The 1968 Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights marches began in 1968 when Catholics, who for years had been trying to get some sort of equality under the law as they saw it, decided to try to adopt a different tactic, which was to adopt the policy of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States.

The beauty of that was that it meant that they weren't going down the road of the Nationalist Party in demanding a united Ireland. What they were saying was that, "We are British subjects and we demand British rights." Such things as employment for Catholics, good housing for Catholics, fairness, under the law, for Catholics.

Now, it started, in a sense, accidentally, and it started with two slogans: One man, one job -- this was before the sexual revolution -- and one family, one house. And that reflected the extent to which the Catholic community believed that in those areas in particular they had received very bad treatment.

The most important demand was--"One man, one vote"--because the system worked. In Northern Ireland, that at the lowest level, the only people who had the vote were those who paid local taxes or rates, as they were called. And because Catholics tended to be more poor in the Protestant community, to be less likely to have a job, they were less likely to be rate payers. As a result of that, fewer Catholics had a vote for local elections.

The civil rights movement started with this one major request to which these other demands such as jobs and housing were added. One person, one vote. It seemed so obvious, it seemed so British, it seemed such a patently decent thing to do.

And as a result of that demand, the Union's government began to feel threatened. They believed that this was a Trojan horse, that this wasn't a demand simply for a vote at local elections, this was a way of pushing the old Nationalist and Republican cause of a united Ireland. And because the government reacted so strongly against this demand, the Republican movement began to organize itself, the IRA and Sinn Fein began to come into existence.

The Catholics believed that they had no alternative but to take to the streets. In the local Parliament, known as Stormont, they had always been in a minority ever since it was formed in 1921. They'd believed that they'd been ignored for over fifty years in that Parliament. They believed that successive British governments had not paid attention to their demands that discrimination be addressed, and they said, "There is nothing for it but to take to the streets."

In the 1960s, the Catholic working class in Derry lived under pretty dreadful conditions. Housing was terrible, they tended to be very heavily unemployed, and for the most part they lived in an area which has now become known as the Bogside, but the Bogside was, in fact, one street. It now comes to represent a mind set of people who feel that for 50 years they'd been persistently discriminated against by government.

What made it particularly bad for them was that these people from the Bogside represented the majority in the city of Derry, or Londonderry, and yet they were politically impotent. They had no control over their own city because of the gerrymandering in the local government system, and it was they who became the foot soldiers for the civil rights movement.

I think it's fair to say that from the start of Northern Ireland, in 1921, the Protestant government, that is, the Unionist government, felt that Catholics represented a fifth column. The government believed that Catholics didn't want to be part of the state and were working to undermine the state, and one of the things that they did, that the government did, was to practice a form of discrimination. It was not systematic, it worked more strongly in some areas than others, but the perception among Catholics was that Catholics were second-class citizens, and they needed to do something about it.

The Catholics, having tried to work through this Stormont system, that is, through the Parliament in Belfast, and finding that, in fact, they were politically impotent there as well, looked to other examples of extra-Parliamentary protest, and in particular, looked to the United States.

And in the early '60s and the mid-'60s, the Catholic intelligentsia followed very closely what Martin Luther King was doing here in the United States, and were very impressed by a campaign which was based on non-violence.

I think that one of the problems in Northern Ireland, in Ireland general, is that there never has been a tradition of non-violence; it was not natural to go out into the streets and allow yourself to be battered. There also was a history of resistance against the state, violent resistance against the state.

So, whereas people joined the civil rights movement with the best will in the world, they found it difficult to adopt a policy of pure non-violence.

Part of the problem for the civil rights movement was that the leadership was disparate, they came from different backgrounds. For example, I belonged to a group called The People's Democracy, which was a student radical organizational which believed that the mainstream civil rights people were middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged, who weren't moving against the government.

So you had disparate elements trying to push the civil rights movement in several directions.

Equally, you had, on the Protestant side, disparate voices as well. There were people in the Unionist government who believed that, in fact, a demand of one man, one vote was a reasonable one and that it should be conceded and if it were conceded, there would be very little cost, politically, to the government.

There were others who believed it was starting a slippery slope towards a united Ireland. So part of the problem for the Unionist government was the factionalism inside the Protestant community. Those who were so fearful of making any concessions to Catholics on the civil rights front would lead to a loss of political power.

One of the most amazing points about the civil rights movement from the outset was that it could marshal very large numbers out onto the streets for major demonstrations at weekends, where you would have something like 15,000 Catholics marching through the streets of Derry in protest.

Added to that was a student movement, [that] had the time and the capability of organizing demonstrations every single day of the week. Now, the impact of the student demonstrations was that it was highly embarrassing to the Unionist government, because the students used to follow the Prime Minister around -- wherever there were cameras there, they were there, and they were drawing attention all the time to what they saw as a lack of civil rights in Northern Ireland. Whereas those who were engaged in the mainstream civil rights movement believed it was better to have large, disciplined, non-violent protests and to get the sympathy of the world behind those non-violent protests.

So you have two things happening simultaneously. You have the conventional, the mainstream civil rights movement trying to make a moral case through numbers, through peaceful numbers; and you have a more radical element saying, this will never wash with a Unionist government, [they] have discriminated against us for so long that they are not prepared to make concessions now.

The radicals pushed the mainstream to take more extreme actions; the mainstream resisted. The weakness in the civil rights movement, from an Irish nationalist point of view was, it could only get so many concessions. Secondly, the movement led to a revolution in raising expectations, but actually seeing the implementation of the results promised by British reforms, was to take a number of years. As a result, Catholics believed that nothing, or very little, had been achieved as a result of the civil rights campaign, and began to get very weary, indeed, about both the British government and the government in Belfast. Catholics were prepared to turn towards much more militant means. Enter the IRA.

There was a change in government in the United Kingdom in 1970. Harold Wilson's Labor government had implemented the civil rights reforms. A new conservative government led by Edward Heath came into office in May of 1970, which had very close links with the unionist government in Northern Ireland. It decided that the answer to the Northern Ireland problem was not more reforms, but a more punitive military action. It was determined to crush any signs of rebellion. So, it resorted to coercion rather than conciliation. As a result, it became, in the long view, a very powerful recruiting agent for the IRA.

At the beginning of the civil rights campaign, Protestants were largely bemused by it. The more militant Unionists viewed Catholic demands as one more way of pushing towards Irish unity. But there were some Protestants confident enough in themselves, who believed that concessions shoud be made. They also believed that if you conceded early enough, you would not have the rise of a more militant Republican movement.

So, Protestants were confused. As a result, their government was confused, and didn't know in which direction to move. And the Protestant community split very, very seriously in the late '60s, between those who tended to center around the personage of the Reverend Ian Paisley, who formed his own political movement, as did a few others from that period, and the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party, which was divided as to what was the best way forward.

Equally, the Unionist government was being pushed very strongly by a Labor government in London to make concessions and it resented the interference. Now suddenly the government was telling them what they had to do which led to considerable anger in the Protestant community, and allowed the more fanatical voices to claim that they were being sold out by the British.

One of the important features of the civil rights campaign was the emergence of the militants in center stage. It was they who, in many ways, set the political agenda. It was they who scared the respective leaderships into staking more extreme positions than they may have otherwise.

So, you had a circularity which led to more demands for greater violence and then greater vigilance. And that set the scene for an incipient civil war between Loyalists and Republicans, with the mainstream parties jammed in the middle, losing whatever political influence they had.

Collapse of the Civil Rights Campaign

What happened with the collapse of the civil rights campaign and with the collapse, virtually, of the government inside Northern Ireland, was that the IRA came into its own.

Those who benefitted most from the collapse of the civil rights movement were the militants on both sides. It meant that, in fact, politics as a process, which had never been strong in Northern Ireland, disappeared. It meant that the most strident voices and those who could command weaponry were the people who set the agenda.

The Battle of the Bogside ( August 12, 1969) - A Turning Point

It's difficult to underestimate the symbolic importance of the Battle of the Bogside. The Bogside is in the city of Derry, or Londonderry, the second city of Northern Ireland. It is a city in which there always had been a Catholic majority, but in which Catholics had been systematically discriminated against in terms of political power.

Once Catholics were demanding, through peaceful means, that political power had to be shared, they found that the forces of the state were being used against them, against this vulnerable, small community. They had no IRA. They had no weapons, except the weapons they created during the battle.

The British army was using tear gas, CS gas, in huge quantities against the Catholics, which dramatically escalated the conflict. Those behind the barricades in the Bogside believed this was an attempt by the state to destroy them totally. Not simply in terms of political power, but to destroy them as a people, and they believed that they had to resist. So this became a clarion call to Catholics throughout Northern Ireland for widespread resistance. What started as a small battle in a single Catholic community became a battle which spread throughout the whole territory of Northern Ireland and became turning point in the Irish struggle.

The Burnings in Belfast, 1969

It was the burnings in Belfast in August of '69, I'm convinced, which led to the resurrection of the Irish Republican Army.

[So] it was the burnings in Belfast which led to a demand by people behind the barricades that they must never, ever again be left undefended, because they couldn't trust any of the forces of law and order. That was when people realized that this has changed from a civil rights campaign, into a campaign for existence. People on both sides--the Protestants who thought their very existence was now at stake, that their sense of Britishness was being challenged--and Catholics who believed that their physical existence was at stake.

Add that into the sense of history, add that into the sense of centuries of persecution, which is part of the Republican and Nationalist makeup. The British Army had moved in Catholic eyes from being protectors to being antagonists. In particular, the use of CS gas, which needed the imprimatur of the government in London, and was used for the first time in peace time, and that really intensified things. All of it conveyed to the Catholic community-- whether they lived in leafy suburbs and were well to do, or whether they were unemployed--conveyed to all of them that they could expect no justice inside Northern Ireland.

And many of them believed that the state was irreformable and that it would have to be dismantled completely. So the army, by its actions in trying to control events, in fact, made it much worse, and allowed for young people, in particular, to say, "The only answer is a campaign of violence, we must get involved in this new organization, the Irish Republican Army, we must join up." And they began to join up in droves.

So here were a people under a sense of siege, who believed that they were disowned by the rest of the world. Who believed that the only thing that they had were their own resources, and part of those resources was an IRA which had been gone into the realms of history, but which now had to be resurrected.

The IRA were able to take advantage of how the community began to manage itself, and in Belfast, for example, the Catholic community formed what was called the Citizen's Defense Community, representing 75,000 Catholics. So it was the people rather than a militant elite, which had been responsible for the first wave of resistance.

And as a result of this formation of the CCDC, the Central Citizen Defense Committee, the IRA was able to recruit quite easily inside this body. And what was happening was that the Catholic establishment found that they were being redundant, and the Catholic establishment, in this case, was the Catholic Church, and the Nationalist Party, which was the Constitutional party at the time. They were made redundant completely. It was about very basic defense, taking control over your own lives, if not you're going to be wiped out.

Belfast was a much different situation than Derry. In Belfast there was a large Protestant and Unionist majority. Protestants had controlled from 1603. There never had been a Nationalist, or Catholic, major in Belfast. Catholics in Belfast felt that they were second class citizens in a way that Catholics in Derry didn't necessarily feel.

Catholics in Belfast felt that they were constantly under siege, they believed that they had been shoved into particular enclaves, they were very strong, for example, in West Belfast, but to complicate matters in Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities lived cheek by jowl, so you would have a Catholic community and along side it you would have a Protestant community. The main Catholic community was the Catholic community of the Falls Road, which had been part of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. Literally adjacent to the Falls Road, there was an area known as the Shankhill Road, which was the main Protestant working class community.

So if trouble did break out in Belfast, it was much more likely that these communities could get at each other throats much more quickly and could inflict a great deal of damage on each other. And again was that perception that this could happen, which made the situation in Belfast much more volatile, much more dangerous. And that, in fact, was as it was when the troubles reached Belfast by August of '69. It becomes much more than a localized battle between the Catholic community in Derry and the State. It becomes a battle between all Catholics throughout Northern Ireland and the State. But the hub is Belfast, where you see the worst violence.

Once the conflicts spread to Belfast you got the beginnings of what were called "no go" areas. That is where people barricaded into their own areas to make sure that the forces of law and order could not enter. They become self sufficient communities. Not only do they have the barricades to keep the army out but they produce their own media. They have their own private radios, they have their own local broadsheets in which they tell each other what is going on. That raises the communal sense of we're in this together. And it raises a greater need to defend each other. So you would have separate communities, Catholic communities, the Falls Road, Anderson's Town, which was a sprawling housing estate, which was part of an older Catholic industrial community, which was cheek by jowl with the Protestant community.

And then in East Belfast you have a small Catholic enclave called Short Strand where Catholics really did feel that they were under siege. Because they were cut off from the Catholics in the rest of the city by a river and they had nowhere else to go but their own community, and therefore the need for bigger and bigger barricades, more sophisticated weaponry. So it was a siege mentality which was beginning to dominate.

The game changes completely. Civil rights are forgotten about, we have moved from civil rights, we are now in a war. And a war needs an army, and the only army which Catholics believe that they could call on was the IRA.

The Protestant Perspective

When we look at how Protestants use violence against Catholics, we have to remember we're talking about a minority of Protestants. One commentator has divided Protestants into the fearful and the confident. The confident are those who believe that they can do some business with Catholics, the fearful are those who believe that it is they who are under siege, and they must take all means necessary, and that is the very expression that they use, "all means necessary," to defend themselves. What they saw in August of 1969 they believed was the beginnings of a very careful IRA plot which had been worked over for a number of years which was to try to undermine the state, firstly through passive resistance, and then through armed conflict.

And they believed that they had to nip this in the bud by destroying any resistance from the Catholic community. So it was for the most part working class Protestants who suffered many of the same problems as their Catholic neighbors, who were the people who felt most under siege and under threat who decided that they had to take the bottle to their Catholic neighbors. And they were being urged on by some political demagogues who told them that armageddon was around the corner, that this was the last line of defense.

And because they were the majority, and because there was some complicity with the security forces they were easily able to inflict more damage on the Catholic community than vice versa.


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