border campaign of the ’50s and ’60s. Danny Morrison, now a Sinn Fein leader, accurately describes the attitude of Catholic youth to the IRA at this time. “As far as we were concerned there was absolutely no chance of the IRA appearing again. They were something in history books.” In 1969 there were no more than 30 active IRA members in Belfast and probably less than 10 in Derry.

Nor was there a movement to the right and to sectarianism among the Protestant working class. The UVF existed in little more than name only, composed of a few associates and ex-associates of Paisley.

Paisley’s UPV counter demonstrations did not attract mass support. The first Civil Rights march in August ’68 was met in Dungannon by only a few hundred Paisleyite. At the end of November he attracted his biggest crowd of about 2,000 for an illegal counter demonstration in Armagh.

At this stage only the most backward sections of the protestant community were prepared to back Paisley. The Protestant working class were not yet involved in the developing conflict on either side. Many were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement. Many, especially the youth, actually participated in the early Civil Rights protests.

An appeal on the basis of their common exploitation, for jobs, decent houses and a living wage for all would have struck a deep chord among Protestant workers. Protestant workers too were disenfranchised by the property qualifications in local government elections. They had been on the receiving end of the infamous Special Powers Act.

Had the Civil Rights demands been linked to a socialist programme and put forward by a leadership trusted by Catholic and Protestant workers, the future course of history would have been very different indeed.

That this was not done is down to a failure of leadership. Shortly after the October 5th march, John Hume and other middle class Catholics in Derry called a meeting to set up a Derry Citizens Action Committee. Their aim was to usurp the leadership of the struggle from the Left. In the hands of these people, the Civil Rights demands were restricted and pared of all class content.

Instead of demanding an end to unemployment and to slum housing they demanded that jobs and houses be shared equally. They were not demanding the ending of poverty, merely its redistribution.

By so narrowing their programme they, not only could they not appeal to Protestant workers, they inevitably alienated them. Protestant workers came to see Civil Rights, not just as a campaign against the unionist government, but as a campaign against them, threatening to take their jobs and houses and give them to Catholics. The Paisleyites were able to cleverly exploit their fears and to present themselves as the champions of the rights and conditions of Protestants.

Class issues

So, in the February 1969 Stormont elections, Paisley, campaigning against O’Neill in Bannside, fought on the fact (among other issues) that working class houses in the constituency had no inside toilet. His cry ‘What about the rights of Protestants’ got an echo precisely because of the silence of the Humes and the Coopers on this issue.

John Hume had been asked by NICRA to join before 1968. He had refused, saying that it was ‘too left wing’. Now that the campaign was underway, the ‘lefts’ on the NICRA executive, members of the Communist Party and the Republican clubs, were his greatest allies in ensuring that class issues were not raised.

These groups argued that NICRA’s ‘broad unity’ must not be jeopardised by ‘irrelevant’ socialist demands. Northern secretary of the CP, James Stewart, had no hesitation about his allies on the right of the Civil Rights spectrum:

“At this stage of the fight the ‘green Tories’ are necessary allies. Their long term objective may be different but their civil rights demands are the same as the most revolutionary sections of the movement.” Unity, Nov. 8th 1969.

These arguments were countered from the left - by the Peoples Democracy, by Derry Labour Party and by Bernadette Devlin. The PD had grown quickly from its student base, even managing to win almost 24,000 votes in the February 1969 election - a sure sign of the revolutionary potential of the time. But PD had no clear programme, no strategy, and no understanding of tactics.

Most of the PD leaders had been members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), some with influential positions. Instead of turning towards the official labour movement, they fell into the trap of hopeless ultra-leftism, attempting to substitute themselves and their small forces for the mass organisations of the working class.

At the outset of these events the trade unions and the NILP were potentially the strongest organisations in the state. Labour was the second party to the Unionists. Through successive conferences in the 1960s, it had been pushed steadily to the Left, despite more than one ultra-left defection.


At the 1969 conference, a motion calling on the NILP to closely identify itself with the Civil Rights campaign was passed – against the platform, who sought remission. The mover was a protestant shop steward, Falls Labour Party seconded.

Likewise the unions were affected by the growing radicalisation of their members. A wave of strikes took place at the end of 1967 and into 1968. At various times, and on various issues dockers, carters, busmen, barmen, meat workers, bakery workers, shipyard workers, workers in STC, Enkalon, Richardsons and many others, even gravediggers, too strike action.

Even at the top of the unions, there was a certain verbal radicalisation. Chairman, Harold Binks, told the 1967 conference of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU to face ‘the task of organising our members to take political action to elect a government which shall represent our people … if the government will not act we must act politically as well as industrially.’

Civil Rights supporters could march, lobby and picket but they lacked any industrial muscle. Strikes did take place in Derry after October 5th only to be discouraged by John Hume and his associates from the Catholic business community.

Only the labour movement could have provided the industrial support of the working class and only then if the issue was taken up in a class manner. The real tragedy of the period is in the fact that this was not done.

No leadership

Instead of involvement the trade union leaders chose inaction. Despite the fact that Northern Ireland Committee-ICTU supported the principle of Civil Rights they did not take part in the marches. Billy Blease, reported to NIC-ICTU special conference late in 1969, that ‘since 1966 the NI Committee had been invited to join with various organisations claiming to campaign to publicise matters relating to citizens rights and social justice in Northern Ireland. The Committee had declined such invitations and decided to maintain its own independent action.’

In truth ‘its own independent action’ meant no action whatsoever. As the troubles worsened the trade union leaders played an ever more shameful role. In August 1969 shop stewards heroically kept the peace throughout industry in Belfast. Meanwhile, as society erupted around them, the leaders of their unions were engaged in talks with the government about government money to help finance their education programme.

At the 1969 NILP conference the call to support the Civil Rights struggle was accompanied by a call from the floor that the NILP should attempt to take the lead in this struggle. All this was ignored by the NILP leaders. Instead they appealed for ‘Full British Rights’ and acted as little more than a pale echo of O’Neill. With their cowardly policy of inactivity ad silence the labour and trade union leaders squandered the class potential which had existed.

Catholic youth, angry bit confused, drifted behind other banners, eventually moving to republicanism. Protestant workers, repelled by the Civil Rights leaders and then by the emergence of the Provos, and seeing no alternative, became caught up in the sectarian reaction of the early ’70s.

For the Labour movement, it was a defeat of the worst kind – not a defeat through battle but through the refusal of the leaders of the movement to commit its forces to battle. The movement was defeated without having fought.

The Civil Rights explosion did not lead directly to sectarianism. Rather, it was the defeat of the potential of this movement which led to the troubles as we know them the conclusion is not the inevitability of sectarian reaction but of the necessity of building a class movement which will not repeat the mistakes of 1968.

Only one group emerged from these events with honour – the Derry Labour Party. It had warned of the dangers of limiting the struggle – “unless the Civil Rights Movement acknowledges its class content, i.e. acknowledges that it is part of the struggle for socialism – it cannot ever fully succeed.” (Ramparts, October 1968)

After 1969 many of the Derry Labour Party members succumbed to NILP provocation and to the growing mood of reaction and abandoned their ideas or their activity or both.

Others did not. They remained active in difficult time, so preserving the traditions of class unity which are carried forward by Militant today. After 20 years in which the labour movement has gone back in terms of ideas and organisation, the way forward is to return to the socialist ideas of Derry Labour Party of 1968.

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Last updated: 26.1.2012