The Northern Ireland civil rights movement

northern ireland civil rights
Detail from a Derry mural portraying the civil rights marches of the 1960s

The origins of the Troubles begin with the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland. The term ‘civil rights’ encompasses a number of rights and freedoms. In liberal democratic societies, all individuals are considered equal before both the government and the law. Citizens are entitled to 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. Not all societies uphold or protect these rights, however, which can lead to discrimination and social segregation. The 1960s was a fertile period for civil rights movements around the world, as marginalised people and racial minorities struggled against unfair treatment. These events inspired Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority to form their own civil rights movement, to demand an end to institutional discrimination against Catholics in Ulster. The actions of Northern Ireland’s civil rights protesters, as well as responses from the police and hostile Unionists, contributed to the outbreak of the Troubles.

The global push for rights

As mentioned, the 1960s was a time of social upheaval and civil rights movements around the world. The most visible of these movements formed in the United States. African-Americans comprised around 10 per cent of the population – but were subject to discriminatory laws, particularly in the southern states of the US. African-Americans endured social segregation, 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. Civil rights campaigners in the US adopted a range of tactics to force 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 produced rising civil rights movement in South Africa, where black Africans suffered discrimination at the hands of the white minority government and its apartheid policies. 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 movements caught the attention of Catholics in Northern Ireland. Catholics there had long faced discrimination in many areas of life. One of the most significant theatres of inequality was Northern Ireland’s workplaces. Catholics had endured discriminatory hiring policies and workplace conditions since before the days of Partition. Most large employers in Northern Ireland were owned or controlled by Protestant Unionists, who either refused to hire Catholics or gave preference to other Protestants. This attitude was based not just on sectarianism but from a sense of ownership and entitlement. Because Northern Ireland had industrialised and profited from its trade links with Britain, Unionists reckoned, jobs should be reserved for those loyal to Britain. In 1934 a pro-Unionist newspaper, the Londonderry Sentinel, called 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, the 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 the 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.

Housing discrimination

northern ireland civil rights
Austin Currie (centre) the young MP who protested housing allocations in 1968

There was also anti-Catholic discrimination in the allocation of housing. Post-war Northern Ireland suffered serious shortages of public housing. Many of the country’s homes had been constructed in the previous century and were in urgent need of renovation or replacement; thousands of homes had also been destroyed by German bombing during World War II. The chronic shortage of post-war 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; these authorities were almost always dominated by Unionists. As a consequence, Protestants frequently received preference over Catholics in housing allocation, regardless of other 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 and media coverage drew attention to discriminatory housing allocations. It also helped galvanise Northern Ireland’s 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. One consequence of segregation in schooling, housing and employment 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 also overwhelmingly Protestant. One 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
Unionist gerrymanders

Anti-Catholic discrimination extended into the political arena. 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 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; while those who occupied public or rented housing (tenants) were not permitted to vote at all. These electoral restrictions favoured the higher paid Protestant community. The outcomes were unrepresentative governments, dominated by Unionists and with a small number of Catholic MPs and councillors. In the 1960s Catholics comprised just over 35 per cent of the population but occupied just six per cent of local council seats. 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. This Unionist 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 security and the future of Northern Ireland. In the first two years of his rule, O’Neill sought improved relations with the Republic of Ireland, meeting the taoiseach. He also moved towards reconciliation with Northern Ireland’s Catholics, making controversial gestures such visiting a convent. Hardline Unionists condemned O’Neill’s actions as treacherous, while Nationalists condemned O’Neill for not going far enough. By the late 1960s, as O’Neill was wrestling with how to implement reform amid these political divisions, Great Britain was plunged into a dire economic recession. The downturn hit Northern Ireland’s industries hard; unemployment grew rapidly and rivalry for available jobs became fierce. Catholics, of course, were hit hardest: they 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 emerged to challenge Unionist hegemony and demand an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. Among them was the Campaign for Social Justice (formed 1964), the Derry Housing Action Committee and the People’s Democracy (both formed 1968). The best-known and most visible organisation, however, was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. NICRA was officially formed in January 1967 as an umbrella organisation, representing several smaller groups. NICRA had no explicit 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’s membership was mainly Catholic, though not entirely so. 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 who sought an end to sectarianism and discrimination. Many in NICRA drew inspiration from American civil rights campaigners like Martin Luther King; they hoped to bring about change through non-violent protest. Some NICRA members were more radical, however. In 1967 the Irish Republican Army (IRA) decided in 1967 to infiltrate and exploit NICRA for its own ends.

northern ireland civil rights key points

1. After Partition, and particularly after World War II, Catholics in Northern Ireland endured generations of discrimination, particularly in housing, voting, political representation and employment.

2. This discrimination was perpetuated by Protestant Unionists, who maintained control of the government through restricted voting rights and gerrymandering, as well as local councils and workplaces.

3. In the 1960s many groups, inspired by civil rights leaders and movements abroad, such as Martin Luther King in the United States, demanded equality and fairness for Catholics in Northern Ireland.

4. The election of Terence O’Neill in 1963 promised pragmatism and reconciliation – however inequalities became more glaring when Northern Ireland was hit by a severe economic recession.

5. Various reform groups aligned in 1967 to form the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. NICRA led the struggle against discrimination in the late 1960s. Its members were mostly moderate Nationalists but also included liberal Protestants and radical 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],