Civil Rights to Armalites - January 1967 to April 1969

Part B:

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1. Context

In January 1967, a new political organisation was formed called NICRA (Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association). The leaders of NICRA were influenced by the success of the non-violent methods used by Civil Rights campaigners in the USA during the mid -1960s. Other Civil Rights activists, and in particular those from the Queen’s student body, had been inspired by student protests in Europe, especially those in France in May 1968.

By the summer of 1968 support and membership of NICRA had grown rapidly under the leadership of figures such as, Ivan Cooper, John Hume and Austin Currie. NICRA had also drawn up a list of 7 main demands for political, economic and social reforms for Stormont to address, principally aimed at tackling the issue of discrimination against the Nationalist minority by Unionist governments since 1922. The movement picked up momentum and gained increasing support from the Catholic middle class social group in particular as well as some liberal Protestants.

NICRA organised a series of marches between August and November 1968, leading to increased tension with the Stormont government as well as the police. Despite preaching a policy of non-violence, these marches would witness violent clashes with the police that would be seen on television screens and the front page of newspapers across Europe and the USA.

From August 1968 onwards, support for NICRA grew steadily and their actions led to different responses from Nationalist and Unionist leaders who represented the divided communities. The heightened tension accompanying the repressive police response saw the British government forced to intervene. In November 1968, under pressure from the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, O’Neill announced a Five-Point reform programme. In response to these initial reforms NICRA called off future marches to ease community tensions. O’Neill’s concessions did not appease everyone and in January 1969, People’s Democracy, a more radical, student-based group, organised a protest march between Belfast and Derry/Londonderry that was attacked at Burntollet bridge by a group of loyalist counter-protestors.

This event led to more tension and violence which increased the pressure on O’Neill and his government due to their inability to balance the competing demands and face up to the opposition from both Nationalists and Unionists. In the General Election that O’Neill subsequently called in February 1969, he only narrowly defeated Paisley in his Bannside constituency. As a result of this situation, O’Neill tendered his resignation on 28 April 1969. Governments in both London and Dublin had supported most of the aims of NICRA, but now struggled to find a political solution that would arrest the slide towards further conflict.