From civil rights to civil unrest

civil rights

A NICRA poster advertising the October 5th march in Derry

By late 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) had become large enough, visible enough and sufficiently organised to initiate a campaign of anti-discrimination protests. But these demonstrations were frequently blocked by the Northern Ireland government, actions that only reinforced NICRA’s claims of discrimination and deepened resentment against Unionist authority. In August 1968 members of NICRA met with delegates from the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) and planned a protest match for October 5th. On October 1st the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant group, deliberately scheduled a march of their own – for the same time and along the same route. This provided the government with a pretext for banning the NICRA march, which it did on October 3rd. NICRA proceeded with the march, which was attended by approximately 1,000 people, including several members of the British and Northern Ireland parliaments. The march began peacefully but when participants defied police orders to disperse, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers cleared them with baton charges and a water cannon. At least 77 civilians and four policemen were injured. A subsequent inquiry into the events of October 5th reported that:

“It appears… on the evidence that at this stage batons were used by certain police officers without explicit order, although this is denied by the police. We regret to state that we have no doubt that both Mr Fitt and Mr McAtteer were batoned by the police, at a time when no order to draw batons had been given, and in circumstances in which the use of batons on these gentlemen was wholly without justification or excuse.

The brutal dispersal of the October 5th civil rights march triggered three days of rioting across Derry. On October 9th approximately 2,000 university students marched through central Belfast in protest; this march was blocked by Loyalist demonstration. These assemblies later gave rise to two new civil rights organisations: the People’s Democracy (PD) and the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee (DCAC). On October 16th around 1,400 students from Belfast’s Queens University marched through the centre of the city and rallied outside City Hall. Nationalist Party MPs also protested the government’s handling of the crisis by withdrawing from the Northern Ireland parliament. From late October through to December protest groups organised a series of civil rights marches, rallies and sit-ins in Belfast and Derry. These demonstrations were banned by the government on November 13th – though Orange Order and other Loyalist marches were deemed to be ceremonial rather than political and so were permitted to continue. Civil rights groups defied the government ban but their subsequent marches were broken up by an increasingly violent RUC – ironically, under the auspices of the Special Powers Act that O’Neill had promised to abolish.

civil rights

University students stage a sit-in in Belfast, October 1968

On November 22nd the Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O’Neill, attempted to defuse the tensions over civil rights by proposing a package of reforms. Among the changes suggested by O’Neill were the replacement of the local administration in Derry; new guidelines for housing allocations, based on a needs-based points system; the creation of an independent ombudsman to investigate discriminatory or corrupt housing allocations; reforms to local government voting rights; and the repeal of the 1922 Special Powers Act which gave the government and police sweeping powers to maintain public order. But while O’Neill’s proposals seemed a step in the right direction, they proved counter-productive. Most Unionists rejected the reforms, believing that they were little more than a stepping stone towards Catholic infiltration of the government and, eventually, independence from Britain. Nationalists also expressed discontent, claiming that the reforms – particularly the suggested changes to local government voting rights – were not extensive or meaningful enough. NICRA rejected O’Neill’s electoral reforms, calling for ‘one man, one vote’, while one civil rights campaigner declared that “accepting a milder form of discrimination is still accepting discrimination”.

Terence O'Neill, the Unionist prime minister in 1968

Terence O’Neill, the Unionist prime minister in 1968

O’Neill attempted to sell his plans for reform while trying to restore order. On December 9th he appeared on television and declared that “Ulster stands at the crossroads… What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom, or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations, and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast?” This speech was well received and produced a month-long reduction in the level of protesting and rioting. But violence ignited again in January, following a series of marches and protests. On New Year’s Day 1969 around 40 members of People’s Democracy began a four-day civil rights march from Belfast to Derry. The number of marchers increased to several hundred as the procession moved west. On January 4th the marchers were attacked in Burntollet by approximately 200 Loyalists armed with sticks, clubs and stones. Numerous marchers were injured and 13 required hospitalisation. It quickly emerged that a company of RUC officers assigned to accompany the marchers had done little to protect them. The march continued but there was more rioting and violence when the procession entered Protestant areas of Derry.

“And then we came to Burntollet Bridge, and from lanes at each side of the road a curtain of bricks and boulders and bottles brought the march to a halt. From the lanes burst hordes of screaming people wielding planks of wood, bottles, laths, iron bars, crowbars, cudgels studded with nails, and they waded into the march beating the hell out of everybody… Before this onslaught our heads-down-arms-linked tactics were no use whatever, and people began to panic and run.”
Bernadette Devlin, politician

Terence O’Neill responded to the events of January 4th by issuing a statement urging calm, though it was less tolerant and conciliatory than his earlier remarks. Four days later O’Neill travelled to London to brief government ministers on the worsening situation. He also convened an official inquiry, overseen by Lord Cameron, to investigate the causes of the growing unrest. But O’Neill’s hold on power in Northern Ireland was now fragile. His reforms had widened divisions within his own Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), leading to the resignation of deputy prime minister Brian Faulkner and health minister William Morgan, both in late January 1969. O’Neill attempted to strengthen his position by calling a snap election for February 24th. The UUP won 36 seats, much more than any other party, but it lacked a decisive majority to proceed with the reforms. O’Neill was almost defeated in his own electorate, Bannside, by hardline Unionist leader Ian Paisley, who secured almost 39 per cent of the vote. Following O’Neill’s reelection Loyalist paramilitary groups bombed infrastructure around Northern Ireland, disrupting Belfast’s supplies of power and water. These incidents undermined confidence in O’Neill’s government which was seen as weak and indecisive. On April 28th Terence O’Neill resigned as prime minister, succumbing to demands from both hardline Loyalists and members of his own party.

northern ireland

1. Civil rights groups like NICRA organised rallies and marches in 1968 but were often blocked by the government.
2. In October the RUC broke up a NICRA march in Derry with baton charges and water cannon, injuring 77 people.
3. This triggered days of rioting in Derry and a government ban on future civil rights marches, outraging Nationalists.
4. In November 1968 prime minister Terence O’Neill announced several reforms designed to reduce discrimination.
5. O’Neill’s concessions outraged Loyalists and failed to satisfied Nationalists. Protests, marches and violence continued into 1969 and contributed to the fall of O’Neill’s government.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “From civil rights to civil unrest”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],