Civil Rights Movement in Northern IrelandFurther information: Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association
Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom which has witnessed violence over many decades, known as the Troubles, arising from tensions between the British (Unionist, Protestant) majority and the Irish (Nationalist, Catholic) minority following the Partition of Ireland in 1920.
The civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland can be traced to activists in Dungannon, led by Austin Currie, who were fighting for equal access to public housing for the members of the Catholic community. This domestic issue would not have led to a fight for civil rights were it not for the fact that being a registered householder was a qualification for local government franchise in Northern Ireland.
In January 1964, the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) was launched in Belfast. This organisation joined the struggle for better housing and committed itself to ending discrimination in employment. The CSJ promised the Catholic community that their cries would be heard. They challenged the government and promised that they would take their case to the Commission for Human Rights in Strasbourg and to the United Nations.
Having started with basic domestic issues, the civil rights struggle in Northern Ireland escalated to a full scale movement that found its embodiment in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. NICRA campaigned in the late sixties and early seventies, consciously modelling itself on the American civil rights movement and using similar methods of civil resistance. NICRA organised marches and protests to demand equal rights and an end to discrimination.
NICRA originally had five main demands:
- one man, one vote
- an end to discrimination in housing
- an end to discrimination in local government
- an end to the gerrymandering of district boundaries, which limited the effect of Catholic voting
- the disbandment of the B-Specials, an entirely Protestant Police reserve, perceived as sectarian.
All of these specific demands were aimed at an ultimate goal that had been the one of women at the very beginning: the end of discrimination.
Civil rights activists all over Northern Ireland soon launched a campaign of civil resistance. There was opposition from Loyalists, who were aided by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland's police force. At this point, the RUC was over 90% Protestant. Violence escalated, resulting in the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) from the Catholic community, a group reminiscent of those from the War of Independence and the Civil War that occurred in the 1920s that had launched a campaign of violence to end British rule in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries countered this with a defensive campaign of violence and the British government responded with a policy of internment without trial of suspected IRA members. For more than 300 people, the internment lasted several years. The huge majority of those interned by the British forces were Catholic. In 1978, in a case brought by the government of the Republic of Ireland against the government of the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the interrogation techniques approved for use by the British army on internees in 1971 amounted to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.
The IRA encouraged Republicans to join in the civil rights movement but never controlled NICRA. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association fought for the end of discrimination toward Catholics and did not take a position on the legitimacy of the state. Republican leader Gerry Adams explained subsequently that Catholics saw that it was possible for them to have their demands heard. He wrote that "we were able to see an example of the fact that you didn't just have to take it, you could fight back". For an account and critique of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, reflecting on the ambiguous link between the causes of civil rights and opposition to the union with the United Kingdom, see the work of Richard English.
One of the most important events in the era of civil rights in Northern Ireland took place in Derry, which escalated the conflict from peaceful civil disobedience to armed conflict. The Battle of the Bogside started on 12 August when an Apprentice Boys, a Protestant order, parade passed through Waterloo Place, where a large crowd was gathered at the mouth of William Street, on the edge of the Bogside. Different accounts describe the first outbreak of violence, with reports stating that it was either an attack by youth from the Bogside on the RUC, or fighting broke out between Protestants and Catholics. The violence escalated and barricades were erected. Proclaiming this district to be the Free Derry, Bogsiders carried on fights with the RUC for days using stones and petrol bombs. The government finally withdrew the RUC and replaced it with the army, which disbanded the crowds of Catholics who were barricaded in the Bogside.
Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in Derry is seen by some as a turning point in the civil rights movement. Fourteen unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers protesting against internment were shot dead by the British army and many were left wounded on the streets.
The peace process has made significant gains in recent years. Through open dialogue from all parties, a state of ceasefire by all major paramilitary groups has lasted. A stronger economy improved Northern Ireland's standard of living. Civil rights issues have become far less of a concern for many in Northern Ireland over the past 20 years as laws and policies protecting their rights and forms of affirmative action have been implemented for all government offices and many private businesses. Tensions still exist, but the vast majority of citizens are no longer affected by violence.
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