The Northern Ireland civil rights movement

northern ireland civil rights

Detail from a Derry mural portraying civil rights marches

The term ‘civil rights’ is a broad one, encompassing a range of rights and freedoms. In liberal democratic societies all individuals are presumed to be equal before both the government and the law. Citizens are entitled to equal political rights, such as the right to vote and be represented in government; the right to freedoms of speech, assembly and a fair trial; and the right to equal treatment regardless of race, religion or political beliefs. But not all societies work to uphold or protect these rights, leading to discrimination and social segregation. The 1960s was a fertile period for civil rights movements around the world, as racial minorities struggled against unfair treatment. These events inspired Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority to form their own civil rights movement and demand an end to institutional discrimination against Catholics. The actions of Northern Ireland civil rights protesters and the responses of both the police and hostile Unionists contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles.

The 1960s was a time of social upheaval and civil rights movements around the world. In the United States African-Americans comprised around 10 per cent of the population – but in many southern states they were still subject to discriminatory laws (the so-called Jim Crow Laws), unfair treatment from the courts and obstacles to political participation, such as voter registration. The American civil rights movement reached its zenith in 1963, when Martin Luther King addressed a quarter-million people in Washington D.C. and spoke of his dream of racial equality. Campaigners in the US adopted a range of tactics to force civil rights reform, including education, media campaigns, lawsuits and lobbying, as well as peaceful protests like marches and sit-ins. The struggle for African-American civil rights was long and arduous but produced important legislative reforms and helped reduce racial discrimination. The 1960s also saw a growing demand for equality in South Africa, where a government dominated by the white minority discriminated against and exploited native Africans. Indigenous people in Australia also struggled to end discrimination and segregation with a series of protests and legal challenges.

northern ireland civil rights

Workers, the vast majority of them Protestant, at Harland and Wolff, 1911

The success of these civil rights movements caught the attention of campaigners in Northern Ireland. Catholics there had long faced discrimination in many areas of life. One of the most significant theatres of inequality was the workplace. Catholics endured discriminatory hiring policies and workplace conditions since before the days of partition. Most large employers in Northern Ireland were owned or controlled by Unionists, who either refused to hire Catholics or gave preference to other Unionists. This attitude stemmed not just from sectarianism but also from a sense of ownership and entitlement. The Six Counties had industrialised and profited from their trade links with Britain, Unionists reckoned, so jobs should be reserved for those loyal to Britain. In 1934 a pro-Unionist newspaper, the Londonderry Sentinel, went as far as calling on Loyalists to avoid employing Catholics, to ensure the perpetuation of Loyalist control of Northern Ireland. There was no better example of anti-Catholic discrimination than Harland and Wolff shipyard, birthplace of the doomed RMS Titanic and one of Belfast’s largest employers. Prior to the Titanic’s 1912 launch only 400 of Harland and Wolff’s 10,000-strong workforce were Catholic. This ratio improved after World War I and partition, though only slightly. Discrimination occurred at higher levels also. According to historian Tony McAleavy, managerial positions were frequently offered through the Protestant Orange Order or similar groups; the result was a lack of Irish Catholics in higher paid positions.

northern ireland civil rights

Austin Currie (centre) the young MP who protested housing allocations in 1968

There were also claims of anti-Catholic discrimination in the allocation of housing. Post-war Northern Ireland suffered serious shortages of public housing. Many homes of the country’s homes had been constructed in the previous century and were in urgent need of renovation or replacement; thousands of homes were also destroyed by German bombing during World War II. This chronic shortage of housing was felt most by the working classes in cities like Belfast and Derry. As vacant housing became available it was allocated by local authorities, which were almost always dominated by Unionists. As a consequence Protestants frequently received preference over Catholics in housing allocation, regardless of factors such as family size, economic need or positions on waiting lists. In June 1968 disputes over housing allocation reached flashpoint when it was revealed that a house in Caledon, County Tyrone, had been given to a single Protestant woman employed by a Unionist politician, ahead of several large Catholic families. Several Nationalists, including Northern Ireland MP Austin Currie, occupied the house and staged a sit-in until they were ejected by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). This protest drew attention to discriminatory housing allocation and helped galvanise civil rights campaigners into a cohesive movement.

Northern Ireland’s education system was also segregated along religious lines. Most of the country’s state schools were Protestant, while Catholic children attended schools funded and operated by the Catholic church. In the 1960s more than 97 per cent of Northern Ireland’s students attended segregated schools (even today this figure still exceeds 90 percent). Though there was variation from place to place, Protestant schools were generally better funded and equipped than Catholic schools. The corollary of school, housing and employment segregation was that young Protestants and Catholics rarely mixed, socialised or married. Educational discrimination also extended into the tertiary sector. In 1965 the Northern Ireland government announced the construction of the country’s second university in largely Protestant Coleraine, rather than the larger but more Catholic city of Derry. These barriers to higher education meant that Catholics were under-represented in white collar positions like the civil service, finance and law. Both the police and the judiciary were overwhelmingly Protestant (a common complaint in the Catholic community was that many RUC officers were also members of the Orange Order).

northern ireland civil rights

A map showing the Unionist domination of the 1965 election. Courtesy Irish Political Maps

Discrimination extended into the political arena, where Catholics also seemed to lack a voice. Unionists strengthened their grip on national and local government by manipulating its composition. Gerrymandering – the drawing of electoral boundaries to deliberately divide and reduce Catholic voting power – was quite common. Unionist legislation also rigged the franchise and excluded Catholics. At municipal level the franchise (right to vote) was tied to property ownership. Those who paid rates (homeowners) were entitled to vote in local council elections; individuals who owned several homes (landlords) could have up to six votes; those who occupied public or rented housing (tenants) were not permitted to vote at all. These electoral conditions favoured the higher-paid Protestant community. The outcomes were governments dominated by Unionists with a small number Catholic MPs and councillors that was not representative of the population. In the 1960s Catholics comprised just over 35 per cent of the population but comprised only six per cent of local councils. The 1968 municipal elections in Derry returned 12 Protestant and eight Catholic councillors – even though Catholic voters outnumbered Protestant voters by more than 50 per cent. In Belfast more than 97 per cent of all council employees were Protestant. And the Protestant domination of government led to preferential treatment for Protestant communities. Of 111 government-contracted factories built after World War II, 95 were located in Protestant areas.

“Different actors in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement appear to have empathised with particular individuals in the American movement… Michael Farrell had ‘a bit of fellow-feeling for John Lewis’ and more moderate leaders like Austin Currie emphasised that ‘for everyone who drew a parallel with Che Guevara, there were hundreds who identified with Martin Luther King’. Derry radical Fionnbarra O Dochartaigh recalled ‘We were the underclass… the Catholic middle class might not have identified themselves with the blacks but we did’. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey not only read about the Black Panther Party, she went to the US and met with its leading members.”
Brian Dooley, historian

In March 1963 Terence O’Neill became the prime minister of Northern Ireland, replacing the long-serving Viscount Brookeborough. O’Neill was a Protestant and a lifelong Unionist – but he was also a pragmatist who recognised that sectarianism threatened the future of Northern Ireland. In the first two years of his rule O’Neill sought improved relations with the Republic, meeting the taoiseach; he also moved towards reconciliation with Northern Ireland’s Catholics, making controversial gestures such as a visit to a convent. Hardline Unionists criticised O’Neill’s actions as treacherous while Nationalists condemned them for not going far enough. As O’Neill was wrestling with how to implement reform amid these political divisions, Great Britain was plunged into a dire economic recession in the late 1960s. The downturn hit Northern Ireland’s industries hard; unemployment increased at a rapid rate and rivalry for the few available jobs became fierce. Catholics made up less than 40 per cent of the population but more than 60 per cent of the unemployed.

In the midst of this turmoil several groups formed to challenge Unionist hegemony and push for an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. Among them were the Campaign for Social Justice (formed 1964), the Derry Housing Action Committee and the People’s Democracy. But the best known and most visible organisation was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). It was officially formed until January 1967 as an umbrella group for several smaller groups. NICRA had no political goals, beyond ‘one man one vote’ and the repeal of discriminatory legislation; it did not seek an end to partition or promote a Republican agenda. Early in its life NICRA was mainly but not solely Catholic. Most of its leaders came from the small but ambitious Catholic middle class, however NICRA’s rank and file also contained many liberal-minded Protestants seeking an end to sectarianism. Many in NICRA drew inspiration from American civil rights campaigners like Martin Luther King, hoping to bring about change through non-violent protest. But some members were also Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteers, the IRA having decided in 1967 to infiltrate and exploit NICRA for its own ends.

northern ireland

1. Northern Ireland’s Catholics had endured generations of discrimination, particulary in housing, voting and employment.
2. Protestant Unionists maintained control of the government through restricted voting rights and gerrymandering.
3. There was also anti-Catholic discrimination in education funding, housing allocations, infrastructure and investment.
4. In the 1960s many groups, inspired by civil rights movements elsewhere, demanded equality and fairness for Catholics.
5. These groups aligned in 1967 to form the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) which led the struggle against discrimination in the late 1960s. NICRA’s membership was mostly moderate Nationalists but also included liberal Protestants and some IRA plants.

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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, “The Northern Ireland civil rights movement”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],