50 years on : celebrating and discussing the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement

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‘We Shall Overcome – a section of  the audience at the Party’s NICRA commemoration event in Ranfurly House, Dungannon. Co Tyrone

The 50th anniversary of the first civil rights march from Coalisland to Dunagnnon in 1968 has been marked at a Party event at Ranfurly House, the march’s planned destination.

Setting the record straight                                                                          Alternative histories and the passage of time combine to blur the nature, the purpose and the successes of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. The meeting in Ranfurly House set that record straight.

The evening’s  three speakers, Hugh Scullion, Marian Donnelly and Dr Ultan Gillen (Teesside University) mapped out the development of the early civil rights strategy, focused on its anti-sectarian inclusive nature and placed it’s demands in a clear and considered class context.

‘Deceitful and distorted’                                                                                         Dr Ultan Gillen dispelled the myths around the civil rights movement, created on one hand by Irish nationalists and on the other by their unionist counterparts.

” To believe, as Sinn Fein and others claim, that the civil rights movement simply ran its course, was beaten off the streets and left no alternative other than the thirty odd years of terror and carnage which followed is to buy into a lie. It is simply not true and the historical evidence from the day proves that”, he said

“Similarly, the myths peddled, then and now, by some sections of unionism that there was no discrimination, no gerrymandering nor a crisis in housing allocation is equally untrue”, Ultan said.

Both forms of nationalism  have invented their separate, but complimentary, versions of events to justify their own positions and their own actions. They are as deceitful and distorted now as they were then”, he added


Marian Donnelly, an original member of NICRA and a participant in the 1968 Coalisland to Dungannon march, highlighted the purpose and the early successes of the movement .

Basic reforms – revolutionary demands                                                                 “NICRA was about the democratic reform of the Northern Ireland state. It was about the rights of all people n Northern Ireland, of all our citizens. It sought reforms to secure voting rights for all, the allocation of housing on need not creed, an end to gerrymandering, the right to free assembly and political activity  and the repeal of repressive legislation. These were basic reforms but revolutionary demands “, she said

“Within a very short time, NICRA had secured major reform in the Northern Ireland  state,” Marian explained

Reform secured                                                                                                           The RUC was disarmed, the B Specials disbanded, local government reformed, ’one man one vote’ introduced, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was formed, and by 1972, the Special Powers Act repealed.

All these gains and the changes they laid the basis for, were to be undone. This was the result of a combination of recalcitrant unionism, reactionary armed nationalism, loyalist terror and state militarism”. Marian said


Still divided                                                                                                                As he introduced a video specially produced by the Party to mark the 50th anniversary of NICRA Hugh Scullion said,

“Opportunities were missed and opportunists have left us with a sad legacy. Fifty years on, our community is still divided: segregated education and segregated housing are still with us. Thirty per cent of our children are living in poverty. Low income homes are the norm, and forty per cent of the population is blighted by fuel poverty. Life expectancy is a post code lottery’.


NICRA won many reforms but the fundamental change required to bring about real equality has yet to be realised. That can only come with the creation of a new future, based on a united working class, a bill of rights that rejects sectarianism and racism and that builds a democratic, secular and socialist society.







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