The Civil Rights Association
The Civil Rights Association



Contrasting views of the North’s Civil Rights Association and how it relates to where we are as we approach the 50th anniversary of its first campaign.



By Sinn Fein Chairman Declan Kearney (for

Billy Nelis was an ordinary man. He was a child of the orange state; born in 1932.

He and his generation and their parents experienced first hand the injustice of the northern state.

When the Civil Rights Movement was formed they stood up in their tens of thousands to support its demands.

Billy died on Friday and his burial yesterday coincided with the 46th anniversary weekend of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry city.

That was apposite. He took part in the march and stood in the killing grounds of the Bogside.

That day in 1972 British soldiers killed 14 unarmed marchers who were engaged in peaceful protest against internment without trial in the north of Ireland.

One week previously another anti-internment protest was attacked by British soldiers on Magilligan strand.

Civil rights protestors had been attacked since the first demonstrations began.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the famous marches from Coalisland to Dungannon, and at Duke Street in Derry city.

Infamous images of the RUC beating protestors at Duke Street were broadcast around the world by the international media.

The Civil Rights Movement gave expression to the popular outrage against the injustice and discrimination in housing, jobs and right to vote which were systemic within the northern state.

As the repression of democratic rights intensified alongside the redeployment of British combat forces and reintroduction of internment, northern nationalism rose to challenge the actions of the state.

The popular momentum of the Civil Rights Movement swept right across society, especially in the north, but importantly it also reached into the southern state.

I have memories as a wee fella attending Civil Rights Movement anti-internment protests in Toomebridge among other children and people of all generations. I can remember being sworn to secrecy when being brought to a location where civil rights leaflets and pamphlets were being discreetly printed... (and thinking for many years afterwards that the monks were terrible cooks!)

Years later I upset a very superficial university seminar discussion on the origins of the Civil Rights Movement by setting out the historic reality that the civil rights campaign was inspired by the Campaign for Social Justice, and also directly by the strategic decision of the IRA and Sinn Fein leaderships at that time.

Through the medium of the Wolfe Tone Society the Army and Sinn Fein committed to building alliances with other democrats, trade unionists, communists and many others to demand state reform.

That culminated in the formation of the NI Civil Rights Association, or Civil Rights Movement in 1967.

The leaderships of both the IRA and Sinn Fein encouraged their activists to organise and support the Civil Rights Movement.

Veteran republicans like Kevin Agnew and Pat Shivers whom I grew up knowing well played key roles in developing the Civil Rights Movement in counties Antrim and Derry.

Kevin’s former home in Maghera is synonymous with the earliest meetings to establish the Civil Rights Movement.

Republicans recognised the importance of progressive coalitions to successfully advance the common ground of equality and rights for all citizens.

Ironically it’s now quite common to hear a revisionist narrative today which glosses over that.

The role of the IRA and Sinn Fein may well sit uncomfortably with some but the reality is the SDLP didn’t exist in 1967/’68. Of course the SDLP is entitled to claim inspiration for its formation from the Civil Rights Movement but it was only formed in August 1970, after the Civil Rights Movement was launched by republicans, human rights activists, trade unionists and other political activists.

Today 50 years on from the Civil Rights Movement, rights are still being denied in the north of Ireland.

The political and violent opposition which the Civil Rights Movement faced amidst mounting injustices eventually gave way to political conflict.

People like Billy, Kevin and Pat understood very well why tens of thousands of a new generation turned to armed struggle.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement . It drew a line under the political conflict here by setting out a framework to enshrine equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect on the basis of proper power sharing and All-Ireland political institutions in the form of an international treaty.

In ways the promise and principles of the Good Friday Agreement addressed what the Civil Rights Movement did not get resolved.

Just as the unionist state opposed the Civil Rights Movement, powerful sections of political unionism have resisted and pushed back against the Good Friday Agreement since 1998. Now the Good Friday Agreement faces its greatest ever threat from the DUP/Tory government alliance, and their shared support for Brexit and austerity, and opposition to equality and dealing with the past.

This current political crisis stems from a refusal by the northern state to embrace the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Irish peace process is the most important political project in Ireland.

It came about because northern nationalism and other strands of democratic and progressive opinion, with the support of Irish America and the Irish government created the circumstances which led to the Good Friday Agreement receiving overwhelming popular support of the Irish people north and south.

Today the progressive and democratic coalitions which led to the Good Friday Agreement are needed again to defend and implement the Good Friday Agreement.

As a co-guarantor of the agreement the Irish government has a huge responsibility to get onto that position.

Irish America also has a very important role to play once more.

The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement this April should be a landmark anniversary in the transformation of this society.

That ought to be a shared objective for all democrats and progressives.

During the last three weeks the Sinn Fein leadership has organised eight meetings across the north of Ireland. Over 1200 from all walks of life in civic nationalism have attended.

Some who participated were veteran civil rights activists themselves from that era and many more were the children and grand children of civil rights activists.

One clear and consistent message came through from each meeting: civic nationalism wants the political institutions restored but only on the right terms.

A year after Martin McGuinness’s resignation popular nationalist and progressive opinion are saying that parity of esteem, the rights agenda, dealing with the past, equality and mutual respect, and proper power sharing must be delivered: there can be no return to the status quo.

The reality of financial scandal, and continued denial of rights and respect by the DUP, supported by the Tories has remobilised northern nationalism.

There is a new popular momentum within civic nationalism. It is demanding the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement: nothing less will be acceptable.

We have come full circle. The war is over but there will be no return to second-class citizenship in this place.

Billy Nelis’ generation refused to accept second class citizenship and the post civil rights generations have never been more determined and confident.

They are not going to be put back into the box - they will never again be pushed to the back of the bus.



By former MP Bernadette McAliskey (for Irish News)

In August 1968 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) organised its first march from Coalisland to Dungannon. On February 6 1972, Nicra organised what was effectively its last civil rights march, in Newry, to protest the State killing of unarmed civilians taking part in the Derry march on what became Bloody Sunday.

Nicra was formed by people who were members of political parties and groups who united, despite other differences, to collectively campaign for basic reforms which they believed would provide basic equality of citizenship within the political structures of the north.

Founding members were drawn from the Northern Ireland Liberal Party; N. Ireland Labour Party; Republican Labour Party; Communist Party of Ireland; Nationalist Party and the various Republican Clubs, which were the northern membership of Sinn Fein (headquartered in Gardiner Place, Dublin).

The Nicra ‘strapline’ was ‘non-violent; non-sectarian; non-political’.

At that time there was no Provisional Sinn Fein/IRA, no SDLP, no IRSP, no Alliance party, no TUV, no People before Profit, no Green Party, no DUP either. Except for the Unionist party all the political parties currently making up Stormont are post-Nicra and are a product of the fragmentation of the Unionist Party on the one hand, the Nationalist Party and Republican Movement on the other and the emergence of different political configurations whose starting point is not necessarily the constitutional status of N. Ireland.

Nicra’s basic agenda was one family, one house; one man (sic), one vote; one man, one job; an end to gerrymandering (electoral boundaries which created the housing/ voting problem) and an end to the Special Powers Act, which effectively criminalised any opposition, however peaceful, to Stormont policy and practice and to the constitutional position.

These demands for fair distribution and equal access were so modest that, while supporting them, the more radical and impatient voices of youth, including my own, pushed for more through the People’s Democracy and other small radical/socialist groupings. There was insufficient housing, so equality of distribution was not, to my mind, enough. There was insufficient work for decent wages, so distribution of existing work was not enough.

The response of the N.I. administration at Stormont and of the UK government in London to the demand for equality of access to democracy; equality of social and economic opportunity and an end to repression, was to increase repression in the hope of silencing the demand and to further reduce the opportunity to effect change through democratic and due process.

They bear the brunt of historic responsibility for the period between 1972 and 1998. From 1998 onwards responsibility, like power, lies closer to home and is shared by those with the duty of managing and administering shared government, a duty they actively sought, negotiated and seek to maintain, and from which, with deliberation, they seek to exclude others.

Fifty years on from 1968, emergency legislation remains on the statute books. People are still imprisoned without fair trial. The housing crisis - overcrowding, homelessness and social exclusion - are all greater now than in 1968.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive, created in 1971 to address fair allocation of Social Housing based on need and to redress the shortage of affordable homes, has been decimated, starved of resources and stripped of assets.

There can be no equal opportunity in employment where those in work earn insufficient wages to adequately feed themselves and their families and pay rent to an on unregulated private sector or inappropriately regulated social sector.

An examination of collective conscience on how the damage done over 50 years by the actions of the State and those employed to do their bidding officially, and as we now know furtively, within the militarist organisations on all sides of the conflict is to be addressed and truth and justice extracted from and secured for those who have now girded themselves with the belt of peace.

Without openness, transparency, accountability and participation in decision making, leadership becomes no more than the power to control.

Power without accountability becomes corruption.

Those claiming bragging rights from 1968 might reflect with greater humility on the price paid against the degree of progress made since that first march and examine their actual contribution to the reality of 2018 - a stagnant, sectarian dysfunctional Stormont making the rich richer and the poor poorer; a damaged, demoralised and divided community; justice denied; truth distorted; and controlled management of conflict and corruption mistaken for peace.

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