WORDS NOT WEAPONS

Posted: 2017-04-30

Roger Kelly celebrates the triumph of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded 50 years ago, in 1967

WORDS NOT WEAPONS

 

Roger Kelly celebrates the triumph of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, founded 50 years ago.

 

THERE has been disappointingly little coverage in the media of the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

 

I was 15 at the time NICRA was formed on 9th April 1967 and was more interested in the Beatles and the Who coming to play in Belfast. Also the struggle of the American Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the Vietnam War made a bigger impression on my growing observations of injustices in the world. 

 

However, the Dungannon civil rights march to protest against the discriminatory system of allocating houses and the Derry march on October 1968 brought home to me that something wasn’t right about the the state of Northern Ireland. On the TV I observed peaceful civil rights marchers being attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the police brutality shocked many not only in Norther Ireland but also throughout the world. These events opened a new age of tumult in the crisis of unionism and awakened my political conscience to the injustices that were happening in Northern Ireland.

 

The permanently guaranteed parliamentary majority of the Unionist Party had built a state on sectarian discrimination and totalitarian legislation such as the Special Powers Act which led to social injustice mainly in the non-unionist population. When one looks back at NICRA'S aims, listed below, I would suggest that most objective and fair minded people and unionists would today find little to object to in them:

 

1. To defend the basic freedoms of all citizens.

2. To protect the rights of the individual.

3. To highlight all possible abuses of power.

4. To demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association.

5. To inform the public of their lawful rights.

 

It had also six main demands:

1. ‘One man one vote’, which would allow all people over 18 to vote in local council elections and remove votes held by business owners –  known as the ‘business vote’.

2. An end to Gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.

3. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs.

4. Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing.

5. The removal of the Special Powers Act.

6. The disbandment of the almost entirely Protestant Ulster Special Constabulary (B Specials).

 

NICRA’s innovative approaches to tackling these social injustices were certainly not revolutionary  but to a large extent were modelled on the National Council of Civil Liberties: organising marches, pickets, sit-ins and protests to pressure the Government of Northern Ireland. This strategy was successful in securing a much wider international and internal support for democratic change than traditional nationalist protests had done and the failure of the Republican/IRA Border Campaign from 1956-1962.

 

NICRA was a unique political movement at the time and all shades of political opinion were represented on its first Executive: Liberal, Labour, Nationalist, Republican, Communist, Trade Unionist and even a young unionist was co-opted at its formal lunch.

 

Unlike nationalist/republican groups, NICRA accepted the constitutional framework of Northern Ireland’s status as the basis for the redress of the civil rights grievances and demanded that Westminster as the sovereign authority fulfil its obligations towards all UK citizens in Northern Ireland.

 

However, by the early Seventies with the Conservatives back in government, NICRA had effectively been sidelined and sectarianism had intensified with the introduction of internment in August 1971 and the Bloody Sunday Massacre by the British Army in Derry. Elements of the civil rights movement unwisely called for ‘Direct Rule’ from London. This in many ways let the London authorities off the hook when political pressure for civil rights redress by way of measures like a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland should have been increased.

 

Added to the difficulties was the split in the Republican Movement and the formation of the Provisional IRA. The Provisional IRA rejected the concept of mass civil rights struggle and opted for a military campaign which led to increased sectarianism and mindless killings, which in itself was a denial of civil and human rights. It needs to be stated that Loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army also engaged in acts of violence which exacerbated the whole political situation and led to a ‘Dirty War’ which marginalised NICRA even more.

 

While the following period of strife and the appalling loss of life and suffering cannot be glossed over, it is my view that successive British governments, which put British party interests before peace and political progress not only in Northern Ireland but throughout these islands, bear the main responsibility for the mayhem that developed.

 

NICRA’s strategy did have success and the main civil rights demands were largely achieved, including the disbanding of the B-Specials and the abolition of the Special Powers Act. A points system for the allocation for housing was also established resulting in the formation eventually of the N.I. Housing Executive. The Fair Employment and Sex Discrimination Acts were introduced and the electoral system was reformed, thus ending Gerrymandering.

 

The Good Friday Agreement and the current political situation in Northern Ireland have some parallels with the policies outlined by NICRA. Equality of treatment, parity of esteem, and power sharing between nationalist and unionists in a devolved Stormont are effectively the continuation of the civil rights approach.

 

With the ‘armed struggle’ behind it, Sinn Fein now realise the primacy of politics within the peace process. It is now viewed as a credible progressive political party in Ireland and has played a major role in developing broad democratic policies supporting equal marriage, LGBT rights and the need for a new Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland.

 

However, negative comments such as Gerry Adams’s reference to equality being a Trojan Horse for political unionism when he should have been saying that equality is the Achilles Heal for unionism, is loose language that does not help to win over moderate opinion in building the ongoing peace process and establishing a more respectful democratic society in Northern Ireland.

 

Sinn Fein have a responsibility that, by making inequality based on sectarian bigotry impossible, although members of the Democratic Unionist Party still spout it, liberal unionists and ex-unionists can hopefully unite with nationalists and republicans and discover the political implications of their common Irishness  – which was at the core of NICRA’s policy.  

 

Roger Kelly, April 2017