The emergence of the Civil Rights movement in the North of Ireland led to solidarity organisations being established in Britain, seeking through meetings, marches and strikes to highlight what was happening. The government used the prevention of Terrorism Act, passed in November 1974, to clamp down hard on campaigners.
The Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the North of Ireland
In May 1963 local Catholics in Dungannon established the Homeless Citizens’ League to campaign for better housing conditions. One of its leading members was Patricia McCluskey, wife of local doctor Conn McCluskey. In August 1963 thirty families squatted in condemned buildings and eventually embarrassed the Stormont government, after Doctor McCluskey had personally lobbied it, into announcing that some 64 new houses would be built in the town.
News of this victory quickly spread beyond Dungannon and the McCluskeys received letters from families across Northern Ireland, asking for advice on how to win similar concessions for their own towns from Stormont. This convinced them of the need for a more permanent pressure group and led them to establish the Campaign for Social Justice on 17th January 1964 “for the purpose of bringing the light of publicity to bear on the discrimination which exists in our community”. The CSJ sent out regular newsletters and produced five pamphlets which detailed the injustices happening in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) was formally established at a meeting of 100 delegates in the International Hotel, Belfast on 29th January 1967. On 5th October 1968 a Civil Rights march in Derry was brutally attacked by the RUC and sparked a wave of anger, leading to the formation by students of a radical group, People’s Democracy.
Bernadette Devlin rapidly emerged as one of its leading figures and in April 1969 was elected to the House of Commons on a Civil Rights ticket. She made her first appearance in the Commons two days later, rushing over to take part in a debate on Northern Ireland and looking like “anybody’s classless undergraduate daughter” as the Daily Mirror put it. She attacked Unionism and the Wilson government for forgetting what Socialism was and rejected attempts to label the Civil Rights movement as a narrow Catholic uprising, saying “We are not sectarian. We fight for the rights of both Catholics and Protestants”. She spoke at countless meetings in Britain and the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign was set up, including for a while a group in Manchester based in Gee Cross, Hyde. This organised a meeting under the title The Real Struggle in Northern Ireland at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th November 1969 at which Michael Farrell from People’s Democracy was the principal speaker
Solidarity in Britain with the Civil Rights Movement
Events in Northern Ireland were now being keenly followed by many in the Irish community in Britain. The day after the attack on the Civil Rights march in Derry The Observer carried a full and graphic report of the RUC’s violence, written by Mary Holland under the headline “Ulster Police Club Marchers”. She also wrote a long feature, carefully researched, entitled “John Bull’s White Ghettos”, which exposed the political gerrymandering in Derry. Her articles were very influential.
According to the Irish Democrat the Manchester branch of the Connolly Association was now meeting every 3rd Wednesday at The Crown & Anchor public house in Hilton Street and becoming active again under the direction of Joe McCrudden, a Belfast man. There was a Civil Rights meeting in Manchester at Chorlton Town Hall on 9th March 1969, at which the speakers were Desmond Greaves and Betty Sinclair, a trade unionist and Communist from Belfast.
College students in Manchester also set up a Civil Rights Committee. The most active members of this seem to have been those attending the Catholic De La Salle teacher training college, who held a mass meeting on 16th January 1969 and leafleted city centre pubs and clubs on events in Ireland, as a prelude to an all night vigil in support of the demand for Civil Rights in Albert Square. The weather was not on their side – there was fog and rain and only 30 students stayed the course. They were pictured next day in the Manchester Evening News, walking around the Albert Memorial and carrying banners which demanded (unironically) “One Man One Vote”. The chair of the Committee was 20 year-old Conal Harvey from Belfast who told the press, “We want to draw the unfair situation in Northern Ireland to the attention of the people in Manchester. We are planning more protests.”
The British Army goes in
In August 1969 there was a three day battle in Derry between the people of the Bogside and the RUC. Rioting then broke out in Belfast in which whole streets were burn out and people were killed. Finally James Callaghan, the Home Secretary, sent in the army.
Frank Gogarty, a leading member of NICRA in London, was reported in the press as saying that the Association proposed to call all Irish people in Britain out on a one-day strike as an expression of horror and indignation at the police brutality in Derry. The Guardian reported that on 14th August there had been sympathy strikes in Birmingham, Coventry and London with more than 500 people staying away from work and further strike action planned in the Midlands to bring out all Irish labour. This was followed on 20th August by a further strike by Irish workers in Birmingham whose co-ordinator Tom McDowell claimed that some 7,000 people in the area had answered the call with support from corporation bus workers, factories and building sites.
St Brendan’s Centre in Manchester was named in the press as a recruitment centre for volunteers wishing to go over to the north. Local organiser John Madden said that he hoped to get the first volunteers across to Ireland almost immediately and was planning to organise a demonstration in Albert Square and a walkout by Irish workers. The following day St Brendan’s publicly denied that it was being used as centre for volunteers as this would be against its constitution.
On 25th August 1969 there was a march in Manchester. Supporters of the Civil Rights movement gathered in Platt Fields and marched to Ardwick Green . A photograph of this march in The Guardian showed one marcher holding a placard which stated “Get The Troops Out.”
In October Manchester City Council (then Tory controlled) refused to allow the local branch of the Campaign for Social Justice to hire council-owned halls to hold public meetings on the situation in the North of Ireland and a planned meeting had to be called off. On 6th November the CSJ organised a torchlit procession in the city centre in protest. John Madden, who was originally from Dungannon and had lived in Manchester for 15 years, claimed that 99% of the Irish population were sympathetic to their cause. He told the Irish Democrat it was “the sort of thing I used to experience when I was a councillor in the worst place in Northern Ireland for discrimination. I did not expect to find it in Manchester.” There was a protest march to the Town Hall against the ban after the annual Manchester Martyrs procession.
The Manchester CSJ stepped up its activities by taking part in the national petition for a Bill of Rights and holding a meeting in Houldsworth Hall on 22nd March 1970 at which the speakers were Ivan Cooper MP, Betty Sinclair, Mark Carlisle MP and Stan Orme MP. On 4th April they held a folk concert in the Lesser Free Trade Hall featuring the Grehan Sisters.
In July 1970 the British army imposed a curfew and ransacked the Falls Road in Belfast, looking for weapons. Four people were killed. In February 1971 the IRA shot dead a British soldier. Daily gun battles were soon taking place as well as a bombing campaign. At 4.30am on 9th August 1971 the Stormont government re-introduced internment, leading to more gun battles and extensive rioting. Nationalist areas virtually seceded from the Northern Ireland state.
Bloody Sunday, January 1972
A NICRA march was held in Derry on Sunday 30th January 1972. British troops from the paratroop regiment prevented it getting out of the Bogside and the usual small riot developed involving local youth. Most of the marchers were listening to the speakers, who included Bernadette Devlin and veteran Labour MP Fenner Brockway, when the paratroopers charged into the Bogside shooting thirteen men dead. Another man died later of his wounds.
A hurricane of anger swept Ireland, North and South. There were strikes and marches as tens of thousands of Irish workers protested in Dundalk, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Dublin. Airport workers at Dublin and Shannon refused to handle British aircraft, grounding planes in Manchester and other British airports. Jack Lynch declared 2nd February, the day of the funerals, as a national day of mourning. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned down when a crowd estimated at 30,000 gathered outside it and threw petrol bombs. In the North rioting went for days in almost every Nationalist area. Bernadette Devlin told the Daily Mirror, “It was mass murder by the army . This was our Sharpeville and we shall never forget it. The troops shot up a peaceful meeting”. By contrast Brian Faulkner blamed the organisers of the march and the IRA for the killings.
In Britain Bloody Sunday provoked the most intense response by the Irish during whole the thirty years of the Troubles. In Manchester over 100 students from De La Salle College, Middleton held an emergency protest meeting at midnight followed by a mass meeting in the afternoon which voted to boycott lectures and hold three days of mourning. A number of the students then went to the statue of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly and, amidst a snowstorm, began a vigil and fast, setting up a makeshift black flag and a wooden cross bearing the words “Will they rest in peace – how many more?” Some bus-drivers and office and shop workers jeered and shouted abuse as they passed (postal workers at the South Manchester sorting office threatened to boycott all mail to Ireland except Forces Mail on the grounds that the soldiers were not getting a fair deal). Members of the James Steele branch of Provisional Sinn Fein in Manchester mounted a protest at the army recruiting office on Fountain Street with placards that read “Derry Bloody Sunday, 13 massacred by British army”. Their spokesperson Seamas O’Morain gave his name in Irish and told reporters that they were protesting peacefully against the British army’s campaign of murder in Ireland.
On Thursday the De La Salle students led a march of 2,000 from the Cathedral through Manchester city centre, passing the Army Recruitment Office which was heavily guarded by police, and finishing with a rally at the Mancunian Way. There was a further march in Manchester on Saturday organised by the Manchester Connolly Association attended by 1,500, which was addressed by Lennie Draper, Desmond Greaves and Ann Doherty from the Manchester Civil Rights Association. A meeting attended by 1,500 students at Manchester University banned all military recruiting on campus and denied union facilities to the British army Officer Training Corps. An attempt to close the University Student Union failed when Tory students obtained a court injunction preventing this.
The Irish Democrat produced a special four page supplement on Bloody Sunday to go with their usual February issue. Desmond Greaves called for the resignation of Maudling, suspension of the Commander in Chief of British forces in Northern Ireland, immediate withdrawal of all paratroops from Northern Ireland, withdrawal of all troops from streets where they had become a provocation, an immediate end of internment and negotiations to lead to a united Irish Republic. The Manchester Connolly Association sent a telegram to Edward Heath (signed by John Tocher, divisional organiser of the engineering union and others), condemning the massacre of civil rights demonstrators and calling for troops to be confined to barracks and for a Bill of Rights to be brought forward.
Irish Civil Rights Association
In the general election held in October 1974 six candidates stood in the British general election under the banner of the Irish Civil Rights Association, the first time that candidates had stood on a specifically Irish platform since the Anti-Partition League in 1951. Margaret O’Brien, secretary of ICRA in Britain, said that they called for higher pensions and lower mortgages. “We should achieve this by a commitment to a United Ireland instead of propping up a rotten little statelet that costs £700 million in year and makes her name the derision of the world”.
The ICRA candidates stood in constituencies with sizeable Irish populations. Neil Boyle stood in Moss Side, Manchester, gaining just 238 votes. According to his election leaflet he was aged 37, born in Donegal, married with four children, worked for British Rail and had been active in the Civil Rights movement since 1969. ICRA candidates called for the release of all internees and a general amnesty for all political prisoners; a commitment from Britain to the idea of a united Ireland and a phased withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland. ICRA attacked the Labour government for increasing the number of internees in Long Kesh and Armagh, for renewing the Emergency Provisions Act and for the death of Michael Gaughan on hunger strike. It was clear from the results that, whatever strong feelings that Irish people might have had about events in Ireland, most Irish people at this period continued to give their vote to the Labour Party.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act
On 21st November bombs exploded in two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and wounding 162. There was widespread public outrage and fury, some of which was directed at Irish people in Britain (although a number of the victims had been Irish).
Within two days the government rushed through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which became law on 29th November. Such was the public mood that not a single MP dared vote against. Desmond Greaves commented in later years that “the disastrous bomb outrage did the Irish movement in Britain more harm than a regiment of cavalry. The witch hunt that followed, which included anti-Irish marches, threw the Irish movement back decades.”
There were frequent police raids, arrests and exclusions from Britain. Many Irish solidarity organisations stopped meeting and it was not until the hunger strike campaign of 1981 and the emergence of new organisations such as the Irish in Britain representation Group that Irish people began to speak out again about what was happening in the North of Ireland.
Article by Michael Herbert