Civil rights: the struggle for peace and justice

Former Connolly Association general secretary and Irish trade union official Sean points to the importance of persisting with this aspect of our campaign work

WHEN THE Connolly Association launched the campaign for civil rights in the north of Ireland in 1958, its purpose had been to alleviate the suffering of the nationalist community in the north, which had been the victim of discrimination and abuse since the setting up of the six-county statelet in 1920.

It was also intended that the campaign would expose the nature of the ‘Northern Ireland state’. The imposition of partition in Ireland, against the wishes of the majority of the Irish people, had been undemocratic. Meanwhile the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was presented by the British as an attempt to bring “better government to Ireland”.

However, widespread abuses in the north were evidence of anything but ‘better government’. By highlighting these abuses, the 1920 Act came under scrutiny and with it, partition.

In 1958, the situation in the north was very different than today. There was only one strong unionist party, which had considerable influence in Westminster. Paisley was increasingly noisy but, at that time, had only a small following.

On the nationalist side, the republican movement was dispirited after the failure of the 1955 ‘border’ campaign and many of its members were still interned in the Curragh and in the north. The Nationalist Party, which was nothing more than an electoral machine, provided weak opposition at Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party was small, and had little interest in the human rights abuses.

In the 26-county southern state, which was experiencing serious economic problems and high unemployment, there was widespread indifference towards the problems of the north.

This indifference also applied to Britain where the policy on ‘non-intervention’ in the affairs of Northern Ireland operated. Questions asked at Westminster concerning the abuses of civil rights in the north were simply ruled out of order on the grounds that the appropriate body for dealing with these issues was the unionist-controlled Stormont parliament in Belfast.

Within the United States, while there had been some support for the IRA campaign, the Irish community was not organised sufficiently to enable it to use its strength to gather wider political support.

In the six counties itself, the Special Powers Act permitted the banning of organisations and internment without trial. The electoral system was blatantly rigged. This resulted, for example, in Derry being controlled by unionists, despite the existence of a nationalist majority.

There was widespread discrimination in the allocation of jobs and houses on religious grounds. And the Orange Order was free to march wherever and whenever it wished.

All of this is in marked contrast with the situation today where:

  • the unionists are split and squabbling among themselves
  • the ending of rigged elections has resulted in republican-nationalist control of Derry and many other local councils throughout the six counties
  • Sinn Féin is now the biggest party in Belfast City Council -- Alex Maskey being the city’s first ever Sinn Féin lord mayor
  • anti-discrimination legislation had been introduced -- although it needs to be extended. while Patten has not been implemented in full, there has been some reform of the police force
  • the Orange Order is no longer able to march where and when it pleases
  • although currently suspended and facing an uncertain future, the north has a power-sharing assembly with Sinn Fein and SDLP ‘ministers’
  • the British government is no longer sitting on the fence having been reluctantly compelled to accept responsibility for the mess created by their predecessors
  • the United States is involved, with their role shaped by a strong Irish lobby
  • perhaps most important of all, the Irish government has an entitlement to participate in cross-border bodies, which can be built on -- the operation of an ‘all-Ireland dimension’ in operation -- provided life is once again breathed into the Good Friday agreement

As a result of all these changes, the nationalist community in the north is much more vibrant and positive than it was in the late 1950s when the Connolly Association launched its campaign. This vibrancy can be seen in the programme of the annual West Belfast Festival, where Irish culture is presented in an international setting. Here is evidence of a people looking to a new and bright future.

There is, of course, a downside. Over the past 40 years, 3,700 lives have been lost, including 2,000 civilians. In the unionist community, sectarianism is, if anything, even more intense, as can be seen in the current attempts at ethnic cleansing in Antrim and other parts of the north.

Nevertheless, overall, from a nationalist or socialist republican viewpoint, the situation has dramatically changed for the better.

What brought about these changes? While not necessarily exhaustive, the following six factors are relevant:

  • the success of the civil rights movement
  • the IRA’s armed campaign
  • political developments within the republican movement resulting in the modification and change of some of its traditional policies
  • the adoption of a more ‘hands on’ policy by the Dublin government. international developments, largely brought about as a result of the collapse of socialism and the end of the Cold War
  • the British government’s acceptance of the need for a change in policy towards the situation in Northern Ireland

Looking at these in more detail, the success of the civil rights movement is obvious. The work undertaken by the Connolly Association from 1958 onwards won support within the British labour movement and in organisations such as the National Council for Civil liberties and the Movement for Colonial Freedom.

As a result, when a Labour government was elected in 1964 it included many Labour MPs who supported Irish issues.This was followed by the formation in 1966\67 of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

The attack by the RUC on the civil rights march in Derry in October 1968 was a disaster for unionism, as it was shown on television internationally. The Connolly Association organised the attendance of three British Labour MPs present at that march.

As a result, the British government could no longer stand by the non-intervention policy and they forced the Stormont parliament to introduce some reforms. Although as little as possible was conceded, the process of change had begun.

But opposition within unionism to civil rights concessions resulted in a deterioration in the political situation. Eventually, Northern Ireland prime minister O’Neill was toppled, with the more extreme elements growing in influence.

Following the Apprentice Boys march in Derry in August 1969, the ‘battle of the Bogside’ ensued, and the British army was back on the streets. Unrest spread to Belfast, where the combined forces of the RUC and B Specials launched savage attacks on the Catholic areas. It was against this background, of unionist violence directed at the nationalist community, that the republican movement split in 1970, resulting in the emergence of the provisional IRA.

All civil-rights marches were banned, plastic bullets were widely used, and in 1971, internment was implemented in a brutal and indiscriminate fashion.

While this period saw the launch of the republican ‘armed struggle’, the civil-rights campaign continued its work and in 1971 Labour members in both houses of the British parliament introduced the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

The Bill had been drafted by the Connolly Association’s Desmond Greaves, editor of the Irish Democrat for four decades. Unfortunately, by this time the Tories were back in office and the bill was defeated.

I have listed the IRA campaign as one of the factors, which brought about the change in the north as there can be little doubt that the bombing campaign helped to bring home to the British government the gravity of the situation. This cannot be written out of the history books.

However, in my opinion, there is little is to be gained by attempting to assess whether the peaceful civil-rights movement or the republican armed struggle was the more effective. What is beyond question, is that the efforts of the people of the north and their allies to bring about change by peaceful means was thwarted by ‘not an inch unionism’, which included violent attacks on civil rights marches and armed incursions into nationalist areas. And with the Tories committed to suppression, violence begat violence.

The third factor listed above was a decision by the republican movement to change or modify some of their traditional policies. The first ‘New Departure’ occurred in 1879, when the Fenians, looking back at the failure of the armed uprising in 1867, gave their backing to Parnell’s vigorous home-rule campaign, which was linked to the Land League struggle.

The second ‘new departure’ was of more recent vintage, culminating in the 1994 ceasefire and the involvement of Sinn Féin in the Good Friday agreement. This was the climax of a process which had been taking place for some years -- facilitated by the realisation of successive Irish governments that there could be no progress towards a peaceful settlement in the north without the participation of the republicans.

These changes took place against the background of a new world situation. One recalls the speech in Dublin by a Tory politician who insisted that Irish neutrality was the greatest obstacle to Irish unity.

A NATO base in the north of Ireland was perceived as being essential. With the ending of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the north became less important in overall military terms.

This in turn led to a new assessment of the situation by the British government. With the British and Irish governments sharing common interests within the European Union, the British government decided that a new policy was needed, one based on a new relationship with Dublin, rather than propping up a collection of backwoodsmen in Belfast.

The Tory government of John Major made some moves in this direction but had insufficient parliamentary strength to operate free from a unionist-Tory junta. Blair’s Labour government with its massive parliamentary majority did not face these constraints.

Also of importance was the work done by the Irish-American lobby in influencing the Clinton election campaign. Clinton’s response was to promise a progressive Irish policy if elected. When this was fulfilled it encouraged the republicans to see that there were new political opportunities opening up to them.

Back in 1958 the Connolly Association concluded that the weak spot in the British-created six county ‘state’ was the abuse of civil rights.Turn the spotlight on this and the question would be asked: ‘what sort of state needs draconian measures to stay in power’?

The civil-rights movement forced the British government to accept its responsibility for implementing changes. This, in turn, split unionism.

Although pushed into the background by the distraction of the assembly suspension there remain a number of outstanding civil-rights issues which need to be campaigned on. It may be helpful if this could be expressed in the form of a programme, cutting across community lines, based on the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.

The above is a summary of a lecture delivered at the Desmond Greaves Summer School in Dublin on 25 August 2002.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-12-29 15:52:48.
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Copyright © 2002 Sean Redmond