Civil Rights Groups


After the invasion of Northern Ireland, Irish Catholics became the minority group in their own country to British Protestants. As the British gained more control in the government, the Catholic minority suffered in many ways in terms of jobs, housing, education, and other rights. The Civil Rights Movement of Northern Ireland was retaliation against the British government to help protect the Irish Catholic minority of Northern Ireland. The movement was greatly influenced by the African American Civil Rights Movement in the United States—it became a fight for equality.


The civil rights movement had a varying degree of supporters. Nationalist party members, members and supporters of IRA, assorted left-wingers and radicals, exuberant students, middle-class professionals and many more joined together for a short amount of time before breaking off back into their individual components. The main leaders, John Hume and Bernadette Devlin, took the movement to another level and introduced a new form of politics to the era. The most successful tactics these individuals used were marches, which attracted much media attention and support from the Catholic community. They would often sing, "We Shall Overcome," until members of the UPV or other Loyalist groups would restrain or attack the group.2 Most of the time, "confrontation was avoided, but the pattern of demonstration and counter-demonstration was set."3


Left: John Hume4


Above: Bernadette Devlin5

One of the first movements that emerged from the Catholics was the Campaign for Social Justice, which consisted of thirteen Catholic professionals. These men, "assembled and circulated detailed statistics in support of its allegations of discrimination."6 John Hume continuously urged Catholics to be more outgoing, showing Catholics were becoming restless. After suffering from oppression in jobs, housing, and voting, this campaign was the beginning of what has come to be known as the Civil Rights Era of Northern Ireland.


7 Flyer From The Campaign for Social Justice

Civil Rights Groups

The prominent group of the civil rights movement was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). This was not a party, but instead an, “umbrella group wide enough to embrace every anti-Unionist element in the land.”8 The NICRA was fighting for the betterment of the Catholic community and demanding changes such as the installation of one man-one vote, anti-discrimination legislation, the redrawing of electoral boundaries to fight against gerrymandering in the government, and the disbanding of the B specials. As groups began to build momentum, members adopted an attitude of self-efficacy, which means, "when one is confident that one's actions will have an effect, one is more likely to take those actions."9 Because the members and leaders of this group believed their approach to gaining civil rights was going to be effective, they were most likely to stick together and participate in marches and rallies to publicize their cause and gain media coverage. The leaders of these organizations were hoping the marches would not take a turn toward violence, but were aware it could happen. Because of previous experience in such situations, they were trained in how to handle whatever happened. Many demonstrations had the possibility of a violent response, and therefore the members and leaders of these marches had to expect high-risk situations to occur. The most famous of these marches included the Derry Marches and what has come to be known as the Bloody Sunday Marches. It wasn’t until these nonviolent campaigns began to become attacked that the NICRA turned to force.

It is now believed the NICRA was the main rallier of support at the Battle of the Bogside. At this point, many of the members of the NICRA believed their efforts, both peaceful and violent, were justified. Effort justification is based on the belief that if one puts efforts and resources into achieving a desired outcome, that outcome must be important and the contributions must be valuable. More effort, then, is required to justify the effort that was made in the first place.10 The reason many of the people became involved in these organizations was to change their own way of life. It was on a personal level, and they knew they were the only ones that were going to be able to make a change. Individuals today justify their involvement by saying they wanted better lives for their children and themselves. Many would participate again if the situation was the same and if lives would be better in the end. As the conflict continued in violence and entered the peace process, the members felt an obligation to continue fighting for rights in order to justify what had been done in the era before them.

Another prominent civil rights group during this time period was the People's Democracy. Founded in 1968, this groups was made up of mainly radical students and was founded by students, Bernadette Devlin and Cyril Thomil, as well as college lecturer Micheal Farrell at Queens University in Belfast.11 In January of 1969, the PD were marching from Belfast to Londonderry when hundreds of loyalists ambushed the march with large numbers of attackers stoning and assaulting both male and female marchers at Burntollet Bridge. As a result, the PD instantly won the sympathy of almost the entire Catholic Community, therefore reigniting the fire for civil rights and resulting in //backlash This is when "acts of violence that are not perceived as justified can lead to violence or at least protest from various quarters."12 The violent display of the Unionist side during this march led to unity between the Catholics and reassured them as to why they were fighting for their civil rights.


13 The Attack at Burntollet Bridge


14 The Attack at Burntollet Bridge

Effects of the movement

Many were getting tired of the constant violence, and while they did yearn for civil rights, they found peace in Northern Ireland to be just as important. In 1976, the development of the Peace People movement began in response to an extremely tragic event. In August, a member of the IRA was shot dead by troops at the wheel of a car in Belfast. The car went out of control, and mounted the pavement where an Irish woman, Anne Maguire, and three of her children were walking. The car crushed them all against a rail, killing the three children. Two weeks later, Maguire awoke from unconsciousness to find out three of her four children had died, (The other child was not with them). Although she recovered physically, she would never recover psychologically from this tragedy.15 Her sister and co-founder of the Peace People movement wrote:

“Anne never saw her children buried. In her own mind she refused to accept their deaths. She would often talk about seeing them playing in the garden. The deaths and brain bruising she suffered resulted in psychotic depression. Anne became a troubled should, knowing no peace of mind. She seemed to lock herself in a private world with her dead babies.”16

Anne suffered from denial. "When people are either unwilling or powerless to do anything, a common reaction is to deliberately avert the eyes and deny there is anything to react to."17 This eventually lead to her death, as she committed suicide to escape her pain.
In response, her sister, Mairead Corrigan, along with Betty Willis founded the Peace People movements, which later came to be known as the Community of Peace People. Northern Ireland was stuck in the legitimation of violence model, which is where civilian members of a warring society are influenced by the "model of officially approved killing and destruction."18 These women wanted to use their personal stories, especially this unfortunate tragedy, to convey that peace was a better option for everyone in the conflict. The movement gained national recognition and acquired much support initially. The two leaders were even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. But, because of internal clashing and a slide in credibility, the movement came to a halt and never really acquired the peace it was hoping for.19


Mairead Corrigan, sister of Anne Maguire and co-founder of the Peace People movement

In 1987, the the Central Community Relations Unit (CCRU) was formed. It's mission statement is, "…promoting equality…supporting cross-community contact…encouraging both mutual understanding and the acceptance of cultural diversity…" and it is involved with creating projects and supports organizations promoting peace across Northern Ireland. The Unit is located within the Central Secretariat of Northern Ireland, and it formulates, reviews, and challenges government policies to address issues of equality and improve relations within the community. Between 1994 and 2000, the Unit has made many efforts to produce programs to unite different sides in Northern Ireland. With branches in Equality and Equity, Community Relations, and Information, Evaluation, and Research, the CCRU fight to improve relations and reduce prejudice.20

There were many appeals to joining the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, the campaign gave, “meaning and purpose to [lives] that [were] otherwise boring."21 Instead of sitting back and watching their civil rights disappear, these people decided to do something about it. It not only gave them meaning in their lives, but it helped with the fight with equality for all. Secondly, the campaign required, “cohesion and unity among participants.”22 Because there was a sense of belonging and purpose within these organizations, the members were able to identify with each other and therefore stick together to produce the results they desired.

As Northern Ireland continues in it's peace process, Nationalists continue with their concern for civil rights. Until there is a united Ireland, Nationalist Catholics will not feel they possess all their civil rights. Civil rights and peace groups face a continuous struggle to resolve the conflict and reconcile with the opposing side


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