For the first time footage from August 1968 of the first ever civil rights march in the North was released last week by RTE. The very short 31 second clip is an old grainy black and white film. It shows civil rights marchers arriving in Dungannon from Coalisland to be met by RUC men. In one shot it shows Gary Lennon being served with a notice from the RUC not to enter the Market Square. The report features men, women and children marching and holding banners in protest at discrimination in housing. There were about 2,000 on the march.
It is a potent reminder of the institutionalised abuses of the Orange state and of the courage and determination of the many ordinary men and women who decided to challenge it in the 1960’s. I joined Sinn Fein in the mid 1960’s as a teenager. It was then a banned organisation under the Special Powers Act. The Republican Clubs were initially established to circumvent the ban on Sinn Fein. They were also banned. In early January 1967 I took part in a meeting at which it was agreed to establish the Civil Rights Association (NICRA). Subsequently, on January 29th – 50 years ago last Sunday - a meeting was held in the International Hotel in Belfast.
There were over 100 of us in the room. Young and old, women and men, teenagers, all from many different organisations, political parties and none. There were trade unionists, members of the Wolfe Tone Societies, the Campaign for Social Justice, the Communist Party, the Republican Clubs, the Republican Labour Party, the NI Labour Party and others.
A few months later in early April NICRA agreed its constitution and listed its demands. These were:
· "One man, one vote" which would allow all people over the age of 18 to vote in local council elections and remove the multiple votes held by business owners - known as the "business vote".
· An end to gerrymandering electoral wards to produce an artificial unionist majority.
· Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of government jobs.
· Prevention of discrimination in the allocation of council housing.
· The removal of the Special Powers Act.
· The disbandment of the B Specials.
Six simple demands but each deeply resented and resisted by the unionist elite and by many working class unionists who ever fearful of an end to partition were stuck in a narrow political mindset of ‘no surrender’ and ‘not an inch’.
The Civil Rights Association was hugely influenced by the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, its tactics and philosophy and music. We Shall Overcome became the anthem for civil rights protestors on both sides of the Atlantic. And like the Civil Rights in the USA, it soon became obvious that marches that peacefully challenged the status quo were one way of attracting media attention and raising political awareness.
As a result a decision was taken to hold the first Civil Rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon, with the focus principally on housing. Dungannon Council had a reputation for housing discrimination. The importance of this issue was to be found in the gerrymandering of elections. There was a property qualification in local elections. This meant you had to be the owner or ratepayer of a property to be able to vote. For unionists this meant not building homes for Catholics. That disenfranchised them. Tens of thousands had no vote in local elections.
The result was that every council in the North was controlled by the Ulster Unionist Party, including those in towns and villages with nationalist majorities. One example of this which is cited in the Cameron Report, that examined events between October 1968 and March 1969, was that of Derry County Borough "where 60% of the adult population was Catholic but where 60% of the seats on the Corporation were held by unionists". Cameron confirmed that the unionist controlled criteria for housing "was not actual need but maintenance of the current political preponderance in the local government area".
The housing issue was brought to a head when a father and mother and their three young children were evicted from a house they were squatting in in the village of Caledon in South Tyrone. The Gildernew family, led by Michelle Gildernew’s granny Annie Mary – Nana –had squatted in the house in October 1967 after it was allocated to a single 19-year-old woman. She was employed by a solicitor who was a prospective unionist candidate. She was allocated the house over 269 other applicants on the waiting list, including some living in dwellings designated as unfit for human habitation. The Gildernew’s were supported by local republicans, including Francie Molly and Stan Corrigan.
When the case went to court the judge gave them six months to stay in the hope that the Council would change its mind. However, on June 18th 1968 bailiffs, and RUC men, forced their way into the home and the family were evicted. There was widespread outrage.
The response of NICRA to this and to the scandal of discrimination in housing was to organise the Coalisland to Dungannon march at the end of August.
Six weeks later on October 5th and the hope of peaceful marches was shattered when the RUC brutally attacked the Civil Rights March at Duke Street in Derry. This became the pattern for the future as the Unionist regime at Stormont sought to contain the demand for civil rights through violence and intimidation. It culminated in Bloody Sunday, 45 years ago on Monday, when 14 civil rights marchers were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
But Bloody Sunday and the decades of repression that followed didn’t end the struggle for civil rights. That struggle goes on today.
It is to be found in the demand for equality and parity of esteem; for an end to sectarianism; and for a society in which citizens are treated respectfully and fairly. The appalling abuse by the DUP and other unionists of Irish language activists and the contemptuous manner in which they treat the Irish language is just one example of continuing inequality.
The denial of marriage equality; the claim by DUP politicians that they have to ‘hold their nose’ when working with Sinn Féiners, are all symptomatic of what is wrong in that party and is still wrong in this society. It’s time to call a halt. That’s what Sinn Féin has done over the RHI scandal and the outrageous decision on Liofa.
But in the meantime if you have a minute – or in this case half a minute – type in ‘Coalisland to Dungannon March RTE’ – and watch a small piece of history being made.