The Civil Rights Movement
The onset of the Troubles
1968 was ‘the year of protest’ against discrimination and oppression in many parts of the world: in South Africa, in America, in Paris and in Prague. In March of that year the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) was formed ‘with the conscious intention of disrupting public life in the city to draw attention to the housing problem’.
The organisation caused mayhem at corporation meetings in the Guildhall and attracted huge amounts of publicity. As the year went on, its tactics became progressively more confrontational. In August 1968 the first Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march, from Dungannon to Coalisland in County Tyrone, was organised in imitation of the contemporary protests against racial discrimination in the United States. The DHAC invited NICRA to stage a march in Derry and fixed 5 October as the date.
The march was banned by the Home Affairs Minister, Willaim Craig, but the organisers decided to go ahead. Despite a campaign to encourage participation, most people in Derry decided to ignore the event - the Derry soccer team was playing at its home ground in the Brandywell that Saturday.
The march started in Duke Street in the Waterside area, intending to cross the river into the old city. When the participants reached the blockading RUC line the police attacked. The first blows in what became known as the Troubles had been struck. Chaos erupted with several more baton charges throughout the rest of the evening and rioting by Catholic youths.
Similar incidents had occurred before but on this occasion, within hours of the events, the rioting was seen all over the world as the scenes of violence, particularly film shot by RTE cameraman Gay O’Brien of policemen baton-charging civilian demonstrators, were shown on television.
In the weeks that followed various meetings and demonstrations were organised and a moderate Derry Citizen’s Action Committee was formed. Immediately, the local unionists began to make concessions but it was the proverbial ‘too little too late’.
On 22 November the Northern Ireland government introduced a series of reforms and abolished the Londonderry corporation. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Captain Terence O’Neill, made a famous broadcast pleading with the people of Northern Ireland to step back from the brink of disaster.
The ‘University for Derry’ Campaign
When the government announced that it intended to establish a second university for Northern Ireland, many assumed that it would be located in Derry, based on the existing but very small Magee college. At the time, Magee had a relationship with Trinity College in Dublin. In 1965, however, the government Lockwood Committee recommended that the new institution should be located in Coleraine.
A massive cross-community campaign got underway to try to get the government to change its mind. The campaign was masterminded by a young teacher and self-help activist, John Hume. A huge motorcade went to Stormont on 18 February 1965 to press home its message. It was claimed that half the population of the city, twenty-five thousand people, made the journey.
Clergy of all denominations joined with business and professional men, factory workers, dockers, school teachers and students in a motorcade which varied from the stately limousines to furniture vans, coal lorries, break down vans and cars of every make and size.
In the parliamentary debate which followed, the government was criticised even from within its own ranks. A former attorney general warned that the decision was ‘political madness and the penalty will have to be paid by the people of Northern Ireland’. The government decision stood, however. Many would now argue that the government scored a pyrrhic victory and that ‘the university for Derry campaign’ was a form of street education in political action, the fruits of which were to erupt in the not too distant future.