Black and Green. The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America. p. 46-48.
By the mid-1960s, he (Currie) was familiar with the political struggles of the American civil rights movement 'and very much aware of the constitutional and legal background to it'. In October 1967, Currie warned Stormont that if social reforms weren't forthcoming extra-parliamentary activity would be introduced within a year.
While Currie's perception of the US civil rights movement was based on his formal studies and through the media, for other activists the influence was more direct. Derry radicals O Dochartaigh and Eamonn McCann both spent time working in London in the mid-1960s. For McCann, this meant exposure to the international left, joining the anti-nuclear Aldermaston march, and involvement in the beginnings of the anti-Vietnam War movement. By 1966, he says, he 'would have known quite a lot about (black American radical) Stokely Carmichael and political splits between the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee and the NAACP'. In fact, McCann met Carmichael at a conference in London in the mid 1960s, where McCann spoke about discrimination in Northern Ireland.
O Dochartaigh, meanwhile, was encountering the US civil rights movement via his membership of the Connolly Association, a London-based socialist Republican organisation dedicated to the ideals of Irish revolutionary James Connolly, executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. The Connolly Association's membership base was drawn from the Irish community living in England, Scotland and Wales, and it produced a newspaper, the Irish Democrat, which reported on the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland and in the US. As early as February 1964, the Irish Democrat produced an editorial which declared that discrimination in Northern Ireland 'is the exact parallel of the Negro question in the United States, for in that country the freedom of the people as a whole is dependent entirely on the emancipation of the coloured people.'
The following year, the Democrat reminded readers of Cromwell's part in shipping thousands of Irish to plantations in the Caribbean, and suggested that the Irish living in Britain had much in common with their West Indian neighbours, and featured a photograph of Catholic nuns from the New York archdiocese taking part in a civil rights march in Harlem. O Dochartaigh became a correspondent for the Irish Democrat on his return to Derry in 1966, and remembers the influence of the paper's international page in comparing American blacks with the position of Catholics in Northern Ireland. The international page carried a long piece in February 1967 expanding on the similarities between Northern Ireland and the American South:
- ...there is regional discrimination siting industry away from coloured area just as industries are kept to the Lagan valley of Ulster, while [Catholic areas like] Newry, Derry and Strabane do without. There are negroes' jobs and white man's jobs just as there are Catholic and Protestant jobs in the six counties ...there are whole trades where negroes do not work and are not encouraged to work. This goes for Catholics in the six counties also...Irish people should take an interest in and support the struggle for negro rights in the U.S.A.
The experience of the American civil rights movement and its increasingly apparent similarities with the situation in Northern Ireland meant that some sort of direct action was likely. In June 1968, Austin Currie suggested to the Nationalist Party's annual conference that a campaign of civil disobedience should be adopted. On 20 June, he took action himself in an incident which drew more attention to the issue of discrimination than anything that had happened before. Currie, who had been looking for an opportunity for some time to make a dramatic gesture, heard of a house being allocated to Emily Beattie, a 19-year old unmarried Protestant woman in an area where 269 people were on a housing waiting list. 'This was the perfect symbol. I said at the time that if I live to be hundred I'll never get a better case to symbolise the situation in Northern Ireland,' he said.
Currie went to the house in Caledon on the morning of the day the woman was due to move in and, with two others
- ...broke a back window with a poker and got into the house and barricaded ourselves in...we continued to be barricaded in the house for a number of hours. Eventually the RUC arrived and they and Emily Beattie's brother battered down the front door and ejected us straight in to the cameras.
The incident was carried on the BBC evening television news. For many people in Britain, it was the first they had heard of religious discrimination in Northern Ireland, and it made a bigger impact on the British public than all the CSJ documents of the previous four years. Currie recalled that he wanted to maintain the momentum in the media with a civil rights march.
- I put the proposal [to Conn McCluskey] that it was time to get away from just disseminating facts and figures, time to get away from the civil liberty group in Britain upon which they had based the civil rights association up to then and to take it to the streets.
Two days after the squatting incident at Caledon, the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) also made a dramatic gesture. After heckling the monthly meetings of the Derry Housing Corporation to protest at the city's woefully inadequate and discriminatory housing practices, the DHAC decided it needed to stage a high-profile stunt . On 22 June, some of its members lugged a caravan which, despite having no running water or lavatory was home to a family of four into the road at a busy junction to highlight the poor quality of housing. When the action was repeated the following week, leading DHAC activists including O Dochartaigh and McCann were summoned to court, but claimed victory when the family who lived in the caravan were rehoused in much healthier accommodation.
The day of the court hearings in July coincided with the official opening of the lower deck of Derry's Craigavon Bridge to traffic. As the VIP cars trundled ceremoniously across the bridge, a group of protestors sat down in front of the motorcade. As they were hauled away, fellow protestors on the pavement including, inevitably, O Dochartaigh and McCann began to sing 'We Shall Overcome'. While most had heard the song in snatches from the television, O Dochartaigh had learned the words from the song page of the Irish Democrat, and so 'stepped forward to assume the role of conductor and prompter...most people were singing about three or four words after me, because they didn't know it', he remembered. Within months, tens of thousands of people who had never been on a protest of any kind would be marching across Northern Ireland, demanding civil rights and singing 'We Shall Overcome'.
Black and Green. The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America, p. 117-119.
Chapter 6. Heirs Apparent (Excerpt)
No official date marks the end of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland. Some put it in August 1969, when the British troops arrived on the streets of Belfast and Derry and the confrontation with the state became more violent, others when Britain assumed direct rule of Northern Ireland in 1972, and the Stormont parliament was dissolved. For others, the civil rights movement ended on Bloody Sunday in January 1972, when 13 civilians were shot dead by British soldiers on the anti-internment protest in Derry at the 'last civil rights march', and there are those who regard the civil rights struggle as never having ended, and believe it is still ongoing, albeit in a violent phase.
Since the mid-1970s, the various political strands which made up the civil rights movement have each laid claim to its legacy, and perhaps in an attempt to lend themselve some political credibility have emphasised the influence of the American civil rights experience as an important inspiration.
As Eamonn McCann noted in an article on the twentieth anniversary of the October 1968 march in Derry: 'Everybody says it was a good thing and everybody wants to lay title to the mantle of 1968.' In 1988, a pamphlet was circulated in Northern Ireland claiming that Rosa parks, heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, would appear as a guest speaker in Derry at a commemorative event to mark the Duke St march. 'It's not unknown, false billing', said McCann.
John Hume, in a 1985 speech at the University of Massachusetts, declared 'the American civil rights movement gave birth to ours. The songs of your movement were ours also.' Two years later a long article on Hume in the Chicago Tribune suggested he was the Irish Martin Luther King, and noted that 'he frequently sings "We Shall Overcome" at the end of his lectures and speeches'. Indeed, Hume's party, the SDLP, still sings the civil rights anthem at its annual conferences, and in a 1996 book Hume suggested that he 'read a huge amount of the writings of Martin Luther King in those days...it was no accident that the civil rights movement began here in the sixties, directly inspired...by the American movement.'
Old tensions resurface within the civil rights movement when civil rights commemorations are organised, as conflicting elements each claim to be the rightful heirs of the movement. 'I was very annoyed the other day to discover the Provos setting up a march from Duke St the other day asserting civil rights. Now the biggest opposition we had to the civil rights campaign was the hardline Republicans...their slogan was "damn your concessions England we want our country".' But those hardline Republicans who lay claim to the civil rights legacy today do so with some justification. Many members of the IRA and INLA, prominent and minor, were involved in the early push for civil rights. Shane O'Doherty, for example, who carried out countless IRA bombings in Northern Ireland and England, took part in civil rights marches as a teenager. 'The experience of sitting in defiant pacifist gesture among thousands of Catholics singing "We Shall Overcome", filled me with the belief that we were united in an almost mystical, religious unity and cause', he recalled. The early agitation for housing rights in Derry was helped by 14-year-old Mickey Devine, who helped paint placards for protests. Devine joined the IRA, and then the INLA, and in 1981 was one of ten prisoners who died on a hunger strike in the Maze Prison while attempting to win special category status.
For some Republicans, the present conflict is about the original civil rights demands, a natural outgrowth from the non-violent protests. In the late 1970s, a leading Provisional suggested:
- Look, there wouldn't be any trouble or IRA if the Catholics hadn't been denied civil rights. This is a civil rights war: what's different is that we reckon we can only these rights through national liberation, so it's a national liberation war, the two go together.
The IRA Green Book (the IRA's Code of Conduct for its members), issued in 1987, alludes to 'the attempted repression of the civil Rights Movement, and from then until now the struggle has taken on a steady momentum of its own'. (The book also includes a provision outlining the IRA's commitment to anti-racism.) in the early 1990s the sister of an IRA member said 'It's a war, isn't it? It is for me. They shouldn't have treated Catholics like second-class citizens.'
During the 1981 hunger strikes, when Northern Ireland again became the focus of international attention, the prisoners' protest was repeatedly described in the context of civil rights. Unionist MP Harold McCusker complained that media coverage was 'so concerned about the civil rights of [IRA hunger striker Bobby] Sands'. Church of Ireland Primate Dr Robert Eames interpreted Protestants' view of the protest as: "Here they're at it again [the Protestants were saying]. They're getting America on their side. They're getting the civil rights thing all stirred up again...'.