March to overcome injustice
March to overcome injustice
Austin Currie reflects on the huge and peaceful Coalisland to Dungannon March of August 24th, 1968, which marked a turning point for the Irish civil rights movement.

A few days after the Caledon squatting on June 20 1968, John Donaghy, Michael McLoughlin and I held a postmortem.

John and Michael, independent councillors in Dungannon, were my closest political associates and had been involved in a number of direct action activities in opposition to housing discrimination in the area.

They shared my conviction that the Northern Ireland government would not introduce the necessary civil rights reforms unless pressurised by Westminster and that the British government would not intervene unless it was forced to do so.

Creating the circumstances which would force the British government to exercise its sovereign responsibilities was the motive behind the proposal which Michael and I put to the executive of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association at a meeting in Maghera on July 27.

We told the executive that as a follow up to Caledon we intended to organise a civil rights march, based on the American model of Martin Luther King, before the end of August.

We would organise the march locally, provide stewards to ensure it was non violent but we would prefer that the march be held under the auspices of NICRA and under its banner.

We had taken the precaution of briefing two members of the NICRA executive, Dr Conn McCluskey and Fred Heatley on our proposal but we anticipated some questioning and possible opposition because the proposed action was a radical departure from the way NICRA had been functioning until then.

We were questioned, asked to withdraw while executive considered the matter and after a short time told our proposal had been approved for the date we had suggested - August 24.

The two councillors and I had already decided it would be necessary to broaden our support base.

We invited a number of activists to join us in producing a housing survey which would provide us with up-to-date facts of housing allocations in the Dungannon area which would buttress our allegations of discrimination.

The housing survey group consisted of the two Independent councillors, Jack Hassard (a Labour Party councillor), Tommy O’Connor and Brian Quinn (chairman and vice-chairman of Tyrone Republican Clubs), and myself (MP for East Tyrone) acting as chairman.

Jack was a courageous Protestant who had already distinguished himself as a champion of the under

privileged. Tommy and Brian were committed supporters of the non-violent but radical policies adapted by Sinn Féin since the ending of the IRA campaign six years earlier.

The housing survey was published in The Irish News, to much acclaim from non-unionists, on August 8 and its six sponsors became organisers of the march proposed for the 24th.

A number of meetings which I chaired were held in St Patrick’s Hall, Coalisland to sell the idea, to generate enthusiasm, to plan the details of the march and in particular to organise stewards.

One meeting gave us a tremendous boost when Fr Austin Eustace, senior curate in Dungannon parish and a formidable campaigner for social, economic and political equality, gave his full support and told us that history was being written “because when the annals of the fight for civil rights in the six counties are being recorded, next Saturday’s march will have honourable mention”. (The Irish News, August 21 1968)

Two events occurred in the run up which caused difficulty.

Three days before, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. A prime objective of the march was to publicise lack of civil rights in Northern Ireland and to that end national and international media had been invited.

We could hardly blame the media for attaching greater importance to defenceless citizens of Prague defending themselves against Soviet tanks than a march between two small towns in Co Tyrone.

Then, after midnight on the day of the march on returning to my home, accompanied by Michael and John, following what we thought would be the final organising meeting, we were visited by two members of the RUC from Dungannon who served orders on us diverting the march from the Square in Dungannon to the Catholic ghetto in Ann Street.

They confirmed that notice of our march had been given to them well in advance, that they had not raised any objections but they had now received notice of a Paisleyite counter-demonstration to prevent us entering the Square.

We protested that ours was the legal march, it was non-sectarian and therefore we would not allow ourselves to be shunted to the Catholic ghetto. But to no avail. Official notices were served on John, Michael and I re-routing the march.

In view of the changed circumstances the final meeting of stewards was a solemn affair where the decision was taken that the non-violent nature of our march had to be preserved at all costs but on principle we could not accept a re-route. Plans were made for the stewards to prevent any confrontation with the RUC or the Paisleyites.

The media calculated that between 5,000 and 15,000 participated in the march. I calculated about 7,000 by the time we reached Dungannon. John Taylor MP, according to the local unionist paper, counted 580 marchers.

The NICRA executive were in the front row led by the chairperson Betty Sinclair.

Nearly all the Nationalist parliamentary party were in attendance, led by Eddie McAteer MP and of course Gerry Fitt who had become my closest colleague in Stormont.

It was inevitable that a sizeable number of the stewards were republican.

The march would not have been representative otherwise and the march occurred before the split in the republican movement at a time when the armed struggle had been abandoned for non-violent political action.

The president of Sinn Féin Tomas McGiolla and the former MP for Mid Ulster Tom Mitchell were also in attendance.

On the outskirts of Dungannon, at the hospital corner, the point of the proposed RUC diversion, the RUC blocked the road in front of police tenders and behind them a crowd of about 1,500 loyalists had been allowed to assemble.

It was a tense and potentially dangerous situation but the stewards did their job, moving between the police line and the marchers and restraining a small group of young socialists from Belfast intent on causing trouble.

In these circumstances our meeting was held, addressed principally by Betty Sinclair; Gerry Fitt and myself ending with the rendering of the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome.

We were confident we had embarked on a campaign which, to use my own words from the platform, “We will have justice or we will make a governmental system based on injustice unworkable”.

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© 2008 Irish Republican News