Ireland’s Wars: The O’Neill Era And The Civil Rights Movement

Having spent a number of entries talking about Ireland’s place in grander international issues like UN missions or nuclear diplomacy, we must now return to much more localised issues, namely the growing instability in the North, and how this erupted into open violence in the late 1960s. This is the last bit of road before we come to the topic of the Troubles, such as we have come to define that term, and it behoves me at this point to re-iterate my intentions. Ireland’s Wars is now dealing with history wherein some of the people involved and some of the people who were witnesses to events are very much alive, and I am conscious of this as I move forward. In those instances where I am dealing not with fact but with my own opinion on events, my own conjecture, I will endeavour to make sure that I am as clear about such things as possible. We will begin not with the start of the reasons that the Troubles came about – we could go back centuries for that – but with a movement to grant greater rights to what was almost a formalised minority within Northern Ireland that was born in the 1960s, and which could be dubbed the straw that broke the camels back.

A good snapshot of the issues facing Northern Ireland at the time can be found in the unrest around the Falls Road area of Belfast in September/October 1964. During a British General Election being held at the time a local Independent Republican candidate, William “Billy” McMillen, put two different flags in the window of his election office. One was the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army, the other was an Irish tricolour. Neither placement was especially surprising, given McMillen’s background as a IRA Volunteer, and veteran of the Border Campaign, for which he had spent time interned. Local unionist groups were outraged, and demanded that the flags be removed, or they would do the removing themselves. They were largely led by Ian Paisley, a then 38-year-old minister of the breakaway Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, a fundamentalist, evangelical church that espoused harsh anti-Catholic views. Paisley, a man who would dominate large parts of Northern Ireland’s political history over the following decades, had already received several public order offences for his role in forming Ulster Protestant Action, a violent anti-Catholic vigilante group, and for specifically encouraging violence against Catholics on numerous occasions. A noted firebrand, about as nice a term as I can use for this particular type of fire-and-brimstone religious ideology, Paisley had little compunction about directing anti-Catholic activities, up to and including beatings, property destruction and employment pogroms. There is no doubt that he would have followed through on the threat to take the offending flag down himself, no matter who stood in his way.

On the night of the 28th September, a large unit of armed RUC men smashed their way into McMillen’s office and removed the tricolour. It was replaced the following day, upon which RUC attacked a crowd that had gathered outside the building in support of McMillen. Several days of unrest, marked by street violence and property damage, followed, with the political leaders of Stormont ineffectually calling for a halt, having been the ones who ordered the RUC into the office in the first place. McMillen would end up with less than 7% of the vote in the election, but soon enough the constituency would turn green, and stay that way ever after. The whole affair could be seen as a microcosm of the issues within Northern Ireland at the time, featuring as it did a nationalist minority intent on increasing their representation, a unionist majority intent on aggressive confrontation of the same, a militarised police that had no compunction in using violence against said minority and a government that seemed unable, or unwilling, to take steps to stop the growing spread of discontent.

This was the so-called “O’Neill era”, a six year period between 1963 and 1969 when Northern Ireland’s endless dominant Ulster Unionist Party, and by extension the country, was led by Terence O’Neill. A veteran of the Second World War, O’Neill had held numerous ministries under the administration of Basil Brooke, but had now graduated to the top job, despite serious reservations from unionist hardliners who disliked O’Neill’s apparent propensity for reform, and for a sense that he considered himself more English than Northern Irish. From the start of his premiership O’Neill attempted to pursue policies of reconciliation between the two ethnicities of Northern Ireland, recognising that nationalists/Catholics had legitimate grievances about various facets of their lives, whether it was electoral under-representation, housing, employment or simply the means to practise their religion without harassment. He would also attempt rapprochement with Dublin, inviting then Taoiseach Sean Lemass for a brief official visit to Belfast, and reciprocating at a later time, while generally attempting to further the industrialisation of a struggling Northern Ireland economy.

In this he was met by a continuing wave of disapproval and opposition from various parts of the unionist movement, who saw any attempt to alleviate the problems of Catholics as being inherently incompatible with what they saw the Northern Irish state as being: namely, a Protestant state for a Protestant people. Those of the mindset of Paisley saw Catholics as little more than outright enemies of the state, or at the very least potential enemies of the state, and O’Neill’s efforts at reform would met constant rejection from elements of his own party and community.

All the same, for a time O’Neill’s premiership appears to have been reasonably popular. His efforts at reversing Northern Ireland’s economic problems were well-received, and unionists tended to row in behind him when the spectre of more left-leaning political entities, like the recently founded Northern Ireland Labour Party, became manifest. In the 1965 Northern Ireland election, O’Neill’s Ulster Unionists gained nearly 60% of the vote and nearly 70% of the seats, so he must have been doing something right in the minds of many unionists and Protestants. But that mattered little to the likes of Paisley, who infamously described O’Neill’s efforts at “building bridges” thusly: “A traitor and a bridge are very much alike, for they both go over to the other side”. For many Protestants and unionists, who felt that Catholics were already the enemy even before the Belfast government attempted to better their status, it was this kind of radical rhetoric that strongly appealed. There was also a certain element of not understanding the wider political context for what O’Neill was trying to do: a new Labour government in London, under Harold Wilson, had come into being in 1964 – in the same campaign where Paisley’s words had helped set off the Falls Road rioting – and this was not an administration content with merely letting Belfast continue as it had. O’Neill was constantly being pushed to enact reforms to Northern Irish society, with threats to cut off vital funding from Westminster should he fail. O’Neill was thus caught between a rock and a hard place, pushed by his nominal political superiors, and arguably his own sense of right and wrong, to change things in Northern Ireland and countered by the hardliners of his own community who viewed any such initiatives as a surrender to “popery”.

Of course, Catholics and nationalists were not bystanders to their own story, as accounts of the period up to the mid-1960s sometimes like to paint them. In the early 1960s a number of individuals and groupings would come together in a bid to tackle discrimination within Northern Ireland in a manner significantly different to that which had been previously attempted by the IRA, and would come to dominant the political aspect of the nationalist community in that decade. The Homeless Citizens League, later the Campaign of Social Justice, is often identified as a precursor, a movement that began as a lobbying group on housing for Catholics that later branched out into a more general fight against discrimination. By 1967 numerous faction within the nationalist and republican movements saw the benefits of a wide tent approach, where unified action could achieve more than any of them could apart. When the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, or NICRA, was formally founded in 1967, it contained on its leadership board representatives from trade unions, the Communist Party, the Wolfe Tone Society, senior members of the IRA and politicians from various groupings. There were numerous key personalities, such as the aforementioned Liam McMillen but also a 30-year-old teacher and credit union organiser named John Hume, who would soon become one of the critical political leaders of Northern Ireland.

NICRA was a loose enough organisation really, with its leading committee more of a dethatched directing force, and much of its work was done at a very localised level, but it was effective. Specific aims were for the institution of “One Man – One Vote”, which called for the removal of the practise of certain areas allowing business owners – nearly always unionist – additional suffrage; an end to gerrymandering; the end of religious discrimination in housing and in public sector employment; and the disbandment of the B Specials. Taking special inspiration from the Civil Rights movement in America that was then actively agitating for greater rights for people of colour, NICRA went about organising the large-scale protest marches for which it would be best known.

From the very start, it was difficult for NICRA and the movement that it represented to shake off accusations of being deeply connected with the IRA and a more militant brand of republicanism. Numerous unionists and unionists groups, up to key figures in the Belfast government, openly accused NCIRA of being a front from the IRA from its very inception. Undoubtedly, IRA Volunteers were key members of NICRA from the very beginning, not least McMillen, but also people like Cathal Goulding, then the IRA Chief-of-Staff. The IRA was in another transitionary phase of its existence after the damp squib that had been the conclusion of the Border Campaign – something I will cover in greater detail in a later entry – and a form of entryism of various bodies – trade unions, left-wing political parties like the NILP and, in the end, NICRA – was a major part of the IRA’s focus in those days. There was a recognition that military action, of the kind that the IRA was capable of anyway, was very insufficient for achieving the goals of the organisation. NICRA would remain an entity that adopted no formal line on partition or the ending of it, but as a grouping that was inherently nationalist and Catholic in its make-up, it was difficult to tackle the rampant perception that it was a political wing of the IRA, even if this was really a gross simplification of the situation.

Regardless, NICRA was very quickly making waves within Northern Ireland, helped by an abundance of potential flashpoints which they used to full effect. One of the first major ones involved Austin Currie, an MP for the Nationalist Party, another man who would have a far-reaching impact on Northern Ireland, and Republic of Ireland, politics in the years to come. 29-years-old in 1968, Currie staged a protest that year wherein he squatted in a house in Caledon, Tyrone, in opposition to what he and many others deemed discriminatory housing allocations: this particular house had gone to a single Protestant woman who had had significant political connections, with full Catholic families overlooked. Currie was forcibly removed – one of the officers who did so was the incoming tenants brother, which hardly helped the perception of the event – and the affair became a major story of the day, with subsequent protests attracting thousands. It was on foot of Currie’s squat that NICRA undertook its own first major march, in August of 1968, from Coalisland to Dungannon. Thousands attended, along with large amounts of media from many different places: that last part was a crucial aspect of what was to come, that many in unionist circles seemed to be unable to understand. When NICRA got to Dungannon they found themselves faced with a 1’000 or so counter-protestors, led, of course, by Ian Paisley. There was no violence between the two camps on this occasion, with NICRA consciously using the playbook of the American movement in adhering to peaceful demonstration.

A violent clash was only delayed, and came on the 5th October 1968. A civil rights march, arranged by locals with the support of NICRA, took place on the streets of Derry that day, despite government orders banning it from happening. Such proscription only served to swell indignation and interest, with thousands of participants and observers attending. The RUC present at the affair waded in, using batons and water cannons to try and disperse the crowd: dozens were treated for head wounds at the time, among them Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt, who had invited several sympathetic Labour MPs to join him for the day. A news crew from Ireland’s RTE – the state broadcaster – also happened to be there that day, and the footage they captured of RUC men indiscriminately beating peaceful protestors, shown ad nauseum in reports for weeks afterwards, created a storm of outrage. In the days and weeks after, NICRA would be inundated with additional protests and marches across Northern Ireland. Too many members of the nationalist community had seen enough. Northern Ireland had long been a pressure cooker of discontent and, though those in power still did not seem to fully realise it, it was in the process of bursting.

O’Neill would be summarily summoned to London to face the wrath of Wilson a few weeks later, where he was threatened that unless meaningful reforms were immediately enacted in Northern Ireland, all standing financial arrangements would be stopped. O’Neill was suitably chastened, and may well have genuinely wanted to advance such proposals, but hardliners within his party and the larger unionist community were having none of it. Too many of them saw nothing wrong with what had occurred in Derry in October, and were selective blind in registering the PR disaster that was the news footage. Catholic marches were still being met by unionist counter-protests, O’Neill was obligated to sack his Minister for Home Affairs when he publicly rebuked Westminster authority and an emotional appeal from the Northern Ireland Prime Minister late in 1968, where he called for unionists to refrain from presenting themselves “merely with strength”, had little adherents.

O’Neill didn’t have much time left in any case. Another confrontation between civil rights marchers and unionists, this time at Burntoillet Bridge in rural Derry, provided another shocking example of violence in early January of 1969, and again TV camera were there to capture the mayhem. The RUC was accused of standing by and doing nothing, with it also claimed that off-duty B Specials took part in the attack. The over-stretched police force – that only numbered 3’000 or so personnel – now struggled to keep combating the marches and protests that were occurring all over the country. In February Paisley would be arrested for his part in a violent clash between unionists and protestors in Armagh.

The same month O’Neill was confronted by members of his own party demanding his resignation: in desperation the Prime Minister called an election to seek popular support. The campaign became a de-facto plebiscite on O’Neill’s leadership, with the UUP split down the middle between pro and anti-O’Neill factions. When the votes were counted O’Neill’s supporters returned 23 MP’s to his detractors 13, but despite this the fracturing of the unionist vote meant the poll could only be seen as a disaster for the Prime Minister, who had only narrowly kept his own seat when Paisley ran against him. The election was also notable for that newer breed of nationalist politicians gaining office, such as John Hume. Worse was to come in March when Bernadette Devlin, a 21-one-year old student and civil rights marcher, won a by-election in Mid-Ulster, running on a “Unity” ticket of different factions, a rare example at the time of a nationalist defeating a unionist in a one-on-one contest. Devlin made international headlines by refusing to abstain from Westminster, and with a fiery maiden speech in the Commons. O’Neill, realising there was nothing more he could do, resigned in April.

In a way I feel that this post can be viewed mostly as preamble, a prologue for a larger and detailed discussion about the Troubles. While the era discussed above was not the only time when the causes of the Troubles can be found, it was the critical period in many ways, when the hardline of unionism ran smack into the growing political consciousness and desire for equal rights of nationalists, with figures like the oft-hapless Terence O’Neill caught in the middle. The violence that occurred at many marches in late 19689 and early 1969 was another form of preamble, for a much worse and terrible series of events that would take place shortly after, in which the true beginnings of the Troubles can be seen. O’Neill was not the man to bring reconciliation to Northern Ireland, and neither would be his immediate successor. The frailties in the Northern Irish state were now becoming manifest, and it would not take much more for chaos to be the result.

But for now we will change tack slightly. I have not mentioned yet one of the very last blows to O’Neill’s premiership, a series of explosions that rocked vital supply services in Belfast shortly before his resignation. At the time these were put down to action by the IRA but the true perpetrators would be revealed later. In the next entry we will look at this organisations, a unionist militia who would have a crucial role to play in the following years: the new Ulster Volunteer Force.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The O’Neill Era And The Civil Rights Movement

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: August 1969 Outside Of Derry | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Jack Lynch And “Exercise Armageddon” | Never Felt Better

  6. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Split (1969) | Never Felt Better

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